Sunday, November 02, 2008

Children are Born Persons

For this "From the Files" should I write about The re-imagined Aristotelianism of John Henry Newman? Hmm, perhaps not this time. Besides, the printout must have been printed when our toner cartridge was at a low ebb. I will probably need my magnifying glass to actually follow the argument. Maybe next time.

In the meantime, this dissertation in pdf is good: Charlotte Mason: An Introductory Analysis of Her Educational Theories and Practices by J. Carroll Smith.

It is a booklength piece, over 300 pages; I didn't print out all of it, but I've had chapters of it around for years; I think I must have read about it in the CM Study Group, perhaps. The copyright is 2000. What is interesting now that I didn't know until I started writing this is that Dr. Smith is one of the contributors to the Childlight USA blog. I had thought his name was familiar, but hadn't made the connection until I went searching for the link to the dissertation. He also writes articles for the Childlight Charlotte Mason Educational Review. They are worth reading.

In chapter 3 of the dissertation, Children are Born Persons, which is the one I printed out, Dr Smith provides a brief overview of the history of psychology in the last couple of centuries and how it compared to Charlotte Mason's philosophy about children. He sums it up this way (I put in the URLs):

As I demonstrated in this discussion, Mason lived during the height of the Industrial Revolution, a time when children were devalued and made to serve the machine. Charles Dickens, we know, wrote novels about the same conditions and treatment in schools. Watson, in the early part of the last century, began the stimulus-response movement which materialized all of life. It is this view of life that Mason believed had dehumanized education. This thinking had begun, maybe unwittingly, with the thinking of John Locke....

Vygotsky, in the middle of a culture that was probably one of the most materialistic cultures on earth, acknowledged that children come with an innate ability to learn. This is a slight movement away from a purely materialistic view of life. Piaget could not view children as vessels to be filled but rather as constructors of their on learning. Caine and Caine and Jensen in their review of the research on the brain stated that children have an innate need to know. In other words they grow from within or to say it another way, they construct their own knowledge. Each of these educationalists move the dominating psychological influence on education away from behaviorism to cognitivism. This slow move in educational psychology has brought us full circle from the materialistic view of life in Mason’s time to a view of the child as a discoverer of knowledge, a living organism who changes from within and not without.

When I went to look up cognitivism, I found that William Wundt is considered a founder of cognitivism.. I have met him before -- in The Graves of Academe "The Wundter of It All" , and in the Catholic Encyclopedia's discussion of the Will (emphasis mine):

The will is, in this case, as it were, borne down by feeling, and action is simply the "release" of an emotional strain, being scarcely more truly volitional than laughter or weeping. Bain's description of voluntary action as "feeling-prompted movement", therefore, destroys the essential distinction between voluntary and impulsive action. The same criticism applies to Wundt's analysis of the volitional process. According to him, "impulsive action" is "the starting-point for the development of all volitional acts", from which starting-point volitional acts, properly so called, emerge as the result of the increasing complication of impulses; when this complication takes the form of a conflict, there ensues a process called selection or choice, which determines the victory in one direction or another. From this it is clear that choice is simply a sort of circuitous impulse. "The difference between a voluntary activity (i.e. a complex impulse) and a choice activity is a vanishing quantity." Compare with this the dictum of Hobbes: "I conceive that in all deliberations, that is to say, in all alternate succession of contrary appetites, the last is that which we call the Will".

The essential weakness of both these accounts and of many others lies in the attempt to reduce choice or deliberation (the specific activity of will, and a patently rational process) to a merely mechanical or biological equation. Catholic philosophy, on the contrary, maintains, on the certain evidence of introspection, that choice is not merely a resultant of impulses, but a superadded formative energy, embodying a rational judgment; it is more than an epitome, or summing-up, of preceding phenomena; it is a criticism of them.
The way I understand it, Wundt's insistence on laboratory methods of studying psychology gave birth to the modern field of study of psychology. But in trying to understand human behavior biologically, he fell into some of the reductionism inevitable with this kind of focus. His idea of Will, from what the encyclopedia said, would not have agreed with Charlotte Mason's, so she would not be completely in line with cognitivism if I am reading the material correctly. However, Wundt did also emphasize the crucial importance of what he called "introspection" -- the value of the person's own mental framework and understanding of experience in learning and behavior. Certainly this corroborates as far as it goes what Dr Smith says about Charlotte Mason's view of the child as a person from the beginning, with its own unique perceptions and understandings of experience.

Dr Smith points out that it is difficult to get a perceptive measure of the human personality by purely material -- empirical -- means. This was one of Charlotte Mason's main themes throughout her life.

What did she mean by spiritual? Spiritual for Charlotte Mason is, simply put: all that which is not physical (Mason, 1907, p. 168). Her definition includes religious spirituality but her belief about the spiritual nature of humankind encompasses everything that is not physical. Her concepts of spirituality included ideas, creativity, imagination, values, judgments, emotions, reflection and others. She said, “By spiritual I mean that which is not corporeal; and which, for convenience’ sake, we call by various names--the life of thought, the life of feeling, the life of the soul” (Mason, 1907, p. 168).

If you read the section from the Catholic Encyclopedia again, you will see that this is the basic problem with "laboratory psychology" as conceived by Wundt and his followers. Careful empirical investigation, as with Piaget, is a discipline that can lead to valuable insights. But the conclusions will always have limited applicability to the particular individual because the particular individual is an agent -- an active, reflecting person himself -- not simply an object of study. The human being continually reflects on -- critiques, in fact -- its own experience and even his own response to that experience. This is crucial. So cognitivism is a step forward from behaviorism in that it respects the interior perspectives of the individual and goes beyond conditioned response in explaining behavior, but is still is in danger of heading back into that territory if it dismisses the full personhood of the individual person.

One example I think of often comes from John Holt, who often wrote about childrens' intelligence and learning behavior. I can't find the source right now, but he talked about how some expert brought a "teaching machine" into the classroom. It was one of those cross-wire quizzing machine that would buzz if you got the wrong answer. The children, left to use the quizzing machine, played with it a bit as intended, but soon were figuring out how to re-wire the machine to reward wrong answers, and making up their own quiz sheets. This is a very human response -- to look behind the wizard's curtain to see the little man pushing levers -- and it is one often disregarded or even suppressed by scientists and teachers who want children to be programmable by conditioning or by emotional triggers.

Children are scientists and psychologists themselves, not subjects of scientists and psychologists. Most "systems" of education, as Charlotte Mason often wrote, ignore that and thus fail in their endeavors.

Richard Mitchell writes (and the whole chapter is excellent reading):

Leaving aside the incidental, if momentous, destruction of a whole nation's ability to read, we have still two far more important and ominous legacies from Wundt. We can afford to leave the reading problem aside because it is only a practice, a practice that can change, and, in fact, does show signs of changing. But the major principles that generated and maintained that practice show no signs of changing, and those principles generate and maintain numerous other unnatural practices and will yet bring us more. They can be put thus:

1. Mental and emotional conditions and events are natural phenomena subject to natural law and fully subsumable in a rigidly scientific system.

2. Teaching and learning are mental and emotional conditions and events.

In another context, of course, there would be no need to make of the second a "principle" equal in weight to the first, but here it seems useful. These principles are ominous legacies not because they are false. For all I know, and for all anyone knows, they may be true. But that wouldn't make them ominous either, although it certainly would lead me to drop this project, and all others, here and now. What makes them ominous is that they are utterly, for humanity in its present state at least, beyond our powers to test. They require what we seem unable to achieve, the total understanding of human beings by human beings. We lack that. And, for all the promises of our Freuds, Marxes, and Wundts, we seem no closer to it then ever before. We may assume what suits us, of course, about the nature of humanity, and when we act on our assumptions, consequences will flow accordingly. American educationists have assumed the truth of Wundt's principles, in spite of the fact that few of them have ever heard of Wundt, and the consequences are what we see.

Maybe I should have talked about re-imagined Aristotelianism after all? I certainly went off on a psychological trail there. Anyway, I think that Dr Smith's point holds, that the investigations of modern psychology have tended to corroborate Charlotte Mason's view of childhood in many ways. Her view, in turn, I believe was deeply informed by the Christian tradition not just from Comenius's time, but from Augustine and Aquinas (particularly the former, I think, though that is still a hypothesis).

I also had the chapter on Narration printed out and that is quite an interesting one related in several ways to the "born persons" one. Narration is in many ways an educational method derived from the idea that children need to assimilate knowledge mentally and spiritually in the same way that their bodies digest food physically. But if I kept on, this would get even more difficult to digest than it already is ;-). I think the Take-Home point is that one's view of human nature is inevitably, deeply going to affect one's educational devices. Thank heavens, a lot of "real" philosophy and psychology -- as opposed to the theorizing of some modern philosophers and psychologists -- is informed by reflective common sense. Good teachers have always focused on the "art" of teaching -- an essentially personal, applied undertaking. As Marva Collins said, "anything works if the teacher does". Charlotte Mason says that many contrived "methods" are just a distraction, which is probably one reason that education comes down at its deepest level to a child, a teacher/book and the world.


Stephanie said...

Willa - that guy - Gilbert Highet - he wrote a book called The Art of Teaching. I remember very little of it generally, but there is a basic principle that seems to me to fit hand in glove with Charlotte Mason's assertion about children.

If a child is born a person - not a vessel, not a blank slate, not malleable clay, but a whole human person who will grow and change organically as human persons do - then, (from Highet)

It makes sense that there are really only four things necessary to education happening by means of a teacher. The teacher must:

Know his subject.
Love his subject.
Know his student.
Love his student.

I mean, think about it. How many ethnic dishes have been passed from generation to generation, from a grandmother not at all a professional "educator," but who knew and loved to make that recipe, to a grandchild also known and loved. After those four basic requirements, all the pedagogy in the world is just gravy.

Don'tcha think?

Willa said...

I agree, Stephanie. I was just rereading Highet's book recently, and thought he had several things in common with CM.

In that way, I can see that pedagogy CAN be a temptation to avoid love and knowledge. That's how it sometimes works out with me.... easier than the attention and commitment required to REALLY teach.

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking about this, too (but in more simple terms). I sometimes feel that too much theory actually results in less effective "teaching" (by me) and almost certainly in less learning (by my boys). I liken it to when I first became a mother. I read and read the parenting books but only after I set them aside and tuned into my child did I really start to understand my child's needs. The background was helpful but then I needed to move on from that to focus on the child I had in front of me- not the theory about what that child should be and do.

I find the same thing now, with HSing. I am at my best and my boys are happy and learning the most when I focus on them and what their needs and desires are.

Following theory may be easier, but it does NOT yield the best results and it often interferes with my relationship with my boys- it is hard to demonstrate love when I am following the ideas someone else developed after studying other children. Knowing and Loving MY students is a key to their education. Yet, it is easy (for me) to fall into the trap of wanting to simply implement theory. I sometimes need to remind myself that the rewards involved in knowing and loving are indeed worth the effort.

Tracey (Connections)

Willa said...

Tracey, I fall into that trap too, definitely.

I like theory and I get some good ideas from researching and exploring, but I've found I have to make them work for ME and for my kids. I can't just grab some method and try to use it as a solution for everything. I think that's probably what Highet and others have said about teaching being an Art rather than a Science. That is, it's about trying to make things work (and learning from the inevitable mistakes) rather than following some set of rules in a rigid way.

Stephanie said...

What I think we have the hardest time escaping is the idea that "education" is mechanics. It isn't. It's an organic process, and not entirely dependent on known factors. The organic growing person is himself a player, for one thing - just imagine what it would be like to garden if the veg could CHOOSE!

Pedagogy is the most fascinating thing in the world to me. It's my lifelong study to watch how people learn and change and how they assimilate information and what they do with it when they get it. It's not that I think "method" is useless and mechanical ... it's that we have to take an organic, growing, living process into account whenever we find "methods."

And it's simply shocking what "methods" a mom/teacher can find or discard if she will "look to the child," as Maria Montessori said to do, you know? Like you said, Tracey ... love teaches us how to teach. It really does.

Anonymous said...

Willa and Stephanie-

I think I would benefit from some type of support group for this! I find encouragement on certain blogs and forums, but I also find myself falling into the trap from time to time.

I guess it's all about HOW I approach my research into methods and ideas. So many resources for HSing are written from a how-to perspective. But I am better off when I do not approach my research into methodologies and pedagogy as a means of finding a "how-to."

Thanks for discussing this!

(Did I make a blogging mistake by addressing this to you both on Willa's blog?)

Tracey (Connections)