Beauty in the Word (Caldecott)

Caldecott, Stratford.  Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education. Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2012.

Stratford Caldecott has never found a speculation too bold.  That might be a criticism of his earlier work, Beauty for Truth’s Sake.  This volume covers similar material but is more practical for the educator.  He sees Trinitarian parallels in the Trivium/Quadrivium, and this is sometimes distracting.  Nonetheless, his incisive comments on education today cannot be ignored.

Taking his cue from Dorothy Sayers, he structures the architecture of education, perhaps even of the mind, around the “parrot, pert, poet” model.  For him it is “Be, Think, Speak,” respectively Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric.  I think it is sound in its basic outline; I wouldn’t make it carry too much freight, though.

As he argues, “In order ‘to be’ we must remember the origin and end, the grammar of our existence…In discovering the Father we become thinkers” (and presumably speakers, paralleling Logos and Holy Spirit, Caldecott 15).

He has a good survey of child-based models of education.  While it is easy (and necessary) to make fun of John Dewey, there are aspects wherein a child cannot be taught the same way as an adult can.  It is good to develop memory and rhythm (e.g., song) in a child’s early stage.  This isn’t simply because songs and rhythms are good mnemonic devices.  Rather, as Anthony Esolen points out in the foreword, “We wish to form their souls by memory” (Esolen 5).  Someone might respond that this is forcing a belief-system on a child, rather than simply teaching the “how-to” of thinking.  Well, yes it is.  Esolen observes that one really can’t separate the what from the how of thinking.

He argues that a personalist approach to education, one that sees the student, not as an individual, but as embedded in a network of relationships, “starts from the premise that a human person should be educated for relationship, attention, empathy, and imagination” (Caldecott 34).


Grammar is connected with the Greek art of remembering (36).  What is the link between language and memory? Caldecott summarizes the Platonic-Augustinian approach that our defining an essence is guided by an intuition of being (38).  What does this mean? Caldecott summarizes the argument of The Meno, which is appropriate when we talk about memory, but he never connects the two.

Good section on naming: when we name something, we try to connect the Ideas that are in God to our universe (41).  This gives man a mediatorial role in the cosmos. And if the power of naming is related to the power of seeing, then we see a seeing into the reality of essences.  The invoking of these essences is interpretation (43).

He has a very good point on banning computers in the early stages of education.  This goes back to Plato’s critique of writing.  Ignoring the irony for the moment, technological advances come at the cost of memory.  A child learning on a computer will not (usually) develop the proper memory skills.

While he promotes the study of grammar in the schools, pace the US Dept of Education, that’s not his goal.  He wants to “loosen grammar from the narrow confines of sentence construction to show that birth of language is bound up with memory and poetry” (56).  I agree to an extent. However, given that grammar is part of the primary stage, it’s hard to see how the above sentence, which is highly technical, integrates within it.  If what he means, however, is that grammar instruction should capitalize on the musical and mnemonic development of a child, well and good.

Quotes: “Grammar is the cradle of all philosophy, and in a manner of speaking, the first nurse of the whole study of letters” (John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, 37).


I suspect at some times Caldecott’s real goal is not education, but essays on Catholic personalism.  His take on personalism is quite interesting but is often far afield.  I agree that we should treat children as persons, not individuals.  A person is embedded in a network of relationships. I really don’t see the need for an extended meditation on 20th century ressourcement (32ff).

Like some otherwise conservative Catholics, Caldecott strangely concedes too much ground to evolution. At one point in the book he makes the very good argument that one can’t safely maintain “rights/image of God” talk without a strong doctrine of essences and natures.  Very true.  If evolution is true and we are still evolving, then I might be more of a human than you.  

Except that he wants to say evolution is true in some sense (79).  The follow up question is what is to prevent us from developing beyond humanity and treating the not as evolved as lesser beings?  It will not do to say that the train of evolution (conveniently) stops at humans.  Catholics like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin specifically argued that it doesn’t stop.  We evolve into some Omega point.

About half of the book is excellent.  I suspect, however, that the otherwise fine comments on the Trivium are actually fronts for Catholic personalism.


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