Monday, August 7, 2017

Love and Justice: Charlotte Mason on Character Training

Charlotte Mason had a thing or two to say about what we would call "character training". A thing or two. Actually, reading her books, you will quickly see that there is far more material devoted to principles, attitudes, and child training then practical how-to of educating as we think of it. There is comparatively little on how to teach sums or physics, for example, and much on how to teach CHILDREN.

In Mason's sixth book, A Philosophy of Education, where she "sums up" so to speak, all her years of experience and work, she has a little section titled "Misdirected Affections", which, if I was presumptuous enough to re-title, I would call "Love and Justice". In it, she speaks of not only how character training should be approached, (and NOT approached) she has some great things to say about human nature in general.

Love and Justice. 

How do you train a child in love and justice? And what are they? Perhaps you should buy one of those handy curriculum packages for character training. The ones with crafts, activities, comprehension questions, and insipid stories designed to illustrate one moral, and one moral only.

Or you could do it Charlotte's way. She is pretty blunt:

As for moral lessons, they are worse than useless; children want a great deal of fine and various moral feeding, from which they draw the 'lessons' they require.  

She doesn't, however, neglect to tell us what to do instead.

This education of the feelings, moral education, is too delicate and personal a matter for a teacher to undertake trusting to his own resources. Children are not to be fed morally like young pigeons with predigested food. They must pick and eat for themselves and they do so from the conduct of others which they hear of or perceive. But they want a great quantity of the sort of food whose issue is conduct, and that is why poetry, history, romance, geography, travel, biography, science and sums must all be pressed into service. 

So forget those annoying and patronizing character studies. Instead, Mason tells us that our school books, including poetry, history, science, and even math are all training in character. She also tells us that we can't plan for a certain moral lesson from any particular reading. The child takes what he needs from his books, including what he needs to develop his character. Again, she compares gaining knowledge with acquiring nourishment- the mind, like the body, takes what it needs.

No one can tell what particular morsel a child will select for his sustenance. One small boy of eight may come down late because "I was meditating upon Plato and couldn't fasten my buttons," and another may find his meat in 'Peter Pan'! But all children must read widely, and know what they have read, for the nourishment of their complex nature. 

So what about Justice? 

Justice is, at it's heart, a sense of fairness. 

Everyone has Justice in his heart; a cry for 'fair play' reaches the most lawless mob, and we all know how children torment us with their 'It's not fair.' It is much to know that as regards justice as well as love there exists in everyone an adequate provision for the conduct of life:...
When reading this section, I had my reservations. How can character be simplified into just two things, love and justice? But she goes on to explain how justice contains many different ideas.

 Justice in Word: Truth

Young people should leave school knowing that their thoughts are not their own; that what we think of other people is a matter of justice or injustice...
You have a responsibility to think right thoughts about your neighbors. You also have a responsibility to say right things: 

... a certain manner of words is due from them to all manner of persons with whom they have to deal; and that not to speak those words is to be unjust to their neighbours. They should know that truth, that is, JUSTICE IN WORD, is their due and that of all other persons...

Justice in Action: Integrity

Integrity, I have heard, is how you act when no one else sees you. Charlotte mentions that, as well as working well and being trustworthy, and doing your best in everything.

JUSTICE IN ACTION; integrity in work, which disallows ca'canny methods, whether those of the artisan who does as little as he can in the time, or of the schoolboy ... Therefore he may not scamp, dawdle over, postpone, crib, or otherwise shirk his work. He learns that "my duty towards my neighbour" is "to keep my hands from picking and stealing," and... he must know that justice requires from him the integrity in material which we call honesty;

Justice in Thought: Opinions

We also owe our neighbors justice in thought: It is our duty to form opinions wisely and carefully. This seems to be something usually disregarded when we think about character, and sorely needed in our modern world.

There is another form in which the magnanimous citizen of the future must be taught the sense of justice. Our opinions show our INTEGRITY OF THOUGHT. Every person has many opinions whether his own honestly thought out, or notions picked up from his pet newspaper or his companions. The person who thinks out his opinions modestly and carefully is doing his duty as truly as if he saved a life because there is no more or less about duty.

Justice in Motive: Principles

Principles seem to be related to our opinions. They both need to be created consciously in order to be doing our duty, and yet seldom are. Conscious thought in opinions will lead naturally into conscious thought in principles. One births the other.

If a schoolboy is to be guided into the justice of thought from which sound opinions emanate, how much more does he need guidance in arriving at that JUSTICE IN MOTIVE which we call sound principles. For what, after all, are principles but those motives of first importance which govern us, move us in thought and action? We appear to pick up these in a casual way and are seldom able to render an account of them and yet our lives are ordered by our principles, good or bad.

Just like love, the formation of justice comes from a spread feast. Wide reading, and opening your heart to beauty and virtue. We are not reading books ABOUT character, or studying art and music designed to teach virtue. Rather we read books about people. Books exploring what it is to be human, living in this world. Art, nature, and music. Beauty and virtue are not taught, they are given. A door that is opened, a feast that is spread.

Here, again, we have a reason for wide and wisely ordered reading; for there are always catch-words floating in the air, as,––'What's the good?' 'It's all rot,' and the like, which the vacant mind catches up for use as the basis of thought and conduct, as, in fact, paltry principles for the guidance of a life.  Here we have one more reason why there is nothing in all those spiritual stores in the world's treasury too good for the education of all children. Every lovely tale, illuminating poem, instructive history, every unfolding of travel and revelation of science exists for children..... 
Children of a poor school in the slums are eager to tell the whole story of Waverly, ...They talk about the Rosetta Stone and about treasures in their local museum; they discuss Coriolanus....They know by heart every detail of a picture by La Hooch, Rembrandt, Botticelli, and not only is no evolution of history or drama, no subtle sweetness, no inspiration of a poet, beyond them, but they decline to know that which does not reach them in literary form.

Charlotte Mason has a lot to say about forming character and virtue in children (and ourselves). In fact, she has far more to say about creating better humans then she does about practical applications of school lessons. She has one whole book called "Formation of Character", after all, so this is only scratching the surface.

I feel like many times we get it backward. We want to know all the nuts and bolts, we want the how-tos, the step-by-step guide, the factual bits. But what if giving a Charlotte Mason education... what if imparting a living education... what if spreading a feast of beauty and richness... what if all that is a lot more about the impractical, the intangible, the spiritual, then it is about how long your math lesson should be? It sure seems that was how Ms. Mason thought anyway, given that more then half of her books are about things like "the way of the will" rather then about how to implement copywork.

All quotes from A Philosophy of Education, chapter III, by Charlotte Mason. Emphasis added. 

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