Thoughts on School Education: Chapter 5 "Psychology in Relation to Current Thought"
This is one of those chapters in Charlotte Mason's work that was rather a slog to get through, as she gets into an evaluation and critique of some of the educational and psychological theories of her day. I'm sure this was quite interesting to her contemporaries who would have had familiarity with those theories, but can be rather confusing to those of us reading her works a hundred years on. J Needless to say, I followed Mortimer Adler's advice for 'superficial reading' (as described in his book How to Read a Book) and didn't sweat the bits I didn't understand and focused on that which I did. Convoluted discussions of Victorian era educational philosophy aside, I still mined several gems in this chapter and that's what I'd like to focus my thoughts on here today.
Charlotte Mason notes the dissatisfaction with the education system in her day and rather idealistically suggests that this is a good thing because perhaps this means that there is positive change on the way. Sadly, I wouldn't say this has played out that way over the past hundred years as the 'system' has only become more and more broken as each succeeding generation has tried to come up with some bigger-and-better idea to replace the ideas that didn't work in the last. (Interestingly enough, Adler discusses this very thing in relation to methods of reading instruction in How to Read a Book.) In a way, I suppose that this dissatisfaction with the system has paved the way for the surge in the popularity of homeschooling over the past generation and the renewed interest in Charlotte Mason, Christian Classical Education, and the Liberal Arts Tradition – which are all good things, albeit still quite small scale in the grand scheme of things. But who knows where all that will go in the next hundred years? Perhaps we can share in some of Charlotte's optimism.
She goes on to list some of the necessary elements for an adequate system of psychology to underlie our philosophy and methods of education. She notes that it must address the whole person: "Next we demand of education that it should make for the evolution of the individual, should not only put the person in the first place, but should have for its sole aim the making the very most of the person, intellectually, morally, physically. We do not desire any dead accretions of mere knowledge or externals of mere accomplishment. We desire an education that shall be assimilated; shall become part and parcel of the person, and the psychology which shall show us how to educate our children in this vital way will meet our demands." (p.47)
The failure to acknowledge the whole person is largely what is wrong with the "system", I think, as well as the failure to acknowledge that there is such a thing as knowable truth (Andrew Kern talks about this in his video series on Teaching from Rest, particularly in Video #2). This is part of the reason why I so appreciate Charlotte Mason and her emphasis on feeding the mind and soul with good, true, and beautiful ideas and her constant reminders that children are persons – not oysters or brains in vats. The Christian Classical tradition emphasizes this as well with its emphasis on people as image-bearers – as beings with souls, created in the likeness of God Himself – and on wisdom and virtue as the end of education, not merely head knowledge and marketable skills.
Charlotte critiques the materialist philosophies of her day and explains the outcome of these unsatisfactory theories and methods:
"We become devitalized; life is flat and grey; we throw desperate, if dull, energy into the task of the hour because we shall say so, any way, get rid of that hour; we are glad to be amused, but still more glad of the stimulus of feverish work; but the work, like ourselves, is devitalized, without living idea, without consecrating aim. Our manner becomes impassive, our speech caustic, our countenance dreary and impenetrable. This is the change that is passing over large numbers of the teaching profession, men and women of keen intelligence, who might well have been inspired by high ideals, quickened by noble enthusiasms, had they not imbibed and educational faith which meets all aspirations with a Cui bono? We give what we have, and only what we have. What have these to pass on to the children under their care?" (p.54).
The failure of reaching the whole person in education leads to devitalization, dullness, greyness. Is that what we want for our students? For ourselves? I found it interesting that this idea of reaching the whole person applies not only to students but extends to the teachers. We can't feed souls, pass on love and enthusiasm and wonder if we haven't been feeding our own souls. We can't help others to see goodness, truth, and beauty if we've not beheld it for ourselves. How can we as parents and teachers feed ourselves? For myself, I make it a priority to make room in my day to cultivate a habit of wide reading. I listen to podcasts and read blogs that inspire and encourage me (see some of my favorite resources up there in the Resources Tab). I don't have a local Charlotte Mason or Classical community, but have found a wonderful online community at the Ambleside Online Forums. I've taken up nature journaling and drawing alongside my children. Check out Brandy's wonderful series "Learning How to Live" for more ideas along these lines. It's never too late to take the cultivation of your own mind and soul seriously.
I'm glad I took the time to wade through this chapter, despite the outdated philosophical references. One thing that I love about Charlotte Mason is that her ideas are enduring and valuable no matter how the current social landscape has changed. There is still plenty here for modern parents and teachers to take away.