More on Intellectual Training

Dear Reader,

I wanted to go back to Charlotte Mason’s section “Some Unconsidered Aspects of Intellectual Training” from her third book. I had blogged on what I see as the bigger ideas from this passage here, but, as with all Charlotte’s writing, there is a lot packed in there. Here are some of the other things which struck me:

” Remove the mathematician from his own field and he is not more exact or more on the spot than other men; indeed he is rather given to make a big hole for the cat and a little hole for the kitten! The humanities do not always make a man humane, that is, liberal, tolerant, gentle, and candid, as regards the opinions and status of other men.” (p. 119)

I think we have all heard the argument, and I think I have even made the argument, that part of the reason why we study math, especially higher math, is to sharpen the mind and make it able to pursue logical trains of thought. I do not think Charlotte means to deny that such things are possible, but she is here refuting the idea that studying math alone will make one more logical in the rest of life (or that the humanities make one more compassionate or other such arguments).

My father was a mathematician. My brother is still one (though no longer in an academic setting). I have known lots of mathematicians. And I have heard all their gossip. And, yes, there was a lot of gossip. You might think your college math professor was the dullest guy on earth but trust me there are love triangles and scandals in the math department just like anywhere else (and sometimes I thought more so!). Clearly, these people’s personal lives do not always reflect logical well-thought out decisions. They as much as any other people act on emotions and desires without due consideration of the logical consequences of their actions.

It reminds me actually of some of the topics that came up when we discussed the “unconsidered aspects of physical training.” Charlotte had said in that section that physical training makes heroes, but we saw that too often those who are our heroes or those who are the most physically trained actually display the least moral virtue. Though Charlotte told us that physical training should lead to a whole list of things like chastity and self-control, this often does not appear to be the case. The reason (as came out in the comments thanks to my intelligent readers) is that we separate between the physical and spiritual and the virtues earned in one arena do not transfer to the other. So too we now see that the logical thought one applies in one’s studies may not translate into a logical life. But this kind of compartmentalization need not always be the case. I do think that with deliberate intention one can make the leap from one’s field of study to one’s life, whether our goal be logic or compassion or some other virtue.

But still when arguing with my children about why we study algebra or geometry the best argument is not that they will learn logical thought but that we should appreciate such things for beauty and truth. Because all truth is God’s truth and it is only by the Holy Spirit that knowledge comes to mankind or that it comes to an individual man. This is also a point Charlotte makes in this section. She speaks of eras of history in which God has poured our new knowledge on humanity:

“Great eras of scientific discovery or literary activity or poetic insight or artistic interpretation come to the world from time to time; and then there is a long interval for the assimilation of the new knowledge or the new thought.” (p. 117)

And then she also speaks of the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s enlightening presence in our own children’s education:

“What a revolution should we have in our methods of education if we could once conceive that dry-as-dust subjects like grammar and arithmetic should come to children, living with the life of the Holy Spirit, who, we are told, ‘shall teach you all things.'” (p. 118)

Lastly, I want to dwell on this sentence:

” In ten days he had advanced years in intelligence; and I have always thought that this was the turning-point of his life.” (p. 123)

Charlotte is here speaking of a young boy who spent his Easter vacation reading, or should I say devouring, the works of Southey (and here I have to admit I have no idea who Southey is except that he apparently wrote poems and perhaps books??). But what a humbling thought this is to us homeschooling mothers who worry so much about our children’s progress that a child could learn more on his own in a short time than all his many days of schooling could give. We tend to spout off that we can accomplish more in a few hours of homeschool than the public schools can in 6 hours a day. But we tend to forget that even what we do can end up as so much busywork and that there is no guarantee that it will sink into the child’s mind and soul. Even reading living books is only a kind of busywork if it does not penetrate into the child. And that is not something we can control or force to happen. It is, again, the work of the Holy Spirit. And while we may thus lament that our efforts are not bearing the fruit we want and worry that our kids are falling behind, we must also remember that God can do in a few days, or even a few hours, what we strive so many years to accomplish. I am not advocating abandoning all programs of learning for unschooling, but I do think that we need to patiently pray and wait on the Lord to work on our kid’s lives and to inspire and grow them as He will.

I told you Charlotte could fit a lot in one seemingly brief section.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Speaking as a mathematician, I can attest that our decisions are no more rational that those of anyone else! I love how you bring out that Mason is knocking down one reason for teaching math after another in order to point to the source of true infallibility: the Holy Spirit.


  2. ‘…as with all Charlotte’s writing, there is a lot packed in there.’ That’s what I thought – especially reading through her section on ‘Unconsidered aspects of…’


  3. I also love how you linked the physical training and mathematical training: both can train good habits. However, without being widely and well read to learn from the lives of others, top athletes and mathematicians are vulnerable to grievous faults and non-virtuous lives.


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