For reasons that I’ll be making clear in the coming weeks, I’ve returned to the pages of Norms and Nobility. I haven’t read but a few excerpts for a couple years, so it has been interesting to go back through it. I remember the wrestling that took place the first couple times I read it — it was such a struggle, both to understand as well as to sort out where I stood in relationship to it. And, like all good books, I find that the reading never wears out or grows old. Instead, it grows with. I’m in a new place, and as I return to my own primary sources — Charlotte Mason, David Hicks, James Taylor, Cindy Rollins — those who influenced me when I was in my twenties and just opening my mind to such things — I find new inspiration, and I read it with new perspective.
It is amazing to me how some ideas can stay fresh.
In fact, educational philosophy places perhaps an unusual importance upon beginnings. I know we were joking about our educational GPS system, but there were some grains of truth in the metaphor. We come to homeschooling on a journey, philosophically speaking. In addition to that, educating a child is a journey — and some people would pay good money for a map.
The thing with maps is that it doesn’t usually matter where you begin, or even which route you take, so long as you know exactly where you’re going. A maps app can get you there, amIright?
Education isn’t like that. The journey metaphor fits and yet doesn’t fit for this reason, because it’s one of the few “journeys” where the beginning place matters.
In Norms and Nobility, David Hicks wrote, “Education at every level reflects our primary assumptions about the nature of man.” This is the beginning. Who do we believe man is and what is his purpose? What is he like and what ought he to be?
If education is a journey and our philosophy is the map, where we begin not only matters, but it actually determines our route. If I believe children are little computers that need to be filled with data, I’m going to educate in a very different way from, say, Charlotte Mason, who says children are persons.
This is why Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles begin with a definition of the child — of what the child is like — because that is where educational philosophy must begin.
The discussion of the route to take — meaning the curriculum to choose and the methods to employ — are all determined by that beginning point of what is man and what is his purpose. Miss Mason lived in a still-Christian world. They knew what persons were; there was only doubt as to whether children actually were persons at birth. Our age has a different problem, for we have forgotten what persons are. Thankfully, good theology and catechisms can rescue us.
Hicks also raises the question of what a school is. I never caught this before, possibly because, as a homeschooler, I thought I didn’t really care what a school was. But to Hicks, the school is there representing the Ideal:
The good school does not just offer what the student or the parent or the state desires, but it says something about what these three ought to desire. A school is fundamentally a normative, not a utilitarian, institution, governed by the wise, not by the many.
I found myself thinking about Charlotte Mason, studying away, planning curriculum for her schools and college, training teachers in her methods — aiming to become wise, that she might guide all the schools that were depending on her to set the course through both curriculum as well as method.
I also thought about this in terms of the homeschooling parent. We run into tensions between what the student is and what he ought to be, and sometimes we end up with a curricular dispute. We give a child something good for him, such as Robinson Crusoe, and he rejects it because it’s difficult reading. I’m not saying we never adjust. I’m not saying that dyslexia will never interfere with our fine ideals. But — stay with me here — do we stand with Wisdom and cry aloud at the top of the high places, “If you will be wise, climb up here.”
Or do we say, “Oh, you poor thing. Climbing is so hard.” And we hand him the easy road, which is to say, the book he desires instead of the book that he needs.
It’s a tricky thing, education. There are so many directions in which we feel pulled, so many people with opinions about methods, so many thoughts on the ultimate goal, and even so many beliefs about the beginning place.
But like I said earlier: the whole map matters when it comes to education. This is unlike so many other things. In order to “get there” (if we ever actually get there), we must start in the right place, travel the rights paths, and aim for the right end.
That’s enough to make us throw in the towel, isn’t it?
I think that’s unnecessary. It might sound like I’m pushing for perfection here, but I’m really not. I’m pushing for prioritization. We need to remember that these things matter, and that when things start feeling chaotic in the day-to-day, there might be a philosophical reason for that. My wise friend, Pam, once said that one of the reasons we try to do too much is that we’re lacking in direction.
We start with a blank map. Or, worse: some of us start with a faulty one and have to do a lot of erasing.
So. Don’t forget to study. To read and think. To ask the hard questions about education. If you’re feeling kind of lost, that’s a sign it’s time to start filling in your map.
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