All posts by Karen Glass

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.

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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