Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Book Review: The Crisis of Western Education

Dear Reader,

I recently finished The Crisis of Western Education by Christopher Dawson (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1961). This was a decent book and I am glad I read it as it gave me some new things to think about and new avenues to pursue on my current venture. I am not calling it a must read but if you have some spare time, it is not a bad book.

As the title suggests, Dawson is responding to what he sees as the flaws in the current educational system in America (at least current in 1961 when he wrote it, though I don’t think much has changed).  While he raises some interesting points, I am not willing to climb aboard his particular bandwagon for two reasons. First and foremost, Dawson is a Catholic and ultimately the purpose of his book is to call for a definitively Catholic education. Christian culture, to Dawson, means a unified Catholic (big “C”) culture under one Catholic church (p. 124). He is not unkind and his criticisms of Protestantism are sometimes merited, but he is clearly not a big fan [especially of Luther (p. 28), though he is a little kinder to Calvin (p. 29)].

The other issue I have is in some ways even more fundamental to Dawson’s argument. He starts the book by defining education, and while I love that he does so (I am a big believer in defining terms), his definition is purely anthropological —

” . . . education . . . is what the anthropologists term ‘enculturation,’ i.e. the process by which culture is handed on by the society and acquired by the individual.” (p. 3)

The problem I have with this is that it states what education does in a society but it does not ask what education should be. I am willing to acknowledge that education does produce a common culture but as Christians I think we need to be asking what God’s purpose for education is. This touches on what will be one of our big topics — whether the primary purpose of education is to benefit the individual or the society — and so we will have to come back to it more in depth in another post. For today, I’d like to spend time on some of the other points that Dawson raises–

The first part of Dawson’s book is a history of Christian education. This is the most valuable section of the book (though it is not unbiased). Dawson raises concerns about the classical tradition, some of which he knows are concerns, some of which would concern me though he glosses over them. He mentions, for instance, the strong and long-lasting educational traditions of China but fails to address what seems the obvious question — why did we adopt and adapt the Greek system and not the Chinese? Obviously, there is a historical reason for this as Christianity arose in the west, but we must still ask if there is some inherent value in the Greek way over and above other approaches to education. Dawson suggests that the Greeks and Romans prepared the West for Christianity (p. 9) but if that is the case I would like to see more of an elaboration of this idea. Van Til, whose book I will be reviewing in the coming weeks, argues that Greek culture, not being Christian, is fallen, as all non-Christian culture is, and that we should not look to it for more wisdom than modern secular culture (Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974, p.14). If we were to look to any culture for an educational and intellectual foundation, the obvious choice should be the Hebrew tradition. So, we continue to ask: Why the Greeks? There may be a legitimate answer to this question. Dawson raises the point, but I have yet to read a sufficiently convincing answer.

As he moves into describing the current state of education, Dawson raises (again, some purposefully and some not) some interesting questions and makes some good points which I will only list here briefly:

  • Each educational system seems to have a core subject, or collection of subjects. We might choose history and natural theology or grammar and rhetoric or mathematics (pp. 12, 40). Is there a natural or right choice?
  • Education fits the society which it serves (p. 23). But to what extent should we fit education to out society and to what extent should we use it to transform our society into what it should be?
  • State control of education leads to state-ordained goals and a lack of religion in education (pp. 52, 61ff, 82). What are the roles of church and state in education? Can there be any role for the state without de-Christianizing education?
  • “If the Church were one of these compulsory organizations modern man would be religious, but since it is voluntary, and makes demands on his spare time, it is felt to be superfluous and unnecessary” (p. 132). I love this quote. An excellent argument for viewing Sunday as the Lord’s Day — a day belonging to the Lord and not to us. If it is once ours, we are free to do with it what we will and begin to resent any intrusions into it, even the intrusion of worship.
  • ” . . .the more science a culture has, the more religion it needs” (p. 153). I am not sure I understand what he means by this but I want to know more.

The latter part of Dawson’s book is a call for a Christian education which teaches Christian culture:

“It is vital to the survival of the West that we should recover some sense of our moral values and some knowledge of the spiritual tradition of Western Christian culture. The way to do this is by education, and specifically by making the study of Christian culture an integral part of our educational system, which is theoretically directed to this very end.” (p. 117)

For Dawson, as I said earlier, this Christian education and Christian culture are inherently Catholic and he is dismissive of Protestant efforts  and contributions (pp. 75, 124, 134).

While The Crisis in Western Education comes from a different tradition, and quite passionately so, Dawson writes an interesting and thought-provoking book. This is not a must-read but, if read critically, I think it is a worthwhile book.

Nebby

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Living Books on Ancient Egypt

Dear Reader,

We have gone back in time and are studying ancient history this year. We are just finishing up 11 weeks on Ancient Egypt. My kids are in 7th, 8th, 11th and 12th grades this year so most of what we have used will be for middle school and up. I also read some of my own books as well and did written narrations. I have been learning the limitations of my own memory 😉 You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on Ancient Egypt

For something different, we did not use a spine book for the whole family this year. We did do Egyptian art, science, and tales together.

egypt 1

We read Science in Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Woods together. This is an elementary level book and is not truly living but it is not awful and there is not much else I could find on the subject. Woods has a series of these books and I do think they are worth a look.

For art, we began with The Art of Ancient Egypt by Shirley Glubok. This is very similar to Woods’ book but on at instead of science. Both are elementary level — perhaps even early elementary– and are not  the best quality. Glubok’s also is part of a series of such books. We followed it up wih an old stand-by from my book shelf, V.M. Hillyer’s Child’s History of Art. Though also appropriate for elementary, I found this book so much more interesting and informative so I think we will continue with it alone for art as we move to other cultures. A word of warning– Hillyer has a few volumes on art. Mine is a compendium of his histories of painting, architecture and sculpture. All three are worth having.

We also read some tales together, both myths and legendary tales, from Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of Ancient Egypt.

My middle schoolers each read a number of books.

Both had geography on Egypt as well. My son read L. Frank Baum’s The Boy Fortune Hunters in Egypt. Baum is the author of the Wizard of Oz books so I was excited to have him try this one. It seems to be a fairly adventurous story of some boys hunting treasure in Egypt and battling various bad guys. From his narrations, I am not sure how much my son learned about Egypt itself. I will say though that he is my worst narrator and probably not as good as others at extracting info from a narrative so others might do better with it. My daughter read The Warringtons Abroad, which we found online here. This is another older book about a family’s journey through various lands and covers much more than Egypt.

My 7th grader read two other books: Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra by Iris Noble and The Pharaoh’s of Ancient Egypt by Elizabeth Payne. Both are upper elementary-lower middle school level and are highly recommended. Iris Noble is a favorite author and we always look for books on her. The Payne book is also used by the Greenleaf history guide for the period.

My 8th grader read three books: The Mask of Akhnaten by Robert Silverberg, Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs, and Egypt in the Age of the Pyramids. The first is fiction about a boy looking for the Pharaoh’s mask. I have liked Silverberg’s books a lot and read one myself (see below). The other two are non-fiction and are not truly living books. They were the result of getting what looked best from my library’s bookshelf. Egypt: Land of Pharaohs is mostly about the pyramids and the archaeological side of things. Egypt in the Age of Pyramids tells a fair amlunt about daily life in ancient Egypt and, though it is not the most engaging, is decent for providing that side of things. Another similar book which we checked out but did not use is Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians, again not living but our choices were limited.

egypt 12

Because she has a lot else going on this year, I went easy on my 11th grader. The two books she read could really both be middle school level. They are: The Book of the Ancient World by Dorothy Mills and Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. The latter is fiction by an author I often see recommend in homeschooling lists. I am not overly impressed with her writing style but had problems finding good historical fiction on the period. Mills’ book covers more than just Egypt. I only had her read the relevant portions.

My senior read two books I am pretty excited about: In the Valley of the Kings by Meyerson and Isaac Assimov’s The Egyptians. Both could be read by adults, not that they are overly hard reading but that is the intended audience. Assimov’s history goes from the beginnings through Cleopatra. Meyerson’s is again more about the archaeological side. I think he enjoyed both.

egypt 11

As I mentioned above, I also read some books on our time period (and did written narrations!). They are: Akhnaten the Rebel Pharaoh by Robert Silverberg and Beneath the Sands of Egypt by Donald Ryan. I enjoyed both and they could both be read by high schoolers. Ryan is an archaeologist and while his book has much to say about Egypt it would be excellent for a student considering a career in archaeology. Silverberg I mentioned above; my 8th grader also read a book by him. Mine was non-fiction. It covered a fair amount more than Akhnaten’s time though that was certainly the focus. It bordered on being too detailed but didn’t quite cross the line. One caveat– Silverberg has a chapter at the end on Akhnaten and Moses. He makes it clear that he does not accept the Bible as a historical document. If you are not already familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis and biblical interpretation, enough to know what to believe and what not to believe, I would skip it entirely.

caveat–egypt 8Happy reading!

Nebby

My Literature List

Dear Reader,

Like a lot of you, I have collected lists of books, some form here, some from there. I had one document but it was very rough and unedited. Promoted by a friend, I took the time recently to edit it as best I can. I have tried to keep this list for books that we would consider literature/fiction/free reading/read alouds, but a few non-fiction books have crept onto the list. The line between history and historical fiction is a particularly fuzzy one.

There are many authors who have written more than one good book; some are quite prolific. For the most part, I have not listed every work so if you see an author listed here and then find other books of theirs, you may want to check them out. I have also tried to indicate in the “notes” column if I know the author has more to offer.

The “code” column relates to who in my family has read a book; you can ignore it.

I have gone back and forth on “level” and opted in the end for the simplest divisions. I have four main categories: picture (books), elementary, middle and high school (HS). Picture books are the most obvious. Elementary books are intended to be those an elementary student could read on their own. This includes a wide range from easy readers to chapter books to slightly more substantial but still relatively simple works. Middle is almost a catch-all between elementary and high school. Books on the high school category are placed there for various reasons relating to both reading level and content.  I also have middle+ and HS+ for those books which seem at the upper end of their age brackets; again this may be about content and not just reading level.

One last note: don’t be bound too much by levels. If a book is truly living, it will likely be enjoyed by all ages so your middle schooler can still listen to a picture book. And when read aloud, kids can understand and appreciate books well above their level. Some of our favorite read alouds were books that I thought were well above my kids at the time — I’ve read Don Quixote and Robin Hood and Dickens to elementary students to good effect.

I will try to update this list as we find more books we like. There are a few on the list which we haven’t used but which I have heard of so much that I felt they could stay (we never read Pinocchio, for instance).

Here then is the list:

My Big Literature List (opens a google doc)

If you have suggestions or corrections, let me know. It may be there are books I forgot (I think there must be a lot!) or haven’t heard of and we are always looking for new choices.

Happy reading!

Nebby

Book Review: A Meaningful World

Dear Reader,

I bought A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt looking for something for my artsy child to read. My son had read some of Wiker’s books when he studied political philosophy and we had found them very accessible and enjoyable, especially given the complexity of the subject. While Meaningful World is not quite what I was looking for when I purchased it, it still gets a definite “must read” recommendation from me.

This book is an amazing amalgamation of literature, philosophy, science, theology and art. Beginning with Shakespeare and moving through chemistry and biology, touching on astrophysics and subatomic physics, this book shows how materialistic reductionism has invaded scholarship across the board and, more importantly, why it ultimately fails. The book ends with what is essentially a plea for the scholarly community to abandon  this approach which the authors see as a once working theory which, though it has yielded some greater insights, has now been disproven.

What is materialistic reductionism? Simply put, it is the assumption that the material world is all there is. Beginning with this presupposition, the authors show, leads to a reductionism in that everything, from Shakespeare to  the cow, is seen as no more than its most basic elements. As Shakespeare is a combination of words which might equally as well have been typed by monkeys given enough time (the real world rebuttal of this oft-quoted theory alone makes this book worth reading), so the cow is nothing more than its DNA, a random sequence of proteins arising without meaning from a chemical soup.

The counterview which Wiker and Witt espouse is stated simply: “the universe is meaning-full” (p. 15). If it were not, there would be no point to science, and the more one delves into it, the more meaning one finds.

There is a lot here and this is a dense book. I am quite in awe of its authors’ breadth of knowledge. It was not what I was looking for simply because it is too dense and packed with scientific info for my artsy high-schooler. I am, however, going to have her and her more mathematically inclined brother read selections from it. A Meaningful World is an enjoyable and challenging read for advanced high shcoolers and up and I would definitely give a copy to any student heading off to college to study sciences (and possibly also literature and mathematics).

Nebby

 

Book Review: 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God

Dear Reader,

An article on CNN’s website led my to 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God: How Superheroes, Art, Environmentalism, and Science Point Toward Faith by Rick Stedman. Though I often regret clicking on any article that claims to be about religion or faith, I was pleasantly surprised by Stedman’s contribution, enough so that I immediately purchased his book. At the time I was reading The Benedict Option (see my review here) and I thought that Stedman’s work might be a nice counterpoint to it.

The Benedict Option is written for disillusioned Christians who find themselves in a  world that is foreign to them. As such, it presents a pretty negative, pessimistic view of modern American society. From the little I had read, I thought that Stedman might take another view and I was eager to see what he had to say.

I had been thinking for a few months that, though so many of my acquaintances are not Christians and many are even what might be called pagan (proudly so at times), though they do not share many of my political positions or subscribe to biblical standards or morality, that they are not so very far from truth as one might think. So much of what they have to say still betrays some core values. Above all, they care — they care about people, they care about equality and creation (though they may not think it is created), they care about justice. My hope was that Stedman would share this outlook, would help me fill it out, and would give me ways to begin to talk to such people and to draw them out through these sorts of common values.

To the extent that I went into this book with these expectations, I was a little disappointed. Nonetheless I did find a book well worth reading and sharing.

Stedman is up front with what he believes and with what he is trying to do. “God,” he says, “has double coded . . . evidence of his own reality and presence within our world, albeit in very subtle forms” (p. 13). “God intended that normal people should actually discern his existence” (p. 12). However, “our spiritual impulses, when repressed, sublimate and reappear in other arenas” (p. 19). This thesis is actually almost identical to that of another book I quite enjoyed and would highly recommend — Meaning at the Movies (my review here). And Stedman also begins with movies, superhero movies and horror in particular, but he also covers many other topics, 31 of them to be exact.

Before looking at a few specifics, I should note, as Stedman makes clear, that this is not a book that claims to make an air-tight case for the existence of God. As the title and subtitle say, these are reasons that point to a God; they are clues in creation and in our own psyches (see p. 12) but they are not going to convince anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced. If it were so easy to construct a logical argument to prove God’s existence, it would have been done long before this. I actually really respect that Stedman was upfront with what he hopes to accomplish and what the limitations of his arguments are.

31 Surprising Reasons is divided into sections, each one containing from 3 to 7 short chapters. The first, for instance, is on aesthetics — beauty and art and movies. Part two covers issues of justice and morality; three divine elements in our universe; four humanity itself; and five our desire for something beyond this life. Taken as a whole, each of these sections is good. Stedman mentions that because there are 31 short chapters that this book is perfect for a month-long study. I wondered if perhaps he stretched some of his sections to get to that 31 and it might not have been a bit better if some chapters were eliminated or combined. Overall, the ideas are good, however, and the book is well worth reading (two of my favorite bits are the chapters on language and the scientific method).

Having said which, these are not new ideas. I am sure, as Stedman quotes many other sources, that he would admit this. The bit on movies, as I said, was dealt with more thoroughly in Meaning at the Movies. C.S. Lewis has made the arguments about justice and morality in Mere Christianity, and my own favorite Frank Boreham has a wonderful essay on how our desire to explore points us to something beyond this world. Still, I like how Stedman has put all this together. It is not high-falutin’ theology but it is an enjoyable and quite readable book (I am currently reading another which says many of the same things but in much harder words!). This is another one I plan to have my high schoolers read.

Final word: 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God is a good, solid book that is well worth reading. The short chapters mean you can spend just a few minutes a day on it and the readability means it is good for those who are younger or newer to Christian thought.

Nebby

Book Review: The Benedict Option

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. I am not very up on contemporary Christian culture but I had heard about or seen this book in a few places so my impression is it is quite the in-thing these days.

My short take on this book is that I would recommend it, with some caveats. In fact, I plan to have my 12th grader read it in the upcoming school year. There is a lot here that is good and that the church needs to hear. Sad to say, a lot of it is probably common sense or basic Christianity, but nonetheless we need to hear it.  There are points at which I disagree with the author, or perhaps just have a different take on things; these differences arise on large part from our differing backgrounds and affiliations.

The subtitle of Dreher’s book is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” His audience seems to be first and foremost conservative Christians who have been thrown for a loop by the recent legalization of gay marriage and who are finding themselves floundering, wondering how things could have gone so far astray and why right doesn’t seem to be prevailing in America today [the book was written after the election of Trump but gay marriage seems to be the crisis that fostered it; it is clear Dreher doesn’t like Trump (p. 79), but he does not dwell on him]. This is a book for people in crisis who are in panic mode and wondering how their culture got this way and what they can and should do about it.

Which is not to say that the ideas in this book can’t benefit others, but it seems to be directed mainly at the overwhelmed Christian. I don’t find myself in this category, for various reasons, and I don’t have quite as negative a prognosis for our society so there is some extent to which I can say that I don’t even agree with the premise of the book. That is not a good place to start with a book, and there was a point early on when I considered just dropping it altogether.  As Dreher gets going, however, he has a lot of useful things to say that relate to living in a society that does not always (ever?) embody our beliefs and I am glad I persevered with his book.

Before we go too far, we need to ask the most basic question: What does the title of this book mean? What is “the Benedict Option”? The phrase seems to be one Dreher coined — I could not find other references to it, apart from his book — though at times he makes it sound as if it is a larger movement to which he became attached. The “Benedict” part refers to St. Benedict, a relatively well-known monk who established a religious order based on a set of particular guidelines known as the Rule of St. Benedict. This rule, as Dreher describes it, orders daily life; it is meant to bring God into every part of life and to be freeing rather than restrictive. Dreher’s thesis is that in this time of crisis, when our culture has turned so far from Christianity, that we as Christians need to live deliberately in a way that is modeled upon the Benedictine communities. This is not to say that we should all become monks. Dreher’s idea, rather, is that we should have Christian communities in which we support one another but also through which we can reach out to the world.

Dreher uses the Benedictine Order as kind of a disguise for presenting what is really just a lesson in how Christians should have been living all along. This is a point which John Jalsevac makes in his review of the book for Life Site News . I agree with his assessment that Dreher’s ideas might have gained more of a foothold with evangelicals if he didn’t present them in such a seemingly Catholic guise.

There are a lot of ideas in this book as Dreher treats issues from pornography to politics to worship, and I will not address each one, but I would like to highlight a few.

Politics is the elephant in the room though it by no means is the only subject of this book. The problem, which Dreher makes clear (though I wish he had been more explicit about it earlier in the book) is basically that American Christians have put their faith in the political process and it has failed them. They have been like the Israelites trusting in their chariots or sending to Egypt for help against Assyria (my comparison; not his). Though Dreher says we must not abandon the political process altogether, his main solution seems to be to step away from it and build small subcultures instead.

I understand that there are a lot of Christians who had put their faith in the political process and they are probably those most in crisis and who most need to hear what is in this book. But, coming (by adoption) from a tradition which until the mid 20th century did not even allow its members to vote, I find myself holding two contradictory ideas: on the one hand, it was foolish of Christians to ever believe this was a Christian nation and that somehow they could rely upon its processes to accomplish the will of God, and, on the other hand, I am not quite so willing to abandon the process we have as Dreher seems to be. So while I am glad to hear Dreher say that we cannot rely upon the political process to accomplish godly ends, I am at the same time not as negative as he is on the whole subject nor as willing to abandon that arena.

Dreher writes his book for any orthodox (little “o”) Christian who adheres to a traditional form of Christianity. He himself is Eastern Orthodox. His book is broad in its basis — seeking to appeal to the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. Not too surprisingly, this produces some weaknesses. In general, in the areas that most concern me, which are worship and education, I can say that Dreher has good principles but that he seems to see only one way to apply them.

When it comes to Protestant worship, Dreher adddresses evangelicals who are drawn to a very seeker-friendly, contemporary form of worship. And I would agree with him that this kind of worship needs reformation but disagree strenuously on what that reformation should look like. Oddly enough, the principles he espouses are often ones I can heartily agree with; their application is where we diverge. He says:

“. . . the concrete form in which information is delivered is itself a message . . . ” (p. 105)

Liturgy should follow ” . . . a basic pattern derived from Scripture.” (p. 107)

” . . . in the Christian tradition, liturgy is primarily, though not exclusively, about what God has to say to us.” (p. 108)

” . . . there can be no doubt that the form worship takes is a powerful weapon . . . against modernity . . . ” (p. 113)

All of these are good principles. Dreher uses them to argue for a liturgical form of worship, that is, a traditional liturgy that is not “low-church” (p. 112). Reformed Christians, those of us who adhere to the Westminster standards, would use these same arguments to argue for a simple worship– without the Book of Common Prayer; without man-made songs, whether we call them hymns or praise choruses; and with the Psalms of God.

On the topic of education, one on which I write extensively on this blog, Dreher sees the problem — but again latches on to one solution, and not the one I would advocate. I agree with his statement that: “Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is” (p. 147). In fact, that is one of the major premises of this blog — that we have to consider the views of man and God that are behind our philosophies of education (see, for example, this very extensive series on approaches to education). While I am not a fan of the public schools, however, I would not go so far as he does in saying that “it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system” (p. 155). I do think parents need to think seriously about how their children are educated and what ideas are underlying their education. Dreher treats homeschooling as a last resort (p. 165), a view which I completely reject. His method of choice is classical Christian education. I say his method of choice, but, in fact, he shows no awareness of other approaches to education. His take on classical education seems to be right from the modern classical movement. He refers to Sayers’ famous article (of which I am not a fan), CIRCE Institute, and the Great Books Movement. He speaks of the need to return to classical education, noting Greek and Christian sources, but does not address the very real issue of how and why we should incorporate these Greek (read: pagan) sources.

In short, having rejected our society’s norm (the public schools), Dreher seems to latch onto what is a very popular approach in the world of  Christian education, but nowhere does he consider other approaches or explain why this approach is the best one.  In the area of education, then, as in his discussion of worship, I think Dreher starts with good principles but doesn’t actually go far enough in researching and evaluating all the options out there. He accepts what presents itself as “traditional,” namely high-church liturgy and classical education, and does not delve deeply into what is truly biblical or what God desires.

I went back and forth as I read through The Benedict Option. At times I liked the book; at others it irked me. I would recommend it in the end because I think Rod Dreher raises some issues we need to consider. I think that his title and the way he frames his subject are a little gimmicky and that, while they may initially draw some people in, they can also work against him. But he does raise some good points about how Christians should live and his book serves as a call for the church to return to a more basic understanding of what it is. When it comes to specific application of his principles, I think he often does not go far enough and needs to consider even more radical, more counter-cultural options and  above all to ask what is truly biblical.

Nebby

 

 

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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