Educational Philosophy, Mother's Education

A Living Reproduction of the Past

October 18, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

We often call classical education the classical tradition, or the Great Conversation. It’s an interesting thing, how indefinite these words really are. If we think about these ideas for a moment, we see how squirrely they can become.

Take tradition, for example. A friend and I were having a discussion a while back about how monetary donations were collected at our respective churches. My church passes an offering bag. My friend’s church, if I remember correctly, has a box at the back, and nothing is ever passed at all. Her church has one tradition; mine has another.

Or does it?

We often call classical education the classical tradition, or the Great Conversation. It's an interesting thing, how indefinite these words really are.

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Perhaps we ought to step back.

On the one hand, our churches are doing things differently. On the other hand, they are both collecting money from parishioners to finance the needs of the church, the various missionaries that have been sent, and individuals within the church body.

Is the tradition really how the plate (or bag) is or is not passed? Is that its essence?

I would say no — how the money is collected is a mostly arbitrary practice. The tradition is that members of the church give money to the church.

When we talk about the Great Conversation, we end up in a similar spot. We can look at all the details and practically drown in the minutia and then come up for air and declare that these things have nothing at all in common. Or, we can step back and see the common threads. Conversations can be a bit like spaghetti, you know. Everything is so mixed up that it’s hard to make heads or tails of it until you’ve familiarized yourself with all that is on the plate.

This is especially true of conversations that take place over millennia and have participants among both the living and the dead.

David Hicks talks about this in Norms and Nobility. One example he gives is the teaching of virtue. He writes:

As Aristotle demonstrates, the Greek achievement in education found its abundant source in Plato’s question: Can Virtue be taught? Can the knowledge of good, the love of beauty, the vision of greatness, and the passion for excellence be learned in a classroom? No notable or influential ancient, it is fair to say, ever answered this question in the negative.

His book goes on to explain that much of the Great Conversation is taken up with debates over how to teach virtue. One group thinks it ought to be done one way; other groups think it ought to be done differently. The differences are what separate one philosopher and his followers from another. But the commonality — that virtue can and should be taught in the first place — is what makes an educational philosopher classical. The second he steps outside and says, like our modern educators often do, that the purpose of education is to prepare cogs for the great economic wheel of our crony capitalist system, well … he’s stepped outside the conversation.

Make sense?

I was reminded of this when I read in Vittorino da Feltre and Other Humanist Educators:

In the widest sense, these men set before themselves the reconciliation of the ancient learning with the Christian life, thought and polity of their own day; they had no dream of a dead reproduction of the past.

p. 10

I saw a conversation on Facebook the other day about whether a Charlotte Mason education was for everyone. One of the replies was something along the lines of, “There is no one-size-fits-all approach.”

Well, yes and no.

It depends on how we define our terms, doesn’t it? On the one hand, if we’re defining a Charlotte Mason education in all of its minutia — if children must be divided into Forms, if lessons must start at 9:00 am sharp, if math must be done for the exact duration she designated on one of her schedules — if the essence of her work is viewed as the details of her practices rather than the principles of her philosophy — well, then, yes. It’s not for everyone.

And this would be, in my opinion, a dead reproduction of the past. It’s the equivalent of saying that since iPads didn’t exist when Charlotte Mason was alive, we cannot possibly use them according to her principles.

But if we’re defining a Charlotte Mason education as an education in which the practices used embody her philosophical principles, then no. There is something that is one-size-fits-all, it turns out. To get on my soapbox for five seconds, if we believe in absolute truth, and we believe in knowable truth, then any philosophy applies to everyone to the extent that it represents Truth.

I’m sure there are some caveats we ought to throw in, but let’s just go with it for now, because the real point is that when we’re guided by principles, we make possible a living reproduction of the past. (This is why I am oh so passionate about a thorough study of the 20 principles.)

This brings us back to Vittorino and his fellows. They were reconciling the ancient learning — pagan learning — with a couple things: viz., their faith and culture. This reconciliation is what it means to take an old philosophy and bring it into the present. We harmonize any of the ideals within it that are True with the reality of our own day.

A good example of this is when Woodward describes some of Vittorino’s personal habits — his dress, his regular exercise and so on — and then explains:

We trace something of the rigour of the old Roman discipline in Vittorino’s temper, in his notion of authority, of reverence to elders, of manliness and endurance. But we shall be wrong if we ascribe to the Pagan ideal any other place than this in his view of life. Vittorino was before all else a Christian imbued with the spirit and the doctrine of his faith. This indeed is the dominating note of his personality … It was Vittorino’s aim to graft ancient learning upon the stock of Christian training…

p. 21

If you read this book, this is a theme you need to watch for: how truths gleaned from ancient teachers were lifted up, sifted of error, and harmonized with the faith, making possible a living reproduction of the past.


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10 Comments

  • Reply Amy October 22, 2016 at 8:10 am

    This looks like a fabulous discussion–I love your comments, Brandi. And I’m sorry if I just missed it, but what is the book we are discussing? It looked like you linked to a couple, but if I can manage it I would like to join you!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 22, 2016 at 11:52 am

      We are discussing Vittorino da Feltre and Other Humanist Educators by Woodward. It’s this one. I recommend looking for a used copy. 🙂

  • Reply Heather October 20, 2016 at 3:48 am

    Loving following along! I’ve pondering this one- tradition & atmosphere:

    “So he brought with him to Mantua a desire to combine the spirit of the Christian life with the educational apparatus of classical literature, whilst uniting with both something of the Greek passion for bodily culture and for the dignity of the outer life.” (pg. 27)

    I’d love to know more about the Greek passion & dignity for outer life. Anyone have thoughts on this?

    Oh, and Brandy- could you label your post title with a hint that it’s Vittorino? Not that I don’t read every post…. it would make them easier to find. 🙂

  • Reply Missy October 19, 2016 at 7:18 pm

    I love your point about underlying principles providing common ground. That’s what we need.

    In keeping with the idea of virtue being at the heart of education I liked this quote from a “mentor” of Vittorino – Vergerius.

    “For we find in all that he wrote that endeavour (sic) to combine in his ideal the ‘virtus’ of the ancient world with obedience to Christian duty which has already been noted as the characteristic of the nobler scholars of that age.”

    Often Humanism is when we think of turning away from Christian thought and relying on our own understanding. At this early date, it was clearly still an attempt to combine the two. Later humanists will have different aims but understanding this about Vittorino – that this is his educational aim, and mine – makes it easier to receive the rest of his thoughts.

    I was surprised that “Mathematics, at that time [was] regarded as a subject outside the usual university courses.” It further explains that if there was an able teacher it might be offered (Vittorino was one such teacher) but it wasn’t a permanent part of any course of study at any universities.

    He also discusses the declining use of Latin and rise of Italian for vernacular speech during this era. Although that didn’t seem to stop Vittorino from emphasizing Latin. It also reminded me that I really need to read some Cicero.

    Thanks for hosting. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts about common principles, different practices. I think looking for underlying commonalities is something I need to do more of because it promotes connection and relationship – instead of my normal nit pickiness and rule bearing!

    • Reply COMama October 24, 2016 at 6:56 am

      Re: humanism, I heartily agree that understanding the difference has helped me be open to what da Feltre might have to say. I have tried to explain to some friends and family what I’m reading, and it surprises me how many just recoil the minute I say “humanist.” I find myself having to preface these conversations now, just so people don’t make assumptions.

      Re: mathematics, that caught my eye, too! I’m slowly reading through a book called The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions. The author, Andrew Hacker, argues that we would be better off as a culture removing higher-level maths from the base requirements, emphasizing a strong arithmetic base, and offering upper-level maths as optional courses for people who choose to take them. I’m only a few chapters in, but he has raised some interesting points so far. (I was sceptical at first, but when he rhapsodized about the beauty of maths and how they are “The Great Book of Nature,” he softened me up a bit.)

      Cheers,
      Sarah L

  • Reply Sarah October 19, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    >What themes are you noticing?

    I semi-speed-read the entire chapter on Vittorino, and what has stood out to me were so many themes that we think are uniquely CM. It said he was the ‘first Christian Classical educator’, and at the end of the chapter: ‘the first modern schoolmaster.’

    I was mostly reading for his education philosophy, which could be summed up as: spending time outdoors, exercise, the importance of the Great Books (other subjects being subsidiary), cheerful surroundings, a love of learning being the motivator rather than punishments, learning by games for kindergarten, the importance of Plutarch, and Plato for the senior students. There’s a lot more but I’ll leave that to others 🙂

  • Reply Dawn Duran October 18, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    The manner of tithe-collecting you give in this post is an incredibly illustrative example of the importance of embracing principles more than practices, Brandy. Brilliant! I’m not knocking practices in any way, as I do think they are important and embrace Charlotte Mason’s examples whenever possible in our home school, but the underlying principle is, in fact, of utmost importance.

    I’m not quite up to speed on my reading and don’t have anything else to contribute at the moment, but did want to say how much I appreciated your illustration in this post.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 19, 2016 at 2:33 pm

      I agree — her practices are *excellent* and embracing more of them (rather than fewer of them) has been a definite blessing in my own homeschool. But the practices are not the philosophy! Of course, you know that. 🙂 ♥

      • Reply Crystin August 26, 2017 at 9:04 am

        I absolutely love this conversation, and think it’s absolutely vital to the CM community at this present moment. There is such divisiveness in the current CM community, and much of it is being brought about and encouraged by CM “authorities”, who find it necessary to set CM apart from classical education, and are spending much time doing so. It is heart breaking, and so counterproductive. Understanding the role of principles, and returning to them as our foundation, promoting connection, community, and relationship is so important. I’m having customers come to me grappling with the possibility of not being “CM enough”, because they’re adapting practices for THEIR born persons, keeping to the principles. I am distraught that so much divisive teaching is in existence, and am finding myself reading everything you’ve ever written in such gratitude for your understanding and insight. Thank you!

        • Reply Brandy Vencel August 28, 2017 at 4:45 pm

          It’s a grief, isn’t it? To see loving mothers trying so hard and then be told it’s not perfect enough? I know exactly what you mean. It’s is up to all of us to never grow weary in doing good, for that is what will bring healing. ♥

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