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.