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    Educational Philosophy

    Fertilizing the Depleted Cultural Soil, One Book at a Time

    June 26, 2014 by Brandy Vencel

    Yesterday, I finished John Senior’s book The Death of Christian Culture (while sitting in the sun at swimming lessons, oh yes). It turned out to be an excellent read, though I was doubtful a couple of times when he got so bogged down in French poets — and his especial dislike of Baudelaire — that I thought I might give up. Thankfully, perseverance has its benefits, one of which is mining the gems in difficult books along the way.

    So today, I’m feeling rich.

    In fact, I think I am rich.

    I must once again thank AmblesideOnline for my own education. I was only able to follow the Baudelaire complaint at all because of our Manet study a few terms ago. If you did the study, then you, also, remember Music in the Tuileries:

    Baudelaire, close friend of Manet, appears in this painting.

    And that, my friends, is the only reason I knew who the guy was.

    At first I thought that this little anecdote was completely unrelated to today’s post, but I’ve since decided that it’s precisely the point. Granted, a picture study is not a book, but the point remains.

    Which point?

    Well, there are a thousand things to think about when reading someone like John Senior, and likely, rich though I’ve become, I’ve only skimmed the surface. But as I cannot devote a thousand blog posts to this book, I thought I’d pick out one idea that has remained with me. I’ve been marinating in it, I suppose.

    Senior says that the Great Books movement (think Mortimer Adler’s life work) did not fail, but it “fizzled.” And then he explains that it was not due to

    any defect in the books — “the best that has been thought and said,” in Matthew Arnold’s phrase — but like good champagne in plastic bottles, they went flat.

    To change the figure, the seeds are good but the cultural soil has been depleted; the seminal ideas of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and St. Thomas thrive only in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes and adventures: the thousand books of Grimm, Andersen, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas and the rest.

    In his Appendix, Senior lists “the thousand good books” (upon which this list is based), and you know what I found? That oh so many of them were covered by AmblesideOnline. Had I looked at this list before I began homeschooling, my familiarity with the titles would have been minimal. But after six years of reading AO years along with my oldest child — as well as re-reading years with my younger children — I’ve read many of them, and I know more of them are to come in our upcoming years.

    As I flipped through the list, it finally dawned on me: AmblesideOnline students are not depleted cultural soil. They are dark, rich loam ready for planting.

    I have read a number of criticisms about CM curricula in regard to the “many subjects.” As if it were somehow complicated or confusing to read books on a variety of topics. The main focus of this criticism seems to be upon the idea that real education is “simple” and focused on just a few things.

    The 3 R’s plus Latin, or something.

    Well, Charlotte Mason has her own trinity of learning: the things of God (divinity), the things of man (humanities), and the things of the universe (nature and sciences).

    It’s as simple as that other trinity, of which a CM education also abounds: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

    John Senior goes on:

    Taking all that was best of the Greco-Roman world into itself, Western tradition has given us the thousand good books as a preparation for the great ones — and for all studies in the arts and sciences. Without them all studies are inhumane. … Anyone working at college, whether in the pure arts and sciences or the practical ones, will discover he has made a quantum leap when he gets even a small amount of cultural ground under him: he will grow up like an undernourished plant suddenly fertilized and watered.

    It is so tempting sometimes to skip the ground prep. And I’m not saying we can’t read the Illiad to our children when they are eight. But sometimes we’ll try to read something great to our children aloud and get so disappointed when they clearly don’t connect with it. And you know what? It’s actually okay. We’re still prepping the ground. It’s not quite time for planting yet.

    Or maybe the ability to read a great book and gain wisdom from it is more like bearing fruit. Maybe what we’re doing is not only fertilizing, but planting the millions of tiny seeds that will grow up and flourish in adulthood.

    In fact, Miss Mason said something of this sort:

    There is also a time for sowing the seed of this knowledge, an intellectual as well as a natural springtime; and it would be interesting to examine the question, how far it is possible to prosecute any branch of knowledge, the sowing and germination of which has not taken place in early youth. It follows that the first three lustres belong to what we may call the synthetic stage of education, during which his reading should be wide and varied enough to allow the young scholar to get into living touch with earth-knowledge, history, literature, and much besides. These things are necessary for his intellectual life, and are especially necessary to give him material for the second stage of his education, the analytic, which, indeed, continues with us to the end. It is in this second stage that the value of the classical and mathematical grind comes in.

    Vol. 5, p. 380-381

    The annotations from AmblesideOnline remind us that one “lustre” is five years, and therefore three lustres is fifteen years.

    For fifteen years, we cultivate affinities with a broad reading. We prep the cultural soil. And at the end of the third lustre, Things begin to happen. At least, that’s what I’m told. We still have a few years before we hit that point. But I see hints of it already in my oldest — and I find myself anxiously awaiting the bloom of the buds I begin to see. But in thinking through all of this, I recommit myself to three more years for fertilizing the cultural soil, one book at a time.

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