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“Why We Dance With Witherspoon”

May 18, 2016

For our educational ancestors, a good education started not with reading and writing, but with gymnastics and music.


They understood that education aims at the formation of the whole person—mind, soul and body.  A full-orbed education therefore strives to develop physical disciplines alongside intellectual and moral virtues.


Indeed, in ancient Greece, gymnastics was seen as formative preparation for academic study.
The self-control, mental focus, and perseverance-through-difficulty learned on the athletic field is essential for success in the classroom as well.
Likewise, music is instrumental (no pun intended) for forming young students.  In particular, Plato insisted that music is able to tune the soul (okay, that one was intended!).  Because music has the power to develop intuition and imagination even at a young age, Aristotle held that it cultivates the capacity to discern what’s true and good—bringing the student into harmony with the created moral order.  (Okay, I’ll stop.)  

At the Witherspoon Fellowship, we’ve brought together these two ancient forms of education — gymnastics and music — into dancing.  The goal of this 2-day gathering of Year 10-12 students is to cultivate “leadership through the liberal arts”—that is, to inspire within participants invaluable habits of leadership through engagement with the liberal arts.


That’s why we not only read and discuss the works of Socrates and C.S. Lewis and involve students in creative debating and public speaking exercises, but we also teach them to dance.
But not just any dancing.
Renowned philosopher Roger Scruton draws a distinction between people “dancing at” each other and “dancing with” each other: 


The decay of manners that we have seen in recent times is to a large extent a result of the loss of withness and the rise of atness in its stead. Rudeness, obscenity, the ‘in your face’ manners of the new TV presenter – all these are ways of being ‘at’ other people. Courtesy, manners, negotiation and deference are, by contrast, ways of being with.”


In an interview late last year, Scruton noted that the kind of dancing that most young people are exposed to today is to techno-style music that’s “loud enough to make conversation impossible and, provided the pulse is regular enough, to jerk the body into reflex motion, like the legs of a galvanised frog”.  He contrasts this with the kind of dancing that requires a partner and allows couples to “touch, swing around each other, move together in an attempt to recapture withness.”
That’s the kind of dancing (waltz, tango, two-step) that students learn at—or with—the Witherspoon Fellowship.  The music that students listen to isn’t neutral.  Learning to listen to harmony and move in coordinated step with it—and with others—has subtle power to shape our brains and sensibilities in certain ways.  It also happens to be a lot of fun.


In Good Company

We were delighted to see a recent article published by Natalie Kennedy in Words’Worth (the journal of the English Teachers Association of Queensland).  Kennedy is a friend of the Millis Institute and a teacher at Northside Christian College, and her piece entitled “An Essay that Sparked an Educational Renaissance” is worth reading.  She begins by noting that Dorothy Sayers—the first woman to receive a degree from Oxford—bemoaned in 1947 that


modern students were supposedly free-thinking but were not able to question; they were more literate than ever but weren’t reading; they were becoming mindless consumers of everything from soda to sex and weren’t remembering much of anything. 


Kennedy then articulates how Sayers’ essay The Lost Tools of Learning has influenced an entire movement in America and beyond to return to a classical liberal arts education.  We’re humbled that the Millis Institute is mentioned in the article as an example of how this approach to learning has found its way to Brisbane.  The article can be found here.

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