Author’s note: I am a homeschooling father who has experienced a genuine awakening as a result of engaging with Charlotte Mason’s ideas. This is my second article for the Charlotte Mason Institute blog that describes the relationship between Charlotte Mason’s theory of education and the Christian classical model of education. In this article, I explore Charlotte Mason’s theory of education in light of David V. Hicks’s seminal work on classical education.
In 1981, David V. Hicks first published his ground-breaking book entitled Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education. His (1981/1999) book “is about an ancient ideal expressed as ‘classical education’ against which the modern school is weighed and found wanting” (p. v). Hicks (1981/1999) describes the “modern school” as an institution dominated by “the aimless tyranny of a values-free analysis” (p. 85) where “all aims appear of equal value, and no aim can lay claim on the learner’s will” (p.84). Hicks (1981/1999) characterizes modern education as utilitarian: “Its utilitarian and nonnormative program of study stresses freedom at the expense of self-discipline and know-how at the expense of knowledge” (p. 11).
Hicks’s critique of modern utilitarian education is not merely devastating; it is torturous. He distributes this criticism throughout the entire span of his book, providing a steady stream of endlessly inventive and sharply eloquent attacks. Bordering on ridicule, his insightful exposé is unanswerable. I join him in decisively rejecting a model of education where the only question that matters is, “How is this useful?”
Hicks proposes classical education as an alternative to modern utilitarian education. In fact, he (1981/1999) indicates that classical education is the only alternative:
Norms & Nobility presents . . . a theory of classical education. . . . These general principles — what I have called normative contextual learning — are, I believe, universal. Any school, to be effective and complete, must reflect them in its aims, organizations, traditions, methods, and most of all, in its teachers. (p. viii)
For Hicks, classical education is rooted in the classical tradition which begins with Ancient Greece and Rome. He (1981/1999) asserts that this is the only model which can answer the need of our present day: “I believe that the dialectic between pagan humanism and Christianity must be revived in the classroom if education in the United States is going to fulfill its paideutic obligations toward the young” (p. 104).
A casual reading of Norms & Nobility gives the impression that classical education is the only kind of education that existed in the Western world prior to the modern era. For example, Hicks (1981/1999) writes, “After World War II . . . education left the path of normative learning” (p. 108). If one accepts this notion that all education was classical until World War II, and that only classical education can resist modern utilitarian theory, then a Christian reader would naturally assume that any good method of education must be classical.
But a careful reading of Norms & Nobility reveals that Hicks himself acknowledges that models other than classical education and modern utilitarian education exist. In one passage, Hicks paints the imaginative picture that all was not well before 1945. He (1981/1999) begins with the dramatic assertion that all things called classical are not actually classical:
The popular mind associates the idea of a classical education with the narrow and elitist schools of Victorian England. In fact, these schools perverted classical education by teaching in precept and in example a hereditary aristocratic ideal intended to serve the ambitions of Empire and to preserve the status quo. (p. 17)
According to Hicks (1981/1999), “To [the average Englishman in 1867], classical education meant little more than a symbol of ruling class privilege and a study of Latin, with perhaps a smattering of Greek” (p. 17). Hicks cites no source for his assertions about this state of affairs in Victorian England. But he (1981/1999) describes one result of this alleged corruption of classical education: “By the turn of the century, a growing number of self-proclaimed progressives, desiring to democratize the school and mistaking what went on in Victorian schools with classical education, began to put forward their own theories on education” (p. 17).
One such self-proclaimed progressive was Charlotte M. Mason (1842-1923). In 1895, Mason made her self-proclamation when she (1895) wrote, “We are progressive”:
We cannot choose but profit by the work of the great educators. Such men as Locke and Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel, have left us an inheritance of educational thought which we must needs enter upon. Our work as a Society is chiefly selective, but not entirely so. We are progressive. We take what former thinkers have left us, and go on from there. (p. 426)
Mason did not merely stand in the romantic tradition of “Rousseau [and] Pestalozzi.” Rather, with progressive zeal, she put forward her own “theories on education.”
Although educational romantics and progressives such as Rousseau and Pestalozzi lived well before World War II, Hicks did not include them under the classical umbrella. Rather, Hicks (1981/1999) writes:
The modern era suffers in two extremes over the nature of assumptions. The first extreme is born of an attitude contemptuous of the past and its unscientific ways. It expects to unearth an original set of assumptions upon which to construct the modern school. This extreme may be said to represent the sanguine position of the educational romantics and progressives. (p. 126)
Hicks (1981/1999) explicitly classifies Rousseau in this romantic and non-classical school when he writes, “Isokrates had little in common with the modern teacher who fantasizes an ideal child and bases his child-centered learning on the nostalgic writings of Rousseau” (p. 38). For Hicks, child-centered learning is inherently non-classical. He (1981/1999) writes, “Child-centered learning is a high-sounding euphemism for his refusal to admit a connection between what makes a person virtuous and what constitutes an educated person” (p. 39).
And yet Marian Wallace Ney (1997) describes Charlotte Mason’s theory of education as the only model offering a truly child-centered education:
Most contemporary plans for education make some, (often, a great deal of), obeisance to the notion of the child as individual, and vast educational impedimenta have been constructed in the name of child-centeredness. But it is solely in the PNEU that I find the curriculum to be designed not only to suit any and all, but each and every. (p. 19)
Ney (1923-1991) documented this conclusion in her 1981 thesis for Hofstra University. This work was the culmination of her study of Charlotte Mason’s theory of education, which included completing the PNEU Study Course with First Class Honors.
Hicks highlights a second major distinction between the romantic model and the classical model when he (1981/1999) writes, “Let us not, pleads the romantic, force a child into the drudgery of scholarship before he has outlived his playful, innocent youth” (p. 37). Here again, Mason fits squarely in the non-classical model. First, she (1886/1989a) wrote that children should in fact be free from scholarship:
. . . the chief function of the child . . . during the first six or seven years of his life––is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; . . . in fact, the intellectual education of the young child should lie in the free exercise of perceptive power, because the first stages of mental effort are marked by the extreme activity of this power; and the wisdom of the educator is to follow the lead of Nature in the evolution of the complete human being. (p. 96-97)
Once in school, “Studies serve for Delight” (Mason, 1905, p. 214) and not drudgery. Finally, only after the fifteenth year should “drudgery” (“the classical and mathematical grind”) be permitted (Mason, 1906/1989c, p. 381).
Finally, Hicks notes with disdain that “self-proclaimed progressives” of the Victorian era believed their ideas would change the world. He (1981/1999) writes, “The popular imagination . . . keeps the nineteenth-century ideologies with their Utopian prognostications alive” (p. 60). As with other progressives, Mason made her own Utopian prognostications. In 1912, she wrote:
We of the P.N.E.U., if we be minded to advance in our thousands with one heart and one purpose, are strong enough to bring about a Twentieth Century Renascence, more glorious and permanent than that of the Middle Age, because its ultimate source shall be a profound Christianity, in lieu of the poisoned springs of Paganism. We have the one thing to offer which the whole world wants, an absolutely effective system of education covering the whole nature of a child, the whole life of man. (p. 811)
In writing this, Mason falls squarely under the condemnation of Hicks, who writes of how, “with revolutionary fervor, the social scientist affirms the world-transforming benefits of his ‘new’ methods” (Hicks, 1981/1999, p. 5).
Mason’s revolutionary, child-centered beliefs are summarized in a claim that would be anathema to Hicks:
Should the reader . . . be convinced of the truth of what I have advanced, I think he will see that, not an educational reform here and there, but an EDUCATIONAL REVOLUTION is before us to which every one of us is bound to put his hand. . . . If conviction has indeed reached us, the Magna Carta of children’s intellectual liberty is before us. (Mason, 1905, pp. 247-248)
Nevertheless, Mason and other progressives rejected utilitarian education with a vehemence equal to Hicks. For example, Gerald Gutek (1995) writes of educational progressive Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827):
Fearing the harmful effects of industrial specialization, Pestalozzi cultivated the model of the generally educated person. Despite some methodological eccentricities that crept into his work, he never lost sight of his vision of the generally educated natural human being. Basically, Pestalozzi was a humanitarian. “Love” was the center of his educational theory and practice. “Mother love,” “the loving home circle,” “love of man and of God,” were persistent Pestalozzian themes. (p. 251)
Similarly, Mason (1905) writes:
I should be inclined to say of education, as Mr. Lecky says of morals, that ‘the Utilitarian theory is profoundly immoral.’ To educate children for any immediate end – towards commercial or manufacturing aptitude, for example – is to put a premium upon general ignorance with a view to such special aptitude. (pp. 240-241)
Although Norms & Nobility is primarily a contrast between utilitarian education and classical education, Hicks implicitly acknowledges that there is a third way. Mason (1925/1954) herself enumerates these three models in one sentence: “We must have some measure of a child’s requirements, not based upon his uses to society, nor upon the standard [norms] of the world he lives in, but upon his own capacity and needs” (pp. 65-66). Mason’s model is neither utilitarian (based on “uses to society”) nor classical (based on norms or “standards”). Rather, Mason’s model is centered on the person of the child, upon “his own capacity and needs.”
Given that Mason’s theory of education was not classical, one would expect to find many theoretical and practical differences between her model and Hicks’s classical model. For convenience, the many differences may be grouped into five separate categories:
The source of guidance for the method
The purpose of education
The nature of the child
The role of the teacher
The remainder of this article will briefly explore these five categories.
1. The source of guidance for the method
Hicks (1981/1999) explains that “Classical education refreshes itself at cisterns of learning dug long ago” (p. 14). He (1981/1999) looks to the ancient world for a theory of education, explaining, “I have tried to be faithful in presenting what I believe would be an ancient’s insight into our modern dilemma” (p. vii). This ancient insight begins with Plato and Aristotle; indeed, “Aristotle is our best introduction to the idea of a classical education” (Hicks, 1981/1999, p. 19).
From the ancients, Hicks (1981/1999) retrieves and apparently defends such pagan ideas as “Plato’s ‘theory of innate ideas’” (p. 24). He (1981/1999) notes that “down to the present day, men have sought and found reasons for believing in innate ideas” (p. 25). He (1981/1999) also sympathetically explores the dualistic worldview of Platonic philosophy: “[The word] clings to the normative essentials underlying the flux of appearances, thereby saving the appearances. . . . words disclose the transcendent order of meaning and value behind the curtain of a transient world” (p. 35).
Furthermore, Hicks traces every key idea in his theory of education back to the ancients. Indeed, he calls his method “classical” precisely because it is derived from ancient sources. In fact, it is not until Chapter 8 of the book that Hicks even discloses to the reader that he is advocating a Christian form of classical education. This led one reviewer to write:
Hicks does a great job describing Greek classical education. However, the manner in which he does often sounds prescriptive. . . . Thankfully, he later addresses how Christianity supplied the missing pieces. However, rather than describe Christianity as “crowning” classical education I would say Christianity provided the foundation upon which the honorable aspects of classical education was set. In any event, it was only upon reading this section that I realized Hicks was advocating a redeemed form of classical education. . . . Hicks uses pagan Greek language to describe Christian concepts, which concerns me. (No King But Christ, 2007)
This reviewer accurately notes that Hicks presents Christianity as the crown and not the foundation of classical education. Hicks (1981/1999) writes on p. 91:
Modern classical education . . . is (or ought to be) grounded on a dialectic between pagan humanism and Christianity. . . . The creative tension between pagan humanism and Christianity animates normative education and promises to lift the student to a level of understanding above reason in an experience of faith.
In a startling passage, Hicks (1981/1999) claims that Christianity is a kind of “reward” for classical thought: “Christianity injected a hopeful note and rewarded the classical tradition’s strivings for a link between right thinking and right acting” (p. 96).
Hicks (1981/1999) sees Christianity in its best form as a fulfilment of classical education: “According to Saint Paul, Christian paideia realized the transcendent objectives of classical education by offering access to the source of truth through prayer” (p. 101). But Hicks (1981/1999) actually sees Christianity in its other forms acting in direct opposition to the preferred ideals of classical education:
By formalizing the Ideal within ecclesiastical dogma, the Church at Rome and the schoolmen in Paris reduced the Ideal to a ritual and a creed, while refusing to permit the laity to challenge its part in the life of faith. On a practical level, the teaching of the Ideal by example suffered for lack of a reliable high-quality mythos. The rich, ancient mythos of Greece and Rome was lost or bowdlerized, and the simple Christian mythos had been plastered over with popular, irrelevant, and usually outlandish legends of the saints. (p. 48)
Hicks (1981/1999) further describes the destructive impact of the Christian Church on classical educational theory on page 66:
During the Middle Ages, the trivium was generally taught first, with logic taking the place of dialectic. This substitution was not accidental. For an age that possessed the Truth, the dialectical search for truth was a fruitless and even frivolous, irreverent endeavor. When one knows the truth, one has no need for dialectic — all one needs is logic. Yet to an age like ours, lacking the confidence (some would say the complacency) of the early Christian era, the dialectic holds out a serious method of study imbued with a noble purpose.
Hicks proposes to counter modern utilitarian education not with revelation but with dialectic. He (1981/1999) writes, “But all of this misplaced use of analysis is precisely why the dialectical must wrest control of our schools from the analytical” (p. 72). Given Hicks’s absolute dependence on the classical tradition and his view of Christianity as a fulfilment of that tradition, it is not surprising that he views modern Christian classical education as a “dialectic between pagan humanism and Christianity” (Hicks, 1981/1999, p. 91).
In contrast to this classical model, Mason begins not with Aristotle but with Christ. Mason first unveiled her theory of education in a series of lectures in 1885. The first lecture began with an exposition of specific teachings of Christ. In that way, she began her method both chronologically and structurally on the teachings of Christ. These lectures are captured in Volume 1 of the Home Education Series. Pages 12-20 contain her exposition of the key Gospel passages that are foundational to her entire theory of education. She (1886/1989a) began this exposition by saying that she had “discover[ed] . . . a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ” (p. 12).
Rather than seeing education as a “dialectic between pagan humanism and Christianity,” she (1912) worked towards “a profound Christianity, in lieu of the poisoned springs of Paganism” (p. 811). Mason found in pagan philosophy not an inspiring source but a dismal dead end. She (1925/1954) wrote:
Human nature has not failed; what has failed us is philosophy, and that applied philosophy which is called education. Philosophy, all the philosophies, old and new, land us on the horns of a dilemma; either we do well by ourselves and seek our own perfection of nature or condition, or we do well by others to our own loss or deterioration. If there is a mean, philosophy does not declare it. (p. 335)
Since Mason rejected pagan philosophy, she also rejected the notion that science is necessary merely for “saving the appearances” and as a way to “disclose the transcendent order of meaning and value behind the curtain of a transient world.” Instead, she (1886/1989a) wrote of the sacred nature of science:
Years hence, when the children are old enough to understand that science itself is in a sense sacred and demands some sacrifices, all the ‘common information’ they have been gathering until then, and the habits of observation they have acquired, will form a capital groundwork for a scientific education. (p. 63)
Given Mason’s high regard for science, she appealed to its discoveries as an authoritative basis for her method of education. In doing so, she fell under Hicks’s condemnation, who explains that “the social scientist affirms the world-transforming benefits of his ‘new’ methods” (Hicks, 1981/1999, p. 5). Standing with the scientists, Mason (1894) writes:
Within our own time the science of Education has been absolutely revolutionised, not by educationalists, but by Physiologists, who have made the brain their specialty. Any real education depends upon the possibility of setting up good records, obliterating evil records, in the physical substance of the brain.
Mason’s third major source of guidance for her theory of education was her own personal observation of children. Mason described her effort as follows:
For between thirty and forty years I have laboured without pause to establish a working and philosophic theory of education; and each article of the educational faith I offer has been arrived at by inductive processes, and has, I think, been verified by a long and wide series of experiments. (Cholmondeley, 1960/2000, p. 201)
This reliance on observation and experimentation falls outside of the scope of authority permitted by Hicks. Hicks (1981/1999) disdains this methodological approach: “The expert’s total reliance upon the methods of science renders him incapable of learning from his forebears anyway, for they cannot provide him with the hard statistical and clinical data alone with which he can work” (p. 2). In offering this condemnation, he implicitly condemns Mason’s theory of education.
Hicks cites the ancients as his primary source of guidance, and therefore his theory of education is classical. By contrast, Mason points to the authority of the Gospels, discoveries in science, and her own personal observations of children. Therefore, her theory of education is not to be considered classical.
Part II can be read in the subsequent blog post.
© 2016 by Art Middlekauff
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