The White Post #3B—The Wisdom of the Past

The first “traditional” aspect of a Charlotte Mason education is that it is a “liberal” education conducted primarily through literature. Her method includes many things which are not directly literary, but it is to this literary tradition, long the foundation of classical education, that Charlotte Mason urges educators.

The modern notion of education, with its shibboleth of “things not words,” is intrinsically demoralizing. The human intelligence demands letters, literature, with a more than bread-hunger. (Philosophy of Education, p. 331)

She also makes a point of reminding us that the Greek educators had the same priority.

Letters, if not (as I said before) the main content of knowledge, constitute anyway the container—the wrought salver, the exquisite vase, even the alabaster box to hold the ointment.
If a man cannot think without words, if he who thinks with words will certainly express his thoughts, what of the monosyllabic habit that is falling upon men of all classes? The chatter of many women and some men does not count, for thought is the last thing it is meant to express. The Greeks believed that a training in the use and power of words was the chief part of education, recognising that if the thought fathers the word, so does the word in turn father the thought. They concerned themselves with no language, ancient or modern, save their own, but of that they acquired a consummate appreciation. With the words came the great thoughts, expressed in whatever way the emergencies of the State called for—in wise laws, victorious battles, glorious temples, sculpture, drama. For great thoughts anticipate great works; and these come only to a people conversant with the great thoughts that have been written and said. (Philosophy of Education, p. 315-16, emphasis added)

Charlotte Mason calls attention to several historical eras in education to highlight the ideas that she thought were worth emulating. One of those of course is Greek education. She declared, “In some ways the Greeks had a more adequate view of education than ourselves.” (Formation of Character, p. 383) She notes that to the foundation of music and gymnastic, the Greeks considered philosophy the proper study for everyone, specifically because of the foundation it laid for right thinking and right acting (a hallmark of classical education). She quotes Plutarch at length, and urges us to realize that Christians have a more certain foundation than the Greeks had, because Christianity not only teaches us what is right, as philosophy does, but also enables us to carry out that teaching.

Elsewhere in her writing, apart from words, Charlotte Mason calls attention to the physical training (gymnastic) that was important to the Greeks—not for personal health or well being, but for the sake of being in the best form to carry out whatever tasks we might be called upon to do.

It is questionable whether we are making heroes; and this was the object of physical culture among the early Greeks, anyway. Men must be heroes, or how could they fulfil the heavy tasks laid upon them by the gods? (School Education, p. 101)

She also highlights certain aspects of medieval thinking, in part because they continued some important classical traditions.

The medieval Church preserved classical traditions. It endeavoured to answer the Socratic inquiry: “What ought we to do and what do we mean by the words ‘ought’ and ‘doing’ or ‘acting’?” (School Education, p. 132)

Miss Mason was also particularly interested in the medieval view of knowledge, which was comprehensive and universal. She speaks of “a great educational principle which was better understood by the medieval Church than by ourselves.” (School Education, p. 153). The principle is illustrated by the fresco she liked so much, and concerns both the origin and the unity of knowledge—“the relations which bind all things to all other things.” (Parents and Children, p. 259) In fact, she declares quite plainly that the PNEU holds the same view as these educators of the past and wants to “restore to the world” something that had been obscured.

We hold, in fact, that great conception of education held by the medieval Church (School Education, p. 95)

Let us set ourselves to labour with purpose and passion to restore to the world, enriched by the additions of later knowledge, that great scheme of unity of life which produced great men and great work in the past. (School Education, p. 156)

The fresco is a visual representation of  the principle that “education is the science of relations.” Miss Mason equates “relations” (and philosophy) with “wisdom”—that object of the classical tradition of education. According to her,  all the kinds of knowledge and relations are a part of the process of developing wisdom.

Now what is wisdom, philosophy? Is it not the recognition of relations? First, we have to understand relations of time and space and matter, the natural philosophy which made up so much of the wisdom of Solomon; then, by slow degrees, and more and more, we learn that moral philosophy which determines our relations of love and justice and duty to each other: later, perhaps, we investigate the profound and puzzling subject of the inter-relations of our own most composite being, mental philosophy. And in all these and beyond all these we apprehend, slowly and feebly, the highest relation of all, the relation to God, which we call religion. (Parents and Children, p. 258-59)

Again, none of these things are new or original with Charlotte Mason—these are the things that she acknowledges as belonging to the “wisdom of the ages” that need to be preserved and cultivated. She asserts that the educators of the PNEU were “experiencing anew the joy of the Renaissance” (Philosophy of Education, p. 9) And what was that joy that the Renaissance brought? It was a return to classical learning, the literature of the ancient world, and the love of knowledge. Miss Mason rejoiced that this new resurgence had better and stronger foundations that she hoped would yield better fruit than the first Renaissance, which was followed by the Enlightenment.

When you look at the material of a Charlotte Mason education, it is clear that she considers her work to be linked to vital educational ideas that form part of the great tradition of education from the Greeks, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to more contemporary educators such as Matthew Arnold. She valued the content and the purpose of education that were “long the property of the world”—the ideas that had produced great works in the past—and wanted to secure them for her generation.