What Worked Fifty Years Ago

What Worked Fifty Years Ago

“What worked even fifty years ago will not work to-day, and what fulfils our needs to-day will not serve fifty years hence; there is no last word to be said upon education; it evolves with the evolution of the race.” (Charlotte Mason, Volume 3)

Did you know Charlotte Mason said this?

Have you read this quote, and wondered?

Is Charlotte Mason admitting that her educational model will become outdated and fail to stand the test of time?

Is Charlotte inviting us to incorporate modern pieces, or to be open to see education in a broader picture?

Is she saying that the process of learning about education never stops, and each generation will find new insights that ought to be utilized?

Is she saying her ideas are part of a natural flow of educational thought which will join with other thought in a grand march toward eventual educational perfection?

Although I had read these words before when reading Volume 3, my ears really tuned into them when they were quoted in a discourse seeking to convince the listeners to view Charlotte as part of a broader pedagogical picture. At the time, I didn’t have a response or rationale to explain this quote. My first inclination was that it seemed a rather irrational statement for Charlotte Mason to make. It seemed to contradict her whole life’s work. Why would Charlotte Mason write six volumes, compile and edit hundreds of Parents’ Review articles, start union groups for parents, open schools and clubs for students and training colleges for teachers, if her work was subject to some inevitable whim of time and change?

Not having answers to these questions or the apparent contradictions in Charlotte’s words and deeds, I put this quote on the shelf. My mother-in-law, who was a teaching leader for a large women’s Bible study, used this word picture in her lectures. Her meaning was, as you read Scripture if you come across something that you don’t understand, put it on the shelf, leave it there, take it down now and then, dust if off, but don’t let it consume your study or derail your faith. So Charlotte Mason’s “fifty years” quote sat on my shelf until recently.

To understand these words penned by Charlotte Mason, it will do us good to step back for a moment and take a wide view of Volume 3. At first glance Volume 3 seems to jump from topic to topic, without a cohesive master plan. But underneath Charlotte has carefully crafted an ordered sequence of layers, each one building upon the next. She begins with a solid yet practical foundation layer, alternating with a questioning layer, then a practical layer. She repeats layer upon layer, alternating the questioning layers with practical layers throughout the pages of Volume 3. Charlotte Mason is not brief in this volume. But how could she be, when she is proposing a complete change in educational psychological theory and practice? Such a change had not been modeled in the past; this change would force education to do a reversal of thought and application. A claim of this nature could not be brief. So she crafts layer upon layer, building and building, one upon the next, repeating, layering, repeating. Looking at this bird’s eye view of Volume 3 will aid in understanding its details.

The bottom layer of Volume 3, carefully placed in chapters 1-4, is the foundation layer bearing the weight of a practical application of a Charlotte Mason Education. This layer secures the footing required for a Living Education with its focus on the office and role of the parent as she discusses authority, docility and masterly inactivity. Although it holds the weight, it is sometimes an unrecognized and probably an under-appreciated part of the ensemble of a Living Education. But without it there is crumbling chaos. Understanding authority and masterly inactivity leads us naturally into the person of the child. When a parent knows their role and how they received their office, knowing when to wisely act and when to remain unnoticed, the child can fully grow and live to their potential.

The next layer is a questioning layer. This layer and the following questioning layers are ones that examine thoughts, notions, ideas, and theories. This is where past thoughts, present theories and the resulting ramifications are discussed and combed out. One might think of these layers in Volume 3 as Charlotte’s thinking layers where she is leading the reader to ask the questions and seek the why’s. She, herself, is not at a loss for answers. She has a definite end to which she is leading the reader. But first she must make her case, so the reader sees the inadequacies, recognizes the failings, applauds the need for change, and is compelled to make it.

Chapter 5 is her first questioning layer. This chapter takes a turn from the solid practicality of the first chapters to address theory and psychology. Looking back to past cultural thought and the educational processes that resulted, she describes Locke’s eighteenth-century world, contrasting it with her current time. Although the educational community at that time had given their best effort, nevertheless, she says, it is “pronounced to be, on the whole, ‘a failure.’” Charlotte sees this void as an opportunity to spur educators towards change and improvement. She cautions that before replacing failed practices too quickly, as was done in the past, a definite and thoughtful study of philosophy was in order so as not to repeat past mistakes or create further failures. Then she points to the culprit. The underlying cause of failed education was inept psychology. We need, she says, a “test by which we can discern a working psychology.”

Since psychology is the scientific study of the human mind and the resulting behavior, Charlotte Mason in chapters 5-7 wants to make sure there is something in place that explains the inner workings of the mind of a person and the output that results. With proper understanding we can approach educating a child or a person. Once we understand the locking mechanism we can find the proper keys to unlock the door to the mind. Without this knowledge, the keys won’t work, the door is shut, the mind is closed. But in the educational rush of her day educators brushed over the lock. They were putting in keys, jamming education into holes that the mind simply could not use and thus education was failing. Charlotte asks, “They do a great deal, it is said, but is what they do worth doing? Is it, in fact, education?” At the end of the questioning layer of chapters 5-7, she gives a glimpse of the possibilities to come as she begins to use words such as “relations” and “ideas,” also stating that “our work” has found the theory that also includes “psychology.”

Chapter 8 is another practical layer giving solid form to the structure, dealing with what a child needs to interact with—to be in touch with. A child needs to connect with things in the physical world such as animals and other people. Their inner being has needs. And the child has a need for God. This gives the teacher some concrete applications for daily use.

The next layer, chapter 9, is again back to a questioning layer scrutinizing thoughts and ideas. She is thinking things through, bringing the reader to restless questions. She again looks at the history of education and at the failings of psychology. But here she draws the curtain back a bit further with a peek at her answer to the failed system—education needs psychology plus physiology. The mind science of psychology added to the physiology of how the brain actually works traveling on habits is a clue to the educational proposal to which she is leading us.

But lest her writing become consumed with the theoretical, in chapters 10-13 she brings us back to a practical, hands-on layer again addressing the needs of the child. This time discussing training, alluding to the brain physiology she has just prescribed. She deals with the physical, intellectual, moral, and religious training all required for a healthy educated person. This training forms habits for character and a well-ordered life which revolve around the Laws of God both physical and spiritual.

And now Chapter 14, the final questioning layer. This is the mountain top of all the previous questioning, postulating, and failings of the educational model. In anticipation the reader finally comes to Charlotte’s solution to all the questions and requirements put forward in the previous questioning layers where she laid the groundwork. She has been building to something that lasts, as she says, “in season and out of season.” Current psychology has left educators empty handed, but she has now worked her way to a definition to meet the demand. It is none other than her Captain Idea. Charlotte says:

A Captain Idea for us,—Education is the Science of Relations… He must have a living relationship with the present, its historic movement, its science, literature, art, social needs and aspirations. In fact, he must have a wide outlook, intimate relations all round; and force, virtue, must pass out of him, whether of hand, will, or sympathy, wherever he touches. This is no impossible programme. Indeed it can be pretty well filled in by the time an intelligent boy or girl has reached the age of thirteen or fourteen; for it depends, not upon how much is learned, but upon how things are learned.

Chapters 15 through 22 are the final practical chapters of Volume 3. They give us Charlotte’s applications such as the teacher’s three tools and duties, God as our highest relation, along with a vision for good education through the lives and experiences of two great men, Ruskin and Wordsworth.

Charlotte seals up the package in a beautiful presentation featuring real-life illustrations. An appendix follows the chapters, full of samples from students’ work in the PUS schools putting flesh and blood onto the educational reform she has established. She cites examples from the children’s work to demonstrate the results and success of her philosophy and method.

Now we can take a step back and admire what she has developed. We see the big picture of Volume 3 and we get a sense of Charlotte’s flow and the aim of her purpose. She began with her foundation layer building a firm footing for the practical application layers to come—layers dealing with the child, living books, and curriculum. Alternating with questioning layers, she initially took us to rock bottom, dethroning current educational thought and leading the reader to rebuild educational psychology with her. After listing the requirements for all we must take into account in order to understand and feed the mind of a person, she brings us to the pinnacle of her Captain Idea.

Now we can zero in on our quote.

“What worked even fifty years ago will not work to-day, and what fulfils our needs to-day will not serve fifty years hence; there is no last word to be said upon education; it evolves with the evolution of the race.”

Where do you think this quote might be found? If this quote is telling us that her proposals are a continuation of the stepping stones on the path of educational practice, the end of Volume 3 might be a good place for it. With this interpretation, it has the feel of a send-off with a blessing to use her work for today, forging ahead into the future, continuing to build on what she has done. In this way it could be read as a promise and prophecy trusting in the system of the thought of man for the future of education. Well, at the end is where I would put that type of quote—if that is its meaning.

But Charlotte says no such thing at the end of Volume 3. What she does say is this:

An Educational Revolution… should [the reader] indeed be convinced of the truth of what I have advanced, I think he will see that, not an educational reform here and there, but an Educational Revolution is before us to which every one of us is bound to put his hand.

The Children’s Magna Carta.—My plea is, and I think I have justified it by experience, that many doors shall be opened to boys and girls… I know it can be done, because it is being done on a considerable scale.

If conviction has indeed reached us, the Magna Carta of children’s intellectual liberty is before us. The need is immediate, the means are evident.

Our quote? Well, it is not at the end. So where is it? It is back at the very first questioning layer where Charlotte first presents the errors and shortcomings in psychology and thus in education. It is in chapter 5 which is entitled “Psychology in Relation to Current Thought.” Charlotte has just begun her journey, building in a deliberate, slow, and methodical way the historical failings of educational thought. She laments the resulting unhelpful myriad of psychologies which have all taken their stab at understanding the mind and come up short. Floundering psychology has left education without a solid base, without anything to understand how to approach the mind and the child. She is pointing to the inadequacies of current thought and it is here that the quote falls. It is under the heading:

Psychologies are many

And, indeed, faulty psychology that “worked even fifty years ago will not work to-day,” and, indeed, “what” inadequate psychology that “fulfills our needs to-day will not serve fifty years hence; there is no last word” for psychology to say “upon education”; psychology “evolves with the evolution of the race. At the same time, that there should be at least half a dozen” psychology “systems in the field, no one of them entirely satisfactory even to the persons who adopt it, shows that we, who practise education, should at any rate attempt to know what are the requirements of a sound system of psychology”(Volume 3, p. 46, emphasis added).

Psychology is the sole topic of this quote. And in its context, now we can take it off the shelf for it makes perfect sense.

© Lisa Osika 2018

2 Replies to “What Worked Fifty Years Ago”

  1. Excellent! You brought great understanding and bright light to the sentence. Thanks for your post.

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