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?
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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.
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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