Friday, November 1, 2013

Head First?

by Anne White

The following is an unpaid, shameless advertisement for something you may be doing already.

Charlotte Mason warned that heads of schools should be discouraged from taking up her methods "lightly."  We assume that by "lightly" she meant carelessly, without real commitment, or piecemeal.  To use a term she probably would have shuddered at, she wanted educators to go at it whole hog.

Now, there are things it would be a mistake to dive into head first without being quite sure that one knows what one is doing.  Using power tools and trapping skunks come to mind.  However, in other, less high-risk pursuits, it is not only acceptable, but preferable, to jump in all at once.  Dipping your toes in too cautiously means that you may never enjoy the full experience.

Some examples? In the movie Mr. Holland's Opus, the main character describes how he was told by a record-store owner to listen to a certain piece of music.  He didn't like it, didn't get it.  When he complained, he was told to go home and listen to it again.  After several sessions of simply listening, something finally clicked, and what had been beyond his understanding started to make sense.  Mr. Holland  also has a struggling clarinet student who "practices constantly" but gets nowhere.  He helps her break through by making her put the book away and just play along with the piano.  For the first time ever, she jumps completely into the music, and then experiences new confidence in other areas of her life as well.

David V. Hicks,  in Norms and Nobility, contrasts two piano teachers he knew as a child.  His friend's teacher had young students memorize Mozart pieces.  His own teacher, more in touch with how modern children were supposed to learn, used graded exercises and fun, hands-on activities.  He says that his friend, who initially balked and struggled, was nevertheless playing Chopin and other difficult composers within a few years, while he himself never got beyond a simple arrangement of "The Lone Ranger."

In How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler recommends reading even difficult books straight through the first time, not worrying about the parts you don't understand.  Because if you get bogged down with details, you may never finish.  And if you try to avoid that by reading only books you already understand completely, you'll learn nothing.  That may well apply to Charlotte Mason's volumes.  It can also apply to the Bible, to poetry, to Shakespeare, to Plutarch.  Norms and Nobility itself often makes me reach for a dictionary or an online explanation; but I learn more when I try to work out its philosophical points for myself.

But if we understand how that can help our own learning, do we allow our students the same opportunity?  Do we sometimes read poetry simply for the sound, the rhythm, the enjoyment?  Do we read books, or show paintings, to children that are a little, or a lot, beyond what they're supposed to like or appreciate?  Do we allow them sometimes not to comprehend every point, define every word?  Do we let them experience the satisfaction of what they do understand, along with a useful prickling of dissatisfaction that tells them they haven't quite arrived, that there's something still to reach for?

Norms and Nobility mentions the way certain ancient Greek teachers approached books and learning.  Like the old-style piano teachers, they didn't hesitate to plunk down something hard and say "read it, learn it, take a stand on it." How else could the young people learn how to think like adults? And besides, after mastering one super-tough book, everything afterwards would seem easy!

Deciding to take the CM plunge?

Go right in.  Head first.  And bring the children.


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  2. love this Anne, you really are a smashingly good writer!