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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