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    Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy

    At School with Charlotte: Issues in Regard to Intellectual Training (Part 2)

    October 13, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    Today, we’re going to finish up chapter 11 of Charlotte Mason’s Volume 3: School Education. This is where she begins to apply her ideas to the real world in practice. But before we go there, let’s mention a couple additional ideas to get the ball rolling.

    Some final things to think about, courtesy of Charlotte Mason: buy good books, don't rely on subjects, and more!

    First, what, exactly, is ability? Some children seem more able than others, no? Well, Charlotte assures us that what we call “ability” is really “the possession of some half-dozen [intellectual] habits.” Interesting, hm? These habits (and we’ll get to what they are in a bit) empower students.

    They make a man able to do that which he desires to do with his mental powers, and to labour at the cost of not a tenth part of the waste of tissue which the same work would exact of a person of undisciplined mental habits.

    I am still tempted to say that some children are born this way. I have a couple children who are obviously what folks would call “gifted.” I have a couple others who are more average. Some of them have habits I know I didn’t teach them. I like to think my husband’s good habits are genetically transferable, and I get to benefit! Charlotte doesn’t actually differ with me here:

    We know, too, that the habits in question are acquired through training and are not bestowed as a gift. Genius itself, we have been told, is an infinite capacity for taking pains; we would rather say, is the habit of taking infinite pains, for every child is born with the capacity.

    I’m asserting that some children are born more naturally inclined than others. She’s saying all children have the capacity to acquire habits. I agree. I have a particular child I have worked very hard with, who would probably, if left to her own devices, have some form of ADD. But she’s much more able than even I expected, and I’d say it’s the power of the habits she’s been forming.

    Blindly Trusting in Subjects

    Charlotte explains that we often will trust in some isolated activity or school subject to form a habit in the children.

    The classics … cultivate in one direction, the mathematics, in another, science, in a third.

    We think that math especially disciplines the mind, no?

    Well, Charlotte has a warning for us: these subjects discipline the mind in isolation. They cultivate habits for that particular subject rather than universal habits which bleed over into all of life.

    Remove the mathematician from his own field and he is not more exact or more on the spot than other men … The humanities do not always make a man more humane, that is, liberal, tolerant, gentle, and candid, as regards the opinions and status of other men. The fault does not lie in any one of these or in any other of the disciplinary subjects, but in our indolent habit of using each of these as a sort of mechanical contrivance for turning up the soil and sowing the seed. There is no reprieve for parents. It rests with them, even more than with the schoolmaster and his curriculum, to form those mental habits which shall give intellectual distinction to their children throughout their lives.

    Take a man out of his subject, and we discover his subject hasn’t made him a superior man. Charlotte seems to believe that we parents desire to rely on the subjects for habit formation because we either can’t, won’t, or don’t know how to help them ourselves. But, as she says, there is no reprieve for us. We parents are looking to pass our duty off to curriculum, but it simply can’t be done.

    Intellectual Habits

    So, what are these habits which, once collected, we call “ability?”

    1. Attention: This is a passive habit, the turning of the whole force of the mind upon the subject.
    2. Concentration: This is attention’s active counterpart, the mind actively engaged on some given problem.
    3. Thoroughness*: Dissatisfaction with slipshod work, with an imperfect grasp of a subject. We all ought to be uneasy until a satisfying measure of knowledge is obtained.
    4. Intellectual Volition: The power to make ourselves think about a given subject at a given time. This requires mastery of our own will.
    5. Accuracy: Not just in math, but in daily life.
    6. Reflection: The power of rumination — not allowing impressions to pass over the surface of our minds, but retaining and assimilating. Journaling comes in handy for this sort of habit, I think.
    7. Meditation: This is not referring to Eastern meditation, which is the emptying of the mind. Rather, this in the Christian sense, and therefore refers to the ability to use our minds to follow out our subject to all its issues. Meditation and reflection are mirror-image twins — the latter assimilating what is known, the former taking what is known and following its trail of implications out to the end.

    Other Issues

    Here are a few other points that Charlotte makes along the way:

    • The intellectual life has as its food living ideas. Children, she claims, have no natural appetite for twaddle, but rather they acquire it when we treat them childishly. I don’t know that I agree. I sometimes wonder if twaddle isn’t more akin to sugar — something bad for us that we like, and the more we consume, the more we desire. Regardless, I loved her thoughts here:

      It is not possible to repeat this too often or too emphatically, for perhaps we err more in this respect than any other in bringing up children. We feed them upon the white ashes out of which the last spark of the first of original thought has long since died. We give them second-rate story books, with stale phrases, stale situations, shreds of other people’s thoughts, stalest of stale sentiments.

      And if we think she is talking only about the content of their books, it is important to note that she also criticizes the illustrations. I wonder what she would think about the irreverence involved in the multitude of cartoon Jesuses.

    • Intellectual development is individual. We initiate. We direct. We do not control. We do not dominate.
    • There is a place for children to select and appropriate their own ideas. There is a prerequisite for this, though: “given a bountiful repast.” In other words, if we offer them a library in which every book is beautifully written, beautifully illustrated (if it is illustrated), teeming with ideas and so on, then they are sure to select and appropriate good ideas as they go along. Given a table of junk food, we needn’t be surprised at their selections, nor at their resulting ideas.
    • Beware of skimping on book expenditures. Children need books. They need good books. They need living books. And this is going to cost money. I can tell you now that if you learn how to shop used, it won’t cost near as much as going to Amazon and purchasing everything brand new. But we ought to make the acquisition of living books a family priority. Charlotte suggests we purchase
      • Child-appropriate fiction, poetry, travel books, adventure books, history, and biographies.
      • Books which contain ideas of life and conduct
      • Books which contain ideas of duty
      • Books which contain ideas of nature
      • Books which contain

        the leading, vitalising ideas in the subjects of school study, as geography, grammar, history, astronomy, Caesar’s Commentaries, etc., etc.

    Plato’s Educational Aim

    Charlotte-the-classicist ends with a quote Coleridge concerning Plato:

    He desired not to assist in storing the passive mind with the various sorts of knowledge most in request, as if the human soul were a mere repository or banqueting room, but to place it in such relations of circumstance as should gradually excite its vegetating and germinating powers to produce new fruits of thoughts, new conceptions and imaginations and ideas.

    *This is a habit I’m working with my Year Three student on. I’m noticing the vast majority of errors in math, especially, are due to rushing through rather than being slower and more meticulous.

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