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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Handicrafts as Knowledge of the Universe

    July 22, 2020 by Brandy Vencel

    If you’ve read a fair amount of Charlotte Mason’s work, then you know that she uses the traditional divisions of knowledge: the knowledge of God (classically speaking this began with divine philosophy and metaphysics — the study of the five transcendentals: being, goodness, truth, beauty, and unity — and ended in theology, the highest science of all), the knowledge of man (what was once called moral philosophy), and the knowledge of the universe (natural philosophy or, in Latin, scientia naturalis).

    I knew that, in Philosophy of Education, she included handicrafts under knowledge of the universe, but I always viewed that as a tacked-on-at-the-end sort of thing. After all, she’s gone through all three divisions of knowledge and something is left. To my mind, they didn’t fit: physical exercise/movement and working with the hands. Knowledge of the universe was the best place to put them, and that was the end of the matter.

    I suppose you could say I viewed it all as an afterthought (ha!). Her short, single-sentence treatment didn’t help:

    It is unnecessary, too, to say anything about games, dancing, physical exercises, needlework and other handicrafts as the methods employed in these are not exceptional.

    Philosophy of Education, pp. 233-234

    It is always the case that the more you read and learn, the more you realize you don’t know. The great irony of reading and learning is that you always feel more ignorant rather than less, even though you know substantially more with each passing year.

    A couple years ago, I speculated to myself that this wasn’t an afterthought, after all. Instead, it was a logical categorization. In handicrafts, you are working with materials from the natural world. As you begin to understand those materials firsthand by working with them, you come to understand something of the natural world. Charlotte Mason implies this when she writes:

    He practises various handicrafts that he may know the feel of wood, clay, leather, and the joy of handling tools, that is, that he may establish a due relation with materials.

    Philosophy of Education, p. 31

    It wasn’t until this week, in reading through the revised edition of The Liberal Arts Tradition, that I realized she’s not only using the classical division of knowledge, but she’s also using a classical category for crafts.

    The Liberal Arts Tradition brings up crafts (common arts) first by reference to Hugh of St. Victor (whose Didascalion is sitting on my TBR pile for summer but I still haven’t cracked it open yet):

    Artifacts were imitations of nature because natural reality transcended man’s activity. The common arts, as described by Hugh of St. Victor, were like the arts of the Elves. Hugh of St. Victor described seven master categories of common arts, which together corresponded to the seven liberal arts. Among them were: architecture, agriculture, medicine, blacksmithing, and trade. These common arts were technologies intended to work alongside nature instead of against her.

    The Liberal Arts Tradition, pp. 110-111

    Here we see a wisdom merely beyond “understanding how materials work.” Yes, that is what is happening. But this is just the doorway to greater understanding, which is the laws of nature itself. These gentle arts must be done with nature, not against. How many of us have seen children throw down their work in frustration because of their insistence on working against nature and then reaping the consequences? There are natural laws behind the materials that govern how they work, and this is why the crafts would be categorized as a knowledge of nature rather than a knowledge of man.

    In the Liberty of Logic class last night, Steven Rummelsburg used the comparison of football and surfing. Football is entirely man made (this doesn’t make it wrong by the way): the rules, the field, the goals and boundaries, all of these are determined arbitrarily by man (except for, I suppose, the laws of motion and gravity). In order to win, a player must conform himself to these man-made rules. Surfing, he explained, is different. In order to be successful, the surfer must conform himself to the laws of nature and the better he is at doing this, the more successful he will be.

    In The Liberal Arts Tradition, the contrast is between Orcs and Elves (while football isn’t evil, Orcs are). The arts/technology of the Orcs destroy whatever is in their path. It doesn’t work with nature; it works against it. The Elvish arts/technology are impressive and and beautiful as well, but they always work in harmony with the created order. Clark and Jain explain:

    The ability to submit nature to one’s will is not in itself science. This could be done through the power of a machine or a technology developed by another. … Technology alone does not equal science. Nonetheless, Christians have always had a high view of the common arts. The Christian high value for the body and for ordinary work has sharply distinguished Christian culture from Greek culture. And inasmuch as they pursue technologies in a manner that complements nature and does not fight against her, Christians will promote the Elvish arts and not the Orcish ones.

    The Liberal Arts Tradition, p. 115

    Now, that’s a vision for handicrafts I can really rally behind. We think it’s just woodworking, it’s just needlepoint, but the reality is greater than what it seems. As the children learn to orient themselves as creatures that work within the created order rather than against it, well … they are given the vision of the Elves.

    And that’s a beautiful thing.

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    11 Comments

  • Reply Erika July 23, 2020 at 6:49 pm

    Yes! I was just reading Karen Glass’ ‘In Vital Harmony,’ chapter three where she describes the different things that fall under the three categories of knowledge and this jumped out at me. Well, actually, the three layers that she mentions under the Knowledge of the Universe umbrella really jumped out at me. First is nature, all the we can observe of it. Second is our physical experience of it, running, jumping, climbing, surfing…. And third is the fine motor experience of it, with the handicrafts, as you mention. Observation of nature and all the sciences are quite obvious, and the physical experience of the laws of nature is not too hard to get to on your own. But I never considered where handicrafts might fall, and I don’t know that I would have landed them here, though it makes perfect sense once explained. It leaves me still scratching my head a bit, with pleasant musings as I ponder how this could affect handicrafts in my household…. It might even be only a change in my perspective rather than a change in how things are done, but certainly a good thing.

  • Reply Darcie Warren July 23, 2020 at 4:57 am

    So Brandy, (this is my first reply to your posts though I think I’ve read almost all of them:)) would this kind of thinking reach as far as medicine and say, antibiotics? They don’t work with a body’s defenses but simply destroy them. I know you love homeopathy. Would this reasoning be a part of why you do?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel July 23, 2020 at 3:29 pm

      Hmmm … interesting. I never actually thought about it that way before. I will have to think about it some more, but initially I’d say that in general my attraction to alternative options (well, besides the fact that I developed a lot of allergies to things due to overuse when I had Lyme Disease) is the idea that they work *with* the body. But I hadn’t extrapolated that out. You have really gotten me thinking! ♥

    • Reply Katie August 4, 2020 at 6:44 am

      Interesting, these were my exact thoughts! I’m a homeopath and have always felt that working with and supporting the body was more beneficial than destroying anything, even the bacteria or germs that we consider to be “bad”. I love that you made this connection, too!

  • Reply Claire July 22, 2020 at 7:21 pm

    Wow, great thoughts! (And yet another reason to get The Liberal Arts Tradition!) Any tips or ponderings about how to teach handicrafts in this Elvish way?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel July 22, 2020 at 8:49 pm

      I think really it seems to be the absence of machines that help. So, for example, hand sewing would be preferable over sewing machines … not because the machines are bad but because they obscure the laws. I was actually considering what, if anything, I should adjust in the children’s cooking lessons. Like maybe hand whipping instead of using a blender would be valuable to do, at least once in a while.

      I think it’s inherent in most handicrafts, though, that the laws are there, and working *with* them is to our benefit. I could never sympathize before with people I thought were essentially making more work for themselves (things like hand dying yarn, etc.). But now I see it in a different light — there are all sorts of things they know from those experiences that I don’t!

      • Reply Claire July 23, 2020 at 3:54 am

        Hmm a lot to chew on! Thanks!

      • Reply Katharine KN July 27, 2020 at 1:02 am

        I do a lot of sewing and I think you are absolutely right about the nature of the materials and being in touch with reality. I think this is why crafts are so therapeutic for many – there is inherent limitation in all materials which can actually stimulate creativity. From a pedagogical point of view I think its important that children learn to do things manually first, or at least as well as learning how to use the machines. Once you know how to sew by hand you can appreciate the sewing machine as a useful tool, as speeding up a process you understand already (well technically machine sewing is a different thing from hand sewing in terms of how the stitch works, but thats also useful to understand!). Furthermore, from a sewing point of view there are always certain parts of making a garment that are better done by hand, so its still a useful and usable skill.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel July 27, 2020 at 8:24 am

          I really think I never took to sewing because I was taught on a machine *first* so everything you say here makes sense to me. I always felt like I didn’t know what the machine was doing and was never able to troubleshoot on my own. This year, my girls have been learning embroidery and I’m trying to participate and it’s very therapeutic. I’ve had a number of aha! moments and I can feel the gaps in my previous learning filling up. ♥

  • Reply Niki Feistel July 22, 2020 at 11:19 am

    love this. thank you:-)

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