Monday, August 21, 2017

"Fetch down some knowledge from the clouds": the pedagogy of Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts 1674-1748

Writing up a review of The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson I was reminded of what she had to say on Isaac Watts's contribution to pedagogy. In her chapter on the Reformation, she reflects on the educational impulse of Protestantism, "The bookishness of the Reformation might be said to have generalized itself to become an expectation of legibility in the whole of Creation." This bookish attitude was not at all elitist.  William Tyndale famously wished that a ploughboy might be as adept at reading Scripture as a priest. Robinson explains, "This sense that revelation, scriptural and natural, was essentially available to everyone, pervades Reformation thought" (p. 23).

In line with this impulse Robinson points out that the Congregational Minister and hymnwriter Isaac Watts also authored a groundbreaking and influential work on pedagogy entitled, The Improvement of the Mind: A Supplement to the Art of Logic. Watts wanted education to be enjoyable as well as informative for children, drawing on their natural curiosity about the world. Robinson includes a quote from The Improvement of the Mind to illustrate his approach (p. 23-24), 
Fetch down some knowledge from the clouds, the stars, the sun, the moon, and the revolutions of all the planets. Dig and draw up some valuable meditations from the depths of the earth, and search them through the vast oceans of water. Extract some intellectual improvements from the minerals and metals, from the wonders of nature among the vegetables and herbs, trees and flowers. Learn some lessons from the birds, and the beasts, and the meanest insect. Read the wisdom of God, and his admirable contrivance in them all. Read his almighty power, his rich and various goodness, in all the works of his hands.
As a Dissenter Watts was not permitted to study at Oxford or Cambridge. University was only for the communicant members of the Church of England. Nonconformists devised an alternative system of education, the Dissenting Academies. They were set up to to train men for pastoral ministry and provide a the sons of Nonconformist families with a standard of higher education to rival anything Oxbridge had to offer. 

Young Isaac's earliest education was at the hands of his father, also named Isaac. At six years of age Watts was sent to a Free School at Winkle Street, Southampton. He then headed to London to study at the Nonconformist Academy at Stoke Newington Green. His biographer comments, "Watts was in an educational tradition that has enriched the life of this country. The Dissenting Academies played an important role in the development of modern education." (Isaac Watts Remembered by David Fountain, 1978, Gospel Standard Baptist Trust, p. 76).

Isaac Watts penned several works on pedagogy including a number of catechisms, a Discourse on the Education of Children, and The Improvement of the Mind Parts I & II. He championed learning in the medium of English alongside Latin, the traditional language of scholarship. The forward looking educationalist suggested the use of card games to teach grammar, astronomy and other subjects. But there were limits. The Congregationalist Minister was strongly opposed to students attending balls, gaming houses and the theatre. The ways of the world could be picked up more safely by reading the Spectator

In an age when strict, if not harsh, educational discipline was the norm (enough to make Michaela seem soft), Watts urged teachers to endeavour to win the hearts and minds of their pupils, 
He should have so much of a natural candour and sweetness mixed with all the improvements of learning, as might convey knowledge into the minds of his disciples with a sort of gentle insinuation and sovereign delight, and may tempt them into the highest improvements of their reason by a resistless and insensible force. 
Dr. Johnson was a great admirer of Watts's The Improvement of the Mind.
Few books have been perused by me with greater pleasure than his Improvement of the Mind, of which the radical principles may indeed be found in Locke's Conduct of the Understanding, but they are so expanded and ramified by Watts as to confer upon him the merit of a work in the highest degree useful and pleasing. Whoever has the care of instructing others, may be charged with deficiency in his duty if this work is not recommended. (Isaac Watts Remembered, p. 76). 
Marilynne Robinson worries that we are in danger of losing the educational impulse of Protestantism in Western society. She laments, "we are now living among...the ruins of the Reformation" (p. 26). As a result, "Now we are more inclined to speak of information than of learning, and to think of the means by which information is transmitted rather than of how learning might transform, and be transformed by, the atmospheres of a given mind" (p. 28). More a case of fetching information from the Cloud than scanning the clouds for glimpses of the glory of God. Robinson concludes, "The Reformation is another beautiful and worthy heritage, another stream of cultural and spiritual wealth, also deserving of advocates and interpreters" (p. 30). An apt sentiment for the year that marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. 

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