Sunday, May 15, 2011

Narration: Education for the Average Student

(from CM Volume 6 Book II p. 300-321)

At the end of Volume 6, Charlotte Mason made an appeal to the English people regarding the education of the common man. She wrote Volume 6 after World War I and during the rise of Progressivism. Charlotte recognized that the Progressives had their hearts in the right place, but that they were in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

One of my favorite Chesterton quotes expresses it succinctly: “In his long fight to get a slave a half-holiday [the typical modern man] may angrily deny those ancient and natural things, the zest of being, the divinity of man, the sacredness of simple things, the health and humour of the earth, which alone make a half-holiday even half a holiday or a slave even half a man.” (Chesterton, "What is Right With the World")

In this section, Miss Mason discussed education and the common man, education and the average student, and "knowledge as the basis of national strength". She looked at the early results of progressive education and recommended a refining process. In our time, we wonder why educational results are so mixed. Decades before we asked the question, Miss Mason responded.

(What follows is my detailed narration of pages 300-321.)


Why don’t more kids leave school educated? Let’s look at the principles behind this question. We cannot test whether a student is educated if we do not understand what we seek.

"...want of knowledge, lack of education: he appears to have little insight, imagination, or power of reflection." (p. 300)

The working man of today often has a working virtue, but a lack of insight, imagination and power of reflection—lack of education. In terms of national strength, the education of the working man is now more important, because in our time common individuals are being organized into groups with political influence. Even men we already consider educated tend not to have insight and imagination enough to really be called that. Nowadays physical health and mental/spiritual indifference has replaced nobility or even intelligence.

No doubt education is to blame, although teachers work harder than ever. They are selfless and giving, and receive a blessing for that, but the children suffer from always receiving. We devalue knowledge and look down on our students. We substitute grades and awards for knowledge, starving the student and diminishing his desire for knowledge.

Even worse, we decide the student needs practical training more than knowledge, and eliminate anything that doesn’t strictly apply to his future profession. Is a child to be raised for society’s use only? Education is for the enrichment of the individual life. Every person can develop a certain amount of generous and proper judgment through the study of history and literature.

Knowledge is passed from mind to mind. Original minds communicate vital thoughts through books. The way to reform education is to make sure students read many living books. The books must be original, or else the student’s intellect will not grow. They must be varied, otherwise the student will not be well-rounded. They must not be too easily digested, or else he will not think.

We give the children watered-down books and then we explain and question. This we must not do. Provide real books from original minds and have the child narrate after one reading. The act of knowing is accomplished in narration—all the analysis and comparison takes place at this time. The teacher’s job is not to explain and question, but to make sure the student narrates.

In CM's program, starting at age seven, the children read six books at a time. At age 8-9, they worked on twelve at a time. Later, the number of books went up to twenty. Most students today do not read enough books. Students should love their books and look forward to exams. Ha. Student brought up on books rather than lectures are enthusiastic, sympathetic, broad in outlook and sound in judgment, because they have been given the opportunity to listen in on the great conversations of humanity. They have more time for leisure activities too. And complex work in the higher levels of school will be more effectively done by students who have been given many good books to read and narrate in previous years.

"Napoleon is the final answer to the contention that a knowledge of books has no practical value." (p. 306)

(The Warrior Poet would call this a hot sports opinion!) Napoleon showed the difference between scholarship and knowledge—he was no scholar, but was well-read, and used the knowledge he gained from books to conquer a good portion of the world. (I wonder how CM reconciled Napoleon’s ‘education’ on many good books with his immoral acts? After all, we do not want to encourage children to grow into despots.) Let’s take that assertion and broaden it to apply to nations as well as individuals. The Prussian Queen (Louisa, 1797-1810) in the 19th Century understood the necessity of knowledge and roused her people to study. (Sadly, the German Empire later became the cradle of utilitarianism, which eventually led to the inhumanity of WWI.) Denmark and Japan have also established themselves well in practical matters by the study of history and literature.

We must add to our faith, virtue, and to virtue, knowledge, through “wide and wisely directed reading”. At this point she quotes a letter as anecdotal evidence that her methods work, especially as they increase the effectiveness of learning classical languages later in a scholar’s career. Then she recommends that England not throw out the classics in the public schools, because they are tried and true.

"...knowledge is, not a store, but rather a state that a person remains within or drops out of." (p. 309)

Knowledge of history and literature has won more military battles than we can know. But sadly, our students assume that knowledge is something you accumulate and get done with, when really it is a state of being. In order to fix this, we consider dropping the study of ancient languages. That is wrong. The study of ancient languages and reading of ancient books helps our students realize that man has known things since ancient times, and this keeps him from getting a swelled head regarding his own time.

"...culture begins with the knowledge that everything has been known and everything has been perfectly said these two thousand years ago and more." (p.309)

People do not read the Bible as they once did. Both rich and poor folks used to be immersed in the Bible. It is one of the three great classical literature (Shakespeare and Plutarch being the others, I wonder?) We are gearing up to do without God, yet we are surprised that leaders do not know how to lead and that workers are reckless and stubborn.

"...scholarship is not the best thing, and does not necessarily imply that vital touch of mind upon mind out of which is got knowledge." (p. 310)

Scholarship is worthwhile, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate knowledge. Also, it is an honor rarely given. Everyone cannot have it. Besides, we do not need to worry about geniuses. They take care of themselves. We need to consider the average student.

Many of the most knowledgeable minds, both of today and yesterday, did not have to deal with the pressure of school as we currently know it. Nowadays, prep schools teach their students all the Greek they need to know by the age of twelve, and spend the next several years reviewing it. There is a problem somewhere. It is because of the emphasis on awards that the public schools fail to bring up well-rounded, educated young men. The heads of the different types of school ought to get together and devise tests that will measure a student’s knowledge rather than his scholarship. Working together, they would eventually be able to help the average student to a knowledge of the classics that would serve him all his life, without insisting that he move beyond basics in his knowledge of original languages. This could be left to the few that show an aptitude for it.

Schoolboys work hard at grammar, but they should be given more than that. A good schoolmaster will require his students to be intimately acquainted with a hundred worthy books as well as the great novels, his knowledge tested by oral or written narration.

As for science, it is certainly forward-looking, but we still need knowledge of humanities. In order to help in the present time, we must understand the way men thought and acted in the past. We should be able to communicate life principles as well as possible outcomes. We can only gain these insights through the slow ingestion of poetry, literature and history. Wise men are made out of educated boys.

We have certainly been busy dealing with education for the past several decades, but results are mixed. It is hard to separate the good from the bad. It would take too long to look at each result individually, but let’s consider one of our generation’s prevalent problems—that people do not feel responsible for their actions.

If we shirk responsibility, our education is to blame. We think as we have been taught to think. People who destroy property, damage public interests, and inflame public opinion have been educated enough to speak clearly and exhibit practical ability, although not with virtue. We must bolster our educational institutions or else things will get worse.

People with a bit of learning tend to follow faulty arguments to flawed but logical conclusions. (A little knowledge being a dangerous thing.) Rebellion tends to follow faulty reason. Reason cannot replace knowledge. It is fallible. Reasonable conclusions are not necessarily right. Reason should be our servant, not our master, and will behave properly if we keep it in its place. But if we are to choose what is just, we must have knowledge. Shakespeare taught this in his plays. Look at Othello; look at Brutus. They show us that man can use reason to convince himself of any notion he decides to take up. We can’t use Reason as a shortcut. We must first have knowledge.

In the past, the working man only represented his family, and did well enough with bits of knowledge picked up here and there. But now he is organizing into large groups and needs a proper body of knowledge in order to act with moral imagination. Without this, rebellion joins reason and supports whatever notion the man entertains. After all, it is glorious to witness the reasoning power of your own mind. It is difficult to convince a person that his conclusions are wrong once he has reasoned them out. We gain or lose by the willful choosing of the notion before reasoning takes over.

If knowledge has such an influence over our behavior and even our lives, what is it? Matthew Arnold divided into three categories: knowledge of God, knowledge of Man and knowledge of Nature. “Divinities, Humanities, and Science.” But knowledge of Letters contains the whole.

The Greeks emphasized a thorough training in words and felt it was the most important part of education. If we depreciate knowledge, we scorn the proper use and power of words.

"...if the thought fathers the word, so does the word in turn father the thought...great thoughts anticipate great works; and these come only to a people conversant with the great thoughts that have been written and said. " (p. 316)

The errors of Divinity: The church does provide a bit of literature, poetry and history, but we do not receive as much of the “words that burn”, “words fitly spoken [that] beget thoughts of peace and holy purpose”.

The errors of Science: Science is the preoccupation of our age, but will have nothing to do with literature. History, poetry and religion all fade as we strip a thing to the bone to study its dead parts. Without wonder, it is impossible to appreciate science. Science becomes only useful, not edifying. Occasionally a scientist arises with wonder intact, but generally science does not call out what is best in us, although it does appeal to our utilitarian desires. This is not the fault of science itself, but the fault of science teaching that employs ‘facts and figures and demonstrations’ while neglecting the ‘wonder and magnificent reach of the law unfolded’.

“Science is waiting for its literature.” (p. 318)

Our better parts are inspired when a scientist describes how a law was revealed, that it was there all along and only now discovered. We cannot neglect science. We must learn it, but the teaching of science is too often bereft of life.

But it is no good laying blame here or there. We need to realize that as a nation we are losing our higher values, tending to emphasize “sordid hopes and low ambitions”. We may get the lower things we desire, but lose nobler ideals, such as honesty and loyalty. And eventually, without nobler ideals, the lower things will also be lost. Remember the trade guilds centuries ago, and the Russian village communes? Without virtue, men and their groups tend toward tyranny. Men cannot sustain their causes if their souls are lost in gaining them. We can all influence public opinion, whether in small or large ways, and ought to raise the discussion to "duty, responsibility, brotherly love.”

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