Friday, May 30, 2008

Maxima Reverentia Debetur Pueris

Charlotte Mason quotes this Latin maxim in her chapter on The Sacredness of Personality in Philosophy of Education. It is a quote from Juvenal, and means something like "great reverence is owed to the children". John Locke quotes it in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (for clarity, I'll put quotes that AREN'T Charlotte Mason's in italics):

That he that will have his son have a respect for him and his orders, must himself have a great reverence for his son. Maxima debetur pueris reverentia. You must do nothing before him, which you would not have him imitate. If any thing escape you, which you would have pass for a fault in him, he will be sure to shelter himself under your example, and shelter himself so as that it will not be easy to come at him, to correct it in him the right way.
Charlotte Mason notes that the maxim ought to apply in a positive as well as a negative way:

We take it as meaning that we should not do or say anything unseemly before the young, but does it not also include a profound and reverent study of the properties and possibilities present in a child?
This chapter proceeds to explain both some of the ways that a child's personality can be encroached upon, and then some of the ways its possibilities and properties can be regarded rightly.

Our business is to find out how great a mystery a person is qua person. All action comes out of the ideas we hold and if we ponder duly upon personality we shall come to perceive that we cannot commit a greater offence than to maim or crush, or subvert any part of a person.
What are some ways that a child's personality can be maimed, crushed or subverted?

One is by the tyranny of fear. You see this, she says, in David Copperfield, with the home tyranny of Mr Murdstone and the school tyranny of Mr Creakle.

Then there are some more subtle but just as pervasive forms of tyranny:

  • The tyranny of love.
  • The tyranny of suggestion.
  • The tyranny of influence.
These all seem to me to be summed up as what my Scottish mother would call "manipulation". She hated it. She hated to use it and she hated it used upon her. The examples Charlotte Mason uses to demonstrate these are mostly taken from school. For example,

Supineness before a single, steady, persistent influence is a different matter, and the schoolgirl who idolises her mistress, the boy who worships his master, is deprived of the chance of free and independent living. His personality fails to develop and he goes into the world as a parasitic plant, clinging ever to the support of some stronger character.

This is subtle, but the danger she warns against is the same with all inordinate influences -- a stunted, too easily-led child who does not grow up with an upright independence, but is weak and vacillating. Maybe we are talking here about what we now call "lacking boundaries"? We see parents who are not openly tyrannic but seem not to establish separate personality zones and this leads to "co-dependency". Perhaps this is the kind of thing she says is harmful to a child's developing self.

I wonder if Davey's mother, and little Dora in David Copperfield, could be some examples of this kind of personal influence? Though it is difficult to assign any evil intent to either of them, they do seem to impart a kind of yielding to his personality which leads him into mistakes.

Charlotte Mason does allow that the natural influence of what a person IS, is a healthy type of influence. The harm that can be done has more to do with a conscious bending of the child by means of personality. It does not have to do with the proper influences of love and integrity of example. In other places she has discussed the idea of teaching a child to do well "because it is right", and this seems to be part of the same theme.

No doubt such influence is inevitable; we must needs affect one another, not so much by what we do or say as by that which we are, and so far influence is natural and wholesome. We imbibe it from persons real and imaginary and we are kept strong and upright by currents and counter-currents of unstudied influence.

Examples of natural influence of character, to keep up with the David Copperfield theme, might be Clara Peggotty and Betsey Trotwood? They are good influences not because they suggest or wrap themselves around Davey but because of their sturdy actions and characters and most of all their steadfast love for him.

The idea of doing good because it is right and not because of influences brings me to the next part of the chapter. Here she lists some of the natural desires which have a healthy element, but which can be taken to an extreme particularly if exploited as a motive for learning. These are:

  • The desire for approbation (wanting approval, praise from the schoolmaster -- can easily turn to desire for approval from the stableboy, etc)
  • The desire for emulation, or excellence (grades, "first rank" in class, honors)
  • The desire of avarice (material benefits such as scholarships from learning, prizes)
  • The desire for power (the schoolchild who wants to dominate his peers)
  • The desire for society (makes a child conformable at school, but also often weak and vain and idle)
She says these are "natural" desires but that they must not be allowed to become the horses that drive the pursuit of knowledge. They will all misdirect the true appetite for knowledge in various ways . It seems to me that there is a right object for these desires -- desire for power might be a form of responsibility and leadership, etc -- but that using them as secondary means distorts what they are truly about.

We have considered the several desires whose function is to stimulate the mind and save us from that vis inertiae which is our besetting danger. Each such desire has its place but the results are disastrous if any one should dominate. It so happens that the last desire we have to consider, the desire of knowledge, is commonly deprived of its proper function in our schools by the predominance of other springs of action, especially of emulation, the desire of place, and avarice, the desire of wealth, tangible profit. This divine curiosity is recognised in ordinary life chiefly as a desire to know trivial things. What did it cost? What did she say? Who was with him? Where are they going? How many postage stamps in line would go round the world? And curiosity is satisfied by incoherent, scrappy information which serves no purpose, assuredly not the purpose of knowledge whose function is to nourish the mind as food nourishes the body.
Vis inertia means "force of inactivity" and here it seems related to the defect of the virtue of "studiousness" -- that is, a kind of indifference. From this Catholic Education article on Temperance:

The defect of this virtue (studiousness) amounts to an indifference to truth, which, as was said earlier, is the fruit of an inordinate attachment to the pleasures of touch. The excess is the vice of curiosity, which is certainly an offspring of pride.
So this idleness and quest for trivial knowledge she describes above are perversions of the real, virtuous desire for knowledge.

Now, this brings her to the solution for the problem. We are too inclined, she says, to think of "knowledge" as a bitter pill to be sweetened with jam, rather than a delectable thing in its own right. This leads us to the temptation to manage and manipulate a child inappropriately.

Knowledge is to us as our mother's milk, we grow thereby and in the act of sucking are admirably content.

The work of education is greatly simplified when we realize that children, apparently all children, want to know all human knowledge; they have an appetite for what is put before them, and, knowing this, our teaching becomes buoyant with the courage of our convictions.
She says that many schools have had the experience of finding "gold" in the appetite for knowledge common to all people.

The finding of this power which is described as 'sensing a passage,' is as the striking of a vein of gold in that fabulously rich country, human nature. Our 'find' is that children have a natural aptitude for literary expression which they enjoy in hearing or reading and employ in telling or writing.
So she recommends many good books written in a literary manner, and reflected upon.

Most schools give from eleven in the lowest to eight hours in the highest Forms to 'English' that is, from twenty to sixteen consecutive readings a week might be afforded in a wide selection of books,––literature, history, economics, etc.,––books read with the concentrated attention which makes a single reading suffice. The act of narrating what has been read might well be useful to boys who should be prepared for public speaking. By a slight alteration of this kind, in procedure rather than in curriculum or timetable, it is probable that our schools would turn out many more well-read, well-informed men and convincing speakers than they do at present. Such a method, even if applied to 'English' only, would tend to correct any tendency in schools to become mere cramming places for examinations, would infect boys with a love of knowledge and should divert the natural desire for acquisition into a new channel, for few things are more delightful than the acquisition of knowledge.
To try to make an analogy, if there is a yearning for goodness in human nature which can only be satisfied with practice of virtue, there is similarly a yearning for knowledge which can only be satisfied with real knowledge, not the scrappy trivial or "deadwood" kind, but the great ideas and thoughts of the best writers and thinkers.

I am thinking along this path that the object of knowledge is Truth and if this is so, then the love for the Good is part of the same thing (see this Fairy-stories, the Good and the Beautiful):

At the deepest level the Good and the Beautiful are transcendental properties of Being, along the the True and the One. They are interchangeable and differ only in notion.
Of course, we can be misled and diverted by our fallen nature, as mentioned above. Which is probably another reason why Charlotte Mason tries in her child-educating philosophy to avoid some of the pitfalls that can mislead and divert the children and cause them to be motivated by desires which ought to be ordered rather than indulged. By removing hindrances and distractions to real learning, and by reverence for the childrens' unique personalities, she hopes to accomplish more than by trying to play upon childrens' immaturity to "make" them learn.

It seems to me to be worth considering. I can see that though we've had our challenges through the years with pursuit of knowledge and virtue, much of the good fruits that have come out of our family life and educational attempts have come from example, good habits formed, and a demonstration of the value of knowledge -- not "value" in trade for praise, or power, or prizes, but the value of it for its own sake.

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