Monday, December 21, 2015

Classic Education... the Charlotte Mason way

Classical Education is the age-old method that produced many educational "giants"  like Aristotle, Newton, C.S. Lewis, and Thomas Jefferson, among others. You can't pin one precise recipe for Classical Education, since of course the Greeks and Romans didn't all do the exact same thing, or even label their educational method as "Classical," for that matter. But they did have a common goal. It was not the mere development of the intellect, but also that of producing virtue in their pupils and influencing their conduct. Students were taught to think for themselves and become life-long learners. 

Classical Education involves teaching children is based on their stage of cognitive development: Grammar, Dialectic, then Rhetoric. Most educators today would define those stages as something like this: 
  1. Grammar - Grade school students absorb lots of facts, laying the foundation for future study
  2. Dialectic - Middle school students begin questioning and evaluating the facts, and learn to think through arguments
  3. Rhetoric - High school students apply what they've learned by making arguments themselves through speech, writing, etc.
Interestingly enough, what we call "Classical Education" today isn't necessarily so. I recently read a great book showing the connection between Classical Education and the Charlotte Mason approach. I came to realize upon reading it that today's version of Classical Education (whether in schools or home schools) may be an attempt to replicate doing what classical educators did rather than getting to the heart of why they did it. This actually matters a great deal, as it can result in the modern version no longer remaining true to the original purpose. 

Let me explain. 

Classic Education began with Rich Literature, Not Rote Memorization

Everyone agrees that Grammar is the first stage of Classical Education, but our definition of it has drastically changed over the years. Today, grammar is defined as the structure of language, and it it has much to do with the learning of rules and the proper application of them. Similarly, the "Grammar Stage" of Classical Education is generally defined as the memorization of many, many facts. However, the original "Grammar Stage" meant something entirely different. "Grammar" meant "Literature" and the words were even used interchangeably in Quintilian's writings. The original beginning of education was that of learning to read and reading the best books. Education began with an immersion in quality literature, not rote drill.

Over time Classic Education came to mean different things. Take for example the ties between Classic Education and the study of Latin. It originally began because nearly all books were written in classical languages rather than common, so educators during the Renaissance period had to teach Latin as a stepping stone for their students to read literature. Learning Latin was not the original goal... reading great literature was. Of course eventually literature became printed in the common languages, so Latin study was no longer needed. But educators kept Latin study in schools for its own sake of mental exercise, and it eventually grew to the point where it was the new focus rather than literature.

Enter Charlotte Mason

By Charlotte Mason's time, classical schools had lost their original vision of "Grammar" in the early years. Instead of delightful exposure to great books, young children were commonly burned out with an abundance of mechanical learning. What was once enjoyable was now tedious. Nineteenth century "Classical Education" was known by all as "the grind." 

Charlotte recognized the difference between the original meaning of Grammar (literature) and the common practice of it (a drudgery). Even if students read some classic literature, it would be painfully analyzed line by line rather than enjoyed as a beautiful story.  She also recognized that as students spent an abundance of their time learning the mechanics of language and Latin, it crowded out much-needed time spent in quality literature.

The Mason Method

Charlotte proceeded to develop her philosophy of education by determining how to best achieve classic ideals in modern education. She believed education was an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. 
  • Education is an atmosphere. Children shouldn't be isolated in a "child environment," as they'll thrive best in a more natural, home-like environment.
  • Education is a discipline. Great emphasis was placed on intentional habit training. 
  • Education is a life. Rather than filling children with facts, educators should feed their minds with living thoughts and ideas. Children should be given a generous curriculum with real, quality literature and allowed to digest it themselves. They should know variety of great thoughts and beautiful ideas in the form of language, art, music, poetry, bible, history, nature and science. 

The Charlotte Mason Method is full of rich literature. Instead of using textbooks with dry, summarized information, students read "living books" written by someone with a passion for the subject who makes it come alive. This includes reading many classics over the years (not abridged, school versions with pre-made questions and conclusions). Instead of the teacher acting as a middle man, reciting filtered knowledge, children have direct communication with great thinkers, inventors, explorers, and leaders by reading their biographies. Students then make use of narration to tell back what they've learned, and in the upper years naturally transition into written composition and persuasive argument.

Charlotte Mason Today

Charlotte's methods were published in her book Home Education 1886, then revived again by the book For the Children's Sake in 1984.  This book applied her ideas to home schooling, public and private school. By that time her original writings were very hard to come by. In fact, even the Charlotte Mason College in England had a single copy, locked up for safe keeping in a vault. With some persuasion, a homeschooling couple managed to borrow that greatly treasured book set, in order to bring it to America for reprinting. (You can read their story here!) With her writings republished and made accessible to the public, modern educators began embracing her philosophy once again. 

Classical Education... The Charlotte Mason Way

As her method re-gained momentum, educators generally labeled it as "The Charlotte Mason Method." In truth, they could simply call it "Classical Education." Any classical educator must determine how to implement classical ideals for their students in the modern world. That is exactly what Charlotte Mason did in her day, and what educators do today in her name. What is labeled as classical education today overlaps a great deal with what we call Charlotte Mason education, particularly in the upper years. The main difference  is found in the grammar years, whether they are spent enjoying rich literature and nature study or focused on the memorization of facts. Technically, Charlotte Mason educators ARE classic educators, they're simply doing it Charlotte Mason's way.

*To read more about the connection between Charlotte Mason and Classical Education, check out the book "Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition."

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