Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy

    At School with Charlotte: Examining Underlying Assumptions (Part 2)

    August 2, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    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).

    John Locke and Professor James: why the both failed Charlotte Mason's test for a good educational philosophy, and Comenius wouldn't have been a fan, either.

    John Locke

    Charlotte says that Locke didn’t discuss the mind or soul, but rather something he called states of consciousness. Charlotte said that ideas were the proper nourishment for the mind way back in Volume 1: Home Education. The reason why Locke matters to her is because as his ideas spread, the actual definition of the word ideas began to change. Charlotte writes:

    Ideas, images, were for [Locke] to be got only through the senses; and a man could know nothing but what he got hold of through his own senses and assimilated by his own understanding.

    Locke also used a very subjective standard in regard to choosing the curriculum — what should be taught was “what it becomes a gentleman to know.”

    Charlotte compared him to her own criteria, and I’ll be adding some thoughts on how this compares to Comenius, too.

    But first, Charlotte.

    Our beloved Charlotte.

    She compares Locke’s philosophy to the third of her criteria (that an educational philosophy must touch upon the living thought of the day). Previously, she had told us of these “living thoughts”: the person is sacred, he must evolve and become his best self through education, and the solidarity of the human race.

    Charlotte says that Locke’s philosophy does not allow for a person to evolve. First, he defines the person and the learning process as purely mechanical. Also, the curricular limitations become limits on the person:

    There is no unity of an inspiring idea, no natural progress and continuity, no ennobling aim, in an education which stops at the knowledge a gentleman should acquire and the accomplishments a gentleman should possess.

    This is enough for Charlotte. Locke must be dismissed.

    I, personally, think there is more wrong at the core. Unfortunately, her third criteria is subjective: Charlotte requires Locke to be in step with the living ideas of the day. Well, Locke is in step with the living ideas of our day, I fear. Much more in step than Charlotte. So, if we today take Charlotte’s third criteria and apply it, we’d have to give Locke a pass. Ever since John Dewey organized not just our libraries, but our schools, we’ve been approaching children as if the whole process of education were better viewed as a factory building widgets than a womb growing souls.

    Comenius, however, was a little more timeless, probably because he lived in a tougher era. Locke is in violation of a number of Comenius’ criteria. For instance, Locke violates the standard of covenantalism. From Charlotte’s brief lesson, I would deduce that if Locke is making anything out of students, it is gentlemen, which is a better aim than the modern school, but inferior to Comenius’ aim of making faithful Christians. This is a sort of “evolution of the individual,” I suppose, if we mean that he becomes the “best him” which he can be, arriving at what he was created to be.

    I would also say that Locke is in violation of all seven of Comenius’ essential principles, at least in theory. Why? Well, if you look at them, you will see they have a certain objectivity to them. Man is not “shut tight, as it were, in his own skin” (a criticism Charlotte made of Locke’s view of man), at the mercy of his five senses and the isolated power of his own mind. He is a living soul able to interact with other souls, existing in a stream of history, able to know a God who has revealed Himself in words, and so on. Locke’s “states of consciousness” don’t have a lot of room in them for Comenius’ ideal of instructing an immortal soul in the way he ought to go.

    So we can dispense with Locke, too, even if the spirit of our age might lead us to embrace him.

    Professor James of Harvard University

    Charlotte is here referring to Professor James Sully and his Outlines of Psychology: with Special Reference to the Theory of Education, which was a college textbook published in 1884.

    Charlotte calls James’ view “modern physiological-psychology,” which she says adds to Locke “an illuminating knowledge of biology.” James is very clear that he is building on Locke. Charlotte writes:

    He opens with a limiting definition of psychology as the ‘description and explanation of states of consciousness as such.’

    Basically, he assumes that Locke is correct, and that the chief end of psychology (which is really akin to anthropology, or theology or philosophy of man, because it is dealing with defining man, his nature, and his purposes) is to explore all the implications of what Locke said. A limiting definition, to be sure! And, if Locke is the starting point, James is on a sure path to folly, even if many brilliant biological observations are to be had.

    James essentially denies the existence of the soul through pragmatics, by saying that the soul is not important for psychology’s purposes, that the question of the soul is for moral philosophers and theologians to debate, and we don’t need to know about the soul in order to discuss the theory of education and its relation to psychology.

    Which leads me to say: oh really?

    If, as David Hicks said, and I keep quoting:

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

    And, James relegates the soul to sidelines somewhere vague outside of the classroom, then, possibly, this is why we educate children as if they have no soul.

    Because, even if they have one, James’ heirs don’t care and don’t see how it could possibly be relevant.

    Charlotte declared that man is “devitalized” by James:

    It is dreary to suppose that one may not be anybody after all, but only a momentary state of consciousness. Hope goes out of life, for there is nothing pleasant to look forward to. If something agreeable should happen next year, there is no I, myself, to enjoy it; only the ‘state of consciousness’ of some moment to come. Faith goes where all is fortuitous; when other people and ourselves are, so to speak, the circumstances of the moment.

    She goes on, but suffice it to say that Charlotte has the eyes of a prophet, and she sees the natural outcome of James’ work as clearly as she would have seen that Nietzsche’s life would necessarily end in insanity or suicide.

    So, how does James match up with Charlotte’s criteria? Well, it fails all three:

    It is inadequate, as the best of their own prophets — Mr. James, for example — freely allow; there is more in man than this philosophy has ever dreamt of. It is unnecessary, for, as we shall presently see, more than one other psychology accounts with greater, though never with complete, success for the phenomena which a human being presents. It is inharmonious with the movement of the age. It effaces that personality which the age tends to exalt and magnify, and to regard with tender interest, under even sordid conditions. The principle of solidarity is lost, and those of social and family life loosened; for what binding tie can there be between beings whose entity may be no more than a state of consciousness?

    Remember her criteria! The philosophy had to adequately account for who man is and his relationship to the things which are other than himself, and to be necessary, there had to be no other options doing a better job at this. As far as the “spirit of the living thoughts of the age” goes, well, solidarity wasn’t the only idea under attack by James’ theories:

    Again, the evolution of the individual is checked at the point of mechanical perfection. Good mathematicians, clear-headed scientists, may be turned out; but what place is there for the higher forces of humanity, aspiration, speculation, devotion?

    In other word, in James’ world, man could become good at something, but there was no ground for becoming a Good man.

    Shock: James fails our Comenius test as well. Besides failing in all of the ways which Locke failed (because he had built his house upon the Locke, ha!), Charlotte shows us that there is also failure in regard to jurisdisctintionalism and long term hope. In jurisdistinctionalism (sphere sovereignty), because all of those ties between man and the various spheres to which he is bound (viz., family, church, and state) are loosed, and in long term hope, because the philosophy necessarily leads to despair over time.

    Next Time

    Charlotte spent a fair amount of time on Pestalozzi and Froebel, and also on Herbartian psychology … and so will we. For now, it is fair to note that Charlotte’s chapters here on all of these philosophies and theories remind me of my favorite book ever: James Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge. I think that Taylor’s analysis of the impact of Descartes and Dewey upon education is just as important as Charlotte’s analysis of Locke, et. al.

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit

    No Comments

    Leave a Reply