Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Is it Biblical?: CM’s First Principle

tDear Reader,

Recently I did a post on what it means to be “pure CM.” My conclusion was that, while there are some good, practical reasons to make sure we adhere diligently to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, the most significant argument its proponents make is that what Charlotte’s philosophy is derived from immutable divine law.

In evaluating whether this claim is true, I’d like to borrow a phrase we use in our church membership vows: “as being agreeable to, and founded upon, the Scriptures.” There is no philosophy of education as such laid out in Scripture — if it were so, we wouldn’t need Charlotte’s work. Nor do I think any mere human being is going to be right all the time. But are her ideas substantially “agreeable to” and “founded upon” the Scriptures? This is the question I would like to try to tackle.

The Question before us and How to Approach it

Before jumping in, let’s clarify a few terms. By divine law I mean all of God’s revelation to us which includes both His special revelation, which we find in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and His general revelation which is revealed to us in His Creation. The latter may at times be readily apparent but often requires more diligent effort to discern. Science, both experiment and experience, is one of the tools by which we do so.

My object is to judge whether Charlotte’s ideas are “founded upon and agreeable to the Scriptures.” To “be founded upon” the Scriptures is to find an absolute basis in the Scriptures. To be “agreeable to” is to be in line with biblical principles. Those ideas which Miss Mason takes from special revelation we should expect to be “founded in the Scriptures.” That is, they should be clearly discernable from the Scriptures. Those ideas which she discerns from general revelation, including from her own experience and the science of the time, should be “agreeable to the Scriptures;” there must be nothing in Scripture which contradicts them, but they may not themselves be directly discernable from Scripture.

There are two directions from which we may approach the question before us: we can start with the Bible and see if Charlotte Mason’s philosophy falls into place with what it has to say or we can start with what Charlotte has to say and see if her statements have a biblical basis. Since my goal at the moment is to evaluate Charlotte’s philosophy rather than to formulate a biblical philosophy of education, I am going to opt for the latter (I am hoping this will also narrow the field as it gives me specific principles to test). While Charlotte was quite a prolific writer, she herself sums up her philosophy in 20 principles. These would seem to be a logical starting place. There may be many other claims Charlotte makes, and we could spend volumes perhaps examining all she has to say, but if these 20 do not have a good, biblical basis then there is not much point looking beyond them.

Diving Right in: Principle 1

Charlotte Mason’s first principle seems simple enough: “Children are born persons.” Yet there is a lot implied in these four words and much has been written on them. I’d like to begin with how Charlotte herself explained this principle. Briefly:

“A child is a Person with the spiritual requirements and capabilities of a person.” (Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 18)

We see here the two aspects of Charlotte’s own definition: that children are spiritual creatures and that they share the capabilities of their elders.

The child is “a ‘living soul,’ a fully developed, full-grown soul” and as such “has one appetite, for the things of God; breathes one air, the breath, the Spirit of God; has one desire, for the knowledge of God; one only joy, in the face of God . . . The direct action of the soul is all Godward, with a reflex action towards men. The speech of the soul is prayer and praise, the right hand of the soul is faith, the light of the soul is love, the love of God shed abroad upon it” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pp. 342-343). Thus children are capable of relationship with their Creator apart from adult intervention:

“The most fatal way of despising the child falls under the third educational law of the Gospels; it is to overlook and make light of his natural relationship with Almighty God. . . . This mischief lies in that same foolish undervaluing of the children, in the notion that the child can have no spiritual life until it please his elders to kindle the flame.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pp. 19-20)

And not just capable of such a relationship, the child has a desire for God:

“The fundamental idea is, that children are persons and are therefore moved by the same springs of conduct as their elders. Among these is the Desire of Knowledge, knowledge-hunger being natural to everybody. History, Geography . . . Science . . . Art . . . Ethics . . .  and Religion, for, like those men we heard of at the Front, we all ‘want God.'” (Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education., pp. 13-14)

While the child as spiritual being is paramount in her thinking, the abilities of the child are not limited to the spiritual realm. In the first volume of her Home Education series, Miss Mason speaks of children as sharers of the common human desires — for knowledge, society, and esteem — and affections — “joy and grief, love and resentment, benevolence, sympathy, fear, and much else” (Home Education, pp. 100-101). In her final volume, she expands upon the desire for knowledge:

“If we have not proved that a child is born a person with a mind as complete and as beautiful as his beautiful little body, we can at least show that he always has all the mind he requires for his occasions; that is, that his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind. (Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 36)

The mind, she tells us, means curiosity, imagination, reason, and conscience (Towards a Philosophy of Education, pp. 36-37). All these are present from birth. This Charlotte demonstrates through experience and observation, noting all that a child learns in their first three years. In contradiction to ideas of her time, she argues that the child is not “‘a huge oyster'” to be molded (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 33) but:

“a person with a mind as complete and as beautiful as his beautiful little body, we can at least show that he always has all the mind he requires for his occasions; that is, that his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 36)

These then are the propositions wrapped up in Charlotte’s first principle:

  • Children are spiritual beings.
  • They are capable of relationship with their Creator and even have a God-ward desire.
  • They have mind, including reason, will, imagination, and creativity.
  • They have a conscience, an inborn sense of right and wrong.

Before looking at what the Bible has to say, I’d like to say a few words about what I didn’t find. I went into this with one phrase in my mind: “made in the image of God.” I have seen many writers use this phrase to explain Charlotte’s first principle. I have done so myself. And I can’t say, given the volume of her writings, that Charlotte herself does not use this phrase, but in the works I looked at she did not. She uses the language we associate with the image of God and even quotes Augustine who had quite a lot to say on the image of God, but her primary point does not seem to be that the child embodies the image of God. I don’t doubt that she would agree it is so, but her point here is not to show the divine in the child so much as to show the human in him, to show that he lacks nothing that is present in  his elders.

Children in the Bible

Having examined Charlotte’s first principle in her own words, the question now before us is: “Is this principle ‘founded on and agreeable to’ the Scriptures?” In order to say that this principle if biblical we would like to demonstrate that children are spiritual beings who are capable of a relationship with their Creator and that they have a mind which is capable of various functions including reason and discerning right from wrong (i.e. a conscience).  

The Hebrew Bible uses four main designations for children of various ages: there are babes and infants (from the Hebrew root ‘ll), little ones (Hebrew taph), children (Hebrew yeled), and youths (Hebrew na’ar). The various terms are not always clearly distinguished, but we can make some general observations about each.

Youths are teens and young adults, as in Isaiah 40:8-9 where “youths” and “young men” are used in parallel.  They are capable of real work as servants (Gen. 22:19; Ruth 2:15) and armor-bearers (Judg. 9:54; I Sam. 14:1). Joshua is a “young man” when he begins to serve as Moses’ assistant (Exod. 33:11). Those who spy out the land are “young men” as well (Josh. 6:23). David is a “youth” when he battles Goliath (I Sam. 17:33) and evinces a strong show of faith. One in youth is capable both of sin (Gen. 8:21; Ps. 25:7) and of faith (Ps. 71:5), though youth is also still a time of tenderness and inexperience (I Chr. 22:5, 29:1; II Chr. 13:7). The Bible does not give us a clear line at which this stage of life begins (they are not so concerned as we are to label teens, tweens, etc.) but I think it is significant that Jesus at age 12 stays in the Temple and argues with the teachers, showing His intellectual maturity at that age (Luke 12:41ff).

Moving down the scale, yeled “child” seems to be used fairly loosely, referring at times to a weaned child (Gen. 21:8; I Kgs. 17:21) and at others to what is clearly a baby (Exod. 2:6; 2 Sam. 12:16).  They are included in both the mourning (Ezra 10:1) and the rejoicing of the community (Neh. 12:43). A child is the object of training and discipline (Prov. 22:6; 23:13; 29:15) and is called to holiness:

“Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright.” (Prov. 20:11)

“Little ones,” from the Hebrew taph, seem to be those who need care. The root seems to mean “to trip” or “to take tiny steps” so “toddler” could be a good translation of this term. It often overlaps with yeled. “Little ones” are paired often with women and the elderly, and even with cattle (Gen. 34:29; 43:8; 45:19; 46:5; 47:24; 50:8, 21; Num. 32:24, 26; Judg. 18:21). Like women, they are not counted (Exod. 12:37). Even they, however, are included in the assembly of the people (Josh. 8:35; II Chr. 20:13) and are required to keep the Law (Deut. 31:12). The New Testament also indicates that children are included in the covenant community (Acts 2:39).

The Hebrew root ‘ll gives us a collection of words translated variously as “babes,” “infants,” and “sucklings.” What is clear of these children is that they are still nursing (which may have gone on for quite some time in that culture). Psalm 8 is a well-known passage which seems to speak of infants giving praise to God:

“From the mouths of babies and infants you ordained strength.” (Psalm 8:2; my translation)

When Jesus quotes this Psalm, it is praise which comes from the babies’ mouths:

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?“” (Matt. 21:16)

My own interpretation of this Psalm would be that, whether it refers to praise or to strength, that it is using the infants somewhat ironically. Just as Jesus would say that God could raise up sons of Abraham even from the stones — rocks being nothing like living sons–, the psalmist here says that strength could come even from infants, those known to be least strong. (If we understand the term to be “praise” the idea is the same for infants do not speak and “praise” as such cannot come form their mouths ordinarily.)

Nonetheless, the Bible makes it clear that God’s involvement with children is from birth and even before:

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Ps. 139:13; cf. Jer. 1:5-7)

John the Baptist shows some evidence of faith even in the womb:

“And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.” (Luke 1:41a)

Timothy too is said to have known the Scriptures “from infancy”:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it  and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:14-15) 

A number of New Testament passages seem to speak of the faith of children. Charlotte, in her exposition of what she calls the gospel principles of education, points to Matthew 19:14:

“But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.'” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

She uses this verse to argue that we must not prevent children from coming to God. In its context, this verse is quite literal; the disciples were physically preventing children from approaching. 

Another well-known passage is found in the previous chapter:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.'” (Matt. 18:1-6)

In its context — the disciples are disputing over who of them is the greatest — Jesus praises the humility of children. Though I do not think it is the main purpose of the passage, I do think this passage tells us that children are capable faith. The second paragraph tells us something interesting too — children can sin. We don’t immediately think of the negative, but to have a relationship with God can be good or bad; we may be in relationship with Him or we may offend Him.

Matthew 11 seems to imply that children are capable of understanding the things of God:

“At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.'” (Matt.11:25; cf. Luke 10:21)

In Matthew’s gospel, this prayer of Jesus comes right after His condemnation of the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida; in Luke there is an intervening passage in which the 72 return rejoicing that they have cast out devils and Jesus tells them to rejoice instead that their names are written in the Book of Life. The context seems to indicate that these are not literal children but that those who are like children — the uneducated and perhaps the not-too-bright — will understand. As in Psalm 8, the use is ironic; God allows children to understand what those who should know more and better do not. Similarly, in Romans 2:20, Paul uses children in parallel to the blind and foolish who are in need of instruction and guidance. In other words, children are used in these passages not because of their knowledge but because of their habitual lack of knowledge.

What conclusions can we draw from all these Bible verses about children? Here’s what I see:

  • The Bible does not give us an age at which one goes from being a child to an adult but it does seem to distinguish between children — including children, babes and little ones–, and youths. The latter, while inexperienced, are essentially adults. Teens and young adults would likely be called youths.
  • Children (all those below teens) seem to be lumped together; the terms used for them are not clearly distinguished. They are assumed to be ignorant or foolish and in need of instruction and discipline.
  • Nonetheless, they are counted among God’s people and at important points (such a covenant renewal ceremonies) are included in the assembly of God’s people.
  • Children are also called to follow the Law and to holiness. They can also sin.

Conclusions

I hope I have established here a basic format which I can follow in future posts. The claim of Charlotte Mason’s adherents is that her philosophy is worth following and preserving because it is based on God’s immutable word; these posts are my attempt to see if this claim holds up. My goal then is to examine Miss Mason’s ideas, and in particular her 20 Principles as the most concise and accurate embodiment of those ideas, to see if they are “founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures.”

In this post I have presented Charlotte’s first principle, looked at how she herself explained it, and then presented Bible verses which seem to speak to the same question, in this case the nature and abilities of children. My children and husband watch a lot of Mythbusters in which an idea or claim is tested to see if it holds up; their always end by saying whether a myth has been confirmed, busted, or something in between, so I’d like to follow  their lead and do the same for CM’s principles.

In this case, when she said “Children are born persons,” Charlotte Mason was claiming that they are spiritual beings capable of relationship with God and with all the capabilities of a mind including, among others, reason and conscience. In the Bible verses we looked at we saw that children are included among the community of God’s people, that they can sin, that they are held to the Law, and that they are capable of faith. I am stamping this principle CONFIRMED. The Bible does not speak specifically to some of the finer points about whether children are creative or how much they can reason but the biggest claims Charlotte makes in her first principle are clearly shown in the Scriptures.

Until next time,

Nebby

 

What Does it Mean to be “Pure CM”? — and Why Should We Care?

Dear Reader,

I have been getting out of my little bubble recently and reading more from different sources and schools of thought about Charlotte Mason (CM) and her educational philosophy. As I have, I have come to the somewhat sad realization that there are differences and disputes in the CM world. (It is a bit like realizing that there are different Protestant denominations.)

My recent posts on the different CM curricula (here and here) are the fruit of this realization as I try to wrap my head around what the real distinctions are. In those posts, I tried to just present what each source had to say for itself, without my interpretation or commentary, and without judgment as to which is closest to Charlotte’s original ideas.

One phrase I have seen thrown around is “pure CM” or “purely CM.” Everyone I have read is very gracious but it is hard to hear one curricula or approach called “purely CM” without taking it as an implied judgment on others.

There have been two contributions recently to the debate on what it means to be “purely CM” (I have no idea if they planned this; it seems too coordinated to have been mere coincidence). Art Middlekauff has written an article at Charlotte Mason Poetry entitled “Towards an Authentic Interpretation” in which he discusses how we can determine if something is “pure CM.” And the ladies from A Delectable Education have a new podcast is which they discuss what it means to be “pure CM” and why it is important. Middlekauff looks mainly at the criteria we use — how do we know if a given practice is true to Charlotte’s intentions? The short answer to this, and I think it is a good one, is that if Charlotte did something or if her close (both in time and in relationship) followers did it, then it can merit the label “pure CM” (he uses the word “authentic”). If, however, we only find it mentioned in later sources, even PNEU sources, it does not get the coveted designation.

The ladies at ADE — Emily Kiser, Liz Cottrill, and Nicole Williams —  seem to be responding in their podcast to a pejorative use of the term. Apparently they have been accused of being “CM purists,” that is, of being too harsh or strict in what they call CM.  Their object is two-fold: to explain why it is important to try to adhere as closely as possible to CM’s methods and to draw a distinction between being “purely CM” and “perfectly CM.” With regard to the first, I will not rehash their arguments but I will say that, in my own homeschooling journey, I too have found that the more I make an effort to stick to Charlotte’s methods, the more I am rewarded with positive results. Having said that one should try to follow CM’s ideas as closely as possible, the folks at ADE make a point to say that, nonetheless, “pure CM” is a goal we aim for and which many, if not all, of us still struggle to achieve.

In large part, I like what both Middlekauff and ADE have to say. I do feel, though, this niggling sense that there is something below the surface which we are not addressing. So this post is my attempt to work out (through writing) what it means to be “pure CM” and why we should care, if indeed we should care at all.

To begin, I think we need to consider what sorts of things Charlotte Mason actually had to say and where she got her ides from. Charlotte’s philosophy of education is really more of a philosophy of life. It works on many levels; it is not just about education. In the practical details, Charlotte discusses everything from nutrition and exercise to the knowledge of God and man to interior decorating. The topics she covers are so all-encompassing because her thought is all-encompassing. What she gives us is not just a way to teach, or even an approach to child-rearing, but a theory about how we work and who we are. As she is a theist (and, of course, a Christian), one might even call it a theology.

Charlotte’s essential ideas — the basis on which her philosophy rests — come from two sources: special revelation and general revelation. In this she is very much in line with orthodox Christian thought.We know about God and His Creation from the specific things He has told us in His Word, the Bible, and from the information we can gather from His works, that is creation. She speaks of both “the three educational laws of the New Testament” (Home Education, p. 12) and of “a method of education based upon Natural Law” (p. 8), by which she means those which we discern from Nature itself. At times, Charlotte also says her ideas rest on scientific principles. By this we must understand science as that knowledge which we gain through an examination of Nature. It is often proven by testing, in Charlotte’s case by her experience as a teacher “in the field.” Such knowledge fits under the broader heading of “general revelation” though it may not be so easily acquired but requires some effort to obtain.

Perhaps because her wisdom comes from these two sources, the one directly revealed and the other discerned, we find that the sorts of things Charlotte has to tell us range from broad statements about God and man to practical details for daily teaching. On one hand, she tells us that “Children are born Persons” and that “The Holy Spirit is the Great Educator.” On the other, she tells us that early lessons must be no more than 10 minutes long, that spelling should be learned through dictation, or that lessons in grammar must not proceed proficiency in reading. As we begin to ask what it means to be purely CM and why it matters, we need to keep in mind that there are these very different kinds of statements that Charlotte makes.

The ADE podcast gives us two reasons why we should care about what is “purely CM.” On one level, it is a matter of terminology. There is a concern in the CM community at large, which the ADE talk makes clear, that the term “Charlotte Mason” be kept pure, that is, clearly defined. In modern terms, we might say we don’t want the Charlotte Mason brand to be diluted. If too many other things come to be attached to the name, then it eventually ceases to mean anything. I think we see this with “classical education.” It is used to mean so many things, that it soon means nothing. Because the Charlotte Mason method originates with one person, we have a certain leg up in this area. We can go back to the original person, or her writings at least, and say what is and isn’t “CM.” This is where Art Middlekauff’s article, mentioned above, comes in useful; it gives us guidelines for determining what is “authentic” CM and what is not.

The second reason ADE gives us for speaking of “pure CM” has to do with the nature of her approach. They say it much better than I can (and you should listen to the podcast linked above to hear them do so), but, simply put, the CM method is a unified whole. More perhaps than other approaches to education, it is designed in such a way that its parts all work together. When we tamper too much with it, we lose its benefits. This is good as far as it goes and I don’t think it is too controversial, at least within CM circles.

Thus far we have been on a fairly practical level, discussing how we implement the Cm method, but we have not discussed an even more basic question: Why we would even want to listen to a hundred-year-old educator from Britain? Middlekauff in his article provides an answer:

“Mason claimed that she developed a theory of education that conforms to divine law, that is, the way things are. And unlike the theories of man, divine law never changes. To the extent to which Mason succeeded in her aim, her method is as relevant today as it was a century ago. And if we wish to benefit from the results of her method, we must seek to understand and apply it authentically.

… The quest for an authentic interpretation begins with the recognition that in Mason’s twenty principles, she has summarized a method of education that conforms with divine law.” (“Towards an Authentic Interpretation,” from Charlotte Mason Poetry)

Middlekauff here goes well beyond what we have said; it is not just about keeping clear terminology or adhering to a unified method. It is vital to keep Mason’s theories pure, he says, because they are true. They are “the way things are” and are in accordance with unchangeable divine law.

The clause “to the extent to which Mason succeeded in her aim” is key. Mason claims, as I discussed above, to get her ideas from divine revelation which, as Middlekauff says, is immutable. If she has succeeded, then what we have are not just the theories of one woman but divine principles.

I am teetering here on the edge of some really big questions that can not easily be answered in one post. Simply put, we may ask: Has Mason succeeded in her aim? Are her ideas an accurate reflection of divine law? To truly answer this question we would need to break it down. Mason looked at both special and general revelation. She dealt with both big, broad principles about human nature and particular theories about how education happens. The former may be tested against God’s special revelation, that is Scripture. We may ask, for instance, if God’s Word tells us that children are indeed “born persons” and if the Holy Spirit is the source of wisdom (to both of these I would answer yes, and I have discussed in the past why I do think CM’s approach is biblical). But we should not expect Scripture to tell us much about the practical details. These things Charlotte derived not from special but from general revelation. They are the fruit of her experience and knowledge.

When it comes to evaluating Charlotte’s work and theories, then, we must distinguish between those propositions which we may hold up to the light of Scripture and those upon which the Bible offers us no particular insight. These latter we may still test but through more mundane means. It may be that more recent scholarship confirms or denies Charlotte’s methods (and I think it often does, in trying to build something new, come back to the principles Charlotte espoused 100 years ago; see this post). In practice, I think we homeschooling parents turn not to the educational research of our day but to our own experience: Do Charlotte’s ideas resonate with us? Do they seem to reflect our own instincts and experiences? Do her methods work for us? Do our children thrive with them?

There is a bit of a chicken and egg problem here. We may come into this endeavor with certain notions of what will work, but at some point we must trust Charlotte enough to apply her methods in order to see that they do indeed bear fruit. But to even begin to trust her with something as vital as our children’s education, we must first have some sense that this is the right path and that there is at least some measure of truth to what she says. This is perhaps why so many of us come to CM’s ideas bit by bit. We try a little, we find it works well for us, so we try a bit more, adding on piece by piece until we decide to commit fully to her philosophy.

What then does it matter what is “pure CM”? Middlekauff’s answer is simple even as it opens a giant can of worms: It matters because she is right.  If Charlotte’s ideas do indeed reflect unchangeable divine law, then we should not expect substantial changes or improvements and we should care very much what is “pure CM.”

I’d like to end for now with a different question than that which we started with. I began by asking: What does it means to be “pure CM”? Middlekauff has given us very good criteria with which to answer this question but it leads to another: Why should we care what is authentic? To that ADE gives two good answers. But Middlekauff again alludes to something even bigger: Was Charlotte Mason right? Can she lay any claim to having put before us the immutable divine law as regards education? I am not prepared to fully answer that question in this post. Personally, Charlotte’s ideas resonate with me as reflecting both the broader ideas I see in Scripture and my own observations of how learning works. I don’t intend to spend much time defending the practical details – the use of living books, how we learn spelling, and such. I would like, for my own benefit, to spend more time looking at all the Scriptures have to say about the big ideas – the nature of children, the role of the Holy Spirit in education, and even, where applicable, how learning works. You can be sure I will blog about anything I find 😉

Nebby

 

Three More CM Curricula Compared

Dear Reader,

I recently shared with you a chart comparing four of the biggest Charlotte Mason based curricula out there (find it here). I have less familiarity with this next batch of programs but in order to be as fair as possible, I have also tried to find the same information for them. This time we will consider A Modern Charlotte Mason (MCM), Living Books Curriculum (LBC), and Higher Up and Further In (HUFI) from Charlotte Mason Help. These three, with the four I look at previously, make up the bulk of the “Charlotte Mason Curricula” listed by Ambling Along Together in their list of CM resources. The two I did not include had particular religious bents (Catholic and LDS) and there are also CM “adaptable” and CM “influenced” curricula which I have not looked at.

Here then is the pdf chart of these three curricula compared:

cm-curricula-2-3-3-17

As before, feel free to let me know what can be added or corrected, as long as it is true to the philosophy of the curriculum itself.

Nebby

Method vs. System in the Law of God and Living Books

Dear Reader,

In the very CM spirit of making connections, I would like to discuss educational methods,  living books, and the Law of God.

In Charlotte Mason’s first volume, Home Education, she urges parents to consider the “method” behind their parenting but not to be sucked into accepting a “system.” Following a method, she says, implies “an idea, a mental image, of the end of object to be arrived at” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education; Wilder Publications, 2008; p. 18). But, Charlotte warns, a method may degenerate into a system which “is pledged to more definite calculable results” (p. 18) and “is mischievous, as producing only mechanical action instead of the vital growth and movement of a living being” (p. 19). Notice the contrasts: A method is an idea, a system is mechanical; a method aims at an image whereas the results one gets from a system are quantifiable. With a method, you have a picture in your head of where you are going. With a system, you can use a checklist: Have I done this or that? You can assign a number (a test score perhaps).

A system is not living and should not be used on living beings; it is for things. But a method takes into account the needs of living beings. It accounts for personality. If a method is an idea, it follows that a system is fact-based. So we see the first connection: as a method is to a system so living books are to textbooks. The one gives ideas and feeds a living soul; the other is mechanical and fact-based. It is not fit food for a living being. The attraction of a system is that it is quantifiable — you can measure it and you know what you are getting. So too when we assign a non-living book, we can give fill in the blank questions. We know what we want — specific facts — and we can check off whether the student has learned them. Not so a living book which demands narrations. One test of a living book is that Jane and Bob will get different things out of it or even that if Bob rereads it he may get new things out of it. Its results are unpredictable, but of far greater value than the facts we get from our textbooks.

I am indebted to one of the members of my local CM discussion group for the second connection. She equated method and system to the Law and Gospel. I am going to alter this slightly. I think the line is not between Law and Gospel but between what God’s Law truly is and how we portray it. God’s Law (and have said before in this post and this one) is a perfect image. God in  His being defines what is good. His Law is not a list of do’s and don’ts but is a perfect picture. If we were doing picture study, I would show you a picture — let’s say it’s the Mona Lisa — and ask you to describe it. You might do a wonderful job and tell me about the woman and what she is wearing and how she is smiling and even maybe say something about the artist’s brushstrokes and how he achieved his effect (if you are very good at these things). But if I took your description and handed it to another artist and said “now paint this,” would he produce the Mona Lisa? Of course not. No matter how good your description of the picture is it cannot truly convey the picture itself. So too our synopses of the Law of God do not accurately convey the Law. Even the best of them — of which the 10 Commandments is one — are only approximations. This is what Jesus tells the Pharisees when He chastises them for obeying the letter and not the spirit of the Law. It is what He teaches when He says that “Thou shalt not murder” also means don’t curse your brother or that lust is akin to adultery. The best summation of the Law is the briefest: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” But we don’t like this because it is hard to see if we are doing it. We want that checklist; we want quantifiable results. God humors us in that to a certain extent; He does give us the Ten Commandments, as well as various other summations of His Law, but they are all imperfect; they cannot truly encapsulate a Law that is just as full and perfect as its Creator.

I started with Charlotte Mason’s discussion of parenting philosophies so I will end there. Parenting is a big, important job. It’s not one you can do over (at least not with the same child) and, because we love our children, we consider the outcomes vitally important. We really, really don’t want to mess this one up. I think we often start with a method in our heads; we have some picture or where we want to go. But we get tense about the results and whether we are really getting there so, as Charlotte says, we let it degenerate into a system with quantifiable results. It doesn’t help that this is a long-term project and the outcomes are not easily or soon visible. But — just as in our efforts to keep God’s Law — the answer is not in ourselves. The answer is in the Gospel. It is Grace. It is God doing for us what we cannot do ourselves.

Nebby

Oliver Wendell Holmes on the Way of Reason and Living Books

Dear Reader,

I have been reading Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes and find these two very intriguing quotes:

“You can hire logic, in the shape of a lawyer, to prove anything that you want to prove. You can buy treatises to show that Napoleon never lived, and that no battle of Bunker-hill was ever fought. The great minds are those with a wide span, which couple truths, related to, but far removed from, each other . . . Some of the sharpest men in argument are notoriously unsound in judgment. I should not trust the counsel of a smart debater, any more than that of a good chess-player.”

(Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, p.11)

“We can make a book alive for us just in proportion to its resemblance in essence or in form to our own experience.” (p.35)

In the first quote, we see echoes of what Charlotte Mason calls “the Way of Reason.” The best arguer, Holmes tells us, is not necessarily your best source of truth. Conspiracy theories, it seems, are not a 20th century invention. One may produce seemingly rock-solid evidence and arguments that, as Holmes says, Napoleon and Bunker-hill never were or, as some in our day would claim, that Elvis lives and men never walked on the moon, but arguments, even ones that seem solid and convincing at the time, do not make truth. Reason can be contorted to support any position.

Notice as well that in the midst of this first quote that Holmes also speaks of what Charlotte calls “the Science of Relations.” Great minds, he says, have a wide body of knowledge – Charlotte said to “set their feet in a wide room” – and are able to make connections between seemingly diverse ideas.

The second quote above speaks of living books. We often speak as if a book is living or not, and indeed some books seem to be almost universally living books for whoever reads them while others are quite the opposite. At times, we may find books in the middle; perhaps you, like I, have found to your disappointment that your child despises a book you adore. Books may be living for one person and not another. But Holmes adds a new thought: it is our own experience which may make a book alive for us. Do you think Charlotte would agree? It certainly seems to make sense though I think we may also have books come alive for us which have no relation to our own experience, perhaps even because they are so new and different.

What do you think?

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

Two Articles: Bored Kids and Homeschooling

Dear Reader,

I ran across these two articles in my feed today:

The Homeschool Math Gap: the Data from Coalition for Responsible Home Education (2 September, 2014)

Why our children are so bored at school, cannot wait, get easily frustrated and have no real friends? from Your OT (May 16, 2016)

The first article, from CRHE, cites statistics, contrary to those w usually like to cite, showing that perhaps homeschooled students actually do do worse on standardized tests, particularly in math, and that they are less likely to choose majors in math and science. The article suggests that this may be due to teaching styles and , frankly, the inability of homeschooling parents to teach math.

I think it’s good for us to hear honest feedback on homeschooling. I do question a lot of aspects of the numbers and the article itself. Homeschoolers are to some degree a self-selected bunch. We are more likely to be those for whom traditional schools don’t work so perhaps it should not surprise us that homeschoolers have a harder time meeting traditional school’s criteria. Maybe homeschoolers are just worse at testing. I know mine probably are, because we have done very little of it. But testing isn’t life. Which brings us to the next point: this article is good in some ways in how it analyzed the data, but it never asks or answers the question of how success is measured. Maybe homeschoolers do worse in STEM subjects because they are more creative. Maybe they are drawn to the humanities and arts because they don’t have STEM shoved down their throats as the definition of success (pet peeve of mine here; can you tell?). Maybe homeschoolers do in the end have less worldly success. But maybe they are happier. Maybe they know who they are.

I think the CRHE article is important. I think it is good for homeschoolers to read. But I also think we need to start by knowing what success means for us and then ask if we are achieving it. What we don’t need to do is read some statistics in SAT scores and then panic.

The second article, from Your OT, is not about homeschooling., and I think we need to take it with caution as well. We can’t assume that it doesn’t apply to us because we homeschool. We too can give our kids too much technology and overindulge them. But I loved this bit:

“We created an artificial fun world for our children. There are no dull moments. The moment it becomes quiet, we run to entertain them again because otherwise we feel that we are not doing our parenting duty. We live in two separate worlds. They have their “fun “world and we have our “work” world. Why aren’t children helping us in the kitchen or with laundry? Why don’t they tidy up their toys? This is basic monotonous work that trains the brain to be workable and function under “boredom” which is the same “muscle” that is required to be eventually teachable at school.  When they come to school and it is time for printing, their answer is “I can’t. It is too hard. Too boring” Why? Because the workable “muscle” is not getting trained through endless fun. It gets trained through work.”

It’s not that I don’t think school work should be enjoyable, but it is not our job to make it entertaining. In fact, this approach will often, as the article says, backfire. Because then they can’t do anything that isn’t entertaining. (See this recent blog post on more on that.)

That’s what I’ve been reading. How about you?

Nebby

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