First I would like to thank both Brandy Vencel and all of you in the Afterthoughts and Charlotte Mason community who have recently engaged with our book, The Liberal Arts Tradition. I have learned a great deal from your discussion and gleaned new ideas from you as I have listened in. I have also grown in respect for the philosophy of Miss Mason and am now eager to begin reading in her corpus of books. Thank you for letting me participate vicariously in your community through this blog.
A few weeks back Brandy asked me if I would like to offer five pieces of advice for Afterthoughts readers before she wound up the series. Of course, I am pleased and honored to do so. Here they are:
Cultivate Piety and Poetic Knowledge
Parents often feel an indiscernible pull to make education ‘objective’, neutral, or secular. Nothing could be further from what we ought to do. Education is fundamentally about shaping the students’ loves — first towards Christ, then towards family and church, and finally towards neighbor. How then can embodied knowledge and the cultivation of affections through stories and the arts all lead to the proper ordering of loves? Play and wonder are the fuel for education and none of these themes should be abandoned, even in the later years.
Puzzle, Proof, and Play in Mathematics
Math even in the early years does not need to be merely imitation and drill. Drawing the student through a series of puzzles that culminates in understanding is the key pedagogy. Allowing an interplay between the discrete number of arithmetic and the continuity of geometric shapes can motivate puzzles. That means parents should introduce their students to figurate numbers like triangular numbers and pyrimidal numbers. These can be compared and contrasted to geometric shapes. Algebra then becomes naming quantities and relationships with abstract variables that they have already met before through puzzle and play. Proofs in the early years are simple visual matters similar to the constructions of Euclid. If none of the math feels like play, then perhaps the teacher or parent ought to keep looking for the right way into the topic at hand.
Besides his tireless efforts to abolish slavery, William Wilberforce was also interested in the “Reformation of Manners” in English society. While the word ‘manners’ meant more at that time than it does now, the phrase still captures the need of the day. As C.S. Lewis noted in The Abolition of Man, “I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.” One cannot do any good moral philosophy if one is a dissolute person. All later education depends upon the early moral formation and habits of the child.
Study Natural Science along the Narrative of Discovery
It is very difficult to do modern science without using a textbook at some point. But a textbook is not enough to develop wisdom. Students should read Nancy Pearcey’s book The Soul of Science to appreciate the interaction between science and Christianity. Students should also find good histories of science to accompany their classes. Books like The Mystery of the Periodic Table, Creations of Fire, or The Birth of a New Physics ought to be read alongside of textbook presentations of the material. Nature study or Natural History should never be given up, but should be a companion path alongside natural science (or a handmaiden as Brandy so aptly phrased it). A great resource for recapitulating the most beautiful experiments of all time is the web site Following the Path of Discovery. Other resources for teaching natural science can be found at Recovering Nature.
Contemplate the Big Picture
A pervasive malady of modern education is an overemphasis on analysis. Disciplines tend to break reality into smaller and smaller bits which then imply that real knowledge is always a parts-to-whole knowledge. Students also need to see reality holistically. They need to see the big picture — God, creation, and humanity. They need to instinctively distinguish between nature and what is made by human artifice and then treat these differently. They need time to contemplate what it means to be made in the image of God and whether or not God rules the universe through deterministic mathematical law or through covenantal regularities. They ought to interact with scholars like John Lennox and Alister McGrath who are thinking holistically about natural science and God. They ought to read the work of men like John D. Mueller, who explore questions of morality and economics.
The particular studies should be united into the bigger realms of moral and natural philosophy, metaphysics and theology. Without these recurring conversations about the big picture, the specialized knowledge expected in the high school and college years degenerates into a meaningless disconnected jumble. Students need to contemplate the big picture even in the natural and moral scientific discourses. And they need to do all this under the auspices of a robust, historically informed, orthodox Christian theology. While this is quite a task, it is more of a trajectory than a terminus. Consider these to be the starting points for life-long conversations and an introduction to the big questions that inform the big picture.
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