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Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition


I can clearly remember when I first discovered Classical Education. As the recipient of a full scholarship for prospective teachers, I had intensely studied educational philosophy and methodology for four years in college. However, it wasn’t until after I graduated college that I finally encountered the pedagogy of the ancients. I recall hearing a radio advertisement for a local Classical school that piqued my interest and caused me to begin my research. I remember thinking, “Classical Education? What in the world is THAT?” It wasn’t long before I was drinking deeply from the well of Dorothy Sayers, Susan Wise Bauer, and the Trivium as developmental stages. Shortly after I began my research, I also discovered the CiRCE Institute and Andrew Kern, with their focus on Christian Classical Education as a means to cultivate wisdom and virtue. It was then that I felt as if I had finally come “home.” After years of immersion in the dry, progressive ideas of modern education, it seemed as if I had finally discovered a philosophy of education that could quench my thirst for Truth. I knew that when I had my own children, I would be giving them a Classical Christian education at home.

I cannot recall at all, however, when I first learned of Charlotte Mason. I am sure that it was a link within a link within a link on the Internet somewhere that I first encountered her name. When I read about how she was a 19th Century educator who had labored to recover sound educational ideas and practices in response to the Progressive English schools of her time, I felt as if I had encountered a kindred spirit. I began perusing blogs that advocated for a Charlotte Mason philosophy of education. I bought and devoured her six-volume Original Homeschooling Series. I began to collect books from the Ambleside Online reading lists.

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At no point in my research did it ever occur to me that Mason’s ideas and practices were at odds with a true Christian Classical Education, so I was shocked when I began homeschooling my oldest son and encountered so many people who proclaimed that the two philosophies were in conflict.  I had difficulty communicating why I felt that Charlotte Mason’s ideas were not counter to traditional Christian Classical Educational philosophy, and I began to wonder if I was missing something. There were so many arguments from the various “camps” that I began to doubt my own intuition that Charlotte Mason and Christian Classical Education were just two sides of the same ancient coin. Instead of trusting my instincts, the ones that told me I could draw from one philosophy without compromising the other, I became confused.  I was excited, then, when I found Karen Glass’ book, Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition. I was hopeful that Glass could explain what I believed intuitively but could not articulate—that a Charlotte Mason education IS, in fact, a Classical Christian Education.

Karen Glass is a founder of Ambleside Online and has homeschooled her children for over twenty years. She uses her personal experience and her many years of study of educational history and philosophy to make the case that Charlotte Mason actually developed her philosophy of education by harvesting from the traditions of the Classical past.

In this concise but rich little book, Glass does an excellent job of explaining how, although ancient educators did not always agree on the method, they did agree on the purpose of education, which was the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through the pursuance of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Like the ancients, Mason was also explicit in her advocacy for a moral education. Glass states that

“[Mason] defined virtue in much the same way [the Ancients] did, as the actions that result from acquiring wisdom.”

In that sense, Glass makes the case that Classical Education and a Charlotte Mason education have the same overarching goal: the formation of character and right actions by means of right thinking.

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Glass traces the history of education and the major shifts in pedagogical thinking, and quotes frequently from the writings of ancient educators like Plato, Aristotle, Quintilian, and Augustine. She shows how Mason was steeped in these classical works and how Classical thinkers directly influenced the development of her philosophy of education.  She contrasts the methodology of modern, progressive education, and convincingly demonstrates how Mason was firmly camped in the principles and methodology of Classical Education.

Glass does make important distinctions between some of the methods advocated by a few modern Classical Educators and the methodology of the ancient educators. She respectfully calls into question some of the practices that are often implemented without full understanding of the underlying Classical principles. But, overall, she makes a convincing case that a bridge does not need to be built between Classical Education and Charlotte Mason’s philosophy; they are already standing firmly on the same ground.  I came away from the book solidly convinced that Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education was a modern application of thoroughly Classical principles.

It is typical in these times to see homeschool parents segregate into various camps depending on educational practices and methodology. Whether one is Classical, Charlotte Mason, eclectic, traditional school-at-home, or an unschooler, it seems to be common practice to stand firmly on “our way” and be suspicious (or outright acrimonious) toward those who adhere to a different philosophy. Glass’ book is a breath of fresh air in a conversation that is sometimes polluted with vitriol. Instead of focusing on the differences, Consider This does exactly as the title suggests: it asks us to consider the rich educational traditions that we have in common, and the ways in which they have evolved and influenced our modern day philosophies.  Regardless of the educational camp in which you may find yourself, this book is one that will enlighten and encourage you as you labor to cultivate wisdom and virtue in your students.

 

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

Great Courses Company: How To Read and Understand Shakespeare

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I was a theater minor at Hillsdale College. When I participated in the Oxford exchange, I travelled to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see several plays. During two of my Hillsdale summer breaks, I travelled with the theater department to the Canadian Stratford Festival.  Shakespeare was central to my liberal arts education.

Confession: all that exposure to the Bard and all of that mentoring did not make me less intimidated by his writing. Maybe I learned too much to just enjoy it? Maybe I didn’t learn enough to see what I thought that I might be seeing? I am not sure where the deficiency is, but I am sure that I have tried to avoid the playwright unless a favorite actor is starring in some new Shakespeare film.

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I am a member of the Read Aloud Revival community. When I knew that Sarah Mackenzie was going to have Ken Ludwig teach a Master Class, I was genuinely excited about having the opportunity to try again. My good friend, Jaime Showmaker, wrote a beautiful article about Ken’s book How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare, and so my pump was primed.

During the Read Aloud Revival Master Class, Sarah invited Ken to come back and mentor us through “Twelfth Night.” It was at that moment that I realized that I was going to have to get serious about reading a play that I have never understood, or else, be left out of the fun. I ordered my Folgers copy, and braced myself for the task.

And then, I remembered that I had purchased the Great Courses Company “How To Read and Understand Shakespeare” course! (Click here to learn more about The Great Courses Company.) I downloaded the course and settled into my laundry folding routine, half expecting to be forcing myself to pay attention. About 10 minutes in, I had little kids dragging their toys over to the t.v., and a bigger kid sketching while he was listening. All of us were entranced.

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Note: I chose the lectures to preview, judiciously. Shakespeare is Shakespeare and the Great Courses Company isn’t designing these courses for little ears. That said, I was impressed by the respect that Professor Connor shows when discussing some of the more delicate subjects. His handling of the mixed up genders in “Twelfth Night” was tasteful and made it clear that there is room for much interpretation on how certain plot lines are portrayed by actors and directors. So, while I don’t want little ears wondering what “erotic” or “homosexual attraction” are, it was tastefully done and very much downplayed. I enjoyed watching more videos when the kids were scarce.

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Professor Connor has a masterful understanding of Shakespeare himself and the tools that Shakespeare used to teach us how to interpret his plays. Connor patiently peels back the layers of interpretation and shows us with quotes, context, and references to previous tools how a story can mean several things and why we can be reasonably certain as to which meaning Shakespeare wants us to grasp.

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The course is laid out in 2 ways: it tells one large sweeping story about Shakespeare’s technique and the tools he employs in his storytelling. It also deals with specific plays in specific ways. In this way, a viewer could watch the 2 lectures on Twelfth Night, more or less, as stand alone, or they could invest 24 lectures in a course through Shakespeare’s canon.

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The course relies on a high level of visual cues. Key points are displayed on graphics, passages are quoted on the screen, and there are many photos used from literature and actual theaters. For families who are on a tight budget, I think that this course would be perfectly fine in the more economical audio format. That said, I do think that this is a course that has a high visual value, and I am glad to be able to see Professor Connor and the visual aids.

In all of my years of studying Shakespeare, I would rank Professor Connor as top notch for inspiring true understanding from his students. His lecture style is friendly, professional, engaging, and articulate. I appreciate his conservative approach to sexual themes. I was pleased to feel myself getting lost in his story telling. This is a course that I am very glad to own, and will certainly use with my children when they are slightly older.

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The Hedge School

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In 17th century Britain, the Protestant English settlers of Ireland had failed to assimilate the native Irish Catholics, and there was serious political and religious tension on the island. In 1641, native Irish landowners staged a rebellion against the English settlers and failed. A bloody, complicated, and chaotic series of events unfolded causing political, economic, and religious instability in the England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Oliver Cromwell is remembered by the Irish as one of the greatest villains of history. Using all of his political and strategic might, he stabilized the situation by enacting genocidal penal laws preventing Irish Catholics from practicing their religion, and he undertook aggressive land acquisition. The situation is remembered by the Irish a in similar way that we remember the Jewish holocaust of Hitler.

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In The Hedge School, our setting is 100 years after Cromwell’s pillaging of Ireland. Cromwell very specifically took the lands of the native Irish Catholic ruling class and placed them into the hands of English loyalists. In our story, Padraic Fritzbrian is the descendent of one of those native Irish rulers whose land was stolen by Cromwell. The Fritzbrian family now rents a cottage on their family lands and pays the English lord exorbitant rent and taxes.

At this time, it was illegal to educate the Irish. There were no schools or tutors for Irish children. Or rather, there were no official schools. Like many villages in Ireland, Padraic’s had an all-weather hedgerow school hidden in the fields and complete with students taking turns as look-out while their peers memorized Cicero.

Padraic is a very likable and relatable character. He is morally principled and he is very bright, but he is a typical young boy who will stretch the truth to do what he believes is right. Frankly, that concerned me a bit in the early chapters. I was worried that this story would glorify deception or forgive a bit of moral relativism. My fears were unnecessary. It does take many chapters to get resolve on this point, but it is crystal clear that truth is not to be toyed with.

Throughout the story, the Fitzbrian’s give us a beautiful example of Christian family life. Not only is this family culturally Catholic, but they are devout as well. They are human and make mistakes but they are holy and governed by the gospel.

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This story is very exciting. Full of intrigue, power-struggles, secrets, and anonymous freedom-fighters. Like any good Irish story, there is tension, adventure, faith, a wee bit of romance, and a celebration of family. This would be a beautiful family read aloud, but I confess, John Lee reads it vastly better than I can. The audio recording is spectacular. John Lee nails the accent, pronounces the names correctly, and adds texture to the story with his narration craft.

Non-Catholic friends have asked if this book is for Catholics only. Not at all. This book is a living history book, and so it does not avoid the very real history of its setting. Because the characters are Catholic, we have one who wants to go to seminary in France, we hear about midnight masses in secret, we appreciate the sacramental life of the characters. It is not, however, an overtly evangelistic book. Non-Catholics may appreciate this little look into the everyday Catholic life of the Irish in the 18th century in the same way that Christians of all denominations can appreciate Chaim Potok’s The Chosen or GA Henty’s The Cat of Bubastes.

I would say that these living history books from Bethlehem Books are very similar to GA Henty novels. Compelling and historical adventurous stories with clear moral principles.

 

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Wednesday With Words: Tradition

 

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Over the past several months, I have been immersed in The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain.  It is a slim volume, but I am making slow progress– not because it is unapproachable, but because of my desire to ponder and savor so many of the ideas it presents.  Every section, down to the introduction and footnotes, has been valuable and thought-provoking for me. For example, I have been chewing on this quote by Peter Kreeft in the Forward for WEEKS now:

In an age which has embraced every novelty, the true rebel is the traditionalist.

I have never considered myself a rebel. In fact, I have always be a rule-follower. I am generally obedient and respectful to those in authority. But our world is changing, and I am finding myself time and again squarely in opposition to the progressive powers-that-be. As the values and traditions of Western Civilization are under constant attack by the majority, I have discovered that I am more and more compelled to swim against the stream. I think that is why I am so passionate about reading, collecting, and promoting books that contain the wisdom and virtue of the ages. I’m savoring this little book by Clark and Jain as they introduce how to do this via a traditional Christian Classical Education. I’m planning to write a review of the entire book next week.

What are you reading this week? Here is a round-up of the open books on the nightstands of the Librarians at Potato Peel Pie Society.

Allison: The Warden and the Wolf King and The Bronze Bow

Becca: The Iliad and Heart of Darkness

Diane: Stepping Heavenward and Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer

Heidi: In Defense of Sanity and For The Children’s Sake

Jaime: The Liberal Arts Tradition and Freckles and Twelfth Night and In Defense of Sanity

Jennifer: Balanced and Barefoot and The Odyssey of Homer and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Kathy: Mother Carey’s Chickens and Rilla of Ingleside and Freckles

Kristy: Julius Caesar and Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys and On Poetry in General and Meditations

Sara:  A Prayer Journal, Flannery O’Connor and The Liberal Arts Tradition and Freckles

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Twenty One Balloons

“We are slaves of our own piggishness, we have locked ourselves in a diamond prison. On the other hand, we are very happy here; and I suppose the fascination of knowing that we are each one of us richer than the combined Midases, Nabobs, and Croesi of history enters too into the Krakatoan spell which keeps us here.”

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In 1947, William Pene du Bois published a little adventure novel that was a magical blend of fact and fantasy. Setting his story in 1883, he created a unique engineering enterprise that resulted in the discovery of a utopia settled on top of an active volcano. Beautifully, our story draws upon sensational real events and marries them with lively fiction. This little story is very clever and perfectly suited to the imaginations of “little men” in search of something wild, engaging, historical and wholesome.

“PROFESSOR SHERMAN IN WRONG OCEAN WITH TOO MANY BALLOONS”

Shockingly, this Newbery Medal winner bears some striking similarities to a story penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald called The Diamond as Big as the Ritz. There are many shared ideas, but there are also stark contrasts between the two. Namely, that Twenty One Balloons was written for children and Fitzgerald wrote much more adult themes.

“KEY TO CITY FAILS TO UNLOCK SECRETS OF SHERMAN’S VOYAGE”

In this little story, the reader’s interest is captivated by the reticence of its main character. After being rescued by the SS Cunningham, our world traveler refuses to explain to his rescuers, the press, the mayor of New York City, and the President of the United States of America, how a man who departed less than 40 days prior from San Francisco in a hot air balloon, ended up in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.  

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The first 45 pages of this 180 page book are a complete puzzle to the reader. We, like the “public” in the book, are waiting for some kind of explanation. We sense a good story in the making, but we are all but lost on what it might be. Our patience is rewarded.

Part of the charm of this book is the mystery. So, I will be particularly careful about not spoiling the most interesting details. Essentially, this story is a tribute to the kind of risk takers, engineers, and artists that could create a lone island utopia. In the spirit of Jules Verne, every detail of this Krakatoan culture is carefully thought out, and the author makes heavy use of engineering creativity, socio-political intrigue, and boyish adventure fantasy.

Completely wholesome, highly inventive, and carefully written, this small adventure novel deserves its Newbery Medal. I was captivated by the audio and delighted by the pen and ink illustrations in my Puffin Modern Classic. I don’t think that I would love reading this one aloud, but I do think that my nine year old will love hiding away in a nook and reading it by himself. My younger ones (5 and almost 7) will enjoy listening to it during the afternoon quiet time.

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