Monday, June 16, 2008

Philosophy of Education -- Education is a Life

What is an idea? we ask, and find ourselves plunged beyond our depth.
(I am on to the third part of Three Instruments of Education, which is Education is a Life). Certainly, Charlotte Mason was correct. The notion of "idea" is one that has had great importance in philosophy, but it's very difficult to define it.

The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Idea says that Locke ruined the term:

He tells us himself at the beginning of his "Essay on the Human Understanding" that in this treatise "the word Idea stands for whatever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks. I have used it to express whatever is meant by phantasm, notion, species,or whatever it is which the mind can be employed about when thinking."
From what I understand, he ruined it by muddling the distinction between the subjective and the objective. We can no longer tell, from his definition, whether an "idea" implies "Truth" or simply whatever synapses happen to be firing off in one's brain at a given moment.

Charlotte Mason often had to mention Locke at least implicitly even in order to refute his ideas, as she does in the following quote, since his theories about the "blank tablet" had had an immense influence on the educational theory of her time:

In the early days of a child's life it makes little apparent difference whether we educate with a notion of filling a receptacle, inscribing a tablet, moulding plastic matter, or nourishing a life, but as a child grows we shall perceive that only those ideas which have fed his life, are taken into his being; all the rest is cast away or is, like sawdust in the system, an impediment and an injury.

Mortimer Adler gives a provisional definition in What is an Idea?

I recommend that we use the word “idea” in its objective sense as a common object of thought that two or more individuals can discuss and either agree or disagree about. ..

We live in two worlds: (1) the sensible world of the common perceptual objects that we move around and use in various ways and (2) the intelligible world of ideas, the common objects of thought that we cannot touch with our bodies or perceive with our senses, but that, as thinking individuals, we can discuss with one another.
In philosophy, Charlotte Mason's thought seems to basically correspond with Adler's. In other words, she seems to think of ideas as things that can be understood by the mind and communicated by means of language. But as an educator, she is more directly concerned with the properties of ideas -- how they form, how they behave, how they are transmitted.

Her main point is that ideas have a life -- they behave like organisms -- once planted, they grow and bear fruit after their own kind.

A live thing of the mind, seems to be the conclusion of our greatest thinkers from Plato to Bacon, from Bacon to Coleridge. We all know how an idea 'strikes,' 'seizes,' 'catches hold of,' 'impresses' us and at last, if it be big enough, 'possesses' us; in a word, behaves like an entity.
Therefore the business of education should not be transmission of mere "tabloids" of information:

that mind too requires its ordered rations and perishes when these fail. We know that food is to the body what fuel is to the steam-engine, the sole source of energy; once we realise that the mind too works only as it is fed education will appear to us in a new light. The body pines and develops humours upon tabloids and other food substitutes
She quotes Coleridge:

"The idea may exist in a clear and definite form as that of a circle in that of the mind of a geometrician or it may be a mere instinct, a vague appetency towards something . . . like the impulse which fills a young poet's eyes with tears."

This has a Romantic tone to it, and Charlotte Mason does indeed quote the Romantics quite a bit, but I see her filtering Wordsworth, Coleridge, Goethe, even Rousseau through a filter of Christian realism. My guess is that her philosophical influence is Augustinian. She generally philosophizes in a more Platonic than Aristotlean vein (not that I'm an expert, but that is my going hypothesis for now) but it is a Christianized Platonism, so I am thinking St. Augustine -- his personalism seems to have had some influence in the germs of truth in the Romantic philosophies. I am out of my depth -- but I'm writing it down anyway because this is just a blog ;-).

OK, I'm back now to CM proper. Certainly to a modern material realist, those "vague appetencies" would seem hopelessly subjective and not worthy to be called referents to "objects of thought". However, I think it's possible to argue that those "vague appetencies" are related to Augustine's "our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee" and "Late Have I Loved Thee". It certainly also evokes CS Lewis's Surprised by Joy and can imply a (perhaps hidden from subjective view) Object.

"But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer." (Surprised by Joy)
Coleridge, as quoted by CM, associated Idea with a notion of the Divine that seems distinctly Platonic:

"An idea is a distinguishable power, self-affirmed and seen in unity with the Eternal Essence"
Here is a corresponding quote from the Catholic encyclopedia:

For them (the early Fathers influenced by Plato) the ideas are the creative thoughts of God, the archetypes, or patterns, or forms in the mind of the Author of the univers according to which he has made the various speciesof creatures. "Ideæ principales formæ quædam vel rationes rerum stabiles atque incommutabiles, quæ in divinâ intelligentiâ continentur" (St.August., "De Div.", Q. xlvi). These Divine ideas must not be looked on as distinct entities, for this would be inconsistent with the Divine simplicity. They are identical with the Divine Essence contemplated by the Divine Intellect as susceptible of imitation ad extra.

Charlotte Mason goes on to summarize the practical implications of the "living" character of ideas that she has described:

(Coleridge's) doctrine corresponds with common experience and should reverse our ordinary educational practice. The whole subject is profound, but as practical as it is profound. We must disabuse our minds of the theory that the functions of education are in the main gymnastic, a continual drawing out without a corresponding act of putting in. The modern emphasis upon 'self-expression' has given new currency to this idea; we who know how little there is in us that we have not received, that the most we can do is to give an original twist, a new application, to an idea that has been passed on to us; who recognise, humbly enough, that we are but torch-bearers, passing on our light to the next as we have received it from the last.

This would seem to set her apart from some of the Romantic school who wallowed in subjectivity and self-referentialism -- throughout her books, she is continually sorting out what she sees as the true grains of the Romantic philosopy of her time from the chaff.

Some more practical implications excerpted from the last part of the chapter -- here is what she advises in light of her views on ideas:

  • we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest.
  • He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs.
  • Urgency on our part annoys him. He resists forcible feedingand loathes predigested food.
  • What suits him best is pabulum presented in the indirect literary form which Our Lord adopts in those wonderful parables whose quality is that they cannot be forgotten though, while every detail of the story is remembered, its application may pass and leave no trace.
  • We, too, must take this risk.
  • it seems to be necessary to present ideas with a great deal of padding, as they reach us in a novel or poem or history book written with literary power.
  • One of our presumptuous sins in this connection is that we venture to offer opinions to children (and to older persons) instead of ideas. ...We think to feed children on the dogmas of a church, the theorems of Euclid, mere abstracts of history, and we wonder that their education does not seem to take hold of them.
  • "'Scientific truths,' said Descartes, 'are battles won.' Describe to the young the principal and most heroic of these battles; you will thus interest them in the results of science and you will develop in them a scientific spirit by means of the enthusiasm for the conquest of truth"
  • all I have said is meant to enforce the fact that much and varied humane reading, as well as human thought expressed in the forms of art, is, not a luxury, a tit-bit, to be given to children now and then, but their very bread of life, which they must have in abundant portions and at regular periods.

  • Basically, in order to educate children we have to look for books that are clothed in literary style, and that express ideas rather than "opinions". Augustine wrote that we don't send our kids to school to learn what the teacher thinks about a subject, but rather to hear explanations so that the students can then consider within themselves if it is true. Similarly, Charlotte Mason wanted the children to be nourished with books that shed light on a subject but not just by listing "dry as dust" facts or simple opinions.

    As you can see above, she used Christ's parables and the Old Testament narratives as exemplars of what she was looking for in a book. The story stays in our mind, she wrote, even as the application sometimes remains hidden or only partially clear. I wish I had space to write more about that topic, since it's a fascinating one, but for now, that's probably way more than enough already.

    To sum it up:

    The mind feeds on ideas and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.

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