The Way of Reason

The Way of Reason

Editor’s Note, by Art Middlekauff

England in the late 1950s had not yet forgotten about Charlotte Mason. In fact, many educators still wanted to learn Mason’s philosophy, but they didn’t have the opportunity to study in Ambleside. To meet this demand, Charlotte Mason’s former friend and colleague Helen Wix proposed an intriguing innovation. Her idea was a “Correspondence Study Course designed for those who have trained or had the necessary experience in the teaching world, but have not had the opportunity of attending the Charlotte Mason College and nevertheless wish to understand and make use of the P.N.E.U. principles and methods of teaching.” The course was launched in the 1958–1959 school year, under the direction of Miss Wix, with twenty-five students and eight “tutors.”[1]

All the “tutors” in the program were themselves graduates of the Charlotte Mason College, formerly known as the House of Education. The course was strictly limited to “the study of Charlotte Mason’s methods of teaching and underlying philosophy,” and thus enrollees were expected to already have some “experience of or training in teaching.”[2] One early enrollee was a mother named Mary Fletcher whose most precious teaching experience was, like so many of us, teaching her own children herself at home.[3]

As part of her coursework, Mrs. Fletcher wrote several original essays on the philosophy which she mailed to her Charlotte Mason tutor. These essays were so lucid that they were selected for publication as a series of articles in The Parents’ Review under the general heading “From a Tutor’s Post-Bag.” Fletcher was in fact a scholar, having earned a degree with honors in modern languages from Oxford. A note in The Review stated that she was “on the Board of Examiners, Oxford and Cambridge Schools Board, setting and marking G.C.E. papers.” [4]

In 1962, Mary Fletcher completed Wix’s Correspondence Study Course.[5] In all, four of her essays had been printed in The Parents’ Review. The third of these essays explored a topic that is rarely probed even by modern Charlotte Mason enthusiasts. Fletcher found that her experience as a mother and an educator resonated deeply with the core principles of Charlotte Mason. Her approach of revitalizing these principles in her modern context sets a model and a standard for us today. We hope you enjoy “From a Tutor’s Post-Bag—III,” Mary’s exposition of the Way of Reason.

By Mary Fletcher
The Parents’ Review, 1961, pp. 155-158

Among all the varied aspects which must be taken into account in the upbringing of children, the P.N.E.U. considers that right training in the use of reason plays a vital part. As Charlotte Mason pointed out, it behoves us to ask whether, in view of the many pressing claims on modern education, such a large part should nowadays be played by such training. Only then can we proceed to a consideration of the form this training should take.

Great concern is felt by educators at the growing discrepancy between the environment provided by school and that of the outer world. School and home are often felt by pupils (especially during adolescence) to be two distinct spheres having little in common; there are often different scales of values in each environment. Girls especially are maturing earlier, yet nowadays ever more stress is laid on the necessity for continuing one’s education: full-time education for many must continue far beyond the stage at which they are physically ready for adult life. Teenagers are exploited and allured by persistent commercial interests, and those who have been ill-prepared at home and at school will be a ready prey to every new mode of conduct presented to them, however undesirable such conduct may appear to their parents and teachers. If this aspect alone were to be considered, it is apparent that some systematic training in what Charlotte Mason calls ‘the way of reason’ is vitally necessary, perhaps even more today than in her time.

But such training must be a slow and gradual process, from infancy upwards. Training in right habits will lay the foundation for the right use of reason, for it is only in adolescence that the boy or girl will benefit from the actual philosophical study of the workings of reason. The child must at the same time learn that there is a connection between these three: habit, reason and will, and a child who has been brought up to the right use of will stands a much better chance of using his reason to good effect. We must aim at a gradual unfolding, so that during adolescence reason is seen to be ‘a good servant but a bad master’ and that you can prove anything you wish to prove, be it right or wrong. It is here that the untrained, unbridled will takes reason on his back and gallops off to a country of his own choosing.

What training, then, should take place in childhood? The child, seizing upon all his affinities, will inevitably be led to study the conduct of others, and this can be invaluable. Much of his observation will of necessity come from the books he reads. It is important, therefore, to use the right books, written by those who, rememberingthe precept ‘Judge not …’, have placed their characters impartially before us. In early childhood suitable stories from the Bible, fairy tales and the heroic literature of Greek and Norse mythology will be eagerly read by children themselves as soon as they are able to get at books, and Plutarch and Shakespeare will follow naturally. Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, will show motives for conduct, the workings of reason for good or ill in a tormented mind, all presented without the pointing of any moral on the teacher’s part.

Literature is but one aspect of the curriculum though perhaps the most important. When young children do pass judgment, either in real life, or on characters or events from their books, they do so very harshly in terms of black and white. Characters can, as Charlotte Mason says, be on either side of a dividing line. In adolescence, however, there comes, with an awakening sense of relative values, a blurring of this line—and here is the danger point, especially in moral training. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, but adolescents often, under the influence of wrong reasoning, excuse without having taken the trouble to understand or to stand back and examine their own train of thought.

Geography in addition to Literature can be a most valuable study in training children in ‘the way of reason’. Why do different nations choose such and such a way of life—why have they made such and such a use of their resources? History links up with this—the general course of a nation’s history, as opposed to the individual lives which have helped to mould that nation.

The study of Geography and History will lead naturally to the contemplation of current affairs and it is here particularly that the adolescent will need to bring properly trained reason to bear on the problems of his own times. Comparison of different newspapers is a valuable training in discrimination, as is the detailed examination of arguments set forth by biased writers. Pupils should be taught to study the correspondence columns during a national controversy and listen for ‘the grinding of many axes’. They will be rewarded too by a close study of advertisement techniques, the use of words emotionally weighted, the appeal to desires, suppressio verae, and—a growing tendency in these days of visual aids—the carefully-posed photograph. It is here, I feel, that the P.N.E.U. Picture Study, with its insistence on close attention to detail, will be of the utmost value to children whose eyes are assailed on all sides by the lurid and meretricious. Boys and girls who have the Old Masters ‘hanging in the galleries of their minds’, as Charlotte Mason puts it, will have standards of comparison; they will see through the false visual reasoning of the advertiser.

A disturbing feature of the present day is the fashion for adaptation and imaginative reconstruction of books, plays and events. A child told me the other day, ‘I’m not going to listen to Children’s Hour plays ever again. They didn’t do Sense and Sensibility properly; they messed it about and put in things that weren’t there.’ Perhaps the P.N.E.U. child, brought up from the start on ‘strong meat’ would react likewise, but there must be many children who would have no powers of discrimination at all and who would accept the whole of a highly imaginative rendering as gospel. The child who has been taught to compare, contrast, and reason is not in such danger.

This lack of discrimination is seen at its height, of course, among teenagers. Their desire for mental security is fostered by their rapid physical development and they find security in following the customs of their peers—the law of the herd, whether intrinsically good or bad, prevails. Educators must face this tendency. The training advocated by the P.N.E.U. in the way of the will and of the reason should help to provide that stability of mind which will run like a shining thread through the inevitable changes and upsets of life. ‘It is our part to see that reason plays its part.’

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Endnotes for the Editor’s Note

[1] The Parents’ Review, vol. 71, p. 6.

[2] The Parents’ Review, vol. 72, p. 50.

[3] The Parents’ Review, vol. 73, p. 121.

[4] The Parents’ Review, vol. 72, p. 155.

[5] The Parents’ Review, vol. 73, p. 48.

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