The White Post #5—Old or New?

I wonder if the peculiar title of this series has raised a question. Why is it called “The White Post?”

I hope you’ve wondered, because we’re going to talk about that in this final post of the series. I’ve had the whole concept of “old” and “new” on my mind over the past few years in relation to Charlotte Mason, and I was reading something else that struck me powerfully as an illustration of how confusion arises.

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton addresses the apparently opposite positions of conservative and progressive—another version of “old” and “new.” He articulates the way in which the true conservative must be progressive, using an illustration regarding a white post. I picture a signpost along a path, giving direction and guidance to passers-by. Imagine the post has been set up and painted white. One might think that the conservative position would be to leave that post well alone—make no changes. There it is, and there it will continue to do its job. But that is only true if one supposes that there is no degradation—that a white post will stay white. But it will not. Weather will fade the lettering. Paint will chip and fall away. Wind and rain will deposit dirt. Birds will perch on the post and leave their waste. Insects and spiders will crawl up and down it and leave debris.

If you take the “conservative” position of leaving that post exactly as it was, it will not remain a fresh white post able to do a good job of directing travelers. It will deteriorate. If the white post is important—if it matters that the post remain white—then action must taken. Someone is going to have to come along every so often and apply a fresh coat of paint. Chesterton doesn’t hesitate to call that refreshment a “revolution.”

All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post, you must have a new white post. (Orthodoxy, p. 122)

Over time, those new coats of paint could be very different. New science and new materials might develop reflective or luminescent paint. Maybe the paint could be anti-fungal or dirt-resistant. Maybe it could be longer-lasting or a brighter shade of white. Never mind. The post will be renewed—revolutionized!—with a fresh coat of the latest advance in paint. And yet, it will still be a white post in the same place with the same purpose that it had before.

Chesterton is discussing religious conservatism and progressivism, but it struck me that this illustration exactly describes the relationship between the old and the new in Charlotte Mason’s educational paradigm. Looking into the past, she saw the white post of useful educational traditions that had done a good job of “marking the way” for generations of travelers (learners). But she found that post degraded. Never mind how or why—she saw the post and she appreciated what it could offer. But she was pretty sure she had a really exciting new kind of paint to freshen it up and make it white and bright and again—her carefully-crafted educational methods which made it possible for everyone to follow the path.

In fact, Charlotte Mason made an observation very similar to Chesterton’s:

The growing soul cannot thrive upon husks—therefore must the truth be divested of the husks of the past, and clothed upon with living thought of the present. (Formation of Character, p. 171-172)

The truth doesn’t change. The truths about education—or spiritual things—are constant and unmovable. But the way we practice them may look different because the “living thought” of the present—our present—makes it possible to engage with those truths. It’s very easy to conflate the “husks” with the truths they once clothed admirably. But a garment, like the white paint, grows shabby with wear, and something fresh allows the truth to attract the attention it deserves. That’s why we write new books as well as read old ones—the Great Conversation is never finished. Each generation needs its new voices, as Thomas Rooper implied about Miss Mason:

Sound principles that are old may easily be laid on the shelf and forgotten, unless in each successive generation a few industrious people can be found who will take the trouble to draw them forth from the storehouses. (from Educational Studies and Addresses, dedicated to Charlotte Mason)

I found Chesterton’s thoughts about conservatism and progressivism very interesting. So often we imagine that a revolution—and we know that Charlotte Mason speaks of a “revolution” in education—is going to bring us something entirely new and previously unseen. But that is not always the case. It is a revolution to approach something in a state of dilapidation and make it fresh and usable again, so it can continue doing what it was meant to do. The American “Revolutionary War” overthrew a monarchy, only to apply a fresh coat of paint to a republic—another ancient, serviceable form of government. In fact, the word revolution has the same root as the word revolve, and contains within it the idea of turning around. A revolution does not imply something previously unknown, but rather of repentance, returning, going back. Chesterton says “a revolution is a restoration.” (Orthodoxy, p. 117)

So if the question is asked—“Are Charlotte Mason’s ideas new or old?”—the answer is, “yes.” She makes both claims for herself—“Some of it is new; much of it is old.” A perfect example is her approach to habit, as we discussed earlier. The idea of instilling habits in learners goes back as far in history as we can go. Charlotte Mason wrote, “how familiar to the mind of both Roman and Greek was this doctrine of habit.” (Formation of Character, p. 169) But that white post had gotten dingy and knocked a bit awry when Charlotte Mason came along and said:

But now, they have something more than a notion; they have scientific certainty. (Formation of Character, p. 170)

That is what she believed, so she encouraged her colleagues to grab a brush and apply some fresh white paint to their educational approach to habit training.

Charlotte Mason was not confused when she said “new” and at the same time, “old”. Her deep understanding of education and its history made it clear to her what was old, and what was new. As onlookers, we bring our own perspectives to her work. One person might come along and exclaim, “Look at that fresh white post!” and a companion might object, “That’s been there forever!” They are both correct, if only in part. The paint may indeed be new, while the post and its purpose are not. The salient point to appreciate is that the sign will remain clear to read: This is the way to wisdom: learn to love the good, and the true, and the beautiful.