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    CiRCE Talks: Kern’s Cultivating of the Soul of Liberty

    November 12, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    In this final installment of this year’s CiRCE Talks (well, not that I won’t eventually discuss some of the other excellent speeches, including Dr. Paula Flint’s And Liberty for All: Including Students with Learning Disabilities, the talk that made me fall in love with Charlotte Mason all over again), Andrew Kern gives us a list of final thoughts. His thoughts are Permanent Things ala Russell Kirk.

    So here I’m going to give you my list.

    Ten Great Thoughts Mr. Kern
    Helped Me Think

    1. We ought to read Russell Kirk. Kirk gets top billing at this conference, with many of the speakers quoting or mentioning him. Kern specifically names America’s British Culture and Roots of American Order. He suggests that the latter would be the ideal high school text for American history study. I’ve made a mental note of that for when the time comes, and in the meantime it is on my PBS wishlist because I’d like to read it. Perhaps I’ll start a Kirk shelf in the family library. He can sit next to Wendell Berry. I think they’ll get along fine.

    2. “When we treat a child…as anything less than the bearer of the divine image, we are oppressing them…When we are not actively cultivating their souls, then our interaction with them is oppressive and must be repented of. Gulp. C’mon. Surely I’m not the only one who has been guilty of this a time or two. I just never thought of it in this way before. I think I simply thought I was being selfish, which was true, but I didn’t think about the ramifications. I noticed also that the first sentence here seems to be active–we treat the child as less than human in some way. But the second sentence is much more frightening because it can be interpreted passively. When we are not doing something, we are guilty. I don’t know if he meant it that way, but as a homeschooler I think that there can be an element of harm in passivity, in taking a hands-off approach. I firmly believe in Charlotte Mason’s concept of masterly inactivity (when we, the parents, watch and wait in wisdom while they learn something for themselves), but there is a place where we cross the line into educational neglect.

    3. Mentors must be fit to mentor, and we are mentors. Therefore, we must be fit. This is a thought that struck me throughout. Teachers used to be called masters because they were actually masters of something. Authors had the same name–the word author is derived from the word authority. We have authority based on our position in the lives of our students. This is a divinely given authority. But with it comes the responsibility to actually know. Of course, having been given as much of a Darwinian education as the next person, I can admit that there is so much that I don’t know, so many ideas I never had in my youth. Staying a step ahead of my students, then, is imperative. Being willing to learn with them is, too. Praying for God to have a lot of mercy in granting wisdom is a third approach, and highly recommended.

    4. The disordered soul is expressing itself in a disordered society. Chaos is as chaos does, I suppose. I don’t have a lot to say about this, but I added it to the list because I want to think about this one some more.

    5. The human soul consists of reason and the will. Mr. Kern elaborated on this, and I was hanging on every word. The rational faculty, he says, is the capacity to see into the life of things and enables us to bring all things into a harmony. This is reminiscent of John Hodges’ lecture The Principle of Cultivation. Kern says we train the reason, that it might become wisdom. Likewise, we discipline and train the will, that it might become virtue.

    6. Don’t be afraid to govern your children. Let me tell you a story. The other day on Craig’s List (almost my favorite place in cyberspace, but I digress), a woman posted a toddler bed for sale. It was brand new, she said. She was selling it because the child didn’t like it, nor did she want to sleep in it, she said. I cringed, like I cringe when I see women who are obviously terrified of their child and walking on eggshells, as we say, in order to avoid certain responses from him. And yet I also totally relate, because I remember times in my life when I have felt exactly this way. I have walked those same proverbial eggshells, I have feared a negative reaction from my child, and one of the reasons I have found Charlotte Mason (and the parenting classes we took that I keep mentioning even now, six months later) is because they have helped me feel liberated–free to govern my children. I feel more confident in the authority that God gave me over them. My fear is diminishing.

    7. We are all born with slave minds, and slave minds want repetition, security, and predictability; we are looking for somebody powerful to regulate the Nile for us. That last part was a reference to Mr. Kern’s opening lecture, A Contemplation of Liberty. I found myself thinking about how I ate a turkey sandwich on sourdough with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, onion, and American cheese (which, it turns out, isn’t hardly a food) every single day for three straight years during my undergraduate work. Does this mean I was a slave? Am I still? How does this defitinion of a slave mind interact with Charlotte Mason’s assertion that about 90% of our actions are habit-based, and so we work (repetitively) to build good habits. In fact, Mason goes so far as to say that good habits are liberating because they free us from the necessity of constant dilemma. We run on the rails we have laid down for virute. My question is: are Kern and Mason in conflict with each other?

    8. It is imperative to teach English history. Mr. Kern tells us that what happened in England from 1215-1688 has never been seen upon the earth, and ought to be studied. We are who we are as Americans because of what happened in England during that time. We no longer study this, so we no longer understand the concrete, practical freedom involved in the rights of Englishmen.

    9. We have to start with our own selves. Kern tells us, “We can’t impose freedom from on high.” (This, incidentally, is why I’ve always doubted our country’s “spread democracy” foreign policy agenda–I just don’t believe freedom can be attained using this method.) Kern encourages us to start with our own souls, bringing them into order. We must order our own affections. Just reading that makes me squirm because I know mine aren’t completely in order and I know how hard it would be to even attempt such a task. There is a reason why Charlotte Mason wrote that to break bad habits and form new good ones as an adult was akin to doing violence to oneself. Like anything else, the concept of babysteps helps me be brave. Even Marco Polo’s amazing journey involved one step at a time.

    10. Jesus is the answer. Isn’t that amazing? We never can get away from this truth–not that we’d want to. Kern tells us that our society propagates the illusion that you can have harmony, oneness, and freedom in a completely secularized world, but it’s not true. Kern says that Christ

    can order all things–our soul, our communitites–but the instant we try to take His place and govern more than He has authorized us to govern, we have become tyrants and we are interfering with the work of Christ.

    Only Christ can order all things to fruitfulness and freedom. Jesus is the only hope for the human race; He is the truth Who sets us free. When He brings things into harmony (which He will someday!), they flourish.

    Your turn!

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  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts November 15, 2010 at 6:38 am

    Thank you all for your responses to my question on repetition! I had this instinct that told me that Kern and Mason weren’t in conflict, but my brain just couldn’t put two and two together. I remember that last year Kern used that quote from Orthodoxy, so I know that he has a healthy appreciation for God-like repetition. I really like the way Julia puts it: sinful/bad habits are bondage good/virtuous habits are liberating. This makes even more sense if we consider that the vast majority of good habits are built by an act of the will–they are chosen. Mystie and Kelly, you helped pinpoint how a slave’s repetition is distinct from a free man’s (or God’s, for that matter)–mindless repetition, inability or fear of making his own choices…all very good points.

    I haven’t read Kathleen Norris’ Acedia and Me, but I know that I meant to put it on my PBS wishlist ages ago. Apparently, I didn’t, because I checked and had to add it. I am something like number 387 on the list, so I should have my own copy before the white throne judgment.

    I’m just saying.

  • Reply Mystie November 13, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Kern didn’t really elaborate at all on ‘repetition,’ it was just an item in a passing list. Maybe you should ask him. 🙂

    In keeping with Kelly’s comments, I tend to think that perhaps the slave mind must have repetition because he can’t handle making his own choices, whereas Charlotte’s habits are deliberate choices for repetitive discipline.

    There is another sense, also touched on by Kelly, where the oppressed, undisciplined mind craves novelty rather than the God-given repetition of days. I am reminded of Kathleen Norris’s treatment of acedia and trying to get out from under the weight of the quotidian. It’s something I struggle with myself. There is a sense in which we are supposed to rejoice in “monotony” and the “vanity” of our work, which is certainly plain in the nature of housekeeping.

    It was a gift having parents who believed and enforced that “because I said so” was reason enough to obey without question. After all, God also calls us to obey simply because He says so. If you’ve grown up accustomed to that, then it makes perfect sense to not question God but believe He knows better than you.

  • Reply Julia November 13, 2010 at 3:40 am

    I would agree with Charlotte when it comes to habits, but only the habits that enable you, not the ones that put you in bondage, make you a slave, so you can not function if something is out of line, if this makes sense.

    I keep thinking that your blog is like a breath of fresh air, thank you!

  • Reply Kelly November 12, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    (oops — subscribing)

  • Reply Kelly November 12, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    #7 – on repetition. That one leapt out at me because it made me think of Chesterton. I wish I could quote him… I’m pretty sure it was in his Orthodoxy where he said that God is never bored and pointed out the endless repetition of creating sunrise after sunrise after sunrise. He says that one area where most grown ups need to be more childlike is in our ability to tolerate repetition.

    I definitely agree with Mason on this, and I think I agree with Chesterton, but I’m not sure if that’s the opposite of what Kern meant. I imagine he was referring to something like the mindless repetition of working in a widget factory, of simply never having to figure out what to do with your life, or how to deal with the problems that inevitably come up.

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