Category Archives: Formation of Character

Last chat about Formation of Character

This is my final post in the “Take the Fifth” blog series, and here’s Anne’s last thoughts. We’re saying good-bye to Formation of Character, but we do hope you got to know this volume a little better during this month-long series. If you do feel motivated, now or in the future, to pick up the volume and want a study guide of sorts, I led a book study on the AmblesideOnline forum in 2015. Forum membership is free, and you can access all the study posts here. Remember that every chapter in the book is a stand-alone article, so you can dip in and read whatever interests you, and you don’t have to read through the volume from front to back.

I sometimes joke that Volume 5 is both my favorite and least-favorite volume. It’s my “least favorite” because I find the stories in Part I a little tedious, and I know that Charlotte Mason tempered her views on habit a little bit later in her life, although the primary ideas expressed here are sound. But really it’s my favorite volume because of the wealth of wisdom which is found here and no where else in the series. I’m a little sad to say good-bye, but I’m already immersed in another volume (Parents and Children this time—although I’m not blogging about it), and Charlotte Mason never fails to teach me something new.

Anne and I have a bit of a surprise for you as we wrap things up. We recorded a live chat, in which we go over the four parts of the volume, share our feelings about them (we don’t have the same favorite parts!), and discuss meaningful alternative titles for the stodgy “Formation of Character.” Make a cup of coffee or tea, and join us for cozy chat.

Thank you for being part of this peek between the covers of Volume 5!

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Words of Wisdom from Formation of Character, Part IV

This is the last excerpt I’ll be sharing in our “Take the Fifth” series, and I couldn’t resist recording the passage in which Charlotte Mason talks about synthetic and analytic learning. (Both important, and best in their proper places.) Be sure to read the lovely testimony to a great educator, a great man, that Anne has shared.
From pages 380-82:

We are casting about rather wildly to find out what education is, and what it is to effect. There is certain knowledge, no doubt, which it is shameful not to possess, and, wanting which, the mind is as limp, feeble, and incapable as an ill-nourished body. There is also a time for sowing the seed of this knowledge, an intellectual as well as a natural springtime; and it would be interesting to examine the question, how far it is possible to prosecute any branch of knowledge, the sowing and germination of which has not taken place in early youth. It follows that the first three lustres [up to age 15] belong to what we may call the synthetic stage of education, during which his reading should be wide and varied enough to allow the young scholar to get into living touch with earth-knowledge, history, literature, and much besides. These things are necessary for his intellectual life, and are especially necessary to give him material for the second stage of his education, the analytic, which, indeed, continues with us to the end. It is in this second stage that the value of the classical and mathematical grind comes in. It produces a certain sanity of judgment, and therefore a certain capacity for affairs, an ability for the examination of questions, which are rather the distinguishing marks of the public schoolman.… Whatever be the faults of the public school, it is not a manufactory of ‘cranks’; and the danger of a transition period like the present is that it may produce a crop of these persons of unbalanced judgment and undisciplined will.

“‘O friend,’ said he, ‘hold up your mind; strength is but strength of will;
Reverence each other’s good in fight, and shame at things done ill.”‘
[from The Iliad, Book 5, Chapman’s translation]

This exordium of “Atrides” might well be the motto of our public schools; it sums up with curious exactness that which they accomplish,—the steady purpose, public spirit, and fine sense of honour which adorn our public services, recruited for the most part from our public schools.

But these fine qualities, of which we are proud, may co-exist with ignorance; and ignorance is the mother of prejudice and the obstinate foe of progress. The task before us in setting in order the house of our national education is a delicate one. We must guard those assets of character which the education of the past affords us, and recover, if we may, the passionate love of knowledge for its own sake which brought about an earlier Renaissance.

I really want to say: read the rest here.



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When Charlotte Mason reads a book…

Anne is diving into one of the book studies in Part IV today:

Have you ever read The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy, by William Makepeace Thackeray? It’s an English novel which contrasts the hope that good fortune will just come along, or that it can be come by cheaply, with the value of earning it through good character and hard work.

Like the other books described in this section of Formation of Character, there is some value in having read it first, but it’s not necessary. Like a sermon that begins with a story and then turns to a point of faith, the plot is outlined, excerpts are given, and then Miss Mason gives her “exegesis” of the story. As we might expect, incidents relating to the upbringing and education of Arthur Pendennis receive the closest examination.

The Story of Pendennis…a little of it

“Pen” is raised by his mother, with as much luxury she can manage, and without any requirement that he apply himself to anything tedious or distasteful. She lives very much for her son, in the same way that readers of Understood Betsy will remember “Aunt Frances” devoting herself to “Elizabeth Ann” without benefit to either. Read the rest.

Part IV—Sowing the Seeds

Welcome to the final week of this blog series:

“He possessed nothing as a man the seed of which had not been sown in the course of his education.”

This fragment, which appears in part IV of Formation of Character, might be considered the theme, not only of this section, but of volume 5 and of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy as a whole. She writes:

There is also a time for sowing the seed of this knowledge, an intellectual as well as a natural springtime; and it would be interesting to examine the question, how far it is possible to prosecute any branch of knowledge, the sowing and germination of which has not taken place in early youth.

You get a taste of this in School Education, where Charlotte Mason looks at the childhoods of Wordsworth and Ruskin, and considers how their early experiences and tastes affected them as grown men. In this section of Formation of Character, she applies that principle to fictional characters as well as real people.

In the Preface to this volume, she offered a half-apology for the material included in Section IV:

I am diffident about offering Part IV. of this volume, because, though the public is wonderfully patient with writers who ‘adorn the tale,’—half the books we read are about other books,—I am not sure of equal forbearance towards an attempt to ‘point the moral.’

This last section is a collection of “book studies,” although the books discussed are not covered thoroughly. Miss Mason has read them, and found within them literary examples of educational principles and ideas, and actually does “point the moral” for us so we can take advantage of her insight. In fact, she goes as far as to say that it is “stupid to disregard such a means of instruction.” Books—even novels—may be our teachers, particularly when it comes to character. The seeds that are sown in youth will bear fruit in kind later in life.

You will not find it necessary to have read the books for yourself in order to appreciate her thoughts. She gives us plenty of explanation to work with. I read an online summary of one of the books (The Egoist by George Meredith), and that summary didn’t even mention the character that Charlotte Mason focuses on in “Young Crossjay.” You can read and glean a great deal by simply reading these chapters as they stand.

There are some wonderful little gems of Charlotte Mason’s wisdom tucked into these book studies, and this section is the reason that Formation of Character is my favorite volume. Much of her educational writing is philosophical and general in nature, but because she is dealing with specific examples in these book studies, her insights take on a more personal and practical tone.

Because the seeds we sow in childhood do affect our lives, sometimes parents—especially young parents of still-small children—worry about the natural exposure of their children to the evil that is in the world. There is a temptation to shelter and protect them from any such exposure, but in “Two Peasant Boys” Miss Mason says:

Here is a matter which sometimes causes uneasiness to parents: they are appalled when they think of the casual circumstances and chance people that may have a lasting effect upon their children’s characters. But their part is, perhaps, to exercise ordinary prudence and not over-much direction. They have no means of knowing what will reach a child; whether the evil which blows his way may not incline him to good, or whether the too-insistent good may not predispose him to evil. Perhaps the forces of life as they come should be allowed to play upon the child, who is not, be it remembered, a product of educational care, but a person whose spiritual nurture is accomplished by that wind which bloweth whither it listeth.

In the same chapter, there is an urgent reminder about the kind of mental food our young people need while they are young, to ensure a taste for good books and reading later:

And, what is more, the boy who has not formed the habit of getting nourishment out of his books in school-days does not, afterwards, see the good of reading. He has not acquired, in an intellectual sense, the art of reading, so he cannot be said to have lost it; and he goes through life an imperfect person, with the best and most delightful of his powers latent or maimed. Why in the world should we not give children, while they are at school, the sort of books they can live upon; books alive with thought and feeling, and delight in knowledge, instead of the miserable cram-books on which they are starved?

In these chapters, you will find several places where Charlotte Mason grapples with typical or classical education. The books illustrate the frustrations of the characters with schools that had lost their vision:

“Innumerable dead vocables (no dead language, for they themselves knew no language) they crammed into us, and called it ‘fostering the growth of mind’; and he asks how can a mechanical gerund-grinder foster the growth of mind, which grows, not like a vegetable, by having ‘etymological composts’ laid upon it, but like a spirit, by contact of spirit, ‘thought kindling itself at the fire of living thought.’”

The kinds of books and material we use with our children make a real difference in the way they will feel about knowledge and learning. Miss Mason doesn’t hesitate to take a warning from these books about avoiding dry, deadening material in favor of living thought. It can take many forms—art, music, books of course, but also nature-lore or even play.

In “ A Genius at ‘School,’” she considers whether the puppet-shows of Goethe’s childhood kindled a love of theater that culminated in his own dramatic plays. But she is not simplistic, and there are insights here that bear deep thought and consideration:

It is well we should clear our thoughts on this subject, and recognise, once for all, that personal culture is hardly a legitimate aim. We are allowed to seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge, culture of body and mind for the sake of serviceableness; and, recognising this, we give our lives an impersonal aspect. We look at pictures and read books for the sake of the pictures and the books, and not at all for our sakes. Our children carry forward this larger view of life. They feel, think, and labour without sparing as occasion calls upon them; they live, that is, the common life, and are not stranded in an inlet of individual culture.

One of the most interesting topics that crops up, more then once, in these book studies, is the tendency to be a “know-it-all,” to which young people are extremely susceptible:

All young persons are cocksure, not at all because they are foolish and arrogant, but because they are unaware of the fact that equally reasonable and equally intelligent persons are capable of holding opposite views on any given question. In this, as in so many other ways, we feel the lack of what must be the rational basis of a sound education—that is, an ordered study of human nature.

This danger, too, may be offset by early exposure to the right ideas and in “Pendennis of Boniface” she offers an antidote. She quotes a long passage from Plutarch’s essay on education, in which he urges the study of “philosophy” on all students as a guide to life. Miss Mason urged a similar study of the “science of life” or “art of living” with a religious standard, which is a sort of advertisement for Ourselves.

As it is, the moral and philosophical training we give is random and scrappy to a pitiable degree. The very sincerity of our dependence upon God has resulted in a criminal ignorance about ourselves, our possibilities and our risks, and this in despite, as I have said, of the teaching of our Master. No one person should be launched upon life without an ordered knowledge of himself.

Another book study is concerned with Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, and in “Better-than-my-Neighbour,” Charlotte Mason uses that dialogue as a springboard to discuss the need for balance and justice in our thinking, which must begin in youth.

Children should have a wide and generous curriculum. We try to put them off with a parcel of ready-made opinions, principles, convictions, and are astonished that these do not stick to them; but such things each of us has to get by his own labour. It is only a person of liberal mind whose convictions are to be trusted, because they are the ripe fruit of his knowledge.

But, after all, the crank…is a person who errs by excess. It is not always that he does not know, but that he allows one aspect of a subject to fill his mind.

…every foolish little piety we accept as the whole duty of man makes us the less capable of just, liberal, and reverent thought.

Are you beginning to get a sense that there is no way to easily summarize the depth and breadth of the wisdom in this section of Volume 5? It is a little treasure trove of Charlotte Mason’s wisdom which will best serve those who have read at least one of her more general volumes and understand her ideas well. There are gems on nearly every page, more than you will find with a single reading. The nice thing about these chapters, as I have said before, is that each one is a stand-alone article. You do not need to read all of Volume 5 at once, or read it in order, in order to appreciate any particular chapter. Choose one, read it well, and carry away the polished stone which caught your eye to adorn your shelf of treasures.

What I mean is, read a chapter and glean what you can, because you are almost certain to gain an insight that will make a difference as you teach your own children. The things that they are exposed to in childhood will have an effect on them all their lives—seeds that are not sown certainly can never bear fruit. When you read these books studies, or even just one or two of them, you will take away some of Charlotte Mason’s wisdom about sowing those seeds, and a stronger conviction to be sure that they do not miss out on any of the riches of knowledge available to them.

And I will imitate Charlotte Mason, and include a bit of poetry, which I’ve snatched from Part II to include here:

Children, like tender osiers, take the bow,
And, as they first are fashion’d, always grow;
For what we learn in youth, to that alone
In age we are by second nature prone.

Anne will be taking a closer look at one of these book studies on Wednesday as our series nears its end.


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Words of Wisdom from Formation of Character, Part III

Check out Anne’s selection from part III, too.

My choice for today is taken from page 205-207:

let the young people feel that the happiness of home is a trust which every member of it has in charge; that the child who sits down to table with a sullen face destroys for the time the happiness of his whole family, just as a hand’s-breadth held close to the eyes will shut out the whole light of the sun. What is it that makes the happiness of every day––great treats, great successes, great delights? No, but constant friendly looks and tones in those about us, their interest and help in our pursuits, their service and pity when we are in difficulty and trouble. No home can be happy if a single member of it allow himself in ugly tempers and bad behaviour. By degrees, great sensitiveness to the moral atmosphere of the home will be acquired; the happiness of a single day will come to be regarded as a costly vase which any clumsy touch may overthrow. Now, the attention is taken off self and its claims, and fixed upon brother and sister, father and mother, servants and neighbours; so slight a thing as a friendly look can add to the happiness of every one of these.

Affection flows naturally towards those to whom we can give happiness. A boy who feels himself of little account in his family will give all his heart to his dog; he is necessary to Puck’s happiness, at any rate; and, as for the dog,––”I think it is wrong to let children have dogs. It spoils them for mankind,” said the late Lord Lytton. Let the boy have his dog, but let him know to how many others even a pleasant word from him gives happiness for the moment. Benevolence, the delight in giving happiness, is a stream which swells as it flows. The boy who finds he really can make a difference to his home is on the look-out for chances. A hint as to what father or sister would like is not thrown away. Considerate obliging behavour is no hardship to him when he is not “bothered” into it, but produces it of his own free will. Like begets like. The kindliness he shows is returned to him, and, by him, returned again, full measure, pressed down, and running over. He looks, not on his own things, but on the things of others. His love of justice shows in the demand for “fair play” for others now; he will not hear others spoken ill of in their absence, will not assign unworthy motives, or accuse another easily of unworthy conduct; he is just to the conduct, the character, the reputation of others. He puts himself involuntarily in the place of the other, and judges as he would be judged.

“Teach me to feel another’s woe,
To hide the faults I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me,”

is his unformed, unconscious prayer. His benevolence, again, his kindness, will reach, not only to the distresses of others, but will show itself in forbearance towards tiresome tempers, in magnanimity in the forgiveness of injuries. His habits of kind and friendly behaviour will, by degrees, develop into principles of action; until at last his character is established, and he comes to be known as a just and virtuous man. Towards this great result the parents can do little more than keep the channels open, and direct the streams; they draw the attention of their son to the needs and claims of others, and point out to him from time to time the ways in which he holds the happiness of others in his hands. It is needless to say how a selfish or worldly maxim thrown in––”Take care of yourself,” “Look after your own interests,” “Give tit for tat,’––may obstruct the channel or choke the spring.


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Charlotte Mason on grown-up children


Anne is continuing our look at Part III of Formation of Character. This final lecture is about what do do when the kids are almost grown up.


“What is to be done with the girls?”

“Concerning the Young Maidens” is a mini-manual for parents of a hypothetical young woman who has finished school and is too old for a governess, but who could still use a bit of guidance. This scenario reminds me of the three upper-class daughters in the T.V. series Downton Abbey; but the writing predates even that early-twentieth-century era. As Karen noted, the two chapters in this section were given as lectures, probably in the 1880’s, and were intended to accompany the other material that became Home Education. Even Mary, Edith, and Sybil might have found them a bit dated.

However, in the context of Formation of Character, the chapter becomes more than just a period piece: it presents some of our ultimate aims in education, in the interesting context of someone who is not immediately concerned with preparation for earning a living. Theoretically stripping away the utilitarian view of education allows the discussion to focus on character and what we’re really here to do in this life. Read the rest…

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Part III—Delight in knowledge

Part III of Formation of Character contains only two chapters, although they are quite long. One is entitled “Concerning the Schoolboy and Schoolgirl” and the other is “Concerning the Young Maidens at Home.” (Anne will be sharing about that second chapter on Wednesday.)

In the preface to this volume, Charlotte Mason explains, “In editing Home Education and Parents and Children for the ‘Home Education’ Series, the introduction of much new matter made it necessary to transfer a considerable part of the contents of those two members of the series to this volume, Some Studies in the Formation of Character.”

If you are familiar with the history of Home Education, you may recall that the book began as a series of lectures which Charlotte Mason gave in order to do some fund-raising for a church project. The lectures were well-attended and well-received, and there were eight of them. A quick look at the table of contents of a current copy of Home Education will reveal only six Roman-numeraled sections, corresponding to six of those lectures. But here, tucked into Formation of Character, we find the last two lectures, just as Miss Mason explained.

Apparently, in the process of rearranging the material, the decision was made to allow Home Education to focus on the education of younger children, under the age of nine. These two lectures deal with older children, and so they were moved into this volume. Whatever the situation at that time (around 1905), Formation of Character is the most neglected of all the volumes in the series today, and while much of the material isn’t vital to understanding the methods, it’s rather a shame that these two chapters, which can be so helpful to parents, don’t get more attention. If you never read any other part of Volume 5, I do recommend reading these chapters as your children grow older.

There are two applications of Charlotte Mason’s ideas, and Home Education, although it includes some ideas about lessons for little ones, is really more concerned with what we think of as child-rearing, rather than academic lessons (which is the focus of School Education). These two lectures in Part III belong to that first application—raising children.

Quite often, parents wonder if Charlotte Mason’s ideas can be implemented with children who are attending school rather than being homeschooled. Because these chapters were written before the implementation of the PNEU and the Parent’s Union School, Miss Mason assumes that the children will be attending school, but that the parents still have a large role to play in shaping their thinking and intellectual growth.

Schools, by their nature and because they focus on examinations, tend to emphasize concrete knowledge. “It is only upon matters of fact that it is possible to examine, and there, it is upon his power of receiving, retaining, classifying, and reproducing facts that the pupil’s success depends.” But Miss Mason wanted more for the children, and she urged parents to bend their efforts toward more poetic knowledge, and a deeper, more delight-filled relationship with knowledge. “Take the good the schools provide,” she suggests, but be sure that “culture or moral training” is to be had in the home.

In the chapter “Concerning the Schoolboy and the Schoolgirl,” Miss Mason considers the question: If a child is learning at school, what is the parent’s role in his or her education?

If you’ve ever wondered what Miss Mason’s idea of an ideal teacher (in a girls’ school at least) would be, she paints the picture for us in this “schoolboy and schoolgirl” chapter:

If she be a woman of clear and vigorous mind, high principles, and elevated character, it is astonishing how all that is lovely in the feminine character is drawn towards her as by a magnet, and the girls about her mould themselves, each according to her own nature, and yet each after the type of the mistress, the “sympathy of numbers” spurring them on towards virtue, and each––
“Emulously rapid in the race.”

Given, to adapt words used in describing Dr. Lant Carpenter as a schoolmaster, a woman with a power of “commanding the reverence and reconstituting the wills” of her pupils, of “great and varied intellectual power, with profound sense of right pervading the whole life and conversation, with the insight derived from a thorough and affectionate sympathy with (girl) nature,” and she will “daily achieve triumphs which most teachers would believe impossible”; above all, this will be true if she succeed in putting into the hands of her pupils the key to the spiritual life. Such a woman gets all that is beautiful in girl-nature on her side—its enthusiasm, humility, deference, devotion: love works wonders, and the parents see their daughter growing under their eyes into the perfect woman they long to see their child become.

And then she tells us what we have probably guessed already: “schoolmistresses, as schoolmasters, of this type are rare.” But whether your children attend school or are homeschooled, she has a word of encouragement for us: This is the parent’s job, anyway, and she has confidence that we are fit for the task.

One of the most important things to bring to the attention of our growing children is the matter of their duties—the obligations they have towards others. Children, like adults, are much more naturally attuned toward their own rights—the duties they know that others owe to them—than they are to their own obligations. In fact, it is the duty and privilege of a parent to open their eyes—to help them see that they have responsibilities toward their parents, their brothers and sisters, their friends, and ultimately, to God.
It need not be a momentous burden, because it begins in the little natural things that are happening at home. “No home can be happy if a single member of it allow himself in ugly tempers and bad behaviours.”

Well then. It is something for a thinking child of nine or ten or eleven years to realize that they have it in their power to destroy the happiness of their own home, and to realize that they, too, will be made unhappy as a result. The goal is to help them see what they owe to others, and Miss Mason tells us:

The attention is taken off self and its claims and fixed upon brother and sister, father and mother, servants and neighbours; so slight a thing as a friendly look can add to the happiness of every one of these.

The power to bestow happiness on others encourages affection and relationship, and if we manage to instill even a little of this power—and the desire to wield it—in our children they will be better students, better employees, better husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and better people all the days of their lives.

However, this comes, not from didactic school-teaching, but from a poetic, relational intuition that develops naturally under the proper conditions—and Miss Mason has some practical ideas to help develop this atmosphere in our homes. She talks about the importance of Sunday-keeping, with many ideas for making the day peaceful and pleasant, and above all, joyous.
The books that the family chooses to read together are an important source of developing this deeper relationship with knowledge, one that goes beyond superficial information and touches the heart. This had traditionally been the object of a classical education, but classical culture was commonly being supplanted by utilitarian objectives in schools, and Charlotte Mason knew that parents could step into the gap.

The contention of scholars is, that a classical education does more, turns out men with intellects cultivated and trained, who are awake to every refinement of thought, and yet ready for action. But the press and hurry of our times and the clamour for useful knowledge are driving classical culture out of the field; and parents will have to make up their minds, not only that they must supplement the moral training of the school, but must supply the intellectual culture, without which knowledge may be power, but is not pleasure, nor the means of pleasure.

“Knowledge as pleasure”—that’s one working definition of poetic knowledge. This is what Charlotte Mason wanted parents to give their children, even if their children were receiving their academic education at school rather than at home. This is an encouragement to us today, both for homeschooling parents, and for those whose children are attending school. We can help our children see that knowledge—intellectual culture—is a matter of enjoyment, not merely labor for examinations and grades.

Charlotte Mason possessed that delight in knowledge, and deeply wanted parents to be able to provide it for their children. I want very much for readers of this blog post to pick up Formation of Character, and read the two chapters that make up Part III, so I will not say much more. Here you will find Miss Mason’s practical advice about oral story-telling, selecting books and poetry for family read-alouds, making use of mealtimes for good conversation with growing children, developing aesthetic taste in art and music, and more. You really do not want to miss this section, which properly belongs to the original Home Education.

The fact is that many of us were denied this delight in knowledge in our own educations, and we need our eyes to be opened to all the possibilities. Charlotte Mason’s ideas have the power to bring delight to parents as well as children, and I have seen this happen again and again. Literature, poetry, music, art—these things are meant to enrich and delight us, but they serve a higher purpose as well. They open our hearts to the lessons of love and truth and goodness that will make a difference in our everyday lives, and in turn, the lives of those we touch. If you haven’t yet developed the vision of what is possible for parents in the education of their own children, Part III of Formation of Character should rise to the top of your “to be read” list.


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Words of Wisdom from Formation of Character, Part II

Anne and I are sharing some interesting quotes from Part II of Formation of Character today. Be sure to check out her selection.

Next week, we’ll be moving on to Part III, which is the section that deserves the most attention. I’ll explain why on Monday!

Meanwhile, from pages 149-150, Charlotte Mason compares an early relationship to a heavenly:

“It is just, to compare lesser things with great, as the husband of a famous woman might listen to discussions about his wife’s works or published letters. Are they hers or are they not? Do they disclose facts of her life or fancies? Are the opinions put into the mouths of her best characters truly her own? It is most interesting to hear what the world says, but, for him, he knows where the world guesses; besides, these things are not vital; the vital thing is herself and their mutual relations. So, but infinitely more so, of our apprehension of the Highest, and our cognisance of the supreme relationship. Reveal to the eyes of youth the vision of the infinite Loveliness, lay bare the heart of youth to the drawings of the irresistible Tenderness, let the young know, of their own intimate knowledge, that,

“The thoughts of God are broader than the measures of man’s mind,
And the heart of the EternaI is most wonderfully kind,”

“and all other knowledge and relationships and facts of life will settle themselves. Thus, only, is it possible to live joyfully, purposefully, diligently. Without this—madness! or, the foolish playing of a foolish mummer’s part in the presence of the “eternal verities.” But, boys religiously brought up turn out indifferent or ill? Exactly so, when they have had the outward and visible signs without the inward part or thing signified; of all sawdust, this is the driest. No soul, once laid open to the touch of the divine tenderness, can go away and forget. Go away, a wilful soul may, but come back, it needs must. Well, it is something to see one’s work; but, how to do it? At any rate, seeing these things, a man must go softly all his days and wait for light.”


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Part II—So many things to think about!

Don’t miss Anne’s overview of part II from Monday.

I think one of the most interesting inclusions in Part II is Chapter 4,— “Die Neue Zeit Bedarf Der Neuen Schule: A Schoolmaster’s Reverie.”

This chapter can be a bit difficult to follow. It is written as if it were the private “reverie” of a teacher who has been given the position of headmaster, running a grammar school—that is, a small boarding school which typically focused on the British version of classical education.

His first thought is that it would be easiest to maintain the status quo. He muses: “What is, is best. But that is laziness, cowardice.” Charlotte Mason imagines him as a thinker who has been delving into deep thoughts and new ideas about education, so we are treated to his rambling thoughts as he envisions plans and schemes for his school, justifying the rationale of it all to himself as he goes. It can be a cumbersome vehicle for the ideas, but we have to indulge Miss Mason and dig for the treasure.

While on vacation in Germany, our schoolmaster has picked up a pamphlet about education, and his reverie is taking place on the train carrying him home. The title of the publication is the title of this chapter— “New Times Require A New School,” and the pamphlet in question is real. The author, Arnold Dodel-Port (pictured) is a real person—a botanist, a socialist, and a freethinker (which is a euphemism for someone who rejects religion). The pamphlet described in this chapter was published in German in 1889 and translated into English in 1891.

It’s possible that Miss Mason thought many of her readers would be familiar with it, or it may be that, like the schoolmaster in the story, she picked up a copy of it during her own continental travels. It’s interesting to see the way in which she presented ideas that she disagreed with. In this story, the real pamphlet becomes a foil for the fictional schoolmaster’s dissenting thought. It requires a careful reading to observe which ideas are the ones expressed by the pamphlet, and which are his (and probably her) reactions. Miss Mason sacrificed clarity for “story” in this chapter, and the stream-of-consciousness style she uses can be a bit difficult to follow.

She presents three main arguments:

    1. If the goal of education is the pursuit of truth, how much time in educational pursuits should be given to religion? (“Pilate’s world-famed question” is referenced: “What is truth?”) Dodel-Port laments that too much time is spent on religious studies in Germany. Charlotte Mason’s schoolmaster, on the other hand, laments that England has reduced religious studies so much that “we have deprived the people of the classics, the metaphysics, the ethics—as well as the religion—peculiarly their own.” I think we can safely conclude that Charlotte Mason believed the Bible had an important role in an education with truth as its object.
    2. The title of the pamphlet in English was “Moses or Darwin?” Moses equates to Genesis and the account of creation, and Darwin represents evolution. So, the question actually is not, “How can creation and evolution be reconciled?” but “which one are you going to believe?” They are presented as an either/or proposition.  Charlotte Mason’s schoolmaster—and I think we can assume he expresses her own feelings—refuses to be drawn into a dichotomy. He believes, in faith, that both may be true in their degree, and that loyalty to Christ will be a safeguard against fretting about lesser truths. Charlotte Mason makes it plain that she did not consider the apparent conflict a vital one, and believed a relationship with the Eternal was the only way to live purposefully and joyfully.

It is difficult to put into words, but, somehow, one is landed on the other side of the controversies of the day: they are of immense interest, but are not vital.

  1. How can the Bible be taught in the face of extreme criticism? Biblical criticism is not much discussed today, but the controversy was pretty warm when this was written. We can assume Dodel-Port was influenced by the German higher criticism of the Bible, and the schoolmaster attempts to sort through ways in which he might ground his pupils in God’s Word and fortify them to defend the Scripture. He didn’t consider the Bible weakened by the critics, and without hesitation declared, “The fortress is intact.”  I think Charlotte Mason made it clear that she was not willing to yield the truth of Scripture to critics.

I suspect that the words Charlotte Mason puts into the mouth of her schoolmaster in the closing pages are the convictions of her own heart.

Do I incline with lingering fondness rather to the things of the past than to the eager stir of the present, the promise of the future? Not so; I appreciate to the full the joy of living in days characterised by childlike frankness, openness to conviction, readiness to try all things and choose that which is good….

But the past offers us its accumulated treasures of wisdom and experience…

Few things could be more disastrous (as, alas, few are more imminent) than a sudden break with the traditions of the past; wherefore, let us gently knit the bonds that bind us to the generation all too rapidly dying out. Without a thought of disloyalty towards our own most earnest days, perhaps some of us feel that the cultivated men and women of the middle decades of the last century had more breadth and sweetness—any way, more delightful humour—than we perceive in our contemporaries. It is well that we gather up, with tender reverence, such fragments of their insight and experience as come in our way.

This is a most gentle warning not to take up the “latest and greatest” fads in theological or educational teaching, not to be “carried away by every wind” of trend and fashion, and most especially, not to allow education to be divided into “sacred” and “secular.” Miss Mason told us it was imminent, and she was right. Contemporary education is largely considered to be secular, and all too often “Christian” education is merely a veneer of morality or Bible-themed appendages added to that secular education. Miss Mason urges us to think as she has shown her schoolmaster thought, as well as the parents in the other stories in this section. We must think, and then we may look any educational question squarely in the face, discern truth, and act confidently upon our convictions.

Read all the posts in this series.

Taking the Fifth a little further…

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This week we “Take the Fifth” with a peek into Part II of Formation of Character. Anne is up first with “Education is the Maker of Character”:

Thinking This Way Could Start a Movement

After Part One, which dealt almost exclusively with matters of character, the beginning chapters of Part Two (“What a Salvage!” and “Where Shall We Go This Year?”) seem to take a shift in subject. The first conversation begins at a dinner party, in about 1890, with the confession by a father that his lack of knowledge on subjects like astronomy is embarrassing. Others agree that they don’t know enough natural history to answer their children’s questions. It is suggested that, as a remedy, families could take extended holidays and discover the counties of England, one by one; that they could research their trips a bit beforehand; and that they could really get to know and appreciate each region of their country, including geology, plants, castles, and so on.

One of the mothers, “Mrs. Henderson,” says, “All this is an inspiring glimpse of the possible; but surely, gentlemen, you do not suppose that a family party, the children, say, from fifteen downwards, can get in touch with such wide interests in the course of a six weeks’ holiday?” (Wouldn’t many employees today–or even in 1890–envy such generous vacation time? But perhaps six weeks of “holiday” was not such a treat for mothers.) “Mrs. Henderson” points out that parents might not be well-versed enough in history and nature lore to make such attempts practical. Both then and now, adults could graduate from school without knowing any more astronomy than the Big Dipper, or without recognizing any leaf beyond a maple and an oak, or any butterfly other than a monarch. Continue reading…