Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Charlotte Mason is powerful (Part I)

by Anne White

Karen Glass, along with other CM and classical educators, has pointed out that our aim in studying the classical tradition is asking "why" rather than "how." What was the ultimate goal of a Charlotte Mason education?

We might list things like "not filling a bucket but lighting a fire"; educating the conscience to make well-reasoned choices (but not to depend wholly on reason); exercising magnanimity and other values such as honour and justice; understanding "I am, I can, I ought, I will"; using the "mind's eye" to recall what has been observed. If education is a science of relations, then to be educated means having proper relationships with the universe, the earth, people, and God. Education allows a generous space and time for minds to meet (also known as the "large room," or leisure). 

Andrew Kern of the Circe Institute wrote, "There is no education without leisure for the simple reason that education is a leisure activity. It requires all of the other values: controls, freedom, money, and honor. But its only true end is virtue for the simple reason that only virtue is big enough to rightly order the other goods. The wise man...is not driven by [his desires] as by an unruly mob. Instead he governs them." ("Leisure, Plato’s Republic, and American Education"). Lynn Bruce defined leisure as “ceasing from anxiety and merely utilitarian preoccupations so that one can contemplate higher things, those pursuits without which we cannot be fully human.”

One of the worst things C.S. Lewis had to say about the character Eustace Clarence Scrubb is that he "hadn't read the right books." It implied that Eustace, although stuffed full of utilitarian facts, was completely lacking in imagination and understanding. When Eustace was drawn into a Narnian adventure, he could only squawk about personal discomforts; when he was kidnapped by slave traders, they misheard his name as "Useless" and couldn't wait to be rid of him.

So we have our "why." We are looking for something "big enough" (Kern), "higher" (Bruce), wide, large, generous, and "beyond ourselves." To put it very shortly, we want children to be educated for virtue. And we don't want them to grow up useless.

We have our "what": "we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books."

How did Charlotte Mason's lessons integrate those two to make a "how?" The desire to teach with Mason's principles is admirable, but its application can be frustratingly vague. Some people using Mason's methods see quick and almost magical success, even (or particularly) with "difficult" students. Others of us have continued, years along, to wonder if we're doing it right, or if we're missing some crucial point, particularly after taking a student through a round of examinations and getting one-sentence responses, or, worse, "I don't remember that at all." 

The early teachers coming from the House of Education, and even the parents following PNEU programmes, expected better results (I use that word carefully), and, if we can judge by the printed examples, they got them. Although Charlotte Mason insisted that there was no education but self-education, and that each student had to perform his or her own act of learning, she also emphasized the need for working with, not against, human nature and the makeup of the mind. She believed that most children could "love to learn" if they were given the right mind-food in the right way. But what is the right way? Or at least, what is the way that Mason meant? 

To know what PNEU students were expected to learn...really learn and retain long-term...it's valuable to look at their examination questions, especially those in the subject areas most concerned with character. If students were expected to have certain stories in their memories, why those ones? How would the questions raised about them, and their responses, change their lives? How would this knowledge give them courage, honour, and a sense of something beyond themselves? This could very well be the highest power of living books.

I have taken a selection of Plutarch exam questions from Forms II through IV, leaving out the lowest and the highest grades (partly because they did not include the study of Plutarch's Lives).

From the youngest, pre-Plutarch group of Form II's (reading Mrs. Beesly's Stories of Rome):

"We will pardon Horatius  because he has done such great things." What great things had he done, and why was he pardoned?

Why did Fabius refuse to wear a laurel wreath and come home in triumph? Tell the whole story.

Write an account of the dictatorship of Cincinnatus.

The older Form II's who were beginning Plutarch:

How did Aemilius conduct the war against the Ligurians at the time of an eclipse of the moon?

Why did Cæsar honour and esteem Brutus ?

Give an account of the meeting of Brutus and Cassius at Sardis, or at Smyrna.

How did Caius Marcius win another term?

Why did Marcius go disguised to the house of Tullus?

How did Caesar inspire his soldiers with valour? Give two instances.

Describe the crossing of the Rhine by Caesar.

Why did Timoleon first save his brother's life and then consent to his death? Tell the whole story.

Give a short account of Timoleon's expedition against the Carthagenians.

From the Form III Plutarch examinations:

Describe the triumph of Æmilius after his victory over Perseus.

Give an account of the way in which Brutus and Cassius prepared for the battle of the Philippian Fields. How did Lucilius save the life of Brutus?

(a), "Veni, vidi, vici," (b), "To cross the Rubicon." What events in Julius Caesar's life gave rise to these popular sayings? Describe Caesar's great victory at Alesia.

Describe the conquest of Syracuse. How did Timoleon treat the city?

From the Form IV Plutarch exams:

How and why did Agis set about the reformation of the City of Sparta?

Compare and contrast the characters of Cassius and Brutus, giving illustrations.

How did Cassius comfort Brutus after the latter had seen a spirit?

 "He did excel all the young men of his time." Who was he? Show how he excelled, and describe the meeting with the Numantines.

Describe the progress of Æmilius through Greece.

Give the substance of the speech of Æmilius on the death of his two sons.

Describe the battle of the river of Crimesus, and show that "in the wars of Timoleon, besides equity and justice, there is also great ease and quietness."

What do we draw from the questions as a group? Many of them, like Bible or history questions, ask simply for a narrative. How did someone comfort another person, how did he reform something, how did he prepare for a battle or conduct a war, what happened when he crossed the river? But a narrative account often gives the students something to think about as well. Why might someone refuse special honour? Why did Timoleon not allow family ties to come before his civic duty? How did Caesar "inspire others with valour?" Should people who do great things be excused from minor offenses? 

Finally, there are questions that move beyond knowledge and comprehension into analysis (comparing and contrasting), synthesis, and evaluation (showing how someone excelled). The last question given in Form IV quotes from North's translation of the Life of Timoleon, and the passage goes on to say that one who studies Timoleon's victories "shall find...that they have not been fortune's doings simply, but that they came of a most noble and fortunate courage."

On a practical ("don't be useless") end, each Form had other Citizenship questions, drawing from other books such as Ourselves ("Everyday Morals") and civics materials.

Form II (both levels) answered questions such as these:
Why ought everyone to save (money)? How can it always be done?
Give a short account of the government of a town.
What is the work of the Home Office, the Colonial Office, the Foreign Office, a County Council?
Mention four of the great rules observed in English Courts of Justice. What is the work of the lawyers, of the jury and of the judge?
Draw the Union Jack and explain its meaning.
What do you understand by rates and taxes?
What is meant by being a good citizen?

Form III Citizenship questions:
"Truth is not violent." How does Botticelli portray this? What may we learn from this picture?
What do you know about the Government of Mansoul? How do Hunger and Thirst behave? Show that they may change in character.
What is our duty towards foreign countries?
"India is a continent and not a country." Explain this, and say what you know about the peoples and religions of India.
Show that we are all paid labourers. What do you understand by Integrity? In what various ways should integrity be shown?
Show that increase in price means decrease in demand. What are the dangers of Trade Unionists?

Form IV had more difficult questions:
Show fully by what courts and what judges Law is administered.
"He is a boy of good principles." What do you understand by principles?
Explain fully what is meant by the electorate. Show that the parliamentary vote is a right and a duty.
What have you to say about drifters and dawdlers, small thefts, bargains, borrowed property? Discuss "we are all born equal."
What are the powers and what the limitations of the House of Commons? What qualities should we look for in a Member?
"To think fairly requires knowledge and consideration." Illustrate by an example, and mention three subjects upon which the nation has to think fairly today.
What is to be said for and against military services as the duty of a citizen?
Write an essay on loyalty.

Looking at the body of questions, it's fairly obvious that "useful" citizens were to be not only aware of how the government worked, including the court system, basic economics, and the tax system, but they were to consider what would make up a good representative, what a citizen's responsibility was to the military, and  the difference between "drifters and dawdlers" and those who would get things done.

They were to be aware of current national issues, and to realize that solving these problems would require "knowledge and consideration." They were also to think globally, asking what their country's responsibility was to others. (An interesting question, considering it was being asked during the last years of the British Empire.)

Did history and Bible questions follow the same general pattern? Here is a selection of questions given for each Form.

Questions for Form II:

What question did St. John (in prison) send messengers to ask our Lord, and what answer did he get? Tell the whole story.
 (a), "What lack I yet?" (b), "Lo, we have left all." What answers did our Lord give to (a), the young ruler, (b), St. Peter, and what lessons may we learn?
Tell the story of the Battle of Beth-horon. Explain, as far as you can, "Sun, stand thou still."
What was the parable of the Marriage of the King's Son? What was its lesson (a), for the Jews, (b), for us?

What do you know of Sir Robert Peel, Lord Shaftesbury, John Bright, Wilberforce?
What great discoveries have been made in the 19th Century? Describe one of them.
"Therefore I am making you love literature as your mother," said a Scribe. Give some account of these Egyptian Scribes.
How did St. Swithin educate King Alfred? What did Alfred do for England besides fight her battles?
Describe the signing of Magna Charta, and mention some of the great things it secures for Englishmen.
What do you know of the education of St. Louis? Describe his character.

Observations: Again for Form II, the students are asked for description and narratives: great discoveries, the text of a parable, the story of a battle.  There are civics questions (what was the significance of the Magna Charta?), and questions of personal contribution: what King Alfred did for England, the achievements of people like St. Louis, William Wilberforce (evangelical reformer and abolitionist) and John Bright (founder of the Anti-Corn Law League), even the potential impact of ancient Egyptian literature-lovers (with a quote from Albert Malet's The Ancient World). There are considerations of faith: what does it mean to leave all? What would it mean to answer God's call to the marriage feast? What did Jesus' answer to John mean? Do we want to be like those who responded to a need, or like the young ruler and those who missed out on the banquet?

Questions for Form III:

What do you know of the prophet Malachi and the shortcomings of the priests?
What remarks have you to make about "certain of the synagogue"? What do you know of the synagogue of Cyrene, of Alexandria and of Silicia?
"As long as he liveth he shall be lent to the Lord." Describe the occasion when these words were used, and quote from Hannah's thanksgiving.
"He loved him as he loved his own soul." Give an account of this friendship.
"Suffer me to speak unto the people." Write what you can of St. Paul's address on this occasion.

 What do you know of (a), the foreign policy of King Edward VII (b), the Union of South Africa?
Write a short account of Polar exploration. What do you know of the most recent expedition?
What do you know of the Fourth Crusade to Jerusalem?
Give an account of the war with Flanders in 1298. What was the end of it? What do "Flanders Poppies" stand for?
 What reminders have we in the British Museum of Nabopolassar and of Darius?
What do you know about the Vedas and their writers?

Observations: The questions for Form III are a little more open-ended, a little more "What do you know of...," implying that they could be answered in greater depth. There is personal inspiration to honour, bravery, and friendship: the love of Jonathan for David; Paul's speech in Jerusalem (Acts 22); the exploration of far corners of the earth; the faith of Hannah and of the prophet Malachi (compared to the priests, who were "lighting useless fires"), not to mention Stephen (from the question "certain of the synagogue"). There are questions stretching to more global awareness: the Vedas, Chaldean history, British foreign policy, South African issues.
One point I notice (relating to the Stephen question) is that often there is a key phrase that the students are expected to recognize. I am familiar with the chapter of Acts concerning Stephen, but I did not immediately connect those four words with that story. I agree that in some cases, students should be able to connect a phrase or line with a character or story; I'm not sure how important it is in a case like this.

Questions for Form IV:

Write a short account of the period between the Old and New Testaments.
What Messianic prophecies have we in Malachi and Daniel? What do you know of the prophets Obadiah and Joel?
Write an essay on, --"If any thirst, come unto Me and drink."
Why did Jeroboam set up two calves of gold? Describe the denunciation that followed at Bethel.
Comment on (a), "Before Abraham was I am," (b), "Did this man sin?" (c), "What is truth?"

What was the Royal Proclamation of 1858? In what ways has England made this proclamation good? What do you know of recent events in this connection?
Give some account of German world policy.
Describe the condition of Germany when Charles V. became Emperor.
Give a sketch of Luther's career and of the Diet at Worms.
Show that "the Nile is a vast historical volume."
Name a dozen famous men of the days of "Great Elizabeth." Give an account of three of them.

Observations: In Form IV, again we have the accounts of "famous men," but there is even more choice allowed: name a dozen, give details of three. Again there is more focus on the larger world: German history and politics, the Government of India Act (a.k.a the Royal Proclamation), Egyptian history, the "intertestamental period" of Jewish history. There are deeper reflections on the sayings of Christ, and the story of "the king who made Israel to sin." 

In all this long list of questions (and these are just samples), have you seen opportunities to light fires? To educate the conscience? To show magnanimity? To say "I ought...I will?" 

Is there space here for minds to meet? 

Is there preparation for adventure?

I think there is.

(Part II will examine the "why" of PNEU lesson plans.)


  1. This is very good, especially the last questions. Thank you!