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Curriculum: Hunting Words More Than Matter

The Advancement of Learning (1605) by Francis Bacon emphasized a shift away from rote learning and deductive reasoning toward a more comprehensive engagement with the world. Of particular interest are the three vanities of learning described by Bacon...

Three Vanities of Learning

1) Fantastical Learning (Vain Imaginations): " Here, therefore, is the first distemper of learning, when men study words and not matter; … for words are but the images of matter; and except they have life of reason and invention, to fall in love with them is all one as to fall in love with a picture."

The idea of fantastical learning describes a common problem that remains with us today. The idea that people "study words and not matter" means that we are more attached to symbols and descriptions rather than a more direct experience. In other words, the learning experience is one focused on symbols that describe some kind of experience that we are distant or removed from. Of course, not all learning experiences can be direct and will inevitably be mediated via literacy. At the same time, as Bacon points out, to become focused on symbols as the primary method of learning is in effect a distemper of learning.

2) Contentious Learning (Vain Altercations): "This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the Schoolmen: who having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors…did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books."

The idea of degenerate learning refers to an education system that is narrow and confining in terms of the experience it offers people. The educators, even though of sharp and strong wits, tend to focus on narrowly defined areas of expertise and have an uncanny ability to spin out laborious webs of learning.

3) Delicate Learning (Vain Affectations): "…did bring in an affectionate study of eloquence and copie of speech, which then began to flourish. This grew speedily to an excess; for men began to hunt more after words than matter; more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention or depth of judgment.

The key phrase is people began to hunt more after words than matter. In a sense, it may be that we have developed the habit of hunting more after symbols of experience rather than the actual experience they are intended to describe.

The three vanities of learning described by Bacon have a clear resonance with modern day education. While the technology has evolved dramatically since 1605, Bacon's comments are still relevant and appropriate today.


  1. Francis Bacon
  2. The Advancement of Learning
  3. Fantastical Learning
  4. Contentious Learning
  5. Delicate Learning
  6. Distemper of Learning
  7. Degenerate Learning
  8. Laborious Webs of Learning

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