Friday, November 8, 2013

Setting the Classical Question to rest once and for all (maybe)

I've been doing a ton of thinking about the differences and similarities between a typical Charlotte Mason education and a typical Classical education in a practical (not theoretical) sense. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't think a Charlotte Mason education was superior. But I find it important to note that Charlotte's vision was achievable within the framework of the classical education.... because though what I received was basically a Charlotte Mason education, my parents were classical educators, and had never heard of Charlotte Mason. In other words; they have the same goal, use many of the same methods (albeit slightly differently), and if the parents are themselves thinking people, they will probably come to the same conclusions.

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.

Happy educating!


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  2. I think you get this really right. One of the turn-offs of the classical model for me is its emphasis on what I perceive as *performance* on the part of really young children: not just memorization (which I'm all for) but public recitation as a discipline, for example. I've also definitely seen the fruits of *not* teaching composition formally before roughly middle-school age.

    In short, what continually draws me to CM is her willingness to grant that, largely, what we can determine, as educators, is what goes in -- the rich food of good literature, the gentle, basic tools of writing via copywork and dictation. Narration aside, there's just far, far less emphasis on what comes out, and this seems right to me. I'm okay with not knowing just how a particular idea has taken root in a child's mind, or what connections have gotten made, for years and years, if I ever do know. I'm okay with trusting that my children's minds will respond rightly to good reading, and that I don't have to control that, micromanage it, or even really see it happening. I'm okay with accepting that my children *are* thinkers, who just need me to give them good things to think about.

    And I like your point about being different kinds of thinkers. I'm a poet married to a theologian -- there's your classic intersection of linear with . . . well, the word that comes to mind is "ambient" thought processes. And it's not that one of us is more educated than the other (though only one of us has a Ph.d), or "smarter," or a "better thinker." We're really pretty complementary, though at the end of the day, I am glad the guy who can see the forest for the trees has the last word over the person going, "That tree! And that tree! And that tree!" But again, it seems to me that classical education privileges linear thought -- or recognizes only linear thought as valid or "educated." I'm thinking here of all those Memoria Press articles on the virtues of studying Latin -- in their particular, grammatical way. Not that I don't love Memoria Press, but that approach to language learning hasn't worked well for us (nor is it the approach my daughter's Latin prof in high school -- one of the world's top 3 Latinists -- uses in his classes). Anyway, again, it seems to me that in the classical philosophy, the end goal is to produce a certain kind of thinker, whereas in CM, the end goal is to produce a thoughtful person. Of course this is a vast oversimplification, and I'm writing while doing other things, so that I'm sure my distractions show -- but am I understanding something that's actually there? (or am I totally making this up? In my ambient-thinker way?) At any rate, what I like about CM is the emphasis on a rich diet of language and ideas, plus the cultivation of habits that will ultimately make any kind of thinker a *good* thinker of that kind.

    And yes, it's interesting to see in what ways different children tend. So far I have a medievalist, a scientist, and two . . . in development. I'd be tempted to say that I can see them leaning in particular directions, at 11 and almost-10, but the older two have really surprised me in the course of their teenaged years. I would have said that my oldest was going to wind up in some kind of design or drama program, instead of which she's an English major with a concentration in medieval/Renaissance studies. I would have pegged #2 for history, but then he discovered biology and went to work for an equine vet . . . So I'm not going to make predictions any more! I just find it all endlessly fascinating.


Thank you so much for your comments! I look forward to hearing from you.

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