The Philosophy of the Ages

The Philosophy of the Ages

In Parents and Children chapter 12, Charlotte Mason writes, “we really have existing material in the philosophy of the ages and the science of the day to formulate an educational code whereby we may order the lives of our children and regulate our own” (p. 119). Some have misunderstood this line to mean that Charlotte Mason is an educator in the classical tradition. The supposition is that “the philosophy of the ages” refers to the classical tradition, and that Mason was formulating her theory of education on the basis of that tradition. However, that is a misunderstanding of the sentence, as shown by the following two considerations:

1. It is arbitrary to assume that “the philosophy of the ages” is a reference to the classical tradition. In order to correctly interpret the phrase, the reader must consult the surrounding context. A straightforward reading of the chapter reveals what Mason meant by the phrase, and as will be shown, it is not the classical tradition.

2. The statement itself asserts that “the philosophy of the ages” alone is insufficient “to formulate an educational code.” At a minimum, “the philosophy” must be supplemented and enhanced by “the science of the day.” Even if “the philosophy of the ages” were a reference to the classical tradition, it would assert that Mason is creating a hybrid model. This is in contrast to Christian Classical Education (CCE) theorists who attempt to “recover the art of classical education” (Clark & Jain, loc 95), not to hybridize it with contemporary science.

How should we interpret the phrase “the philosophy of the ages”? In order to understand this phrase in context, the reader must first understand the surrounding chapter. Chapter 12 of Parents and Children is entitled “Faith and Duty”. Parents and Children was first published in 1896, but the article entitled “Faith and Duty” was first published in The Parents’ Review (PR) in December, 1892 (vol. 3, no. 11). The PR article has a slightly longer opening paragraph in which Mason reveals her motivation for writing the chapter:

“Mr. Edward Arnold is doing a great service to the cause of education by introducing foreign thought on this most vital subject. His International Education Series should effect some change in the framework of our thought. This is the more important because since Locke established a school of English educational thought, based on English philosophy, our tendency has been exclusively towards naturalism, if not materialism; to the exclusion of a vital element in education — the force of the idea.” (p. 826)

Mason’s concern is that English educational thought had drifted too far in the direction of naturalism. This concerns Mason because “the force of the idea” is central to her theory of education. In this chapter, she seeks to safeguard the role of “the idea,” without compromising the importance of the physiology of habit.

First, Mason insists that the theory and practice of education must be grounded in philosophy:

“Probably the chief source of weakness in our attempt to formulate a science of education is that we do not perceive that education is the outcome of philosophy. We deal with the issue and ignore the source. Hence our efforts lack continuity and definite aim. We are content to pick up a suggestion here, a practical hint there, without even troubling ourselves to consider what is that scheme of life of which such hints and suggestions are the output.” (II:118)

As an aside, this quotation is itself a vital reminder to Christian educators today. When educators select suggestions and hints, they are advised to consider the philosophical underpinnings of those elements. Christian educators should first understand and embrace a philosophy of education, and then adopt a consistent set of practices that expresses that philosophy.

Mason then states that all methods of education derive from “one or other of the two schools of philosophy.” Those two philosophies are (1) naturalism and (2) idealism. In the chapter, Mason details the two philosophies and describes the weaknesses of each.

Naturalism. Mason identifies Locke and Hobbes as exemplars of the philosophy of naturalism. She quotes Madame de Staël who wrote, “la philosophie qui fait dériver toutes nos idées des impressions des sens”(II:118). (A rough translation is, “The philosophy which says that all our ideas come from the impressions of the senses.”) In the philosophy of naturalism, ideas are physical realities that exist only in the brain. Mason identifies two key weaknesses of this philosophy:

  1. It has resulted in an increase in immorality in Europe (“… cette métaphysique reçue dans le reste de l’Europe … a été l’une des principales causes de l’immoralité”) (II:118).
  2. It excludes a “vital element in education — the force of the idea.”

Idealism. Mason identifies Fouillée and Plato as exemplars of the philosophy of idealism. In the philosophy of idealism, ideas are real and exist in complete separation from the material world. Mason identifies two key weaknesses of this philosophy:

  1. It allows for “nothing but the power of ideas and sentiments” (II:123) in education; it eliminates the powerful role of neurobiology in the formation of habit.
  2. It does not satisfy the demands of real life. Mason writes that “M. Fouillée returns boldly to the Platonic philosophy; the idea is to him all in all, in philosophy and education. But he returns empty-handed.” (II:123)

Now, according to Mason, “we are on the horns of a dilemma” (II:126). If only two philosophies are available to us, and both have serious limitations, what are we to do? Mason offers a revolutionary answer:

“The truth is, we are in the throes of an educational revolution; we are emerging from chaos rather than about to plunge into it; we are beginning to recognise that education is the applied science of life, and that we really have existing material in the philosophy of the ages and the science of the day to formulate an educational code whereby we may order the lives of our children and regulate our own.” (II:119)

This “educational revolution” is not a return to classical education. It is not a retrieval of the classical tradition for the present era. Rather, it is the recovery of a deeper philosophy that transcends all human schools of thought. “The crux of modern thought, as indeed of all profound thought,” Mason writes, “is, Is it conceivable that the spiritual should have any manner of impact upon the material?” In other words, is there some way that both matter and spirit can be real? Is there any basis for the “biblical world-view” articulated later by N.T. Wright?

“Wright argues that the sacraments are to be understood as special points, established by Jesus and used by the Holy Spirit to bring God’s presence and new creation into the world. Such a sacramental theology is based on the biblical world-view of heaven and earth being understood as interlocking dimensions of the created order rather than distant from one another.” (Tom Wright for Everyone, by Stephen Kurt, pp. 61-62)

For Mason, the answer is yes: “the doctrine of the Incarnation, turns upon this point” (II:125). In the PR article, she calls it the “Divine Incarnation.” Inspired by the Gospels, Mason breaks all the rules and says that we should not choose between “naturalism” and “idealism” — but that instead we should embrace “incarnationalism” — spirit and matter side-by-side, interlocking dimensions of the created order. Christ’s incarnation shows that education can be both physical (habits) and spiritual (ideas) in a wondrous, biblical “philosophy of the ages.”

This interpretation of “philosophy of the ages” is consistent with Mason’s later writings. In volume VI, Mason writes, “what has failed us is philosophy, and that applied philosophy which is called education. Philosophy, all the philosophies, old and new, land us on the horns of a dilemma” (p. 335). What is the solution? She provides her answer on p. 337: “Now, all our exigeant demands are met by words written in a Book, and by the manifestations of a Person; and we are waiting for a Christianity such as the world has not yet known.” Mason’s “philosophy of the ages” is a Book, a Person, and a Christianity “such as the world has not yet known.”

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