Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Charlotte Mason: Will and Right Thought

...The part of the teacher is to afford to each child a full reservoir of the right thought of the world to draw from. For right thinking is by no means a matter of self-expression. Right thought flows upon the stimulus of an idea, and ideas are stored as we have seen in books and pictures and the lives of men and nations; these instruct the conscience and stimulate the will, and man or child 'chooses.

I am continuing with the Charlotte Mason chapter on Way of the Will. In this section, I wanted to focus on what Charlotte Mason thought was the role of education in forming the will. David Hicks, in Norms and Nobility, says that until relatively recent times, it was never doubted that the object of education was to foster virtue. From what I understand, this was because until recently, the object of education was understood as integration of body, mind, heart and spirit... so an education which formed the intellect but not the heart and will was considered a deformed one. An education based on "self-expression" was something like starvation, as CM explains in more detail elsewhere. Of the relation of the human Will to virtue, the Catholic Encyclopedia says:

But the will only, or any other faculty only in so far as it is moved by the will, can be the subject of habits, which are called virtues in the absolute sense. For it is the proper function of the will to move to their respective acts all the other powers which are in any way rational.
That is not easy language -- what I take it to mean is that virtues are patterns of repeated good acts which are motivated by good intentions -- habits, but not just mechanical habits like brushing your teeth -- habits like kindness, or modesty, or studiousness. As Charlotte Mason says, the will is the Premier -- the thing particular to a person, the power of choice between one behavior and another. So the will can direct us to act badly, either out of wickedness or ignorance ("What is best," says Aristotle, "is not evident except to the good man; for wickedness perverts us and causes us to be deceived about the starting-points of action."), while education can give us knowledge and inspiration to act and think well and thus help our will to be directed towards the true good.

Of the virtue-fostering ideal of education, CS Lewis wrote:

"the purpose of education has been described by Milton as that of fitting a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices both private and public, of peace and war."

Edith Stein spoke similarly:

"We must therefore keep in mind the comprehensive idea of education...education as the orientation of the whole person towards the goal for which he is destined. This process embraces body, soul, and mind with all their faculties."

And also Samuel Johnson:

"I have Socrates on my side. It was his labour to turn philosophy from the study of nature to speculations upon life, but the innovators whom I oppose are turning off attention from life to nature. They seem to think that we are placed here to watch the growth of plants, or the motions of the stars. Socrates was rather of opinion that what we had to learn was, how to do good and avoid evil."

According to Richard Mitchell in the Graves of Academe (available online, and a very good read), the Eliot Report on Education in 1893 said that:

As studies in language and in the natural sciences are best adapted to cultivate the habits of observation; as mathematics are the traditional training of the reasoning faculties; so history and its allied branches are better adapted than any other studies to promote the invaluable mental power which we call judgment.
However, by the time that Charlotte Mason was writing Philosophy of Education, the world had seen the Great War and an arrival of a new type of education with much more utilitarian ends (described from this side of the Atlantic in the chapter of Graves of Academe linked above, and also in John Taylor Gatto's chapter on Cardinal Principles). She briefly mentions a few examples of civil disruption and ruin brought about by what she calls "the undermining of the will of the people" (or sometimes, the leaders themselves). Consequently:

it is time that we realised that to fortify the will is one of the great purposes of education.
How do we do this? On one hand, it seems important to make the child aware of the high responsibility he has to order his own capacities.

By degrees the scholar will perceive that just as to reign is the distinctive function of a king, so to will is the function of a man. A king is not a king unless he reigns and a man is less than a man unless he wills.
For this reason, there ought to be some conscious instruction in forming one's own will correctly --- David Hicks writes:

"Virtue, after all, is not a parlor game, but a perpetual activity, and an education that fails to prepare man for the life of virtue robs him as a youth of his chance to receive what Cicero calls "right reason": the ability to recognize who he is and what his purposes are in terms of the virtues and excellences found, though hidden, in nature. Education for the life of virtue instructs man to to perceive and to imitate in nature....these embodied truths, making of himself a work of art. "Be always at work carving your own statue," taught Plotinus.
Charlotte Mason puts it this way:

he should know that the duty of self-direction belongs to him; and that powers for this direction are lodged in him, as are intellect and imagination, hunger and thirst. These governing powers are the conscience and the will. The whole ordering of education with its history, poetry, arithmetic, pictures, is based on the assumption that conscience is incapable of ordering life without regular and progressive instruction. We need instruction also concerning the will.
However, CM does caution about an over-emphasis upon self in this training process:

All adequate education must be outward bound, and the mind which is concentrated upon self-emolument, even though it be the emolument of all the virtues, misses the higher and the simpler secrets of life. Duty and service are the sufficient motives for the arduous training of the will that a child goes through with little consciousness. The gradual fortifying of the will which many a schoolboy undergoes is hardly perceptible to himself however tremendous the results may be for his city or his nation.

Will, free will, must have an object outside of self.
This is important, because there is a vast difference between, on one hand, working towards an ideal of virtue and nobility -- what David Hicks called a "prescriptive ideal" , which one knows one will never really come close to -- and on the other hand, forming oneself self-consciously with a view to one's own processes rather than a duty to something outside. Chesterton writes:

All the fundamental functions of a healthy man ought emphatically to be performed with pleasure and for pleasure; they emphatically ought not to be performed with precaution or for precaution. ... A man ought to take exercise not because he is too fat, but because he loves foils or horses or high mountains, and loves them for their own sake. And a man ought to marry because he has fallen in love, and emphatically not because the world requires to be populated.
David Hicks notes that:

Pagan humanism and Christianity agreed that the fundamental problem with man, as well as the greatest obstacle to his learning about himself, is his self-centeredness. Man cannot be virtuous or wise until he is off-center.

To put it another way, it is what I mentioned in the last post about CM's ideas on Will, that our personal fulfillment can only take place in a context of not paying over-much attention to that aspect of it. The paradox "you must lose your life to gain it" is stated in the Sermon on the Mount, which Charlotte Mason quotes explicitly when she talks about "the single eye":

The simple rectified will, what our Lord calls 'the single eye,' would appear to be the one thing needful for straight living and serviceableness. But always the first condition of will, good or ill, is an object outside of self.
The reference to the "single eye" is from Matthew 6, which contains the Sermon on the Mount:

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore your eye be single, your whole body shall be full of light. But it your eye be evil, your whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you be darkness, how great is that darkness!

That "single eye" image struck me deeply (forgive that dreadful mash of metaphors) and I would like to talk more about it -- perhaps it will come up again.

But for now, what it seems to indicate in Charlotte Mason's discussion of Will is that when we choose, when we will actively and carry out our will, we focus on what our conscience and reason have told us is right (or contrarily, have ignored these things). In order to see clearly, it is important to allow our reason to be educated and our conscience instructed -- our "eye" to be filled with light and seeing clearly -- and one of the primary objects of education is to provide by precept and example, that "right thought":

The ordering of the will is not an affair of sudden resolve; it is the outcome of a slow and ordered education in which precept and example flow in from the lives and thoughts of other men, men of antiquity and men of the hour, as unconsciously and spontaneously as the air we breathe. But the moment of choice is immediate and the act of the will voluntary; and the object of education is to prepare us for this immediate choice and voluntary action which every day presents.
For a Christian, of course, this education does not substitute for grace, but it does support it. St Paul's words are familiar to almost everyone, but since Pope Benedict has declared this the year of St Paul, I will close with them, even though I could probably keep going on and on:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

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