Not only did I read the Natural Philosophy section of The Liberal Arts Tradition, I also listened to a wonderful podcast from the CiRCE Institute featuring Martin Cothran. These two complement each other so well that I highly suggest, if you are reading along, that you go listen to the podcast. Conversely, if you haven’t been reading along, but did hear the podcast, it’s time to start reading. Seriously good stuff!
In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain tell us that natural science was called natural philosophy for thousands of years — and that natural philosophy means “the love of wisdom in the natural world.” Corresponding to this is the idea of wonder — since wonder is so powerful when it comes to inspiring love. Clark and Jain, just like Martin Cothran in that podcast I mentioned above, are encouraging us to return to real things — to let our students experience the natural world first hand.
Science experiments, learning the history of scientific development, and nature study are three ways to return to this love-based approach. Thankfully, all three of these things are included in a classical, Charlotte Mason education.
Do we need to do all of the scientific experiments we come across? No. I loved this quote from The Liberal Arts Tradition in regard to this:
Teachers can assist students in experimental verification of the greatest and most beautiful experiments.
Greatest and most beautiful? Sounds good to me.
Shortly after this, they tell us what makes experimentation important:
Reproducing the great experiments allows students to recognize the centrality of sense experience in proving one’s thesis. It unites the wonder and wisdom.
I long resisted science experiments because I think of them as a hassle. I prefer to live in my head, and this real world stuff is inefficient and messy. But, in keeping with my recent repentance, I bought a fancy chemistry set that is on its way to my house as I type. We’ve (and by “we” I mostly mean my husband and son ahem) been trying to do the experiments found in Kathy Wickward’s Chemical History of a Candle Study Guide without a chemistry set, and it just hasn’t been working very well. All of this, by the way, is a small part of the living science found in AmblesideOnline Year 8, which I cannot recommend highly enough.
Charlotte Mason definitely encouraged experimentation. In Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine, she recommends that students be reading Holden’s The Sciences — and that they be sure to do the experiments.
The History of Scientific Development
In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain tell us that understanding the history and philosophy of science is necessary to doing science well. Students, they say, “need a narrative framework.”
This more narrative approach asserts that there is a great conversation that has been going on for millennia even in natural science. The teacher’s job is then to mediate that great conversation…
This reminds me so much of Charlotte Mason’s desires a literary way for teaching science! In her Philosophy of Education, Miss Mason quotes M. Fouillée:
How interesting Arithmetic and Geometry might be if we gave a short history of their principal theorems, if the child were meant to be present at the labours of a Pythagoras, a Plato, a Euclid, or in modern times, of a Descartes, a Pascal, or a Leibnitz. Great theories instead of being lifeless and anonymous abstractions would become living human truths each with its own history like a statue by Michael Angelo or like a painting by Raphael.
Later in the book she says:
Books dealing with science as with history, say, should be of a literary character, and we should probably be more scientific as a people if we scrapped all the text-books which swell publishers’ lists and nearly all the chalk expended so freely on our blackboards. The French mind has appreciated the fact that the approach to science as to other subjects should be more or less literary, that the principles which underlie science are at the same time so simple, so profound and so far-reaching that the due setting forth of these provokes what is almost an emotional response…
A Charlotte Mason education is a good application of Clark and Jain’s principle of using a narrative approach — Miss Mason used a delightful combination of books about scientists and the history of science (biographies) as well as works written by scientists or written about science that are literary in nature.
While Clark and Jain did not use the words “nature study,” it is such an obvious application of what they were talking about in their chapter that I have to bring it up. Tracing science’s history, they spoke of “the historical Christian vision of man tending nature as a garden” and explained:
While investigating the natural world, medievals and ancients beheld nature as the ground of wonder, mystery, and a locus of God’s activity.
How can the natural world be investigated without a child ever going outside and observations? The nature notebook would be such a lovely addition to what Clark and Jain are promoting — the nature notebook, I mean, understood as the indispensable tool that sustains the attention and assists the student in making extended observations of a subject, that brings to light both the parts as well as the whole through the act of drawing — which is to say, imitating what as been observed.
It is so tempting in the upper years to think we are “done” with nature study. Or that we no longer have time for it. I have been tempted that direction myself! I was struck recently by Miss Mason’s insistence in School Education:
It seems to me a sine quâ non of a living education that all school children of whatever grade should have one half-day in the week, throughout the year, in the fields. There are few towns where country of some sort is not accessible, and every child should have the opportunity of watching from week to week, the procession of the seasons. Geography, geology, the course of the sun, the behaviour of the clouds, weather signs, all that the ‘open’ has to offer, are made use of in these walks; but all is incidental, easy, and things are noticed as they occur. It is probable that in most neighbourhoods there are naturalists who would be willing to give their help in the ‘nature walks’ of a given school.
In fact, she goes on to explain that object lessons (the half-sibling of science experiments) are mere supplements — it is nature study in this form which is the main dish here. Books, she says, are an adjunct to out-of-door work, and not the other way around.
Why the Handmaiden?
A handmaiden is a servant. Natural philosophy — a love and understanding of the natural world — is the goal, and it’s the foundation upon which true science must be built. But these are not born from nothing. Something must nurture these inclinations in childhood, and personally — as much as my tendency is to view nature study as an inconvenience! — I think nature study is the key.
In my backyard, there are many tiny cages. Inside of them, there is an odd assortment of insects. One box contains a praying mantis, who as laid two egg sacs so far. The children looked her up in their field guides and discovered that they will have to wait until spring to meet her babies, and also that she can lay up to six of these sacs. Therefore, they decided, she needs nourishment. That is where the other cages come in. They are full of the unfortunate ones who will serve as future meals. Today, one of the grasshopper collection was led to his death. They chose him because, after long observation, they have figured out what grasshoppers look like before they die. They know the order of the moltings and what he’s like at the end — all this, without me ever having taught them. They claim his chest area turns darker shortly before his demise.
There has been much studying in their books in their spare time, and all because their observations have caused them to ask questions. This is the sort of thing that is irreplaceable — and it cannot be replicated in a laboratory.
Need Some Inspiration?
Go check out Beyond the Nature Journal: Five Kinds of Nature Study Gifts for Children to get you started … or keep you going!
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