Caution: Kindergarten and the liberal arts

Last week, I wrote a bit about Charlotte Mason’s views of Froebelian kindergarten, and the warnings she brought to bear on that method/system of education. While I wanted to make the point that I did make—that there is room in a Charlotte Mason education for parental initiative—that was really a preliminary post to this one.

Because I’ve been reading The Liberal Arts Tradition by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, and because I’ve been focusing on those seven liberal arts here on the blog, those ideas collided with Charlotte Mason’s warnings while I was reading Home Education. Charlotte Mason was talking about the Kindergarten, but I found myself applying her warnings to the liberal arts. Bear with me and I’ll try to share what I mean.

Charlotte Mason’s ideas about education are principle-based. When she examined any educational method, she always tried to discern the principles in it to see if they could bear scrutiny and were essentially true. Then she examined the practices based on the principles to see if they matched up. As I shared about the kindergarten, she thought Froebel had some good ideas—a valid method—but she felt that his practices were more artificial than other more natural practices of working out the same principles. I think many of her observations would also be a valuable contribution to the discussion of the seven liberal arts.

First of all, one foundational principle in education is that it is ideas that take root in the mind and bear fruit (CM principles 9 to 11, but also articulated by Plato, Froebel, and others). Ideas, not information.

But how does this theory of the vital and fruitful character of ideas bear upon the education of the child? In this way: give your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information; for the child who grows up with a few dominant ideas has his self-education provided for, his career marked out. (Home Education, p. 174)

Now, I don’t know if you accept this principle or not. I do. If you don’t, or aren’t sure, much of the rest of this discussion may not apply. But if you believe that education is about instilling ideas in children—living ideas that will grow and shape their thinking—rather than something else (whatever that might be), then what I have to say here might be of interest.

Miss Mason tells us

The Kindergarten method is nicely contrived to bring the child en rapport with a superior intelligence. (HE, p. 178)

Did you catch the word “contrived?” I think it is a veiled reminder that our structures of educational apparatus are not organic and natural. In this case, Miss Mason says that if the teacher is such a superior being, it might be a little “heaven below,” but—and this is a very grave warning—

Put a commonplace woman in charge of such a school, and the charmingly devised gifts and games and occupations become so many instruments of wooden teaching. (HE, p. 178)

When I think about the liberal arts, one can imagine that a Socrates, a Plato, or an Aristotle might be able to give instruction which would keep the liberal arts alive—inspire a student to practice them—and make it clear how vital it is to make use of them. But in the hands of a commonplace teacher…oh dear. The liberal arts, too, run the risk of becoming wooden and mechanical. All you have to do is look at a typical grammar or logic text to see what that’s like. Arithmetic and geometry are regularly taught in il-liberal and un-living ways.

Miss Mason says of the Kindergarten:

Indeed, the machinery of the Kindergarten is no more than a device to ensure the carrying out of certain educational principles, and some of these it is the mother’s business to get at, and work out according to Froebel’s method—or her own. (HE, p. 179)

And so with the liberal arts. They are not ends in themselves, but the means to working out certain educational principles, and those principles are more important than the arts. When the arts cease to serve the principles or depart from them altogether, they are no better than any other educational method. Charlotte Mason uses the word “circumscribed” to indicate that the cramped, limited Kindergarten occupations hinder a child from something broader and better. He might obtain some exact knowledge by their use—the ability to distinguish a rhomboid from a pentagon, for example—but at the expense of “real knowledge.”

The same is true of liberal arts. You might teach your students some exact knowledge, such as the ability to identify verbs and nouns, but how sad if it comes at the expense of being able to appreciate a well-written sentence, or better yet, to speak and write clear sentences, which is the art of grammar and rhetoric.

To put it in a nutshell, Charlotte Mason’s warning is not to let the minutia of your teaching stand for the wider training that we want to give them. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

Which brings us to the crucial point upon which every educational method turns—whom are you teaching? What, exactly, is a person, a child? If you get that wrong, your educational methods will completely go wide of the mark. Miss Mason warns:

Thoughtful persons begin to suspect that the mistakes we make through this ignorance are grievous and injurious. For example, are not all our schemes of education founded on the presumption that a child’s mind—his ‘thinking, feeling man’—begins ‘very small,’ and grows great with the growth of his body. (HE, p. 182)

The point here is that either a child has an active, capable mind before his education begins, or he does not. Either he can think and reason and understand without formal training, or he cannot do those things until he has been trained. There are no other options, and before you decide which one you think is correct, I hope you will observe a child, about one year of age, who wants to reach something on a table that is a bit too high for him. Half an hour’s observation should cement in the mind of any thinking adult that children are endowed with a great deal of cleverness and reasoning power before they even develop the ability to speak.

Having accepted that truth, it should be our business as educators to make sure that our methods take the nature of children’s case into account. Charlotte Mason says

I am inclined to question whether, in the interest of carrying out a system, the charming Kindergartnerin is not in danger sometimes of greatly undervaluing the intelligence of her children. (HE, p. 187)

And I think the same risk applies to the liberal arts. Do we think that children cannot know grammar, logic, rhetoric, unless we make a formal study of these things? I’ve shared this quote before, but Augustine knew better.

We know numbers who, without acquaintance with rhetorical rules, are more eloquent than many who have learnt these; but we know no one who is eloquent without having read and listened to the speeches of eloquent men. For even the art of grammar, which teaches correctness of speech, need not be learnt by boys, if they have the advantage of growing up and living among men who speak correctly. (From On Christian Doctrine)

Charlotte Mason tells us that “a false analogy has hampered or killed more than one philosophic system” (HE, p.189). I never read that without thinking of the reduction of the liberal arts to “tools of learning.” Do we imagine that children have no tools of learning unless we choose to give them? The idea is absurd if we only spend a little time watching industrious preschoolers. They know how to learn. They don’t need tools from us, but they do need something, and it becomes our business to figure out what that is and how to give it to them so that our lessons work in harmony with their true nature, and are not out of sync. There may be a sense in which the liberal arts are tools, but that is not all that they are.

The outcome of any thought is necessarily moulded by that thought. (HE, p. 189)

And so we must examine our thoughts upon the seven liberal arts as upon other things. What are they and what do we hope to accomplish by their practice? How are they best taught and in what larger context? How do we keep them arts and not allow them to become wooden subjects? Asking the questions is always the best way to start. Answers or partial answers can be worked out as we go, but if we keep our principles in mind, we have a better chance of allowing the liberal arts to have their share in the development of each student. They are not all going to become another C.S. Lewis. If the arts are “liberating” arts, they should allow each learner the freedom to become all that he or she can be, not according to a fixed pattern, but as a person.

Charlotte Mason quoted Annie Sullivan (the teacher of Helen Keller):

“I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built up on the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think, whereas if the child is left to himself he will think more and better, if less showily.” (HE, p. 195-96)

We should know better. And knowing better, we should do better. Most of the teachers I know (and I know quite a few!) are doing much, much better. And for that, we can thank Charlotte Mason. However, all the risks and warnings still hold true. Charlotte Mason concluded:

But I wish that educationalists would give up the name Kindergarten. I cannot help thinking that it is somewhat of a strain to conscientious minds to draw the cover of Froebelian doctrine and practice over the broader and more living conceptions that are abroad today. (HE, p. 197)

This is a reminder to me to be wary of labels. “Classical education” or “Charlotte Mason education” do not always convey the broad, living ideas about education that they should. They are limited, among other things, by how much the speaker or hearer of the expression actually knows about the subject. Charlotte Mason didn’t really want her name attached to the ideas she promoted. She knew they weren’t “hers” in the sense that she had thought them up out of whole cloth. Once a single person’s name is attached to a body of thought, that thought is limited by the thought and writing of that one person. Education isn’t fixed and immutable that way, expressed only by one person’s perspective. It’s part of something “broader” and “more living.” When we express the principles that Charlotte Mason listed for us, we know that it isn’t really wrong to call them “her” principles, because she embraced them, but they are not “hers” because she invented them. That is quite consistent with her own understanding of the ideas she shared. It’s a final warning, I think, to bear in mind. Our attention should be on the principles, and our loyalty should be to truth wherever it is found. Labels can be a convenience but they should not hinder us from pursuing the fullest possible understanding of truth. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past as we work out living educational ideas in the twenty-first century.