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    Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy

    At School with Charlotte: Examining Underlying Assumptions (Part 3)

    August 6, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    Previously, we used Charlotte (and my pal Comenius) to assess the educational views of John Locke and James Sully. Today, we’re going to check out Pestalozzi and Froebel, as well as Herbartian psychology. So let’s get to it.

    Charlotte Mason on Froebel, Pestalozzi, and Herbart and why they don't pass her test for educational philosophy.

    Pestalozzi and Froebel — The Theory of Kindergarten

    Charlotte, if you recall, discussed kindergarten thoroughly in Volume 1. She calls this “looking a gift horse in the mouth” because she considers that we are very much in debt to the invention of Kindergarten. It elevated the status of young children, took special care with them, and so on. Charlotte Mason appreciates Froebel’s contribution. However, she questions the underlying definition of the child, and supposes that all of its weaknesses stem from this point:

    [N]o stream can rise higher than its source, and it is questionable whether the conception of children as cherished plants in a cultured garden has not in it an element of weakness. Are the children too carefully tended? Is Nature too sedulously assisted? Is the environment too perfectly tempered? Is it conceivable that the rough-and-tumble of a nursery should lend itself more to the dignity and self-dependence of the person and to the evolution of individual character, than that delightful place, a child-garden? I suppose we have all noticed that children show more keen intelligence and more independent thought in home-play and home-talk than one expects of the angelic little beings on sees at school … The little monks are obviously very happy and very good; but somehow one misses the force of personality; they do not look as if they were capable of striking out a line for themselves; and this may be a danger in the Kindergarten.

    The kindergarten classroom is an artificial environment, and her entire description is reminiscent of hydroponically grown tomatoes. Have you ever purchased one of these? They are beautiful — picture perfect. They look like the ideal tomato, to be sure. They are grown in water according to a formula, and they all turn out the same. But when you taste them, you are sure to be disappointed, for they all taste the same — and bland at that! Very plain. They lack that “force of personality” that only comes from contact with the soil.

    Charlotte goes on to say that this artificial environment’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness — in catering to children, it creates a world altogether too easy for them. She asks:

    [D]oes it develop that strenuousness, the first condition of virtue … ?

    Charlotte connects this to what she views as a weakness in the German mentality which

    beheld in man a part of the Cosmos, which, like the rest, needed only to be placed in fit conditions to develop according to its nature.

    But Charlotte explains that these “fit conditions” are not rigorous, that artificial worlds do not prepare children for the real world, and I must stop and point out the irony.

    Today, home educators are criticized for training and teaching their children within the family environment. It is said that this is artificial, while the school is the “real” world. Charlotte is saying exactly the opposite, that the school, and most especially the kindergarten classroom, is an artificial and precisely controlled environment.

    Part of the problem, according to Charlotte, is that

    any sort of transition violates the principles of unity and continuity which should rule education.

    In conclusion, she appreciates much of what the kindergarten philosophy contributes, while saying

    it is well for us all to remember our origins and our tendencies, that we may recognise and avoid our dangers.

    If we quickly run through Charlotte’s criteria, we see that Kindergarten (according to Charlotte, at least) doesn’t adequately encourage the evolution of the individual. It accommodates and coddles rather than challenges and stretches. If you do not see this in the kindergarten classroom near you, please remember that in the USA, kindergarten became a generic term for a particular year in school, rather than an action taken in honor of Froebel’s theory of kindergarten. Charlotte is discussing Froebel, not your average neighborhood school.

    Herbartian Psychology

    Here we have yet another German … influenced by John Locke! Rumor has it Herbart was building on Pestalozzi’s principles, so we see how it is that Charlotte began with Locke and ran through this list as she did.

    The problems with Herbart run much deeper and wider than they do with Froebel’s approach to preschoolers. First, Herbart sidelines the soul, saying that though he believes it exists, it has no initiative, but serves only reactionary functions. Each time the soul reacts, it also changes. This, naturally, alters the traditional view of man being animated by a soul which, though it might grow, is also constant and capable of independent action.

    Charlotte boils this down, explaining that Herbart turns the person into “an effect and not a cause.”

    Herbart followed in Plato’s footsteps and believed that ideas were living (and we applaud him for this!), but adds that they were in competition with one another:

    [They] crowd and jostle one another for admission, and for the best places, and for the most important and valuable coalitions, once they have entered. They lie below the ‘threshold’ watching a chance to slip in. They hurry to join their friends and allies upon admission, they ‘vault’ and they ‘taper,’ they form themselves into powerful ‘apperception masses’ which occupy a more or less permanent place in the soul; and the soul — what does it do? It is not evident otherwise than as it affords a stage for this drama of ideas …

    There is a sense in which some of this is in agreement with Mason herself. If the ideas are alive and therefore life-giving, then we see

    how our function shall be, to supply the child always with fit ideas…

    Unfortunately, when we combine this faulty view of battling ideas with the view of the soul as purely reactionary, we end up with an odd basis for unit studies:

    [W]e shall take care so to select and arrange these ideas that they shall naturally fly to one another and make strong ‘apperception masses’ once they have got beyond the ‘threshold’ in the child’s soul…

    A fascinating vista is open before us; education has all things made plain and easy for her use; she has nothing to do but to select her ideas and turn out a man to her mind. Here is a tempting scheme of unity and continuity! One might occupy all the classes in a school for a whole month upon all the ideas that combine in one ‘apperception mass’ with the idea ‘book.’ We might have object-lessons on the colours, shapes, and sizes of books; more advanced object-lessons on paper-making and book-binding; lessons, according to the class, on the contents of books, for A B C and little Bo-Peep to philosophy and poetry. A month! why, a whole school education might be arranged in groups of ideas which should combine into one vast ‘apperception mass,’ all clustering about ‘book.’

    Do you see the problem here? The problem is not a unity of ideas, per se, but how the underlying view of the nature of man and his purposes is changing the face of education. All of this is being done precisely because the soul is viewed as having no individual volition. The soul is not viewed as capable of making its own connections, and so all mental effort of connection-making is performed by the curriculum or the teacher, hoping that by unifying all the learning around a single idea, the thoughts will be magnetically drawn together inside of the soul.

    Charlotte tells us that Herbart fails all three of her living-ideas-of-the-day test. First, she says that this philosophy would allow for the widget mindset — the idea that if you put the same things into a child on one end of the conveyor belt we call school, you’ll get duplicate outputs on the other end. Clones, or something. Charlotte tells us this destroys the solidarity of the race because this implies connection in the face of differences. Also, we sacrifice the sacredness of the person as well as the evolution of the individual:

    The person is non est, or is the mere sport of the ideas which take possession of him … [A]s for the evolution of the individual, it is not he, but this or that mass of ideas which possesses him, that expands. The man appears to be no more than a sort of vessel of transport to carry ideas into their proper sphere of action.

    This philosophy also fails Charlotte’s other two criteria, for it does not adequately account for who man is and how he should relate to the world outside of himself, nor is it necessary, for there are many other possible theories which take man’s nature into better account.

    Herbart also fails Comenius’ test, for the point of education is not to pass the torch of faith, but to simply build apperception masses. In Comenius, the “unifying idea” might really be said to be Scripture, for he promoted absolute theological integration. It seems that organizing all of learning around some other idea might compete with Scripture as supreme. Or let’s take Comenius’ assertion of didactic discipline — that learning requires the power of the will. Herbart’s definition of man makes learning passive, and not learning would be the fault of either the teacher or the curriculum.

    Charlotte Defends Herself

    At the conclusion of this portion, Charlotte explains what she has been working towards — a philosophy of education which passes the test, which is

    fairly adequate, necessary, and in touch with the thought of our age.

    And then she shares her results:

    Children brought up on this theory of education, wherever we come across them, have certain qualities in common. They are curiously vitalised; not bored, not all alive in the playing-field and dull and inert in the schoolroom — even when it is that place, proverbial for dulness, a home schoolroom taught by governesses. There is unity in their lives; they are not two persons, one with their playfellows and quite other with their teachers and elders; but frank, fresh, showing keen interest in whatever comes in their way. Then, too, there is continuity in their education. Little children are always eager to know; but the desire for knowledge seldom survives two or three years of school-life. But these children begin on lines that go on from the first baby lessons, through boyhood, girlhood, womanhood, motherhood; there is no transition stage, but simple, natural, living progress.

    What does Charlotte believe and do that is so different from other approaches?

    She believes children are persons. I love it whenever she says they are “like ourselves, only moreso.” By person, she means that she believes in a soul which acts in unison with the body. She refers to the doctrine of the Resurrection in this refusal to separate body from soul and become either a materialist, on the one hand, or a Gnostic, on the other. Rather, because we are body-and-soul-together, she addresses the spiritual, mental, and physical components of education.

    She is not a dualist, she says, but firmly believes that body and soul are one and that this is what it means to be a person. (This is a wonderful corrective for Greek-style classicism, which can tend toward Gnosticism.) In this, she accounts for the nature of man.

    She doesn’t claim that her ideas are absolutely necessary, but she does say that either her theory or something very similar is indeed necessary.

    She also allows that education, at its heart, is not the work of a teacher, but the growth of a soul.

    We safeguard the initiative of the child and we realise that, in educational work, we must take a back seat; the teacher, even when the teacher is the parent, is not to be too much to the front. There is no more facile way of swamping character and individuality than by the idol of the ‘fifties’ — personal influence.

    In the end, she says that education is the science of relations. And these relations are made inside of the soul. Humans are born with a “capacity for many relations” she says, and we are to develop these. So we present “the right idea at the right time” and form “the right habit upon the right idea” and, finally, we keep out of the way of interrupting the relation formation.

    Charlotte concludes with a word for teachers, one which I intend to remain mindful of this year. She says that

    half the teaching one hears and see is more or less obtrusive.

    The way we approach education is actually keeping children from forming these relations which ought to make up their education. And so Charlotte suggests we learn “the art of standing aside” which, I might add, possesses that same spirit as the masterly inactivity we discussed before:

    I have even known of teachers who have thought well to compose the songs and poems which their children will use. Think of it! not even our poets are allowed to interpose between the poor child and the probably mediocre mind of the teacher. The art of standing aside to let a child develop the relations proper to him is the fine art of education…

    And finally: how is the solidarity of the race attained? She promises more later, but for now she says:

    [W]e do not endeavour to give children outlines of ancient history, but to put them in living touch with a thinker who lived in those ancient days.

    Charlotte ends by telling us that, really, all of this is nothing new (which is what I mean when I assert that Charlotte is classical at the core, and exists in a long stream of history) — but rather that she has organized the old and made it accessible to us today.

    For this, we are in her debt.

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    1 Comment

  • Reply Lynn B. August 13, 2010 at 3:08 am

    Just wanted to tell you again how much I enjoy your blog.

    When I started peeling the layers off Herbart several years ago, I felt like I was finally getting a glimpse of what drove Mason to do her life’s work. It was a determination to defend the soul.

    That is when I began to see her work as an act of beauty.

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