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Monday, November 26, 2018

Charlotte Mason, Education, and Ideas over Faculties

There are a couple of things to keep in mind while reading Charlotte Mason. One of them is that she liked to be gracious and to fairly represent the ideas of others, including their good points. So when she’s about to reject an idea, she first spends several pages explaining all the good points behind that particular theory and why we owe a debt of gratitude to its principle proponent. Only then does she go on to say, “but the idea is flawed, I disagree with it, and here is why.”  She's also seldom that direct about it, although she does have some delightful moments.
Another thing to keep in mind is that she did not develop her principles in a vacuum, out of thin air, or out of her head with no reason behind them. Her principles are the result of careful consideration of educational ideas, theories, and practices she had studied or seen applied in school practices then in place.
Over the course of her life she honed her education method and ideas into a statement of 20 principles (that’s the number in the preface of her final volume on education, book 6, ‘Towards a Philosophy of Education).  Previous books had a different number. You can read her final list of 20 principles in the preface of volume 6, and I recommend that you do, and many times. After you've read that a few times, know that the first several chapters of volume 6 each address one of the principles, expanding on the theory behind it.
Each of her principles is a statement in favor of one idea, and at the same time, a rejection of another, prevailing idea of the day.  As she explains her educational philosophy, she is also stating how her education differed from that of educational models of the day- and sometimes what Miss Mason took issue with was not so much the ideas as originated by the initial philosopher, but as applied and practiced by educators of her day.
Consider these principles in particular:
9. We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.
10. Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher’s axiom is,’ what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.”
11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that,––
To truly understand what she means by principal 11, we have to take into account that first word- but. That ‘but’ implies a rejection of something previously mentioned, and we find that in the previous principle, where she mentions Herbartian philosophy.
One popular idea she is flatly contradicting in principle 11 is that the ‘faculties’ need to be developed, and this was best done by intensive instructor led education. As I understand it, the idea was that the child had no capacity, no real appetite for knowledge itself, but had to be coaxed along and trained to *create* the individual faculties before he could use them.
CM is saying that this faculty development is a waste of time- the child is already prepared to learn, his ‘faculties’ are intact, a whole- he doesn’t need training in how to develop them any more than a normal child needs training in how to use his legs, what he lacks is _knowledge_ and _ideas_- later she adds ‘clothed in literary language.’ She says the children are fully equipped- that is because some educators of her day believed the children were not equipped, or to spell that out, did not have the mental equipment they needed to learn. These people were insisting that what was most important was to help the children develop and build their mental equipment, and later give them the knowledge they needed.
Charlotte, IMO, is saying that she does not believe we need to build their mental equipment for them- it’s already there, ready to go, simply waiting for the material appropriate for it.
I think she didn’t really believe in the ‘faculties,’ but also felt that, at any rate, if they did exist, the best way to develop them was to give the child knowledge and ideas, rather than tiny, isolated facts.
She talks in one of her books about how impertinent, dangerous, and interfering it would be to constantly be inspecting the child’s digestive system to make sure it was working properly, or to try to separate the functions and strengthen each one individually.
Instead, we give the child healthy, nourishing food, and trust the digestive process to take care of itself. In the same way, she suggests we give the children healthy,
nourishing, generous material for him to set his mind upon, and let the faculty development take care of itself- in, again, ‘normal’ children. She acknowledges some children will need special help, just as some children need special assistance to learn to walk.
I think she also believed that the balance was skewed and was trying to correct it- that the student was the one who needed to be doing the mental work, but with the apperception mass nonsense floating around, the teachers ended up doing all the work and making all the connections for the student- about as helpful as moving a normal child’s legs for him to help him walk. They needed to let go of his mental legs and give him plenty of space and opportunities to walk and interesting places to explore on his own two feet- if that makes any sense at all.
If the child already has the powers of mind which fit him to deal all that knowledge, then we have no need to ‘educate the faculties,’ to teach them *how* to learn. This would be about as useful and productive an activity as it would to create a special, child-world which will ‘enable’ them to walk.
Both are superfluous.
Normal children (and as a mother of a disabled child, I appreciate the distinction Charlotte makes) will walk. All we need to do is get out of their way, make sure the places they walk are safe, give them many opportunities to walk and make sure _we_ do not hinder their walking through unnatural interventions.
Normal children do not need their minds ‘developed.’ They do not need special programs designed to help their brains develop. They need for us to get out of their way, to make sure the places they learn are safe,give them many opportunities to learn, and they need us to be sure we do not hinder their minds through unnaturalinterventions (some of which have been addressed in other principles and other posts- things like t.v., performance style teaching, unit studies based on unnatural and contrived connections, etc).
Charlotte Mason disagreed with this theory about education being necessary for children to develop their ‘mental faculties,’ and while she tried to be gentle about her disagreements most of the time,  in volume 3 Miss Mason came right out and said that the whole idea about developing these separate ‘faculties of the mind’ was a “pestilent fallacy which has, perhaps, been more injurious than any other to the cause of education.”
Shreds of this theory have come down to us as ‘it doesn’t matter what a child learns as long he learns how to learn. She dismissed that idea once by pointing out it was about as sensible as saying it doesn’t matter what we eat so long we learn HOW to eat. Of course what we learn is vitally important- both in food for the body and food for the soul. As a sidenote, I have come to realize that when people say “it
doesn’t matter what our children learn as long as they learn how to learn”- well, most of the time, if you ask, they aren't even sure what they mean.  Something hazy about being open minded, and if they have any specifics at all, usually, the ‘learning’ they are talking about isn’t really learning at all- it is only research skills.
Charlotte Mason didn’t want to focus on the faculties, but on the whole child. She wanted children to receive vital knowledge, facts beautifully clothed in their informing ideas, the best result of a good education, she felt, was a person who cared about knowledge in as many fields as possible- broad and generous, to use her phrase.
And here is a simple means by which an education can be tested and assessed, weighed in the balance to see if what your children are getting is an education or merely a bunch of data. If their education can be ‘tested’ or measured through multiple
choice/ fill in the blank/true false testing, then it is probably NOT a living education, but merely a dreary introduction to facts.

    If nothing less than an essay question (narration) is required to adequately repeat what one has learned, then there are probably some informing ideas in that education.
     $5.00- Education for All, a new CM journal, Buy Now!   Feed Your Mind!  This issue contains several articles on handicrafts, outdoor play, nature study and science. See sidebar for purchasing options if you are in the Philippines.

     $3.00 Five Little Peppers and How They Grew Copywork (grades 2/3, carefully selected with an eye toward finely crafted sentences, lovely bits of writing pleasant to picture in the mind's eye, and practice in copying some of the mechanics of grammar and punctuation typically covered in these years.
      $3.00 Aesop's Fables Copywork for Year One!  Carefully selected with an eye toward well written sentences, memorable scenes, and some practice copying sentences that model the basics of capitalization and punctuation.   Suitable for use with children who have already mastered the strokes and letters for basic penmanship.

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