Thursday, October 22, 2015

I Dare You (Charlotte Mason is powerful, Part IV)

by Anne White

Part I is here
Part II is here
Part III is here
"'You got to be kidding,' he said...'You want both sides of the paper for homework?' His voice cracked in disbelief midway through the question...Marva said, 'When your mother gives you dinner, do you want only half a chop?'" (Marva Collins' Way)
Charlotte Mason used the word "stultifies" to describe the well-meant attempt to bring the world down to a child's level, to make everything easy, controlled, regular, and predictable. She said that by doing this, we underestimate, degrade, even steal from the children in our care.
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." (Head First?, posted here in 2013)
This statement flies in the face of all we know, all we have been told over the past century-plus about learning and teaching. Particularly all we were ever told by the Herbartians. The cloud of classical witnesses, on the other hand, may be looking on knowingly.

We can't expect students to learn everything about everything, or even something about everything. But they can learn the things that matter about things that matter. This does not mean we allow them to overspecialize, or to go as far as Sherlock Holmes in selectivity:
His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it." (A Study in Scarlet)
And the way, it seems, to let them learn the things that matter, is to allow them to balk and struggle a bit, as (for instance) many of our children did at first when studying Plutarch's Lives, or Charles Kingsley's books, or Parables from Nature. We give them something tough--not completely unchewable or unpalatable, but more solid than they are used to--and we bring them into the ages-old circle of listeners; we make them part of the "membership." Those who are allowed only to approach by baby steps, it seems, are the ones who will find themselves locked out, powerless.* How will they "increase their power of observation" if nothing demands to be looked at? How can they learn to reason without hearing reason? How can they develop what Martha Nussbaum calls "daring imagination" if they are never given that dare?

Our desire is not to abuse children (as someone said, "suffer, little children"). Nobody wants to see their child in tears over a book (although several, reportedly, have wept over the Battle of Hastings). But as serious sports coaches know that there will be no success without tough training, we count it as abuse of adult power if we do not allow them the chance to join the conversation.
"'I am not going to give up on you. I am not going to let you give up on yourself. If you sit there leaning against this wall all day, you are going to end up leaning on something or someone all your life. And all that brilliance bottled up inside you will go to waste...' Marva's highest aim as a teacher was to endow her students with the will to learn for themselves." (Marva Collins' Way)

* (Those studying Charlotte Mason's volumes may want to look at her story of the Grenfell twins in the Supplementary section of Philosophy of Education.)

1 comment:

  1. It makes me smile every time I hear you say/see you wrote "the membership," Anne, as I am reading Wendell Berry at the moment myself. It is such an apt description. I have greatly enjoyed this series and look forward to coming back to chew on it more in future.