All posts by Karen Glass

The White Post #2—Sow an Act, Reap a Habit

This post is a slight interlude from the main point, because I want to use one clear example from Charlotte Mason about the way that something can be both old and new at the same time. Miss Mason illustrates this idea for us well in her discussion about habit.

Habit-formation figures largely in a Mason education. One of Miss Mason’s key principles is that “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life,” and the one-third that is “discipline” is centered upon habits.

At one level, Charlotte Mason was quite excited about (then) current research based upon the work of William Benjamin Carpenter (author of Principles of Mental Physiology). Carpenter described the way repeated actions created actual physical changes in the brain—“ruts,” as they were called. This idea—that the brain could be reshaped by the creation of habits—seemed to offer a firm foothold to educational methods. If you could deliberately set out to create certain kinds of “ruts” and oversee them to fruition, your educational efforts would create an indelible impression in the very brains of your pupils, and their habits would establish their behavior in the short term, and in the long term, their very character. Such were the ideas of Carpenter, and Charlotte Mason was an enthusiastic propagator of those ideas. She wrote: “I beg to acknowledge my indebtedness to Dr. Carpenter’s Mental Physiology for valuable teaching on the subject of habits contained in some two or three chapters of that work.” (Home Education, p. 11)

Later in her life, Charlotte Mason became somewhat disillusioned and disappointed in the science that excited her when she was younger. (You can see the difference in her perspective across the span of her writing.) Looking back, she actually declared in a letter to Henrietta Franklin that “Science has done nothing to confirm the ‘rut’ theory in all these years, and Brother Body seems to me much the inferior partner. I think all that I have written is still true but I would emphasize habit and so on less.” (emphasis added). However, although our understanding of the mechanism of habit today is different from the science that was understood in Charlotte Mason’s day, it does not undermine the essential rightness of her ideas nor her emphasis on habit.

And that is because, long before science began examining the physiological mechanism of habit formation in the brain, the role of habit in education had been observed, remarked upon, and incorporated into serious schemes of educational philosophy. One of the earliest observers on record was Aristotle, and many discussions of habit in education begin with Nicomachean Ethics. Charlotte Mason quotes a saying that is sometimes attributed to him: “Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” (Parents and Children, p. 29) When I wrote about Comenius and Charlotte Mason, I discussed their similar views of the role of habit: Habit formation in youth lays a foundation for virtuous living.

While Miss Mason was enthusiastic about the science of habit, she was under no illusion that habit as a part of education was something new. She mentions Thomas à Kempis a number of times to illustrate the long tradition of habit in education—which she considered the recognition of a natural law of education.

To put it in an old form of words—the words of Thomas à Kempis—what seems to me the fundamental law of education is no more than this: ‘Habit is driven out by habit.’ People have always known that ‘Use is second nature,’ but the reason why, and the scope of the saying, these are discoveries of recent days. (Parents and Children, p. 85, emphasis added)

And also:

If science limits our range of work as regards the development of so-called faculties, it extends it in equal measure with regard to habit. Here we have no new doctrine to proclaim. ‘One custom overcometh another,’ said Thomas a’ Kempis, and that is all we have to say; only, physiologists have made clear to us the rationale of this law of habit (Parents and Children, p. 228, emphasis added)

It is evident that Miss Mason was aware of the long tradition of emphasizing habit in education, but the science excited her. She believed it should lend additional confidence and care to the deliberate creation of habits in young children. Her enthusiasm is strong in Home Education, Parents and Children, and Formation of Character. Although she tempered that enthusiasm later in her life, the essential role of habit is not changed. The science is simply somewhat different from what was thought at the time.

When Charlotte Mason added “the science of the day” to “the philosophy of the ages” and declared they were together enough to form a code of education, it was to this physiological aspect of habit training that she referred. Habit-formation had been a part of educational philosophy from antiquity. It was old, but there was something new to think about it. A thing can be both old and new at the same time, as is illustrated here. It is certainly possible for Charlotte Mason’s comprehensive philosophy of education to belong to the long “classical” tradition of education and yet have something new to offer at the same time, as we shall see.

The White Post #1—Introduction

Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education is a very full and comprehensive one. She did two separate things very well. First, she articulated a foundation of solid principles upon which to base education. Second, she developed extremely effective practical methods based upon those principles. There are many similarities between her ideas and the ideas of other educators, both ancient and modern. The reason for that is simply that her principles are universal principles—they represent truths about human nature and education that others have observed as well as herself.

But Charlotte Mason was not simply recycling old ideas without anything new to add to them. She brought original thought and insight to the question of education, although not without some initial trepidation. She did have some concerns about whether or not her contributions were entirely adequate. However, as her ideas were taken up by home and school teachers and implemented with many children, she had the pleasure of seeing how very well her ideas worked out in practice. After many decades, she had more confidence that the ideas she had shared were in fact of real importance, and she had no hesitation then in urging her work to be taken up by others.

Because she was a prolific writer, we have a valuable archive of her ideas in the six volumes of the Home Education series. Within the nearly 2000 pages of those volumes, you can find some commentary that appears contradictory on the surface of it.

We have chanced to light on unknown tracts in the region of educational thought. (Philosophy of Education, p. 8)

We cannot afford to discard the wisdom of the past and begin anew with the effort to collect and systematise, hoping to accomplish as much and more in our short span than the centuries have brought us. (Parents and Children, p. 205)

An EDUCATIONAL REVOLUTION is before us to which every one of us is bound to put his hand. (School Education, p. 247)

In the same volume, Charlotte Mason writes about “certain fundamental ideas, long the property of the world, which we have embraced in our scheme of thought.” (School Education, p. 100, emphasis added)

What does this mean? How can Charlotte Mason’s ideas about education be “unknown tracts” if they are also “the wisdom of the past”, and how can they be a “revolution” if they are “long the property of the world?” Looking at these statements alone, we can only conclude that either Charlotte Mason was confused about whether her methods were old or new or else she was talking about different things when she made these seemingly opposite claims for her ideas. I suspect the latter is true, and while we may be confused by the apparent contradiction, Miss Mason knew exactly what she was saying.

Toward the end of her life, when Charlotte Mason was full of confidence about her methods and was urging the British public to consider adopting not only the methods but even the curriculum used in the schools run by the Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU), she presented her philosophy with the clear statement that “Some of it is new, much of it is old.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 27) In light of that assessment, it is easy to suppose that she had a clear understanding of which parts were new and which were old, and how much there was of each. However, she did not see a reason to share that specific information with the world. As she articulates her philosophy, she is not often explicit about which parts are new, and which parts are old, but there are hints. Sometimes she identifies old and new quite clearly:

We really have existing material in the philosophy of the ages and the science of the day to formulate an educational code whereby we may order the lives of our children and regulate our own. (Parents and Children, p. 119, emphasis added)

This statement makes it clear that her works contains a mixture of old and new. One might legitimately ask whether these questions matter at all, and while I was once content to accept her statements of “old” and “new” at face value, it is better to understand the relationship between them. So, for the past two years, as I’ve read through the volumes in the Home Education Series (for the umpteenth time), I’ve kept an eye on these ideas. If Charlotte Mason said that something was new, what was she talking about? If she referred to something as old (“long the property of the world”), what was she referring to?

Gradually, I began to see a pattern and came to understand what Miss Mason thought was new, and what she thought was part of the long tradition of educational thinking—that “philosophy of the ages” that is enough upon which to build an educational theory, especially when bolstered by “the science of the day.”

That’s what this five-part series is going to be about. We’ll take a look at the old, and at the new. If you’ve ever thought Charlotte Mason was “all new” or “all old,” I hope this discussion will provide a clearer understanding of the tradition that gives a framework to her ideas about education, as well as why she believed she was doing something revolutionary.

New Audio Seminar!

I’m very excited to share a new project that I’ve been working on. One of the things that makes Charlotte Mason’s methods so effective is the fact that they are based on principles—absolute truths about a person and the way that a person’s mind works. This audio seminar is a discussion about the way that principles operate in our lives, and an introduction into the key principles that stand at the helm, guiding our educational decisions.

Donna-Jean Breckenridge is my host and joined me to talk over the way that we’ve seen these principles work in our own home schools for the past two decades.  We hope that this three-part 90 minute seminar, which includes a handout with references to the passages discussed in Charlotte Mason’s Home Education series, will help those new to the methods to appreciate the way that the principles drive the practices in a Charlotte Mason education, and why that matters. As long-time practitioners of Miss Mason’s method, we found ourselves encouraged by this discussion of the fundamental principles, and I hope it will encourage other veterans as well.

The cost of the seminar is $10, and I hope it will be a great investment in your understanding of Charlotte Mason’s principles and why they matter.

We would love your feedback on this project, so please leave a comment here to let us know what you think!

Purchase Principles at the Helm Seminar

A Few More Considerations (repost)

This post originally appeared on the Charlotte Mason Institute blog, in response to a lengthy critique of Consider This. As it is no longer available there, but the critique itself can be read elsewhere, I decided to publish my response here. If you haven’t read the critique (which is much longer than my response), you don’t need to read this (which is still pretty long). This post is just a bit of housekeeping. Mr. Middlekauff responded to this critique, but not as he originally suggested, by correcting his errors. Rather, he argued that my concerns with his critique dwelt upon matters he deemed less important than others.  My response deals largely with pointing out only a few of the ways in which I was unjustly misrepresented, making the rest of the critique essentially a straw-man argument, as it addressed itself to things I did not say. However, my conclusion here remains steadfast—it does not make a great deal of difference in the implementation of Charlotte Mason’s methods if you understand the classical nature her philosophy or if you do not. The final determination rests in the definition you choose to use for classical education. Meanwhile, we have learning to do, books to read, children to educate, and a wide, wide world to inspire our wonder. I would prefer that we do that as friends.

Continue reading A Few More Considerations (repost)

Hoping to join or start a Charlotte Mason community?

A new school year is beginning, and lots of new families have taken up Charlotte Mason’s methods for their families. Maybe you are new, and maybe you’re a veteran with two, or five, or fifteen years of Charlotte Mason teaching behind you. Either way, you may very well want to connect with others who share your enthusiasm for Charlotte Mason’s teaching methods. This is a great time to begin looking, and to exercise grace.

I want to share part of a letter written by Elsie Kitching, Charlotte Mason’s long-time faithful secretary and helper. During her lifetime, Miss Mason carried on a great deal of correspondence, and Miss Kitching kept up the practice in her stead. This was written not long after Miss Mason’s death, and published in the Parent’s Review for everyone to read, not just the recipient, because what Miss Kitching had to say has a wide application which reaches us today in the 21st century.

I am quite sure that the visitors you have had at various times have been full of admiration of the work of your children. Mr. Y also wrote to me saying how much impressed he was by it, and I should not like to apply your word “unpermissible” to what you have considered it well to do in your school. Miss Mason would not have used the word herself, but in her work with those with whom she came most into contact here she always took any debated point back to the principle at issue, and made us decide whether or not a certain practice could bear the final test of the principle. No doubt able and thoughtful teachers will always interpret Miss Mason’s writings in their own way; but this should not prevent close cooperation between those who are immediately concerned in carrying out a trust which has been left to them, and those who are endeavouring to carry out Miss Mason’s Method in wider fields of action from their reading of her books.

This was written, as you can see, in response to a letter/question. Someone was asking, in effect, “is this practice unpermissible?” Miss Kitching’s reply is significant to me, in several ways.

First, “Miss Mason would not have used that word.” Ponder that long. Next, she points out that the principles are the guide—consider your practices in light of the principles. Is the principle supported or compromised by any given practice? You must decide this for yourself. It’s perfectly possible that one person could follow a practice without violating a principle, while the same practice would be a stumbling block to another. I have seen this, specifically with memorization. Some people manage to make it fun and part of a life-giving education, while for others it becomes a deadening, dreadful chore.

Then, I’m going to repeat this: “No doubt able and thoughtful teachers will always interpret Miss Mason’s writings in their own way; but this should not prevent close cooperation between those who are immediately concerned in carrying out a trust which has been left to them, and those who are endeavouring to carry out Miss Mason’s Method in wider fields of action from their reading of her books.”

This is my take-away from this, and this is what has stuck with me since I read it, and what I think is very relevant as there are more and more Charlotte Mason educators who are seeking to join forces for co-ops, and book studies, and other community-based activities that will enhance their children’s education. “Able and thoughtful teachers will always interpret Miss Mason’s writings in their own way.” Full stop there. Take a moment to think about that sentence.  Because that is us—all of us, without exception, reading and learning from Charlotte Mason in the 21st century. I don’t care who you are or how faithful you think you are, or how correct you imagine your personal interpretation is, this is where you are, and where I am: we are interpreting Miss Mason’s writings in our own way. That matters, in light of the next sentence, in which Miss Kitching refers to “those who are immediately concerned in carrying out a trust which has been left to them.” That was herself, her colleagues, the PNEU. No matter how much we might want to be them, the ones with the special trust, we are not. And again, full stop. And I just want to point out that within 50 years of her death, Charlotte Mason’s influence was greatly diminished in her own organization. I have a PNEU teacher’s manual from the 1970’s, in which parents and teachers are urged to praise their students—I cringe every time I read it, knowing how much CM objected to praise as an educational motivation.

So—the PNEU and its special trust are gone. As much as one might like to, we cannot recover close personal association with Charlotte Mason. We—the ones reading and interpreting her writings—are all that is left.

However, even at that moment in time—when Elsie Kitching was still alive and the PNEU still holding true to Miss Mason’s principles—Miss Kitching said that such variations should not prevent close cooperation between those with the special trust and those “who are endeavouring to carry out Miss Mason’s Method in wider fields of action from their reading of her books.”

In view of that, I can think of nothing further from the practice and principles of Charlotte Mason and the PNEU than jostling for position and staking out of territory, and claims of greater purity, authenticity, and superiority.  If the PNEU itself was prepared to cooperate closely with those “endeavouring to carry out Miss Mason’s Method in wider field of action from their reading of her books,” even if their practices were a little different, why should those of us who fall into that category—and again, that’s all of us—do any less?


I encourage you to reach out to other Charlotte Mason educators and find community. Be kind to each other. If Charlotte Mason would not have have said that a practice was “unpermissible,” then why should we? Let’s read Charlotte Mason’s works together, and think, and learn, and grow, and build each other up. I have said before, and I stand by those words—that’s the best tribute we could pay to her for all that she has given us.

Copyright Karen Glass 2018

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Paideia in the principles

In the final chapter of The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain spend some time examining the calling and culture of schools. I suspect most of my readers are homeschoolers, not schoolteachers, so I’m just going to mention that without discussing it. If you do work in a school, you’ll definitely want to consider some of their ideas in this chapter.

I’m going to springboard off of the word paideia. This Greek word is sometimes translated as education, but is more properly understood as enculturation. It’s not just about educating a child in the academic way, but developing his thoughts and behavior to make him the best person he can be. In Charlotte Mason’s terms, we might say that education is the formation of character. The word is even used in the Bible, when Paul writes in Ephesians that parents should “bring up their children in the paideia of the Lord.”

This central aspect of the classical tradition draws our focus to two of the identifying characteristics of that tradition: the development of virtue and the pursuit of wisdom.

According to Clark and Jain,

The basic idea contained in the term virtue was excellence with respect to practice.

In other words, virtue is expressed by action, doing something, and learning to do it well.

I’ve been meaning for a while to share the way these two classical principles (virtue and wisdom) are embedded in Charlotte Mason’s principles, and this seems like a good place to do it. The word virtue is linked to the idea of manliness, in the sense of power and essence. Charlotte Mason considers one of the most important things for a person to learn is how to govern one’s own will.

In principles 16-19, she links will to reason, and underscores how important it is to understand these aspects of ourselves and use them wisely. The will must choose the ideas that the reason will entertain, and so she writes:

Children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them.

The will is not in itself good or bad—it can be used to choose a good course or an evil one. But making a choice at all—using the will—is the distinctive activity of a man (person).

To will  [is] the quality of a man. A king is not a king unless he reign; and a man is less than a man unless he will. (Ourselves, p. 140)

Having made this clear, Charlotte Mason also gives us a hint that this is, in fact, part of pursuing virtue. To use the will wisely and well is to act, and this is the how virtue is expressed.

The will is virtue, in the etymological sense of that word; it is manliness. (Ourselves, p. 139)

Besides the development of virtue, another distinctive of Greek paideia is the pursuit of wisdom. And again, this idea of wisdom is embedded in Charlotte Mason’s principles; in this case, it is implied by “Education is the science of relations. Actually, Miss Mason is quite explicit about it. I shared this quote earlier in this blog series, but I’ll repeat it here.

Now what is wisdom, philosophy? Is it not the recognition of relations? First, we have to understand relations of time and space and matter, the natural philosophy which made up so much of the wisdom of Solomon; then, by slow degrees, and more and more, we learn that moral philosophy which determines our relations of love and justice and duty to each other: later, perhaps, we investigate the profound and puzzling subject of the inter-relations of our own most composite being, mental philosophy. And in all these and beyond all these we apprehend, slowly and feebly, the highest relation of all, the relation to God, which we call religion. In this science of the relations of things consists what we call wisdom. (Parents and Children, p. 258-59, emphasis mine)

One thing I found fascinating is that Charlotte Mason, as well as Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, refer to the childhood development of Jesus to underscore their assurance that these are the proper pursuits for education.

We are told that Jesus Christ “grew in wisdom and stature in the sight of God and man.” Clark and Jain suggest that this “stature” is a way of expressing virtue, that perfection of choosing (willing) to do right.

So, there you go—wisdom and virtue embedded in Charlotte Mason’s principles. I think she has a pretty good grasp of paideia, too.

A child should be brought up to have relations of force with earth and water, should run and ride, swim and skate, lift and carry; should know texture, and work in material; should know by name, and where and how they live at any rate, the things of the earth about him, its birds and beasts and creeping things, its herbs and trees; should be in touch with the literature, art and thought of the past and the present I do not mean that he should know all these things; but he should feel, when he reads of it in the newspapers, the thrill which stirred the Cretan peasants when the frescoes in the palace of King Minos were disclosed to the labour of their spades. He should feel the thrill, not from mere contiguity, but because he has with the past the relationship of living pulsing thought; and, if blood be thicker than water, thought is more quickening than blood. He must have a living relationship with the present, its historic movement, its science, literature, art, social needs and aspirations. In fact, he must have a wide outlook, intimate relations all round; and force, virtue, must pass out of him, whether of hand, will, or sympathy, wherever he touches. This is no impossible programme. Indeed it can be pretty well filled in by the time an intelligent boy or girl has reached the age of thirteen or fourteen; for it depends, not upon how much is learned, but upon how things are learned. (School Education, p. 161-62, emphasis mine)

I know that’s a long quote, but it’s the best I know for giving you a bird’s eye view  of how the wide, generous curriculum urged by Mason (and Clark and Jain) should produce a virtuous person.

Clark and Jain remind us as they conclude their book that we are called to raise our children in the paideia of the Lord. Our education—whether in school or at home—should be Christian first. It is only as the classical tradition serves that Christian focus that it deserves our attention.

This is the final post in this blog series. I’ve enjoyed this book very much and will doubtless refer to it again and again. I hope it will be read by many others—everyone who wants to understand classical education a little better.

I’ll be taking a break from the blog for a bit, but I’ll be back soon with some interesting new things—and I hope, a few surprises—to share with you.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Link to all the posts in the Liberal Arts Tradition discussion.

Theology—elevating education.

The final letter in that long acronym is “T” for theology. (Just as a reminder, PGMAPT stands for piety, gymnastic, music, arts, philosophy, theology.) This is the culmination of the vision that The Liberal Arts Tradition gives us for a classical education that is more than just the trivium. It partakes of a much broader part of the tradition, and by sandwiching all the rest between piety and theology, helps keep the whole process on track.

Theology is the discipline that the medieval pedagogues called “the queen of the sciences.”

It catches my attention that they refer to it as a “science” and not an “art”—that’s a significant difference. An art is something you do, but a science is knowledge that you comprehend. In light of that, their definition of theology is intriguing.

In the Christian classical tradition, theology is the science of divine revelation.

This is what sets theology apart from philosophy, even “divine” philosophy, because philosophy operates in the realm of what human reason can understand and apprehend. But theology is above and beyond human reason—it is knowledge that could never be known apart from God’s choice to reveal it in Scripture, and ultimately the word is manifest in the person of Jesus Christ.

This knowledge transcends everything. There is nothing in the ancient pagan world that corresponds to the revelation of God in Christ, so that revelation—theology—transforms the classical tradition. It creates a new aspect of the total tradition, but it also transforms—we might say redeems—the rest of the classical curriculum. Thus, “making a distinctly Christian classical paradigm.”

Theology informs the curriculum at its foundations. We saw earlier how piety, gymnastic, and music are foundational to the educational paradigm we inherited from the Greeks. Now we are in the position to appreciate how the integration of Christian theology as the culmination of the curriculum radically reorients these fundamental aspects of education.

This is quite interesting, because there was an educational tradition or paradigm—and a pretty good one, so far as it went—before it was shaped by Christianity. But in the same sort of way that Christian theology through Christ fulfilled the Old Testament Hebrew law and created a new covenant of grace, Christian theology also fulfilled all the highest hopes of the classical tradition and created conditions in which all the loftiest goals of creating virtuous men could actually be achieved. Charlotte Mason expresses this very thought. Prior to the addition of theology to the tradition, philosophy was the end. Thus,

The functions which Plutarch claims for philosophy we ascribe to religion, and by so doing we place life on a higher level. There is this fundamental difference between the two: while philosophy instructs, religion both instructs and enables. (Formation of Character, p. 385)

So, what happens here is that we don’t just tack on theology to the end of the old tradition; we have the old tradition transformed. Theology becomes not merely the “end,” but the “telos” of education. It gives purpose to every aspect. And that is really what Charlotte Mason’s twentieth principle makes clear:

We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children; but should 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

That’s the role of theology in the Christian classical paradigm—it infuses meaning and purpose into everything. Clark and Jain write:

Theology unifies the curriculum; it provides a framework for the liberal arts and sciences, and the philosophies that unify them. In fact, the very notion of unity itself is derived from theology: all things were created by God and by Him all things continue to exist.


You might notice that the inclusion of theology in the classical paradigm isn’t really about adding the study of systematic theology, or one particular interpretation. It’s a very foundational part of the whole, integrated program. Education is the science of relations. All knowledge is connected. The Holy Spirit is the source of of everything we know. Understanding this aspect of the classical tradition is really part of a paradigm shift for educators, and it’s one of the things that Charlotte Mason wanted to transform the educational practices in her own time.

Every aspect of the classical paradigm of education works together. Each part has a place in a greater whole. If possible, we should try to keep our eyes on the big picture above all. Don’t lose the forest while looking at the trees!

If you’ve been supplementing this series by reading Afterthoughts, as I’ve encouraged you to do, you really won’t want to miss Brandy’s contribution to the discussion of theology.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Link to all the posts in the Liberal Arts Tradition discussion.

Divine Philosophy—questions are as important as answers.

The final—and also the highest—type of philosophy discussed in The Liberal Arts Tradition is divine philosophy. “Divine philosophy” would be easy to confound with theology, or the special revelation that we have in the Bible, but that’s not quite what is meant. Theology is the final element of the PGMAPT acronym, and has a role in the classical paradigm, but “divine philosophy” is more concerned with the truth that is knowable but not part of the physical world. Hence, Clark and Jain use the word “metaphysics” as an equivalent term.

Metaphysics is the study of being: what can be said of all of reality? For the medievals, metaphysics asked what could be held as true of the world, humanity, and even God. Are there any kinds of attributes that apply to all of these loci of reality?

Those are good questions, and sometimes just asking good questions contributes to education by placing us in the right frame of mind for learning, whether we ever discover conclusive answers or not.

The medievals who asked these questions more or less came to a consensus that there were five essential elements that are present in reality: being, goodness, truth, beauty, and unity.

Obviously, there is no way I can elaborate on all that in a blog post. This is Metaphysics .0101.  Clark and Jain only offer the tip of the iceberg on the few pages they devote to this topic. But it’s enough to start your mind moving in some interesting ways.

For example, I think right away of the way God expressed his identity to Moses: “I am that I am”—the final being, inherent being, the essence of all being. And I think of the way that the God who is created the world and day by day declared “it is good.” Not every philosopher who perceived truth, beauty, and goodness had the revelation of God,  but since we do, metaphysics (or divine philosophy) is even more profound and transcendent.

This is ground that Charlotte Mason meant for her pupils to tread.

Philosophy offers fascinating and delightful travelling, and the wayfarer here learns many lessons of life; but he does not find the same firm foothold as he whose way leads him through the Principality of Mathematics. Still, certainty is not the best thing in the world. To search, to endeavour, and to feel our way to a foothold from point to point is also exhilarating; and every step that is gained is a resting-place and a house of ease for Mansoul. (Ourselves, p. 39)

You see what she’s saying there? Ask the questions. Ask and ask and keeping asking. The search and the endeavour is in itself a rewarding—even exhilarating—process.

When you combine metaphysics with natural and moral philosophy (because they are not really separate pursuits, but aspects of one whole), you get questions like this:

What is man? Is the concept “man” only an amalgamation of the multitude of particular examples of men that exist? Or is there some essence to man that is a universal truth?

I think you won’t be surprised to find Charlotte Mason weighing in on this idea, and in the book addressed to young people:

Many persons think themselves quite different from everybody else, which is a mistake. Self-knowledge teaches that what is true of everybody else is true of us also; and when we come to know how wonderful are the powers and how immense are the possibilities of Mansoul, we are filled, not with pride, but with Self-reverence, which includes reverence and pity for the meanest and most debased, because each of these is also a great Mansoul, though it may be a Mansoul neglected, ruined, or decayed. (Ourselves, p. 34)

The inherent, absolute essence of truth, beauty, and goodness, and being is the proper sphere for all of us, as persons, to pursue. We pursue it concretely via history, art, literature, and nature, and when we are a little older, we can pursue it more directly and abstractly with metaphysical questions. That is the central paradigm of the classical tradition, and that’s part of why my confidence that Charlotte Mason is a part of that tradition grows stronger the more I read.

Clark and Jain remind us that our modern thinking has strayed from this tradition, and some thinkers attribute our modern problems to  that departure. They tell us that from that perspective, metaphysics is “the guardian of the secret questions of culture.”

They shouldn’t be secret, but we are so accustomed to skim the surface of things, we forget that these questions matter. If something like the definition of the word “is” is called into question (and the authors remind us that it famously was), then what is under attack is the metaphysical understanding of being, through the medium of language. That’s why I suggested that the essence of grammar—the noun-ness of nouns—is more vital than the rules that govern their usage. Without the principles of language/grammar we have no way to communicate at all. Nothing would have meaning.

Clark and Jain quote J.I. Packer, and I want to share just a little part of that quote:

“Participating in the truth meant to be mastered by it rather than mastering it.”

I find this very interesting. Our mental posture as we approach knowledge makes all the difference. Will it shape us, or do we mean to wrestle it into a form that suits us?

All three aspects of philosophy—natural, moral, and divine—urge us to participate in the search for truth. Charlotte Mason called it an exhilarating endeavor. It’s a human endeavor. Restoring even a rudimentary understanding of these things into our educational efforts will enlarge our students’ minds and hearts and souls. I can’t do more in this blog post, really, than point out the mere existence of vast realms of ideas to be pursued. It’s a journey for a lifetime, not something you’ll wrap up in a 45 minute class lecture or even a 3-credit college course. Just understanding that is a good beginning.

If you take nothing else away from this, I hope you’ll remember that even when we isolate one aspect of the classical tradition for discussion, nothing is truly separate or isolated. Clark and Jain concur:

All of the curricular categories which we have advocated in this work should be respected and appreciated by a holistic philosophy.

In other words—synthetic thinking. Education is the science of relations. All knowledge is connected.

And the connections matter.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Link to all the posts in the Liberal Arts Tradition discussion.

Moral Philosophy—what do you see in the mirror?

In The Liberal Arts Tradition, authors Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain begin the discussion of moral philosophy—the knowledge of man—with a quote from C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. It really helps to anchor the focus of the discussion, so I’m going to share part of it, too.

For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique… (C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man)

Do you see the difference? Either man humbly seeks to know and conform himself to reality (which we might understand as that which is fundamentally and absolutely true), or he tries to impose his will on reality and alter it to suit, which is essentially a denial of absolute truth—the opposite of saying “there is truth, and I want to know it.” The first truth we have to establish concerns the nature and purpose of man himself. Clark and Jain contrast moral philosophy with modern social science (things like sociology and psychology) to draw attention to the difference.

Today in social science, man has no fixed nature or end to which he is obliged, and moreover in natural science there is no fixed reality to which he must be fitted. Instead, by his “subduing of reality” each decides upon reality’s nature for himself. Truth is no longer that to which man submits and assents, truth is whatever man declares it to be.

If you want a powerful demonstration of what that looks like in modern thinking, you might want to have a look at this video. The young people shown here are afraid even to affirm the objective truth of feet, inches, and time.

Yes, it’s a little frightening. But it underscores Clark and Jain’s contention that

the central question of moral philosophy is anthropological. What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of man?

The whole time I was reading this section of the book, I had Charlotte Mason’s first and primary principle in the back of my mind: Children are born persons. This is a perfectly true statement on the face of it, and I know what she meant by it, but suppose you expressed that truth to your local rabid atheist-evolutionist? What would it mean to them? I imagine the response would be, “so what?” If you imagine that humans are merely intelligent evolved physical beings, conglomerations of cells animated by electro-chemical impulses, well…so are dogs, cats and horses. What makes “person” better than any other creature?—no, that’s the wrong word (creature implies Creator)—let’s say “being.” How is human existence of any greater significance than that of ducks? If you find such thoughts demoralizing and depressing, well, so do most people, and if they can’t climb out of that pit, their limited options will produce behaviors that look like desperation, because that’s what they reflect. Deep, profound despair is produced by the assumption that one’s life has no meaning or purpose. The classical tradition—even a secular version of it, but much more the Christian classical tradition—at least offers a ladder out of that despair.

My copy of The Liberal Arts Tradition is heavily marked and underlined throughout this section—even the extensive footnotes! I can’t begin to do justice to it in a blog post, and I encourage you to read the book, and take plenty of time with the section on moral philosophy.

Clark and Jain remind us that in the classical tradition, moral philosophy comes late in the program. They also remind us that moral philosophy is practical—not that you can make a career of it, but that it is ultimately about practices—conduct and behavior. You act according to the principles you hold. You can’t tackle these ideas head-on with ten-year-olds, and barely with sixteen-year-olds. The questions that are part of moral philosophy can only be wisely discussed when our students have a foundation of piety and poetic knowledge. Our basic assumptions about man, and what he is, are built up organically through those aspects of education.

We can see clearly how this core of moral philosophy depends on a common life passed down through generations. It is for this reason that the years of foundation in piety, gymnastic, and music would be so critical to properly forming the communal assumptions of students. The culture is as much of a teacher as the curriculum.

Or, to express the idea in Charlotte Mason’s terms: Education is an atmosphere.

The more I read of philosophy and classical thinking, the more I see how Charlotte Mason’s twenty principles are a re-affirmation of absolute truths.  After Clark and Jain establish how critical one’s view of man is, they expound on the Christian classical view of man and his purposes which sets this kind of education apart.

First, Christian moral philosophy holds that man is rational, though not perfectly, and this reason sets him apart from the rest of creation. Second, from Aristotle and Augustine we also see that man was a political or relational being….Man also possesses a will, or a volition, which as those made in God’s image, reflects God’s creative ability.

In that short paragraph meant to help us understand the Christian view of man, we have points that are corollary to three of Charlotte Mason’s principles—“education is the science of relations,” “the way of the will,” and “the way of reason. Reason and Will—of all the aspects of man’s nature that Charlotte Mason might have included in her principles, it’s not an accident that she picked the ones that help to define principle number one: Children are born persons. For many centuries, reason and will have been central to a view of man that includes the recognition that man is created in God’s image.

I’m fascinated by the authors’ suggestions for how to incorporate the right foundation for moral philosophy into the curriculum:

The moral sciences as well as the natural sciences should be re-situated in a more narrative formulation in which dependence on truths from poetic, empirical, and rational thought may be intertwined together into a coherent whole.

It’s another whole discussion about how important narrative is in the way we process material, but I hope you’ll take note of that and come back to it later. For now, I want to show you how much Charlotte Mason was on the same page with the ideas Clark and Jain are sharing.

The necessity incumbent upon us at the moment is to inculcate a knowledge of Letters. Men and their motives, the historical sequence of events, principles for the conduct of life, in fact, practical philosophy, is what the emergencies of the times require us to possess, and to be able to communicate. These things are not to be arrived at by any short cut of economics, eugenics and the like [social sciences!], but are the gathered harvests of many seasons’ sowing of poetry, literature, history. The nation is in sore need of wise men, and these must be made out of educated boys. (Philosophy of Education, p. 313, emphasis mine).

Moral philosophy is never going to appear on anyone’s transcript, I suppose. Whether you consider yourself a Charlotte Mason educator or a classical educator, or both, this part of the classical paradigm is mostly about what we hope for the future. Our efforts for the school years will most be focused on music, poetry, gymnastic, and at some level, the liberal arts. But as educators, we can keep our eyes on the higher goals, and hope that the path will be a little clearer and easier for our students because of it.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Link to all the posts in the Liberal Arts Tradition discussion.

Natural Philosophy—ask why, not just how!

I’m not sure you all are as interested in philosophy as I am but I thought I might devote a post each to the three types of philosophy discussed in The Liberal Arts Tradition. Just as a reminder, they are natural philosophy (knowledge of the universe), moral philosophy (knowledge of man), and divine philosophy (knowledge of God). First up for discussion is natural philosophy because for children, this is the first realm of philosophy that they really interact with. The natural world is knowable, but at the same time, full of mysteries and delights.

There is a modern way of dealing with natural philosophy, and there is the more traditional “classical” way. The modern way presumes that the world is something to be manipulated, tamed, for the benefit of anyone able to do so. There was a time when that seemed bright and attractive to thinkers like Francis Bacon, who really stands at the headwaters of this modern trend. Clark and Jain quote him as saying:

“by the art and hand of man she [natural science] is forced out of her natural state and squeezed and molded.”

It makes me think of things like cuts and bridges that level the terrain for roads, or covering up acres of earth with concrete so that we can build towering cities, as well as modern research into genetic modification, first of plants and foods, but also with the possibility of creating creatures—or people—according to our own design. We’ve taken Bacon’s idea to the point that there is actually a backlash—a horror at our lack of care for the environment and even our health. But the research and experimentation goes on just the same, mostly driven by a desire for power (and sometimes profit) rather than by a desire for wisdom.

That can all be contrasted with the classical, traditional approach to natural philosophy which supposed that man was merely imitating nature somewhat imperfectly. The Romans built aqueducts, which did what rivers do. People built boats, but they were less efficient than fish or waterfowl at “swimming.” Orville and Wilbur Wright watched the birds for hours, seeking hints at how they might design a flying machine.

You might remember that wonder is extremely important in the classical tradition. I can’t really articulate in a blog post all that the authors say about the way natural philosophy is built upon piety and that musical, poetical approach to knowledge that come earlier in the educational model. I encourage you to read the book.

Natural philosophy values poetic insight, intuition, and imagination in addition to rational demonstration. This approach interweaves the objective and subjective into a transcendental unity. It also acknowledges that our understanding of an object, while true, never exhausts the intelligibility of the object.

This sense of wonder, and our inability to know everything there is to know is part of the humility that that is central to the classical tradition. I love the way this is underscored in this discussion particularly, because science is one of those areas where it is most difficult to retain humility and wonder. This comes when we look beyond asking “how” things work and ask “why?” And because we can never, never know the entire answer to “why,” we keep that humility. But modern science doesn’t ask “why” (usually)—only “how?”—and by restoring the “why” question to our pursuit of science, we restore a classical pursuit.

Thus to know Newton’s universal law of gravitation means to know why it must be so according to the proper assumptions, observations, and reasoning and why gravitation cannot be something different. It is not merely knowing how to calculate answers to problems through use of it.

There is so much more in the book about this. My thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg and constrained by time. But the classical perspective on natural philosophy, which becomes “science” in the contemporary curriculum is really vital, and reading this book is a great way to begin thinking about how you want science to work in a total curriculum. I know this chapter made me happy that all my students underpin their science education by spending a year or two with Madame How and Lady Why.

On this topic, I particularly want to refer you to Brandy’s post at Afterthoughts, because she really focuses on the implementation of this approach to science, and also (bless her!) links the author’s ideas to the methods used by Charlotte Mason, which are—not surprisingly now!—almost exactly in line with the suggestions in The Liberal Arts Tradition.

Their approach to natural philosophy encourages us to ask more from science than merely the power to manipulate the universe in some way, and restores a unity to scientific studies.

A return to the tradition offers more, not less, than positivistic modern science. Thus recovering natural philosophy overcomes the faith versus science antagonism, the qualitative versus quantitative dualism, and the problems of fragmented specialization.

That’s a lot to ask for, but every effort to restore wonder to the pursuit of science is so much gained for our children.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Link to all the posts in the Liberal Arts Tradition discussion.