As for the baby, he is in bliss: divested of his garments, he kicks and crawls, and clutches the grass, laughs soft baby laughter, and takes in his little knowledge of shapes and properties in his own wonderful fashion — clothed in a woollen gown, long and loose, which is none the worse for the worst usage it may get. (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 45)
The afternoon’s games, after luncheon, are an important part of the day’s doings for the elder children, though the younger have probably worn themselves out by this time with the ceaseless restlessness by means of which Nature provides for the due development of muscular tissue in them; let them sleep in the sweet air, and awake refreshed. (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 81)
I will never forget the first time I read Home Education. While I wasn’t tempted to disregard all of Miss Mason’s advice because of what seemed to me to be unlikely descriptions of the baby laughing peacefully in the grass and eventually taking a nap there, this did seem unrealistic.
Since then, I’ve actually come across people who want to disregard the totality of Miss Mason’s philosophy and practical advice on these grounds: that Miss Mason never had children of her own.
And it’s true, you know. She never did have any children. She was born an only child, she was orphaned as a teenager, and she died a spinster.
I’ll be honest: I understand the hesitation. We’ve all met that childless social worker who thinks she knows so much better than parents, but who fails to grasp simple, basic truths about family life.
Still, this myth — that since Miss Mason never had children, therefore her advice is inherently unrealistic — is the fallacy of our age. How many times have you heard someone say that until you have walked in their shoes, you do not have a right to comment? Or that you, since you have not had the exact same experience, could not possibly understand?
Do you know what epistemology is? It’s basically the study of knowing. If you ask someone, “Hey, what’s your epistemology?” (which you do regularly, I’m sure), you’re asking them how they think they come to know something.
If I say, “Because you have not experienced X, you cannot even begin to understand it,” I am asserting a form of empiricism. Empiricism says that we only get knowledge through our five senses. A related term than comes into play here is a posteriori knowledge — knowledge gained from experience.
Here’s the problem: empirical and a posteriori knowledge are not the only types of knowledge which exist.
Coming to know can happen in a variety ways. Empiricism is true in that we can and do get knowledge through our senses. A posteriori knowledge is real in that we do come to know through our experiences. But empiricism isn’t the whole story — empirical evidence isn’t the only type we allow into our court room.
We can reason. Given a set of data, we can draw true conclusions using logical, deducting, and inductive reasoning. Given a good book and our imagination, we can gain a completely intangible and yet very real knowledge that can even change us as people.
We have a priori knowledge about some things. Ideas arise in our minds prior to any experience. Some things are obvious or self-evident.
There is also poetic knowledge — the sort of pre-cognitive knowledge we often observe in the young.
And finally, there is a God who reveals Himself and truth to humanity. This means that another way to gain knowledge is revelation.
So what does all of this have to do with Charlotte Mason? In briefly exploring the different modalities involved in gaining knowledge, we come to understand that there is more than one way to become wise.
And wise is what Miss Mason most definitely was.
She did have experience, of course. She spent her entire adult life teaching children, training teachers for children, coaching mothers and governesses, designing curriculum for children, and then testing it on children. Miss Mason didn’t lack experience, but simply had a different kind than we have.
But experience alone is not how she became wise. Miss Mason was daily reading, thinking, and growing. She was always in touch with the thoughts of her day, and also the greatest thoughts of all time.
Her words and work ought to be judged on merit, and not on some perceived lack of experience.
Can I be honest here? I think I know what is really going on when we are tempted to dismiss Miss Mason on the grounds of lack of experience. It’s that she’s saying something we don’t want to hear. We’re not dismissing her on the grounds of being wrong. We’re dismissing her because we don’t want her to be right.
She’s asks some hard things of us because she asks us not to do what is easiest or most comfortable, but rather what is best.
And usually best is hard.
But don’t see this as discouragement or condemnation. Those who knew Miss Mason always referred to her as a source of great encouragement. She was the sort of person who pulled you so far up to her level that you never really went all the way back down again. She helped make those around her better than they were.
So: not a discouragement, but rather an encouragement. She believes in us. She thinks we can.
I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them. (Home Education, p. 44)
We mustn’t give into the spirit of our age which says that someone has to walk in our shoes to know truth. We’ll miss out on a lot more than Charlotte Mason if we start to think that. Wisdom can be gained in a variety of ways, and we would be wise to listen to it, wherever it be found. Experience, you see, is not the only path.
by Emily Dickinson
I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet now I know how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in Heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
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