Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Education’

Personhood and the Special Needs Child

Dear Reader,

I recently stumbled upon a chain of posts on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy for children with autism. I do not have a child with autism (though I know a good handful) and I don’t really have any expertise at all in this area so I can’t really evaluate this therapy and don’t particularly want to wade into all the controversy around it. But I am struck by how Charlotte Mason’s principles do (or don’t) play out.  Whether it is true or not (I can’t judge), the article I read paints an extreme picture, but I think it points to some very real underlying issues, not just in dealing with special needs kids but in education today. [Disclaimer: I know some object to the term “special needs.” I don’t know what else to use — challenged? handicapped? — so if I am offending, I am sorry in advance.]

Charlotte Mason’s first principle is “Children are born persons.” I have written recently on what that means and won’t rehash it now, but I think we can see that a respect  personhood is not what is described here:

“To ABA, an autistic person is nothing more than the unruly embodiment of behaviors to be reinforced, shaped, or extinguished, a list of  ‘excesses’ and ‘deficits’ to be tallied and managed. A defiant child to be made compliant. Basically, I was a glorified dog trainer.” (Birdmadgrrl, “I Abused Children for a Living,” from Mad as Bird Blog, April 3, 2017)

If you are looking for a contrary understanding of what it means to have an atypical child, A Delectable Education, a Charlotte Mason method podcast, has a wonderful program on Special Needs which makes clear above all that the special needs child is a person just as any other and that for every deficit they may have, there is likely some other area in which they are advantaged or can excel. But even if a child is severely challenged, they are still a whole person and can benefit from what Miss Mason calls the feast — a broad curriculum that feeds the whole person.

ABA (according to its critics), in contrast, presents an ideal to which the child must conform and concentrates very intensely (up to 40 hours per week of therapy) on getting the child to meet those goals:

“The ultimate objective of ABA is to make the child “indistinguishable from peers.” This in itself is abuse because you are teaching the child that the only way that they will be tolerated is if they pretend to be like everyone else. They must sacrifice 40 hours a week instead of playing because there is something “wrong” with them which they have to spend all day everyday trying to fix.” (Ibid.)

Charlotte warns us against using the child’s natural desires — his need for acceptance, his desire for praise — against him. These are tools that are easily employed and produce a result but they are manipulative and again do not respect the child as person. Adults are apt to turn to these tools because they are easy to use and, in the short-term, they achieve a goal.  Our ABA critic again tells us:

“I don’t doubt that Timmy is having fun in the moment. The kids I worked with often seemed to be having fun. But the thing is, a lot of this abuse takes place on a subconscious level. The child might not even realize he’s being abused because he’s distracted by candy, or balloons. But there is a power imbalance. And little Timmy’s brain is picking up on all of this and filing it away.” (Ibid.)

ABA is the only scientifically backed treatment for autism and thus is the one that insurance is likely to pay for. It achieves its goals, though we may question whether those are the right goals. If the child also seems to be enjoying it, that seems like a win-win, right?

As I said at the start, ABA and autism are not my area of expertise by any means. I understand that there are probably deeper issues here and that I have really only looked at one side of the argument. But I think the argument itself raises some questions which all of us parents, whether our children are “normal” or not, should be asking ourselves.

The biggest question, and the one out of which all the others flow, is: Am I valuing the child as a person? Do I see and appreciate the good alongside the challenges? As that ADE podcast I referenced suggests, do I see that there can be value even in the challenges? Or am I trying to fit a person into a mold that maybe not all of us need to fit? I’m not trying to say that we need to just let every child be as they are. Charlotte Mason did advocate for habit-training, a practice which acknowledges that we all need some  guidance in how we develop. And certainly, it helps to be able to get along in society. If there are behaviors that others will view as inappropriate, we may need to address them. But there is at the least a balance here. Because the norm in our society is institutional schooling and because dealing with large groups of students doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility, we tend to try to fit children into an ideal mold, whether it’s the very active child who is expected to sit still all day or the child who maybe needs to wait to learn to read bit is pushed to do so in kindergarten or first grade.

If we do acknowledge the personhood of the child, we also need to look at what tools we are using in education. Rewards in the form of prizes and grades and praise are easy solutions. Children seem to like them and many are motivated by them so we get what seems to be a good result. But Charlotte would say that we are taking a natural desire and feeding it out of proportion and thereby allowing it to take over. The child who gets rewards for learning stops learning for any other reason. We get immediate results but warp the personality in the long-term. The immediate effect and even the child’s own pleasure in the moment cannot be our guide if we are on the right track.

Which leads us to the big question: What is our goal and what should it be? If we begin with the personhood of the child, then our goals must also fit this vision. A goal that presents a model and fits the individual to it does not respect one’s personhood. If we aim for academic or career success but warp the personality along the way we are also not truly valuing that individual. We need to care more about who each child is, not what they become or how much they know or whether they get into college or whether they can hold a job or even whether they can function in society.

I will say once more that I cannot judge ABA or any other particular therapy. But I think the problems that its critics see are not isolated to this one approach; they are problems that arise from a much broader misconception in our society that views the child as something to be molded rather than a person to be guided.

Nebby

 

 

Is it Biblical?: CM’s 2nd Principle (Part 2 of 3)

Dear Reader,

This is part 2 of a 3 part series within a series. Read part 1 here.

A Bit of Review: CM’s own words and Defining the issues

In my previous post, I asked how Charlotte Mason herself explained her oft-discussed second principle. Here again is that principle:

“They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” (“Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles” from Ambleside Online)

Based on a section from her sixth volume, I concluded that:

  • “The possibilities for good and the corresponding possibilities for evil” are “present in all children.” These possibilities or tendencies are what we might call predispositions. Some people are more prone to certain errors than others but we all have areas of particular temptation or weakness, just as one person might be more prone to infection, allergies, or alcoholism.
  • The whole child is in view, “body and mind, heart and soul.”
  • Evil tendencies of the body include physical weakness or susceptibility to disease.
  • Tendencies of the mind include, on the positive side, an affinity for or facility at certain academic subjects and, on the negative, a tendency to laziness, for example, or even an over-attachment to certain subjects to the exclusion of others.
  • When Charlotte speaks of the “heart” or “feelings” she is really speaking of what we would call the virtues.  Foremost among these are love and justice but many others flow out of them such as generosity, kindness, and even gladness.
  • When Charlotte speaks of the soul, she addresses our ability and desire to have a relationship with our Creator.

It is these last two — the heart and soul — which we most need to address. Because most Christians recognize that human beings, since the Fall, have a propensity for evil, the real question is to what degree we still have a tendency to good.

My Object

My goal for this series has been to take each principle and ask “is it biblical?” and to confine myself to what the Bible says. But I find myself hard-pressed on this particular topic to say what the Bible says. The fact is that there is a range of belief in Christendom on the topic and all would claim that their view is biblical. We look at the same texts and come to different conclusions. I’d like to begin by looking at this range of views. My goal is for you, the reader, to come away with two things:

  • to see where Charlotte Mason herself fits in the range of beliefs
  • to find where you fit

Because there is such a range, we may not all come to the same conclusions, but if you can see where Charlotte fits and where you fit, then I think you can begin to decide for yourself whether you think her second principle is theologically sound or not.

An Overview of Christian Thought

Pelagianism

On one end of the spectrum of belief is Pelagianism. Pelagius, who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, is considered a heretic by all the big branches of Christianity — the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, and historic Protestantism. Nonetheless, his position is worth considering as a foil against which to view others. Pelagius said that man is basically good and can choose to do good and to follow God without divine intervention:

“[He] taught that people had the ability to fulfill the commands of God by exercising the freedom of human will apart from the grace of God. In other words, a person’s free will is totally capable of choosing God and/or to do good or bad without the aid of Divine intervention. ” (“Pelagianism,” by Matt Slick from CARM.org)

Eastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox have been accused of but deny being semi-Pelagian.  I think it is fair to put them towards this end of the spectrum, however. Their position rests on an alternate translation of Romans 5:12, translating “because all men sinned” instead of “in [Adam] all men sinned.” The significance of this difference is explained:

“If we accept the first translation, this means that each person is responsible for his own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression. Here, Adam is merely the prototype of all future sinners, each of whom, in repeating Adam’s sin, bears responsibility only for his own sins. Adam’s sin is not the cause of our sinfulness; we do not participate in his sin and his guilt cannot be passed onto us.” (“Orthodoxy’s ‘ancestral sin’ versus Calvinism’s total depravity,” from Christianity.stackexchange.com)

Instead of the term “original sin,” the Orthodox prefer “ancestral sin.” Though people are born with the consequences of sin, they are not born sinful, that is, they do not bear Adam’s sin or its guilt. These consequences are both physical (pain and death) and moral. Though they reject the idea of total depravity (see “Reformed Theology” below), Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware is able to say that man is often “morally paralysed: we sincerely desire to choose the good, but we find ourselves caught in a situation where all our choices result in evil” yet “[e]ven in a fallen world man is still capable of generous self-sacrifice and loving compassion. Even in a fallen world man still retains some knowledge of God and can enter by grace into communion with him” (“The Consequences of the Fall,” Bishop Kallistos Ware).

The Roman Catholic Church

Moving along the continuum, we find Roman Catholicism. Everybody besides the Orthodox understands Romans 5:12 as “in [Adam] all men sinned” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 402).  Since we all fell in Adam, we are all born bearing his sin (CCC, 403). This is what the Catholic Church refers by “original sin.” For Catholics, this sin is removed through baptism (CCC, 405). Adam, who had original holiness, then transmitted to his descendants not just this one sin but a fallen nature which the Catechism defines as “a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice” (CCC, 404). Human nature has been deprived of something and men are thenceforth “inclined to sin” but “human nature has not been totally corrupted” (CCC, 405). The result is a conflict within man:

“By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free.” (CCC, 407)

The two key points here seem to be: a) that man remains free, that is free to choose good or evil and b) that human nature in the Fall has lost something, namely holiness, but has not been totally corrupted. A side note, since our initial subject is education, the Catechism goes on to say that we must understand this truth — of man’s evil inclination — in order form a right philosophy of education (CCC, 407).

The Church of England

Protestant belief varies from something pretty close to the Catholic view at one end to the Reformed (Calvinistic) view at the other. I will not touch on all the variations one might find but moving on, I do want to spend some time on the historic Anglican position. Charlotte Mason, you will remember, was a member of the Church of England (COE).

The foundational document for the COE is The Thirty-Nine Articles (1801) and the relevant sections are articled 9 and 10:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit . . .
X. Of Free-Will.
The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith; and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.” (The Thirty-Nine Articles, IX-X)

I found a wonderful, long article by Joseph Miller which goes to some length to explain not just the COE view but its place relative to other Christian positions. Miller was writing in 1885 (remember that Charlotte Mason lived from 1842-1923). Miller rejects the Catholic view, calling it semi-pelagian, saying that it allows for “the pura naturalia in fallen man after baptism, though weakened and deteriorated” (Joseph Miller, The Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England, a historical and speculative exposition, 1885, p. 22). In other words, the Catholic Church, according to Miller, does not view man as fallen enough. He does bear the guilt of Adam’s sin, but when that is removed by baptism, his moral capacity is not much diminished, relatively speaking. On the other side, Miller also rejects the Reformed view found in the Westminster Confession which speak of the “utter inability and opposition to all good in the natural man” (p. 24).

What then is the COE view which Miller propounds? He maintains that man retains a “formal freedom” though he has lost “real freedom.” Man is no longer able to execute “perfect obedience and conformity to God’s holy will” but he is still able to exhibit “those relative virtues or excellencies of character” which are seen even in non-Christians (pp. 18-19). Miller believes that such “formal freedom” is a prerequisite for redemption for without it man would have “no recuperative energy whatever, no capacity for redemption” (p. 19).

In his own salvation, Miller believes, man must cooperate with God’s grace. He sees this view as being firmly founded in Scripture:

“Does not Holy Scripture throughout in its commands and admonitions proceed on the supposition that it is in the power of each to choose to hear the word of God and to yield oneself to its holy guidance, or on the contrary, to turn aside and resist the impulses of grace ? At least it is apparent, that man must refrain from wilful and obstinate resistance, if divine love is to work savingly. Take conversion, for example. Whilst it may be admitted to be mainly God’s act, a fruit of regeneration, must there not be in it a certain yieiding or movement on the part of the man himself ? Otherwise how is the necessity of irresistible grace in order to salvation and eternal life to be evaded ? Are not faith and repentance necessary conditions of regeneration in those of riper years ? And have the will and other natural powers no part in these acts ? Observe that the Article says, that ” man is very far gone from original righteousness,” not ” altogether.”” (pp. 25-26)

Reformed Theology

As the Eastern Orthodox view of original sin is better called ancestral sin, the Reformed take on it is more aptly described by the phrase “total depravity.” I have learned recently that the acronym TULIP as a mnemonic for remembering the main tenets of reformed theology (oft called the 5 points of Calvinism) is a uniquely American invention. But if you are familiar with the acronym, you will know that the “T” of TULIP stands for total depravity. It is the foundation from which the other points flow.

Total depravity says that the effects of the Fall are profound. More than a mere loss of holiness, man in Adam had his entire nature corrupted so that no part of it is free from the effects of the Fall. In the words of the Westminster Confession, man became “wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body” (Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF], VI, 2). R.C. Sproul explains the use of “total” in this context:

“So the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person. The fallenness that captures and grips our human nature affects our bodies; that’s why we become ill and die. It affects our minds and our thinking; we still have the capacity to think, but the Bible says the mind has become darkened and weakened. The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.” (R.C. Sproul, “TULIP and Reformed Theology: Total Depravity,” from Ligonier Ministries)

The Confession goes on:

“From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil . . .” (WCF, VI, 4)

This is not, as it is often supposed, a rejection of man’s freedom to choose, but a statement about what he, by nature, is able to choose:

“Man is a free agent but he cannot originate the love of God in his heart. His will is free in the sense that it is not controlled by any force outside of himself.” (Loraine Boettner, Total Depravity, 2, from the-highway.com)

Boettner further explains:

“He possesses a fixed bias of the will against God, and instinctively and willingly turns to evil. He is an alien by birth, and a sinner by choice. The inability under which he labors is not an inability to exercise volitions, but an inability to be willing to exercise holy volitions. And it is this phase of it which led Luther to declare that “Free-will is an empty term, whose reality is lost. And a lost liberty, according to my grammar, is no liberty at all.” In matters pertaining to his salvation, the unregenerate man is not at liberty to choose between good and evil, but only to choose between greater and lesser evil, which is not properly free will. The fact that fallen man still has ability to do certain acts morally good in themselves does not prove that he can do acts meriting salvation, for his motives may be wholly wrong.” (Ibid., 2)

Thus, “fallen man is so morally blind that he uniformly prefers and chooses evil instead of good” (Ibid., 2).

Regarding apparent good done by the unregenerate, the Confession says:

“This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.” (WCF, VI, 5)

Such seemingly good acts are not truly good because a deed is good not in and of itself but is justified by its motives:

“The unregenerate man can, through common grace, love his family and he may be a good citizen. He may give a million dollars to build a hospital, but he cannot give even a cup of cold water to a disciple in the name of Jesus. If a drunkard, he may abstain from drink for utilitarian purposes, but he cannot do it out of love for God. All of his common virtues or good works have a fatal defect in that his motives which prompt them are not to glorify God,  . . .” (Boettner, 3)

Boettner, quoting Augustine, goes on to distinguish between those qualities which even the worldly may call virtues and true Christian virtues:

“Augustine did not deny the existence of natural virtues, such as moderation, honesty, generosity, which constitute a certain merit among men; but he drew a broad line of distinction between these and the specific Christian graces (faith, love and gratitude to God, etc.), which alone are good in the strict sense of the word, and which alone have value before God.” (Ibid., 3)

Conclusions

As you consider your own position, if you do not already know where you stand in this spectrum, some questions to ask yourself (and possibly your pastor) are:

  • What was the effect of the Fall on human nature? Do we bear Adam’s sin or only the consequences of his sin? What was lost in the Fall? How much of human nature was corrupted and how deeply has it been corrupted?
  • What is man able to do apart from God? Any good works? Is he able to evince any faith or virtues?
  • Is man free to choose to do good?

Here again are the major positions:

Pelagianism

  • Man is basically good.
  • “[A] person’s free will is totally capable of choosing God  . . .”

Eastern Orthodoxy

  • Ancestral sin: Men, since Adam, bear the consequences of Adam’s sin but not his sin or guilt.
  • Though man may often find himself “morally paralysed,” “man is still capable of generous self-sacrifice and loving compassion. Even in a fallen world man still retains some knowledge of God . . . “

Roman Catholicism

  • In the Fall, man lost his original holiness.
  • Man is born bearing Adam’s sin (original sin) but this is removed through baptism.
  • Men are thenceforth “inclined to sin” but “human nature has not been totally corrupted.”
  • Men have freedom to choose good or evil.

Church of England (place CM here)

  • Though he has lost “real freedom,” man retains “formal freedom” without which he would have “no recuperative energy whatever, no capacity for redemption.”
  • “Man is very far gone from original righteousness” but not “altogether” gone [emphasis added].

Reformed Theology

  • Total Depravity: The Fall affects all aspects of man’s nature — body, will, spirit, and mind. The “whole person” has “been infected by the power of sin.”
  • “[T]he unregenerate man is not at liberty to choose between good and evil.” Though he is a “free agent,” he is in his nature unable to choose good.
  • By common grace, unregenerate men may appear to do good, but they are incapable of pleasing God or of the “specific Christian graces.”

My goal with this post has been to give the lay of the land so that you can see where Charlotte Mason probably stood and think about where you stand. I have done my best to present each position accurately but there is necessarily going to be some over-simplification when trying to treat such a thorny subject briefly. If you have been reading here at all, you will no doubt know that I adhere to a Reformed position.  It is this view whose adherents suffer the most pains when it comes to reconciling Charlotte’s ideas with one’s own theology. So in my final post in this series, I will talk about how we can either reconcile these two views or whether we need to reject some of what Charlotte says.

Nebby

 

Is it Biblical?: CM’s 20th Principle

Dear Reader,

No, you did not miss 18 posts. I am skipping to Charlotte Mason’s 20th and final principle in my examination of the biblical foundation for her ideas. [Interesting fact: I didn’t fully realize till I began this series that CM did not always have 20 principles; in earlier volumes she lists 18.] I began this series with this post on what it means to be “pure CM” and why we should care. Simply put, Charlotte Mason claims that her philosophy of education is rooted in immutable divine law. Now divine law, as she uses the term, includes both special revelation (Scripture) and general revelation (science and observation, what we can discern from God’s creation). The latter is beyond my expertise to analyze, but I think we can hold Charlotte’s 20 Principles up to the light of Scripture and ask if they do indeed reflect what we find there. The phrase I am using, borrowed from my church’s membership vows, is “founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures.” My process with each of these is to present the principle, to look at how Charlotte herself explained it, and then to examine Bible passages which seem to speak to the same issues with the goal of answering the question “Is Charlotte’s principle ‘founded on and agreeable to’ the Scriptures?” In my previous post, I looked at Charlotte’s first principle, “Children are born persons,” and concluded that it is indeed well-rooted in the Scriptures.

For this second post, I am going to leap-frog to Charlotte’s final principle: “We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.” If you are wondering about that tricky second principle, have no fear; I do plan to come back to it next time. I happen to think that the first and final principles form a kind of bookends to Charlotte’s whole philosophy and as such encapsulate the whole so I am tackling them first and then will come back to what lies between.

CM’s 20th Principle: What does it mean?

The first step in evaluating Miss Mason’s 20th principle is to see what she herself meant by it. Here again is the principle:

“We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.”

This principle largely flows out of the first one; when we looked at Charlotte’s own remarks on her initial principle– “That children are born persons” — we saw that a major aspect of this idea was, for her, that children are spiritual beings. It follows upon this idea, she tells us, that they can and do have communion with the Divine Spirit (i.e. the Holy Spirit):

“That the divine Spirit has like intimate power of corresponding with the human spirit, needs not to be urged, once we recognise ourselves as spiritual beings at all.” (School Education, p. 71)

In volume 4, Ourselves, which reads a something of an owner’s manual for one’s mind, Charlotte discusses the role of the Holy Spirit in helping us to understand Scripture:

“It would seem as if the divine Spirit taught essential truths [of Scripture], the truths by which we live, by all means fitted to the understanding of men.” (Ourselves, pp. 88-89)

But, she tells us, the revelatory work of the Spirit is not confined to Scripture but is also at work in other realms of human knowledge:

“We may believe also, with the medieval Church, that a revelation is still going on of things not hitherto made known to men. Great secrets of nature, for example, would seem to be imparted to minds already prepared to receive them, as, for example, that of the ‘ions’ or ‘electrons’ of which that we call matter is said to consist. For this sort of knowledge also is of God, and is, I believe, a matter of revelation, given as the world is prepared to receive it.” (Ourselves, vol. 4, pp. 86-87)

It does not matter whether we call these subjects “sacred” or “secular” — Charlotte would call such a distinction “an Irreligious Classification” (Parents and Children, p. 129).  All knowledge comes from God:

 “In this great work we seek and assuredly find the co-operation of the Divine Spirit, whom we recognise, in a sense rather new to modern thought, as the supreme Educator of mankind in things that have been called secular, fully as much as in those that have been called sacred.” (School Education, p. 173)

Charlotte tells us that when big new ideas (such as gravity) come to humanity it is through the work of the Holy Spirit, but this work of the Spirit is not confined to big new revelations. He works in the same way in each of us as we receive new ideas and knowledge. It is God the Holy Spirit who provides men, both corporately and individually, with all knowledge. Even a child’s arithmetic lesson is under the dominion of God the Holy Spirit:

“Many Christian people rise a little higher; they conceive that even grammar and arithmetic may in some not very clear way be used for God; but the great recognition, that God the Holy Spirit is Himself, personally, the Imparter of knowledge, the Instructor of youth, the Inspirer of genius, is a conception so far lost to us that we should think it distinctly irreverent to conceive of the divine teaching as co-operating with ours in a child’s arithmetic lesson, for example. But the Florentine mind of the Middle Ages went further than this: it believed, not only that the seven Liberal Arts were fully under the direct outpouring of the Holy Ghost, but that every fruitful idea, every original conception, whether in Euclid, or grammar, or music, was a direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit, without any thought at all as to whether the person so inspired named himself by the name of God, or recognised whence his inspiration came. All of these seven figures are those of persons whom we should roughly class as pagans, and whom we might be lightly inclined to consider as outside the pale of the divine inspiration. It is truly difficult to grasp the amazing boldness of this scheme of the education of the world which Florence accepted in simple faith.” (Parents and Children, pp. 270-71)

Charlotte refers to the ideas of the Middle Ages and to Plato in discussing this point but also firming rests it in the Bible. She quotes Isaiah (Parents and Children, p. 272) to show that the plowman gets the knowledge he needs for his work from God and refers to David and Solomon to show that art also comes from Him:

“‘The Spirit of God came upon him and he prophesied among them,’ we are told of Saul, and we may believe that this is the history of every great invention and every great discovery of the secrets of Nature. ‘Then David gave to Solomon his son . . . . the pattern of all that he had by the spirit, of the courts of the house of the Lord.’ We have here a suggestion of the source of every conception of beauty to be expressed in forms of art.” (Parents and Children, pp. 271-72)

Finally, she makes clear that this instruction of the Holy Spirit is not just for adults but is the key to the education of every child:

“In the things of science, in the things of art, in the things of practical everyday life, his God doth instruct him and doth teach him, her God doth instruct her and doth teach her. Let this be the mother’s key to the whole of the education of each boy and each girl; not of her children; the Divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child.” (Parents and Children, p. 273)

What areas of life then are exempt from this divine instruction? There seems to be little if anything that is not so encompassed:

“And what subjects are under the direction of this Divine Teacher? The child’s faith and hope and charity––that we already knew; his temperance, justice, prudence and fortitude––that we might have guessed; his grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic––this we might have forgotten, if these Florentine teachers had not reminded us; his practical skill in the use of tools and instruments, from a knife and fork to a microscope, and in the sensible management of all the affairs of life––these also come from the Lord, which is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working. His God doth instruct him and doth teach him. Let the mother visualise the thought as an illuminated scroll about her newborn child, and let her never contemplate any kind of instruction for her child, except under the sense of the divine co-operation.” (Parents and Children, pp. 273-74)

Charlotte goes on to provide a reason for her belief:

“We must think, we must know, we must rejoice in and create the beautiful. And if all the burning thoughts that stir in the minds of men, all the beautiful conceptions they give birth to, are things apart from God, then we too must have a separate life, a life apart from God, a division of ourselves into secular and religious––discord and unrest.” (Parents and Children, p. 275)

What she is saying here is that all our life — our creativity and intellect in particular– is subject to God. If it were not so, we would have some part of life apart from Him and that to us would be “discord and unrest.” But if we recognize God the Holy Spirit as our teacher in all realms, then we have “harmony and peace” (p. 276). [A corollary to this idea which Charlotte points out is that we must keep our intellectual life subject to God; there is intellectual as well as moral sin.]

One last thought before we move on to the biblical evidence — when Charlotte says that the Holy Spirit is the Great Educator, this does not preclude some role for parents: “Our co-operation appears to be the indispensable condition of all the divine workings” (p. 274).

Looking at the Biblical Evidence

Having seen how Charlotte herself explained this principle, we must now ask what the Scriptures have to say on it. The key points I see that Charlotte made and which we are looking for in the Bible are:

  • That God the Holy Spirit is the Giver of wisdom and knowledge
  • That He does so in all areas of life — not just “religious” areas
  • That there really is no separation between sacred and secular

When we begin to ask what the Bible has to say about wisdom, we must first say that God Himself is the source of wisdom. Wisdom resides with Him (Prov. 8:22ff; Job 12:13), and it was through wisdom that God created the world (Prov. 3:19). The wisdom of the Son was remarked upon (Matt. 13:54; Mk. 6:2; Lk 2:40,52; I Cor. 1:30). The Spirit also is associated with wisdom (Isa. 11:2; Eph. 1:17).

God is the source of wisdom for us:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

“Who has put wisdom in the inward parts or given understanding to the mind? “(Job 38:36; cf. Prov. 2:6; Eccl. 2:26)

The story of King Solomon, who more than any other person is associated with wisdom, shows us clearly that wisdom is a gift of God (I Kgs. 4:29-30; cf. Deut. 34:9; Ezra 7:25; Acts 7:10).  His story also begins to show us the practical character of wisdom in that it allowed him to rule his kingdom well and to judge tricky judicial cases (I Kgs. 3:16-28).

Charlotte pointed out that God gives the farmer wisdom for his work (Isa. 28:26). So too God gives the wisdom needed to build a house (Prov. 24:3). Skill and craftsmanship of all kinds, particularly the art needed to make beautiful work, come from God (Exod. 31:2-6).  The wisdom to understand languages and literature (Dan.1:4, 17), to speak (I Cor. 1:5), and to “solve problems” (Dan. 5:11) is also given by God.

Though God is the source of wisdom, He may use means to convey that wisdom to people. Foremost among these is parental instruction (Prov. 4:11; 29:15).

Up to this point, we find that much of what Charlotte had to say is confirmed by the biblical text — God is the source of wisdom, and the wisdom that comes from Him is not just for “religious” matters but also applies to artistic skill, to practical knowledge, and  to many areas of intellectual understanding. The role of parents is also acknowledged by both.

On one (minor) point I do not think the Scriptures are as clear as Charlotte is. She speaks consistently of “the divine Spirit” (as opposed to the Father or the Son) as the source of knowledge and wisdom. I think it is a reasonable conclusion to say that it is the role of the Spirit to give wisdom, especially since Christ’s ascension, but I think it is also important to note that all three Persons of the Trinity are said to possess, even to be characterized by, wisdom and that quite often the Bible simply says that wisdom comes from God, without distinguishing clearly which Person is meant. On the flip side, in Charlotte’s defense, I will point out that the Bible speaks of “the Spirit of Wisdom” and that when an individual is said to be particularly wise, it may say he is “filled with the Spirit of wisdom” (as Joshua in Deut. 34:9 or Stephen in Acts 6-7). So too, Jesus tells his disciples that the “Spirit of truth” will reveal things to them:

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13)

Thus far, we have seen that what Charlotte has to say lines up fairly well with the biblical evidence. There are two other, inter-related points, however, which do not seem to come into Charlotte’s thinking. Perhaps one of the best known verses about wisdom comes at the beginning of Proverbs:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov. 1:7)

Wisdom in the Bible is intimately connected to godliness. It originates in godly fear, as in this verse from Proverbs, and its end goal is also to produce the good fruit of righteous deeds:

“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (Col. 1:9-10; cf. I Chr. 22:12)

Conversely, the Bible tells us that no fool — that is no irreligious man (Ps. 14:1) — can truly possess wisdom (Prov. 14:6).

The Bible makes it clear as well that there is “wisdom” that does not come from God. Moses, Solomon, and Daniel all pit their wisdom against that of non-believers (Exod. 7:8-13; I Kgs. 4:29-30; Dan. 5). Paul also makes clear that there is a “wisdom of the world”:

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (I Cor. 1:20)

Paul condemns such wisdom so strongly that one almost begins to think wisdom is not a thing to be desired. He goes on, however, to make clear that there is a godly wisdom:

“Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” (I Cor. 2:6-7)

James ties these two ideas together, saying that worldly wisdom leads to sinful desires and deeds:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.  But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:13-17)

How are we to take all this? Is there real wisdom which is imparted to non-believers? The Bible does make clear that practical knowledge — such as that the plowman needs to do his work or the skill of an artist — comes from God. If we see such knowledge and skill in a non-believer, I think we must assume that it too comes from God, though the person themselves may not acknowledge him.  In John 16:13 (above), Jesus calls the Spirit He is sending “the Sprit of Truth”; insofar as what is revealed to humanity is true (here I am thinking of the big new ideas that come to us at certain points in history, ideas like gravity or the movement of the planets) I think we may say that it comes from God though it may come through ungodly men.

On the other hand, the Bible also makes clear that the wisdom that is in God’s people, Daniel and Moses being prime examples, is greater than that which is in their worldly opponents. There is a level or kind of wisdom which seems to be impossible without true godliness. This certainly applies to what we might call spiritual wisdom, that which deals with spiritual matters, but I am not at all convinced that it does not also apply to more practical considerations.

If you will allow me a slight diversion, I will give you an example of what I mean — My oldest has been studying political philosophy this year.  I did a whole blog series some time back on evolution and creationism and did not come to firm conclusions, but as we read about all whom Darwin inspired — from Margaret Sanger to Nietzsche and Hitler —   it is hard not to think that Darwin’s theory of evolution which led to so many of the 20th centuries atrocities is just what James had in mind when he spoke of “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” wisdom which leads to “every vile practice.” [I do not think that Charlotte would disagree with this point. Though I don’t have quotes in front of me, I know she saw the need to test new theories and to see if they stand the test of time.]

Conclusions

The question before us is: Is Charlotte Mason’s 20th principle biblical? I am willing as this point to say yes, it is, but with one caveat that I think we need to think more about the relationship between godliness and wisdom. Charlotte propounds her ideas as applicable to all children — whether poor or rich, normal or delayed (if you’ll pardon the terms), but I think we need to ask as well whether those who are unsaved can truly grow in wisdom. Which will be a nice segway into what’s up next: that tricky second principle.

Until then

Nebby

 

 

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

 

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

Charlotte Mason and Homeschooling:

Dear Reader,

I got in trouble in an online forum recently for saying that Charlotte Mason “was not particularly in favor of home learning though the PNEU did have a correspondence course for those who needed to do so where they would send parents the materials” (my exact words). The other side maintains that “CM was most definitely a proponent of home education–for whichever families were able to do that” and that “all of her recommendations for curriculum and school are assuming a homeschool environment first.” She does say that this was not an issue as such at the time and with that I definitely agree. I told her I would think about the rest of it and so I have been.

To a certain extent, I think this is an example of just what CM talks about — we get an idea and then we find evidence to support it. I had in my head an idea and so when I read CM’s works, I tended to see that idea reflected.  This idea came from something I now only vaguely recall reading. I have some recollection of having read in the murky past that she first developed a program for schools and then added the correspondence course for those, like missionaries, who could not put their kids in regular schools for one reason or another. I was confirmed in this idea, as I first read through her volumes, by some passages from volume 5 in which Charlotte seems to prefer a school environment. I remember vividly reading such passages for the first time because I did not like them or the implication that Charlotte was not pro-homeschooling. Nonetheless, the idea that she favored  a school environment stuck with me.

So which is it — was Charlotte Mason in favor of schooling at home or did she tend to a more traditional school set-up? (Charlotte would not have use the word “homeschooling” but does use terms like “home education” and “school education.”)  This post is not going to answer the question but only to begin the process by asking how we should look at it and what questions we should ask.

The situation in Charlotte’s day was not the same as in ours and we can’t expect her to have our concerns or to use the language we do. We often come to homeschooling with something of a chip on our shoulders because we are making a counter-cultural choice (albeit less and less so every year). If we do choose a brick-and-mortar school for our children, we do not have many choices. Yes, there are public and private and religious schools as well as charters of various stripes, but for the most part they all follow the same basic trends — classes segregated by age, textbooks, tests, etc. You might have a Montessori or Waldorf school in your area, especially for the younger grades; you are less likely to have a Charlotte Mason method school available to you.

In Charlotte Mason’s day the situation was surprisingly similar, but not precisely so. Schooling was compulsory by her day though poorly enforced (see “The 1870 Education Act“). Most children who were educated would have attended traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Christina de Bellaigue has written a wonderful little article on educational choices in Charlotte’s day. She sees a mish-mash of educational options with parents cobbling together the best program they can from available resources:

“Rather than seeking to set up dichotomies between home and school and between formal and informal education, it is more fruitful to think in terms of the individuals experiencing a range of educational environments and influences along a spectrum of formal to informal.” (Christina  de Bellaigue, “Home Education in Historical Perspective” from The Oxford Historian, electronic edition volume 1, p. 22)

Educating children at home, which would have been the only option available to many, had declined for a time, but by Charlotte’s day was again on the rise as parents balked against the educational institutions of their day and sought to be more involved in their children’s education:

” Even in the 1880s and 1890s, however, as my work on Charlotte Mason demonstrates, significant numbers of elite parents were drawing on eighteenth-century models to educate their children at home, choosing something other than the dominant public-school model.” (de Bellaigue, p. 21)

In my own experience — and this is bolstered by much anecdotal evidence from other homeschoolers — there is more of a dichotomy today. Though homeschoolers may, as in Charlotte’s day, cobble together variety of resources, homeschooling itself is seen as a rejection of the traditional school system, both by its proponents and often by the homeschoolers themselves. This view, I think, arises from a disconnect between home and school and between the role of parent and that of teacher in our own day. As the position of teacher has become more institutionalized, with specialized training and professional certifications, the idea that education happens in the home as well has retreated. When Charlotte addressed parents, she spoke not just of academics but of habit-training, hygiene, and moral training. Education was see as more comprehensive which also allowed more of a place for parents:

“Exploring the history of domestic learning also emphasizes the narrowness of twenty-first century conceptions of education. As Crone comments, the domestic curriculum could be usefully defined to include ‘learning to crawl or speak, developing an awareness and later knowledge of identity and community, and cultivating and expanding the imaginative faculties’. Similarly, home education might be defined to include occupational training. Charlotte Mason’s conception of the educational work done by parents was also broad, incorporating the training of habit and character, nutritional choices, physical education, as well as activities more conventionally defined as educational.” (de Bellaigue, p. 22)

The first conclusion we can draw, then, is that Charlotte would not have said: “School education is better than and should replace home education when possible.” She would not have seen  these as either/or choices as we tend to. School education in her mind could never do more than complement home education. Because her view of education was more comprehensive and because using a hodge-podge of resources was not abnormal, she never would have said that education should be wholly outsourced to the schools; there would always be a home component.

Rather than asking “home education or school education” then, we should ask: Assuming the availability of good schools, is it better to educate exclusively at home or to make use of the schools? Of course, many would not have had access to “good” schools, but we can imagine a situation in which a parent lives near a school using Charlotte’s own methods; should that parent make use of the schools or is home education still preferable? We can ask some related questions as well: Are there subjects or areas which are better covered in a school setting? Are there benefits to school education which cannot be duplicated at home?

These are harder questions to answer — for any of us. There are homeschoolers today who think that homeschooling is the only way to go, there are others who only choose it as their last resort, and, of course, there are a wide variety of opinions in the middle. Most of us, I hope, can see that there are pros and cons on both sides. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages.   In an ideal world, perhaps, we would have the flexibility to pick the best of each.

Acknowledging these difficulties, I’d like to ask just this question: For the child of 7 or 8 and up (that is, definitely of school age) and looking at academic subjects (math, history, language, science, the arts) would Charlotte say these things are better learned in a home or a school environment? I define the question this way because formal education would not have started until age 7 or 8 and because Charlotte, and many others in her day,  would  have always acknowledged some role for the parent, at least in less academic subjects such as moral education.

I don’t think Charlotte herself is going to give a clear answer to this question. It is possible somewhere in her history someone came to her and said, “One of your schools is right down the street from me, but I really like teaching my own kids at home. What should I do?” But, to the best of my knowledge, we don’t have her answer to such a direct question. All we can do is look at what she has to say about the pros and cons of each situation.

I am not going to take the time to answer this question right now, mainly because it would make for a very long post, but were I to do so (and I may in a future post) my main recourse would be to the second, third, fifth and sixth volumes of Charlotte’s Original Home Education Series. The first volume, Home Education, starts with a wonderful tribute to the power and influence of the  parent but it is focused on children up through age 6 which is before our purview. The fourth volume, Ourselves, is about personal character and does not address education as such at all.

Nebby

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