Happy New Year 2014 from The Charlotte Mason Institute
In recent weeks there were a number of “misspeaks” in the news and social media. One was a TV personality who spoke his opinion about a certain subject, another was a rather quick response of the bosses, another used inappropriate language on Twitter and there were others. It is easy to see people in our polemical society lining up to take sides. On one hand I can understand the “bosses” wanting to control their image to the public and on the other hand my Western and North American sense of individual freedom is insulted, let alone my sense of religious freedom. People frequently text and tweet, not realising the language they are using can be offensive. My question is, though, how did this happen? Is it just a ‘think before you speak’ problem, what Mason refers to as a ‘conduct’ problem? Yes, it is a ‘think before you speak’ problem, but I suggest that it goes deeper than that.
Mason (1954) suggested at the beginning of her last book, An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education, “If we ask in perplexity, why do so many men and women seem incapable of generous impulse, of reasoned patriotism, of seeing beyond the circle of their own interests, is not the answer, that men are enabled for such things by education” (p. 1). Mason makes a direct connection between our education and our everyday character. I am proposing that the “mis-speaks” or “mis-texts” are a problem of our education.
I recently posted this Mason (1954) quote on the Charlotte Mason Institute Facebook page: “But the one achievement possible and necessary for every man is character;and character is as finely wrought metal beaten into shape and beauty by the repeated and accustomed action of will. We who teach should make it clear to ourselves that our aim in education is less conduct than character; conduct may be arrived at, as we have seen, by indirect routes, but it is of value to the world only as it has its source in character” (p. 129) (emphasis mine). Many educators recognize the necessity of character development in their students and have gone to great and creative ways to address this. Some “teach” character through focusing on one character trait of the month. Some have named hallways a character trait, for example, “Honesty Lane.” Some have published books on character development that give the students a quote each day centered on a specific trait. Others insist students learn a well-defined and argued logical worldview.
How does Mason address this one “possible and necessary” achievement of education? She insists on the necessity of a liberal arts education for all and she frequently describes it as a broad room or feast or banquet. An essential part of that banquet is the feast of great stories and events of the past and the present. Many of these stories, both of the “heroic and pathetic” (Mason,1955, p. 277) tell of people who show great strength of character and determination to do the good thing or of the failure of some people and how it hurts them and others. In this way stories help us see the good and the bad in the characters without having to experience the event personally. Drawing on these experiences with stories, children and adults can make choices that can be both good and bad. Or, as N. T. Wright (2010) suggests, we develop discernment through stories (p. 265). Exactly how is it that stories help us?
Stories help us develop character because we ‘inhabit’ them. Stories allow us to learn from the behaviours of literary and historical characters and then choose to incorporate traits we admire into our own behaviours. But more importantly, as Dr. Jennifer Spencer has said, stories speak to us and give us lessons through sotto voce, that is, under the voice, which allows the Holy Spirit to speak to us. Eugene Peterson (2000) suggests that we “inhabit” stories (p. 500), especially good ones (living stories). I believe it is this inhabiting of stories that make them so beneficial to us. It allows that sotto voce moment, which then provides that opportunity for the Holy Spirit to speak to us. Stories also, enable us to identify with the characters and be part of a greater story. Sotto voce and the “inhabiting” of stories are two ways that stories help us.
Jerome Brunner (1990) suggests another way. He says, “Any closely examined sample of such narrative environments will tell much the same story of the ubiquitousness of narratives in the world of children (and the world of adults, for that matter) and of its functional importance in bringing children into the culture” (emphasis mine), (p. 84). If we do not bring children or others into our story or the greater story, then it is easier for them and us not to understand each other. Could we consider that our education does not adequately bringing children into the story of us? Could it be that educational standards don’t speak to these character issues or how to address them properly? Could it be that our children who “get it right,” who can logically explain and defend their Christian worldview, can lack empathy for those around them because they do not share the same story? These standards or ‘logical’ worldviews, in fact, frequently push aside what Matthew Arnold (as cited in Inman, 1985) called the liberal arts that socialise us. Rather than teaching to develop character through the great stories of our past and present, standards and “logic” push educators towards such didactic teaching methods as a character trait of the month, naming a hall after a character trait or a logically defending one’s worldview rather than truly and on a personal level relating to others. Stories help us relate and understand. The didactic methods are, as Mason said, ‘hortatory.’
Might I suggest that we consider what Mason has said to us in her copious writings, that is, education is a matter of the spirit and that training is not education whether it is training in defending your worldview or in some character trait of the month? Are we “training” children today and turning out individuals who meet the standards or are able to defend their worldview like little robots, but yet, they are unable to engage with culture? Or are we educating children with the necessary stories they need to inform their minds? Or are they memorising to regurgitate and thus left void of real knowledge? Are we equipping our children with the ability to argue logically their worldview without seeking to have relationships that are developed through story whether the stories are literary, historical or personal? What our world needs are people of character — of magnanimous character, not just people who are ethically correct. We need citizens who know when to speak, how to speak (through grace), when to stand firm (with grace), when to be passionate as well as compassionate, and most importantly, when to offer forgiveness.
Yes, it is a problem of speaking before you think, but I suggest to us all that our education is weak, and the misspeaking on part of all those who misspoke recently is just another example of that weakness.
Those stories I mentioned before, they are part of that Liberal Education for all that Mason so eloquently proposed in her day. So I end with this quote. She (1954) suggests, “It is a gain, any way, that we are within sight of giving to all members of the working classes notwithstanding their limited opportunities that stability of mind and magnanimity of character which are the proper outcome and the unfailing test of a LIBERAL EDUCATION . . .” (p. 248).
Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Inman, J. (1985). Charlotte Mason College. Winchester, England: The Cormorant Press.
Mason, C. M. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education: A liberal education for all. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, LTD.
Mason, C. M. (1955). Home education: The education and training of children under nine, (Vol 1). Oxford: The Scrivener Press, LTD.
Peterson, E. (2000). The Old Testament prophets in contemporary language. Colorado Springs: NavPress Publishing Group.
Wright, N.T. (2010). After you believe: Why Christian character matters. New York City: HarperCollins Publishers.
© 2014 by Carroll Smith