Before working on the Mothers’ Education Course project, I had never, ever heard of Vittorino da Feltre. Never ever. Like all good researchers, I immediately looked him up on Wikipedia. Funny enough, I had seen the painting of him before…not sure where, but I recognized it. And then this certainly got my attention:
It was in Vittorino that the Renaissance idea of the complete man, or l’uomo universale – health of body, strength of character, wealth of mind – reached its first formulation.
The complete man. Now we’re getting somewhere!
My next step was to ask why Charlotte Mason recommended him, and this particular book about him. Remember, we’re trying to design a Mothers’ Education Course of our own — so the question in my mind is whether the book should be replaced with something more updated, or whether, like Plato, it has so much unique value that it cannot be replaced and ought to be used as it is.
Obviously, I haven’t read it yet (that’s the point of our little pretend book club, after all), but I’m leaning toward categorizing this as irreplaceable after doing a search through all of the Charlotte Mason volumes on the AmblesideOnline site. She only mentions da Feltre once — at the end of Volume 5, where she includes a list of books dealing with education that she recommends parents read. Here is what she says about this book:
This volume is something more than an interesting study in the by-ways of history. True, it treats of the schoolmasters — especially of perhaps the most famous of them, Vittorino himself — of that most fascinating period, the early days of the Renaissance, the revival of learning. But the real value of the work to us is that it shows on what liberal lines the humanist schoolmaster dealt with the questions which are debatable ground to-day. The radical fault of our English thought and opinion on the subject of education seems to be that we have somehow lost the sense of historical perspective. At each new idea, which we believe we have ourselves conceived, we cry — “We are the people”; “Never was education like unto ours.” And here, towards the end of the fourteenth and early in the fifteenth centuries, we have every one of our vexed questions answered with liberality and philosophic conviction to which we have not attained. Should girls have equal advantages with boys? Vittorino taught girls and boys together. Is early education important? He laid himself out for children of five years old. Should lessons be pleasant? La Giocosa not only named but described his school. Should there be a mixture of classes in a school? He taught children whom he educated out of his large charity with the children of princes. Do we desire a wide and liberal curriculum? This was what he accomplished — Latin and Greek, Arithmetic, Geometry, Algebra, Natural Philosophy, Euclid, Astronomy, Natural History, Music, Choral Singing, Dancing, all Games for the training and exercise of the body, and a good deal besides. Plutarch was made much use of as an educational instrument, being employed with the Bible to teach morals. Does it distress many a mother that her son should wade through the pages of classic authors too apt to be unchaste? Such authors were not admitted into the curriculum of Vittorino. Do we pride ourselves on the higher education of women? This is an old story in Italian education, where women were advanced to professorial chairs even in universities for men. Are we beginning to expect that parents should be serious students of the philosophy of education? This was a matter of course for the fifteenth-century parent, to whom the schoolmaster looked for intelligent co-operation. We owe a great debt to Mr. Woodward for focussing our loose thoughts on the subject of the Renaissance in ltaly. Persons who wish to have just and liberal views of education, not limited by the last output of the last English writer on the subject, will do well to give this volume a careful and studious perusal.
Now, I know you all don’t need little old me to do your thinking and processing for you, but allow me to do it for myself. I need to in order to sort out the important parts of this.
First, Charlotte Mason sees the Renaissance as the “revival of learning.” I love the imagery this word puts into our minds. There is something that was once good, but it’s fainted. It’s hardly alive anymore. But it has potential, and it came flaming back to life. That’s what the revival was — a rebuilding of education’s once-great fires.
This work gives a history of a very famous group of schoolmasters (hence my embarrassment at having forgotten da Feltre’s mention both in Volume 5 as well as in David Hicks’ wonderful book, Norms and Nobility — can I blame this on being bad with names? I do, after all, often call my children, “Hey, you!” Ahem.), but that is not the point. So what is the point? Miss Mason tells us that this book will help us regain a lost historical perspective.
If she thought her generation had lost their historical perspective on education, she’d be absolutely horrified by ours, don’t you think? In her generation, the Hansel and Gretel of education were lost in the forest and leaving only breadcrumbs behind them. In our generation, they’re in the witch’s house about to be served for dinner.
But I digress.
So she says the book will tell us how these Italian educators who helped bring about the Renaissance answered questions that were being debated all over again in Miss Mason’s day. This reminds me of how helpful it is to dig into really old theology books. You read them, and you recognize the questions being asked, and you realize the questions aren’t so debateable, after all — they were answered definitively a thousand years ago or more, only the answer was forgotten.
The Italians were, I’m guessing, on much more stable philosophical and theological ground than us, at least in the area of education. As I mentioned in my last post, da Feltre was born shortly after the amazing Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas fresco. Of this fresco, Charlotte Mason makes this observation:
[T]he Florentine mind of the Middle Ages went further than this: it believed … that the seven Liberal Arts were fully under the direct outpouring of the Holy Ghost…
Da Feltre was heir to this mind — the type that could progress in application precisely because it wasn’t preoccupied with the question of where the liberal arts stood in relation to faith. The question had already been answered. What came afterward was the power of an educational approach built upon such a firm foundation.
What is the liberal curriculum, we ask? Da Feltre taught it and Charlotte Mason imitated it. It’ll be detailed in the book. Here we get to look into one of her primary sources. We’ll understand her better by understanding him better.
And more importantly, we’ll be expanding our outlook. I told you before that I know almost nothing about education from this era of history. It has felt like a giant gap in my understanding of the flow of educational history because it is a giant gap. Charlotte Mason ends by warning us against that type of limitation:
Persons who wish to have just and liberal views of education, not limited by the last output of the last English writer on the subject, will do well to give this volume a careful and studious perusal.
And so we will. Some of you have asked about a reading schedule, which is something I feel like I cannot provide. I want to be very respectful of this book — I want to give it the due “careful and studious perusal” she recommends. But still, I want you to feel like you know what to read. So here is what I can tell you: always read the next section, and you will always be ready.
For example, today I wrote this introduction. That means that now is a good time to begin the first chapter. It’s very, very long. It may take me a number of posts to blog through the parts that stick out to me (and I expect you to bring up the parts that stick out to you in the comments!). By the time we finish that chapter — which will take weeks! — start reading chapter 2.
Does this make sense?
I figure we can’t possibly discuss more than 30 pages at a time, so maybe that helps? That, and a promise not to post during Thanksgiving and Christmas!
But for now: are you ready to dive into the mind of these great humanist educators? I sure am!
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