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    Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy

    At School with Charlotte: Examining Underlying Assumptions (Part 1)

    July 29, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    I ‘m going to combine the next two chapters into a single series of posts, because they contain a common idea. Chapter 5 of School Education is Psychology in Relation to Current Thought. (Charlotte Mason’s use of the word psychology is a little different ours today — I’d be inclined to replace it with anthropology or the phrase theology/philosophy of man.) In it, Miss Mason puts forth some criteria for examining these philosophies (from an educational standpoint), and then she examines the philosophy of Locke and the philosophy-plus-science of a certain Professor James from Harvard University, which she claims are (1) connected to one another (James being an extension of Locke), and (2) popular philosophical underpinnings for contemporary educational approaches. Charlotte finds that both Locke and James fail her criteria test.

    Charlotte Mason teaches us that our philosophical assumptions matter when it comes to education. Here we discuss how Comenius can fill a modern need.

    In Chapter 6, Some Educational Theories Examined, we find this same criteria being applied, this time not to assumptions, but to working theories that have been put in place — Pestalozzi and Froebel (in regard especially to Kindergarten), and also Herbartian psychology, as set forth in Herbart’s theory of apperception.

    If you think this sounds too abstract, it is interesting to note that if you read the theory of apperception (or, at least, Charlotte’s summary of it), it bears a striking resemblance to … unit studies.

    But we’ll come back to that.

    For now, we must begin at the beginning.

    The Need for a Standard

    David Hicks, in his fabulous books Norms and Nobility, wrote:

    [E]ducation at every level reflects man’s primary assumptions about himself and his world.

    Because of this, before we can even begin to talk about education, we must have a definition of man established. Do you know why it is so frustrating to discuss education with those who are big fans of the industrial school system and rave about ideas like “socialization”? It’s because, when all of the dust settles, the conflicts run deeper than we ever imagine at the outset — all the way to our basic catechetical studies: who is man and what are his purposes?

    This is what distinguishes modern debates from ancient debates. Hicks tells us that the ancient 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 the mindset that virtue can (and should) be taught, and the other that it cannot (or even should not) be taught, well then, you have a completely fruitless discussion if it’s centered on methods. Why would you discuss methods when you are heading toward completely different goals? Better to debate the goals in this instance.

    When someone tries to badger you over whether, to use the above example, your children are socialized, take a chance and ask them to define who man is and what he is about. It’ll be a far more interesting conversation, and you’ll actually be tackling the root issue.


    All of this was really to say: we need a set philosophical standard because the standard is foundational for everything else. Also, we need to be aware of it. Charlotte acknowledged that many of us simply follow in our family traditions. In regard to this, she wrote:

    People who bring up their children by ‘common sense,’ according to ‘the way of our family,’ do so more often that they know because their great-great-grandfathers read Locke.

    By refusing to question the underlying assumptions in our approach to our children, we leave them at the mercy of an ancestor’s reading habits.

    Charlotte’s Standard

    Charlotte wrote out a three-prong criteria for judging philosophies and educational theories. They were:

    1. It must be accurate. She goes on to say that it must properly identify/respect the nature of man and his relationship with everything that is not-man.
    2. It must be necessary. By this, she means that there is not an equally probable philosophy available.
    3. It must touch the living thought of the age. Not relegated to experts in ivory towers, Charlotte required that the philosophy be accessible to the average man on the street.

    In regard to this latter point, she explains to us which “living thoughts” had captivated the populace in her time:

    • Sacredness of the Person. People at the time were interested in persons and individuals, and respected them as such. This may not seem remarkable to us now, but we have to remember that Charlotte is less than 100 years out from the translation of Thomas Clarkson’s dissertation on slavery into English. The idea that all men were persons separated only by chance of birth and circumstance, and were therefore sacred, was revolutionary in 1800s Britain.
    • The Evolution of the Individual. Charlotte insisted that education improve a person as a person (see “sacredness of the person” above). This touched on the person as an intellectual being, a physical being, and a moral being. Not every “learning experience” improves a person, therefore Charlotte says:

      [T]he acquisition of mere learning is not necessarily education at all.

    • The Solidarity of the Race. This is more than the brotherhood of mankind, she says.

      This is nothing less than … our sense of the oneness of humanity reaches into the remotest past …

    This would be, then, the complete opposite of the chronological snobbery spawned by Darwinism.

    These items, then, are the “best” of the day’s thoughts, according to Charlotte.

    It’d be interesting to sit down and try and summon the “best” thoughts of our own day, but that is beyond the scope of this series.

    Daring to Part Ways

    Charlotte existed in a very religious society, for the most part. We do not. The underlying assumptions Charlotte offers us are, in my opinion, accurate but deficient. What I mean is, I believe there are more considerations when it comes to education and judging educational theory, and in a world where the entire catechism is up for debate, it’d be helpful to consider more of them.

    Enter John Amos Comenius, of whom I am a big fan.

    Comenius’s legacy (or one of his legacies, anyhow) was his conception of the Pansophic Collegium. If you read about it here and here, you will notice that it is not terribly different from Charlotte’s work.

    In his talk on Comenius (which is no longer online — sorry), Dr. George Grant tells us of the ten components of the Pansophic Collegium — three principles and seven essential proposals, which can all be teased out of one of my favorite chapters in Scripture, Deuteronomy 6. I think adding (actually, it’s more like blending) these components to Charlotte’s list offers us firmer ground upon which to stand in a world in which the soul has so many enemies.

    First, the three principles:

    1. Covenantalism. Charlotte was fully steeped in the nature of the Covenant; such thinking was not abandoned until the acceptance of dispensational theology coinciding with the popularity of the Scofield Study Bible in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Anyhow, within Biblical covenantalism, education was part of the covenantal task, which was the task of raising up the next generation of faithful Christians. We can file this away in Charlotte’s “evolution of the individual” category, for here we see education helping man to fulfill his created purpose.
    2. Jurisdistinctionalism. This was an early predecessor to Kuyper’s work on sphere sovereignty. Grant explains that the general idea is that there are various spheres within a given culture (government, church, family), and that “real reform comes when you empower those spheres to do their work.” In regard to education then, the conception of sphere sovereignty involved making distinctions (seeing where one thing ends and another begins, as well as how the two things are different) and connections (see where two things fit together). A great goal of education, then, was to improve the student’s ability to make distinctions and connections. For those of you who adore Charlotte’s saying that “education is the science of relations,” you might appreciate this particular point.
    3. Long Term Hope. This is the conviction that God’s plan for the world will succeed, that “redemption cannot be foiled.” This was a source for perseverance, of conviction that our perspective cannot always be aware of the amazing work God is doing when we are discouraged, and that history is moving toward the fulfillment and triumph of the Gospel. This informed the answer to the question as to what man’s purposes entailed.

    Next, we have Comenius’ seven essential principles of education:

    1. Theological integration. The Bible was not relegated to the side as a “subject” to be studied for a set amount of time, but was rather invited into the classroom and given the highest position, that of judge and informer for every single topic covered.
    2. Literary substance. Because God revealed Himself in words, literature is necessarily central to educational methods. This means that primary sources should be read, that pictures — even moving pictures (movies) — cannot substitute for God’s primary method of communication: words. Charlotte, as you know, also places great weight upon the reading of good literature.
    3. Didactic discipline. Learning takes great effort. Not everything is easy to learn. Students must gird up their loins and triumph over difficulties they face in their studies. Charlotte has us building habits in early childhood, that older children might have the character required for sound learning.
    4. Covenantal accountability. Everyone within the school is accountable to someone and for someone. The learning environment is built upon relationships between its members.
    5. Aesthetic objectivity. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, Dr. Grant tells us. Rather, “beauty is rooted in the character and nature of God.” Beauty, then, is objective rather than subjective, and children therefore can and ought to acquire aesthetic knowledge.
    6. Unshakable ethics. This, my friends, is something with which Charlotte (as well as David Hicks) would most readily agree! The idea is that we never separate what we know from what we do. Charlotte insisted upon a knowledge of ought … and so, we learn, did Comenius.
    7. Historical foundations. Dr. Grant says that each class (subject?) should rest upon its history.

    The Point?

    Some try and tease Charlotte out of the stream of history, and set her upon a pedestal. On the one hand, I think she articulated a rare ideal, and married it to practicality in a way few philosophers have done. I not only applaud her, I am indebted to her! Because of Charlotte and her work, our family has been blessed beyond measure; truly our cup runneth over.

    But, on the other hand, Charlotte does not isolate herself from the past. Like principle 7 above, she confidently rests upon her history, quoting Aristotle and Plato, as well as Locke and Ruskin. In fact, Charlotte condemned John Locke’s impact on education because its outcome resulted in the isolation of man from history:

    That intellectual commerce of ideas whereby the dead yet speak their living thoughts in the work they have left us, and by which as by links of an endless chain all men are bound to each and all men influence each, has no place in a philosophy which teaches that a man can know only through his own understanding working upon the images he receives through his senses.

    Charlotte was well aware that she herself existed within the flow of history, that she had reached back in order to reach forward. In reaching back to Comenius, we find living thoughts which stabilize the sandy ground upon which we find ourselves, so that we ourselves can, along with Charlotte, propel education forward in our own generation.

    Next Time

    Soon, we will see just what Charlotte had to say about the likes of Locke, James, Pestalozzi, Froebel, and Herbart.

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    1 Comment

  • Reply At School with Charlotte: Examining Underlying Assumptions (Part 2) | Afterthoughts September 1, 2019 at 6:48 pm

    […] Last time, we discussed Charlotte’s criteria for judging a philosophy or theory of education, and then I added some of what I learned from Dr. Grant’s talk on Comenius, which I added to our list of considerations (I think you’ll understand why as we go on). This time, we’ll see what Charlotte had to say about the educational philosophy of John Locke, and then the philosophy-plus-science of a Professor James from Harvard (James was adding to Locke using recent physiological discoveries). […]

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