I can’t tell you how many second-generation homeschool moms I’ve had take one of my classes, or sit in one of my conference talks, who have contacted me afterwards and exclaimed that they recognize their own educations in what I am teaching. Their mamas may not have heard of the likes of Charlotte Mason. They may not have known that someone somewhere thought there were Natural Laws of Education. But that didn’t seem to harm the children they were bringing up. Those children were bathed in the waters of a thousand time-tested stories (could have used a little more math behind the ears), and turned out just fine in the end.
I’m reading The Lonesome Gods aloud to my family right now, usually three or four chapters spread out over the course of a day. This is my second reading of the book, and like all good books, it’s more enjoyable with rereading, and I’m noticing a bunch of things I missed the first time around. Like this:
“You civilized folk live in a world a whole lot different than ours! Why, Ewing Young, him that was our leader a time or two, he was tellin’ us one time how a man named Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood. We thought that was almighty funny, amusin’ I mean, because every Injun on the Plains and in the woods knew all about it. Hunters for thousands of years understood, and those old priests who performed thousands of human sacrifices, do you think they didn’t know? This Harvey feller, he just wrote it up for folks to read.”p. 59
He goes on:
“I hear folks talkin’ about Lewis and Clark and all they ‘discovered.’ Why, I talked with a Frenchman who was guide to David Thompson, the Hudson Bay man. That Frenchman had been all over that ‘discovered’ country ten years before!”p. 59
The cult of the expert tells us that nothing is known until some academic or government official writes it down. In fact, if you claim to know something — or even claim to suspect something — not embraced by experts, you are a fringe sort of person (to be roundly condemned and most definitely banned from YouTube).
We wouldn’t want all those little people with small minds out there challenging the wisdom of their betters.
He recognized that the demand for these products was going to be very large, but he wondered “how traders could handle these complicated exotics if they do not understand the Girsanov theorem.” The Girsanov theorem is something mathematically complicated that at the time was only known by a very small number of persons. And we were talking about pit traders who … would most certainly mistake Girsanov for a vodka brand.pp. 218-219
The idea is that we’ve categorized formal knowledge as the only way of knowing and informal knowledge (the kind pit traders have due to years of trial and error as not knowledge). Taleb calls this a mistake:
Nobody worries that a child ignorant of various theorems of aerodynamics and incapable of solving an equation of motion would be unable to ride a bicycle.p. 291
Steven Rummelsburg said something very similar in his chat with Matt Fradd about homeschooling. Rummelsburg discovered that he often heard a peculiar wisdom coming from the migrant parents of his students that seemed inaccessible to his fellow teachers.
We don’t have to choose.
It’s easy to reach this point where we realize many experts are lacking in common sense (I’m looking at you, Imperial projection model for coronavirus), trash all our books, and decide we’re going to base all our learning on experience.
Let’s think this out for ourselves. Why don’t we jump headlong into project-based learning, expecting children to learn much more from experience than books?
Well, that’s simple. Books are distilling many generations of experience. To refuse to learn from them is foolishness. It is obvious a single person’s life isn’t long enough to experience all that has come before his birth. It is only in beginning where others have left off that we can stand on the shoulders of our forebears and reach far beyond what they accomplished.
The answer is not to trash experts in favor of the little people.
Taleb, I think, promotes a better way: the ideal is a practitioner who is also a researcher.
In other words, hunting is helpful, but so is Harvey. It’s not an either/or. At the end of the day, if you need surgery on your veins, you’re going to hire a doctor to do it, not a hunter.
With that said, expertise is self-limiting without practice. I have always thought that herein lies the brilliance of Charlotte Mason. Yes, she read. The vast majority of her philosophy was possible because she read so much and was able to keep only the fruit, spit out the seeds, and distill it all down into a pleasant cordial fit for the masses.
Fit for the non-experts like us.
But it wasn’t just her reading. Her work was preceded by teaching — real work and real frustration with the ineffectiveness of current (to her) methods. As she became more of a researcher, she never divorced herself from practice. She remained ever in touch with real teachers working with real students and that is why her philosophy works: it is fitted to the world because it was tested in the world.
The homeschool moms of the previous generation might not have read Charlotte Mason, but they did read. And then they practiced. In this delightful marriage of practitioner and researcher, they bore the fruit of reasonably well-educated children who, in many cases, continue to self-educate in adulthood.
Over at Scholé Sisters, we say, “Read widely, think deeply, apply faithfully.” This isn’t for experts. It’s for amateurs. Experts crash economies through bad modeling (and the arrogance that allowed them to think they could model it in the first place). Amateurs don’t sound as fancy on paper, but it turns out trial and error mixed with research and love is a recipe for success.
You already have everything you need: good books, and children to practice upon. Do the work. Your children don’t need an expert; they just need the most diligent and faithful version of you that you can possibly give them.
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