Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series on the teaching of physics by Richele Baburina, author of Mathematics: An Instrument for Living Teaching, published by Simply Charlotte Mason.
In this series we have been using six questions posed by Rudyard Kipling in one of his most beloved poems to consider the study of physics in the Charlotte Mason classroom:
I keep six honest serving-men;
(They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who. (Kipling, 1909, p. 5)
We began in part 1 with what physics is, why it has a place in a generous curriculum, and when the subject is found in the overall programs of study. In part 2 we explored how physics is taught through the use of living books, news articles, narration, science notebooks, experiments, and exams. In this final article, we turn our attention to the role of mathematics with a look at where the study of physics took place before ending with perhaps the most powerful question—the who.
Where the subject took place gives us an idea of how much math was historically included in the study of physics in the Mason classroom. In each of the forms we most often see the sciences (astronomy, geology, physics, botany, etc.) taking place right after the study of mathematics and before singing and drill or foreign language. Miss Mason knew that a child is kept from being overtaxed by varying the lessons to ensure the use of different parts of the brain and body. The fact that she scheduled physics immediately after mathematics is a pretty good clue that this was not a math-heavy subject in her classrooms.
A close look at the scope and sequence of mathematics lined up with those of the sciences also reveals that students did not wait until they had studied trigonometry or calculus before undertaking their various terms of physics. Mathematics was never a roadblock to the exploration of the fascinating and often simple ideas found in physics. Students did meet with distances and measurements in their books, but problems were never outside their scope of understanding. The idea that mathematical calculations were important was touched on in these books, and our scientist-authors certainly threw the doors wide open to a desire for deeper knowledge and a further gaining of wisdom.
For example, Agnes Giberne in This Wonderful Universe gives the foundational ideas of how star-distances are calculated using base-lines and triangles. She gives the results of the calculations simply and clearly, but she states that the calculations themselves “were won by… tireless courage and perseverance.” She urges those interested in “enter[ing] into the whole question” to study mathematics. She does an amazing job of linking the math involved to common experience and life, telling the reader that when you judge “the distance of anything that you see…,” we “for the greater part unconsciously… use a base-line and triangles” (1920, pp. 128-129). Giberne explains how the space between our two eyes is our baseline and the object at which we look, whether near or far, is seen by each eye in a slightly different position, against a slightly different background. Our two eyes combine the two views and our brains quickly work out the problem and give us the result. Relating further, Giberne tells how British anti-aircraft gunners in the war could tell at a glance the exact height of any machine flying over their position (1920, pp. 129-130).
Students in the final year of high school must give slightly more consideration to mathematics, though they might not necessarily work the equations themselves. In Nature of the Physical World—the reading found in Form VI, our 12th grade—Sir Arthur Eddington discusses how mathematical formulations describe the laws of quantum physics and are important in developing theory. He also lets the reader know that while mathematics is the servant of physics and not the master, he also exudes that he “know[s] of passages written in mathematical symbols which in their sublimity might vie with… [a] sonnet” (1929, p. 320). Again, in a Charlotte Mason education we prepare the student not only to earn a living but also to live a full life, and we strive to ensure science does not become a “utilitarian subject” (Mason, 1989f, p. 223).
Wherever your child is in his understanding of mathematics, please don’t let its role prohibit him from imagining and enjoying the marvelous world contained within physics. In fact, Einstein himself was not considered a great mathematician and he struggled with translating his theories into the language of mathematics. He received much help in this area from his first wife and many of his friends. Michael Faraday, the great experimentalist, was also not a mathematician and it took the Scottish mathematician, James Clerk Maxwell, to put Faraday’s ideas of electromagnetic force into equations. Can you imagine if these two men had been deprived of exploring ideas or the beauty of their studies based on their math scores?
According to Carlo Rovelli,
… Einstein had a unique capacity to imagine how the world might be constructed, to “see” it in his mind. The equations, for him, came afterward; they were the language with which to make concrete his visions of reality. For Einstein, the theory of general relativity is not a collection of equations: it is a mental image of the world arduously translated into equations. (2017, pp. 92-93)
Faraday and Einstein were both skillful explorers of ideas with vivid imaginations, and mathematics translated their ideas into concise equations.
While the program of study laid out by Miss Mason will be sufficient food for the mind of most students, we also need to consider those who wish to further pursue their interest in physics, engineering, or technology. Happily, the type of physics study we have been discussing is helpful in preparing for the conceptual questions found on AP and SAT physics tests. Charlotte tells us:
With this sort of appreciative knowledge of things to begin with, the superstructure of exact knowledge, living science, no mere affair of text-books and examinations, is easily raised, because a natural desire is implanted. (1989c, p. 78)
Thus, a Charlotte Mason education provides a firm foundation upon which a superstructure can be built. If one follows Mason’s program of mathematics study, plenty of time is allowed in high school for a program of higher math with robust math texts that provide solid instruction in physics-related math concepts, such as those by Paul Foerster. Additional concepts can also be supplemented in the physics lesson. For example, in the high school Living Science Study Guides for physics, author Nicole Williams challenges students with an array of optional math problems related to what they are learning based on their own level of mathematical understanding.
Such options should adequately prepare a student going into a scientific or engineering field without precluding the beauty and wonder of so great a study. Remember back to part 1 when we heard from Dr. Telford Petrie who contrasted Miss Mason’s broad view of science as a forest or woods that “was part of the swelling countryside… one with God’s universe” to the narrower view of science as definite branches divorced from the humanities (1928, p. 57). Dr. Petrie, prior to receiving a doctorate of science in engineering, was home-educated according to Miss Mason’s applied philosophy along with his three siblings—all four born within a six-year span—and he even belonged to the Parents’ Review School’s art club. We see him at age 13 sending in brush drawings of his favorite flower and illustrations to accompany nursery rhymes (Steinthal, 1896, p. 547) before addressing the readers of The Parents’ Review 32 years later as an esteemed scientist, inventor, and engineer.
Now we come to the final of Kipling’s six honest serving-men before we can give them all a rest, and that is who. The who, dear friends, in the study of physics in the Charlotte Mason classroom is you, your student, the author of the living book you are using and, most importantly, the Author and Finisher of your faith.
[Principle] 20. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys for life. (Mason, 1989f, p. xxxi)
This principle pertains to you as well. Breathe easy, we have a Helper.
From Charlotte’s Threefold Cord, “all subjects, all advances in knowledge and wisdom, are under the direction of the Holy Spirit” (Cholmondely, 2000, p. 156). Remember, He is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working.
Essex Cholmondely tells us of “Miss Mason’s advice, ‘Allow the book to be the teacher’” (2000, p. 153). With that advice in mind, the role of the human teacher is to “see to it that in every lesson the children know, doing the work themselves” (Cholmondely, 2000, p. 151).
When Charlotte addressed those Gloucester teachers, her message remained the same as it had for the previous 35 years and is the same for us today:
…hold fast the educational faith that [is in you], faith in knowledge as the children’s birthright, faith in mind, the children’s inheritance; for education [is] a venture of faith. (as cited in Cholmondely, 2000, p. 139)
We know from Charlotte’s correspondence that her joy in the children’s work was equaled by admiration for the teachers who so faithfully worked out her principles and method.
And are we not today just like that “valiant but scattered band of teachers and speakers” of a hundred years ago “who found in Charlotte Mason’s method just the inspiration and support they needed”? They “proved that there is a practical possibility that all knowledge”—even in physics—“can be for all men” (Cholmondely, 2000, p. 146).
We’ve now addressed the what, why, when, how, where, and who of physics in the Charlotte Mason classroom. My hope for you is that you will wonder and admire the world of physics along with your children and that what they see with their own mind’s eye will make of them “for the moment another” Einstein (1989a, p. 54).
Cholmondely, E. (2000). The story of Charlotte Mason. Petersfield: Child Light Ltd.
Eddington, A. (1929). The nature of the physical world. Cambridge: The University Press.
Giberne, A. (1920). This wonderful universe. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. New York: Macmillan.
Kipling, R. (1909). Stories and poems. New York: A. L. Burt Company.
Mason, C. (1989a). Home Education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989c). School Education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989f). A philosophy of education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Petrie, T. (1928). A note on the teaching of school science. In The Parents’ Review, volume 39 (pp. 56-58). London: Parents’ National Education Union.
Rovelli, C. (2017). Reality is not what it seems. New York: Riverhead Books.
Steinthal, F. (1896). Aunt Mai’s budget. In The Parents’ Review, volume 7 (pp. 545-555). London: Parents’ National Education Union.