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    Norms and Nobility: C. Mason Weighs In

    April 26, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    I am still plugging along at Volume Five of Charlotte Mason’s Original Home Schooling Series. This is a remarkable volume, and I wonder that it is not more highly recommended to mothers of young children. Though Mason seems to have discovered the pound of cure for some of what ails many youths {i.e., bad habits}, she also offers enough warning to serve as more than the proverbial ounce of prevention.

    Norms and Nobility by David HicksIn my previous post The Mythopoeic Nature of Language {titled because of my recently discovered affection for the word mythopoeic}, I said something poorly which I have discovered Mason said well. This is one of the rare instances in which I thought something before I read it. However, comma, I think we can all rest assured that my thinking it, because it occurred some hundred years after Mason jotted down a similar {superior and more eloquent} thought, still qualifies as an afterthought.


    First, a little background. Part IV of Volume 5 contains character studies, or perhaps we should call them “living pictures” of what she has been discussing throughout the work. In Chapter I of Part IV, she holds up two peasant boys and their upbringings–both the similarities and disparities–as the first study. The boys at hand are Jörn Uhl from Gustav Frenssen’s book by that title, and Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, the hero of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.

    What struck me as connected to the Norms and Nobility reading are the observations she makes about the means of educating these boys:

    Of all our sins of omission and commission, none perhaps are worse than the way we defraud children of those living ideas which are their right.

    She explains that Diogenes calls his school education “insignificant.” He did, however, devour any sort of reading in any sort of book {or scrap of paper} he could get his hands on. She writes:

    Formation of Character by Charlotte MasonHe got something out of this random reading, bits of history and bits of fable, real, both of them, out of which his mind got its necessary food. Now, here is a point worth attention. How seldom do we hear of a famous man who got that food for his mind which enabled him out of his school studies! And how often, on the other hand, do we read of those whose course of life has been determined by the random readings of boyhood! We go on blindly and stubbornly with our school curriculum, as if this were a fact of no significance, because, say we, the boy will have chances after his school-days to get such pabulum as he needs; but life is not long enough to afford the waste of some dozen years, its freshest and most intelligent period. 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 in school, the sort of books they can live upon; books alive with thought and feelings, and delight in knowledge, instead of the miserable cram-books on which they are starved?

    That, my friends, is a good question. But there is more. Remember what Hicks wrote in regard to “detached analysis” being heaped upon our children, causing them to bear the burden of rationalism in their reading? Here is what he said:

    Scientific rationalism and its methods of analysis demand a language of pure denotation to explain programs, techniques, and mechanisms. When the analytical methods and denotative language of scientific rationalism are forced on human learning, however, a reverse distortion occurs, with behaviorism replacing humanism and a mood of professional disinterest supplanting the emotional atmosphere of the ancient classroom. Where distrust of connotative language–with the baggage of value it carries–invades the modern school, there is a methodological tendency to exclude myth and to encourage detached analysis at the expense of the imaginative mind. Words like valor fall away…

    I was thinking this was something fairly new {i.e., a result of modernism}, but Mason points out that students have been suffering under this learning paradigm at least since Thomas Carlyle wrote the semi-autobiographical Sartor Resartus. She explains:

    [H]e tells us that “we boasted ourselves a Rational University; in the highest degree hostile to Mysticism; thus was the young vacant mind furnished with much talk about Progress of the Species, Dark Ages, Prejudice, and the like; so that all were quickly enough blown out into a state of windy argumentativeness; which by the better sort had soon to end in sick impotent Scepticism; the worse sort explode in finished self-conceit, and to all spiritual intents become dead.”

    This invective discovers a mistake in our educational methods. From the time a child is able to parse an English sentence till he can read Thucydides, his instruction is entirely critical and analytic. Does he read “The Tempest,” the entrancing whole is not allowed to sink into, and become a part of him, because he is vexed about the ‘vexed Bermoothes’ and the like. His attention is occupied with linguistic criticism, not especially useful, and, from one point of view, harmful to him because it is distracting. It is as though one listened to “Lycidas,” beautifully read, subject to the impertinence of continual interruptions in the way of question and explanation. We miss the general principle that critical studies are out of place until the mind is so ‘thoroughly furnished’ with ideas that, of its own accord, it compares and examines critically. “The hungry young,” says Teufelsdröckh, “looked up to their spiritual Nurses; and, for food, were bidden to eat the east-wind”–“vain jargon of controversial Metaphysic, Etymology, and mechanical Manipulation falsely named science.” {emphasis mine}

    That is a long quote, to be sure, and worth reading at least twice.

    I’ll wait while you read it again.

    Mason, being the Victorian she is, can go on and on. Some of us find this easier to bear than others. But none of us can deny her brilliant observations: that critical analysis is distracting to the young reader, that it is highly inappropriate as an approach to reading as an art, that it will arise naturally out of a “fully furnished mind” {I love her illustration here}, and so on. But perhaps her most important observation brings us back to where we started: what if we faced reality and admitted all of these things about learning? What if we recognized that very few great men, great thinkers, believe school did them much of any service? And then what if, instead of eliminating school {as some are apt to do}, we designed a curriculum which fit with the way that the soul is designed to learn? This was the question of the year for CiRCE in 2009: what if we teach the child according to his nature? What if, instead of starving his mind, we saw it as our moral duty to nourish him in every way?

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