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    Norms and Nobility: Can Virtue Be Taught?

    April 12, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    There are so many posts rolling around in my head, and very little time. Today, after all, is the first day of Term Three, with our new and improved longer Circle Time, and so on and so forth. Life speeds up in springtime, does it not?

    David Hicks begins this section by declaring:

    [T]he Greek achievement in education found its abundant source in Plato’s question: Can virtue be taught?

    Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on EducationNot to jump ahead too far, but Hicks explains in Section IV that the debate between the rhetoricians and philosophers in the ancient world was productive because it was concerning how virtue ought to be taught. In other words, it was assumed that virtue could be taught. The approach to teaching it was what was up for grabs, and the debate was often a case of iron sharpening iron, one side keeping the other side in balance, and vice versa.
    Today, however, we find the debate to be…nonexistent for the most part. The vast majority of schools–public, private, and possibly even at home–are caught up in the teaching of facts alone. At first, I thought that perhaps today’s debate has moved backwards one step, and concerns Plato’s original question, Can virtue be taught? But I actually think we’re far away from that question as well. Hicks writes:

    To hold that virtue can be taught and that it is the chief duty of the school to teach it need not imply a belief in the perfectibility of man. Rather, it implies a belief in the ideal of virtue, as well as in the value of an education based upon the attempt to know and to emulate this ideal.

    I can only conclude that our modern debate–if there even is one at all–is over whether there is such a thing as virtue in the first place. This is why, when we try and discuss what we are trying to accomplish in our lessons at home, we often feel like we’re hitting a brick wall. Why do others not understand us? Why do we feel like we are speaking a foreign language?

    Because, for the most part, we are.

    We are a number of generations away from the time when the existence of virtue was a foregone conclusion. There is no debate, for those of us reaching for intangibles in our daily lessons are reaching to places completely untouched by the modern materialist mindset.
    The Original Home Schooling SeriesCharlotte Mason’s approach to education is also called, at its core, “character education” or a road to “character formation.” Before reading her fifth volume {titled Character Formation}, I rejected this as some sort of manipulation technique based on associations I had from life experiences in the public schools pushing “values” that are “clarified” by the student and his preferences.
    This is nothing of the sort. Mason is simply part of that ancient debate over how virtue ought to be taught. That virtue can and should be taught is assumed throughout her work.
    Yesterday evening, I was reading her chapter The Young Maidens at Home, which deals with the family who is being reunited with a daughter–a young lady–returning home upon the completion of finishing school. This chapter looks at the child, almost an adult, who is birthed by the educational process. Mason’s dire warning in this chapter is that virtue can also be untaught.
    First, Mason asserts that a girl should not be assumed to be “finished” even upon completion of finishing school. I do not know much about the process of finishing school in Victorian England, but what I have gathered from my reading seems to be that the girls returned home, were debuted into society as eligible maidens, and hopefully, if all went as planned, matched and married off within two to four years of their return.
    Mason implies that the parents were tempted to let the young girls spend their days in nothing but pleasure–playing, dancing, and spending time with friends. The reason for this is that they were at the “end” of their childhood. The parents wanted to provide them with one last indulgence before they entered motherhood, but Mason warned the result of this is that

    the gain of the girl’s whole education hitherto is at stake. She might as well have been allowed to play ever since she was born as to play uninterruptedly now. For the gain of her education is not the amount of geography, science, and French that she knows; she will forget these soon enough unless well-trodden tracks be kept up to the brain-growth marking these acquirements. But the sold gain education has brought her lies in the powers and habits of attention, persistent effort, intellectual and moral endeavour, it has educed.

    Do you see? All of the subjects were the rigorous means through which virtue was formed in the soul. And the parents are undoing all of it through indulging the grown child. Mason explains why this is so:

    [H]abits which are allowed to fall into disuse are all the same as though they had never been formed; powers not exercised grow feeble and are lost. The ground which has been gained in half-a-dozen years may be lost in a single one. And here we have the reason why many girls who have received what is called a good education read nothing weightier than a feeble or trashy novel, are not intelligent companions,and show little power of moral effort.

    And this is such a disservice, for

    if she is to recover the ground lost, she must begin all over again, and at an age when it is far more difficult to acquire habits and develop power than in childhood. Again the taste for parties of pleasure, for what may be called organized amusement, is an ever-growing taste, and dislodges the habit of taking pleasure in the evening reading, the fireside games with the children, the home music, the chat with friendly neighbours, the thousand delights that home should afford.

    The Lord, incidentally, saved my husband and I from this. I was, to put it mildly, disappointed to find I was to be a mother so quickly after our marriage. We had plans. Most of those plans consisted of having a lot of fun. To indulge ourselves. To enjoy having extra money to spend on our pleasures. And so on. College is a great way to develop a taste for an indulgent life, a life where very little need be sacrificed for others. This was definitely the case for me, though many good things were gained from college as well. But I was intending to go from college to graduate school and marriage with more of the same. Emphasis on more. Marriage itself required little sacrifice on my part as we were kindred spirits.

    Our intention was to spend many years playing alone together.

    And we would have declined steadily into a life of self-centeredness, to be sure. I see this so clearly, and I know what my heart was like at that time. But God grabbed hold of our lives and our hearts and didn’t allow this. He Himself was our disciplinarian. Having a newborn forced us to learn to value the pleasures of home while forsaking that “increasing taste for organized amusement.” In a word, He did not allow any virtue we had gained to be undone, and also forced our growth. What better way to grow in virtue than to be granted a new life to raise, and also the heart, softened by love, to do that raising properly?

    But I digress.

    Mason, as I was saying, assumes that virtue can and must be taught. She assumes that it has been taught. She assumes that a single year can undo the lessons of a decade.

    And I find myself more grave, and more desirous of being deliberate.

    One last thing: her solution is not to forbid pleasures. She is very balanced. Her goal is to not allow the life to consist of so much pleasure-seeking that the soul itself is damaged.

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  • Reply At School with Charlotte: Examining Underlying Assumptions (Part 1) | Afterthoughts September 1, 2019 at 6:56 pm

    […] debates between the philosophers and rhetoricians, were over how virtue ought to be taught. It was assumed that it could be taught. This, then, was a healthy and helpful debate. But if you have one party approaching education with […]

  • Reply Laura A April 21, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Very nice addition to the discussion! Sorry I’m so late getting around to reading it.

    Also, here’s a link (because it’s so much after the fact of the discussion) to my notes on N.T. Wright’s talk on After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. I attended this talk last night and was surprised by its relevance to the virtue discussion, as well as its implicit validation of Charlotte Mason’s ideas.

    I was also surprised and delighted at the receptiveness of the young, hip, urban audience.
    So maybe not all is lost!

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts April 13, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    Dana, Thank you for the link! I will be reading that this evening, if all goes as planned. I skimmed the first page and it looks like perfect reading to go along with this section.

    Jennifer, My husband and I have been discussing the retirement issue lately. There seems to be a trend to view retirement as a return to childish ambitions. Oh! My other tab just loaded you blog and I see you wrote about this in more depth. I look forward to reading it…but sometime after lunch. My break is through for now. 😉

  • Reply Jennifer April 13, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    I have been enjoying this book as well. Virtue is a concept we don’t understand anymore. Probably because our elders don’t have it either. One of my pet peeves is when children are raised and out of the home the mothers go out to work. They are trying to save money for their retirement. At retirement they go amuse themselves with traveling, tanning, playing, and visiting. They neglect the biblical mandate to teach the younger women. THey often wouldn’t know what to teach. THey are focussed on just enjoying the life they have left, rather than making something out of it. How can we communicate this to them? That they are needed and they need to move beyond amusements. THere are wonderful exceptions of course. Praise God!

  • Reply Go quickly and tell April 12, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Just making sure you’ve seen this article written by the eminent Dr. Kirk.

    It’s also a chapter in his book, Redeeming the Time.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts April 12, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    GJ, Absolutely! I remember reading that verse in college and wondering what in the world it meant. After the Lord did His work in our lives, I had understanding.

    In retrospect, I see we can also take comfort that God continues to teach our children after we are done with them, that He is a good and gracious teacher, and that all is not lost if we miss some area. Sometimes I forget this and begin to think we are supposed to cover every possible base, but I see that there is always room for God to move. We are called to teach and train our children rather than save them. I am glad that God reminds me of this from time to time. 🙂

  • Reply GretchenJoanna April 12, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    Thank you for a thoughtful treatment of this subject. I read Norms and Nobility many years ago, but still a little late for me to put into practice the greater understanding Hicks gave me. I am heartened by your own experience of God Himself teaching you virtue by the constraints He put upon you in conjunction with the joy of a child. Don’t you think this is at least part of the meaning of being “saved through childbearing”?

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