Category Archives: Blog

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #7–Will and Reason

In this next-to-last post in this series, I am excited to turn our attention to one of those more obscure bits of educational philosophy, and that is the role of education in training a child’s will.

Modern thinking (much the same as in Charlotte Mason’s day) tends to associate the idea of a “strong will” with sheer stubbornness. Mason had a much better understanding, and recognized that association for what it was–a fallacy.

He must be safeguarded from some fallacies. No doubt he has heard at home that Baby has a strong will because he cries for a knife and insists on pulling down the tablecloth. In his history lessons and his readings of tale and poem, he comes across persons each of whom carries his point by strong wilfulness. He…recognises that a strong will is not synonymous with ‘being good,’ nor with a determination to have your own way. He learns to distribute the characters he comes across in his reading on either side of a line, those who are wilful and those who are governed by will. (Philosophy of Education, p. 132, emphasis mine)

In Charlotte Mason’s lists of 20 educational principles, the “way of the will” does not make an appearance until number 17, which can give us a false sense of how vital it actually is. In her book Minds More Awake: The Vision of Charlotte Mason, Anne White walks us through the rationale of how Mason’s understanding of the will affects her approach to everything from literature to science.

The key understanding is this: will only operates when it has an object outside of self. When we choose to place our own desires first and act to protect our own interests, it isn’t will that is at work, but one of those natural desires for pleasure or power that everyone has. Self-interest requires no will.

But Will must have an object outside of itself, just as a guard is not there to protect himself. It cannot be focused on you, even for good ends, such as personal health or salvation, because then it stops being Will. You can be operating with Will when your ultimate intent is to benefit a cause or a country, or to protect just one other person. And you can be missing out on Will if you’re doing good deeds from selfish motives. (Minds More Awake by Anne White, p. 21.)

It might take some thinking and reading to fully appreciate the difference between wilfulness and will, but that basic point–acting in your own interests, or for the interests of other, is the dividing line between them. But no one chooses to will in the service of others unless the conscience has been educated, and that important role of education–enlightening the conscience–was so important to Charlotte Mason she wrote a textbook for young people (Ourselves) to contribute to the process.

(Oh my goodness–I became completely distracted from writing this blog post when I glanced into Ourselves. If you want a crash course on Charlotte Mason’s understanding of the role of the will, I refer you to Ourselves, Book II, p.126 to as far as you want to read.)

But, to return to the point in hand, which is the intersection of ideas between Charlotte Mason and Comenius, we find that Comenius describes Charlotte Mason’s position perfectly. The long-term educational goal is to instruct the conscience so that the mature man consciously chooses (wills) to do right. But that maturity requires time, and children are not yet able to fully control their appetites and impulses, so making a habit of doing what is right eases the processes and strengthens the will.

Comenius echoes Charlotte Mason’s understanding of the relationship of reason, will, and habit.

Fortitude should be learned by the subduing of self; that is to say, by repressing the desire to play at the wrong time or beyond the proper time, and by bridling impatience, discontent, and anger.

The principle which underlies this is that we should accustom boys to do everything by reason, and nothing under the guidance of impulse. For man is a rational animal, and should therefore be led by reason, and, before action, ought to deliberate how each operation should be performed, so that he may really be master of his own actions.

Now, since boys are not quite capable of such a deliberate and rational mode of procedure, it will be a great advance towards teaching them fortitude and self-control if they be forced to acquire the habit of performing the will of another in preference to their own, that is to say, to obey their superiors promptly in everything. (The Great Didactic, p. 364-65, emphasis mine)

(I myself prefer Charlotte Mason’s more cautious approach to reason than Comenius’s. Both recognize the natural power of rationality which belongs to man, but Comenius places more reliance in it than Mason did. I think this difference is easily understood by recognizing that Comenius is a pre-Enlightenment philosopher, and Mason is post-Enlightment. She knew where placing too much faith in human reason could lead.)

An important role of education, for Mason and Comenius, was instructing the conscience to know well what was right, and what was wrong, so that there would be clear understanding when it was time to bring the will into play and choose: do this, or do that.

It is interesting to see that both of them link this function of will to virtue, and understand that virtue is a matter of action–doing (hopefully, what is right), not just knowing right.

Mason:

Another thought that may occur is, that ‘Will’ is synonymous with an ideal.…Self-culture is accepted as the pursuit of an ideal; but when we realise that it is an ideal accomplished in self, and with no aim beyond self, we perceive that [a man pursuing self-culture] is not a man of will, because the first condition of will, good or evil, is an object outside of self.…If it be not goodness, the will is virtue, in the etymological sense of that word; it is manliness.

…Thus far we have seen, that, just as to reign is the distinctive quality of a king, so is to will the quality of a man. A king is not a king unless he reign; and a man is less than a man unless he will. (Ourselves, p. 138-140)

Comenius:

The young should learn to practise justice by hurting no man, by giving each his due, by avoiding falsehood and deceit, and by being obliging and agreeable.…Virtue is practised by deeds and not by words. (The Great Didactic, p. 356)

The pursuit of virtue–by which we mean doing and acting rightly–is integral to the classical ideal of education, but Christian educators like Comenius and Mason have really tapped into one of the keys to achieving this much-desired end. We have been given the use of a will which enables us to choose according to higher purposes than our own natural appetites and desires. When we choose to serve God or to serve others, we are behaving like men–image-bearers of God’s own nature–for to man only, among all creatures, did God give the use of will and reason

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #6–Nature Study

This is another one of those interesting intersections. The hardcore scholastic branch of educators paid almost no attention to the natural world as it is. If they thought about it at all…they thought about it. Or read what other people thought about it and thought about that. It wasn’t always a priority in educational practices to actually go out into the world, and look at things, and learn about them just by doing that.

Those educators who focus on the broader, universal principles of education–like Charlotte Mason and Comenius (and a few others–they are not alone)–tend to have a different view, and to recognize that the knowledge to be gained from a first-hand acquaintance of the natural world (or anything where first-hand knowledge is possible) is a valuable part of education.

A sort of precursor to actual nature study is understanding the relationship between the things perceived by the senses and the ability to express with words the things that are known. Again, this perception is not unique to Mason or Comenius, but they are “on the same page.”

Comenius:

Everything should, as far as possible, be placed before the senses. Everything visible should be brought before the organ of sight, everything audible before that of hearing. Odours should be placed before the sense of smell, and things that are tastable and tangible before the sense of taste and of touch respectively. If an object can make an impression on several senses at once, it should be brought into contact with several.…For this there are three cogent reasons. Firstly, the commencement of knowledge must always come from the senses (for the understanding possesses nothing that it has not first derived from the senses). Surely, then, the beginning of wisdom should consist, not in the mere learning the names of things, but in the actual perception of the things themselves! It is when the thing has been grasped by the senses that language should fulfil its function of explaining it still further. (The Great Didactic, pl. 336-37)

Mason:

Watch a child standing at gaze at some sight new to him––a plough at work, for instance––and you will see he is as naturally occupied as is a babe at the breast; he is, in fact, taking in the intellectual food which the working faculty of his brain at this period requires. In his early years the child is all eyes; he observes, or, more truly, he perceives, calling sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing to his aid, that he may learn all that is discoverable by him about every new thing that comes under his notice.…The child has truly a great deal to do before he is in a condition to ‘believe his own eyes’; but Nature teaches so gently, so gradually, so persistently, that he is never overdone, but goes on gathering little stores of knowledge about whatever comes before him.

And this is the process the child should continue for the first few years of his life. Now is the storing time which should be spent in laying up images of things familiar. By-and-by he will have to conceive of things he has never seen: how can he do it except by comparison with things he has seen and knows?

…We older people, partly because of our maturer intellect, partly because of our defective education, get most of our knowledge through the medium of words. We set the child to learn in the same way, and find him dull and slow.…But set him face to face with a thing, and he is twenty times as quick as you are in knowledge about it; knowledge of things flies to the mind of a child as steel filings to magnet. And, pari passu [hand in hand] with his knowledge of things, his vocabulary grows. (Home Education, excerpted from pages 65-7)

Quite possibly this topic deserves a post of its own, but I’m running out of space in this series for all the topics that could be written about the links between Mason’s ideas and Comenius’s, so we’ll just let it be an adjunct to nature study. Now that we understand their understanding of the relationship between things and words, we can venture out into nature.

First-hand acquaintance with whatever nature has placed before us is the object, and it of more value to know by sight and habit the trees, birds, insects, and waterways in your immediate vicinity than to read about exotic creatures in Australia or the Amazon jungle (unless, of course, that is where you live).

Charlotte Mason encouraged parents and teachers to have children outside observing nature for themselves every week, at least, and to make records and drawings of their observations in Nature notebooks. But the most important things was observing and learning at first-hand, and keeping a nature notebooks was part of that process. The creation of a nature notebook as a product is not the object.

Thus our first thought with regard to Nature-knowledge is that the child should have a living personal acquaintance with the things he sees. It concerns us more that he should know bistort from persicaria, hawkweed from dandelion, and where to find this and that, and how it looks, living and growing, than that he should talk about epigynous and hypogynous. All this is well in its place, but should come quite late, after the child has seen and studied the living growing thing in situ, and has copied colour and gesture as best he can. (Parents and Children, p. 231, emphasis mine)

The keeping of the nature notebook was a means of encouraging the children to pay close attention to what they were seeing, but over time, it also became a valuable record of all the things they had encountered and recorded, and year after year, new knowledge would build on old.

Comenius placed “natural philosophy” next to grammar in his curriculum proposal*, and wanted to limit the amount of reading done so that it could be accomplished early enough in the day to allow time outdoors.

Any reading that is necessary can be got through quickly out of school-hours without tedious explanations or attempts at imitation; since the time thus spent could be better employed in the study of nature. (The Great Didactic, p. 330)

He placed a great deal of faith in the wisdom that might be found by contemplating nature, and suggested that wisdom might as well be acquired from “oaks and beeches” as from books.

The spirit of the scientific age, which was in full flower in Charlotte Mason’s lifetime, was in its infancy during the the life of Comenius. Nevertheless, the importance of observing things and learning from things in nature, simply by looking purposefully, was common to them both.

And then, just because I’m trying to squeeze in as much as possible…

An adjunct to nature study for Charlotte Mason was geography (both fall into the category of “knowledge of the world”), in which she expected young children to be able to understand a mountain because they were acquainted with a nearby hill, or a mighty river because they had observed a stream. Comenius appreciated the same point:

We know the elements of geography when we learn the nature of mountains, valleys, plains, rivers, villages, citadels, or states, according to the situation of the place in which we are brought up. (The Great Didactic, p. 412)

The same powers of observation encouraged by nature study go a long way toward understanding the physical geography of the area that we live in, and relating that knowledge to what we know of other places.

Let’s listen to Charlotte Mason and Comenius, and…go take a walk? With our eyes wide open, of course.

*Grammar, to Comenius, meant learning to read. His biggest claim to fame is probably the Orbis Pictus, a beginner’s book which taught children to read in Latin and the vernacular at the same time. It was translated into over 100 languages, including Chinese and English!

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #5–Narration

This discussion is especially interesting, because narration is quintessentially associated with Charlotte Mason (and rightly so). For the sake of space (because this is a blog post), I have to assume my readers are familiar with narration and the way that Charlotte Mason used it. Nevertheless, she makes no claim to have invented the method. Quite otherwise, she tells us:

The method is as old as the mind of man, the distressful fact is that it has been made so little use of in general education. (Philosophy of Education, p. 160)

She does not tell us precisely where she encountered the idea for using narration as a general practice in education, but she could have found it mentioned in The Great Didactic of Comenius, if she read it in full, because he may be numbered among those who recommended the practice (although history does not suggest he ever had the opportunity to practice it on more than a small scale).

We may learn the most suitable mode of procedure by observing the natural movements that underlie the processes of nutrition in living bodies, namely those of collection, digestion, and distribution.…These three elements are to be found in the well-known Latin couplet: —

To ask many questions, to retain the answers, and to teach what one retains to others;
These three enable the pupil to surpass his master.

…With the two first of these principles the schools are quite familiar, with the third but little ; its introduction, however, is in the highest degree desirable. The saying, “He who teaches others, teaches himself,” is very true…because the process of teaching in itself gives a deeper insight into the subject taught. (The Great Didactic, p. 308-9)

This idea of telling/teaching what has just been learned seemed very valuable to Comenius, and he explains at length what the use of narration might look like in a classroom, and while his suggestions are by no means identical to Charlotte Mason’s (although did you notice he uses the same “digestion” analogy that she did?), it would appear much the same in practice. One of the things I found interesting is that both Comenius and Charlotte Mason recognized that this method was the ideal means to secure attention.

Another point should be borne in mind; the intellect requires a moral impulse, and we all stir our minds into action the better if there is an implied ‘must’ in the background; for children in class the ‘must’ acts through the certainty that they will be required to narrate or write from what they have read with no opportunity of ‘looking ‘up,’ or other devices of the idle. (Philosophy of Education, p. 17)

Comenius makes the same point, and like Charlotte Mason, takes note of the fact that the habit of attention, once developed in this way, becomes a power in every area of life.

The teacher is certain to have attentive pupils. For since the scholars may, at any time, be called up and asked to repeat what the teacher has said, each of them will be afraid of breaking down and appearing ridiculous before the others, and will therefore attend carefully and allow nothing to escape him. In addition to this, the habit of brisk attention, which becomes second nature if practised for several years, will fit the scholar to acquit himself well in active life. (The Great Didactic, p. 309-10)

Narration as a method may have been recognized as a powerful tool by some educators throughout history, but Charlotte Mason applied it on a wide scale, and showed the results of using it, in a way for which no earlier record exists. Doubtless some teachers used it to good effect, but we can thank Charlotte Mason for lifting this method out of all the others that might be available, testing it, and refining it in practical ways that encourage higher-level thinking in all areas of study.

I mentioned in the last post in this series that both Charlotte Mason and Comenius preferred education to focus first on synthetic thinking, which might be called “relational” thinking. And narration is a practice that allows those relationships to be formed. This, I think, is one of the more interesting points of intersection between Comenius and Mason–including both synthetic thinking and narration at the core of their ideas, and recognizing that they go hand in hand.

They also both recognized that narration is not a one-dimensional exercise, but also promotes the acquisition of vocabulary, reinforces memory, and develops a sense of style gleaned from the authors being narrated.

The scholars must be taught to express in language whatever they see, hear, handle, or taste, so that their command of language, as it progresses, may ever run parallel to the growth of the understanding. (The Great Didactic, p. 329)

Literary taste should therefore be taught by means of the subject-matter of the science or art on which the reasoning powers of the class are being exercised.…I have shown that it is possible for the scholars to give instruction in the subject that they have just learned, and, since this process not only makes them thorough but also enables them to make progress more rapidly, it should not be overlooked in this connection. (The Great Didactic, p. 330-31)

Charlotte Mason’s method of narration was used in scores of schools in Great Britain, and has been practiced faithfully in many homeschools for the last couple of decades. Of all the things you might glean from her, this particular practice ranks at the top of the list as one of the most effective educational methods ever developed. While I doubt many of what we call “classical” educators used it as faithfully or scientifically as Miss Mason did, it is in perfect harmony with their highest aims and ideals. Comenius, at least, along with Charlotte Mason, appreciated the way that this natural exercise developed the skills of thinking, speaking, writing, attention, and recollection in each young scholar.

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #4–Synthetic Thinking

As you can imagine, it was difficult not to make this the first thing I wrote about, just because the topic is so interesting to me. But there were other foundational principles I thought should come first. Nevertheless, the use of synthetic thinking ranks high on my list of important educational practices.

If you have read Consider This, I have devoted quite a bit of time to explaining what synthetic thinking is, and why it is important. I don’t have the space to do that here, so I’m basically just going to address the fact that both Charlotte Mason and Comenius saw the importance clearly, and shared the view that synthetic thinking should come first in the educational process. Synthetic thinking is virtually absent from most modern pedagogy, but played a crucial role in the classical, liberal arts tradition. (I spoke about synthetic thinking at the AmblesideOnline conference, if you are interested in learning more.)

To put it in the simplest terms possible, synthetic thinking is “relational” thinking, which focuses on forming a personal relationship with knowledge, as well as exploring how any new knowledge is related to what the learner already knows and understands, and how one thing is related to another. Analytic thinking focuses on taking things apart, breaking them down into smaller, discrete parts, and thinking about them separately. One is not “good” and the other “bad”–both are natural and have their place. Ideally, “putting together” by synthetic thinking should take place before “taking apart” analysis is brought into play. Children, especially, should be encouraged to deal with knowledge in a synthetic way, and all of Charlotte Mason’s methods promote synthetic thinking (more about that in a future post).

Comenius tells us “synthesis first” in plain language:

We may therefore lay it down as a law…that in dealing with any subject the analytic method should never be used exclusively ; in fact, preponderance should rather be given to the synthetic method. (The Great Didactic, p. 302)

He also gives us a good explanation as to why this should be so. Once things are apprehended synthetically, they can be analyzed with relative ease by an experienced learner.

Does the builder teach his apprentice the art of building by pulling down a house? Oh no; it is during the process of building a house that he shows him how to select his materials, how to fit each stone into its proper place, how to prepare them, raise them, lay them and join them together. For he who understands how to build will not need to be shown how to pull down, and he who can sew a garment together will be able to unrip it without any instruction. But it is not by pulling down houses or by unripping garments that the arts of building or of tailoring can be learned. (The Great Didactic, p. 301)

Charlotte Mason, too, well understood the benefits of forming relationships and learning to care about things, before attempting to dismantle them.

This invective discovers a mistake in our educational methods. From the time a child is able to parse an English sentence till he can read Thucydides, his instruction is entirely critical and analytic.…We miss the general principle that critical studies are out of place until the mind is so ‘throughly furnished’ with ideas that, of its own accord, it compares and examines critically.

…we are not capable of examining that which we do not know; and knowledge is the result of a slow, involuntary process, impossible to a mind in the critical attitude. Let us who teach spend time in the endeavour to lay proper and abundant nutriment before the young, rather than in leading them to criticise and examine every morsel of knowledge that comes their way. Who could live if every mouthful of bodily food were held up on a fork for critical examination before it be eaten? (Formation of Character, p. 293-95)

One interesting thing I have noticed while reading through the writing of Charlotte Mason and others who wrote articles in the PNEU Parents’ Review, is that they tend to use the actual word “synthetic” in reference to thinking and knowledge, without explanation, as if they expect the readers to understand what it is all about, though too often contemporary readers do not. Charlotte Mason refers to Goethe as having a “synthetic mind,” being dissatisfied with fragmentary knowledge.

Her introduction to her representation of the gospels in verse, The Saviour of the World, offers some commentary on the results of overly-analytic thinking:

We are at present in a phase of religious thought, Christian and pseudo-Christian, when a synthetic study of the life and teaching of Christ may well be of use. We have analysed until the mind turns in weariness from the broken fragments; we have criticised until there remains no new standpoint for the critic; but if we could only get a whole conception of Christ’s life among men and of the philosophic method of His teaching, His own words should be fulfilled and the Son of Man lifted up, would draw all men unto Himself. (quoted in Philosophy of Education, p. 166)

Notice the contrast between the “wholeness” of a synthetic approach, and the “broken fragments” of analysis. Synthetic thinking promotes relationship and caring, while analytical thinking ends in weary distate. It is worth any amount of time and thought to restore in ourselves the ability to understand knowledge synthetically, wholly. Modern education pushes analysis first and last, so that many of us have reached adulthood without being aware that there is any other way to approach knowledge. Without it, it is nearly impossible to implement Charlotte Mason’s methods effectively, and of course, to place analysis before synthesis is to depart from the classical tradition.

Apart from using methods that promote synthetic thinking, there are a couple of practical outcomes that were common for Charlotte Mason and Comenius. First, both of them insisted that lessons should be consecutive, not random, so that there is a rational plan for adding new knowledge to old knowledge, and the gradual understanding of the whole can be achieved.

Second, they both abhorred the practice of doling out knowledge in bits and pieces.

For the knowledge that consists of the collected sayings and opinions of various authors resembles the tree which peasants erect when they make holiday, and which, though covered with branches, flowers, fruit, garlands, and crowns, cannot grow or even last, because its ornamentation does not spring from its roots, but is only hung on. Such a tree bears no fruit, and the branches that are attached to it wither and fall off.(The Great Didactic, p. 302)

In other words, such a way of offering knowledge is not living, even if it looks that way at first glance. It has been cut off from the root, and can only wither and die. Charlotte Mason called this kind of material “scrappy,” and she joins Comenius in deploring it.

Psalm, hymn, and catechism have departed; the Bible lesson is pared down to a shred; and, in our zeal, we do not see that we have deprived the people of the classics, the metaphysics, the ethics––as well as the religion––peculiarly their own. Instead, we have put into their hands–– “Readers”––scraps of science, of history, of geography––saw-dust, that cannot take root downwards and bear fruit upwards in human soil. (Formation of Character, p. 148)

“Education is the science of relations” is one of Charlotte Mason’s fundamental principles, and “ordo amoris”–ordering the affections by learning to care about things that ought to be cared about–is a classical hallmark. They are essentially the same, and cannot be achieved except through synthetic thinking. “…he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” (Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien)

This topic leaves me worrying whether I and other bloggers are not doing the very thing Charlotte Mason and Comenius warned against–offering up knowledge in bits and pieces. If so, I beg forgiveness, and I will say here that this blog series is no substitute for reading Charlotte Mason’s Home Education Series or Comenius’s Great Didactic for yourself. Please consider this series, not a substitute for reading on your own, but the enthusiastic out-pourings of a fellow lover of knowledge. I don’t want to give you pre-digested knowledge, but rather invite you to the feast for yourself. By describing the dishes at the feast, I just want to whet your appetite. If time constraints won’t allow you to partake right now, at least you know the table is out there, and this kind of feast does not spoil or grow stale. It will still be there when you are ready.

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #3–Mind and Body

Today’s topic is not something that Charlotte Mason and Comenius share exclusively, but is rather one of those things they hold in common with some of the most ancient educators. The physical health and well-being of a person play a role in preparing a person to think, learn, and behave well. The ancient Greeks gave gymnastics a prominent role in their educational process, to prepare their pupils in every way for future heroic deeds, should they be called for. Charlotte Mason appreciated the point, and folded that idea into her educational methods.

The object of athletics and gymnastics should be kept steadily to the front; enjoyment is good by the way, but is not the end; the end is the preparation of a body, available from crown to toe, for whatever behest ‘the gods’ may lay upon us. It is a curious thing that we, in the full light of Revelation, have a less idea of vocation and of preparation for that vocation than had nations of the Old World with their ‘few, faint and feeble’ rays of illumination as to the meaning and purpose of life. (School Education, p. 102)

Truly, for many years, the physical well-being of the learner was not much considered, but after the Renaissance, thoughtful educators made a point of including it in their ideas. Comenius, too:

This same body is not only intended to be the dwelling-place of the reasoning soul, but also to be its instrument, without which it could hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing, conduct no business, and could not even think. (The Great Didactic, p. 258)

Both proper food and exercise were not too mundane to be a part of his admonitions.

In order that good health may be preserved, it is necessary that nourishment be not only moderate in quantity, but also simply in quality.…Parents should therefore take care not to spoil their boys, particularly those who study or ought to study, by giving them dainties. (The Great Didactic, p. 259-60)

Charlotte Mason goes into even greater detail about the proper (and improper) diet for children.

Everybody knows that children should not eat pastry, or pork, or fried meats, or cheese, or rich, highly-flavoured food of any description; that pepper, mustard, and vinegar, sauces and spices, should be forbidden, with new bread, rich cakes and jams, like plum or gooseberry, in which the leathery coat of the fruit is preserved. (Home Education, p. 26)

One of the practical points that arises from considering the well-being of the body, even during the hours devoted to learning, is a balanced schedule. A teacher who is trying to make sure children have the best chance to learn will make sure that their bodies and brains are rested and exercised between lessons. It was Comenius’s recommendation:

It is…useful to intersperse the labours of the day with recreation, amusements, games, merriment, music, and such-like diversions, and thus to refresh the inner and the outer senses. (The Great Didactic, p. 260)

We see then that a large portion of the good organization of schools consists of the proper division of work and of rest, and depends on the disposition of studies, intervals to relieve the strain, and recreation. (The Great Didactic, p. 261)

Modern science as Charlotte Mason knew it confirmed these basic ideas, and gave her additional confidence to recommend much the same thing:

Just as important is it that the brain should have due rest; that is, should rest and work alternately. (Home Education, p. 22)

This much is certain, and is very important to the educator: the brain, or some portion of the brain, becomes exhausted when any given function has been exercised too long. The child has been doing sums for some time, and is getting unaccountably stupid: take away his slate and let him read history, and you find his wits fresh again. Imagination, which has had no part in the sums, is called into play by the history lesson, and the child brings a lively unexhausted power to his new work. School time-tables are usually drawn up with a view to give the brain of the child variety of work. (Home Education, p.24)

One of the interesting points for us today is that even the newest research confirms that learning is optimal only under certain physical conditions. At the AmblesideOnline conference earlier this year, Lynn Bruce spoke on this topic, among other things, and delighted us by showing us how many of the riches included in a Charlotte Mason education, such as art and composer studies and nature walks, reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels and restore a healthier physical condition for learning.

These educators of long ago might not have had access to all the latest research we do, but their own observations and experiences set them on the healthiest path just the same. It is interesting to see how the basic principle “a healthy body is the best tool for learning” resulted in similar practical applications at different times.

Add some physical activity to your day, and take care to alternate the type of lessons/activities you do, so that your students have a chance to refresh their minds and bodies. It seems more like common sense than a lofty educational ideal, but I think the smartest and most effective teachers remember that these little things add to the atmosphere of the learning environment and the well-being of their pupils, and that makes them important enough to include in educational discussions.

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #2–Eternal things

One of the hardest things to decide about this series is the order in which to present topics. I’m still not sure, but I think I will continue in this post to look at a few broad principles that Charlotte Mason and John Amos Comenius shared, and which informed the way that they shaped their educational practices.

Our purpose in life should be focused on things of eternal value.

There may be educational methods that give lip service to this idea without actually implementing it, but I think most modern systems of education gloss right over it. The bulk of our educational endeavors tend to focus on measurable results (test scores), “success” which is defined as the gain of material advantages, or the child’s personal feelings of self-worth. The idea that there is more to life than this life on earth, or even that our earthly life can be enhanced by focusing on eternal things does not enter in. Our two educational philosophers knew what was important.

Comenius expresses this idea by saying that there are three pursuits only which are worthy of our position as the rational creatures God created us to be: Erudition (which he uses interchangeably with “learning”, Virtue, and Religion (or “piety”).

Under Erudition we comprehend the knowledge of all things, art, and tongues; under Virtue, not only external decorum, but the whole disposition of our movements, internal and external; while by Religion we understand that inner veneration by which the mind of man attaches and binds itself to the supreme Godhead.

In these three things is situated the whole excellence of man, for they alone are the foundation of the present and of the future life. All other thing (health, strength, beauty, riches, honour, friendship, good-fortune, long life) are as nothing, if God grant them to any, but extrinsic ornaments of life, and if a man greedily gape after them, engross himself in their pursuit, occupy and overwhelm himself with them to the neglect of those more important matters, then they become superfluous vanities and harmful obstructions. (The Great Didactic, p. 190)

I have not been able to find one place where Charlotte Mason was as succinct as Comenius about the whole thing, but she, too considered that education should be more than just preparation for making a living. If you have read Charlotte Mason’s volumes, you will have encountered, again and again, the emphasis she places on these higher things.

This, too, belongs to the disrespect in which we, as a nation, hold knowledge. To know is not synonymous with with to do; but we should not leave our young people to stumble on right action without any guiding philosophy of life; the risks are too great. We who bear the name of Christ do not always give ourselves the trouble to realise how His daily labour was to make the Jews know; how ‘ye will not understand’ was the reproach He cast upon them.” (Formation of Character, p. 383)

And like Comenius, she holds the pursuit of lesser things unworthy of our full potential. For example:

If the worlds you conquer be those of academic distinction, why, there is no spirit in you for further labours, unless as more such worlds present themselves. (Ibid.)

And again:

We live in times critical for everybody but eminently critical for teachers because it rests with them to decide whether personal or general good should be aimed at, whether education shall be merely a means of getting on or a means of general progress towards high thinking and plain living and therefore an instrument of the greatest national good. (Philosophy of Education, p. 180)

The desire for these higher things–the desire to know, the desire to do good, the desire to know God–are innate and natural in every person.

This has very definite implications when it comes to education, and you will find both Comenius and Mason making sure the point is clear.

It is not necessary, therefore, that anything be brought to a man from without, but only that that which he possesses rolled up with himself be unfolded and disclosed. (The Great Didactic, p. 194)

Which does not imply that no educational direction is needed! Comenius makes sure we understand that:

The seeds of knowledge, of virtue, and of piety are, as we have seen, naturally implanted in us; but the actual knowledge, virtue, and piety are not so given. These must be acquired by prayer, by education, and by action. (Ibid., p. 204)

I think this view–that children come to us with natural powers of mind and a natural appetite for knowledge–is a crucial point when it comes to education; because if you don’t recognize this truth explicitly, a great deal of educational labor can be expended–wasted, even–in trying to “teach children to learn” as if they did not know how, or in trying to “make things interesting” as if knowledge were an unpalatable medicine we have to disguise with a bit of jam.

Basically, the better you understand the exact nature of the person you must educate, the more likely you are to strike upon effective methods.

A child requires knowledge as much as he requires food.

He is furnished with the desire for Knowledge, i.e., Curiosity; with the power to apprehend Knowledge, that is, attention; with powers of mind to deal with Knowledge without aid from without––such as imagination, reflection, judgment; with innate interest in all Knowledge that he needs as a human being; with power to retain and communicate such Knowledge; and to assimilate all that is necessary to him.

…The natural provision for the appropriation and assimilation of Knowledge is adequate and no stimulus is required; but some moral control is necessary to secure the act of attention; (Philosophy of Education, p.18)

Like Comenius, Charlotte Mason recognized that the natural desire to be virtuous is present in children.

Children are born Law-abiding.––’Naughty baby!’ says the mother; and the child’s eyes droop, and a flush rises over neck and brow. …But what does it mean, this display of feeling, conscience, in the child, before any human teaching can have reached him? No less than this, that he is born a law abiding being, with a sense of may, and must not, of right and wrong. (Home Education, p. 13-14)

And Charlotte Mason, too, recognized the inborn hunger to know God and have a relationship with the Infinite.

Crowned kings have thrown up dominion because they want that which is greater than kingdoms; profound scholars fret under limitations which keep them playing upon the margin of the unsounded ocean of knowledge; no great love can satisfy itself with loving; there is no satisfaction save one for the soul of a man, because the things about him are finite, measurable, incomplete and his reach is beyond his grasp. He has an urgent, incessant, irrepressible need of the infinite. “I want, am made for, and must have a God;”––not a mere serviceable religion,––because we have in us an infinite capacity for love, loyalty and service which we cannot expend upon any other. (Philosophy of Education, p. 54)

It’s quite a starting point for an educational philosophy, isn’t it? Nothing about test scores or making a living, although it isnt suggested that those things are of NO value–simply that they are unworthy of primary consideration. Both Mason and Comenius took Eternity into account at the beginning of their educational thinking, and recognized that the seeds of the eternal things were there in the children they wanted to teach. Their job was to help the children realize the possibilities within them.

We’ll be looking at what that looks like in practice over the next few weeks!

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #1–Introduction

I’m going to attempt an actual, planned series of blog posts, scheduled to be posted at regular intervals. If you’re wondering whether or not I’ll be able to follow through with that, well…so am I. But I’ve been thinking about this and planning it since the spring of this year, so we’ll hope for the best.

What is my series going to be about? I’m really not good at cute and clever names, so I have no cute and clever name for it. I’m going to be writing about Charlotte Mason and John Amos Comenius, so “Charlotte Mason and Comenius” it is. That’s the topic and the title. At least no one will be confused.

I read all or most of Comenius’ Great Didactic some years ago, from the web archive. I gleaned a great deal from that reading, but earlier this year, I was able to acquire a physical copy of the book. It was a pleasure to read it again, this time with pencil and sticky-notes to keep track of the interesting parts. Comenius was one of the great educators of Europe, in fact, in the 1600’s. I don’t want to waste space telling you the stuff that Wikipedia can tell you, so if you are interested in those things, please read about him there.

I am going to tell you something about him that Wikipedia doesn’t pay more than cursory attention to. It’s one of the reasons I think Charlotte Mason found him an inspiration, one of the reasons that she was, perhaps, more ready to hear his ideas about education than some others. Comenius was a very, very Christian educator, and his Christianity colored all of his ideas and approaches to education. Charlotte Mason probably found him a “kindred educator” because they shared a common faith, which formed a solid foundation for their thinking about educational philosophy.

In a very real sense, they both set out deliberately to achieve the same goal.

Charlotte Mason:

My attempt in the following volume is to suggest to parents and teachers a method of education resting upon a basis of natural law…(Home Education, Preface to the Fourth Edition)

Comenius:

Let us then commence to seek out, in God’s name, the principles on which, as on an immovable rock, the method of teaching and of learning can be grounded. If we wish to find a remedy for the defects of nature, it is in nature herself that we must look for it, since it is certain art can do nothing unless it imitate nature. (The Great Didactic, p. 250)

(If you read the Wikipedia article, Comenius’ lessons from nature are considered “crude analogies” by the author. I disagree with him, as would Charlotte Mason, who freely made use of similar analogies to articulate her principles.)

Okay, so both them were looking for universal, natural principles, because acting in accordance with such principles (or natural laws, if they can be well-defined and articulated) makes great things possible. It is not by breaking the laws of physics that airplanes weighing many tons are able to fly through the air, faster and higher than any bird, but rather by acting in strictest accordance with those laws and principles. In education, if we can discern principles and laws which are absolutely true, our educational efforts have the potential to produce amazing results.

But neither Comenius or Charlotte Mason thought such natural laws existed in a vacuum. Both brought a serious Christian perspective to the problem as well.

Charlotte Mason:

If we believe that knowledge is the principle thing, that knowledge is tri-partite, and that the fundamental knowledge is the knowledge of God, we shall bring up our children as students of Divinity and shall pursue our own life-long studies in the same school. (Philosophy of Education, p.338)

Comenius:

Reason itself dictates that such a perfect creature [man] is destined to a higher end than all other creatures, that of being united with God, the culmination of all perfection, glory, and happiness, and of enjoying with Him absolute glory and happiness forever. (The Great Didactic, p. 179)

Sharing, as they do, this common belief that natural law can be discerned regarding education, and viewing the world with a decidedly Christian worldview, it has been fascinating to me to note the many, many points upon which they agreed. Some of them are large and lofty ideals, and some of them are minute practical details. Does it mean that Charlotte Mason was copying Comenius and got all her ideas from him? Not necessarily. We do know she was familiar with his work and his principles, however, and just by way of appreciating how sound universal principles make themselves known to thoughtful educators in every age, it is interesting to compare their ideas. Hence, the blog series (in case it is also interesting to others).

I’ll be aiming to post one new post in this series each Monday for the next 6 or 8 weeks. If you have any questions about it, or want to discuss anything further, feel free to comment. I’m going to keep this series chatty and informal, rather than making it a formal article. I know very few people are going to choose to read The Great Didactic, and that’s fine. It will still be nice to know a few things about this fascinating educator with whom Charlotte Mason shared a desire that was rare in the history of education–a desire to provide “a liberal education for all.”

(Comments are moderated because I get a ridiculous amount of spam, but I’ll check them at least once a day, Central European time, and get them up as quickly as possible.)

Something old, Something new

(Yes, I promise I will get those main pages updates and sorted really, really soon.)

In the meantime…

I just have something I want to share, and right now is the time to share it. When Consider This was first published two years ago this month (!), I shared a bit about how I came to write the book. I mentioned Sheila Atchley, a long-time friend, whose art and writing were particularly helpful and encouraging.

Sheila’s journey as an artist gets more exciting all the time, and I’m especially pleased that she’s releasing her first book! It’s called The Women of Advent: A Gathering of Scattered Hearts, Past and Present. Her beautiful art–I love the art, AND devotionals on the women in Jesus’ genealogy, as well as space for journaling…and a free gift with pre-orders, which she’s taking now.

woacover

I ordered mine and am looking forward to what I know will be a blessing during the upcoming Advent. Sheila has a way of touching hearts–especially women’s hearts–which is a rare gift. She encourages you. I can’t even explain it–you have to read it for yourself. She has a way of both making you content with the gifts and work that are yours alone, but with a no-nonsense approach that will not allow you to wallow in slackness. Be who you were meant to be. And do what you were meant to do. That’s the message I’ve taken away from Sheila’s writing, which truly celebrates women and their work, and I’m looking forward to what she has to say in this new book. (Which I hope will be only the first with more to come.)

“Something old” is the story of the women in the Bible who are named among the lineage of Christ.

“Something new” is Sheila’s unique and insightful devotional (I say this with confidence, though I haven’t even seen it–I just know) which will give you a whole new appreciation for them.

You won’t regret getting a copy–tell her I sent you.

 

What caught my attention at the National Gallery?

Yes, I know all the primary pages of my website need to be updated. Yes, I know I need to share a bit about upcoming plans and projects. I know all that, but I’m still making my first post in months a blog post about something completely out-of-the-blue, because education is the science of relations, and sometimes it’s messy and unorganized. But “take time to smell the roses,” right? And take time to share a fascinating painting most of us are unlikely to encounter.

My primary purpose for being in London, of course, was to conduct the “Large Room” seminar, and that was a wonderful day for everyone there, including myself. I had a few more days in London to see things, and of course the National Gallery was a don’t-miss visit. I have been there before, but my family had not, so most of our visit was focused on allowing them to see what they most wanted to see (Da Vinci paintings for my daughter, and all the Impressionists for my husband). I just wandered along behind them with no particular agenda of my own, but one painting arrested my attention and left me thinking about it for a long time afterward.

It’s kind of gruesome, but this was the painting:

wright_airpump-720288

It’s called “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright of Derby, and it is not the art/style that interested me, but the subject matter. A scientist, who looks for all the world like an archetypical “mad scientist” is performing a demonstration/experiment in which a bird in a globe is being subjected to a vacuum–all the air (or most of it) has been removed from the globe, and the bird is expiring. Science! Look at the attitudes of the people around him–the sensitive girls who are in obvious distress but are urged to look anyway, the youth who is working the bellows, but casts his eyes back to see, because he can’t suppress his fascination. There are the two young men watching intently, one of them holding a stop watch to measure the length of time the process takes. There is the older man with his head in hand, pondering something to himself, and that couple in the background who obviously have eyes only for each other and couldn’t care less about the whole thing. And that mad scientist? His hand is on the apparatus–the bird’s life in entirely in his hands–and he’s looking straight at you, the viewer, as if to ask, “and what do you think about all this?”

“All this” of course is science–new and fascinating, and educational, with so much potential to bring new knowledge and new technology into the world. This was painted in 1768, just on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. The whole question of whether or not the knowledge to be gained by science is worth the price that has to be paid is asked in this picture. What should our attitude be?

I was captivated by it. I don’t think there is an easy or simple answer, and I don’t think the world has stopped asking this question yet. But I also don’t think it had ever occurred to me that the matter could be expressed by a painting.

So, of all the amazing paintings in the National Gallery, this is the one that caught my eye and gave me the most to think about. Not admire, exactly. The painting as a work of art didn’t even enter into my thoughts. It was the painting as an expression of an idea that made me stop and think and look. I don’t think you can ask much more of an afternoon at an art gallery than that.

A “Science of Relations” Moment


Don’t you love it when the books talk to each other?

I’m still immersed in Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling by James Sire. It’s a particular pleasure to read a book on this subject by a modern author who has a profoundly Biblical perspective on the life of the mind.

So when I read that virtue must be expressed in action, I think “That’s just what David Hicks said in Norms and Nobility.” When I read that acts of the conscious will form our character, I think, “That’s what Charlotte Mason said, and what Anne White focuses on in Minds More Awake!” And when Dr. Sire makes a special point of focusing on humility as vital to intellectual development, I even think, “That’s what I said in Consider This!” (Whew–I wasn’t veering wide of the mark after all.)

I particularly like this:

We simply can’t know what we can’t know unless someone who knows we can’t know tells us. God has done that, of course. He has told us that we cannot penetrate his mind to the depths.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD
.

…But there is little else he has told us we cannot know.

And I’m a little excited about what’s coming next, because he has promised to begin talking about how to practically go about becoming a thinker. And for that? Oh, that’s where the humility comes in. He gives us a little chart of (some) of the different kinds of intellectual virtues. They fall under four headings:

Acquisition virtues (passion for truth), such as inquisitiveness
Application virtues (passion for holiness), such as love and fortitude
Maintenance virtues (passion for consistency), such as patience
Communication virtues (compassion for others), such as clarity of expression

Each list includes only four or five key virtues, but only one virtue appears on all four lists–humility.

I am fascinated by a discussion about thinking and learning that devotes so much attention to the role of humility. This, I think, is a hard-won virtue, since the mere suspicion of achieving it is fraught with pride, and there we are, back at square one again. And yet, without that humility that makes us teachable, well…how are we going to learn all those things that are possible to know?

(links are affiliate links)