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AO An Oyster and a Jewel

Ambleside Online
An Oyster and a Jewel

Johann Herbart and Charlotte Mason

~ A Study of Charlotte Mason's Principle #10 ~

By Lynn Bruce

Principle 10:
"Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle,
lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing
morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle
are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the
teacher's axiom is, "what a child learns matters less than how he
learns it."

Part I

The glimmer of a white satin gown is most pronounced when arranged against a dark background. Stars and lightning make no impression in daylight, but against the black velvet of night they rivet our gaze toward heaven and take our breath away. Artists, lacking an English word to capture this artistic concept of the play of light against dark, long ago borrowed the Italian "chiaroscuro" (pronounced KEY-aura-SKU-ro, with a slight trill on the r's).

Charlotte Mason, who loved both art and languages, was most likely familiar with the concept of chiaroscuro, and I believe it often shows in the way she presents her "light" to us. She creates on her canvas a sort of philosophical chiaroscuro, first laying out the dark parts so we may fully apprehend the light.

Herbartianism provides the dark underlayment for the picture Charlotte begins to paint in principle 10, upon which she layers the light of principles 11 and 12. This trio of principles flows from one into the next like streams gathering into a river--Charlotte even punctuated them seamlessly. They convey individual ideas which coalesce to inform a larger idea, as we shall see over the next three weeks--but it all pivots on an understanding of Herbartian doctrine. So in this Part One of our study, we will simply meet the mind of Herbart, to get us on track with Charlotte's train of thought. Then in Part Two, we will explore Charlotte's response to Herbart, and in Part Three we'll consider some ways in which Herbartian doctrine affects us--you and me--even today.

At first glance, it seems curious that Charlotte would sully the wording of her own defining principles with the negative mention of an antithetical philosophy, but on further consideration, she proves wise in her decision to do so. Herbartianism was well on its way toward becoming the "name brand" educational method in her day--she states in Volume 3 that Herbartian thought was the most advanced educational philosophy on the European continent, and in Volume 6 she writes, "in most schools, in England and elsewhere, so far as any intelligent rationale is followed it is that of Herbart." Hence, whenever Charlotte expressed concepts that sounded germane to anything associated with Herbartianism, she was at great risk of being stamped with his brand.

And, to Charlotte's contemporaries, some of her phraseology most likely did sound derivative of Herbart. One could say that Mason and Herbart often used the same vocabulary, but not the same dictionary--which made it all the more pressing that she explain their fundamental differences somewhere in her defining set of principles. For example, they each wrote at length about the soul, but their conceptions differ so radically that one must stretch beyond common sense to mentally reckon that they are both defining the same word. As we shall see, one describes an oyster, the other, a jewel. Same vocabulary, different dictionaries.

You may be wondering about now whether to keep reading... why should you need to know anything about Herbartian doctrine here in the 21st century? How is it going to affect your life today?

The ghosts of Herbartian ideas still roam unnoticed in many schoolrooms--public, private and home. Maybe even yours and mine. I came upon two of these idea apparitions just yesterday, in conversation with a mother and a teacher.

"When my son was in high school, he was completely apathetic about his school work and we were not happy with his grades--C's and D's. But, his teachers all told me not to worry, because he was well-behaved, "a good boy," and never gave them a moment of trouble. That, to them, was the goal!" (The rest of the story is that Mom quit her job, volunteered daily at the school, and the son's grades rose to A's and B's in a matter of weeks, but that's another topic entirely!)

Then, while visiting with a teacher, I mentioned that I had been studying Herbart's "empty sac" rationale for reforming teaching methods. She asked me to explain, and as I related things you'll be reading below, she slumped in weary recognition. "We're still teaching this way! I just didn't know why." She added that her husband, also a teacher, was recently told by his superiors not to worry so much about whether the students learned the subject matter--"Just hold their attention and keep them happy."

"Because 'what a child learns matters less than how he learns it,'" I quoted.

"Now I get it," she said.

Ah, yes--the ghosts of Herbart's ideas are yet a-roaming. Please do read on...

Part II

Now that we've met the mind of Herbart in Part 1 of this study, we are left with The Big Question: Exactly what did Charlotte find so objectionable in Herbartianism?

"All our complex notions of intellect, will, feeling and so on, disappear. The soul is thrown open to ideas--a fair field and no favour; and ideas, each of them a living entity... crowd and jostle one another for admission, and for the best places, and for the most important and valuable coalitions, once they have entered. They lie below the 'threshold' watching a chance to slip in. They hurry to join their friends and allies upon admission, they 'vault' and they 'taper,' they form themselves into powerful 'apperception masses' which occupy a more or less permanent place in the soul; and the soul-what does it do? It is not evident otherwise than as it affords a stage for this drama of ideas; and the self, the soul or the person, however we choose to call him, is an effect and not a cause, a result, and not an original fact." (Mason, Volume 3, p. 59)

One thing is clear: Herbart's philosophies fueled Charlotte's determination to show us a more excellent way. The old fellow--already dead half a century when she started Ambleside--really raised Charlotte's hackles. Why?

I have a suspicion, based purely on bits and pieces patched together here and there, that the first 'Herbartianized' generation was being degraded spiritually and intellectually before her eyes; that she was witness to a worrisome wave of "dumbing down"among her young countrymen. But I venture to speculate that the fundamental grievance that fueled her objections to Herbart is this:

He dared to trivialize the sacred.

Charlotte believed in "The Sacredness of Personality" (for which my own definition is the gift of distinctive individual character, the essence or spirit of a person as being uniquely and divinely created). She protests that Herbart's philosophy, in the end, eliminates personality--a sacred gift--and that this leads to "curious futilities in teaching."

She believed that the ability to make intellectual connections was an inborn gift--something that "must emanate from the soul, or person, himself," and that if ideas are presented to the person in a pre-digested, pre-connected form, "this tempting unity may result in the collection of a mass of heterogeneous and unassimilated information."

Which raises a chilling spectre... if we eliminate personality, and feed everyone the same set of predigested facts, what do we get? Intellectual clones. No original thinkers. Charlotte muses that Herbartianism, taken to its logical end, would turn out duplicates:

"Again, given two souls supplied with precisely the same ideas, in precisely the same order, and with no other ideas whatsoever, and we get duplicates of the same person, a possibility which would demolish once and forever that great conception, the solidarity of the race. [My note: please read Volume 2, page 264 for an explanation of this concept.] Once more, what does the Herbartian theory of man minister to our interest in personality, our sense of the sacredness of the person... The man appears to be no more than a sort of vessel of transport to carry ideas into their proper sphere of action."

Here Charlotte takes a purposeful rabbit trail to ponder the grand purpose of education. She asks us The Big Question at the bottom of it all: what are we educating man toward? To be civilized? To prepare the pupil, as she writes in this passage, "for the world which is customarily in league with worldlings" so that he will become a "truly useful member of human society"?

My, my--give Charlotte a laptop and she could jump right into our discussions of Christianity and cultural relevancy, could she not?

Remember Goals 2000 and outcome-based education? These recent educational manifestos, which still bear tremendous influence over modern educational reforms, had as their stated goal the development of a compliant workforce for a global economy (in fact this bill originated in the Department of Labor, not the Department of Education!). The goal of education, in such a scheme, becomes, just like Charlotte phrased it, preparing the pupil "for the world which is customarily in league with worldlings"--!

Like us, Charlotte fretted that if we follow such an aim "Of course we should always be harassed with the secret doubt as to whether this is ideal purpose after all, and whether we are not at times directly enjoined to place the pupil at variance with the usage and customary dealings of the world."

Or, to phrase it another way... in the world, but not of the world, perhaps? Yes, Charlotte, one hundred years later, we are yet harassed with these doubts! Which is precisely why many of us in the present era are turning back to explore these principles. What a small, circular world!

Still seeking to pinpoint the overall purpose of education, she then scourges educators whose overall aim is for the pupil to gain independence, or become self-taught, or be better than his teachers:

"Such and similar attempts to fix the purpose of not say... of what kind the independence shall be, what content it shall have, what aims it shall have in view, or in what directions its course shall lie. For the pupil that has become independent can use his freedom rightly for good just as well as misuse it for evil."

By contrast, she concedes that Herbart's overall aim is, at least, primarily ethical and secondarily intellectual, stressing character building as the matter of first importance to human beings--a point with which she agrees. She notes that when we train character, "intellectual 'development' largely takes care of itself" and that "the lessons designed for intellectual culture have high ethical value, whether stimulating or disciplinary."

Charlotte gives us a glimpse of the answer we will arrive at when we come to Principles 11 and 12:

"If we reflect that an endless career is open to man for his improvement, we realise that only that education whose aims are always the highest can hope to reach the lofty goals that mark this career."

And then she hands us the key to what the PNEU had found--and Herbart had missed:

"We hold with him entirely as to the importance of great formative ideas in the education of children, but we add to our ideas, habits, and we labour to form habits upon a physical basis. Character is the result not merely of the great ideas which are given to us, but of the habits which we labour to form upon those ideas."

Ah, yes... back to habit! And what is habit but the responsibility of the individual to bring his personality to bear upon that which he has learned--through the force of his individual will? Having knowledge is not all that is required of us. I hear James saying, "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only." Take away personality, and what do you have? A once-empty sac, now filled with masses of random, predigested information, with no personality force to bring that knowledge to action.

But these are all philosophical objections. Charlotte's difficulties with Herbartianism extended beyond the philosophical, and into the practical--the everyday lives of children and teachers--because she knew a timeless truth: Ideas have consequences. Philosophies unavoidably find expression in methods and systems. If the philosophy violates truth, the methods it produces will ultimately prove false as well. Here we come to Charlotte's rather tongue-in-cheek analysis of Herbartianism in practice:

"A fascinating vista is open before us; education has all things made plain and easy for her use; she has nothing to do but to select her ideas and turn out a man to her mind. Here is a tempting scheme of unity and continuity! One might occupy all the classes in a school for a whole month upon all the ideas that combine in one 'apperception mass' with the idea 'book.' We might have object-lessons on the colours, shapes, and sizes of books; more advanced object-lessons on paper-making and book-binding; practical lessons in book-sewing and book-binding; lessons, according to the class, on the contents of books, from A B C and little Bo-Peep to philosophy and poetry. A month! why, a whole school education might be arranged in groups of ideas which should combine into one vast 'apperception mass,' all clustering about 'book.' The sort of thing was done publicly some time ago, in London, apple being the idea round which the 'apperception mass' gathered.

Charlotte describes this lesson scheme in some detail in Volume 2, pages 255-6, then comments:

"Everybody said, 'How pretty, how ingenious, what a good idea!' and went away with the notion that here, at last, was education. But we ask 'What was the informing idea?' The external shape, the internal contents of an apple,--matters with which the children were already exceedingly well acquainted. What mental habitudes were gained by this week's work? They certainly learned to look at the apple, but think how many things they might have got familiar acquaintance with in the time. Probably the children were not consciously bored because the impulse of the teachers' enthusiasm carried them on... This 'apple' course is most instructive to us as emphasising the tendency in the human mind to accept and rejoice in any neat system which will produce immediate results, rather than to bring every such little course to the test of whether it does or does not further either or both of our great educational principles."

In Volume 6, pages 115-16 Charlotte offers a more detailed example of a Herbartian "concentration scheme" on Robinson Crusoe that spanned a whole year.

"The whole thing must be highly amusing to the teacher, as ingenious amplifications self-produced always are: that the children too were entertained, one does not doubt. The teacher was probably at her best in getting by sheer force much out of little: she was, in fact, acting a part and the children were entertained as at a show, cinema or other; but of one thing we may be sure, an utter distaste, a loathing, on the part of the children ever after, not only for 'Robinson Crusoe' but for every one of the subjects lugged in to illustrate his adventures."

Remember the "the teacher's axiom" from this Principle? "What a child learns matters less than how he learns it." Why? Because lifelong interest is the Herbartian goal, taking precedence over what he learns, and thus he must learn in a way that creates interest. However, while students in this scheme may have received the makings of a mighty big apperception mass on Robinson Crusoe, presented in the perfect Herbartian manner and order, and while they may have even paid keen attention to the teacher's thoughtful presentations... it appears questionable whether the teachers truly created the vital personal interest that Herbart sought.

Charlotte, of course, did think it matters what the pupils learn:

"Here is one composition [from the scheme described above],--Robinson spent his first night in a tree. In the morning he was hungry but he saw nothing round him but grass and trees without fruit. On the sea-shore he found some shell-fish which he ate." Compare this with the voluminous output of children of six or seven working on the P.U.S. scheme upon any subject that they know; with, indeed, the pages they will dictate after a single reading of a chapter of Robinson Crusoe, not a 'child's edition.'"

Clearly, Charlotte felt that delivering predigested lessons with external flash and drama, a la Herbart, is not only unnecessary but stunting. She had witnessed that children truly learn when they get at the books themselves, when their minds are allowed the potent spark of communing with great authors' minds. Narration is proof--it not only teaches a child to analyze, organize, compose and express great thoughts in the buoyant wake of literary masters, but also reveals how a child makes his own connections, and how forcefully and directly his personality interacts with ideas, particularly those, as Charlotte said, "clothed in literary language."

But in order to teach a child this way, we must be willing to roll out the red carpet, so to speak, and then step aside. Give them the best books, and get out of the way. We must decrease, that they might increase. We must be servants, not masters, to their brains and spirits. This requires a certain restraint... wisdom... humility... and trust in the wiring that God gave them.

This should be easier on the teacher, but mustering such virtues can be hard. We've all failed (but we are learning!). We look at these Herbartian lesson schemes through Charlotte's magnifying glass, and we squirm, because somewhere in the glass, we inevitably see our own reflection. We are all products of schoolrooms haunted by Herbart's ghost. Studies prove that we tend to teach the way we were taught. We may as well all come clean: who has not attempted to predigest, pre-collect, pre-connect lessons for our children? Let's admit it--it's tempting! We are all pressed for time, and it speeds things up--or so it seems at the moment.

We are forced to admit that we like to feel that we've done something for which we can take credit... that the tidy coordination of a fully inked-in lesson planner is satisfying to our teacherly egos. That holding forth on Everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-apples makes us feel effective and necessary and adequate and clever. Ouch.

But a clever teacher does not necessarily produce a clever student. A novice pianist rarely relishes practicing a piece before a master. He would prefer to just listen to the master play it... but he will remain a novice unless the master steps away from the keyboard and allows him direct contact, connecting the mind of the composer to his own, and narrating it back through the ivories before him. And thus it is with all teaching--we must step away, let children make direct contact with knowledge, and form their own connections. Our purpose is to develop their cleverness, not our own!

"Herbart's psychology is extraordinarily gratifying and attractive to teachers who are, like other people, eager to magnify their office; and here is a scheme which shows how every child is a new creation as he comes forth from the hands of his teacher. The teacher... has but to draw together a mass of those ideas which themselves will combine in the mind into which they effect an entrance, and, behold, the thing is done: the teacher has done it; he has selected the ideas, shewn the correlation of each with the other and the work is complete! The ideas establish themselves, the most potent rule and gather force, and if these be good, the man is made." (Mason, Volume 6, p. 114)

"All responsibility is shifted, and the relief is very great. Not only so but lessons are delightful to watch and to hear; the success of jig-saw puzzles illustrates a tendency in human nature to delight in the ingenious putting together of unlikely things, as for example, a lifebuoy and Robinson Crusoe. There is a series of small triumphs to be observed any day of the week, and these same triumphs are brought about by dramatic display,--so ingenious, pleasing, fascinating, are the ways in which the teacher chooses to arrive at her point.... What of the children themselves? They, too, are amused and entertained, they enjoy the puzzle-element and greatly enjoy the teacher who lays herself out to attract them. There is no flaw in the practical working of the method while it is being carried out. Later, it gives rise to dismay and anxiety among thoughtful people." (Mason, Volume 6, p. 118)

Early in our homeschooling journey, when my girls were very small, I used a thematic curriculum. We had a ball with it, honestly. I studied the teacher's manual, prepared the little presentations, laid out all the lessons before them--rife with ready-made connections--and the girls found it all highly amusing. They loved having school, and couldn't wait for the next unit to begin, so naturally (being a beginning homeschooler) I felt it was a great success. Later, as Charlotte warns here, the result did indeed "give rise to dismay and anxiety." Only a couple of years later, I found they recalled almost nothing from the two years we had used that curriculum, except that they had fun.

Mothers learn in time that a child's enthusiasm can't be trusted to point us to the sorts of things that are in his best interest. That's why children have parents--to teach them how to say "no" to all of life's various candy dishes. Part of being a fallen creature is our self-indulgent preference for the path of least resistance--we like to take it easy and be amused!

"That children like feeble and tedious oral lessons, feeble and tedious story books, does not at all prove that these are wholesome food; they like lollipops but cannot live upon them; yet there is a serious attempt in certain schools to supply the intellectual, moral, and religious needs of children by appropriate 'sweetmeats.'

As I have said elsewhere, the ideas required for the sustenance of children are to be found mainly in books of literary quality; given these the mind does for itself the sorting, arranging, selecting, rejecting, classifying, which Herbart leaves to the struggle of the promiscuous ideas which manage to cross the threshold." (Mason, Volume 6, p. 117)

[Note: The word promiscuous, in earlier eras, primarily defined things that were randomly massed together without order. It did not become primarily a sexual concept until well after the turn of the century.]

In the next two weeks, we'll study principles that will add yet more light to this canvas, as the next two principles further express Charlotte's antidote to Herbartian doctrine. A sneak preview:

"In urging a method of self-education for children in lieu of the vicarious education which prevails, I should like to dwell on the enormous relief to teachers, a self-sacrificing and greatly overburdened class; the difference is just that between driving a horse that is light and a horse that is heavy in hand; the former covers the ground of his own gay will and the driver goes merrily. The teacher who allows his scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere instrument of forcible intellectual feeding." (Vol. 6, ch. 1, p. 32)

1 [The Oxford Universal Dictionary]

Part III

How does this principle affect us today?

Consider particularly this central phrase of the principle:

"Children taught on this principle [e.g. the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered] are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge."

As I ponder the implications of this principle, it comes to mind that almost every child today has a particular teacher who puts him in this exact sort of danger daily, and more insidiously than Charlotte could have ever imagined... television. In many respects, television is an electronic equivalent of the theatrical Herbartian teacher she denounced. Never has a teacher more skillfully prepared "enticing morsels duly ordered," nor used more premeditated tactics for holding and manipulating interest. And as for much teaching with little knowledge... this teacher goes round the clock and rarely offers a worthy morsel.

I have a rather daring proposition for us to consider. I propose it's possible that many of the same unsavory effects that Charlotte attributed to Herbartian-type teaching methods can now be observed in children whose childhoods are frittered away on the receiving end of the television tube.

Sesame Street--the venerated forerunner of all modern youth programming--is a prime example for us to consider. Little chunks and bits and flashes of information fly at us, much of it centered around a daily or weekly theme. Legendary for its ability to hold toddlers and preschoolers spellbound, this program even forces adults to admit the difficulty of averting their attention from it. And with good reason: the producers have spent millions on research to help hone their tools for manipulation of attention to near-perfection. Herbart would be gratified, and very impressed.

During the time that my first child was a toddler (over a decade ago), Sesame Street went back into episode production for the first time in many years, and revamped their format. The producers must have gotten some fresh research, because the new segments were noticeably more aggressive--jumpier, flashier, louder, and even more fragmented. Most of the older segments typically had been well over a minute or two long, but the new segments were shortened to around twenty to thirty seconds, to better suit children's waning attention spans--which had likely been diminished by watching Sesame Street in the first place.

Television producers have taken the Herbartian goal of interest and run amok with it, even employing the element of danger as a means to hold children's interest at all costs:

"Studies sponsored by advertisers have suggested the best way to get viewers to pay attention to their messages is to capitalize on the brain's instinctive responses to danger. First, sudden close-ups, pans, and zooms are effective in alerting the brain because they violate its reflex need to maintain a predictable "personal space"--a certain distance between oneself and others. Second, "salient" features such as bright colors, quick movements, or sudden noises get attention fast, since brains are programmed to be extremely sensitive to such changes that might signal danger."

This quote comes from an eye-opening book, Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It, by Jane M. Healy, PhD. The author relates that the original designers of Sesame Street conducted pilot studies to determine how to use such "salient" effects to keep children glued to watching their program--"whether they wanted to or not."

Healy states that "these carefully planned manipulations separate the natural responses of brain and body; although the viewer's attention is alerted, there is no need for physical action. The brain registers real danger. Yet the impulse has no outlet."

Over time, a brain thus besieged becomes conditioned to complacency--meaning it fundamentally alters itself in order to survive such taxing stimuli. Studies confirm that children who watch television are significantly less aroused by what they see than children who do not. In turn, they do not respond normally to human reality. In her book _The Plug-In Drug_, Marie Winn reports, "A disturbing possibility exists that the television experience has not merely blurred the distinctions between the real and the unreal for steady viewers, but that by doing so it has dulled their sensitivities to real events. For when the reality of a situation is diminished, people are able to react to it less emotionally, more as spectators."

A child thus conditioned learns not to form connections. Please read that again. His overdeveloped defense mechanisms have conditioned him to disconnect from engagement, and he becomes an apathetic observer. In Herbartian terms, I further suspect that television programs so insistently and persistently make connections for him--and largely fictional ones at that--that he becomes too passive and superficial to make many real connections to real life. To make matters worse, his attention span has been strobed around for so long that he now lacks the vigilance he would need to change.

Healy's book ventures to show that television and society are actually altering the physical properties of children's brains, thus changing the way they function--and producing people who are profoundly different from all generations prior. Charlotte Mason was quite keen on the physiological discovery that brains are physically altered by their activity and habits, and she zealously sought to apply that knowledge to the common good. She would be pleased to learn that modern research continues to illuminate this discovery. But she would be seriously displeased that such knowledge is now used, with financial motives, to render children's minds abnormal.

Have you ever greeted a teenager who looked right back at you, but failed to respond? I did a little experiment at a summer camp recently. When I passed a teenager, I smiled and said hello. In return, I got too many uncannily similar brief, vacant stares. Whatever became of the will to respond, to connect? I wondered, were they so conditioned to ignoring input that they felt no compulsion to do anything but... watch?

Curious and concerned, I became bold... I began repeating my greeting to offenders. Then I would stand there, grinning expectantly, until they realized the 'show' was 'on pause,' so to speak. Sometimes I would then make a joke of it--"Okay, see... when I speak to you, then... you speak to me! That's how it's done! Pop quiz next time I see you!" Usually they would mumble something that approached English, and maybe flash a half-smile while reflexively glancing around (perhaps for the remote, to turn me off?). But I still got the eerie feeling that I was not fully perceived as reality, as a person with whom they could form any real social connection.

Now, I know that all generations since the dawn of mankind have groaned about teenagers. And they are not all vacant and catatonic, thank goodness. But in all honesty, I do not recall teenagers of my generation, nor those before me, to have been quite so passive and lacking in... well, distinct personality.

Conditioned to receiving a predigested reality, some of these young people seem to lack experience with the effort of making connections, and with mustering genuine, distinctly individual responses. And what is the result? Just what Charlotte predicted: the elimination of personality.

I become chary of a certain homogenous quality I sense in many youths I observe. It's manifest most conspicuously in their conversation. Who hasn't eavesdropped on a gaggle of teenage girls and thought that their aimless, fragmented chatter all sounded, like, you know, whatever--exactly the same? What is lacking here? (--besides vocabulary?) I'd venture that it's a personal ease with ideas, a strong sense of individuality--in short, the sacredness of personality. And what did Charlotte predict? That presenting children with ready-made, common knowledge, coupled with the elimination of personality, would create duplicates.

Of course, it's not all about television.

It's debatable whether Herbartianism in the classroom created a new generation that television programmers could more easily manipulate, or whether television addiction has so altered the brain function of screen junkies that they can now be taught no other way. Perhaps it's a symbiotic relationship betwixt the two. But it's not debatable that Herbartian methods are still a powerful force in the field of education. There are many evidences of this, the most obvious being the continuing popularity of unit studies.

Is it possible to teach thematically within Charlotte Mason's principles? Can we use unit studies without making connections for the child?--without coming between the child and ideas? This is perhaps a daring and uncomfortable question to field amongst educators today, but we of all people should value the liberty to question, ponder, analyze and learn. Let's be brave and face the question factually, not defensively. The hope is always that a sound answer, whether it brings validation or reproof, will inspire improvements to our teaching methods.

The true measure of whether we use the Charlotte Mason method is not whether we use real books of the highest literary quality, employ copywork and narration, and keep nature notebooks. These are the most commonly recognized identifiers of a Charlotte Mason education, but they are neither original with nor exclusive to her method. Further, these can be--and often are--pursued in a manner that falls completely outside the scope of the twenty principles that define her method. The only workable definition of a Charlotte Mason education, the one Charlotte herself would recognize, is an education that pursues the practical application of her twenty principles.

Obviously, unit studies can be blended with the use of real books, copywork, narration and so on. But now we see the real question: can unit studies be used in accordance with Charlotte's twenty principles?

There is a sense in which Charlotte taught along themes. Her PNEU programmes reveal that she would often choose literature and science books that corresponded to the historical era being studied in the core history book. But we find a theme there only as it runs through the child's books. Yes, some of the books shared connections, but the child got at those connections on his own.

Still, Charlotte was clearly not a handmaiden to theme. In any given term, there were books that bore no connection to the rest. And she spoke specifically against the artificial contrivances that force the chosen theme into unlikely subject areas. She objected to connections made in unit studies which required unnatural stretches of reasoning. Charlotte found this sort of exaggeration intellectually tedious, and insulting to the child.

"Another point, the co-ordination of studies is carefully regulated without any reference to the clash of ideas on the threshold or their combination into apperception masses; but solely with reference to the natural and inevitable co-ordination of certain subjects. Thus, in readings on the period of the Armada, we should not devote the contemporary arithmetic lessons to calculations as to the amount of food necessary to sustain the Spanish fleet, because this is an arbitrary and not an inherent connection; but we should read such history, travels, and literature as would make the Spanish Armada live in the mind." (Volume 3, page 231)

In closing, all of this brings me to reflect critically on my own university education. I was in the first wave of teachers trained to implement outcome-based education. I was apparently also indoctrinated with Herbartianism, though I didn't know the name for it until I read the CM series many years later.

I graduated summa cum laude from a large state university, with a degree in elementary and all-level special education--but I had no clue how to teach a child to read. However, I did know how to "assimilate" things in a lesson so the child's mind could "accommodate" them later. In plain language, this means the teacher must predigest information into related bits so the child's mind can find a place for it (an apperception mass, perhaps?). How I taught them mattered more than what I taught them, see.

We were taught that the key to success in any lesson is to properly prepare the children with a common "background of experience." We received in-depth training in arranging all studies around a theme. A required objective for any unit study we created was to show the relationships among the various elements of the lesson--otherwise, we were instructed, the students would not get it, and the lesson would be wasted. And we were taught lots of little games to keep the children busy and interested.

I now see the fingerprints of Herbart all over my diploma.

For Social Studies, we learned how to "bring a class to consensus" so they would all arrive at the same conclusions about social issues--mark one up for the elimination of personality. And I learned how to teach "values clarification," which meant clarifying that other's values are equally as valid as your own, regardless of what those values might be--which would be true, I suppose, in a world of "oysters" that had arisen by chance from primordial ooze.

But the main thing we were taught--over and over--was to prepare students for life in a global community by teaching them how to "tolerate ambiguity." This means accepting that truth is relative, and thus we must learn to tolerate the amorphous nature of a world where nothing can be defined as right or wrong... everything is just information to be apperceived.

When I walked into my first classroom (an elementary special ed resource room for students with learning disabilities) my only tools from college were stashed in a very small box: a set of Cuisinaire math rods, some handouts of classroom games, and a bulging file of thematic unit studies--which now seemed artificial to me as I looked in the faces of real, live children. Feeling lost at sea and grasping for something real and familiar, I implemented story time. Poking around the school's closets, I found a creaky old rocking chair and a fuzzy green rug, which I surrounded on two sides with sturdy bookcases. Voila'! A cozy corner by the windows magically appeared--a homey, bookish spot where schoolish tensions seemed to melt away. It was there that I spent the only truly productive hours of my short classroom career.

I rocked and read books while my desk-weary charges sprawled on the rug, staring at the ever-morphing clouds outside the big wall of windows and listening intently. Later, they would take turns telling the stories back to me (which proved a strengthening struggle for them all). Most of them were as yet incapable of reading such books for themselves, and their souls were starved for stories.

The Velveteen Rabbit was a much-requested favorite, which always struck me as poignant, coming from special ed children who could truly relate to a shabby stuffed rabbit pushed aside in favor of flawless toys. And I'll never forget Sarah, a second grader hopelessly consumed with cancer, and the transported look on her face as she thought about the redemption and restoration of a rabbit whose fur had all been rubbed away... while stroking her own little bald head.

It was a living idea, an eternal idea even, to which that little jewel of a soul could form her own connection.

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Copyright 2002-2009 Lynn Bruce, Dallas, TX; mumsadah at gmail dot com
All rights reserved; used by permission