Archive for the 'Education' Category

Macaulay: For the Children’s Sake

February 6, 2018

For the Children’s Sake
Foundations of Education for Home and School
Susan Schaeffer Macaulay
(Crossway, 1984)
x + 165 p.

I’ve had a middling, half-dormant interest in educational theory since I was myself a student, but becoming a parent, which includes becoming responsible for the education of new persons, not to mention becoming a de facto teacher in many respects, raises the issues afresh. Actually, it’s that the practical decisions about what school one’s children should attend become pressing, and so one begins to evaluate educational practices, and resorts to theory only in an effort to think things through clearly and consistently. It is true that people have been arguing about how best to educate the young for 3000 years, and nobody has settled the main questions yet (such as “What is the point of education?” and “Why are Teachers’ Colleges not carpet-bombed?”), but, still, perhaps the effort is not entirely worthless.

This little book introduces us, at one remove, to the thought and practices of Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), an English educator who lies outside the mainstream tradition, but whose ideas have, in the past few decades, become fairly influential in the homeschool movement in North America, largely because of this book, or so I surmise.

Mason’s starting point is disarmingly simple: children are people, and should be treated as such. Teaching is a personal encounter; so is learning. As such, each child should be allowed and encouraged to develop at his or her own rate and in his or her own way, not made to comply with an set of impersonal objectives and milestones. Writes Mason,

“We must know something about the material we are to work upon if the education we offer is not to be scrappy and superficial. We must have some measure of a child’s requirements, not based on his uses to society, nor upon the standard of the world he lives in, but upon his own capacity and needs.” (from Toward a Philosophy of Education)

This basic commitment explains why she is a marginal figure in the world of public education, for it is difficult to give a mass education model this personal touch (though, to be fair, Mason was herself a schoolteacher and developed her ideas in that context). It is equally clear, and for the same reasons, why homeschoolers have picked her up, for this approach is eminently suitable to their situation.

Mason also believed that since formal education is a preparation for life after formal education, education should be like life. It should be a matter of enjoyment and interest. Children should be encouraged to be motivated by factors intrinsic to education, like curiosity and a love of learning, not factors extrinsic, like grades. We should aim to foster a loving, joyful environment for learning, in which the pleasure of learning is taught by example.

Since students are people, part of their education consists in developing those stable habits of thought and action that will enable them to be successful students and people: the virtues. In this Charlotte Mason is consistent with the classical tradition, for which moral formation is at least as important as intellectual formation. She sought especially to encourage the scholarly virtues in her students: attention, concentration, self-control, and truthfulness.

Since children are persons and their education is our responsibility, we owe them, Mason reasons, the best we have. They should therefore be invited to experience and enjoy our best books, our finest art, our most beautiful music, and so forth. She had a word for educational material that condescends to the child’s intelligence, moral judgment, or aesthetic sensibility: “twaddle”. It’s helpful to have a word, because schools are full of the stuff. We can safely assume, with little risk of error, that all politically-motivated educational materials are twaddle. We want to avoid it:

“The person rises to understand, master, and enjoy whatever he is surrounded with in language, ideas, literature, and in appreciation of beauty. If you share with children the very best, carefully chosen to meet their needs, they will amaze everyone.”

This is actually true. In our home I’ve seen it especially with the music that the kids like. It is my practice not to play pop music at home or in the car, so they do not have much exposure to it; we listen to classical music. At the same time, they are members of a children’s choir in which they sing good sacred music: Mozart, Schubert, Handel, and Gregorian chant. There is no condescension to “children’s tastes”, and they rise to the occasion. My six-year-old son sings Latin motets to himself while building Lego. Our three-year-old’s favourite music is Vivaldi’s Gloria; he sings it in his bed at night. Children will feast on what we feed them, but they are, at first, poor judges of quality. Much of teaching consists in supplying a steady diet of good quality nourishment for their minds and hearts.

And not only should children be given the best we have to give them, but they should be invited to experience and enjoy it on their terms, not ours, taking from it what they find, not what we think they should find. In real life, when we read a novel, we all do so to engage with the story we are reading, but how many of us would persist if, upon finishing each chapter, we had to answer a series of questions about it? Is it wise, then, to ask students to do this? Mason thought not, and therefore counselled against reading comprehension tests. Instead, she had her students do “narrations”, in which they would re-tell, in their own words and after their own manner, a story they had read. When you stop to think about it, this is a brilliant and beautiful idea, for everyone loves to talk about something they enjoyed reading, and, more to the point, narrating a story requires a much more thorough and nuanced and personal engagement with a book than does answering a set of specific questions. Try it.

In fact, narration is pretty much exactly what I’ve been doing on this blog all these years; I can speak from experience: it’s rewarding. Since reading this book (some months ago now), I’ve also been having my daughter give narrations of some of the things she’s been reading, and she, too, responds wonderfully to the challenge. I’m a believer.

Since we want children to engage personally with what they read and learn, another of Mason’s recommendations is that they be given real books to read, whole and complete, rather than compilations of short excerpts from longer books, because doing so puts them into sustained contact with another person — the author — with whom they then begin to develop a relationship.

Indeed, the development of relationships — with God, with the natural world, and with other people — is a key organizing principle for a Charlotte Mason-style education. A relationship with God is best developed through experiencing a faith lived joyfully, with prayer and devotion, in the home and school. A child’s understanding of the natural world she thought best fostered by direct contact with nature, through nature walks, in which close observation and full sensory immersion are encouraged. (In many Charlotte Mason homeschools, it seems that such nature walks take the place of a science textbook, at least for younger students.) Relationships with others are cultivated, as we have already said, through books, historical studies (taking care to try to understand the complexity and foreignness of the past, not interpreting everything within contemporary frameworks or judging by contemporary standards), and interactions with the teacher and with other students. And children must also get to know themselves, which was one reason why Mason believed that children’s lives should have plenty of time and space for unstructured imaginative play; I agree with her heartily on that.


Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s purpose in this book was to rescue Charlotte Mason’s ideas from the obscurity into which they had fallen, and to present them as providing a compelling educational philosophy for today. She writes well, both about the principles and ideas of Charlotte Mason, and about her own education, which was consonant with Mason’s approach on many points. She has a gentle, thoughtful authorial voice, and, unlike many authors of popular books on education, is not garrulous. (Incidentally, I was surprised to discover, mid-way through the book, that she is the daughter of Francis Schaeffer, the guru of intellectual-leaning Evangelical Christians of a certain vintage.) Although the book is about Charlotte Mason’s approach to education, direct quotes from her are rare, and so it is a little unclear to me how much of the book’s content derives from her, and how much is Macaulay’s interpretation and elaboration.

In a book on education Roger Scruton argued that the purpose of education is not principally to benefit the student who receives it, but to ensure that the culture to which that student belongs is received and perpetuated. I found the impersonal slant of this view jarring, even as I could see the point he was making. The much more personal approach to education proposed in this book is not really inconsistent with Scruton’s concerns though; Macaulay does not propose that there be no core curriculum, or that students, though encouraged to encounter books with their own native intelligence and feeling, somehow create value in things simply by liking them. Rather, she proposes a curated education, in which children encounter what, in the judgment of their teacher, is the richest and most worthy material, whether it be literature, art, music, or what have you. In fact it seems a perfect vehicle for passing on and truly appropriating a cultural tradition, which was what Scruton was advocating.

“They opened a book to see what was inside”

November 2, 2012

Is it possible that raising one’s children to be avid readers is becoming an mark of antiquarianism? Such is the thesis of this recent op-ed, “Literature is the New Latin”. Michael Reist writes:

No one would argue that literacy is not an essential life skill — one needs to be able to decode the prompts on an ATM, to be able to recognize the titles of YouTube videos — but the sustained reading of many pages of text is quickly becoming obsolete, like Latin.


Literature has a boring format. Even if I transfer the book to the cool platform of my iPad, I still have to decipher pages and pages of black squiggles on a white background. Novels have no pictures, sound or choice. After reading page one, I have to go to page two — and there are hundreds of these pages. To the mind raised in cyberspace, what could be more boring?

This puts me in mind of a poem by Chesterton, which reads (in part):

Our fathers to creed and tradition were tied,
They opened a book to see what was inside,
And of various methods they deemed not the worst
Was to find the first chapter and look at it first.
And so from the first to the second they passed,
Till in servile routine they arrived at the last.
But a literate age, unbenighted by creed,
Can find on two boards all it wishes to read;
For the front of the cover shows somebody shot
And the back of the cover will tell you the plot.

Now that was satire, once upon a time, but perhaps no longer? Are such ideas really as far to the fringe as they ought to be? It is not the first time I have heard the claim that the multi-media options available today render reading far less attractive, or that we are moving from a literate to a visual culture in which reading will be far less prevalent. (As I write I am sitting in front of a new version of MS Word in which the former text-based menus have been replaced by panels of little visual icons, few of which have any meaning to me.) Perhaps we are all due for another look at McLuhan.

Mr Reist’s students apparently take it for granted that we go to school for job training, so anything that won’t help on the job might as well be jettisoned. This itself points to a major failing of our education system, for we should think of education as a training of the mind, an enrichment of the soul, and a preparation for a lifelong engagement with our long cultural and intellectual tradition.

I take two lessons away. First, it is important to put limits on the use of electronic media in our home if we, as parents, want to encourage reading in our family. Second, to the extent that in our classrooms “literature is being replaced by “literacy activities” that are interactive and online to “engage today’s student””, we should think twice about sending our children to school.

Note: I have edited the original version of this post, after having been encouraged to re-read the newspaper article more charitably.  I also would like to note that Mr. Reist has published several books on education, and I am told that they are good and instructive reads.

Through the academic looking-glass…

August 16, 2012

The world does not lack for books describing the leftward tilt of higher education. If one has spent time on a university campus, and if one has conservative tendencies at all, that the place is listing to port will be obvious. For those who mistrust intuition the statistics are unequivocal. The effects of this not only an campus culture but on the quality of a university education have been much discussed (and, by conservatives, lamented).

Imagine my surprise, therefore, to stumble upon an essay (“How the American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps”) in which responsibility for the decline of higher education is placed squarely on the shoulders of conservatives!

It’s a win-win for those right wingers – they’ve crippled those in the country who would push back against them, and have so carefully and cleverly hijacked the educational institutions that they can now be turned into part of the neoliberal/neocon machinery, further benefitting the right-wing agenda.

It’s a topsy-turvy world!

Granted, the essay doesn’t say much about what goes on in the classroom. Its concerns are mostly about wages for professors and lecturers, tuition costs, and the power of administrators. Overlooking the fact that the author flirts throughout with lunacy (“Unlike those communist countries, which sometimes executed their intellectuals, here we are being killed off by lack of healthcare, by stress-related illness like heart-attacks or strokes.”) I can agree that these structural and economic problems are genuine. I know people wending their ways up the academic ladders who are paid a pittance and have next to no job security (just as I know young academics of conservative bent who keep their mouths shut to avoid having their careers torpedoed). So he has a point. But to characterize the general state of higher education as one in which conservatives are triumphant is passing strange.

The portrait of higher education painted here is an odd one: universities are controlled by conservatives who, in their wisdom, fill the ranks of the professoriate with left-liberals, expose as many students as possible to left-liberal ideas, and generally preside over the erosion of all they hold dear. Maybe conservatives are stupid after all.

(Hat-tip: Modern Medieval)

Academic Earth

September 15, 2011

Last week, in response to a post about the Great Courses company, Janet pointed out Academic Earth, a site that is new to me. It streams full academic courses from some of the best universities in the United States, all completely free of charge.

There is some very nice material there. Some of their subject areas are thinly populated — only one course on Art & Architecture, for instance, and very little on Religion (sorry, “Religious Studies”) — but there is plenty of selection in subjects like Economics or Computer Science. The courses are not all at an introductory level: a full semester of modern physics with Leonard Susskind would be no laughing matter, I assure you (but how tempting!). If one had the time and energy to follow the lectures, do the readings, and complete the assignments (some of which are provided), one could potentially learn a great deal. From that point of view, it is a pretty amazing resource, and bound to get better.

A problem that I have with video lectures is that I simply don’t have time to sit down and watch them; I prefer audio, to which I can listen in the car, sitting in traffic. Granted, I don’t get as much out of the lectures when I only give them half my attention, but I figure it’s better than nothing. On the other hand, if I were a university student again, with a fair bit of leisure time for study, I can imagine that I would be all over Academic Earth.

Another potential resource of this type is Apple’s awkwardly-named iTunes U. I haven’t spent any time with it, but my impression is that it is based on much the same idea: academic lectures, presentations, etc. for download. Whether it is free or not, I do not know.

I expect that by the time my children are ready for university, we’re going to be drowning in this stuff.