There is something I hear almost every day while skipping through Charlotte Mason blogs, groups, and forums that I find troublesome. I want to address it, but since I'm not sure I can put my finger on it, this is only an attempt at grasping at the description of a premonition with words I'm not sure will do it justice.
Charlotte Mason's methods, and homeschooling in general are gaining in popularity. And I admit that popularity scares me a little bit, for many reasons I won't bother with here.
Of the families I have encountered who follow CM's ideas, I find there are two camps of extremes that many people seem to fall into. The first, are those who call their schools CM because they use living books, go outside, and finish by noon, but who don't bother to look at the other things which make up a CM education. The second are those self proclaimed "purists" who reject all forms of education and curriculum which stem from anything that wasn't explicitly described/mentioned/theorized about by Miss Mason herself in her own writings, to include questioning forms of classical methodology on the basis of a lack of commentary regarding said forms. The truth, I suspect, like all things, lies somewhere in the middle.
I love Charlotte Mason's ideas, but I am not Charlotte Mason. Her ideas were her own, but came from her interactions with other idea-havers, I take those and try to push them to new places, following the same trail that has been forged, and sometimes glancing off the trail. Looking behind me. Enjoying the scenery. And that's OK. My identity is secure, But I get the feeling that, while navigating the homeschool world, many women don't seem to have that same security of identity, and seem to be seeking after something more than just a means to provide their children with a delightful, complete Classical education. Women want leadership and practical help, and Miss Mason certainly offers that in a most marvelous manner, with wisdom and patience and great care. But I get the feeling, every so often, that people just "hear about Charlotte Mason" while researching, think to themselves, "I want that!" and then go about trying to purchase what they need to make it happen. They don't understand that receiving a classical education is a paradigm shift, a thing that will literally require that the whole family get on board and start living what they claim to believe as true, important, and necessary. Charlotte Mason is not a style of curriculum. It's a lifestyle change.
Now, you've heard me blog about classical education, and you've heard me blog about catholic education. You obviously come here a lot to read about a Charlotte Mason education. And recently, I tried to put to rest the idea that these educational theories were at odds one with the other. The pursuit of truth and beauty is not UNIQUE to a CM education, although CM does it particularly well. At the same time, without the ability to *reason* no student will arrive at truth or beauty. The value of the Classical / Catholic education, on which CM's ideas are based, is that it formally teaches this skill. But the value of that lesson is only as meritorious as the teacher who has instilled in his student the love of learning, the reason for needing reason, and the purpose of life-- Catechesis.
CM students who have parents that don't get this are bound to have problems. The students will form in themselves an ability to discern and connect with the true and beautiful that is handed to them, but they will be lacking the ability to sort through ideas themselves and come to their own conclusions.... and to join in the Grand Conversation in a way that adds to the conversation and doesn't just take away from it.
CM's techniques can help all children to appreciate truth, beauty and goodness, but it takes the ability to think like a philosopher.... to think and parse and organize...... to be someone who can attack the status quo. She knew this! And she advocated the teaching of logic, only in her time she felt that it was adequate to surround the child with good books, and then to allow him to absorb critical thinking skills from his interactions with the authors. Her reasons for doing this were two-fold.
First, students raised using her methods had been taught to carefully notice, mentally organize, categorize, and express information as it came from the very beginning of their education. They had little need of formal teaching in doing so by the time they were older because this was how they had been trained. Critical thinking was a habit. Hard mental work was a habit.
Second, her students had read ONLY the best books. And these books had become as friends to them, mentors and guides. Many of the classical educators of her day were uninterested in the persons they were teaching.... only enamored with the method of classical education. Because of that, they failed to inspire a desire for truth and a love of knowledge. This is huge, because it was through the reading of the world's greatest authors, often in the original languages, and through knowledge of the scriptures, combined with the respect of the teachers towards the children on the journey that children grew to become critical thinkers.... students who desired to know more, and who were able to work with the information they were given in such a way as to organize it and come to logical conclusions. The Bible itself helps us to understand this:
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5)It does not say that God will do the work here. It says that WE will do the mental work.
CM parents who don't understand this will be raising lovely people who are self-motivators, hard workers, and beautiful citizens. But they won't be world-changers. They will still be followers.
Education doesn't happen by osmosis. The child himself must absorb and fiddle with and-- not regurgitate--- but process information. Recently, on facebook, I saw that an article written by a pope-hating schismatic condemning the Church-approved Divine Mercy devotion had begun making the rounds. I was distraught to find that in a group of homeschooling Catholic mothers, a woman posted the article. What was even more disturbing was to find that more than 2/3 of the comments from the beginning were from women who read the article and responded to it in this way:
"Oh my! I had no idea! I will stop saying the Divine Mercy Chaplet at once!"
None of them thought. Not logically. They were lemmings. Never mind that the very pope who leads their Church had handed out copies of the Divine Mercy prayers to visitors at his audience that week and exhorted them to pray it. Never mind that the Divine Mercy prayers are approved by the Church, and for a logical reason. No, they were satisfied to completely give it up-- indeed, to call it EVIL-- because they had read a convincing-sounding argument on the internet that said so. My mind was boggled.
In our day, things are much more complex than they were in Victorian England. Technology and the advent of the information age has made "knowledge" cheap and easy to obtain. But somehow people are more stupid now than they were when there were no smartphones to google questions. Their attention spans and ability to discern the underlying truths or lies of what they read are practically non-existent. It is maddening for the student of logic to walk through the clamoring earth, turning his ear to the left or to the right because illogical, false, and ridiculous conclusions are being formed in every direction and shouted from every hilltop. Literally maddening. I'll get to that in a minute.
Suffice to say that logic is critical. Thinking is critical. Habits are critical.
The reason CM succeeds particularly well at speaking to my generation is because she lays out a map for the journey of the home educating parent. Not only does she vision-cast, but she gives practical advice. Not only does she theorize but she comes alongside her reader an expounds upon her theories. Her books are a compass and scale, her words a trail of delight through the dangerous and often confusing world of education.
Which brings me to my four-fold issue.
Daily, I come across women who, motivated by the promised joy that a CM education brings, attempt to "purchase" that joy-- or worse, steal it!-- without any hard work. And those who do have completely missed the memo.
Miss Mason's methods work because:
Life should be simple.
Work should be hard.
Prayer should be constant.
Only the greatest minds should be our friends and teachers. (Good books)
Life should be simple.
No, I'm not suggesting you buy a farm, although I'm quite sure that doing so would benefit every one of us. I am suggesting that a true classical, and therefore Charlotte Mason education requires a simple life. Gone are the excessive "extras" of modern life and back are the basics: good time management. attention to detail. remembering what's important. getting rid of stuff, clutter, and baggage. finding work that is meaningful. making do with what you have. Not taking on more than you can handle. Finishing what you start.
In following this idea, CM's student's are done early because we don't have endless piles of curriculum and things to sort through and accomplish each day. We don't switch it up every two weeks or every few months or even every year. We stick with ideas, and ride them through to the end.
Work should be hard.
A simple life is best lived in hard work. This is why people yearn for the family farm. We have work, we do it, and we are satisfied. This goes for mental work too, and Charlotte's students know this. We don't reward or punish the children as they work. We allow natural consequences and the satisfaction of a job well done. This builds confidence and.... surprise... joy.
Today people are lazy and obsessed with entertainment over work, chocolate and wine over sacrifice, naps and jammies over clean homes and diligence. This is not the way of the saints, and it certainly is no the way of joy! Is it any surprise that so many people in our world are medicated for depression?? Our minds AND our bodies are rotting away. Perhaps worse is the rotting of our minds, as mental laziness creates a seat for stupidity. A disciplined mind, no matter how simple, will always be superior.
In Chapter III of Ourselves, Charlotte Mason lays out quite clearly the enemies if the intellect: Sloth, poor intellectual habits, inability to stay in one field of thought, and an inability to connect ideas because of a lack of "well-rounded" knowledge. We all know that hard, physical work is good for our children, and even for ourselves. But let us never forget that hard mental work is the cornerstone of a truly CM education.
Prayer should be constant.
The elements of a simple life are perhaps best laid out in the monastic rules of Catholic religious life. I hear the Rule of St Benedict is excellent at demonstrating this, but I'm not as familiar with it as I should be. I live by a version of the Rule of St Albert of Jerusalem, who wrote it for the Carmelites.
Regardless, most of the monastic rules are perfect examples of a simple life lived, based on this principle: work, and pray. (You may have heard Catholics say: "Ora et labora!") I would add.... "detach," but this is not something that lay people can do in the same way that monastics do it. That being said, I assure you we can come closer to what they do than what we are doing now. Wink, wink. A life of prayer starts with a habit Charlotte Mason calls "thought of God," and which Catholics recognize as a contemplative life, one in which our awareness of God's presence brings about a change of heart and attitude. Prayer is sustaining, and food for our souls.... a way to acknowledge this "thought of God." And so we pray. Basing our schedules and routines off of prayer times rather than eating or playing times is a great way to discipline the mind and a practice of those who historically have achieved the greatest ability to think clearly.
And good books should be teachers.
I add this point as a fourth and most important point because it was so dear to Charlotte herself. Miss Mason's ideas about books should be read by each individual educator. Her methods can not be followed casually with any measure of success, as evidenced by the scores of unschooling "CM" educators busily fluttering around the internet desperate for new curriculum or new CM ideas "that work for them."
We learn by imitation. I see my children do it every single day. If we do not give them the Great Minds, the Masters to imitate, who will they imitate? Would you rather your daughters imitate Penelope or Amelia Bedelia? Saint Joan of Arc or Judy Blume's Margaret? Would you rather your sons imitate King Arthur and Caractacus, or Harry Potter?
We who have heard Charlotte's thoughts on literature and who have smiled and agreed, what business do we have putting twaddle in the hands of our children? Why read a compilation created by a disordered thinker over a whole work written by a master? (Omnibus and Story of the World, I'm looking at you!) Discovering twaddle is tricky in a world full of books, but the best guideline I can give, and one I use in my own home, is this:
1. Does the book capture the interest of the adult as much as of the child and it is written in language that will not only delight, but also teach and instruct the reader(s)?
2. Does the book require that even the adult concentrate to extract it's full meaning?
3. I might even add an additional guideline: Is the book the original source of the ideas it conveys, or does it expound upon an original idea? And if it expounds upon that idea, does it do so in a logical way or is it building an illogical idea on top of the mental work of others?
And if you are following the other guidelines-- committed to a life of prayer, hard work, and simple living--- will you really have TIME to read twaddle, even "not quite" twaddle? Not a chance.
I was recently involved in a discussion between a group of protestant women and a group of Catholic women regarding the nature of the Church. It was a very upsetting conversation to me on many levels, but mostly because these are women who I have very much fond affection for. We had both read the Bible. They were sure of their position because of how they were reading the Bible, but I was certain they were reading the Bible incorrectly. I attempted to prove it with good books... by quoting the earliest recorded Christian writers like Ignatius of Antioch and Justyn Martyr. They remained unconvinced, I'm quite sure, because they couldn't even fathom the paradigm shift required in their thinking skills.... they had been taught one way: to follow rabbit trails of ideas, and I was trying to teach them TO THINK (to follow one logical trail of ideas) because if I could prove that Christians believed a certain thing HISTORICALLY, then surely they had to acknowledge that things had changed somewhere along the way.
These are "well-read" women, but they couldn't think because all their lives they had been reading books that were less than perfect, so that when they finally found themselves faced with logic, they couldn't recognize it and in fact, vehemently rejected it in favor of a fallacy they had repeated and repeated and repeated to themselves time and again by reading books which were good, captivating, interesting, etc..... but which weren't THE BEST BOOKS. They were used to reading books in the Christian Living section of the Bookstore. I was trying to point them towards the Church Fathers, original sources of ideas in their original form. Whole different animal. (It was reading the Church Fathers that led me to Catholicism, of course! I took them as my RIGHTFUL teachers.... and so should we all, not because I did but because they have the authority and place in history to teach us the BEST and TRUEST living ideas from which have sprung all other ideas about faith and Christianity!)
It seems like every day I read a new post by a homeschooling mother looking for ways to purchase.... or steal..... a CM education for their children, to secure joy without being willing to actually do the work of reading CM for herself and then applying it, keeping these four principles in mind. And yet these four principles are what constitute the bulk of a classical liberal arts education. These four things--- simplicity, hard work, prayer, and good books/teachers--- will lead to good thinking, and therefore to truth and beauty and the transformation of the world. I have even met people who felt satisfied and accomplished giving their children a list of "living books" to read each week and who all but ignored the foundations of good thinking--- grammar and arithmetic and logic! DESPITE Charlotte's own ideas, which I'm quite sure they never read for themselves.
So let me say it again, and I say it as much to myself as to anyone who might be reading:
You cannot purchase a CM education in a box. You cannot teach the classical liberal arts without setting up a culture of simplicity and order, hard work, prayer, and submission. You cannot be less than perfect, and then expect perfection. You cannot have children who love the outdoors, and not go outside yourself. You cannot have children who are kind, and not be kind. You cannot have children who are wise, and not seek after wisdom yourself. And you cannot be a Saint unless you seek to "be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48) God will help you.
Follow the advice of St Josemaria Escriva who said: "Work, and things will change! You will yield more fruit, and it will be sweeter than before."
"Classical" educators, in my mind, who enroll their children in sing-songy memory work co-ops in the hopes of creating something they refuse to be themselves will not succeed. Charlotte Mason educators, in my mind, who allow their children to read twaddle disguised as literature, and to lounge around reading and playing all day rather than taking their studies and their responsibilities seriously, will not succeed. This is NOT a statement against any particular program or book or series, but rather against sloth, laziness, and intellectual suicide.
I leave you with these brilliant words, even more important in our day:
"Nothing is more common in an age like this, when books abound, than to fancy that the gratification of a love of reading is real study....there are many, who certainly have a taste for reading, but in whom it is little more than the result of mental restlessness and curiosity. Such minds cannot fix their gaze on one object for two seconds together; the very impulse which leads them to read at all, leads them to read on, and never to stay or hang over any one idea. The pleasurable excitement of reading what is new is their motive principle; and the imagination that they are doing something, and the boyish vanity which accompanies it, are their reward. Such youths often profess to like poetry, or to like history or biography; they are fond of lectures on certain of the physical sciences; or they may possibly have a real and true taste for natural history or other cognate subjects;—and so far they may be regarded with satisfaction; but on the other hand they profess that they do not like logic, they do not like algebra, they have no taste for mathematics; which only means that they do not like application, they do not like attention, they shrink from the effort and labour of thinking, and the process of true intellectual gymnastics. The consequence will be that, when they grow up, they may, if it so happen, be agreeable in conversation, they may be well informed in this or that department of knowledge, they may be what is called "literary"; but they will have no consistency, steadiness, or perseverance; they will not be able to make a telling speech, or to write a good letter, or to fling in debate a smart antagonist, unless so far as, now and then, mother-wit supplies a sudden capacity, which cannot be ordinarily counted on. They cannot state an argument or a question, or take a clear survey of a whole transaction, or give sensible and appropriate advice under difficulties, or do any of those things which inspire confidence and gain influence, which raise a man in life, and make him useful to his religion or his country."
Cardinal John Henry Newmann
On the Idea of a University