This post originally appeared on the Charlotte Mason Institute blog, in response to a lengthy critique of Consider This. As it is no longer available there, but the critique itself can be read elsewhere, I decided to publish my response here. If you haven’t read the critique (which is much longer than my response), you don’t need to read this (which is still pretty long). This post is just a bit of housekeeping. Mr. Middlekauff responded to this critique, but not as he originally suggested, by correcting his errors. Rather, he argued that my concerns with his critique dwelt upon matters he deemed less important than others. My response deals largely with pointing out only a few of the ways in which I was unjustly misrepresented, making the rest of the critique essentially a straw-man argument, as it addressed itself to things I did not say. However, my conclusion here remains steadfast—it does not make a great deal of difference in the implementation of Charlotte Mason’s methods if you understand the classical nature her philosophy or if you do not. The final determination rests in the definition you choose to use for classical education. Meanwhile, we have learning to do, books to read, children to educate, and a wide, wide world to inspire our wonder. I would prefer that we do that as friends.
Karen Glass is one of the founders of AmblesideOnline ( www.amblesideonline.org ), a free curriculum based on Charlotte Mason’s methods of education. Since 1994, she has homeschooled her four children according to Mason’s philosophy, and three of them have graduated. She is also the author of Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition, published in 2014.
In May 2016, the Charlotte Mason Institute published Art Middlekauff’s critique of my book, Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition. For personal reasons, I have not been in a hurry to respond, though I felt a response was warranted, not because I want to argue about the ideas in my book, but because the ideas were so terribly misrepresented. When it was pointed out to Mr. Middlekauff that this was the case, he responded in the comments section of his article, “You said that my post misrepresents Consider This. If I have done so, I would like to correct my article. All I can ask is that you show me my specific errors and provide supporting evidence.”
This I have undertaken to do, at least in part, and I appreciate CMI permitting this response to be posted here, in the spirit of open discussion. Since the critique has been posted, I have sensed tension in our Charlotte Mason community, and I would like to do my part to ease that somewhat. We may disagree over secondary ideas while yet enjoying our common enthusiasm for the philosophy of Charlotte Mason. Mr. Middlekauff summarized his intent this way: “I am personally committed to showing respect for all people, and I believe that this can be done while also being faithful to the pursuit of truth. I ask the reader to join me in respecting others while at the same time evaluating evidence, interpretations, and ideas.” My intent is the same, and it is for the sake of truth that I provide this corrective.
I would have been delighted if someone else had taken on the task of pointing out some of the specific errors in Mr. Middlekauff’s critique, but it seems to have fallen to me. I suppose, in the end, no one else can articulate a more correct presentation of my ideas than I can myself, so what I have to offer you is a cozy chat while we talk things over, a small stack of books at hand. As I wrote to the readers of Consider This: “if we had the opportunity to sit down comfortably and chat over a cup of coffee, [this] is what I would share with you.” I mean to be conversational, and I thank you for reading.
What would you think of an educator who described a child in this way?
“In the first place, whether you choose or no to take any trouble about the formation of habits, it is habit, all the same, which will govern ninety-nine one-hundredths of the child’s life; he is the mere automaton you describe.”
You might think this: What? 99/100ths!!! The child is an automaton? Ruled by habits, as a computer is ruled by its programming? This is a narrow, incomplete, behavioristic, claustrophobic view which we can only reject. We’re not going to listen to anyone who views children as automatons!
And yet, this is said by Charlotte Mason (Home Education, p. 110).
Wrenched from its context and offered without the balance of so many other things she says, it presents an unappealing picture. It would, in fact, be very unjust to base your ideas about Charlotte Mason’s view of a person, or a child, on this paragraph. You would have quite a wrong impression of what she actually thinks. It would be even worse if I decided to summarize the whole thing this way, and present this partial assertion as if it were the whole: Mason insists that a child is a “mere automaton.”
Yet my critic has found it acceptable, repeatedly, to do this very thing to me. He asserts “Glass insists this…” and “Glass claims that…” with a word or snippet lifted from my text. He rarely quotes as much as a whole sentence, or provides context, or observes that one remark is qualified or balanced by another. A half-sentence here, or a few words there—he quotes and cites as if they stand alone for much more complex ideas, as if they were my complete thoughts, rather than mere fragments of fragments. So little attempt at a comprehensive presentation is offered that I’m not sure you can even tell from this critique what Consider This is actually about. If you read the critique of Consider This, but you did not read Consider This, then you have quite a wrong impression of what I actually think.
This reductionism is no way to do justice to an author’s intent; it is not scholarship, or even intellectual integrity; and ultimately, this makes my critic’s statements essentially not true. “Mason insists that a child is a mere automaton” is less than half a truth—really, completely inaccurate, even though she did say the exact words “he is the mere automaton.”
All the arguments and charts I might martial to refute this offensive claim, that children are mere automatons, would be no more than straw-man arguments, because they are aimed at a false idea. No one ever actually “insists that children are mere automatons,” so the arguments against it are…irrelevant. Mr. Middlekauff writes:
“Glass (2014a) claims that Mason’s educational theory is a ‘particular implementation’ of a ‘classical education’ (p. 125).”
This is a subtle misrepresentation, and all the more difficult to untangle because of that. However, this is just as true as declaring that “Mason claims that children are mere automatons.” By which I mean, it isn’t accurate, but rather a distorted presentation of some words I happened to use.
In this presentation, the suggestion is made that I claim all of Charlotte Mason’s theory of education is (equal to, the same as, with no qualifications) an implementation of classical education. That is not what I said; let me be explicit: this is not what I think, and it is not the premise of Consider This. What I said was, “Those for whom all philosophies will be held up to the Bible for inspection, to determine their rightness and validity, might be interested to know to what degree this [i.e., my] concept of classical education, and Charlotte Mason’s particular implementation of it, is consistent with a Biblical understanding of knowledge.” (Consider This, p. 125)
In this sentence (which appears in the Afterword, after a great deal of other discussion), the point of reference is my personal concept of classical education as presented in Consider This, and the sentence is worded to suggest that Charlotte Mason’s philosophy contains or includes an implementation of it (this is implied by the possessive form: Charlotte Mason’s). Not is. In other words, Charlotte Mason has implemented the ideas I have elaborated on, but it is not stated or implied that they represent the whole of her educational philosophy, or that her philosophy is nothing but an attempt to reproduce a form of classical education. I did not say that, and I do not think that. So far as I can tell, Mr. Middlekauff never addresses the actual premise of Consider This, but only this distorted one.
Precision of language is important, especially in discussions about abstract ideas. If my correction seems trivial to you, I invite you to ask any Bible scholar which of the following statements is true: “The Bible is the Word of God” or “The Bible contains the Word of God.” If words are pulled from their context, it is incumbent upon the writer to remain faithful to that context when they are presented. Mr. Middlekauff states the purpose of his paper thus: “The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that Charlotte Mason’s method is not merely a ‘particular implementation’ of a ‘classical education.’” All the arguments my critic might martial in opposition to that idea are largely irrelevant so far as they concern Consider This. Because that is not what I said.
When one sets out to write a book, as I did, it is necessary to define your audience. You might or might not state your audience outright, but I did, in the very introduction of Consider This. I wrote, “I assume that you are reading because, like me, you are interested in Charlotte Mason and the classical tradition.” It is not a crime to make assumptions about your readers—every author does, including Charlotte Mason. Being nice and clear about it like that allows you to go on with your discussion. Everything, from that point forward, takes that assumption for granted, and it’s okay, because the reader knows.
Astonishingly, my critic takes me to task for this, and scolds me for making what he calls a priori assumptions. However, there is nothing remarkable in what I have done, and I did it in the clear light of day—I tell you my assumption for my reader, and if you are not that person, then, in all fairness, I did not write my book for you. Would you blame the author of 50 Ways to Prepare Beef for making the a priori assumption that her readers were not vegetarians?
I don’t mind saying that if you are an enthusiastic student of Charlotte Mason, and enjoy and practice her methods already, and could not care less whether she is “classical” or not, then Consider This might not be the book for you. I simply did not write Consider This to convince Charlotte-Mason-enthusiasts that she is classical, and that counts double for Charlotte-Mason-enthusiasts who are hostile to the idea of the classical tradition. I especially did not write my book for them, and so there is small wonder that I have failed to convince someone of that premise. I wasn’t trying to.
Rather, in the cacophony of voices that vie for attention in the classical education community, I was trying to pour a calming draft of sweet oil over the turmoil; to draw attention away from Latin and stages and rigor; to hit “pause” and invite my reader to consider this: What really makes a classical education worth your time? What do you truly hope to achieve by following this path? Why are you doing this? And, if you have read Consider This, you know what I chose to focus on.
And all the while, as I discuss some fundamental ideas that pertain to the classical tradition, I remind my readers— “Look, someone has already made a way, a very good way, to go about this. Charlotte Mason valued these things, too, and her methods will make this possible. You can do this.” In other words, my book is an invitation to someone, already interested in the classical tradition, to consider Charlotte Mason’s methods as a very valid way of working out the ideals of that tradition.
And if you are one of the many readers who have said to me, “Your book helped me so much,” then please accept my gratitude and thanks. Those comments, every one, lifted my heart, and I say again, without regret, “I wrote my book for you, and I am so, so glad it made a difference to you.”
I am at a bit of a loss to understand why I should be the object of criticism for clearly stating my audience, and then writing to that audience. Along the same line, my critic also objects to my placing the Biblical aspect of my discussion in an afterword, but I again refer to my stated audience: those interested in Charlotte Mason and the classical tradition. Within that category, there are many Christians, but there are others as well. I was writing to all of them. Charlotte Mason, in fact, made the a priori assumption that her readers were Christians. She takes that for granted (and I did not conceal her Christianity), but I live in a different time and place, and I cannot take that for granted. The afterword is for my fellow believers, whom I hoped would understand why I set it apart in that way.
However, I must continue to address some of the many misrepresentations of my ideas. For example, my critic says:
“Drawing primarily on the classical tradition, she [Charlotte Mason] allegedly ‘developed a fresh presentation for some very old ideas. Having put those ideas into practice and found them effective, she began to speak and later write with confidence about what she had learned.’”
This is a perfect example of the way my critic quotes half a sentence, so that he can impose his own ideas onto mine. His sentence above begins “Drawing primarily on the classical tradition…,” thus implying that it is my assertion that the classical tradition is, not merely a source of inspiration for Charlotte Mason, but the primary one. I have neither implied nor said this. On the contrary, I have rather provided balance in my presentation, to make it clear that Charlotte Mason drew her ideas from a number of sources, and that she sometimes even differs from classical practices. Just as there is ample evidence in Charlotte Mason’s writing to help you understand that when she says a child is a “mere automation,” that does not mean she thinks that is all that he is, so there is ample evidence in Consider This to show that I do not think the classical past was the “primary” source for all of Charlotte Masons ideas. Reading the text with intellectual integrity will make that balance clear.
Just by way of a single example:
“We have seen that she shared some important principles with the classical tradition, but from principles we have to develop practices. Every philosophical, educational concept has to be put to the test in a real classroom (home or school) with real children, and Charlotte Mason was also influenced by the scientific principles of evidence that drove her modern society.” (Consider This, p. 61, emphasis added)
But let’s look at something that appears to have a little more substance than these misrepresentations.This is one of those things that has apparently caused genuine confusion to at least some who have read the critique, though a careful reading of the chapter in question easily solves the difficulty. Mr. Middlekauff asserts that the Gospels are a primary source for Charlotte Mason’s theory of education, and quotes, in evidence of this, a passage from Home Education.
“Code of Education in the Gospels. – It may surprise parents who have not given much attention to the subject to discover also a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ. It is summed up in three commandments, and all three have a negative character, as if the chief thing required of grown-up people is that they should do no sort of injury to the children: Take heed that ye OFFEND not – DESPISE not – HINDER not – one of these little ones.” (Home Education, p. 12)
Before we go any further, what do you think? How far could these commandments take you toward a positive and complete theory of education? Some little way, yes, but is there enough in these “don’ts,” even with the addition of a little brain research, to formulate a complete working philosophy of education?
It is a myopic view of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy to suppose that finding this negative code in the Gospels completely excludes the possibility of finding educational truth and insight elsewhere. It is a starting place, not a stopping place, which becomes clear as we read the entire chapter, which is called “some preliminary considerations.” Pause for a moment to think about that, please. “Preliminary considerations” are a few things you need to think about before you proceed further…but further, you most definitely mean to go.
In the very next paragraph, Charlotte Mason says, “Let us look upon these three great laws as prohibitive, in order to clear the ground for the consideration of a method of education…”
And I pause here, again, so we can think about that. This code of education in the Gospels—these negative injunctions which prohibit us from doing certain things—merely “clear the ground” for that further consideration of a more complete method of education. This is important work, and it is no small thing for the “code of education in the Gospels” to give a clear space on which to build, eliminating for us much of the rocks, weeds, and detritus of some educational practices. But it is a long way from the clear ground to a working method. Charlotte Mason spends a little time elaborating on the way “offend not, despise not, and hinder not” should guide our thinking (both negatively and positively), but then she moves on.
Her “preliminary considerations” take into account a healthy life-style for children, and a bit of Augustinian insight into epistemology, and then she gives us the key to her search for a working method. After discussing the laws of health which cover body, and the brain as an organ of the body, she reminds us that just as there are “laws” in the realm of physiology, there are other “laws” also, and she makes a point of telling us that these laws are not necessarily found in the Bible. That code of education in the gospels is not the only source of wisdom.
“The reason why education effects so much less than it should effect is just this––that in nine cases out of ten, sensible good parents trust too much to their common sense and their good intentions, forgetting that common sense must be at the pains to instruct itself in the nature of the case, and that well-intended efforts come to little if they are not carried on in obedience to divine laws, to be read in many cases, not in the Bible, but in the facts of life.” (Home Education, p. 38)
Charlotte Mason tells us that “the universe of mind, as the universe of matter, is governed by unwritten laws of God.” Where then, if unwritten by God, can these laws of mind be discovered? She is not explicit here, but “the facts of life” is a pretty broad field. I think she left it wide open on purpose, so that we are free to seek out these laws from a variety of sources. She is clear about one thing: “it is possible to ascertain laws and keep laws without recognising the Lawgiver.” In other words, it is possible to find in the thoughts and ideas of even pagans some of these universal truths, or laws, which “inherit the blessings of obedience.” She compares it to a blind man who is warmed, though not lighted, by the sun—so those who do not see God or know Him are still warmed as they draw near to the laws of mind and morals which, though unwritten in the Bible, are still divine laws. She wanted to discern these natural laws so she could build an educational method upon them.
Along the same lines, she writes elsewhere: “It is not sufficient to bring unaided common-sense and good intentions to this most delicate art of child-study. We cannot afford to discard the wisdom of the past and begin anew with the effort to collect and systematise, hoping to accomplish as much and more in our short span than the centuries have brought us.” (Parents and Children, p. 205)
Charlotte Mason actually has some hard words for people who refuse to look beyond the written laws of God to discover what those other laws are— “physical, mental, moral; all the laws of God excepting those of the spiritual life…” It is a sad thing when non-believing people lead better lives—more morally upright—by following the natural laws, rather than the spiritual ones. (Come to think of it, the Apostle Paul had some hard words to say on the same subject…)
She concludes her “preliminary considerations” with a promise to lay out a method of education which is based upon “mental science” and “moral science”—natural law, which she acknowledges to be less than the highest thing, the knowledge of God—but still adequate to give children “truthfulness, diligence, and uprightness of character.”
“Parents must acquaint themselves with the Principles of Physiology and Moral Science.––Now, believing parents have no right to lay up this crucial difficulty for their children. They have no right, for instance, to pray that their children may be made truthful, diligent, upright, and at the same time neglect to acquaint themselves with those principles of moral science the observance of which will guide into truthfulness, diligence, and uprightness of character. For this, also, is the law of God. Observe, not into the knowledge of God, the thing best worth living for: no mental science, and no moral science, is pledged to reveal that. What I contend for is, that these sciences have their part to play in the education of the human race, and that the parent may not disregard them with impunity. My endeavour in this and the following volumes of the series will be to sketch out roughly a method of education which, as resting upon a basis of natural law, may look, without presumption, to inherit the Divine blessing.” (Home Education, p. 40-41, emphasis mine)
To return for a moment to my critic, who suggests that the code of education found in the gospels was somehow sufficient (with the addition of brain science, which concerns matter, not mind), I can only point out that Charlotte Mason thought otherwise. Her desire to seek out the natural laws of the mind and incorporate them into a method of education does not diminish the importance of the ground-clearing work of that gospel “code of education,” but a part is a part only, and should not be mistaken for the whole.
I enjoy that sort of thing—putting the pieces of a puzzle together, and refining my understanding of how the “code of education” found in the Gospels fits in the larger picture of Charlotte Mason’s educational ideas. I hope you found it interesting, too. However, the misrepresentations of my ideas persist.
Mr. Middlekauff writes: “Nevertheless, Glass (2014a) insists Charlotte Mason was directed by ‘her desire to be inspired and guided by the principles of the past.’”
I want to just lay it out as a truism that every time my critic says “Glass insists,” I probably didn’t. Certainly not in this instance.
First I quote Charlotte Mason, who is quoting Plato. And then, this is what I actually said:
“This reference to Plato, set forth at the beginning of her last, most thorough and mature book, seems to indicate her desire to be inspired and guided by the principles of the past. She cites no contemporary authority of her own as her standard, but rather hearkens back to one of the oldest writings on education available to us. She links her ideas with the ideas of the classical past, but intentionally brings them into the present.” (Consider This, p. 2)
I invite you to use your own judgment. Do you think that my “seems to indicate” is justly portrayed by “insists?” Does “Charlotte Mason was directed” properly convey the idea that I merely suggest she took guidance and inspiration from the past? (Particularly when we remember that she herself says, “We cannot afford to discard the wisdom of the past.”) My critic has a tendency to do this throughout his text—to alter the nature of my statements so that, in the end, they aren’t really my statements at all. More often than not, I simply did not say what he says that I did. We’re going to look at a particularly egregious one:
“Glass (2014a) insists that the teacher must provide ‘Lessons in Humility’ (p. 27). Glass (2014a) introduces this topic on page 28 by supplying a warning from Mason (1989b): ‘The note of childhood is, before all things, humility’ (p. 282). But this quote does not support the idea of ‘lessons in humility.’ Mason’s point is that the child is a natural model of humility. The context (Parents and Children, page 282) says, ‘A child is humble’ (emphasis added). It is the ‘note of childhood’, because it is exhibited by children, not taught to children.”
I’ll be honest with you—this particular claim, among the many mis-statements in my critic’s thesis, disconcerted me. You see, I know that I don’t think teachers should “provide lessons in humility.” I could not imagine what I had said to give him this impression. As it happens, the only words that truly belong to me are “lessons in humility.” This is the subheading for the final section of a chapter about humility, and the role it plays in education. The section contains lessons in humility of various sorts—many from Charlotte Mason—from which the reader/teacher is invited to learn. I will give you a substantial part of that material from Consider This.
“Lessons in Humility
Discerning how to remain humble, teachable, even after the acquirement of some academic credentials—even after earning a PhD!—is a matter for serious reflection by those who would follow the classical traditions of education. Neither children nor their teachers are immune to intellectual pride, and if our goal is the classical goal—wisdom and virtue—we must take care to avoid that ever-present danger and “barrier to all improvement.”
Charlotte Mason warns:
It may be worth while to characterise two or three of the landmarks of this child’s estate; for how shall we safeguard that which we do not recognise, and how recognise that to which we have failed to give deliberate attention? The note of childhood is, before all things, humility. (Parents and Children, p. 282)
She may have gleaned this idea from an author she admired, John Ruskin, who writes:
The first character of right childhood is that it is Modest. A well-bred child does not think it can teach its parents, or that it knows everything. It may think its father and mother know everything,—perhaps that all grown-up people know everything; very certainly it is sure that it does not. And it is always asking questions, and wanting to know more. Well, that is the first character of a good and wise man at his work. To know that he knows very little;—to perceive that there are many above him wiser than he; and to be always asking questions, wanting to learn, not to teach. (John Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive)
Sometimes we consider humility a spiritual virtue, but it is an intellectual virtue as well. Children know that they do not know everything and have much to learn. The mature disciples of Christ needed not only to become as children, but to realize that they could learn something, even from a child. This fundamental understanding—that everyone, everywhere might be able to teach us something—is the keynote of humility.
Our common notion of humility is inaccurate. We regard it as a relative quality. We humble ourselves to this one and that, bow to the prince and lord it over the peasant…but this misconception confuses our thought on an important subject. For humility is absolute, not relative. It is by no means a taking of our place among our fellows according to a given scale, some being above us by many grades and others as far below. There is no reference to above or below in the humble soul, which is equally humble before an infant, a primrose, a worm, a beggar, a prince. (Parents and Children, p. 283)
It is a valuable thing to be able to approach every person or object or book with a view to learning something from them. What might we learn from an infant? From a primrose or other flower? What does a worm have to teach us, or a homeless man in the street? This we will never find out, unless we place ourselves in that attitude of teachableness which makes learning possible.” (Consider This, p. 27-29)
Having read the section, can you agree with my critic’s statement that “Glass insists that the teacher must provide ‘Lessons in Humility’”?
This was one of the most faulty assertions in the critique, particularly in need of a corrective. Once we understand what I actually was saying, it might be interesting to discuss what happens to the humble little child to turn him into the not-humble adult. When is the humility replaced by something else? Humility is probably the note of childhood for a child of three…or maybe five…but would you consider humility to be naturally present in the average ten-year-old today? Up there in the passage from my book, there is a quote from Charlotte Mason about “safeguarding” this happy state in children, which is, alas, far from enduring. It would be interesting to explore this idea, but I regret to say that this probably isn’t the time for that discussion.
My critic has gone repeatedly astray in his arguments, as I have tried to demonstrate with a few clear examples. I will not try your patience by undertaking to correct every single one of the misrepresentations which essentially render his whole treatise untenable. I have counted approximately thirty instances of these misrepresentations of my ideas (not counting the straw-man arguments arrayed against them). If Mr. Middlekauff truly desires to correct them, as he stated in his comment, it is his own responsibility. So unreliable are his presentations of my ideas, I can only recommend that they be disregarded unless they are fact-checked with a copy of Consider This. They are suspect, every one.
Apart from addressing the misrepresentations, I will respond to just a few other things.
Mr. Middlekauff says: “Glass (2014a) describes a model of education that includes elements from Charlotte Mason’s theory and from the classical tradition. The result is a hybrid that is not compatible with either.”
To this suggestion that I have created a hybrid—that I have combined two things, and produced a new thing—I categorically state, I have not done this. Charlotte Mason needs nothing added to her. Her method is complete as it stands, and the correct understanding of my proposal is that following her method exactly as she presents it is a valid way of implementing the vital elements of the classical tradition, because her principles intersect and echo some of the important principles of that tradition. That is, in fact, the very premise of Consider This.
But there are other things to consider. Mr. Middlekauff writes:
“On page 23, Glass (2014a) quotes Mason (1989c) as saying: ‘The functions which Plutarch claims for philosophy we ascribe to religion, and by so doing, we place life on a higher level. There is this fundamental difference between the two: while philosophy instructs, religion both instructs and enables’ (p. 385). This shows Mason contrasting herself from the classical tradition, rather than aligning herself with it. According to Mason, the classical tradition offered philosophy. But Mason’s model of education replaces philosophy with religion, and by so doing enables life on a ‘higher level’ than that available to the classical teachers.”
This paragraph from my critic’s lengthy treatise deserves thoughtful treatment, although it will take a little time to clarify the issue. I have been misrepresented throughout the critique, but here I believe we find Charlotte Mason herself being misrepresented. It may be that my critic misrepresents because he misunderstands. He chooses to interpret her statement as a contrast, but that’s not what it is, at all. This will be easier to see if we look at the full passage in Formation of Character. From pages 383-85, we find this (most of it is an extensive quote from Plutarch):
[The Greeks] seem to have held that, along with gymnastic and music, philosophy is the chief concern of every youth. “A freeborn boy,” says Plutarch, “must neglect no part of the cycle of knowledge, but he must run through one (subject) after another, so that he may get a taste of each of them––for to be perfect in all is impossible––but philosophy he must pursue in earnest. I can make this clear by a figure. it is delightful and entertaining to travel through many cities, but only profitable to linger in the best.
The philosopher Bion has well said: ‘As the suitors of Penelope, when they could not obtain her, made free use of all that belonged to her, so also they who find philosophy too hard occupy themselves with other branches of knowledge, worth nothing by comparison. For this reason, philosophy must be put first in all education.
“For the nurture and development of the body men have invented two instruments, the study of medicine and gymnastic, of which one makes for the health of the body, the other for its strength. But for the sicknesses and sorrows of the soul, philosophy is the only cure.
“Through philosophy, man arrives at the knowledge of what is good and what is bad, what is just and what is unjust; most especially he learns what he should endeavour after, and what he should avoid; how he should order himself towards God, towards father and mother, towards his elders, towards the laws, towards strangers and superiors, towards his friends, towards wife and child and slave. She teaches humility towards God, reverence for parents, respect for the aged, obedience to law; to be in submission to authority, to love friends, to be chaste towards women. She teaches tenderness towards children and gentleness towards slaves; she exhibits to us the highest good, that in happiness our joy be measured, and in misfortune our grief restrained; in order that we be not as the beasts, unrestrained in desire as in rage. These are, I hold, some of the benefits we owe to the teaching of philosophy. For to be modest in good fortune, to be without envy, gentle in mind, to know how to extinguish evil desires, is wisdom; and the ruling of an angry spirit is the sign of no common understanding.”
Directly following this lengthy quote of an ancient educator, which is full of truly good and rich ideas, we have the paragraph quoted above, which I requote here with some additions:
The [exact same] functions [which we also consider very important and want to achieve for our children] which Plutarch claims for philosophy we ascribe to religion [reread the previous passage and substitute “religion” for “philosophy”], and by so doing, we place life on a higher level. There is this fundamental difference between the two: while philosophy instructs [teaches you these good things], religion both instructs [teaches you these same good things] and enables [gives you the power to do them]. Or, it could be summarized this way: “We should try to do the exact same thing the Greeks were doing, and we have a more effective tool at our disposal.”
It’s a real stretch to imagine that Charlotte Mason quoted all that if she intends only to tell you to toss it out. Her point rather, is that the Greeks gave their youth clear, intentional instruction in life and morals, and she wishes modern Christian parents to do the same, more especially because they have a stronger foundation. But the pedagogy, if you will, is the same, and this truly cannot be misunderstood when you realize that this entire section is headed by the definite statement: “In some ways the Greeks had a more adequate view of education than ourselves.”
Having read the passage for yourself, can you agree with my critic’s conclusion? “This shows Mason contrasting herself from the classical tradition, rather than aligning herself with it.” Is that understanding of the text consistent with Charlotte Mason’s claim that the Greek view of education was more adequate? I believe her lengthy quote is not meant to be discarded, but emulated, in the light of clearer revelation.
As we near the end of my response, I would like to share one part of Mr Middlekauff’s critique about my ideas which is correct. I genuinely wish he had been as accurate in describing all my ideas as he is in this one instance. It is much more interesting to have a discussion about the actual ideas in question than to be called upon to correct mis-statements. He writes:
“Glass (2014a) repeatedly states that the purpose of education is virtue – right behavior. For example, she quotes David Hicks as saying, “The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows” (as cited on p. 18). She also asserts that in the classical model, “education was intended to result in right action,” and “all areas of education were brought into service for this single goal—to teach children to think and act rightly” (p. 19, emphasis added). Glass (2014a) is clear that the aim of education is “most importantly—bringing that knowledge to bear on actual conduct” (p. 20, emphasis added).
“According to Glass (2014a), this motivation for the classical educators includes all types of academic study: “They pursued all areas of knowledge—even arithmetic or grammar—as a part of the process that would lead to wisdom, and ultimately, character and virtue” (p. 23, emphasis added). Glass (2014a) attempts to show that Mason also believed that the purpose of education is right action. Quoting Mason, she writes that “[the formation of character is] the ultimate object of education” (as cited on p. 24). The problem with this quotation is that the full context of Mason’s (1989b) statement is: “Suppose the parent see that the formation of character is the ultimate object of education” (p. 83, emphasis added). In other words, the sentence is hypothetical and not a definitive statement of Mason’s official statement on the goal of education.”
There’s no need to fact-check this bit. This is a reasonable assertion of my first premise about the classical tradition of education—that it aimed to effect right conduct on the basis of right thinking.
However, earlier in his critique, Mr. Middlekauff also said this:
“But in order for Glass to claim this, she must completely ignore Mason’s educational catechism (found in Parents and Children). It is not surprising that Glass’s book never mentions this catechism. In this catechism especially, Mason (1989b) casts aside all notions of a classical system in favor of the powerful Person of Jesus Christ…”
Mr. Middlekauff has my thanks for drawing my attention to this catechism. I’m not sure why he finds it “not surprising” that I neglected to mention it, or why he thinks I would be in the least disturbed by it, but he has my assurance that if the occasion ever arises to produce a second edition of Consider This, I will most definitely mention it, and more. It’s almost as if Charlotte Mason had set out on purpose to articulate my exact premise, as described above.
This is the beginning of the catechism:
“Character an Achievement––As the philosophy which underlies any educational or social scheme is really the vital part of that scheme, it may be well to set forth, however meagrely, some fragments of the thought on which we found our teaching. We believe––
That disposition, intellect, genius, come pretty much by nature.
That character is an achievement, the one practical achievement possible to us for ourselves and for our children.
That all real advance, in family or individual or nation, is along the lines of character.
That, therefore, to direct and assist the evolution of character is the chief office of education. [Emphasis mine]
But perhaps we shall clear the ground better by throwing a little of the teaching of the Union into categorical form:––
Character and Disposition.
Origin of Conduct––What is character?
The resultant or residuum of conduct.
That is to say, a man is what he has made himself by the thoughts which he has allowed himself, the words he has spoken, the deeds he has done.
How does conduct itself originate?
Commonly, in our habitual modes of thought. We think as we are accustomed to think, and, therefore, act as we are accustomed to act.” (Parents and Children, p. 233-34)
This is such a tidy summation of my thesis, you might imagine I had made my beginning here, but that is not the case, although I could have. I went to have a special look at the catechism because of Mr. Middlekauff’s comment, and this is what I found. It is very difficult for me to understand how a person who read this would not see the obvious connection to my ideas as described above. Observe the relationships:
“We think as we are accustomed to think, and, therefore act as we are accustomed to act.” Our actions begin with our thoughts; our conduct arises out of our manner of thinking. The residuum of our conduct is character, which we produce with our thoughts, words, and deeds. And Charlotte Mason says, “To direct and assist the evolution of character is the chief office of education.” This assertion is consistent with my premise that the classical goal of education is virtue or character, and I think it is a “definitive statement of Mason’s official statement on the goal of education.” She uses the term “chief office of education” to indicate its primary place.
This is remarkably similar to my quote from David Hicks above. “The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.” Whatever else Charlotte Mason says (and she says plenty—there is a lot in those six volumes of hers), this is her very catechism, her philosophy in its essence, the “vital part” of the whole thing—and she begins it by essentially articulating my description of the first vital element of the classical tradition. I invite you to read chapter three of Consider This.
This understanding of the relationship between thoughts, actions, and character is one of those “natural laws” of mind and morals that Charlotte Mason talks about in her “preliminary considerations.” These are some of the “universal truths” that I refer to, which were articulated by educators throughout history. My claim for Charlotte Mason is not that she based all her ideas on the educators of the past, but that she shares some of the same vital ideas that others have articulated before her, from within the classical tradition, again and again, and that she was aware of those connections.
The connection is even stronger when you look at the next part of the catechism, about habit; however, there is no more space for that discussion right now. Those who are interested can follow it up if they choose. One thing only I will point out. Charlotte Mason quotes and names Thomas à Kempis as she points out “one habit overcometh another.” As much as her specific ideas about habit are founded in contemporary science, their role in education is not at all new, and she chooses to link the idea to the past as well.
A little further into the catechism, we find this statement: “It is time we reverted to the teaching of Socrates. ‘Know thyself,’ exhorted the wise man, in season and out of season; and it will be well with us when we understand that to acquaint a child with himself—what he is as a human being—is a great part of education.” I’m not really sure a catechism which suggests that it is time to “revert” to the teaching of Socrates can be described as one which “casts aside all notions of a classical system.”
These repeated references to thinkers and ideas from the past are just the sort of thing I have in mind when I claim that Charlotte Mason “links her ideas to the ideas of the past.” For all the claims she makes about her ideas being new and progressive (and I don’t discount that aspect of her philosophy), she makes other claims as well, and she herself chooses to call attention to the fact that her ideas align with the ideas of earlier thinkers. Draw your own conclusions. Mine is that, while she intends to be progressive and forward-thinking, she wants to make it clear that her ideas are anchored to the solid ideas in the “philosophy of the ages.” Even Plato’s. A correct understanding of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy must allow for the inclusion of all that she has said.
I said earlier that a part is only a part, and should not be mistaken for the whole, and while writing this response, and looking closely at what Mr. Middlekauff wrote, I came to what I think is an understanding of his position. I believe he conflates Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education with her religion or theology. Indeed, she makes it all too easy to do that. Nevertheless, there is a distinction, a definite line, which must be drawn. Charlotte Mason drew it for us in her preliminary considerations in
Parents must acquaint themselves with the Principles of Physiology and Moral Science.––Now, believing parents have no right to lay up this crucial difficulty for their children. They have no right, for instance, to pray that their children may be made truthful, diligent, upright, and at the same time neglect to acquaint themselves with those principles of moral science the observance of which will guide into truthfulness, diligence, and uprightness of character. For this, also, is the law of God. Observe, not into the knowledge of God, the thing best worth living for: no mental science, and no moral science, is pledged to reveal that. What I contend for is, that these sciences have their part to play in the education of the human race, and that the parent may not disregard them with impunity. (Home Education, p. 40-41, emphasis mine)
Do you see the fine line? The principles of moral science will give us the character which is the object of education—truthfulness, diligence, uprightness—but they stop short of giving us the knowledge of God himself. Yet Charlotte Mason tells us these things have “a part to play in the education of the human race,” and it is this part (which is also not the whole) which I have focused on in Consider This. Charlotte Mason calls education the “handmaid of religion,” and I think that description is an important one to recall if you want to keep the fine line of distinction in mind. A handmaid is a servant to someone more important, but a distinct and different personage at the same time. Mr. Middlekauff is correct in placing Christ above the classical tradition of education, as a lady is above her handmaid, but it is the distinct handmaid with which we have to deal in the education of our children. Properly understood, she will do her duty and prepare and lead our children to their own service of our Savior, but, as Charlotte Mason says, for that final step, no moral science will be enough.
Now, having made this distinction for us, Charlotte Mason is very cavalier about it, and but rarely makes reference to it in all her six volumes. I fault no one for conflating her philosophy of education with her religion, as her discussion romps freely from one side of the line to the other, trampling it into obscurity; but it is there just the same. She knew it. It may be that the only way to understand my discussion of Charlotte Mason and her connection to the classical tradition is to remember that that line is there. The classical tradition—or in fact, any educational philosophy—will take us just so far and no further. The personal knowledge of God, “the best thing worth living for,” is simply beyond its grasp.
It may well be that my response to Mr. Middlekauff will not be enough to convince anyone that Charlotte Mason has any connection whatsoever with the educational traditions of the past. So be it. This is the closest I will ever come to writing anything with the object of convincing someone, already staunchly opposed to the idea, that she does. I have done this much only because the actual ideas in my book were so extensively misrepresented.
I have no fears whatsoever of the truth, in any guise, but untruth I cannot abide, and that is why I felt compelled to respond to Mr. Middlekauff’s invitation and to write this corrective to his critique. Anyone is welcome to disagree with me, but you can only disagree effectively if you disagree with what I actually have said, not an incorrect presentation of my ideas. However, beside the stark categories of “true” and “untrue,” there is another category of thought. There are opinions. One of the most valuable abilities we can cultivate is the ability to recognize the difference between an opinion and an absolute truth.
For example, in my earlier discussion of Charlotte Mason’s Plutarch quote, about philosophy and religion, Mr. Middlekauff and I reached different conclusions. He considered her remark as a contrast, while I considered it rather as a comparison (Miss Mason compared the educational role of religion to the similar educational role of philosophy in ancient Greece). Both of those ideas are opinions—his, and mine. She is not here to elucidate for us. You can read the passage for yourself and form your own opinion. Opinions can be correct or incorrect (obviously, I think mine is more correct in this instance), but in neither case should they be mistaken for absolute truth.
I said earlier that I quoted Charlotte Mason who was quoting Plato, but I did not share the quote. I find it interesting that that quote contains a reference to this very thing. “She makes the very bold claim that her educational theory can meet any rational demand, and would stand up even to the severest criterion set forth by Plato because it is able to ‘run the gauntlet of objections, and is ready to disprove them, not by appeals to opinion, but to absolute truth.’” (Consider This, p. 1)
Ultimately, whether you think Charlotte Mason has a connection to the classical tradition, or you do not, that is an opinion which will be shaped by how you define that tradition. Evidence may be brought in to support an opinion, as I have given you some of mine in this long piece, and some opinions are indeed more credible than others. But our opinions are never going to become absolute truth. For one thing, the classical tradition involves 2000 years and more of Great Conversation, and pinning it down to a simplistic, comprehensive, concrete definition is impossible. Opinions about that definition vary widely, and are constantly being refined as one reads and considers more of that Conversation. My understanding of the classical tradition is based upon more than 15 years of reading authors like Quintilian, Plato, Montaigne, Erasmus, Augustine, and many others, with the occasional contemporary book to balance things a bit. I’m still refining that understanding.
I think, however, for those of us who embrace Charlotte Mason’s educational methods, this concept of whether or not she is part of the classical tradition should be relegated to a place of secondary importance. Whether or not we share the same opinion of classical education is fairly insignificant beside the fact that we do share the opinion that Charlotte Mason was a brilliant educational philosopher and her methods some of the most effective that have ever been proposed. If you feel that one’s opinion of the classical tradition is a matter for contention, worthy of endless dispute, I can only politely say that that, too, is an opinion, and one which I cannot share.
I would encourage us to look for our common ground—it’s not that hard to find—and stand there together. If you meet a fellow Charlotte-Mason-enthusiast who has a different opinion than your own about whether or not she is part of the classical tradition, have a little grace and remember that opinions are not absolute truth. Many are still learning and refining their opinions, and one of the most gracious examples that Charlotte Mason has left us is her willingness to allow others to take their time in that journey of learning and understanding without pressure.
In the meantime, enjoy the common ground you share, and talk about nature notebooks, or narration, or picture study. Watch your children forming relationships with knowledge. Share the books you are reading and the things you are learning. Encourage each other in this venture, and build each other up. Wouldn’t you consider that the best tribute to Charlotte Mason that we could offer?
Copyright Karen Glass 2017