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

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