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    Because Reason is a Good Servant but a Poor Master

    October 18, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Last night, I was dusting up on the ninth chapter of A Philosophy of Education: The Way of the Reason. Naturally, it reminded me of how brilliant Charlotte Mason is {I know you are all shocked by this}.

    Mason tells us:

    [C]hildren should be taught…that the chief responsibility which rests upon them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas presented to them.


    Well, firstly, Mason realizes that ideas necessarily have consequences. But that is not the only reason:

    Children should know that…whenever they want to do wrong capital reasons for doing the wrong thing will occur to them*.

    She later tells us that

    reason will put a good face on any matter we propose.

    The idea is that once we entertain an idea, we tend to decide what we think is right or wrong about it, and then justify our conclusions, regardless of what they are. This is why reason is a poor master. Reason cannot tell us right from wrong, and it often helps us justify the wrong:

    It is only when he chooses to think about some course or plan, as Eve standing before the apples, that reason comes into play; so, if he chooses to think about purpose that is good, many excellent reasons will hurry up to support him; but, alas, if he choose to entertain a wrong notion, he, as it were, rings the bell for reason, which enforces his wrong intention with a score of arguments proving that wrong is right.

    I noticed this exact process–this justification of a desired course–in our Year One reading this morning:

    During a lull the sailors fished and made a big haul of cod. They invited Benjamin to eat with them, but Benjamin said no, thank you, he ate neither flesh nor fish, for he had read in a book that it was murder to kill and eat creatures that had done him no harm. But he loved codfish and, when the fish was cooking and the good smells reached his nose, he began to hunt about in his mind for a reason to share the sailors’ meal. He remembered that when the codfish were cut open he had seen small fish in their stomachs. If big fish ate small fish, why should he not eat big fish? Then he ate heartily and thought to himself how lucky he was to be a thinking creature who could find a good reason for doing what he wanted to do. After that, Benjamin always ate what was set before him.

    Obviously, I think the decision to eat was a good and right one, but that is hardly the point. What I found fascinating was that Benjamin Franklin {or at least his biographers} recognize the justifying function of the will in the story. Benjamin wanted something, and he used his reason to rationalize it.

    Sometimes, bad ideas sound good to our ears. Sometimes, good ideas sound bad to our ears. Will reason help us find the solution to this problem? And since the obvious answer is no, to what {or Whom} do we turn for direction? If the scales of reason are not the appropriate place to weigh ideas, what is?

    *Just ask my three-year-old.

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    1 Comment

  • Reply Pam... October 18, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Amen. Reason is a poor master. I will quote it to the kids all day!
    Thanks Brandy. I like hearing it narrated by you.

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