Savage or Manly?

Savage or Manly?

A few years ago when I was preparing a presentation for a Charlotte Mason conference, I surveyed the covers of books about Charlotte Mason. Most of the covers had a picture of a woman teaching a girl – presumably a mother and a daughter. Some of the covers skipped the mother and only showed the girl. But I can only recall one book that had a male of any kind on the cover.

An early and well-known book about Charlotte Mason was subtitled, “Personal Reflections on the Gentle Art of Learning.” Judging these books by their covers, one might conclude that a Charlotte Mason education is a “soft” alternative to other forms of education, designed primarily for gentle mothers to teach gentle daughters. Now I have nothing against mothers and daughters – I am married to one and the father of the other – but what does that leave for me and my boys?

I was pleasantly surprised recently to find that this perception of a Charlotte Mason education is nothing new. It turns out that a small booklet was published in 1930 subtitled “Charlotte Mason’s Method of Education in a Boys’ Preparatory School.” In this booklet the author, A. V. C. Moore, made the following fascinating remark:

Another mistaken notion is “that P.N.E.U. is only meant for girls, or for small boys up to the age of nine or ten, but after that age it is too soft: that boys need a real preparatory school to put some manhood into them in order to prepare them for the hard life of their public school.”

How did this “mistaken notion” come about? And has any progress been made in the past 80 years to dispel this notion?

Mr. Moore was a teacher who taught in several preparatory schools. But he was discouraged by the apathy he saw in his students – boys – and the apathy he found in himself and the other teachers. And he was concerned about a general lack of results. But he was blessed to have a wife who was trained by Charlotte Mason herself at Ambleside. She inspired him to start a Charlotte Mason school for boys.

What would such a school look like? His standard for a Charlotte Mason education is as applicable today as it was in 1930: “a school governed as much as possible by Charlotte Mason’s method. By this method I mean her philosophy of Education as expounded in her books.” In other words, (as has already been emphasized by another writer in this blog), there is no substitute for reading Mason’s own words. Mr. Moore states it point blank: “To understand [Charlotte Mason’s philosophy] one must study her books carefully.” There is no shortcut.

But to advance his Charlotte Mason school for boys, Mr. Moore had to refute the misconception that a Charlotte Mason education is too “soft.” (Or shall we say, too “gentle”?) It is hard to improve on his refutation:

I am unable to understand how a well-balanced mind, filled with real vigorous life and joy in knowledge, can do otherwise than produce manliness. A boy who grows up with a love for knowledge, for pictures, poetry or music may be less savage than he was before, but need not be less manly. Charlotte Mason’s method does not exclude games, physical training, boxing, etc. Her method embraces a profoundly deep training of body and mind, and does not in the least mean interference with the athletic training of a boy.

I think it is a fair question to ask – must one be “savage” to be “manly”?

Moore goes on:

What about beauty in the life of a small schoolboy? Is he to think only in terms of football matches, sweets, motor-cars, cinemas and jazz-bands? Is not the life of a child of two years’ old full of beauty and wonder? Is he to be starved of this beauty and wonder when he begins so-called “lessons”? What about the beauty of music, of pictures, of poetry, and the beauty of the earth and the heavens in the life of a schoolboy?

If Moore were writing his article today, the particulars of his list would change, but the substance would be the same. Jazz-bands would give way to pop music and video games would creep into the list, but the basic idea is the same – if young men are not introduced to good music, pictures, poetry, and nature, then what will they fill their minds with? Moore writes:

One has only to see the real joy of a child of two or three years’ old in wild flowers to realise the appeal that the beauty of the earth makes. Is all this love of beauty to be starved because a boy is at school? Charlotte Mason’s method of education includes all these things.

At the ChildLight conference this year, I saw a wonderful example of the manly side of a Charlotte Mason education. Bobby Scott delivered a fantastic workshop on picture study. But these pictures were neither soft nor gentle. And they will probably not be featured on the covers of any Charlotte Mason books any time soon.

Bobby told the tale of Caravaggio, and in a way that would spark the interest and imagination of any man, young or old (it certainly sparked my interest!) Here are some excerpts from Bobby’s slides:

Between 1600 and 1606 [Caravaggio’s] name appeared in police records no less than fourteen times.  Six of those occasions landed him in jail.  Many of these instances were for minor altercations including carrying arms without permission, throwing stones at an officer, and throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter…

In 1606, his lifestyle and propensity for fighting caught up with him, and caused a major life change. In what was set up to appear as a quarrel over a tennis match, a duel was arranged between Caravaggio and a man who claimed a personal insult from the painter. As a result Caravaggio was badly injured and his opponent, Ranuccio Tomassoni killed at his hand. Though wounded, Caravaggio became a fugitive…

Now this is picture study! Insults, fights, duels, and fugitives…

And yet Caravaggio was not all savage. As Bobby showed us, this earthy man also had a remarkable gift for portraying the sacred. But even these sacred paintings are infused with a manly intensity. One of Bobby’s slides read:

His pictures both embody and evoke an acute and piercing gaze. Caravaggio sees what he sees with such intensity … that he makes seeing itself seem a compulsive act. It is as if he feels at every moment that to see is also to possess and, potentially, to be possessed. This is why Caravaggio’s paintings have a destructive effect on pictures by other artists. They exert such a sensually charged, magnetic attraction that they seem almost as though backlit, or somehow illuminated from within, while the pictures around them … appear by comparison to recede, to retreat from the gaze.

Bobby ended his workshop with a dramatic picture study of Caravaggio’s famous painting of the Apostle Thomas with the risen Christ. Bobby showed how Thomas’s encounter with Christ is symbolic of a Charlotte Mason education. Just as Christ gently guides Thomas’s finger to the hole in His side, so Christ gently guides every boy and man to Himself. Thomas’s intense gaze is emblematic of the hunger for knowledge in every human soul. The gentle touch of Christ may make boys less savage. But it will never make them less manly.