Sunday, January 27, 2013

There they are, those desires: Philosophy of Education, Chapter Three (Part Two)

I mentioned in the last of these posts that this part of Charlotte Mason's final volume (Towards a Philosophy of Education) corresponds closely to the "House of Mind" section in her earlier book Ourselves (Volume Four). Ourselves is the amplified, expanded story; the chapter of Volume Six that we're looking at right now is the shorthand version. The overall plan of the chapter is to compare the needs of body, then mind, then heart, then soul; we are now in the second half of the "mind" section, where Charlotte stops picking on the shortcomings of schools and teachers, and discusses the learner's end of things.  Although, in the end, teachers and parents have a lot to do with that as well.

In Ourselves, the "House of Mind" section begins by introducing "My Lord Intellect."  If education is a passport to the lands beyond our own kingdom, then Intellect is the travel agent and guide. On some journeys (such as to the realm of History) he is accompanied by "my Lord Imagination, Chief Explorer"; on others (such as Mathematics), by "My Lord Attorney-General Reason."

What are the initial threats to our relationship with Intellect? First, inertia that will not let us begin something (because it looks like too much work); second, too much habit and too much specialisation, turning us into what the Victorians called "cranks" about an idea or a favourite topic. (See Book One, Chapter Three in Ourselves.) "It is a mistake, perhaps, to think that, to do one thing well, we must just do and think about that and nothing else all the time. It is our business to know all we can and to spend a part of our lives in increasing our knowledge of Nature and Art, of Literature and Man, of the Past and the Present. That is one way in which we become greater persons, and the more a person is, the better he will do whatever piece of special work falls to his share. Let us have, like Leonardo, a spirit 'invariably royal and magnanimous.'" (Ourselves, Chapter Three)

Then we have some "good servants, bad masters." Imagination is one of those: it has the potential for good, but can be used in bad ways as well. "Just ask yourself, who is the chief person in all the pretty pictures you make, in all the plans you form? If you have to confess that you, yourself, are, why, Imagination has just been making pleasure-houses for Self instead of collecting pictures of the great rich world." (Ourselves, Chapter Four)

Next is Reason: also both positive and negative. "It is quite true that good laws, benevolent enterprises, great inventions, are the outcome of Reason; but you will often be surprised when you hear good people talk and try to convince others of those things of which their own Reason has convinced them." (Ourselves, Chapter Six)
And there is our aesthetic sense, or desire for beauty. Again, good or bad. "The function of the sense of beauty is to open a paradise of pleasure for us; but what if we grow up admiring the wrong things, or, what is morally worse, arrogant in the belief that it is only we and our kind who are able to appreciate and distinguish beauty? It is no small part of education to have seen much beauty, to recognize it when we see it, and to keep ourselves humble in its presence." (Philosophy of Education, Chapter Three) "Instead of accepting the relations, friends, and neighbours that God sends us in the course of our lives, the devotee of Beauty chooses for himself, and cares to know only those people whose views of life are the same as his own. So with regard to places, he cannot tolerate for a moment things which are unsightly and unlovely, so he does not go where working people and poor people have to live. In the end, he misses the happiness to which the Beauty Sense was meant to minister." (Ourselves, Chapter Five).

Charlotte has more to say about each of these--some of it quite important--in the above-mentioned chapters of Ourselves. But since we're looking at Volume Six, we just have to take her summary and move on.

The chapter now shifts to a section called "Intellectual Appetite." Again, Charlotte seems to be summarizing directly from her earlier writings, because the next chapter of Ourselves starts like this: "We consider the Lords of the Exchequer, the Desires, after the Intellect, because their office is to do for Mind pretty much what the Appetites do for Body. It is as necessary that Mind should be fed, should grow and should produce, as that these things should happen to Body; and, just as Body would never take the trouble to feed itself if it never became hungry, so Mind would not take in what it needs, if it, also, had not certain Desires to satisfy." She describes the desire for approbation (the approval of others, which is not a bad thing in itself, but which can get twisted into Vanity); the desire to excel; and the desires for wealth, power, society, and knowledge.
What's wrong with the desire for knowledge? Nothing, in itself, but it can be corrupted into mere curiosity. "It is only in so far as Knowledge is dear to us and delights us for herself that she yields us lifelong joy and contentment. He who delights in her, not for the sake of showing off, and not for the sake of excelling others, but just because she is so worthy to be loved, cannot be unhappy. He says, 'My mind to me a kingdom is'––and, however unsatisfactory things are in his outer life, he retires into that kingdom and is entertained and delighted by the curious, beautiful, and wonderful things he has stored within." (Ourselves, Chapter Eight)

"There they are, those desires, ready to act on occasion and our business is to make due use of this natural provision for the work of education." (Philosophy, Chapter Three)

What is the due use of our children's natural intellectual desires?  (One response to that question.)

How do our children's schools, home schools, Sunday Schools, or other learning situations provide for a healthy balance of these mental servants and desires? Do 21st-century schools promote competition or short-term rewards over the desire for real, in-depth knowledge for its own sake? Do we--teachers, Christian educators, homeschooling parents--encourage our children to "know all we can and to spend a part of our lives in increasing our knowledge of Nature and Art, of Literature and Man, of the Past and the Present?"  Do we do that ourselves? How?

How do we keep the children--and the adults--from "admiring the wrong things, or, what is morally worse, [becoming] arrogant in the belief that it is only we and our kind who are able to appreciate and distinguish beauty?"

Here is Charlotte's response:
"Children are not to be fed morally like young pigeons with predigested food. They must pick and eat for themselves and they do so from the conduct of others which they hear of or perceive. But they want a great quantity of the sort of food whose issue is conduct, and that is why poetry, history, romance, geography, travel, biography, science and sums must all be pressed into service. No one can tell what particular morsel a child will select for his sustenance. One small boy of eight may come down late because "I was meditating upon Plato and couldn't fasten my buttons," and another may find his meat in 'Peter Pan'! But all children must read widely, and know what they have read, for the nourishment of their complex nature."--Philosophy of Education, Chapter Three
Chapter Three isn't quite done yet; one more post to come on this one.

Previous posts:
Charlotte Mason, Oliver, and Ali-Baba: Chapter One
No more paper pizza: Chapter Two
Body and Mind, Heart and Soul: Chapter Three, Part One


walking said...

Sadly, I think the culture's utilitarian aim for education (jobs) prevents us from seeking the truth and beauty of nature, art, literature, and man, past and present. Our habit of specialization has also divorced what we learn at church from nature, art, and literature, and that separation saddens me.

The Winding Ascent said...

You had me at Buffy and Jody and Mr. French. :) So many truths and so much still to be done to serve our nation's children. Like Tammy said, we have become a utilitarian culture. We have gone from job-focused to job-obsessed. And yet, employers are now saying they would much rather find someone who is a creative, out of the box thinker. But these days the House of Mind is swept clean and empty.