Learning to think

So often, new moms using Classical Writing will ask on our message boards whether their students really need to outline.

“My son already knows the story and can tell it from memory,” a mom will say. “Why bother with the outline?”

In the name of flexibility, we usually concede that it isn’t always necessary to outline. Many kids do have the story sequence memorized almost immediately.

But … we don’t outline to remember the story. We outline to *organize thought*. Why, you might ask, would we want to ‘organize’ the thoughts behind such a simple story as The Hare and the Tortoise?

We start with The Hare and the Tortoise because whenever we teach a new skill we work with material that is familiar to the student, material that is easy to comprehend. That way we can totally focus on the new task, which in this case is outlining.

The skill of outlining, in the early stages involves choosing the three or four most important words that encapsulate the essence of each sentence. It is important that the student learns to think about a sentence like

The Hare darted almost out of sight at once, but soon stopped and, to show his contempt for the Tortoise, lay down to have a nap.

and decide which are the most important words in that sentence …most important with regards to the content of the story, that is.

The story version we use is found here

A typical sentence-by-sentence outline for The Hare and the Tortoise would look something like this:

The Hare and the Tortoise

1. Hare, boasts, speed
2. Never beaten, challenge
3. Tortoise accepts
4. Joke says Hare
5. Keep boasting, Tortoise, race
6. Course fixed, start
7. Hare stopped, nap
8. Hare awoke, Tortoise, winning-post
9. Tortoise: plodding wins race

For most students this should be a cinch when it comes to a simple fable–and it should be, but as your student enters high school and college, he will get into difficult passages:

It is being, attained or perceived at the summit of an abstractive intellection, of an eidetic or intensive visualization which owes its purity and power of illumination only to the fact that the intellect, one day, was stirred to its depths and trans-illuminated by the impact of the act of existing apprehended in things, and because it was quickened to the point of receiving this act, or hearkening to it, within itself, in the intelligible and super-intelligible integrity of the tone particular to it.

~ Jacques Maritain

It is essential that he knows how to outline and extract the important words from the sentence to condense that passage down to a precis that says:

Being is understood when the intellect apprehends through the senses the existence through other things.

This is an extreme example of a very difficult passage, designed to underscore my point. It is difficult to outline or summarize a passage which one barely understands.

Merry Christmas,

About Lene Jaqua

Co-author of Classical Writing books
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