Book Review: Minds More Awake

Dear Reader,

Recently Anne E. White’s book, Minds More Awake: The Vision of Charlotte Mason, was free for a few days in the Kindle edition. Perhaps you, like I, saw it on various CM groups and snagged a copy.

I have read mine now and wanted to share with you my thoughts on it. As with many of my book reviews, this is really more of a “book response.” What I am going to give you are my own impressions and thoughts as I read this relatively short volume.

White’s title implies that she is going to present us with something overarching – “The Vision of Charlotte Mason.” If this is indeed her aim, I applaud the effort. Charlotte herself wrote six thick volumes; that is a lot to take in all at once and much of it is theory more than practical how-tos. As White makes clear, there is not just one way to do a CM education. She uses an analogy from the kitchen, saying that Charlotte’s approach was not “a big fat cookbook” with all the steps spelled out (Kindle loc. 94). The heart of CM is not a to-do list but the philosophy behind it. Summing up this philosophy, then, is a reasonable and noble goal.

My main issue with Minds More Awake is simply that I don’t see the main thrust of Charlotte’s “Vision” as White does. I have been thinking about this so much, and wrestling with it, that I went ahead and wrote another post recently on what I think the key to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is. You can read that here.

There is a lot in Charlotte’s writings. White comes away with one point; I get another; you might find still another idea that captivates you. This is actually the test of a good living book – that we can all come away with different ideas. What I have to say may seem critical because I do come away with different ideas but I am not sure I can in the end say that my take on it all is closer to Charlotte’s ideas than White’s is. I hope to be able to meet Miss Mason some day and ask her 😉

What, for White, is the vision of Charlotte Mason? She begins and ends her discussion with the Way of the Will. When I first read Charlotte’s talk of “the Way of the Will,” I had what Oprah would have called an “aha moment.” I am not sure, like White, that this is the key to Charlotte’s philosophy, but it is a very good idea and one our modern society is sadly lacking.

I was a little disappointed, however, in how White presents this idea. I did not feel like she defines the Way of the Will clearly. In the first chapter, she describes overhearing a mom and daughter in a dressing room fighting over clothing choices. Though she doesn’t bring the idea home, what she implies is that the mom should not impose her choices on the daughter (in this scenario the daughter’s choices seem more conservative, but whether they are or not is not really relevant to the point). If all I knew of what Charlotte calls the Way of the Will were from this book, I would think that it is about letting our children choose and even about teaching them to choose rightly.

This seems on the surface to fall in line with Charlotte’s first principle : Children are Born Persons. We should not intrude upon their personalities by imposing our own wills. And this is true as far as it goes. But it is not the Way of the Will. When Charlotte speaks of the Way of the Will she is not talking about us following our wills but about us bending our wills to a greater standard, to something outside ourselves.

The Way of the Will for Charlotte Mason is more about “Not my will but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). It is about not doing what we want. It is about doing what we ought, even and especially when it is not what we will. Our modern use of the word willful, as in “that is a willful child,” is exactly the opposite of what the Way of the Will means. A willful child will have his own way. The Way of the Will is about submitting our wills to something grander.

As White presents it, the Way of the Will seems to be about choosing and the role of education is to teach us to choose well. She spends some time discussing specific subjects – math and Plutarch, among others. When we teach these things, when we present good, living books, she says, we give our children the input they need to learn to choose well.

If the goal of education is to learn to choose well, the goal of life is something else. This quote from the end of Minds More Awake seems to encapsulate White’s thoughts. Having just quoted Jean Vanier on the importance of making choices, she says that:

“Charlotte Mason said the same thing: that the function of the Will is to choose, and that character means understanding responsibility. How is the Will enabled to make choices that are not only morally right, but compassionate and people-supporting?” (Kindle loc. 1730)

There is a lot packed in here. There is the idea of the Will as choosing, but there is also something more. There is a goal – to choose what is morally right and beyond that what is “compassionate” and “people-supporting.” Elsewhere White speaks of “ecology and stewardship” (Kindle loc. 405). She does not lay out her own philosophy and goals clearly but I begin to get the idea of what she values. These are not bad things, but to me they are not the main things.

In White’s defense, I will say that one of Charlotte Mason’s better known sound-bites (if you’ll pardon the anachronism) tells us that the goal of education is not “how much they know” but “how much they care.” White’s own philosophy seems to be about caring – for the environment and for people. Again, these are not bad things, but I am also not convinced that Charlotte was using “care” as we now do (and we do tend to throw that word around a lot in our society). I fear we are reading our own modern ideas of what caring means into Charlotte’s statement.

Elsewhere Charlotte says that the goal of life and therefore of education is relationship, first of all with our Creator and secondarily with His creations – both people and the material world (I discussed this concept and gave references from CM’s writings in this earlier post). When Charlotte speaks of caring, I think this is what she is referring to – having relationships. Relationship is intimacy. If I have a relationship with a person, I know him. I can say what he will do in a given circumstance. I don’t just know facts about him; I know his personality. We can have this same level of understanding of things and events, from the Crimean War to toadstools. To know something or someone in such a way makes it almost impossible not to care for them, but it is also much more than caring. It is deeper.

There is a lot I liked in this book, especially when it comes to White’s discussion of the specifics. Overall, I am not sure it is a book I could recommend to those new to Charlotte Mason’s ideas. I feel that she overemphasizes Charlotte’s first principle – “Children are born persons” – focusing too much on the individual’s right to choose. The result is that the concept of the Way of the Will becomes about our choosing – choosing well, yes, but still us choosing – and not about submitting ourselves to the Will of Another. The goals White presents are also different from my goals for my children. I can’t say for sure what Charlotte did mean when she asked “how much they care” but I feel that we are missing something if we use that word “care” (especially in the modern sense which often requires little real knowledge or, ironically, real caring).

There is more I could say about this book, good and bad, but so as to not lose sight of the main points, I think I will leave it there.

Nebby

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