The Vanishing American Adult (Part V) - Chapter 3: Contemporary American Education
All motion is not progress. Neither is increased choice. For example, as our independence becomes more boundless, our loneliness grows. Our schools have changed a lot in the last fifty years. They are different, but they are not better. In fact, by many metrics they are far worse. Why?
Is it because they are underfunded? Per capita spending by school districts is not correlated to student outcomes nationally. Sasse discusses the example of Kansas City and how over a twelve year period it became the highest funded school district in the country, spending over $2 billion on 60 new schools with amenities such as Olympic size swimming pools, a robotics lab, a recording and television studio, a planetarium, an arboretum, a zoo, and even a 25 acre wildlife sanctuary. What was the result? There was no real change or improvement. Over the past 30 years there has been a quintupling of federal spending on education that has produced nothing quantifiably better. Inflation-adjusted spending per pupil increased from $440 at the end of the First World War to more than $8,000 at the end of the 20th century, an increase over 1700%. That is an average yearly growth of nearly 6%. Are our schools improving by 6% every year? Our four-year universities, despite having lowered standards for freshman year performance, now place one-third of their incoming students in remedial reading and mathematics courses. In all, about half of incoming college students require some degree of remediation. This is a nice way of saying that half the students that are admitted to college are not qualified to attend.
At the same time our schools began to replace the family and became the center of adolescent life, they also moved away from their traditional role of transmitting and conserving knowledge. John Dewey, our most influential thinker on education, was skeptical of the obsessive need to teach children reading. He called it a "perversion." Instead, he wanted the school to focus on how it could be an instrument of social progress. As a result of moving away from traditional goals and methods of education our children spend more hours in the classroom than ever before and yet they leave high school for college or the workforce less prepared and less able to cope with the next stage of their lives.
Sasse believes we must have a discussion about the role of the school so that we can tailor our reforms to improve what we can and ought to improve. Schools can't solve every social problem, so we need to ask: what do we want for our children? Once we answer this question we can decide whether school or another institution is the best way to inculcate a given value or skill. If we want our students to be ready for work, why not internships? If want them to be more civic-minded, why not community service?
It is essential that we think this through because neither our current system nor our attempts to reform our schools are working. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre schools that exist today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. This is true for the rich and poor alike. Our young are indifferent to almost everything except the diversion of toys and violence. Rich and poor alike cannot concentrate on anything for very long and they all have a poor sense of time passed and time to come.
Liberal and Conservative; Republican and Democrat: we all want good schools for our children. But to do this we must first answer the underlying question: what is the purpose of education? Once we answer that we can decide what portion of that purpose can be reasonably accomplished by formalized school. But instead of debating and discussing this issue, we have assumed the school can and should do everything. This approach is empirically not working.
Sasse believes our nation would be served if we had a broad marketplace of schools. We should have family schools, religious schools, entrepreneurial schools, craft schools, and farm schools (Editor's note: I would Gospel-Centered, University-Model, Classical schools that utilize Charlotte Mason's thought to promote Joyful Discovery :) These schools, in competition with one another, would raise the level of education and lead to a number of new ideas.
One thing that Ben Sasse strongly opposes is the P-16 initiative. This is the idea that students should routinely go through grade 16; that a college degree should be the new norm. He asks the question: if grade 12 isn't working why should we pursue grade 13? Instead of admitting that the one-size-fits-all model is extending the period of adolescence rather than producing active learners, we are deciding, without open and honest debate, to invest even more power and authority in the same one-size-fits-all model. Unfortunately, centralized education bureaucrats tend to see every failure as a proof of still not enough centralized bureaucracy. We are still trying to spoon feed young adults who we should instead nudge to travel and to read, and to work to become the kind of students who ask questions before being handed a three point formulaic answer. Sasse believe we already over-manage the lives of our young adults and the P-16 initiative will only further this trend. In Nebraska, Sasse’s home state, the percentage of graduating seniors enrolling in college has increased by roughly 25% over the last 15 years. This is incredibly encouraging! However, the college graduation rate has remained completely even, as one third of Nebraska’s students drop out without graduating (this is also the national average).
What is more, this increased time in a bureaucratic setting means less family life, less time in the community, and less effort invested in thinking about what coming-of-age work experience could and should look like.
In sum, Sasse worries that it is foolish to invest more time and resources in an education system when we don't even of a clear idea of what education should produce.
How to Respond to the Coronavirus
I want to take a week off from my Vanishing American Adult message series to share a few thoughts about how we can respond and talk to our kids about the Coronavirus.
1) First off, we need not fear. This is may be the most repeated command in the Bible. Yet it does not mean that our lives will be easy or safe. But if our lives may be difficult and trying, why should we not fear?
God is sovereign. This disease will go no further and last no longer than God allows.
Our hope is in the resurrection. Our lives will be marred with sickness and pain and, if Christ does not return in our lifetimes, we will die. Our hope is not in living forever on this earth, but rather living with Christ forever in Heaven. If our hope is in the resurrection we can face even death without fear. This is an opportunity to grow in faith! To the extent our trust is in our health or our youth we will feel fear and anxiety. We all feel this to some degree (at least I do!) because none of us completely trusts in Christ (at least I don’t). But that fear is a gift from God to turn you towards Him. When you feel anxious, turn to Christ and seek to deepen your faith in Him.
God is with us. Always. Everywhere. Even when we don’t “feel” Him. Nothing can separate us from His love. Nothing. Ever. In the storm Christ’s disciples were overcome with fear, but He rebuked them—why fear when I am present? Christ is just as present with us as He was with His disciples two-thousand years ago.
2) This is an opportunity to love others.
We can slow the spread of this disease (even if the risk is low to us personally) by foregoing things we love.
There will be more opportunities for us to serve. We can get groceries for the elderly. We can comfort and encourage those caring for the sick. And we ourselves may have the opportunity to care for the sick. Christianity spread rapidly in the ancient world largely because when plagues came through and pagans abandoned their families and neighbors, Christians stayed behind and cared for the sick—they even cared for those that had been brutally persecuting them. Christians lowered the mortality rate by 20%, but many of them died as a result. They rejoiced at this because it gave them the opportunity to show their hope was in the resurrection. Lord willing we will not lose our lives in great numbers during this pandemic, but we may have the opportunity to sacrifice our comfort and even our health to love and serve others.
3) This is a great opportunity for us to reevaluate the things we love.
When we love things we can lose they never bring us happiness because they can be taken. When we lose them, they bring us pain, but even the fear of losing them brings us pain. Right now we are losing a number of things: safety, health, entertainment, freedom, money, our ability to be productive at our jobs, and some are even losing their lives. This is bringing real pain. But that pain is a gift from God to drive our hearts towards things we can’t lose: Christ, Godly virtue, wisdom, the joy of our salvation, the hope of our resurrection, etc. Don’t use this time to up your Netflix intake; use it to evaluate what you really love and then repent of your idolatrous loves and seek to know and love Christ more!
4) Enjoy this time!
We can’t control what happens to us (and this is most of life(!), though technology gives us the illusion of control), but we can always control how we respond. We’re going to be shut in with our families over the next few weeks. Use this time to read together, play together, pray together. Tell stories, do puzzles, go on walks, visit parks, cook together, bake together—this can be a truly blessed time.
May God be with you all. May he keep you all safe and healthy. May this pandemic quickly pass over us all.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part IV) - Chapter 2: New Conceptions of and Challenges to Childhood
Adulthood is not an age. It is something to be earned after going through various milestones that mark a mature, autonomous human being. There used to be structures in place and a predictable set of steps one could take. One would finish school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have children, etc. We have lost that.
What is more, the idea of what it means to be a kid has significantly changed. Prior to 1800 most people didn't know precisely when they were born. Children were not treated as "precious", but as little workers who were just not very good at their work. Our ancestors viewed childhood not as a time for indulgence, but rather as a training ground. Children worked as soon as they could and they were encouraged to contribute more and more to the good of their communities as they got older. As late as the 1870s children between the ages of 10 and 19 were providing at least one third of their families' income. Parents thought it was good for their kids to learn to work. They believed that children are naturally self-centered and needed to be shepherded towards self-discipline and self-control. They believed that the resilience that people need to flourish didn't come naturally; it had to be cultivated and work was a good way to cultivate it. Our child-centered, nurturing approach would have been quite foreign to these earlier generations.
According to Sasse, some of the ways we now view childhood are better and our children are better off as a result. However, there are a number of ways in which our children have changed for the worse.
1) Medication. A 2015 report says that ADHD medications have grown 8% per year since 2010. They topped $12.9 billion in 2015 and are expected to exceed $17.5 billion by 2020. This is not to say that some children don’t need medication, they do. But we are overmedicating our children (and ourselves!) often in order to avoid difficulties that should be faced head on and overcome.
2) Screens. Even more damaging has been the screens that our children use. American teenagers average about nine hours of entertainment media use each day. Tweens use an average of about six hours. On average kids over 13 are spending nearly 2/3 of their waking hours with her eyes tied down and their body stationary. According to Nielsen Research, the average adult has increased his or her time on smart phone applications by 63% in just the last two years. According to other studies that Sasse cites, the relatively average young American male has played more than 14,000 hours of video games by the time he turns 21. That's 583 days, or 1.6 years. This translates to half of all waking hours for 280 weeks (more than five years). Just one month after the release of “Call of Duty: Black Ops” in 2010, the game had been collectively played for 68,000 years. Among our low-skilled young men, a substantial share play upwards of 30 hours of video games per week.
3) Refusing to leave the nest. For the first time in more than 130 years, 18- to 34-year-olds in the United States are more likely to be living in their parents’ home than with a spouse or partner in their own household.
4) Marriage avoidance. The failure to leave home has a lot to do with the fact that our young people are avoiding marriage. They do not see it as important for them individually or for our society collectively.
5) Church avoidance. The young are also avoiding church. This in turn makes it difficult for them to see their communal responsibilities and leads them to a highly individualistic understanding of right and wrong.
6) Loss of patriotism. Our young have lost an understanding of our country and what makes it great, which has led to a resurgence of interest in socialism (which is something Sasse regrets). Although only 16% of millennials can define what socialism is, nearly half of them conclude that is preferable to capitalism. Among our young, nearly half have no preference for democracy over other forms of government.
7) Intellectual fragility. Trigger warnings marginalize honest discussion of big and important topics, insulating people not only from exposure to new ideas, but also from the intellectual and character development that comes from being forced to articulate, defend, and potentially revise one's opinions and positions
8) Helicopter parenting. Parenting has become more time-consuming and ever present and yet simultaneously less goal oriented. In our quest to ensure our children's educational and financial futures, we undermine both.
How and when did this change? The family and parenting underwent significant changes beginning in the 1950s. By the 1950s adolescence decreasingly became a period of moral development under parental authority and increasingly a period in which unchaperoned peers shaped the sensibilities of those coming-of-age. As teenagers began to spend the better part of their days with their peers, they learned to look to one another and not adults for advice, information, and approval.
At the same time, given the baby boom, teenagers made up a significant portion of the market and a “youth culture” was born as advertisers sought to sell to them directly. As a result, instead of adolescence being conceived of as an apprentice stage in route to adult life and responsibilities, increasingly teen culture became the model or ideal American life.
Simultaneously parenting "experts" encouraged American parents to spend quality time as a family, to reassure their children of their love for them, and to make children the center of adult attention. Simultaneously adolescents were encouraged to explore and develop their own unique identities. Parents were told they did not need to direct this exploration, but rather to simply assure children of their love.
Let me be clear, some of these developments are really good—it is good that families spend more quality time together and that parents reassure their children of their love for them. But taken together many of these other developments, from ubiquitous screens to the idea that children should be encouraged to create and live by their own values, have negatively impacted our children’s ability to develop mature character and embrace responsibility. What we can do about this will be a main focus moving forward in these messages.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part III) - (Chapter 1: How Did We Get Here?)
It is inhuman to live only in the present. And yet that is where many people live. Sasse wants our children to be intentional about everything—to reject mindless consumption and to embrace an ethos of action, of productivity, of meaningful work, and of genuine lifelong learning. But many things in our society work against this type of maturation and growth.
Traditionally there was a clear sequence of events that one went through to grow up. And there was a new set of obligations associated with each new phase of life. Certain rites of passage were hard, but not with the goal of making kids miserable. Rather they were intended to prepare kids for the inevitable tribulations that come with adulthood and to instill in them the work ethic and perseverance necessary to survive upon leaving home. Many of our kids no longer see the reason for embracing adult responsibilities. As a result they embrace a broad range of time killers that keep them perpetually immature.
How did we get to this point?
1) Material surplus. Following World War II we became the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. As a result the immediate need to work in order to survive has become less apparent.
2) Age segregation. Kids no longer see their parents work and spend most of their time in age segregated environments. Although kids live under their parents’ roofs for longer than past generations did, they are far more separated from the social and moral universe of their elders.
3) Family breakdown. Because of divorce and cohabitation, the nuclear family is in peril.
4) School is overemphasized. We have so come to identify our obligations to teenagers with the institution of secondary schooling that we've lost the collective memory of folks who came of age without schooling as the defining formative institution. One problem has been that institutionalized schooling has displaced work in multigenerational environments. What is more, as school has become more important, it has paradoxically become shallower. When we removed prayer and religious study from school we also removed the great existential questions about how the individual fits into the bigger cosmic picture; we removed questions about life's purpose.
5) Likewise, as high school has become overemphasized the importance of high school has diminished. As college became more popular, the value of a high school diploma waned. A diploma is no longer a predictable ticket to full-time, middle-class work; as a result, high schools are fraying. Many students were faced with the question: why try to do well in high school if the only point of high school is to get into a college and I don’t plan on going to college?
6) The counter-cultural movement. In the 1960s we had a lot of conflict about what America means. Instead of deliberately coming together and forging a new consensus, we have allowed polarization to hollow out much of our discourse. Instead of a new national consensus, we have permitted popular culture and the trivial to substitute as the basis of our shared experience.
When discussing the current state of our schools, Sasse believes that our predicament can be traced back to John Dewey.
For centuries there has been a controversy between realists and romantics.
Realists recognize that much of man's lot in this life is to bear the burden of suffering and to do his best in the moral quest to turn away from self-centeredness. A book that embodies this is Augustine's Confessions.
Romantics on the other hand reject the idea of original sin. Instead of trying to overcome the sin within us, romantics believe people are naturally good and that if government and education are rearranged the right way, they will allow man’s natural goodness to flow out of him. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile is a typical work in this school.
In the midst of this debate John Dewey asserted that there should be no debate—we should simply embrace pragmatism and do what “works”. Dewey is very difficult to argue against because he wanted to, in effect, stop all argument. His legacy is huge, but few of the steps that he advocated and American schools adopted were ever formally debated and accepted.
What is his legacy? We no longer see school as a tool, as a means to an end and not an end in itself. For Dewey the school would become everything, the literal center of the world. The school ceased to be an instrument supporting parents and became instead a substitute for parents.
On the other hand, Sasse believes that great teachers shouldn't try to be the exclusive center of life, but rather instrumental servants of a larger life. Great school administrators should know and honor the limits of their institutions and not try to displace families in the deeper and wider institutions of life that they are based in.
According to Sasse, it is important that we think through these questions and come up with good answers soon as we are currently living through what is surely the greatest economic disruption since the Industrial Revolution and what might end up being the largest economic disruption since nomadic hunter gatherers first settled down to plant crops. In this new economy work instability will become an even more regular feature of future experience. Only about 150 years ago did people first begin to develop the concept of picking a job. And at that time it tended to be a one-time decision as a teenager that defined one's life until death or retirement. We now live in an age in which the average duration of a job is about four years. We live in a world where technology has eroded the need for human hands on farms and factory lines. What is more, even the “knowledge economy” is in danger from automation. Sasse quotes estimates that predict that in the near future automation tools, systems, and machines will be able to equal the output of 110 million to 140 million full-time "knowledge" workers. To flourish in this new economy our children will need to be nimble and entrepreneurial workers. And they won’t become this if we rely exclusively on schools to form them.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part II) - Introduction
Have any of you ever heard of the term “adulting”? According to the Oxford dictionary, it is “The practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks. 'It feels really good to take a step back from adulting and have someone else cook dinner for me.’ ” There are number of memes and even books about this because, for a growing number of young Americans, acting like a grown-up is a kind of role-playing that can be thought of as a joke.
In the past there was clarity about what coming of age into adulthood meant. This is no longer the case. Ours is now a nation of both delayed grown-ups and adult children who create words to mock the idea that we can ever become responsible, civic-minded leaders.
According to Senator Ben Sasse, our entire nation is in the midst of a collective coming-of-age crisis without parallel in our history as America is becoming a place of perpetual adolescence. Our kids simply don't know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one. Many don't see a reason even to try. Perhaps more problematic, the older generations have forgotten that we need to make an effort ourselves to teach them.
This would be a big problem in any society, but it is even more significant for us given the fact that we live in a republic. Our nation is premised on the idea that the government exists not to define and secure the good, the true, and the beautiful, but rather to maintain a framework for ordered liberty so that free people can pursue their happiness in the diverse ways that they see fit.
This is all from the introduction to Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. Over the next three weeks I will write about the next three chapters in Sasse’s book. You won’t need to read along in his book to understand these messages, but you are obviously welcome to do so.
Chapters 1-3 discuss the problem of passivity that is becoming more and more apparent in our young people. After these three messages I will spend the next five weeks discussing five concrete steps that Sasse recommends we as parents take with our children to help them mature, things like breaking the monopoly of peer groups and connecting them with people of different ages, encouraging our kids to embrace hard work and consume less, as well as to read well and read more and travel.
In these messages I am not going to give you my opinions, but rather I’m going to do my best to summarize and pass on the main ideas of Ben Sasse’s book. That being said, please don’t assume that I endorse everything in these messages. There are places wherein I disagree with Senator Sasse, but I’m not going to clog up these messages with my commentary.
Finally, as many of you know, Ben Sasse is a Republican. He is generally ranked as one of the more conservative members of Congress and he has been one of the more outspoken opponents of President Trump. Nonetheless, while Senator Sasse has a number of very strong political opinions, this is not a book about politics; it is not even a book about policy. Senator Sasse believes that the key to fixing our politics is to fix the underlying factors that drive our politics, one of which is the way we raise our kids. It is to that end that he has written this book.
Hopefully you find these messages edifying and helpful.
The Vanishing American Adult (Part I) - Prologue
Over the next couple of months I am going to be doing a series on how we can help to lead our children into fuller maturity. In next week’s message I will frame this series and introduce the specifics, but before doing that I want to take a moment and explain why I focus on what I do and why I take the approach I do.
I have had a few great conversations over the past few weeks and I always appreciate your feedback!!! Some of you have noticed that I talk a lot about building character and forging virtue. Why is that?
First, when I came of age my understanding of the Gospel was one “cheap grace”. That is, I thought ‘God loves me no matter what, so I may as well do what I want.’ I had no burden or desire to become a man of character or virtue. As a result I had good intentions, but nothing more and I often made a mess of my life and the lives of others. Because of this fairly gaping hole in my youth I tend to focus more on what I lacked.
Second, over the past decade I have spent far more time with teenagers than with adults. And a lot of them are in rough shape. There are a substantial amount of young men that play more than forty hours of video games a week and a substantial amount of young women who spend that much time on social media. I’ve seen dozens of young men and women burning with a desire to change things, thirsting for justice, but incapable of committing themselves to any type of group or organization that could effect any real change. I know far too many young people that desire to get married, but they lack the wisdom, self-control, and selflessness to take even the first steps towards marriage. In response, I tend to focus on the things that I see undermining their growth in godliness—the things that make us into shallow, vapid, weak people that lack character.
However, in the midst of this it is important to remember that behavior modification is not the goal—Jesus Christ is. Christ did not die to make us better, but to save us from sin and death and remake us in His image so that we can enjoy Him forever. While we need to understand what we are moving from in order to grow and overcome, our focus is not on what we are rejecting, but Who we are pursuing.
We have a saying in our house, ‘we say “no” to some things so that we can say “yes” to others.’ For example, we say “no” to lots of junk food so that we can say “yes” to better health. I want my children (and God commands them) to say “no” to laziness and greed so that they can say “yes” to industriousness and generosity. Because we can’t have things on our terms—we can’t eat what we want and be fit; we can’t have complete and radical independence and autonomy and have friendship or community. I think it is absolutely necessary to say “no” to bad things in order to pursue good things and we must talk about and understand what we are rejecting. Yet our ultimate focus, the central desire of our heart, must be in the thing we are saying yes to. The merchant that sold everything he had to buy the Pearl of Great Price found in that Pearl ‘more than he could ask for or imagine.’ But he had to sell everything to get it! As I write and speak against things that hold our children back from virtue, please remember that my goal is to help them to overcome sin and infirmity not so they can become better people, but so that they will be freed from the things that hold them back from knowing, loving, and becoming more like Christ.
Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition (Part IV) - The Synthetic Approach
The goal of classical education is virtue. To gain this Charlotte Mason believed we should rely on “Living Books” to educate the whole child. However, it is not enough to read the right books, books must also be read the right way.
There are two different ways one can approach a book: analytically or synthetically. Analysis takes things apart. It breaks them down into smaller and smaller and more discrete pieces and examines them separately. Synthesis combines things into a whole. It considers each new piece of knowledge as one piece of a larger puzzle and seeks to find its place within that ever more complete “big picture”.
On paper it seems like both approaches can help us to understand a book. But the differences between approaches are like the differences between eating a vitamin and a meal—meals taste good and create an appetite for more. Given mere information without context, we choke on it. But given knowledge in context it is more easily understood and we assimilate it joyfully. We connect with it and it ultimately becomes a part of us.
According to Charlotte Mason, one of the best ways to develop connections between what we learn and ourselves is to write narrations. Narration is the retelling in one’s own words of what one has learned. As the student progresses in this, he will begin to add his own impressions and opinions to his narrations. This connects him directly to the things that he is reading. It also promotes active learning, which helps the student to retain and to be formed by the things learned.
In our exams and essays, especially as students get older, our hope is to foster a synthetic understanding. We don’t want our students to know disconnected facts, we want them to have a view of the connected whole and their place in that whole. As you can imagine this is a difficult task! But by going through repeated historical and literature cycles (ancient, medieval, modern) and by keeping Christ at the center of all we learn and do we ground our students in a bigger picture, in the greater whole.
Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition (Part III) - Living Books
“We owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; and the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books.” -Charlotte Mason
To carry out the classical project of inculcating virtue and educating the whole person Charlotte Mason believed that students ought to read “Living Books.” What is a living book? Simply put, a living book is one that conveys living ideas and one that can be narrated by the student.
Books should be of the highest literary quality and should engage both the mind and the heart of the reader. This is important because our students do not read books for the mere acquisition of information. Instead, they read to be connected with heroes, ideas, and examples of truth, goodness, and beauty. These great works fire the moral imagination and show students that virtue is not only right, but it is also beautiful and praiseworthy, something worth seeking, something worth sacrificing to obtain and protect.
Charlotte Mason worried that divorcing ideas from their context causes them to lose their vitality and makes education boring. Education must be vital if they are to shape and form the entire person. Students should not read books merely to check off a list or to be able to say they have read them. They ought to read to grow as persons, to know more that they may understand more, and ultimately to act according to their greater wisdom. For this reason Charlotte Mason rejected any book wherein living ideas have been reduced to mere information, as well as compilations of facts which contain no life in the first place.
As children read living books they will not only be exposed to virtuous examples, but also be exposed to noble language that will naturally help them to learn to communicate clearly, persuasively, and winsomely. As Erasmus of Rotterdam, a famous classical educator put it, “It is not by learning rules that we acquire the power of speaking a language, but by daily intercourse with those accustomed to express themselves with exactness and refinement, and by the copious reading of the best authors.” While our students do learn grammatical rules, they don’t merely learn rules. They are also exposed to great works wherein they see good writing in context.
Finally, living books are valuable in their breadth. Because the goal of education is the formation of a wise and just person, an education that simply focuses on the “Three Rs” is inadequate. Charlotte Mason believed that children should be exposed to a wide range of ideas and interests, for the wider the ranger, “the more intelligent is the apprehension of each.” Living books always contain a wide range of ideas and interests.
This is again a place where we follow Charlotte Mason. We select living books that are broad in their scope, well-written, and that encourage and motivate our students to grow in goodness and virtue.
Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition (Part II) - The Whole Child
“The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things—not merely industrious, but to love industry—not merely learned, but to love knowledge—not merely pure, but to love purity—not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice.” -John Ruskin
While we moderns are often prone to see education as only molding and training the intellect, classical educators like Charlotte Mason believed that the education of our intellect serves the greater purpose of informing our conduct. We learn to know in order that we may know how to act rightly, not merely to perform well on tests.
The Greeks believed that the goal of education was to pass on a Paideia, a culture. To use contemporary language, the Greeks would say that education creates a meta-narrative (or worldview) for children which helps them understand the world and live rightly within it.
This worldview, this Paideia, must touch on every aspect of their lives. How should we use our free time? (This was actually the focal point of education for Aristotle.) How should we spend our money? What does the wise care of our bodies look like? How does one act as a good friend? We don’t think of schools being built around answering these types of questions, but our ancestors did. They thought that schools must pass on a comprehensive view of the world that helps children find their places in it and gives them guidance as to how they ought to act in any and every situation that they find themselves. This is how they would have viewed educating the “whole child.”
Before Christ, teachers used to look to “ideal” men and women, people like Achilles and Socrates. These teachers all agreed that we should be shaping our children in the mode of ideal people, but they couldn’t agree as to what that ideal looked like. It wasn’t until Christ came that the ideal was realized and schools (as they Christianized) began to set Him up as their model.
The key virtue of Christ that all students must have, according to Charlotte Mason, is humility. It is a valuable thing to be able to approach every person or object or book with the view of learning something from them. What might be learned from an infant? Or from a tree? What does a worm have to teach us, or a homeless man in the street? This we will never find out, unless we place ourselves in that attitude of teachableness which makes learning possible.
At Charis we desire that our children grow in knowledge—we want them to score well on exams and gain admittance to selective colleges. But we also know that they are more than their intellect and that there is more to education than teaching them to understand, analyze, and reproduce information. More than knowledge we want them to grow in wisdom and virtue. The books we select, the essays they write, the discussions they have—in all of these we want to help them to grow in wisdom and apply wisdom in all areas of their lives. The end goal is a student educated in the whole of life, a student that knows how to apply wisdom and live virtuously no matter what situation or challenge he finds himself in.
Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition (Part I)
As you all know Charlotte Mason is a significant influence on our school. However, her ideas are not widely understood. Over the next four weeks I plan to write about a few of Charlotte Mason’s ideas and how we incorporate them.
The first thing to recognize about Charlotte Mason is that she is not separate from the classical tradition. Charlotte Mason was a classical educator and reformer. She believed that classical education had strayed from its roots and she wanted to restore it to its original scheme and goals.
How had classical education strayed in her lifetime?
Schools were no longer seeking to inculcate virtue in their students.
Classical educators have always believed that right understanding should lead to right action. As the student’s mind learns what is good and right the student’s will should be trained to do and even to love what is good and right. Classical educators believe that the goal of knowledge, the goal of education, is virtue.
Schools in Charlotte Mason’s time had lost sight of this goal. They retained classical rigor without retaining the purpose and goal of classical education. This made them miserable places that children hated.
A lot of us played sports when we were young. If you played sports you remember the long days of practice and conditioning—the sprinting, weight-lifting, the repetitive drills, etc. You didn’t do these things for their sake, you did them to prepare for games. Imagine signing up to play basketball or soccer and doing sprints, pushups, squats, and ball handling drills and never playing a game, never even having a scrimmage. As miserable as those drills are, they would be even more miserable without the goal of a game. This is basically what schools had become in Charlotte Mason’s day: wind sprints without games. The difficult and rigorous aspects of classical education were retained, but without anything that makes school enjoyable and the pain worthwhile.
A related problem, according to Charlotte Mason, was that these schools relied too much on reason. Reasons has two functions: to provide logical demonstrations of mathematical truths (in which case it may be trusted) and to provide logical reasons for ideas which we have already chosen to accept. Charlotte Mason worried that a reliance on reason in the second sense deceives us. Once we admit an idea our minds naturally look for, and find, reasons to support that idea. For that reason we cannot trust our reason to determine what is right and wrong. In Charlotte Mason’s words “For this reason it is well that we should make children perceive at a very early age that a man's reason is the servant of his own will, and is not necessarily an independent authority within him in the service of truth. This is one of the by-lessons of history which quite a young child is able to understand,—how a good man can, as we say, persuade himself that wrong opinions and wrong actions are reasonable and right. Not that he does persuade himself, but that his reason appears to act in an independent way, and brings forward arguments in favor of a conclusion which he has already unconsciously accepted.” According to Charlotte Mason, we must judge things by some other, higher standard.
Charlotte Mason’s reforms were extensive, but they had this in common: she believed classical education had gone off track and she wanted to restore it. She believed that schools need not be places of misery and that difficulty should serve a higher end, virtue. She also believed that pursuing virtue requires us to humbly distrust our reason as the final answer and instead consult a higher authority.
These are two conclusions that we as a school accept. We have rejected the “eat your gruel and learn to like it” approach that dominated the schools of Charlotte Mason’s time (and is still found in some schools today). We want school to be enjoyable—that is why we have classes like Joyful Discovery! To the extent that education is difficult we want it to be a necessary means to our students’ growth in virtue; we reject rigor for its own sake. While we teach formal logic and want our students to be able to think clearly, we too do not believe that man’s intellect is the judge of what is right and wrong. These beliefs, taken together, lead to us to want to education the “whole child”, which I will write about next week.
What Are the Liberal Arts and How Do We Teach Them? (7) - Music
Of all the Liberal Arts music seems to be the oddest inclusion. Educated people should be able to read, calculate, and communicate effectively . . . but do they really need to know how to play the lyre? Why did ancient and medieval educators put a premium on music?
First off, music is beautiful! Ancient and medieval men and women valued beauty far more than we do. Visit any museum and you will see mosaics and pottery that graced the homes of regular families; go into any gothic cathedral and you will be able to view masterworks of art made by common folk. By contrast, we moderns tend to be more utilitarian in the way we make things. Consider, for example, our interstate highway system. We designed it to help us travel quickly and efficiently, not to please the eye. While there is a place for utilitarian calculation, this way of thinking has arguably contaminated our thinking about education. Whereas our forbearers would have said: is it true, good, or beautiful? If so, pursue it! We ask: what can you do with that and what type of pay do you think you can make with that degree? We often do not see the value of music because we view it in strictly economic terms; our ancestors would have said that they studied it because it is beautiful and no further justification is needed.
Our ancestors also studied music because music is, for most of us, the most transcendent art form. Music, more than painting or sculpture, has the ability to impact our moods and emotions and take us out of ourselves and into something higher and greater. For that reason music has long been used to worship God.
Lastly, our ancestor believed that an education that trains the mind alone is no education at all. For them moral education constituted a huge part of a student’s training. But what does moral training have to do with music? Classical educators would have said, in a word, everything. A key component of music is harmony. Harmony, balance, and proportion help in mathematical training, but more than that, classical educators believed that harmony can help to train the soul. As Damon of Athens, wrote, “let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws.” Music, because it is beautiful, helps a person to learn how to recognize beauty, which will hopefully lead them to come to love it. Men like Aristotle thought that a child trained to love aesthetic beauty would more easily come to love moral beauty and that men and women who loved moral beauty would naturally build families, communities, and nations of beauty—places of justice, courage, and kindness.
We teach music for similar reasons. Yes, we want our students to learn how to read music and sing on key, but more than that we want to expose them to beautiful music! We are committed to partnering with you to inculcate Godly character in your sons and daughters. Music is a way, albeit a small way, of training them to recognize what is beautiful and to love it. We are under no illusions that every child who hears Bach will see how it reflects God’s beauty and come to love Him, but neither can we deny that there will be a fundamental difference in character between the child that is trained to know and love Bach and the child that is trained to know and love Black Sabbath.
This concludes my messages on the Seven Liberal Arts; next week I will begin a short series on Charlotte Mason.