Monday, February 24, 2014
During a conversation about the difference between the liberal arts and the humanities, a friend sent me this article to read yesterday, called "The Great Books... Enemies of Wisdom."
At first, I was taken aback by the title. I glanced at it briefly.
I almost skipped it, thinking to myself.... yeah, yeah, yeah.
It doesn't take too many reads around the homeschool forums to realize that the most verbal advocates of a non-Great Books education actually love the so-called Great Books, and frequently teach/ use their authors.... in context.
But I read it, and I'm so glad I did. It was like the missing puzzle piece that I was looking for to help me connect the ideas in my mind about education, as well as the nail in the coffin for me when it came to other "classical" homeschooling ideas I watch mothers who home educate throw around.
Making a case for a true classical education in the Catholic tradition.... an education where the ability to THINK is the precursor to anything, the article points out so clearly what we homeschooling mothers keep trying to put our finger on when we grasp at "educating" our children. We don't like the modern education system because it is obviously a fact-dumping ground.
We want a "classical" education because it trains our children to think clearly.
We know and understand that great ideas are what counts.
We know they are to be found in books. But if we're honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that just reading these authors is only half the picture. Following a train of thought is one thing. Adding to it is another. Having your own, original train of thought? A feat that can't possibly be taught just by reading a booklist. (For those of you who do ambleside, you could compare this to teaching the booklist without teaching grammar, latin, arithmetic, etc. It's half an education, which is no education at all.)
That's because a Classical Education is a set of skills taught to the student-- reasoning skills that inevitably lead to seeing the world around oneself clearly.
Without these skills, the "Great Books" are only a shadow of the possibilities of a child's education. I know, because I'm married to a man with these skills. He studied philosophy, whereas I was raised on the Great Books. I "know" the humanities, but I don't always understand the ideas being shared without tremendous effort on my part.
My husband, on the other hand, understands whatever ideas come at him very clearly, and is able to use reason to quickly reject or apply these ideas on the basis of truth-- But he has less of a general knowledge of names and faces. Whenever we grapple with ideas, he sees the big picture, and I often see only what is right in front of me. I often know something is important, whereas he understands WHY it is important.
I wanted something better for my kids than the education I received, which though enjoyable and much better than what I saw others around me doing, was not thorough enough to help me be WISE, only knowledgeable.
I wanted for my children to experience the type of education that will help them to follow in the footsteps of their father, who is able to reason. Reason leads to truth, and if my greatest concern is that they know the truth and thus be free, then I need to teach them to reason, not just to know facts.
This is why a liberal arts education became so important to me.... but not a "liberal arts" education in the modern sense. I love a good book discussion, but only when the minds holding the discussion are sharpened tools at the ready.
The real liberal arts, of which there are seven (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music), are the instruments which sharpen the tool of the mind. Once formed, the mind can attack any idea and seek out the truth and effectively find it.
Back in 2008, The Classical Liberal Arts academy put out a similar article, titled "Why the Great Books Aren't so Great." I remember reading it and I would ask you, if you liked the above article, to read it yourselves.
I am now more convinced than ever that the CLAA is offering to students something which you cannot find anywhere else in the homeschool setting. I would encourage you all to give it a shot and see if it doesn't change the way your children think. After all, isn't that the goal?
at 8:15 AM
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
We have tried a lot of different things around here (Getty Dubay, traditional French Cursive lessons, Handwriting without Tears, CLAA.... to name a few!) to teach handwriting, mostly because I was just feeling my way around the how to teach aspect.
We are finally settling into a kind of rhythm, and it seems to be going pretty well.
Perhaps sharing what I've learned along the way will be helpful to someone.
1. First, determine a style of cursive and a style of print writing and plan to stick to it.
This was hard for me because I grew up learning two styles-- Slanted American-style cursive and French cursive, which is straight up and down and round. I wanted my kids to learn both, and their schoolbooks require that they learn both, since we bilingually homeschool. Also, French cursive was important to me and American cursive was important to my husband.
What I learned is that they don't need to be able to WRITE in all the different styles to be able to READ in them. ;)
So just pick one, and focus on that. We decided to stick with New American Cursive.
2. Second, work at both simultaneously.
I was convinced they needed to master printing before cursive and couldn't get them moving fast enough in printing since I wanted to teach cursive in first grade. Duh.
It is both necessary and good to get them working in both at the same time if you want to do both early. We do our copywork in print for now and practice penmanship in cursive. This will change starting around third grade.
3. Go slowly.
Even if all the child does in the beginning is a perfect letter formation, let them work using the habit of perfect execution. It is good practice to have them go back and circle their best work, as well, in the beginning. And keep lessons short-- 10 minutes max. Handwriting is not a subject-- it's a precursor to actually communicating. Don't draw out their lessons and frustrate them with writing from the beginning. Instead, have them take their time and go slowly for short periods of time each day.
4. Use copywork and make it enjoyable.
Using Charlotte Mason's principles--- copywork becomes fun and not a chore. Let them select the sentence or paragraph to copy on their own, from a good book they have read. I do copywork alongside them to show them that EVERYONE can enjoy working on their skills. Let copywork become a habit, so that when you add dictation they already have the skills necessary to succeed at it.
5. Help them to understand WHY they need to write.
CLAA is the best program out there for this--- to help them clearly understand why writing is an important skill. Don't just teach them to write. Help them to see why writing is necessary.
6. From the beginning instill in them the habits of attention and perfect execution.
All it takes is a little bit of work on the parent's part to encourage them to pay close attention and to work to the best of their ability. I have found that when I FORCE the learning, they stumble, but when I encourage them to use these habits in an "I'm on your team, isn't this fun" kind of way, It is much easier to get them to work well.
7. Select good quality paper and pens.
I encourage the use of pen (so that they can't go back and erase mistakes--- although this frustrates them it also causes them to pay attention) and give them good quality paper and pens to work with. I grew up writing with a fountain pen, which is -- to me-- an important skill. The fountain pen requires them to write correctly because they can break the nib or mess up the paper if they don't form the letters properly. It also allows for fast writing, which is a critical skill in my homeschool where we do dictation often and take notes as we read. I encourage you also to use the kind of paper you will use to write with from the beginning. No need to spend a lot of time and money learning to write on different types of paper, with different colored lines and such, as children are perfectly capable of LEARNING to write neatly on normal, lined paper... whatever your paper of choice may be.
If you plan on teaching print first and then cursive later, I strongly recommend the Getty Dubay program, which uses CM's principles except for ONE... it lacks the "good literature" element by having children copy silly sentences and facts. However, the children don't notice and love doing this program, and by love, I mean LOVE.
If you plan on teaching cursive from the start, I recommend the Memoria Press New American Cursive series. My preschoolers start by tracing dry erase charts of New American Cursive, Capital and lowercase print letters. When ready, they move on to the workbooks (There are three) which are pricey, but IMO worth it if you can afford them for the extra practice they provide. If you can't, the dry erase charts WILL suffice if you keep at it. We also use Memoria Press' copybook series in the very beginning, simply because they take all the hard work and do it for me, providing excellent scriptures and poems for the children to copy in an easy to use workbook. This goes against CM's principle of having them select their OWN copywork, but in my experience the children enjoy these tremendously and will have plenty of time later (these end in third grade) to choose their own copywork.
*Note: before they begin handwriting, have your preschoolers do what the French call "graphisme," exercises that improve hand-eye coordination. These include tracing drawings, making spirals and drawing lines across the page.
at 10:30 AM
Monday, January 13, 2014
Term two starts for us today.
We have so many great books lined up and are so excited. This is the second year in a row that our term breaks have matched up with the liturgical year almost perfectly (Term 1 breaks for Advent and Christmas, Term 2 breaks for lent and Easter, Term 3 breaks for a month of summer vacation.) It has been wonderful... just enough time to do some serious partying with family and friends, some spiritual reflection revolving around the liturgical season's events, and to get in a good house scrubbing. Had we not also been dealing with my husband's father's death, I think this would have been the perfect situation.
Not making many changes, but I'm cutting down our morning time a little bit this term in an effort to be more efficient with individual time. They really do work better alone than in a group, I noticed. At least in this stage.
For the kids, I'll be teaching a CM community knitting class each week, and they will resume their bi-monthly Wayside co-op activities.
I'm also scheduling a Great Books study group weekly for the adults in addition to the CM and Bible Study we do each week. My hope is that at least once a month we can keep up getting together to discuss Great Books, too, using the Socratic Method. On weeks when people don't come, I plan on reading for an hour, and either blogging or discussing what I'm reading in our facebook group.
It seems to me that this is a fun way we can keep the older young people and adults involved in the "education is a life" aspect. I've really enjoyed the times we've had young graduating homeschoolers or college students join us at CM study groups or Bible Studies, and I'm sure they will be equally enjoyable to have around in a Great Books study group. This is also an opportunity for us parents to pre-read books we need to be sending down the line to our high school students. Many parents in the community here have not ever been exposed to the Classics, so this is a great opportunity for growth for everyone.
Anyways, happy schooling to you all! Looking forward to a great term!
Sunday, December 15, 2013
As our Advent break draws nearer to the end, I've been reading, one by one, the Ordo Amoris posts on Morning Time. I am doing this because our own morning time, which evolved naturally over the last two years as I noticed that we did a lot of great work in the mornings, has a lot in common with hers. Being older and more experienced, I want to learn what I can from her to make it run more smoothly.
Overall, her posts have been very encouraging, and helped to solidify what we were already doing naturally, and to give me a vision for what it was and could be in the future (as my kids are still very young.)
Around here we call our family meetings "Consilium" which means "council" in Latin. It also means advice, wisdom, judgement, plan, and purpose. Seemed like it fit.
On my schedule, Consilium I happens after breakfast and liturgy of the hours but before individual work, chores, or personal hygiene.
Consilium II happens around the lunch table, and Consilium III happens around Fika, our tea / snack time. I'm a big planner, so each section is already pre-planned. We *try* to do each consilium each day, but since we don't always get to it, I also love that consilium is in addition to their normal, everyday work. It's an addded bonus, but it IS where we do the bulk of our growing/learning/family educational culture stuff.
In our house, Consilium I consists of our "calendar meeting" and the Connecting With History work. We open with calendar time, which isn't what other people do with a special time of that same name. Instead, we open our calendar, discuss upcoming events, and record firsts (first snow, first leaves falling, first steps, etc.) in our book of firsts. We also do a quick habits lesson, and a run down of any character type stuff that's been going on and needs to be addressed. Lastly, we go through one section of the Catechism and discuss. It's a family meeting.
Then we either read from a history book or a book of saints biographies as per our CWH day. We discuss what we have read and do map drills and pages in our book of centuries. We might act out a scene from history. CWH basically lays out the program, and we just follow along, doing something different each week. We also might do memory work from our history readings or the Bible. And we discuss the catechism, and it's relation to what we are reading.
Consilium II consists of Arts & Literature. We read a poem and practice reciting a poem we are learning, and then we read some literature, usually something of a "classics" kind of nature like Peter Pan, or Treasure Island. On Tuesdays, it consists of a Shakespeare reading, Thursdays, a Plutarch reading, and Fridays, a Picture Study and Composer study. Maybe a poet study if we have something scheduled for that day. The rest of the week we just continue in a good lit book, often mythology or an epic poem.
Consilium III consists of Science & Geography. This is when we do nature study or outdoor geography, read geographical poetry and / or do experiments. If it's raining or we are indoors, I do a read aloud from The Story of Science or from a geography book I select that has a bushcraft/survivalism or travel type theme.
Consilium IV is not called that, nor is it official, but that's what it is. Sometime between dinner and bed we read the Bible and discuss it. We also fit in a folk song.
In other words, I break up my "morning time" into small chunks throughout the day, and since we pray the liturgy of the hours as a family (which consists of prayers, psalms, a scripture reading, and intercession) several times a day, we don't really consider it a liturgy. The two are intimately connected though.... praying the liturgy of the hours before Consilium prepares us to head into consilium in a different mindset.
In reading these blogs, I was a bit put off by her insistence that morning times are liturgy and I admit I giggled a little a I read about her frustration with forgetting to say: "the Lord be with you...." at the end.
As a Catholic family, we differentiate between individual actions and communal actions undertaken by the entire church but when we can we attempt to unite to the body of Christ, not divide from it. We already have liturgy, and we participate in the liturgies of the Church daily, so we don't need to innovate new --less perfect, less communal-- liturgies. But there was something to her insistence that I completely acknowledge and understand. She is trying to emphasize that what happens in morning time is sacred. Something holy is happening as we struggle and endeavor to recite, discuss, and read and debate and grasp in peace. And that, right there, is something I completely understand.
I also understand her insistence on doing it in the morning. I don't know what it is about the morning. All I can say is that we have their attention. Something magical happens in the morning in their minds and in ours. That's why I chose to do history in the mornings. It's the one thing that catechizes them super profoundly, so I wanted to makes sure they got a double dose of catechism in the day via history study in the AM, when they are paying attention.
For me, by the time afternoons come around it's usually the time when they get rowdy, so having outdoor events planned for that moment is really great. It also allows me to do whatever work I want to accomplish in the house while they flit around outside noticing things and looking them up. I have thought about switching my focus to make Consilium I longer and more all-inclusive. My children at this time are all so young that I'm not sure they would be able to handle more than one read aloud at a time. All things are possible, but at this time I don't really see how I would do it.
These are some of our most treasured times together, and though it would be easier to just school them individually and move on, it's of infinite worth to me that these times build up the communal/family culture. My children enjoy the individual time they get with me, but they do the bulk of their growing through our family interactions and work towards a common goal. We have a large family mindset, recognizing the value of interaction between us, and so for us.... that's what it's all about!
Saturday, December 14, 2013
In keeping with AO's idea of "terms," I try to set up our year so that we break for a month during Advent, a month during Lent, and a month for Summer. Breaks are hard on me... mostly because my kids need some kind of routine. By the time break rolls around we are usually ready to stop formal schooling for a while and to focus on the things that matter in these seasons, but my biggest challenge is to keep my kids from going squirrely.... they just seem to thrive on routine.
Yesterday, I resolved to watch them closely to see what kinds of things I could have them focus on that weren't "academic," persay, but involved in their overall character building-- things like good habits. I was surprised by what I saw.
Even though we are "on Advent break" from schooling, and although I have placed zero academic pressure on them during this season, here are just a few things I noticed that the children did either on their own or by asking me to help them.
My oldest (7): Read Act I of Shakespeare's Macbeth with a commentary, wrote a page in her journal about it, recited last month's memory work in science, poetry, math, latin, and catechism, made up math word problems, sang a memorized hymn, named two birds she saw in our yard accurately and looked up a new one, and studied for, took, and passed a classical latin pronunciation exam. With absolutely no pushing from me other than encouragement to "finish what she had started doing" before she moved on. (habits training)
My second oldest (6): Read and copied the names of candy bars from Willy Wonka, regularly spoke to me in French, looked up two science questions about the nature of matter, did math word problems my oldest made up for him, and narrated a Bible story he had just read to me perfectly.
My second youngest (4): Begged to learn Latin, traced and copied letters and correctly pronounced them, identified the letters in her name in various places throughout the house, spoke French to me, correctly identified a bird in the backyard, told me a story she invented that was quite good, used vocabulary that shocked even me, and and used proper math and logic to get out of eating her lentils.
My youngest (1.5): Spoke French and English to me, sometimes in full sentences. Demonstrated an uncanny awareness of her surroundings. Counted to three on her fingers.(!) Laughed hysterically at a line from Macbeth when it was read to her, and then repeated it over and over again. ("By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes...")
My only conclusion can be this: "Education is a discipline, an atmosphere, and a life."
I never cease to be amazed at the depth of wisdom in Charlotte Mason.
If you keep this maxim in mind as you build family culture, not only does education become a lifestyle but your children grow to delight in learning... to thrive in, and create for themselves, an environment that challenges them to learn more and to think better.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
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
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT
- You shall not commit adultery.113 You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery." But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.114
2331 "God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image . . .. God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion."115
"God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them";116 He blessed them and said, "Be fruitful and multiply";117 "When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created."118
2332 Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.
2333 Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.
2334 "In creating men 'male and female,' God gives man and woman an equal personal dignity."119 "Man is a person, man and woman equally so, since both were created in the image and likeness of the personal God."120
2335 Each of the two sexes is an image of the power and tenderness of God, with equal dignity though in a different way. The union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator's generosity and fecundity: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh."121 All human generations proceed from this union.122
2336 Jesus came to restore creation to the purity of its origins. In the Sermon on the Mount, he interprets God's plan strictly: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."123 What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.124
The tradition of the Church has understood the sixth commandment as encompassing the whole of human sexuality.
Friday, November 8, 2013
Children have different personalities, evident almost right away in their upbringing. I have a son who could stand in a corner all day but never learn his lesson, but take away something that he cares about and he straightens right up. I have a daughter who is very logical for her young age, and needs parents who constantly uphold the standard without slipping. I have another daughter who reacts with pain and horror when she is disciplined by an impatient parent, but who tries her best to do what she ought right away when we remain calm and affectionate. I could go on. Though these children are different, all of them are helped by Charlotte's ideas, because she taught the respect of children as persons. This idea is a given to Catholics, who are taught from the beginning to respect the human dignity of children, but may easily be missed by people in other faith traditions or who have no religious background at all.
I have many friends who are fence - sitters, drawn to Charlotte's ideas but resolutely remaining on the classical side of the question for many reasons. For many Catholics, this happens out of fear. We know and understand that a classical education is our heritage, and the pursuit of the liberal arts our sacred duty as human beings. We fear that Charlotte Mason, not being quite fully Catholic, can't understand the nuances of a truly Catholic education. I think that's a little silly, although I can appreciate the concern. Now, if Charlotte was good enough for GK Chesterton, she was good enough for me, but maybe I don't know anything. (One day I will blog about CM compared to the Jesuit educational model, and that of Don Bosco.... it's a fascinating topic that deserves to be explored, since each of these were so similar!)
For others it happens out of pride or anxiety. In the early years, CM is certainly more "gentle," with children, and though they catch up quickly and in some ways excel if pitted against their classically-educated peers, it can be disconcerting seeing children in a classical school spouting off long lists of president's names or timeline dates they have memorized when our own children aren't.
But in my experience, most people reject CM once they hear about it and stick to the modern classical method (a paradox!) because CM is just too complicated... there are no ready-made curricula that actually provide Charlotte's methods, and those that do are quickly abandoned as we read her work ourselves and realize the principle of integration.
We have to read her ourselves, think for ourselves how we are going to do it, and implement it ourselves. We (the educators) have to be willing to change, to grow, and what's more amazing-- to discipline ourselves in surrender to this great ideal: the education of our children. CM is not just for kids, it's for parents, too.
Those of us fortunate enough to have CM schools in the area, and there are a few, still have to learn her methods so we can remain consistent with their education at home. In a CM education, the parent takes full responsibility for the student's education, and so does the student, as he grows in awareness. CM is self-education, if nothing else. In fact, if I had to pick just one major difference, that would be it: Charlotte Mason taught children to educate themselves in the liberal arts, learning from the original great thinkers. The Classical method teaches the liberal arts TO children. Many classically educated children go on to be great thinkers themselves, make no mistake about it. But a hunger for knowledge--- that's a sign of a CM education. It's a given that Charlotte Mason had one goal: that children love to learn.
Most of us CM educators agree that Charlotte Mason provided a "type" of classical education to children... she certainly taught them the liberal arts. In my case, I was given what amounts to a CM education growing up.... and certainly I am full of ideas and connections between ideas. In fact, connections between ideas are what I tend to call "God moments" when lightbulbs go off in my brain, and you usually hear all about them right here, as you well know.
I certainly can say I have a passion for learning.
I have a vast knowledge of names and faces and friends throughout history and out in the wild. I am familiar with most of the great works and an excellent writer myself. And I've even studied philosophy-- I majored in it in France. Philosophy: the ability to think and reason, as you know, is the end-all, be-all of a Classical education. Knowledge of God in a Christian education.... combine the two and you have a Classical, Catholic education.... one which many protestants are attempting to reproduce in some ways through programs like Classical Conversations. (Other well known protestant curriculum providers, like Heart of Wisdom (ironic name much?), are working hard in the homeschool world to eradicate any classical/Greek influence in their children's education, choosing to provide a purely "spiritual, Hebrew" education. Watch me LOL.... but that's another blog for another day.) When I look at my own education, I see that I was given a catholic, classical education in every sense of the word: a grounding in the seven liberal arts with a CM twist: my parents were respecters of persons. I have a hunger for learning, and my mind makes connections between living ideas. Success, right?
But even with all that under my belt, one thing I can NOT do is understand philosophy in the terms used by the great minds. Sometimes, I can understand it, but not reproduce it or add to it. When I read the great books, I often feel like an outsider looking in. Though I can comprehend the ideas therein, I cannot add to them anything constructive, just absorb in awe and wonder.
Now this may be because I am not that bright, but I have come to believe that this is also because my education in grammar, arithmetic, logic, philosophy and rhetoric was not formal in the sense of a course in which I learned to use language or terms a certain way, and then build upon that knowledge in any kind of a framework (what the French call "encadrement.")
Rather, my understanding of arithmetic, logic, philosophy, grammar, etc. comes from a large, feast-like banquet in which I picked and chose what was interesting to me and connected to other ideas I was learning about. I lacked structure, and the lack of structure is NOT an impediment to me as a wife, mother, and journalist. However, I have noticed that my husband is a more clear, less muddled thinker than myself. And he himself was given a FORMAL education in logic, for example, which later helped him to not just *understand* philosophy, but participate in the great philosophical dialogue in a way that I never can without that same formal dialogue.
Let me give you an example:
I can read Peter Kreeft, find it moving, apply it to my life, and make something beautiful come to life with what I've learned. I can even teach a class on Peter Kreeft's ideas to others, or share what I've learned through him in a small group setting.
My husband, however, can hold his own in a debate with Peter Kreeft. He might be invited to lecture alongside him one day. He is capable of holding a debate or conversation with him, and from time to time, point out a logical flaw in an argument he might make. (not that this has ever happened, nor would it.... just giving an example of how the end-product of our different educations might look.)
So what does that matter in a practical sense for those of us who aren't aspiring to be debaters?
Well, in my house, for example, the husband leads and the wife and children follow. (Most of the time, haha.) Imagine how that looks... my husband, with his trained eye for the logical/ reasonable, etc. is VERY qualified to lead us. He hears a problem and immediately breaks it down into parts, analyzes each part, sees how it fits into the whole, and repositions the problem parts so that he finds a reasonable solution. (I liken this to doing a complex math problem or diagramming a complicated sentence.)
Me? I hear a problem and instinctually sense right or wrong responses, feeling my way through it, and perhaps even using experience or evidence to guide me. I can point out where the bits are that need reworking. I can even come up with solutions that are viable. But I often miss the "bigger picture" or "long term" application, and nearly make very big mistakes because of it!
Now, of course, this takes natural ability. But I do believe that our educations come into play here, and I keep that in mind when planning out my children's educations. In fact, I read a FASCINATING article the other day about women's educations in the middle ages, that demonstrated exactly why and how women were educated classically...
For tasks like running a nation, the ability to think, debate, reach for the stars, etc. is critical. For tasks like running a household, other abilities come into play. Now, I probably would have had better luck with some of these issues-- with learning logic, for example-- had I been better at follow-through as a child.... with finishing what I start. But CM addresses that, and had my parents been followers of her method, they would have made sure to help me follow through until this stuff was as natural to me as breathing. My point, though, is that I am OK in my own role without it.
What do our kids need? Each of them is different. Each of them demonstrates a propensity for certain types of thinking. My eldest is a philosopher, already. My second child an engineer. My third an artist. My fourth? We will see. Will all of them need to learn formal logic and formal rhetoric? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It will take discernment, to see which ones are called to "higher" tasks, and which ones are called to ordinary-- although no less important-- tasks.
Many of us younger CM educators frequently experience sidetracks into the realm of the Classical World as if it were foreign territory.... interesting and exciting, but also different and slightly fuzzy and unclear. And it is. In the younger years, CM children seem to have a finger in every pie, but Classical children seem to be adept at things that make us insecure and awe-struck.... we watch them spewing off long lines of memorized work and think.... "OUCH!! My kids are NOT doing that!! I must be way behind!"
To understand what a classical education actually IS, I recommend first looking at what it is NOT. It is not what we imagine when we think of students in classrooms today, filling out lists of spelling words and math terms, taking home worksheets, and other such nonsense. It is not workbooks, or textbooks, or fact-sheets, or sing-songy memory work.
William Michael, director of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, wrote an excellent article about the Dorothy Sayers phenomenon here. While I do believe Mr. Michael's point is a good one, the reality is that practically speaking, this means not very much. Dorothy Sayers' ideas about stages really just facilitate the classical education for children. In the past, an education was begun at 6 and ended when it ended.... with the study of what was true, right, good, and beautiful from throughout history.
Insofar as the language arts go,the emphasis on grammar, latin, etc. is really about ordered thinking. Learning practical and classical arithmetic helps us to think clearly.
In practical terms, most classical schools tend to follow a similar sort of path as CM students.
"The Well Trained Mind," was the first how-to-homeschool book that I read, and re-reading it once I had a grasp of Charlotte Mason's methods reminded me of why I liked it in the first place. Practically speaking, the curriculum looks very similar and the ideas are very close. WTM recommended more textbooks and didn't have the same standards for living books that were 100% twaddle-free, but ultimately, school "looks" sort of the same. The notebooks used in WTM were not used in a CM education (more on notebooks in this blog soon!) There was more writing at an early age in WTM. In most classical schools, the teacher teaches and the students listen... something that is not happening in a CM education, where the teacher facilitates and the student and book interact. Charlotte Mason's method is self-education. WTM and other classical methods make heavier use of the teachers' knowledge (or in the case of homeschool, the curriculum writer's) knowledge.
Both do narration, copywork, and dictation. Both read, hopefully mostly from living books. Both emphasize grammar and latin, arts and sciences.
In a practical sense, the differences are so subtle.... subtle enough to be almost imperceptible. But they are important distinctions, and make up a truly "Charlotte Mason" education.
What are these differences?
In the younger years, grades 4-6 in a modern classical education, for example (or when they are ready, in a truly classical education, begun whenever and building upon itself) a formal composition course is given in three stages, commonly called the "fable stage," the "narrative stage," and the "chreia or maxim stage." Charlotte Mason, on the other hand, did not do ANY formal instruction in composition, but rather used written narration (built upon a foundation of oral narration experience in the younger years) and excellent copywork/dictation , along with grammar (formally begun in grade four, but taught throughout in gentle language lessons.) Charlotte's students can use living books here.... such as Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style," or the classic work "On Writing Well."
Similarly, we can teach a formal grammar course for one or two years, but then leave it to living books such as "The Transitive Vampire" alongside some formal recitation of the rules of grammar.
A PhD thesis I recently read used a preliminary study to demonstrate that a Charlotte Mason education with no formal composition instruction at all provided a more than adequate skill in composition. I myself am a writer, having never received formal composition lessons in the classical manner. I like to think that I'm a good one. ;)
My thought for the fence-sitters here is that should you realize when your child reaches this level that s/he has not had adequate narration experience, then you might consider a formal composition course. Should your child already be a strong writer, as outlined in Charlotte's works, then feel free to skip this step and to trust her.
Outside of this, there are very few differences between a CM and Classical education in these stages other than the approach to memory work (which I will discuss momentarily.)
The only other practical consideration is that in a traditional classical school, in grades 7-12 traditional logic, material logic, and rhetoric are taught. Again, these are not formally taught in a CM education, but rather acquired through reading the great thinkers. Thus Ambleside students, for example, read Mortimer Adler's "How to Read a Book" for logic, and read some of the best works of apologetics out there. This method is perfectly suitable, but again it is worth noting that should a particular student demonstrate a propensity for debate or especially a need for improvement in communication, debate, or critical thinking skills, then certainly a formal logic course could be taught, and these are readily available to homeschooling families. However, the necessary use of these formal courses is another story. Not every child will need one, and if Charlotte's methods are adhered to closely, especially from the beginning, I believe the need for these courses will show itself to be greatly reduced, if not eliminated. It possible to teach ordered thinking and communicating using the great books alone.
Especially should you sense that your student has a particular call to leadership, careful consideration of the child's ability in these areas (communication, critical thinking, debate) should be given. But of course, the whole goal of a classical education and of the teaching of the liberal arts is that all students be ready and able communicators, thinkers, and debators. So there you have it, the only differences in practical terms are the endless hours spent in the formal teaching in textbook or teacher-to-student format of the subjects of composition, logic, and rhetoric, much of which should be evaluated as the child grows. The main goal, in a CM education, is for the teacher to get out of the way... and that should be considered when one considers adding a formal course in any of these subjects.
Now there is an other area which deserves some thought, and that is the area of memory work. Charlotte's students recited, of this we are sure. The emphasis in recitation was not at all on facts, dates, etc but on what was true, beautiful and real.
To this end, memory work should consist mostly of poetry and scripture, passages from great speeches, and be done in such a way as to be virtually painless-- Charlotte describes a method of memorization "by accident" in which the child is exposed to the poem each day at varied times and during other events (hair brushing, eating, etc) and thus the poem is learned painlessly. I know this is how I have memorized things in the past, poems that still stay with me!
Charlotte's students also recited those necessary facts they must know in the areas of math, grammar, catechism, etc. This was undoubtedly in question-and-answer format and was perfectly necessary, but kept short-- five minutes before or after class, unlike in the modern classical method where the bulk of the class is spent in recitation / memorization "work."
One thing is certain: Charlotte's students would not have learned their memory work with daily exposure to "fun" sing-songy versions of facts, which differs greatly from the modern classical method employed in courses like classical conversations. That being said, if the child enjoys this exposure, I personally don't see any harm in teaching memory work in this way.... particularly if their friends or siblings are also doing it as it gives them a sense of big-ness / importance to be able to do what they see their siblings or friends doing.
One last thing to consider for me has been in the methods of evaluation, namely tests and records of work accomplished. For the first few years of my children's schooling, despite having rabidly doused myself in Charlotte's ideas from morning til night, I still felt compelled to keep binders full of *proof* that my children were learning. I can't say if this concept came to me naturally or through my reading of The Well-Trained Mind, but my children had notebooks we filled with evidence that they had worked. They enjoy going through these notebooks, but I noticed they enjoy most looking at copywork, narrations, maps, and art work they have designed. I've never seen them stop on pages of math problems, worksheets, or word lists that weren't created by themselves. As a result, I've stopped wasting a lot of unnecessary time on record keeping. For example, almost all of our math work is done orally right now. I write down our narration to encourage them to narrate better, but not when we narrate in a group. Our grammar is done mostly orally as well.
I have plans to write a different blog post about notebooking in a CM education, so this clearly isn't the place, but I did want to give an example of the difference here between a Classical concept of examination and a CM concept of examination.
Charlotte's student's exams consisted of telling back something they had learned throughout the term, something very different from the multiple choice, formal essays etc. of the Classical and traditional methods. There were no comprehension questions, no three paragraph responses, no diagrams.... just an oral or written explanation to the teacher of the subjects studied and what knowledge was acquired. A conversation.
Looking back at some of the teaching techniques the two methods have in common is important. A sample copybook employed in the classical method often contained a line or quote from a poem, for example, at the top of the page. Below, on each line, the student would labor to re-create the phrase over and over in his or her "best writing." I did this as an adult in the Spencerian Script copybook series from Mott Media and found it tremendously boring after the first line.... despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoy penmanship.
Charlotte's students had copybooks which were quite different-- each line was a copied piece of literature, scripture, or a poem from the child's own reading which s/he had found delightful. The lines were copied using the habit of perfect execution (ie. perfectly from the beginning) and were not repeated over and over, so that when one went back to look at the copybook it became a commonplace book... a carefully kept journalistic record of the child's mind and a map of the world of ideas s/he was building. What a difference! One copybook might be seen as building the habit of perfection for perfection's sake... the other for the sake of later delight and enjoyment... and even further reflection. Powerful! This is the stuff I love about Charlotte Mason, and the reason she has my heart.
Rest assured that I will have plenty more to say on the subject, but for now I feel confident that there is enough evidence in these few paragraphs to show that a Charlotte Mason education is indeed a classical education, and more. At the same time, it is perfectly possible to provide a traditional Classical education with the end result being children who grow into self-educating adults who love to learn if we are careful to adhere to some of Charlotte's ideas about parents and children... ideas which are a part of our heritage of ideas should we be blessed enough to be Catholic. I can say I was given a Charlotte Mason education despite my parents having never heard of Charlotte Mason because my parents were classical educators, respecters of their children as persons, outdoorsmen, and lovers of ideas. They were thinking people.
There is truly no need to pit the two against each other or to bounce, conflicted, from one to the other in the hopes of creating "thinkers," but just as in all things, an actual, careful study of Charlotte's ideas in her own words and of the history of education as a whole is the best way to understand her methods and the reasons why she did what she did. Producing children who love to learn, and giving them a classical education, ultimately requires that parents provide what Charlotte called "a thinking love." This thinking love .... we owe it to our children.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Moments before, I'd been doing the dishes, quietly mulling over the day's events as the children slept. As I flipped over one of the blue-and-white striped Correlle dinner plates my Father in law had picked out and began to rinse it, thoughts melted over me like the steaming hot water pouring over the cold, hard china. He had picked these out, hopeful. He had picked these out.... thinking they'd be useful. And they were. He had used these plates, every day, for years.
And now he may never eat from these plates again. My thoughts turned to his condition: restless in a VA home, quiet..... his children taking turns to stand around him bedside, speaking to him tentatively and with mournful voices.
Just then I felt a heaviness I cannot quite describe. I wondered if the lights had flickered or the room had darkened, and a shudder came over me. I felt his presence in the room, weighing on me. My heart raced and a sinking feeling came over me as I glanced at the telephone that had just begun to ring, sitting on the counter across from me. I knew.
"Hello?" I said into the phone, not even checking who had called.
My husband's sister's tearful voice broke the loud silence in my head. "He just passed, a minute ago." She began. I don't remember what I said. I don't remember the rest of the conversation. Just that I sat down, right there in the kitchen, shocked. I knew.
What happened next was a blur. Although it had been years since his diagnosis, and although we all knew he was very ill and was, in fact, dying, still no one had expected his end to come so soon.
We were left with questions. Many questions. We wondered about the cancer itself. About the types of treatments he'd received and the kind of care he got in the hospital. We wondered about the hospice team, which seemed hell-bent on seeing him go. We wondered about him... and how much he understood about what was happening. And then he passed. We had more questions, and more unsettling, longing should-have, could-have thoughts.
But my own father said: don't dwell on those. Just love.
I met my Father in law for the first time on the phone, calling him from a payphone in the company area of my basic training unit in Ft. Jackson, SC at the request of his son. His son had told me to do so on a love note written quickly in chicken scratch and passed clandestinely into my hands while drill sergeants looked the other way--- a note in which he had professed his love and given me his father's phone number to call if I needed anything at all while we were separated during training. I dialed the number confident that I was about to meet an honorable man- a man who had formed the handsome and impressive young man who had stolen my willing heart and inspired me to great feats that defied reason and common sense.
When he picked up the phone after the first ring, I introduced myself as the object of the affection of his beloved son's heart, and he interviewed me. Was I a Christian? Yes. Was I going to be good to him? Yes. Well, then I could call him "Dad. Or First Sergeant." The very idea cracked me up. He seemed... too funny to be real. And from that very first day, he welcomed me as his own.
Over the years I came to know him very intimately... maybe better than most, perhaps even his own children in some ways.At the end of his life I was a constant companion to him.
At first, he was a distant, slightly annoying relative. I hadn't really thought about how when you get married, you become family with your in-laws. My husband's family is VERY different from my own, and has endured a huge amount of difficulty and challenge. My husband's family is also divorced-- and for good reason-- something which I had never experienced before from the child's perspective.
Once we were released from the Army and made a home of our own, my husband's father was a constant presence in our little apartment, and then cottage, three times a week in the evenings and on every holiday, frequently calling to make sure we had enough paper towels, knew how to remove frost from our car windshields, and to inquire about the state of our refrigerator and air conditioning unit.
Each time we announced a pregnancy to him, his worrying mind would respond with fret and concern, which would later melt away into pride as he examined his next grandchild--the fruit of my womb-- and began to develop the bonds that later would become the glue that helped our family through our grief.
My husband's father NEVER left us alone. Every opportunity he had to give us an opinion, well.... he took it. And more. For many years I struggled with his presence... he was always kind of awkward and formal, and since we had so little in common our conversations were never easy or relaxed. He mistrusted women, and I was married to his precious son. He loved war and the army and ceremony and his country, and I was raised by hippies, nourished on the arts, and brought up in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual bubble far, far from the American South. He was from the midwest, a place I had never set foot in and had no desire to even visit, and had settled in a city which I found to be a black hole. I was from France and California, two places he saw as the epitome of all that is wrong in the world. He loved gadgets and electricity, having worked for years as an electrician, and I love nature and fresh air. He got excited about badges. I got excited about innovation and people who thought outside the box. He ate microwaved food and plopped donuts on the counter on a daily basis. I was raised to believe they were poison and to fear them. We were different.
Eventually, we were able to find some common ground mostly revolving around nature, food and the Bible. But I kept him at arms length, and found him irritating at best. Dutiful, I tolerated the frequent visits and the constant impact of his presence, but I secretly resented it very much and hoped he would just go away.
Then came the day my husband, who had been working out of state and gone for days, called me to let me know he was thinking about leaving his job. Although he had very good reasons for doing so, including his safety and our family's well being, I was .... furious. Constantly worried about money and provision, I felt let down and angry. I told him what I thought, but he wasn't listening. I called his father, and for the first time in my life I shouted and screamed at him. "DO SOMETHING," I said to him. "He will listen to you! Why didn't you raise him to tough it out when things get hard???!" At the time, I didn't really understand the work conditions my husband was facing. I knew he was very brave, doing an incredibly dangerous job with no health insurance and no help and in adverse conditions. I know it's absolutely ridiculous to compare, but I always felt like we had it harder than my friends who were in the Army--- Army families face separation and danger, but they are so well supported. We were separated six days a week but for pennies, and with no health insurance, no life insurance, and no support. I was always alone with the kids. We didn't get benefits for our job. Just a small paycheck at the end of the month. If you were sick, or injured..... too bad. And yet the dangers were very real: my husband's co-workers were frequently injured, even electrocuted! And the job entailed unbelievable feats of strength and bravery in horrible weather conditions and with a team he couldn't even trust to keep him alive. In my selfish mindset though, thinking only about my comfort, I was enraged at his decision to come home after a year of living this way. What else could he do? So I screamed and hollered into the phone at his dad, who was helping him find a way home, and his dad, for the first time in my life, lectured me on my faith. I found it terribly ironic, since I felt his faith was one-sided and nonsensical, but there he was, telling me the kinds of things I tell other people all the time: "There's nothing you can really DO in this situation, so just speak to God about your fears and concerns. Trust in Jesus. "I couldn't deny that he was right.And I hung up the phone amazed that at one of the most challenging times in my life, my FATHER IN LAW, who I considered one of the world's most annoying people at the time, had been the one to help me get through it and talk me down.
That moment was a turning point in my marriage, and I can thank him for setting me straight. My husband went on to be a very capable provider and father. And I realized he had been doing that all along.
Shortly afterwards, we went to live with my Father in law. This was a decision we made so that my husband could go to college and earn a degree so that we wouldn't struggle as much. Determined to live according to the Church's teachings (therefore running the risk of pregnancy at any given moment), and yet living in a city where the only real money to be made was in the Army, we felt.... stuck. And his going back to school gave us hope. Little did we know that this was also a Godsend for my FIL. Shortly afterwards, he would be diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, and our presence would be a blessing to him in the end of his days. We never know what God has planned.... but He is always there!
Living with his father had two dimensions for me: Theory and Reality.
In Theory, I LOVED the idea of a multi-generational home. I loved the idea of my kids growing up with a grandpa around. I loved the idea of what we could build into this family with all these relationships around.
Reality was a bit different. Relationships are hard because people are difficult, and my Father in law was one of the most aggravating, difficult people I had ever encountered. Every single habit of my father in law's annoyed me to the point of me losing my peace. And the man was a two-war veteran... you can believe he had some noticeable, intentional habits.
He was everywhere, his nose in everything, and he ran a tight ship. While my husband was gone at least 12 hours a day (and later 24 as he started work at the fire dept.), I was stuck alone in this old, shut in, dusty, ugly house with a man who had a method for everything, from walking down the hall to opening a tin can, and who wanted everyone on earth to use that same method. He had a penchant for sharpie-ing instructions on everything in the house. He loved to use loud electrical devices like fans and leaf blowers. I homeschooled and discipled my children around the kitchen table and he never left me to it, not even for a moment, without interjecting or having a say in what I was teaching. We were Catholics, he was protestant, and even as we prayed together he would come piddling around in the kitchen right in front of us and make comments about what we prayed or sang. He persistently attempted to pour his knowledge and worldview into my children, something which we resisted with all our might most of the time since we didn't share his ideas about religion or politics. Few things annoyed my French sensibilities more than him indoctrinating my kids with endless flag ceremonies and speeches about the glory of Our Nation, or his distaste for opening windows and letting light into the house. He constantly poured out his furious, raging opinions about politics and "bad stuff" in the news, making us antsy and irritable. And for the past four years, I have NEVER-- not once-- been able to make a meal or a cup of coffee in peace.
But there were good things, too. He was a master BBQ chef and an amazing Fixer of Things. He genuinely loved his son and his grandchildren and was very thoughtful towards them. He was so generous towards those he loved and was always game for a good time, even if it was very organized good time. He always shared stories and laughs he had discovered with us, and persistently prayed for us, tried to lead us and guide us, and took his patriarchal responsibilities to heart. He loved to make conversation with virtually anyone we brought over. Most importantly, he always asked questions when things weren't to his liking, and he told us he loved us and that he was proud of us and grateful for us. Often.
Just a short month before his hospitalization and final demise, my Father in law converted and became a Catholic. He was received into the Church in our little Maronite parish, with us by his side and our excited children sitting near him in the pews. No one was more surprised than myself, but then again.... I know better than to be surprised by what God can do. With tears in our eyes, we stood before our wonderful priest and Our Lord, a completed family, and that vision for multi-generational faithfulness had never seemed so close. Reverent and somber, his old and mottled hands tightly clasped, he prayed with thankgsiving.
The details surrounding his reasons for converting still somewhat elude me. I know he had many long conversations with my husband about it, often late into the night. I know he was troubled by the constant calvinist bent in the churches around him, which he found unbiblical. I'm not sure what exactly sent him across the Tiber but I do know this: he pulled me aside one day and thanked me for teaching my children the Bible, and holding devotions with them each day. "All my life, I wanted to do that with my kids," he said, with not a little regret. "I don't know why it never worked out the way I wanted it to." He told me he found Catholic prayer invigorating and disciplined, and that watching the children and I pray and study each day was exciting for him. From that day on, he would regularly join us during morning prayer. Instead of interrupting, he would wait quietly until it was time to sing the hymn, and then he would join in. Little by little he began to put up icons in his room, and to ask me what the Church taught about the different topics he faced each day. He began to form a Catholic identity, and it was quite strong by the time he passed... at least in his mind. He was thrilled to be "becoming Catholic," and often spoke to us and the children about it as if it was a special secret, like an upcoming birthday party we were keeping under wraps.
Though he was in great pain and mentally taxed most of the end of it, his life finally ended at peace with us, and with himself, and with God and that matters to me greatly. The last thing I saw him do was lay his trembling, weathered hands on my husband's head and bless him. My heart burst.
The last things I heard him say where words of delight over my children and family.The very last thing we did with him was to sing "This is My Father's World," a hymn he had once told me he loved and that we had spent many enjoyable minutes singing together during morning prayer with the children.
This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.
This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.
This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.
This is my Father’s world, dreaming, I see His face.
I ope my eyes, and in glad surprise cry, “The Lord is in this place.”
This is my Father’s world, from the shining courts above,
The Beloved One, His Only Son,
Came—a pledge of deathless love.
This is my Father’s world, why should my heart be sad?
The lord is King—let the heavens ring. God reigns—let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world. Now closer to Heaven bound,
For dear to God is the earth Christ trod.
No place but is holy ground.
This is my Father’s world. I walk a desert lone.
In a bush ablaze to my wondering gaze God makes His glory known.
This is my Father’s world, a wanderer I may roam
Whate’er my lot, it matters not,
My heart is still at home.
I cannot but be healed by having watched his battle with cancer, as painful and horrible and PTSD inducing as it was to be at his side, especially at the end.
I think sometimes when I see people with cancer suffer, as we all, including dad, did with little Daisy Merrick just a few short months ago as well, that the cancer is to teach the rest of us a lesson--- that life is short, and unpredictable, and that people matter.... families matter, our bodies and our souls.... we matter. On the last day I saw him, a little old lady in a wheelchair stopped my family as we tearfully walked out of the nursing home. Gatekeeper of sorts, she cooed over each of my children, demanding hugs which they willingly gave. Then she turned her attention to us.
"Y'all are so blessed," she said. "And you know it."
We nodded, moved. We are.
God called him home that weekend, while my husband was away from his bedside. I hear that people often wait until their loved ones are out of the room to die, as if they need permission to let go.
We live in his house now and it's empty without him. The feel of him lingers in the old, worn wallpaper and the creaky, dark floor. It's in the faucets and fans, the stove and the dishes, the mantle and mudroom.This house is him, and he is this house. Things are changing.
During the week of the funeral, many people waxed poetic about his life. We remained resolute to remember him as he was: impossible and headstrong, chaotic in clutter, but organized in chaos, a fan of attention and affection, a generous giver of gifts, steady in affliction, and a keeper of traditions. This helps me, especially, to remember the greatest lesson I ever learned from him.
The Scotch-Irish Nesbitts, you see, have a Crest, like all other clans. Ours has a wild boar in the center, and the mysterious words "I BYD IT."
I byd it means "I will endure."
Nesbitt life is no joke. It's not easy. It takes a special kind of woman to be a Nesbitt, and as evidenced by the looooooooooooong line of women who just couldn't make the cut (or those who tried and failed miserably.) Dad was no stranger to heartache, and the women in his life, beginning with his mother, had all failed him. And many, with good reason.
Resolute, I have always faced this fact with my typical headstrong determination.... courageously blathering on about how strong I will be.... until the hardships began to come.
And come they do. We've often wondered what curse we've inherited and what misery waits around the corner. And yet in every instance, time and again, I can hear dad's old, familiar lecture.... the one he reserved for when my voice gets all shrieky and my eyes, wide like saucers. "It's the Nesbitt way," he would say. "We endure. We think it through. We pray. We persevere."
And when I remember it, my chest swelling with Charlotte Mason-induced pride-- (I can endure! I am enduring! I will endure! I ought to endure!) I realize that this is the greatest legacy he could have left my children.... I byd it. It's the name. Its' our clan. It's the vision of the glory in the reward at the end-- the reward he is enjoying now.
Thanks for the past four years, dad. For every painful, blessed moment.
I will remember it always. I will endure. We all will.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
By Edgar Allan Poe
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visiter," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door --
Only this, and nothing more."
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; -- vainly I had tried to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost Lenore --
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore --
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me -- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
"'Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door --
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door; --
This it is, and nothing more."
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you " -- here I opened wide the door; ----
Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore!"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!" --
Merely this, and nothing more.
Then into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon I heard again a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore --
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;--
'Tis the wind and nothing more!"
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door --
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door --
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore --
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning -- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no sublunary being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door --
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."
But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered -- not a feather then he fluttered --
Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before --
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
Wondering at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster so when Hope he would adjure --
Stern Despair returned, instead of the sweet Hope he dared adjure --
That sad answer, "Never -- nevermore."
But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore --
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Angels whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee -- by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite -- respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore;
Let me quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! -- prophet still, if bird or devil! --
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted --
On this home by Horror haunted -- tell me truly, I implore --
Is there -- is there balm in Gilead? -- tell me -- tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil -- prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us -- by that God we both adore --
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore --
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting --
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! -- quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted -- nevermore!