Archive for the ‘Homemaking’ Category

Reformed Philosophy of Education, Introduction (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

In preparation for my big upcoming post which puts together my philosophy of education in one place, I have a couple of quick posts which set up a little more background and/or give details that don’t quite fit in the long post.  Today I’d like to look at where my philosophy falls in terms of the 4 Ways to Approach Education outlined by Cornelius Jaarsma.

In his schema, any approach to education will fall into one of four categories (or combine them in some fashion): knowledge-getting, disciplinary, social, and/or psychological. The first of these is the easiest to understand. It focuses on the acquisition of knowledge. It assumes that there is a set body of knowledge outside of man that is the same for all and that this knowledge is worth acquiring. Classical education would fall into this category and would most traditional (read: pre-1900) schooling.

Disciplinary refers to the disciplining not of behavior but of skills or aptitudes. That is, it seeks to train the faculties. If you talk about learning how to learn, you have a disciplinary approach. Much of classical also has a fair amount of the disciplinary in it. Montessori and Waldorf are also in this category.

Social approaches focus on the community, whether it be the society as a whole or the church. The modern American public school, based on the ideas of John Dewey, has a social approach. But there are also Christian approaches which verge on the social.

Last but not least the psychological approach focuses on the individual. Unschooling is psychological. But, again, Christian approaches can be psychological if their main focus is on the building of the individual. Cornelius Van Til, for example, speaks of the goal of education as conformity to the image of God which he defines as becoming more and more a distinct personality.

So where do I fall in all this? The answer is that there is a blend of approaches with the most emphasis on the knowledge-getting and psychological. My philosophy has a fair degree of knowledge-getting in that it believes that there is a set body of knowledge which exists outside of man. It is not entirely this approach because I do believe that the knowledge serves a larger purpose in the individual’s life (it is transforming) and that not all people require or will acquire the same knowledge.

There is also some aspect of my approach which is psychological in that the transformation of the individual is the immediate goal. Individuals, even when presented with the same material, will not acquire the same knowledge or respond in the same ways. I would say, however, that psychological approaches go astray when they make the individual the measure of success. Our goal needs to be not in the individual himself; we look instead to an outside standard.  While there are some social consequences of my approach, they are secondary. I believe that there can be a lot of danger in a social outlook; when we make the social a first priority, we undercut the value of the individual as a person. 

Next up: A few thoughts on the nature of man and his parts.



Creating a Philosophy of Education: Questions to Ask

Dear Reader,

Long ago when I first looked at various approaches to homeschooling, I noticed that they all have something to say (whether knowingly or unknowingly) about two questions: What is the nature of the child? and What is his purpose? Having read much more on education, I feel now that I need to add one more vitally important question: What is knowledge and how do we know?

Within these questions there are others we can ask to help us develop our thinking and to fill out our arguments. Some of these are very big questions which may seem overwhelming initially. I am adding sub-questions to help us understand the big questions and to beign to think about what their answers might be. This list is something of a work in progress but here is what I would put on it thus far:

What is the nature of the child?

There are two questions within this one. We must first ask —

What is the nature of man? We can think here of various areas. We may ask: What is his moral nature? Is he inherently good? Inherently evil? Something in between or some mixture of the two?

We may also ask: What are his abilities? Can he freely choose? Is he bound by determinism? Or again, something in between these two? Can he think? Can he will? Can he reason?

Having made some statements about man in general, we must also ask about the child —

How does he differ from the man? Does he have the same nature (moral and otherwise)? Does he have the same abilities? Are his faculties inherent to him or must they be developed? Is the child in his essence a small man or must he become a man?

Whether we are steeped in a theological tradition or not, I think most of us have some opinion on the moral nature of man — whether the average person is basically good or basically bad or how the good and bad intermingle. And most of us will, I think, say that we have some mental abilities (if we don’t believe it of others, we certainly believe it of ourselves). The big practical question for education is how do these things play out in the child? Does he begin good or morally neutral and learn to do wrong? Does he begin wrong but learn to be good?  As a parent, do you see your job as disciplining against wrong or training for good or cultivating an inherent good?

And how is the child different from the adult in terms of his abilities, particularly his ability to know and learn? Must he be taught to reason, or to use the reason he has?

One way to begin to think about these questions is to imagine a child who has no outside influences (raised by morally neutral wolves, maybe). How will he develop? Will he have compassion and empathy? Will he be entirely self-serving? Will he think (beyond what his wolf-y brothers do)? Will he develop discernment? Will he be able to gather information and form ideas and create new tools on his own?

Another way to begin to get to the answers to these questions is to think of what metaphor you would use for the child — Is he a blank slate to be written on? an empty vessel to be filled? a lump of clay to be molded? a seedling to be nourished and trained to grow upright? or something else? (Philosophies have been built on each of these metaphors.)

Similarly, we may ask about the role of the teacher — Does he fill, mold, train, nourish? Is his ideal role passive or active? Is he an example, a mentor, a source of knowledge, a provider of materials?

What is his purpose?

Education has some purpose or we would not do it. This purpose may be final or it may be a step along the way to a greater purpose.

One of the first questions me must ask, then, is what is the ultimate purpose of man? Or is there any? Which is as much as to say: Is there meaning to human existence and if so, what is it? Is there one purpose for all of us or do we all have different purposes?

If you are a parent, you probably have some vision of who and what and how you want your child to be. Try finishing this sentence: The thing I would most want for my child is __________ . And now think about how you will feel if your child doesn’t finish that sentence for himself they way you would for him. Is that okay?

When we speak about purpose in this way, we are thinking fairly long term. We are looking to the end of life and asking what will make that life good or meaningful or worthwhile.

When we think of education, we need to ask how it relates to this ultimate goal. Is education for the long term or is it for the short term? (It may be some combination of the two as well, though I would argue that one goal will always take precedence over the other.) A question that will help us answer this is: How long does education last? Is it for the young only (or primarily)? Or is it a life-long enterprise?

If we take a long-term view of education, then our purpose for life is also our purpose for education. That is, whatever our ultimate goal is, that is what we are educating towards. If our goal is an ultimate one, education will not end when schooling does.

Alternatively, education might be something we need to get us to the point where we can begin to achieve our purpose. Education in this view is equipping. It is a stage along the way and there will be a time when it ends, or at least changes in some significant way. If this is the case, then we must ask what preparation is needed. What is lacking that education will supply? Is there some body of knowledge that needs to be learned? Some skill to be learned or developed? How can education contribute to the greater purpose?

Notice that there is a lot of overlap here with the previous “big question” — if we believe that the child is born good and with all the abilities of an adult, we are probably not going to have a short-term goal for education. It may point to a greater purpose but there is no real equipping or preparation along the way that is needed. Alterntively, if the child is lacking something the adult has (or should have) then maybe education is simply how he gets from point A to point B so that he is then able to begin living out his purpose.

What is knowledge and how do we know? 

When we are talking about knowledge and knowing, we are in the realm of epistemology. Though it seems backwards, I’d like to begin with the second half of this question: How do we know?

Again, we go back to the nature of the child. Can the child integrate knowledge in the same way an adult does or does he need to be taught how to do so? Does he need to be taught how to think or does he simply need to be given the fodder for thought? Is he already equipped to deal with knowledge if it comes before his notice?  If we say his reason needs to be trained or developed, this will tend towards a short-term goal. At some point we will have done as much as we can for him, and he is on his own, released into the world to do all that thinking.

There is another aspect of the “how do we know” question which leads more directly to educational methods. Whether education is primarily for childhood or is life-long, there is something that happens between reading (or hearing or seeing) and knowing. And what does it even mean to “know” something? Do I know something when it enters my short-term memory? When it enters my long-term memory? Or does knowing go beyond that — does it mean that I can manipulate a piece of information and use it in new ways? Does it mean that I can apply it to real-world situations? Or is knowing about relationship?

Imagine that you are reading a book about birds. You might read the words and then walk away and not be able to relate a single thing you read.  Or you might remember some facts about swallows (for instance) till dinnertime. Or maybe what you read enters long-term memory and you can still recall it years later. Would you say at this point that you “know” about swallows? What if you can recite facts about that swallow but you walk outside and a barn swallow buzzes your head and you don’t recognize him? Would you still say you “know” about swallows? Or does knowledge imply some ability to apply that knowledge? Then again, it’s one thing to say: “Oh, that bird buzzed my head and I think it is a barn swallow” and to say: “Oh, look, a barn swallow! You better duck; they like to buzz people’s heads.” Now there is an application that not only observes but also predicts. On another level still is the scientist who comes up with a new theory which explains why the barn swallow likes to buzz heads.

I think most of us would say that there are degrees here — the person with facts in long-term memory at least knows about swallows. Somewhere along the way there is a transition so that we can say that the scientist not only knows about but actually knows swallows.

As we educate, we have to ask: Which of these levels of knowing is our goal? I hope that most will admit that no one person can know everything about every subject so we will likely have to prioritize. Our answer may vary — we may say it is enough to know about swallows but I want my child to know chemistry and American history. On the other hand, maybe he doesn’t need to know anything at all about jazz music.

Our technique will vary based on the kind of knowledge we are aiming for and how we think it gets into one’s head. Is it enough to memorize lists of facts? Does knowledge need to come in through a more relatable medium, through stories perhaps? Or are hands-on experiences key? The ancients often educated through questioning; perhaps this is the best way. Or maybe, in our scientific age, we value experimentation.

We have been talking about how knowledge gets in; we can also talk about how it gets out. Is it necessary to give practical expression to it? Our society values testing. Often this is to benefit the teacher or adminstrator by letting him know what the student has learned or how the curriculum is working. But testing, in various forms, may also benefit the student. Do you believe this is true? Is there any value to the learner in regurgitating knowledge? And if so, what is of the greatest benefit to him? Are written tests the way to go or recitation or hands-on projects?

Finally, we need to talk about knowledge itself. Depending on our view of the child’s nature, knowledge may or may not be our goal. If what we are aiming at is to teach the child to think, then knowledge may be little more than the fodder for this process. What we learn may not be as important as how we learn to act on that material. It is as if we are teaching the child to build a tower but whether he builds with Lincoln Logs or plastic blocks is irrelevant.

Most of us, however, will place some value on what is taught. So we must ask: Is there one set body of knowledge that everyone needs to know (or everyone in our western society, perhaps)? Or is learning so individualized that while we encourage knowing, each person’s body of knowledge may be completely unique to them? Many will come down somewhere in between — there are some things everyone must learn and some that are optional. We might insist our child learn to read and do math up through algebra but let them off the hook on calculus or give them a choice betwen American and European history. Again, our answers will depend on what we think the goal of education is. If learning is life-long, if we value knowledge for its own sake, we are likely to cast a much wider net. If we have more practical, specific goals, we will gear what we learn towards those goals.

We must look at knowledge itself from a broader perspective as well. How does history or literature relate to science? Is one subject more valuable than another? Is there any overarching truth which ties it all together?

Wrapping it up

I suspect that we could go on and on. There are many possible questions to ask and we don’t need to answer them all. But we do need to begin to think about them. Every additional question you can answer for yourself gets you one step closer to forming your own philosophy of education. I hope I have at least convinced you that there are some pretty big ideas at work here and that they are worth considering. And that as you ask for advice from other parents or as you choose a curriculum that it is important to think about where they are coming from and if their philosophy has anything in common with your own. If you are completely overwhelmed, check out my section on approaches to homeschooling here and my quiz to get you started here.


My Nature Lore Booklist

Dear Reader,

This is a question that came up on a discussion board and it’s one of those things I probably should have gotten together a while ago. You can find all my lists of living books here.

What is Nature Lore and How do you use it?

Simply put, “nature lore” refers to books that tell about nature and science-related topics in a literary way. I use the term because it is popular in Charlotte Mason circles. In reality, “creation lore” might be a better term. I fear that nature lore makes one think that we must read about nature only — animals especially and maybe a little about plants. I use “creation” to draw our attention to all that God has made, from the stars to the rocks, from weather to physical laws. Really any science related topic presented in a literary form is fair game.

If I could go back in time, I would do a lot less with my kids when they were little, but one thing I would definitely keep is reading nature creation lore aloud. The goal of science in the early years particularly is just to keep alive and feed children’s innate curiosity and love for knowledge. Most kids have a love for the world around them in some way. It may be a passion for dinosaurs or panda bears or a penchant for filling up your car and their underwear drawer with rocks and sticks, but one way or another it comes out.  Feeding this love requires two things: time outside and good books. (The former I hope is obvious but at any rate would be the subject for another post.) Books give us the knowledge to dig deeper into what we see with our eyes (and feel and smell and hear). They expand out horizons. We don’t all live near volcanoes and kangaroos. Books take us to the places we can’t go ourselves. Good authors communicate their own passion and inspire ours. They draw us in through their own enthusiasm for their subject. (For more on science and why and how we study it, see this post.)

The actual process of doing nature lore with your kids is simple: read and narrate, read and narrate. If you have multiple kids, have them take turns narrating what you read. Read chunks that are appropriate to their age and ability to retain. With the littlest kids, you may be reading a paragraph or two at a time only. If you have multiple ages, I usually gear my reading to just below the level of the oldest child participating. The oldest can still get something out of what it read but so can the next one or two. Don’t worry too much about littles. They will get more than you expect. One nice thing about science-y topics is that they often lend themselves to alternative forms of narration. Charts, pictures, and diagrams can be good ways to reproduce what one has heard. For instance, if you have just read about types of volcanoes, each child can take a few minutes to draw the various kinds and, depending on age and ability, label them.

Nature lore and time outside are really all you need for science in the elementary years. I know this can be hard to swallow and that you want to add in more but remember the goals — to encourage a love for creation, to build relationships with the things God has made, to encourage curiosity and observational skills. If your child wants to do some hands-on experiments, that’s fine, but you don’t need such things. (They will be getting some hands-on experience in their time outside as well. It is fun to make slime and watch things explode and I would not deprive any kid of those joys, but often science experiments made for young children are pretty preachy and basic anyway.)

Nature lore does not need to end. As my kids got older, meaning into middle school, I would often pick a topic for the year or the term. Things like meteorology or geology (again, look at my other booklists for some of those). Even in high school we continue to use living books as the basis of our science, adding in labs and definitely being more topical (a year each of biology, chemistry, physics). But that doesn’t mean you need to abandon nature lore. There are many wonderful books written for adults that keep alive that sense of wonder and that transport us to new places.

This is not going to be a complete list (if that were ever possible!). There is just too much out there and I am sure I have forgotten a lot of what we used when they were little. If you have other suggestions, please let me know and I will add them. Don’t be afraid to find your own books. Some of the best ones we’ve used were garage sale or thrift store finds that are not on anybody else’s nature lore list. After you have done this a bit, you will become more adept at judging books for yourself. You can usually pick up a book and read the first few paragraphs and get a sense if it is going to be an engaging book and if it is the appropriate level for your kids. If you get a little ways in and for some reason don’t love it, drop it and move on to another.

The books below are roughly sorted by age level, from the youngest to the oldest. I am very hesitant to give specific age ranges. Good nature lore often appeals to a wide range fo ages. Older children can still get something out of simple books and young ones will get more than you expect from books that seem over their heads.

Nature Lore Books for All Ages

Among the ………..People by Clara Dillingham Pierson — This series of books focuses on various environments — meadow, forest, etc. Each reading is fairly short, maybe 2 pages, which can work well with younger children. We had a one volume set that included all the books. My daughter did get tired of them after a while. I do think the whole lot might be a lot to do all at once.

Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know by Edwin Tenney Brewster — This was one of those thrift store finds for me. It covers a wide range of topics (including reproduction!) at an elementary level. I include not because I expect it to be easy for anyone to find (though certainly pick it up if you do) but because look at that title — if you see an old looking book with a title like this, you should always buy it.

Millicent Ellis Selsam — Some authors are so good it is hard to pick one book by them. Selsam’s are fairly brief, mostly of the easy reader variety, and cover a variety f topics. She has books on seeds, microscopes, turtles, and more.

Robert McClung — McClung will reappear below as well. His easier books are fun, easy reader level books. We particularly liked the one about Stripe the Chipmunk.

In the Land of the Lion — Another thrift store find. Again, this is the sort of title you should perk up at if you see it. This book discusses various African animals which brings up another point: nature lore can also often be geography. It’s good to learn more details about nature close to home, but books also open the world to us.

Toklat: The Story of an Alaskan Grizzly Bear by Alfred Milotte — Some books are surveys of a time or place; some take us in depth on one animal. The title kind of says it all for this one. A quick search on Amazon shows me Milotte wrote others as well and I suspect they are all worthwhile.

How’s Inky (and sequels) by Sam Campbell — The story of a porcupine (if I am remembering correctly). Told with humor.

Tale of …………….. by Thornton Burgess — Burgess will reappear below as well. His books that are along the lines of “the Story of so-and-so animal” are wonderful for children learning to read chapter books. Each section is very short but manages to advance the story so one doesn’t get bored.  I prefered his books that stick to animals and was less enamored of the ones that feature Mother West Wind.

The Storybook of Science  by Jean Henri Fabre — This is one of my must reads because it covers so many subjects, from bees to volcanoes, even including some history as I recall. I am not actually crazy about its modus operandi which is to set the information as stories told my an uncle to his nephews and nieces, but is it still a good book. Fabre has many others though I am less enamored of those that stick to a single subject.

Jack’s Insects by Edmund Selous — There are some guides to go along with this book and it is quite popular on living book lists. We used it. I wasn’t crazy about it. Honestly, it might be a bit too much on insects.

Spotty the Bower Bird by Edward Sorenson — This was out foray into Australian animals. I lovely book if you can manage to find it.

Jacques Cousteau — The famous French diver and oceanologist has written a number of books for kids. We stumbled across two, one on dolphins and one on walruses and seals. Both were fairly well done and worth getting. They are from the series the Undersea Discoveries of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. I believe there are other series under his name that are a bit more textbook-y.

Naturally Curious by Mary Holland — This book focuses on New England (my area) and gives what to look  for in each month, what is blooming etc. It tends to list a few things and then go in-depth on one or two. This would not be an every day or even every week book but is good to check in with every month to get an idea of what one might expect to see.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot — Herriot’s tales of a vet and the people and animals he encounters are quite well-known. My daughters really enjoyed them. He has various volumes and you can also find shorter versions of his books that focus on one topic, cats for instance.

Forgotten by Time by Robert Silverberg — Silverberg is a favorite author of mine. He also has books on history and one called Scientists and Scoundrels. This one is on all those animals (and a few plants) that don’t quite fit our usual categories.

The Rhino with the Glue-on Shoes by Lucy Spelman — Tales from a zoo-keeper, I believe. My daughter liked this one when she was in middle school.

Curious Naturalist by Sy Montgomery — This book has short readings organized by season. It is good even for high school. The chapter on beavers is worth the whole book.

The Animal Book and  The Bird Book by Thornton Burgess — I told you he would reappear. These two books are longer and a bit more of a haul. We found the bird book a bit much all at once though my one bird-living daughter read some of it on her own. Beware that sometimes things change in science: rabbits are no longer considered rodents.

Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson — Silent Spring is quite famous and tells of the effect of pesticides on the environment.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson — Tells the author’s adventures on the Appalachian Trail.

A Walk through the Year, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm  and Circle of the Seasons by Edwin Way Teale — Teale has a number fo wonderful books. They can be read by adults but I also read one aloud to my elementary kids. Circle of the Seasons gives daily readings. A Walk Through the Year is organized by seasons and can also be found as four separate volumes. A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm  is more anecdotal and the title pretty much tells you where you are going with this one.

Wilderness Essays by John Muir — Muir is famous naturalist and I have heard he was a Christian. His love for nature comes through. This is the book of his we have used but I suspect his others are also worth the time.

Tristan Gooley — Gooley has a number of books that are good reads for high school boys who might be les enthused by nature books. They cover things like finding your way in the woods.

Lost Wild America by Robert McClung — McClung reappears with a book for the older crew. This one is on endangered animals and includes some historical context for each.

Tracker: The Story of Tom Brown as told to William Jon Watkins — The true story of a boy growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s (or so). His friend’s grandfather is an old Native American tracker and teaches them what he knows. There is one tiny adult bit (that might easily slip past a child) and there is some “spirit of nature” type stuff but personally, I wouldn’t worry about it confusing an older child. Overall this is a wonderful book that is very engaging and transports you to another place plus gives lots of useful info on tracking and the like. I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell — I loved this book. I laughed aloud in parts. It is an upper level book because, well, the family is included and there is some adult content. Read it yourself if you don’t want to give it to your kids. The Durrell family moved from England to Cyprus and the boy, Gerald, was quite the collector of animals. There is also a PBS series about them, though it strays quite far from the book.

As a reminder, if you are looking for specific topics like geology and environmental studies, click on the “lists of living books” link above and scroll down to the science section. There are other choices there that would work well for nature lore also but I didn’t want to repeat myself too much.

Happy Reading!



Illich and Mason — Two Proposals to Reform Education

Dear Reader,

Recently, I shared with you my reactions after reading Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society.” While I didn’t agree with everything Illich had to say, I found his work intriguing and thought-provoking. I was also rereading Charlotte Mason’s 6th volume Towards a Philosophy of Education for my local book discussion group and was surprised to find that she had ideas which sound a lot like Illich’s.

Illich, writing in the 1970s, proposes a system in which people have access to the “educational tools” (“Deschooling Society,” p. 57) they need — both physical things such as equipment and books and other people, peers to learn with and mentors who can pass on knowledge. He envisions a sort of voucher system which allows people to gain access to what they need and desire.  This is not a system which asks or dictates what should be learned but which allows people to have access and assumes that they will make the most of it. Illich’s goal is to do away with all institutional education, but his proposals seem to envision what we would call adult or continuing education (though they were perhaps not limited to that).

Mason, writing soon after WWI, also has a proposal for what she calls “Continuation Classes.” In her day, it seems, there were new laws to extend education to the age of 16 or 18, but she fears that the kind of education that was being provided was not the most beneficial. Her vision is not of what we would call technical education. “All preparation for specialized industries should be taboo,” she says (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 97). Skills can be learned by any “likely” lad. Rather, they should be academic; they should continue to feed minds upon ideas. She speaks of “their natural capacity to know and their natural desire for knowledge, that desire to know history, poetry, science, art which is natural to every man” (p. 97). Her goal is “thousands of Colleges up and down the land, each of them the Continuation School  . .  for some neighborhood” (p. 97).

In their goals and to a certain extent in their approach, Mason and Illich sound quite alike. They both address not just the education of youth but that of adults, those already out in the workforce. Both see local centers which serve the needs of the community. Illich includes education in skills as well as more academic subjects, a notion which Mason rejects, though perhaps this can be in some measure accounted for by the differences in their societies; we no longer have much in the way of apprenticeships to provide skill education. Both also assume some role for the government in establishing such things.

That similar ideas were proposed some 50 or more years apart makes one wonder whether we have made any progress in that direction, here almost another 50 years later again.  I don’t know the situation in the UK (where Charlotte Mason lived) but we certainly have not moved away from institutional education here in the US  nor is there any grand system for continuing education which seems to meet either Illich or Mason’s standards. To be sure there are community colleges and the like and ways to pursue education if one wishes, but they are by no means widely used, especially for purely academic interest as Mason envisages. Both seem to have an “if you build it, they will come” attitude so we may ask whether the fault lies in the system — that it is not promoted enough or simply is not good enough — or in the people themselves; perhaps they have no real interest.

The one thing we do have which neither could fully imagine (though Illich in the 70s did see a role for computers) is the internet. As I mentioned in my review of his article, Illich’s system sounds a lot like what we have in the internet — as way for people to find those of like interests and to form communities in which they can discuss and learn together. And certainly the web does provide a myriad of opportunities for just such intellectual stimulation. (Both Illich’s and Mason’s works can be read there free of charge.) But I think we also see that people are just as likely — more likely even — to use it for trivial, inane and even evil purposes.

It’s a wonderful world Illich and Mason see. Personally, I am skeptical of the government’s ability to institute a truly nourishing academic environment and of the people’s desire to actually seek it out and make use of it should it exist.




CM on Decorating One’s House

Dear Reader,

I love when I find a tidbit in Charlotte Mason’s writing that deals with an unusual subject. For instance, she has something to say on bargain shopping and on basic hygiene. But in this case, the quote I have stumbled upon is on the decorating of one’s house. Charlotte begins by saying that one must develop their own sense of taste, just as one must develop one’s own conscience. It is not the sort of thing one person can impose upon another.

But just as with conscience, there are certain principles which must be adhered to, at least when it comes to the decorative arts. Charlotte lists these: “the thing must be fit for its purpose; must harmonize with both the persons and things about it; . . . must be as lovely as may be in form, texture, and colour; one point more — it is better to have too little than too much” (Formation of Character, pp.151-2).


Chesterton and the Education of Girls

Dear Reader,

Do you ever find that when you once begin to consider some topic that you find it everywhere? I did a couple of posts recently on the education of girls and whether it should be different from that of boys. And now a friend has sent me an article by G.K. Chesterton which touches upon some of the same issues.

The article is “The Emancipation of Domesticity” from What’s Wrong with the World. It is not about educating girls directly, but it is about the role of women. Chesterton does not specify, but I am going to assume he is talking about married women and mothers in particular. I have argued in my previous posts that not all are called to be in a  family and so these remarks may not apply to all women. I don’t know how Chesterton would see the place of single women.

At any rate, Chesterton’s main point is that women are generalists. They need some level ability in a wide variety of areas in order to manage a home and teach children. They do not, however, need to be experts in any one area. Chesterton puts it this way:

“Our old analogy of the fire remains the most workable one. The fire need not blaze like electricity nor boil like boiling water; its point is that it blazes more than water and warms more than light. The wife is like the fire, or to put things in their proper proportion, the fire is like the wife. Like the fire, the woman is expected to cook: not to excel in cooking, but to cook; to cook better than her husband who is earning the coke by lecturing on botany or breaking
stones. Like the fire, the woman is expected to tell tales to the children, not original and artistic tales, but tales–better tales than would probably be told by a first-class cook. Like the fire, the woman is expected to illuminate and ventilate, not by the most startling revelations or the wildest winds of thought, but better than a man can do it after breaking stones or lecturing . . . . Woman must be a cook, but not a competitive cook; a school mistress, but not a
competitive schoolmistress; a house-decorator but not a competitive house-decorator; a dressmaker, but not a competitive dressmaker. She should have not one trade but twenty hobbies; she, unlike the man, may develop all her second bests.”

In contrast, the one who is out in the work world has one area in which he specializes and hopefully becomes quite proficient. I am reminded of the best man’s speech at my brother’s wedding. He began by saying that he had met my brother at math camp when they were teens. Then they both grew up to major in math in college and to become math professors as adults. Not only that they both became topologists. Not only that they both specialized in the same branch of topology. And yet he still couldn’t understand what my brother did.

This level of specialization, to minute areas of one branch of mathematics, may not be achieved in every profession, but the tendency is there to do one thing and to do it well. One must either be a specialist or a generalist, Chesterton would say. Furthermore, he adds, when we push women to be in the workforce in addition to maintaining a home, we ask too much of them. They are pulled in two different directions and it is not sustainable. He says,

“I doubt if they were ever tortured so much as they are tortured now by the absurd modern attempt to make them domestic empresses and competitive clerks at the same time.”

Chesterton does not mean this all in a  way that degrades women. He acknowledges that their work has always been harder than men’s. But he also says that they represent sanity. When one is obsessed with one thing, we call them a maniac. Too much intense focus on one area breeds eccentricity. This is the tendency of all who specialize in one area. But the woman who stays at home and generalizes becomes the voice of sanity. She is the “part that is unchangeable.”

So the question I would like to ask is: if this is true, then what does it mean for how we educate girls? If we were to know that our daughters would be wives and mothers in this mold, how should we then prepare them? Well, obviously they would need a very broad education. This applies not just to the domestic arts such as cooking and cleaning but also to more intellectual fields. For it is they who will educate the next generation as well. The one thing that really impresses me about serious unschoolers, those who take it seriously and do it well, is that they must always be on their toes to help their children in whatever new interests they may develop on a  moment’s notice. But as mothers, particularly homeschooling mothers, we should all be this way. We need to be flexible, and we need a broad general knowledge so that we can help our children in their own educational journeys. Chesterton puts it this way:

“To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist.”

I love that  bit about being shut up in the house with someone who asks all the questions, don’t you?

So to train a young lady for her role, we must give her a broad general education. But is this really any different from how we should be training boys? We may expect boys to specialize at some point, but when they are young we do not know for sure what that specialty may be though we may in some cases have an idea. Their education too should be broad so that they have the best possible foundation on which to build in the future. When it comes to the point of specialization, we usually begin outsourcing their education whether to a college or apprenticeship or simply an online course. When one begins to specialize, they must be taught be another who has already made a thorough study of the chosen field. But the beginning is always the broad foundation.

So I see little difference at this level between the girl’s education and the boy’s. But I started this section with an assumption that Chesterton is right in what he says. So perhaps we should back up a little and ask if his theory is indeed true. I would say that in the traditional family he pictures, it does make sense to me that the man specializes whereas the woman must cover a broad range of areas. My husband goes to work and spends 8 hours or more on work in one area. But I do a million different things at home. I cook. I clean. I deal with doctors. I teach in a variety of subjects. I discipline. I chauffeur more than I would like. Would I be better off if I worked outside the home? Personally, I don’t really want to. But I can certainly see the lure of it. To spend all day dealing with adults, to be able to concentrate on one area and to see progress in it and then to be rewarded in some way for that work? That sounds wonderful. But really what is asked of working mothers is not just to go to work  but also to oversee the home and children still though she may outsource a lot more than the at-home mother. They are still her cares. And that adds up to a lot of cares. I don’t know how anyone manages it. Something, I fear, must always fall by the wayside.

But I still wonder if this system Chesterton has described is the best. It seems to contradict things Charlotte Mason has to say in a couple of ways. On one hand, she argues that no one should specialize too much in one area. Even those who have very strong particular interests should at times turn their minds and bodies to other pursuits or they do risk eccentricity or worse.  The mind is refreshed by being given a respite. It is also more creative when it receives input from other areas, when diverse ideas can be combined and new relationships formed. But I am not sure that Chesterton would disagree with this. He does speak of the woman as the unchangeable voice of sanity. She is what brings her husband back so that his focus does not become a mania. He says,

“She has to be an optimist to the morbid husband, a salutary pessimist to the happy-go-lucky husband. She has to prevent the Quixote from being put upon, and the bully from putting upon others.”

And what of the woman? Is she happy to be a generalist? Part of the problem is that our society does not always esteem her work. It should, of course, and we can begin to change that thought but it will always be frustrating to think one’s work is unrewarded and unappreciated. Chesterton argues that the woman’s work should not be called a drudgery. He owns that it is hard work but also argues for its great value:

“How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe?”

For myself, I think the wearing part of my work at home is not that I think it is unimportant but that it is so hard to see the progress from day-to-day. It is very repetitive and the changes from day to day are hard to see. The children are learning surely but one must look back over a year, not a day or a week, to see real progress. And as for the housework, one no sooner vacuums a room than little people come along to soil it again. If there is a sense of drudgery, this is where it comes from — to be always doing the same things, things that often involve the world’s filth and to never see a marked improvement but rather to see them undone so that one must do them again.

And then when I hear Chesterton say my role is to be a generalist and to specialize in no area that does not make me rejoice. I have a desire to have one area in which I excel. Not necessarily to be the best but at least to be seen to be better than most others. In my earlier post on Charlotte Mason’s ideas about educating girls, I noted that she says girls also have a desire to do meaningful, necessary work. And I think this desire to succeed more than one’s fellows in some area is also a natural desire. It can be taken to sinful extremes, certainly, but is it inherently bad? I don’t think it is.

So perhaps I would add to what Chesterton has said that just as the woman must sometimes help her husband shift his focus and thereby keep him sane, so she too needs sometimes to focus on one thing. To be able to concentrate in one area and to feel that she has made progress and accomplished something. Charlotte Mason spoke of mother culture, the idea that the mother also must continue to learn and grow and feed her mind. I suppose that is why I do this blog, so that for a while I can work my mind can chew on meatier topics. It’s also why I post mostly about theories and ideas and not about the specifics of our day or what my kids are doing. I want to not think about those things for a bit.

So I guess my question for you homeschooling moms is: do you feel this need? How do you fulfill it?


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