Climbing Trees

By Christine Norvell, Guest Author

Since we’ve moved to Siloam Springs, I’ve spent plenty of time watching my cat happily climb the old dogwood tree by our garage. Bark chips off as he climbs higher. He often looks back at me as if he wants to know whether he should jump or keep going on his elevated scratching post.

It brings to mind the wonder of tree climbing when I was a kid. I thought of trees as my friends, especially growing up in muggy Mississippi. In my mind, I can easily see a majestic magnolia with its fat arms resting on the ground. To climb under those branches, then into the cool cave of shade by its smooth trunk, was a magical experience. As a kid, I knew that tree.

Yes, I climbed its branches, read in its shade, maybe I secretly carved initials or a symbol in its bark. I rubbed a leaf between my fingers and let its curved shape become a boat. I peeled off bits of bark with my fingernails, broke off a small branch to dig at a hole in the trunk. I wiped a spider web from my face and learned the sound of the wind as it hit the waxy leaves. I knew that tree. 

Understanding a tree begins with the experience of it as a whole and a realization that all knowledge about that tree is connected. I didn’t need a botany lesson to label things. I encountered the parts of the tree.

This understanding is a central root to classical education. It’s a holistic approach to knowledge that places things together, to help us comprehend the relationship of new knowledge to old knowledge. One discipline is connected to another, and man is connected to all things. This is more than a curriculum, more than a list of books. 

Most importantly, this understanding of a single source of all knowledge, of the interconnectedness and wholeness of knowledge, is one of the hallmarks of classical education as it was developed in the medieval and Renaissance eras.[1] It is seeing the universe as a whole, that all things are connected to God and to yourself. Educator Charlotte Mason called it synthetic thinking,[2] not analysis. It is not breaking down the parts of a tree. It is the synthesis of experiencing all of a tree together.

And we are drawing things together. In Romans 15:4, Paul writes “Whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was most important, he answered,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” [3]

The word commandment in Hebrew is mitzvot. It means commandment or central principle, but a mitzvot is also the behaviors that come after the commandment. Obeying a commandment of loving God with everything within us is a mitzvot. It should affect our behaviors, our virtue, our character. This is what Jesus was saying, “a completesynthesis—taking all the laws and the prophets together, understanding the vital connections between them, and expressing them succinctly and perfectly.” [4]

This is the picture of the world and the universe that God gave us. What he has given and created can be discovered and understood and counted upon to remain certain. This is the connectedness so many have written about as we explore the Great Ideas in history, science, math, logic, language, and literature. It is a body of knowledge, a treeof knowledge. As teachers, it imbues how we think, how we teach, and how we elicit conversation in our day-to-day class time. This is something we seek to cultivate together.

Christine Norvell has taught in classical, homeschool, and public education for over twenty years. She serves as the Upper School Dean and as a high school humanities teacher for Sager Classical Academy in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. With an MA in Humanities from Faulkner University’s Great Books program and a BS in English Education, she has also taught at Regent Preparatory and with Kepler Education. Christine is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and has written for CiRCE, University Bookman, VoegelinView, Mere Orthodoxy, StoryWarren, and others. She is the author of Till We Have Faces: A Reading Companion (2020) and writes regularly at her teaching blog.


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