All posts by Karen Glass

Do you want to know the truth?

The authors of The Liberal Arts Tradition have expressed their broad interpretation of classical education with the acronym PGMAPT (pronounced pee-gee-mapped). It stands for Piety, Gymnastic, Music, Arts (those seven liberal arts I’ve been writing about), and then we come to the second P—Philosophy!

I find myself very, very interested in this part of the discussion. I’ve long been familiar with the medieval concept that the Trivium and Quadrivium arts were “paths” to Philosophy or Theology, but I haven’t really explored all that is meant by that. Neither do Clark and Jain, but they have some extremely interesting points to make.

As one should do, they admit that the word philosophy has acquired a bad reputation, but then they take the matter back to the classical roots of the word to restore its proper meaning.

The word philosophy is made up of the words “love” and “wisdom.” Philosophy marries together the idea of truth—objective truth that can be known—and emotional joy and rapture. Dispassion and passion. Education should be about finding out truths, yes, but it’s meant to be more than just head knowledge—heart attitude counts.

One of the central features of Plato’s vision for education was the belief in a transcendent reality, one that can really be known and that at some level is intimately bound up in our knowledge of everything else.

(And I’m reminded that this is what Charlotte Mason wanted for all learners.)

Human understanding, to speak like Plato, is about the harmony of  one’s soul with the reality and the application of one’s reason to the nature of the universe.

I think there is more than a hint of “education is the science of relations” in this, and in fact, Charlotte Mason calls attention to this relational nature of Plato’s ideas. (Home Education, p. 185)

But what really interested me in this discussion was the fact that the medieval thinkers modified Plato’s ideas about philosophy to reflect the Christian truth of God as the Creator of mankind in his own image and of the whole universe. They divided philosophy (love of wisdom!) into three types which reflect the three-fold nature of reality.

First, the reality of God and all eternal truth is divine philosophy. Next, the reality of man—“both in his being and his relationships”—is moral philosophy. Finally, the nature of the reality that we find in the created universe, large and small, is natural philosophy. Aristotle hinted at these distinctions, but it was really the medieval thinkers, like Thomas Aquinas, who anchored philosophy to Christian truth. I’m not sure if  you have ever heard of these three categories of philosophy. They weren’t part of my formal education in any way, as such. But Clark and Jain tell us that they were in use clear into the nineteenth century, and so it is not surprising that they line up with Charlotte Mason’s ideas about relationships and knowledge.

She says there are three sorts of knowledge proper to a child, and names them—“knowledge of God, of man, and of the universe.” Do you see how those line up with divine philosophy, moral philosophy, and natural philosophy? She built her whole curriculum around these ideas, although for children the relationships are still at the “poetic” or “musical” level.

First and chiefest is the knowledge of God, to be got at most directly through the Bible; then comes the knowledge of man, to be got through history, literature, art, civics, ethics, biography, the drama, and languages; and lastly, so much knowledge of the universe as shall explain to some extent the phenomena we are familiar with and give a naming acquaintance at any rate with birds and flowers, stars and stones; nor can this knowledge of the universe be carried far in any direction without the ordering of mathematics. (Philosophy of Education, p. 254)

By making “education is the science of relations” one of her core principles, she kept the emphasis on learning to love and enjoy all these areas of knowledge—the beginning, we might say, of wisdom. Charlotte Mason had no hesitation in saying so, and notice her use of that benighted word, philosophy.

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)

Clark and Jain describe the Sophists who plagued Socrates and Plato. Unlike Plato, they did not believe in knowable truth, and assumed that truth was relative, and the most persuasive speakers were clever enough to convince others to accept their positions. It all sounds horrifyingly familiar, which explains why the authors tell us:

In light of the similarity of Socrates’s day to our own cultural moment in the early twenty-first century, it seems we could use another Socrates or Plato crying out against the Sophists. That is to the suggest we could use the revival of a tradition that stands for the significance of a transcendent and knowable reality.

It won’t come as a surprise to serious students of Charlotte Mason to recognize that she was just such a voice in her own time. She explicitly draws attention to divine laws and absolute truths and warns about the danger and fallacy of imagining that everyone can have their own “lights” or truths.

[Parents see that] authority works by principles and not by rules, and as they themselves are the deputy authorities set over every household, it becomes them to consider the divine method of government. They should discern the signs of the times too; the tendency is to think that a man can only act according to his ‘lights,’ and, therefore, that it is right for him to do that which is right in his own eyes; in other words, that every man is his own final authority in questions of right and wrong. It is extremely important that parents should keep in view, and counteract if need be, this tendency of the day. (School Education, p. 127)

There is truth, and we can know it. That simple premise of the classical tradition is profound. I’m going to end with a quote from chapter 12 of Consider This, simply because it reflects how strongly I feel about this.

“There is nothing quaint, nostalgic or old-fashioned about a desire to educate in the classical tradition. It is a radical thing to do. We do nothing less than demand that chaos resolve itself into order simply by saying, ‘There is truth, and I want to know it.’ ”

(Brandy at Afterthoughts made some of the same observations that I did—even quoting one of the same passages!)

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


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

Seven liberal arts, One long tradition

So, I’ve spent a few weeks looking at all the liberal arts separately, but I can’t move on in the discussion without saying a few words about their integrated nature. I’m reminded again (not by The Liberal Arts Tradition, but by my own convictions) that the words trivium and quadrivium represent a three- or four-way crossroads—those words were the words the Romans used to name their intersections in the famous system of Roman roads. The words were applied so early to the liberal arts, I don’t think the concept of integration had yet faded from the general understanding of the terms.

I make no pretense of being a master of the liberal arts, especially of the quadrivium, but I am continually drawn to the hints I encounter about the relationships that make the seven liberal arts part of a whole.

Since Isaac Newton demonstrated that the heavenly and earthly realms obey the same laws, the previous distinctions between the liberal arts of music and astronomy have faded and their interdependence as the joint method for natural science has prevailed.

And yet, in most of the arts, there continues to be a tension between observable data and deeper meaning. My instinctive feeling is that being conversant with the liberal arts as arts would give every individual the best chance for reconciling things in his own mind. And this is the need that prevails.

While the daunting volume of data and information today seems to dwarf the search for meaning and truth, there has never been a time when the hunger to make sense of the big picture was greater.

I quite agree that our culture is starved for a taste of meaning and truth, and that is why the liberal arts shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, as separate from other knowledge, or worse, a set of seven discrete subjects. They are arts, and their practice has a greater purpose than mere learning of information.

Never has the need for the liberal art of music as a prelude to philosophy and theology been more crucial.

I think “music” here stands for both the specific liberal art of music, which is the culmination of the seven, and also the “musical” foundation that underpins the study of all the liberal arts. Musical education hints at harmony and integration, but also beauty and wonder. In Charlotte Mason’s words, “education is the science of relations.”

And it matters because, as Clark and Jain tell us:

Each art, when treated traditionally, contributes to the human formation of the students and the cultivation of wisdom.

I like their caveat here: “when treated traditionally.” So much time has elapsed, and so many experimental educational efforts have gone astray, that one has to look into the past to appreciate the way these arts were approached. I don’t pretend to have all the answers—far from it—but I am continually reminded that if we ask the right questions, our chances of at least being on the right path as we pursue answers are increased. I think delving into the traditional approach to the liberal arts is a very good question, especially when “why?” is asked before “how?”

Clark and Jain are asking good questions and giving us some excellent hints toward the pursuit of the liberal arts. They use words like “narrative” and “telos” and “synchronicities” as they urge us to practice the liberal arts as a matter of wonder, wisdom, and even worship. Even the smallest taste of the “real thing” will go a long way toward grounding our students in Truth (found in the philosophy and theology which come next in the discussion), for which they hunger.

Their pleas to understand these relationships remind me of Charlotte Mason’s similar plea over 100 years ago. First, she reminded her readers of how the fresco she admired so much revealed the relationship of the liberal arts to God.

Below the prophets and apostles are a series of pictured niches, those to the right being occupied by the captain figures, the ideal representations, of the seven Liberal Arts, figures of singular grace and beauty, representing such familiar matters as grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic, all of them under the outpouring of the Spirit of God. … But here all are represented as under the same divine outpouring which illuminated the disciples in the upper chamber. (School Education, p. 153-54)

And a little later she makes her plea:

Let us set ourselves to labour with purpose and passion to restore to the world, enriched by the additions of later knowledge, that great scheme of unity of life which produced great men and great work in the past. (SE, p. 156)

It isn’t just the study of the seven liberal arts that is liberating; it’s also, and perhaps more importantly, understanding how they fit into a broader understanding of knowledge.

Your comments welcome!

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


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

Caution: Kindergarten and the liberal arts

Last week, I wrote a bit about Charlotte Mason’s views of Froebelian kindergarten, and the warnings she brought to bear on that method/system of education. While I wanted to make the point that I did make—that there is room in a Charlotte Mason education for parental initiative—that was really a preliminary post to this one.

Because I’ve been reading The Liberal Arts Tradition by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, and because I’ve been focusing on those seven liberal arts here on the blog, those ideas collided with Charlotte Mason’s warnings while I was reading Home Education. Charlotte Mason was talking about the Kindergarten, but I found myself applying her warnings to the liberal arts. Bear with me and I’ll try to share what I mean.

Charlotte Mason’s ideas about education are principle-based. When she examined any educational method, she always tried to discern the principles in it to see if they could bear scrutiny and were essentially true. Then she examined the practices based on the principles to see if they matched up. As I shared about the kindergarten, she thought Froebel had some good ideas—a valid method—but she felt that his practices were more artificial than other more natural practices of working out the same principles. I think many of her observations would also be a valuable contribution to the discussion of the seven liberal arts.

First of all, one foundational principle in education is that it is ideas that take root in the mind and bear fruit (CM principles 9 to 11, but also articulated by Plato, Froebel, and others). Ideas, not information.

But how does this theory of the vital and fruitful character of ideas bear upon the education of the child? In this way: give your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information; for the child who grows up with a few dominant ideas has his self-education provided for, his career marked out. (Home Education, p. 174)

Now, I don’t know if you accept this principle or not. I do. If you don’t, or aren’t sure, much of the rest of this discussion may not apply. But if you believe that education is about instilling ideas in children—living ideas that will grow and shape their thinking—rather than something else (whatever that might be), then what I have to say here might be of interest.

Miss Mason tells us

The Kindergarten method is nicely contrived to bring the child en rapport with a superior intelligence. (HE, p. 178)

Did you catch the word “contrived?” I think it is a veiled reminder that our structures of educational apparatus are not organic and natural. In this case, Miss Mason says that if the teacher is such a superior being, it might be a little “heaven below,” but—and this is a very grave warning—

Put a commonplace woman in charge of such a school, and the charmingly devised gifts and games and occupations become so many instruments of wooden teaching. (HE, p. 178)

When I think about the liberal arts, one can imagine that a Socrates, a Plato, or an Aristotle might be able to give instruction which would keep the liberal arts alive—inspire a student to practice them—and make it clear how vital it is to make use of them. But in the hands of a commonplace teacher…oh dear. The liberal arts, too, run the risk of becoming wooden and mechanical. All you have to do is look at a typical grammar or logic text to see what that’s like. Arithmetic and geometry are regularly taught in il-liberal and un-living ways.

Miss Mason says of the Kindergarten:

Indeed, the machinery of the Kindergarten is no more than a device to ensure the carrying out of certain educational principles, and some of these it is the mother’s business to get at, and work out according to Froebel’s method—or her own. (HE, p. 179)

And so with the liberal arts. They are not ends in themselves, but the means to working out certain educational principles, and those principles are more important than the arts. When the arts cease to serve the principles or depart from them altogether, they are no better than any other educational method. Charlotte Mason uses the word “circumscribed” to indicate that the cramped, limited Kindergarten occupations hinder a child from something broader and better. He might obtain some exact knowledge by their use—the ability to distinguish a rhomboid from a pentagon, for example—but at the expense of “real knowledge.”

The same is true of liberal arts. You might teach your students some exact knowledge, such as the ability to identify verbs and nouns, but how sad if it comes at the expense of being able to appreciate a well-written sentence, or better yet, to speak and write clear sentences, which is the art of grammar and rhetoric.

To put it in a nutshell, Charlotte Mason’s warning is not to let the minutia of your teaching stand for the wider training that we want to give them. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

Which brings us to the crucial point upon which every educational method turns—whom are you teaching? What, exactly, is a person, a child? If you get that wrong, your educational methods will completely go wide of the mark. Miss Mason warns:

Thoughtful persons begin to suspect that the mistakes we make through this ignorance are grievous and injurious. For example, are not all our schemes of education founded on the presumption that a child’s mind—his ‘thinking, feeling man’—begins ‘very small,’ and grows great with the growth of his body. (HE, p. 182)

The point here is that either a child has an active, capable mind before his education begins, or he does not. Either he can think and reason and understand without formal training, or he cannot do those things until he has been trained. There are no other options, and before you decide which one you think is correct, I hope you will observe a child, about one year of age, who wants to reach something on a table that is a bit too high for him. Half an hour’s observation should cement in the mind of any thinking adult that children are endowed with a great deal of cleverness and reasoning power before they even develop the ability to speak.

Having accepted that truth, it should be our business as educators to make sure that our methods take the nature of children’s case into account. Charlotte Mason says

I am inclined to question whether, in the interest of carrying out a system, the charming Kindergartnerin is not in danger sometimes of greatly undervaluing the intelligence of her children. (HE, p. 187)

And I think the same risk applies to the liberal arts. Do we think that children cannot know grammar, logic, rhetoric, unless we make a formal study of these things? I’ve shared this quote before, but Augustine knew better.

We know numbers who, without acquaintance with rhetorical rules, are more eloquent than many who have learnt these; but we know no one who is eloquent without having read and listened to the speeches of eloquent men. For even the art of grammar, which teaches correctness of speech, need not be learnt by boys, if they have the advantage of growing up and living among men who speak correctly. (From On Christian Doctrine)

Charlotte Mason tells us that “a false analogy has hampered or killed more than one philosophic system” (HE, p.189). I never read that without thinking of the reduction of the liberal arts to “tools of learning.” Do we imagine that children have no tools of learning unless we choose to give them? The idea is absurd if we only spend a little time watching industrious preschoolers. They know how to learn. They don’t need tools from us, but they do need something, and it becomes our business to figure out what that is and how to give it to them so that our lessons work in harmony with their true nature, and are not out of sync. There may be a sense in which the liberal arts are tools, but that is not all that they are.

The outcome of any thought is necessarily moulded by that thought. (HE, p. 189)

And so we must examine our thoughts upon the seven liberal arts as upon other things. What are they and what do we hope to accomplish by their practice? How are they best taught and in what larger context? How do we keep them arts and not allow them to become wooden subjects? Asking the questions is always the best way to start. Answers or partial answers can be worked out as we go, but if we keep our principles in mind, we have a better chance of allowing the liberal arts to have their share in the development of each student. They are not all going to become another C.S. Lewis. If the arts are “liberating” arts, they should allow each learner the freedom to become all that he or she can be, not according to a fixed pattern, but as a person.

Charlotte Mason quoted Annie Sullivan (the teacher of Helen Keller):

“I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built up on the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think, whereas if the child is left to himself he will think more and better, if less showily.” (HE, p. 195-96)

We should know better. And knowing better, we should do better. Most of the teachers I know (and I know quite a few!) are doing much, much better. And for that, we can thank Charlotte Mason. However, all the risks and warnings still hold true. Charlotte Mason concluded:

But I wish that educationalists would give up the name Kindergarten. I cannot help thinking that it is somewhat of a strain to conscientious minds to draw the cover of Froebelian doctrine and practice over the broader and more living conceptions that are abroad today. (HE, p. 197)

This is a reminder to me to be wary of labels. “Classical education” or “Charlotte Mason education” do not always convey the broad, living ideas about education that they should. They are limited, among other things, by how much the speaker or hearer of the expression actually knows about the subject. Charlotte Mason didn’t really want her name attached to the ideas she promoted. She knew they weren’t “hers” in the sense that she had thought them up out of whole cloth. Once a single person’s name is attached to a body of thought, that thought is limited by the thought and writing of that one person. Education isn’t fixed and immutable that way, expressed only by one person’s perspective. It’s part of something “broader” and “more living.” When we express the principles that Charlotte Mason listed for us, we know that it isn’t really wrong to call them “her” principles, because she embraced them, but they are not “hers” because she invented them. That is quite consistent with her own understanding of the ideas she shared. It’s a final warning, I think, to bear in mind. Our attention should be on the principles, and our loyalty should be to truth wherever it is found. Labels can be a convenience but they should not hinder us from pursuing the fullest possible understanding of truth. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past as we work out living educational ideas in the twenty-first century.

Liberal Art #7—Music

Music is a liberal art far more powerful and mysterious than most would guess.

In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain hasten to let us know that music is not all about singing and instruments. That is only a partial understanding of all that is contained in the discussion of music as a liberal art.

Traditionally, music had three aspects, only one of which corresponds to what we generally mean today when we speak of “music.” The other two categories are about proportionalities in the world and in human society. I think “proportionalities,” while it is a proper mathematical term, making it quite legitimate in the discussion of the quadrivium, could also be understood as “relationships.”

Think of the word “harmony.” It has a meaning in musical performance, vocal or instrumental. It involves a relationship between two different tones, but it is harmonious only if the relationship is pleasing—beautiful. The opposite word, unharmonious, certainly implies something chaotic, out of sync, displeasing. Harmonies—proportions, relations—can be expressed mathematically, and they can be found in many places.

It is from this history that we get the phrase “the music of the spheres.” This is also why Plato could say that in one sense music was the totality of education, both the beginning and the end.

Because of course, we have already discussed the way in which music—poetic understanding—is the proper mode of knowledge for young students, and as the final part of the quadrivium, it is the pinnacle of the classical curriculum, until you advance to philosophy and theology. Students come full circle, from delight in knowledge to understanding why knowledge is delightful, so to speak.

To be perfectly honest, much of the discussion in this section of the book goes right over my head. My education in mathematics was truncated at Algebra II, so when I read a sentence that says “or the differential and integral calclus, are in some way proper to Philolaus’s definition of the liberal art of music,” I just have to take it at face value, and I know I don’t fully comprehend.

But some ideas I do get. Clark and Jain make it clear that music, properly understood, is part of the pursuit of a “grand unified theory” of knowledge.

While the daunting volume of data and information today seem to dwarf the search for meaning and truth, there has never been a time when the hunger to make sense of the big picture was greater.

That, I understand. And I agree. This is the harmony that eludes us, but needs to be a part of our educational pursuits. I think I’ll do one more post to wrap up the liberal arts before moving on. I have enjoyed this book very much, and if you’re reading along, I hope you have, too!

For a much more thorough look at this section of The Liberal Arts Tradition, you will want to see what Brandy had to say about it on the Afterthoughts blog.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


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

Liberal Art #6—Astronomy

In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain tell us that

The liberal art of astronomy has exerted a profound influence throughout the entire world.

I think we can all agree on that! I really like their historical perspective of this art:

Astronomy was the centerpiece of ancient science as one of the oldest studies, having Egyptian records dating from 3500 BC. It was used for timekeeping and navigation and thus helped ancient cultures establish a sense of history and place.

Much of the discussion in this part of book is about the historical practice of astronomy, and how it changed shape and focus over the centuries as astronomy became more of a science and less of an art. Clark and Jain suggest that a study of this historical shift in focus should be a  feature of the way it is taught now. I do think the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and other giants of science would help to create interest in students.

But even more so, I think the classical approach to astronomy—the art of observing the sun, the moon, and the stars, and using those observations for practical purposes in the same way you use grammar, rhetoric, and arithmetic—gives astronomy its proper place in the seven liberal arts. It’s an art. It’s something you do, not a body of information or a historical phenomenon.

In our AmblesideOnline curriculum, we use Signs and Seasons by Jay Ryan which is subtitled “Understanding the Elements of Classical Astronomy”—because that’s what it’s all about. The book leads you through first-hand observations of what you can see and measure without special equipment. This might be difficult for schools who are expected to hold all classes during daylight hours, but it’s perfect for homeschoolers. And some observations are made during the daytime, too. We can learn to tell time and and direction from the position of the sun. And there are those days when the moon is visible during daylight hours.

Jay Ryan writes:

Essentially, Classical Astronomy is the visual observation of the motions of the celestial bodies—the simple act of studying the cycles of the Sun, Moon, and stars with our unaided eyes. In contrast, Modern Astronomy is largely an activity of professional scientists and is based on measurements taken from telescopes and other artificial instruments. With Classical Astronomy, we can learn useful and practical skills, such as how to tell time and navigate by the sky.

Basically, if you want to introduce astronomy as one of the classical liberal arts, this is your book. I don’t have much more to say than that. We tend to think we know so much more today because of all our scientific apparatus, and in some ways, we do. But it’s all second-hand knowledge (unless you are Neil Armstrong or the equivalent).  I think all the historical arguments surrounding astronomy will be more meaningful to students who have gathered a little humility because they have had to make their own observations and puzzle over the celestial wonders.

Brandy at Afterthoughts had a lot of the same thoughts on this art that I do, and recommends the same book.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


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


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Parents are persons, too

I have written about this before—that parents are persons—but my current reading in Home Education recently underscored how strongly Charlotte Mason felt about this. Not only do  parents have the liberty to work out principles of child-rearing for themselves, but that liberty provides a healthier atmosphere than any adherence to a mechanical system.

If you want to read what I was reading, you’ll find these quotes between pages 185 and 192, or read the whole section that begins on page 178.

Miss Mason reminds us that

So far as education is a science, the truth of even ten—much more, a hundred—years ago is not the whole truth of today.

It’s important to keep this in mind. It’s not that the “truth of a hundred years ago” is no longer the truth, that it was wrong, but it was, perhaps, incomplete—not the “whole truth.” The science aspect of education means that we are constantly learning, or we should be, more about the way that the mind works and how children learn best. Some things never change, but some things do—and good educational practices do not neglect to take new findings into consideration.

The topic immediately at hand is Froebel’s kindergarten, and Miss Mason tells us that

Froebel gathered diffused thought and practice into a system.

His was quite a complete system, with prescribed games and activities that made use of all the senses to teach properties—big and small, hard and soft. Color, number, rhythm, imagination—nothing is really left to chance in a Froebelian kindergarten. Miss Mason tries not to be too critical—she has a high regard for Froebel in many ways—but she does say:

And yet I enter a caveat.

And that caveat is this: “It is a doubtful boon to a person to have conditions too carefully adapted to his needs.” Miss Mason goes on to deprecate the hot-house environment a kindergarten might be.

Everything is directed, expected, suggested. No other personality out of book, picture, or song, no, not even that of Nature herself, can get at the children without the mediation of the teacher. No room is left for spontaneity or personal initiation on their part.

Her argument is that a healthier environment will happen at home, with a mother who allows everyday life to be her child’s teacher, under her own watchful eye. And that, even if it is a little more chaotic:

The home-nursery is by no means such a scene of peace, but I venture to think it a better growing-place.

Now, Charlotte Mason has been talking here about the education of very young children, but the central point around which all her arguments turn is the first principle: Children are born persons. All the good things that might be said about the kindergarten and its games are not enough to excuse it for violating personhood.

I am inclined to question whether, in the interest of carrying out a system, the charming Kindergartnerin [kindergarten teacher] is not in danger sometimes of greatly undervaluing the intelligence of her children.

And so I go back to my spin-off principle—parents are persons, too. What does that imply for us as we seek out ways and means of educating our children? If Charlotte Mason were among us today, I think she would proffer the same warning regarding her own educational methods as she did for Froebel:

There is always the danger that a method, a bona fide method, should degenerate into a mere system. The Kindergarten Method, for instance, deserves the name, as having been conceived and perfected by large-hearted educators to aid the many sided evolution of the living, growing, most complex human being; but what a miserable wooden system does it become in the hands of ignorant practitioners! (Home Education, p. 9)

We ought to take this as a warning to ourselves regarding Charlotte Mason and her own methods. These, too, were conceived and perfected by a large-hearted educator. These, too, serve to aid the living growth of a complex human being. But. These, too, are at risk of degenerating into “a miserable wooden system,” especially if we try to “do all the things” without a solid understanding of the principles that underlie the practices.

Even with Charlotte Mason’s lovely methods, this is sadly possible. Living books and nature study and picture study and handicrafts and music and drill and all the things that go into a “Charlotte Mason” education are not magically exempt from deteriorating into a mechanical exercise of going through the motions. I have heard many a dedicated-but-weary CM mama lament, “we’ve just been checking off the boxes.” (Come to think of it, I have been that mama myself on occasion.) They knew the principles well enough to know that when the living joy and wonder weren’t present, the mechanical exercise of  going through the motions wasn’t satisfying.

Parents are persons, too. We need to adapt, to take some initiative and correct this danger when we see it. First, we have to make sure we understand a few basic principles well—and all twenty of Charlotte Mason’s principles do not carry equal weight, so it’s important to grasp those two or three that are really central to the methods. And then we need to remember that “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.” There must be balance.

I don’t know what you need to do to restore your atmosphere if you’ve lost your joy, but I know you need to do something. Maybe you don’t have the grasp of the principles that you need, and some time to refresh your thoughts about educational principles will restore balance. You might look for a local community or conference to attend, or you can invest in one of the books from this list, or this one, to give you a boost.) Brandy Vencel at Afterthoughts runs a “Charlotte Mason Boot Camp” periodically. (It fills up quickly, so if you’re interested, you’ll want to be on the interest list.)

On the other hand, maybe study’s the last thing you need. Maybe you just need a break—sunshine, the pool, hiking for the joy of it without calling it “nature study.” Maybe you need to work on habits unrelated to school that are causing friction in your days. Messy rooms and heaps of unwashed laundry can steal our joy. Maybe a day—or a week—for a “cleaning vacation” will scour out the gritty corners of the soul as well as the windows, and you and the kids can plan a treat to celebrate a shiny, clean house when it’s all done. Maybe you need more time at the park, a designated quite hour every day, or a nap after too many sleepless nights. Parents are persons, too. Take time to restore your soul.

Charlotte Mason objected to the overly-structured kindergarten because “no room is left for spontaneity or personal initiation on [the children’s] part.” Don’t let Charlotte Mason’s methods become that rigid. There is room for spontaneity and personal initiative in your homeschool. Never mind what the time table or curriculum says if you know that a different book or a different schedule would be best in your home. If you know the principles well, you can adapt them to your own circumstances.

Charlotte Mason says of the children:

The resourcefulness which will enable a family of children to invent their own games and occupations through the length of a summer’s day is worth more in after life than a good deal of knowledge about cubes and hexagons.

And I extend that concept to the homeschooling parent. That resourcefulness that develops from making adaptations, perhaps with a bit of trial and error, will be of more value in the years to come than perfect adherence to a timetable or a book list.  In fact, those personal adaptations—because parents are persons, too—will keep Charlotte Mason’s method effective and fresh, with no danger of degenerating into a “miserable wooden system.”

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Liberal Art #5—Geometry

Next up in the discussion is Geometry. I think this art should feel more comfortable than some others because it shows up on almost every one’s high school transcript. We all did geometry, right? Unfortunately, we didn’t necessarily do geometry in the the classical tradition.

In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain give us a hint about why geometry is ubiquitous in our syllabus:

From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries geometry became synonymous with clear and certain knowledge, the obsession of the modern era.

But classical geometry is and always has been all about Euclid. His Elements was the standard text for centuries, and why shouldn’t we still use it? It’s not like geometry is something today that it wasn’t before, and that tradition alone seems as if it would make classical education come alive for the modern student. Clark and Jain come to the same easy conclusion:

So, for those searching for a classical liberal arts paradigm for the study and teaching of geometry, the answer is found in a return to Euclid.

I don’t think you’ll be surprised to know that Charlotte Mason felt the same way about geometry and Euclid. The Elements appears on the PNEU programmes for the upper forms as part of the work in mathematics. (You’ll want to read what Brandy says about all this at Afterthoughts.) Miss Mason appreciated Euclid for the ideas conveyed in geometry. She wanted the wonder to be a part of the process.

How living would Geometry become in the light of the discoveries of Euclid as he made them! (Philosophy of Education, p. 233)

I feel myself more in need of learning this way than being in a position to suggest how you might teach this way. Clark and Jain urge the practice of drawing the constructions that illustrate the theorems.

Besides Euclid’s focus on deductive proof from first principles, his lessons also contain an element of visual artistry and delight: constructions. Constructions are drawings of the theorems in order to visualize or create them….The constructions aid the reason to conceive the abstract proofs and help connect the wisdom to the wonder.

Timing prevented my being a part of the discussion, but a group discussed this visual presentation of Euclid and did exactly what they are suggesting here—they drew the constructions and shared their work on the AmblesideOnline forum (membership needed to view—easy and free). They used this book, which I still plan to purchase and use with my last high schooler at home.

When so much of recovering the liberal arts tradition is open to doubt and discussion, and educators often find themselves casting about for whys and wherefores as well as ways and means, it’s nice to have something so fixed and accessible among the various liberal arts. Geometry for the win!

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


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

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Liberal Art #4—Arithmetic

When Clark and Jain get to the quadrivium in The Liberal Arts Tradition, they make a case for the manner in which the mathematical arts of the quadrivium shape the heart and soul of man just as the arts of the trivium do.

Christian classical schools must uphold a high standard for mathematical education precisely for its special role in human formation and developing the virtue of the mind.

They don’t condemn the practice, but they do point out that rote memorization of math facts isn’t the point of arithmetic. Its classical purpose was different, as demonstrated by Nicomachus in the first century AD.

For Nicomachus, deeply understanding the necessary connections and relationships among the numbers would have been an essential element of the liberal art of arithmetic.

If you know Charlotte Mason well, you are probably nodding, and thinking, “Oh, right, education is the science of relations.” Math is so often a stumbling-block for students, and we tend to prize computation and right answers above this intuitive sense of the relationships that exist in numbers. I really love that Clark and Jain introduce the idea of wonder into arithmetic—something I suspect few of us ever experienced. Besides the personal delight in math that this affords for each student who experiences it, wonder actually has a practical side as well.

Students who encounter mathematics in wonder are far more likely to commit to the rigors of the work.

Maybe not all of them, but you are definitely increasing the likelihood of a student progressing well in math if has learned to enjoy it. I’m reminded of Charlotte Mason’s justification for mathematics in the curriculum:

We take strong ground when we appeal to the beauty and truth of Mathematics; that, as Ruskin points out, two and two make four and cannot conceivably make five, is an inevitable law. It is a great thing to be brought into the presence of a law, of a whole system of laws, that exist without our concurrence,—that two straight lines cannot enclose a space is a fact which we can perceive, state, and act upon but cannot in any wise alter, should give to children the sense of limitation which is wholesome for all of us, and inspire that sursum corda [a call to lift your heart in worship and praise] which we should hear in all natural law. (Philosophy of Education, p. 230-31)

This is one of those things that a trained math teacher probably finds it easier to do than a homeschooling parent who may have had a bad experience with math. Miquon Math, which I used with most of my early elementary students, went a long way toward giving me some joy and wonder and sense of relationship in arithmetic. I have also discovered that simply slowing down the process of arithmetic so that a child has time to enjoy success and feel competent at one level before moving on creates a better relationship-building environment.

But wonder in arithmetic is only the beginning—it can take you further.

Wonder was not the only end of arithmetic. The ancients also believed that arithmetic led the soul from wonder to wisdom.

The discussion in The Liberal Arts Tradition gets a little heady at this point, and I really encourage reading the book and tackling the ideas for yourself.  Read the footnotes, too. Even if math isn’t your forte (it isn’t mine), you might hear the sursum corda and catch a glimpse of wonder, or at least hear a whisper that might help you understand why others love math so much. That’s worth something.

You’ll want to read what Brandy thought about this section, too. I think she heard the sursum corda.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


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

Liberal Art #3—Rhetoric

Rhetoric is the final art of the trivium—the intersection of three roads to excellence in language. In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain treat us to a brief historical view of rhetoric with references to Plato, Quintilian, Aristotle, Augustine, Cicero and Boethius. If you haven’t  read these authors, I’m afraid it might just feel like a list of names, but it really isn’t—it’s a reminder that this tradition is partly an ongoing conversation, part of “The Great Conversation.”

In short, the role of rhetoric in the classical tradition is not static—it has been approached in different ways at different times in history. However, at its heart we find this:

Despite its varied implementations through the ages, rhetoric is not to be understood as an abstract concept. Students studied rhetoric to learn how to be persuasive in their use of language….

Their conclusion to this need to make rhetoric concrete is this:

We believe this discussion has two major implications for schools in the Christian classical renewal. First of all, the three liberal arts of the Trivium must retain their integrity if we are to find the true integration afforded by the classical model.

I confess to being a bit confused by their using the word “integrity” to mean separate things. Grammar is grammar. Dialectic is reasoning. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. But the integration—the intersection—is why these are called the “trivium.” I confess to feeling that it is more in keeping with the classical tradition and more needful in light of our cultural tendency to fragment knowledge, to place the emphasis on the integration of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, rather than their separate arts.

Which is why I wrote, in Consider This:

Fully understood, the trivium becomes a three-fold approach to wisdom via words and language. Because language is the matter to be dealt with, reading books, thinking about them, and talking or writing on what has been been read is the practice of the grammar, logic, and rhetoric in a nutshell, and all these arts may be practiced until they are mastered.

Which begs the question “what language?” because Clark and Jain take this moment to segue into a plea for Greek and Latin.

The second implication for schools in the Christian classical renewal is that the study of the classical languages plays a central role in the acquisition of the liberal arts of the Trivium.

And I can’t bring myself to concede that point. A noun is a noun in any language, remember? Grammar, dialectic, and persuasive rhetoric may be practiced in any language. Every language. In fact, when we remember that these are arts that involve doing something, we must see that the language in which they will be perfected is the language in which we are proficient. If you became proficient (not to say fluent) in Latin or Greek, you could potentially practice those arts in that language, although only other proficients would be able to understand you.

And that brings us to the pivot upon which classical education was brought to its knees in the not-too-distant past (mixing my metaphors—sorry). If a liberal arts or classical education can only be achieved through Greek and Latin, it can only ever be an education for the elite, for the few, and not for the general population. You might make a case for that, but in 21st century America, I come down on the side of a “liberal education for all,” and while that should include ancient languages, it cannot be dependent upon them. And maybe that’s all that Clark and Jain mean, too. We do not want to conflate a liberal education with classical scholarship, though they may overlap.

I don’t want to be misunderstood as suggesting that Latin (and even Greek!) are not important. I do adhere to Charlotte Mason’s principle that “education is the science of relations,” and I think children ought to have the opportunity to form a relationship with the past through the ancient languages. That’s where I think the emphasis should be in the elementary years—on forming a relationship with Latin so that the opportunity to develop a taste for it and a desire to pursue it more fully can be created. But the majority of students are going to need to practice grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric in their native tongue, and there is nothing unclassical about that.

The Greeks believed that a training in the use and power of words was the chief part of education, recognising that if the thought fathers the word, so does the word in turn father the thought. They concerned themselves with no language, ancient or modern, save their own, but of that they acquired a consummate appreciation. With the words came the great thoughts, expressed in whatever way the emergencies of the State called for—in wise laws, victorious battles, glorious temples, sculpture, drama. For great thoughts anticipate great works; and these come only to a people conversant with the great thoughts that have been written and said. (Philosophy of Education, p. 316)

I really want to carry this discussion a little further, but I fear this will get too long, and I don’t want to be distracted too far from the main topic, which is still rhetoric.

One of my favorite discussions of rhetoric is Augustine’s. He says that both grammar and rhetoric may well be learned at the feet of those who use them well rather than by studying rules, and that, I think helps to keep grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric arts without reducing them to subjects.

We know numbers who, without acquaintance with rhetorical rules, are more eloquent than many who have learnt these; but we know no one who is eloquent without having read and listened to the speeches of eloquent men. For even the art of grammar, which teaches correctness of speech, need not be learnt by boys, if they have the advantage of growing up and living among men who speak correctly. (From On Christian Doctrine)

If you remember that grammar is literature (the ability to read and comprehend), dialectic asks good questions, and rhetoric is the expression of what you want someone else to understand and accept, it becomes easier to see how the trivium is an integrated use of language arts that will sharpen the mind that engages in their practice.

For years, Aristotle’s Rhetoric was the classic text used to teach it—at the university level, which might well be brought into our high schools. But, like the ancient Greeks, I think the most effective rhetoric we can give is a consummate appreciation of the English language that we speak and love and need to wield effectively.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Links to all the Liberal Arts Tradition posts.

Liberal Art #2—Dialectic

I really like what Clark and Jain have to say about dialectic in The Liberal Arts Tradition.  I really hope you’ll read this book for yourself and read it all.  Dialectic encompasses the formalities of logic and reasoning, but it is much more than that.

“Dialectic” shares an obvious root with the word “dialogue.” That is a hint that dialectic involves some kind of back-and-forth, a conversation of some sort, which involves more than one person or more than one point of view. Plato’s Socratic dialogues are the first example of dialectic in the classical tradition, and the authors distill the idea into this:

Reading Plato’s dialogues we find that the key to success in reasoning is the ability to ask the right questions.

And there, I think lies the crux of this art. I think dialectic is the art of asking good questions, which makes it incomplete by itself, of course. Asking a good question is vital, but one hopes that good questions will lead to good answers. I never think about dialectic without being reminded of something Charlotte Mason shared.

Long ago, I was in the habit of hearing this axiom quoted by a philosophical old friend: “The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself.” I have failed to trace the saying to its source, but a conviction of its importance has been growing upon me during the last forty years. It tacitly prohibits questioning from without; (this does not, of course, affect the Socratic use of questioning for purposes of moral conviction); and it is necessary to intellectual certainty, to the act of knowing. (Philosophy of Education, p. 16-17)

Learning to ask yourself the right kind of questions becomes a kind of internal dialectic, but the key point remains the same. You have to ask the right kind of questions, good questions, and as I have shared elsewhere, narration is a great method for building that skill gradually and effectively.

In the early stages of education, Clark and Jain tell us, students are absorbing a great deal of material—they use the word “voluminous”—and when they have a store of knowledge they are ready to do something with it, intellectually.

Having received, and hopefully, imbibed the deposit of the [classical] tradition, students then must learn to weigh, to sort out, and to synthesize the nuanced, paradoxical, and at times contradictory ideas and arguments contained in that tradition.

And I’m reminded again that, whether they know it or not, these authors are walking the paths that Charlotte Mason walked before them.

It is in this second stage that the value of the classical and mathematical grind comes in. It produces a certain sanity of judgment, and therefore a certain capacity for affairs, an ability for the examination of questions, which are rather the distinguishing marks of the public schoolman. (Formation of Character, p. 381, emphasis added).

(What Miss Mason means by a “public schoolman” is a man who was educated at classical school like Eton or Harrow.)

This liberal art of dialectic is probably most valuable to us if we view it as learning to ask the right questions instead of a formal process, although examining the formal process might well help us to do that. One might view the whole classical tradition of education as a long conversation that is ongoing, and perhaps went astray when we began to ask the wrong questions. One of the marks of a good question, I think, is that it provokes further questions rather than shutting down discussion. What do you think?

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass

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