Educational Philosophy

A Classical History of the Principle of Alternation (a Vittorino da Feltre post)

December 14, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

Was Vittorino da Feltre the First Charlotte Mason? Well, of course not. It’s not like many of his ideas were original. Like all good educational philosophers who are also practitioners, he took the wealth of the past and applied it to his own circumstances. Still, it’s a fun question to ask because some of the similarities are so striking. Today, we’ll look at another similarity (if you missed it, we discussed atmosphere and discipline last time): Vittorino’s use of the principle of alternation.

But first, if you are just joining us, I encourage you to get a copy of Vittorino de Feltre and Other Humanist Educators and read along with us!

The principle of alternation -- of the strategic use of variety throughout both the curriculum as well as the day -- comes to us from the Humanists.

First, let’s remember what Charlotte Mason said:

[I]f the lessons be judiciously alternated — sums first, say, while the brain is quite fresh; then writing, or reading — some more or less mechanical exercise, by way of a rest; and so on, the program varying a little from day to day, but the same principle throughout — a ‘thinking’ lesson first, and a ‘painstaking’ lesson to follow, — the child gets through his morning lessons without any sign of weariness.

Vol. 1, p. 142

So, when we refer to alternation as Charlotte Mason mamas, this is what we mean. We mean that we don’t need to use a lot of breaks (and, as a consequence drag out the length of the school day) because we can just keep the mind fresh by alternating unlike subjects and activities with one another.

I think you’ll see that Vittorino did something very similar. It seems he, too, understood the need to alternate in order to keep the mind fresh:

Vittorino held the opinion that not only was the alternation of study with games and exercise needful to real intellectual quickness, but that the teacher must provide ample variation in the subjects of instruction themselves.

While we don’t have a copy of his schedule, I think we can imagine what this might have looked like. A couple unlike subjects, followed by a game or a romp, a couple more unlike subjects, another romp, and so on and so forth for the duration of his school days.

What I found fascinating was that this idea wasn’t unique to Vittorino. When I read Charlotte Mason for the first time many years ago, I came to the table fairly ignorant in regard to educational philosophy. I had read a couple “classical” homeschooling books before I read her, but the books were newish, and really about application and not much philosophy at all. So I had no sense of the history of ideas or what had been thought about teaching and learning before last Tuesday.

So Charlotte Mason said to alternate and this made sense with what I had observed in human nature, and it worked, so we’ve always done it. The end.

But the history here is just fascinating!

Woodward goes on to write:

It was an illustration common with the Humanist writers on Education that the mind needs variety of food no less than the body.

p. 43

The footnote quotes Platina in Latin:

‘Animus alternatis studiorum generibus refici solet,’ says Platina.

After some debate with my blossoming Latin scholar, we have this (very) loose translation for you:

Alternating subjects tends to rebuild the mind.

Woodward also points us to one of the essays further on in the book, the one by Sylvius. I haven’t read the full essay yet, but the page he points us to dovetails beautifully with our subject for today:

[W]e must bear in mind that the thinking faculties find relief from strain in this very variety, just as the digestion is aided by succession in diet. So that I have no fear lest your mind should suffer from alternations in subjects or change of masters. Therefore let grammar, dialectic and other subjects occupy you in turn, due regard also being had to the place which physical training must occupy in your education.

pp. 156-157

The use of the body or the diet as a prototype for understanding something else (in this case, the mind/intellect) isn’t a rare thing in the history of philosophy. Aristotle, for example, reminds us in Nichomachean Ethics, that we can learn about what is unseen using what is seen (he says it this way: “we must use what is evident as a witness to what is not”). This is basically a description of analogical reasoning. This thing over here (the body and digestion and the benefits of variety in diet) is like this thing over here (the mind and the benefits of variety in study).

Amazingly enough, it is the ability of humans to reason analogically which makes alternation and variety so important. We have a unique ability to synthesize across books and subjects and our study is all the more rich (and deep) due to breadth. (I talk about this in my talk What’s Love Got to Do with It? Cultivating Your Child’s Affinities if you are interested.)

A couple things are important to observe here, I think.

First, Woodward follows this with:

[I]n the best Italian schools of the fifteenth century the restriction of school work to a mechanical study of Latin and Greek and Delectus was unknown.

p. 44

We’ll talk about this more when we discuss Vittorino’s broad and generous curriculum in the future. But for now, this alternation was part of Woodward’s larger argument that the best classical schools of the day were not severely limiting the curriculum. It’s good to know that because we are often tempted to limit our curricula for the sake of simplicity or even the perceived virtue of minimalism, and in doing so we would not be imitating the best educators of history. Quite otherwise, in fact.

Second, and far more important, the practice of alternation rests upon underlying laws of the mind that we would do well to remember. One is that the mind can become fatigued with overwork. Another is that variety is the remedy for that sort of mental fatigue.

Extra Discussion Questions:

  • When your children’s attention begins to flag in their lessons, what is your normal response? And how can these principles help you improve your response (if it in fact needs improving)?
  • Near this passage (on p. 43), the author mentions Vittorino’s beliefs about music — his caution, his belief that it could possibly corrupt his students, etc. What do you think about this?
  • Does what you have read here change the picture you have in your mind of the late medieval classical educators?

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2 Comments

  • Reply The Evolution of a Charlotte Mason Homeschool Schedule | Afterthoughts August 27, 2019 at 3:34 pm

    […] spreadsheets that told them what to do during that time. As I worked with them, I taught them the principle of alternation. By this time, my goal was not to assign times to specific activities. It was to teach them to […]

  • Reply Erika December 29, 2016 at 5:10 am

    I remember two particular instances in college when I had major brain fatigue. One, I went down to the lounge and someone had brought a chess set. I felt great after one good game! Ready to go back to work again. And two, I flopped in the arm chair in my moms room (I commuted to college) and, reaching down, grabbed the first book that came to hand. Half way through, I felt like the cares of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. It wasn’t until I paused long enough to realize that a children’s picture book was having that drastic an effect on my morale that I decided something needed to change…. maybe some fun reading before bed each night? Hmmm, who would have thought?… ; )

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