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.