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Borrowed Views - Charlotte Mason on Critical Thinking

handmade commonplace book - a precious gift from Elizabeth

Who could live if every mouthful of bodily food were held up on a fork for critical examination before it be eaten? - Charlotte Mason, 5.295

How do you teach critical thinking, analysis, or literary criticism? I had the same question when we began homeschooling.  All those workbooks, dvds, and instruction manuals from noted education experts in the ginormous convention halls of the homeschooling world beckoning to be purchased - what to do?  For those of you pursuing a Mason education, you can relax.  Sort of.

Mason states that, "we miss the general principle that critical studies are out of place until the mind is 'thoroughly furnished' with ideas that, of its own accord, it compares and examines critically." (Mason, 5.294)

Analytic and critical instruction can ruin an education, no matter who is instructing or where the education takes place.  The story is told about when reading Shakespeare's The Tempest, the "entrancing whole is not allowed to sink in, and become a part of him" because of the linguistic criticism and interpretation of the teacher. These things become a distraction to the student.

In a CM education, this holds true for all subjects, not just Shakespeare. To let the student's mind act upon the material without teacher interference is a daunting concept.  Many educators feel they need to explain these things to their students and often feel inadequate to the task. Enter those workbooks, dvds and books by the experts.

"But wait!" you say.  If I don't fortify my student's mind with how to think about things according to our ________ (fill in blank with your choice - tradition, worldview, college of choice, e.g.), they might reject all that we hold dear or fall into heretical teaching or at the very least, be ignorant!"  Here is where it gets interesting. Mason claims the opposite; she says that unbelief is the result of an education that has taught criticism before its time.

"This malady of unbelief, again, is common to serious minds, educated to examine all things before they know the things they criticise by the slow, sure process of assimilating ideas.  If we would but receive it, we are not capable of examining that which we do not know; and knowledge is the result of a slow, involuntary process, impossible to a mind in the critical attitude." (Mason, 5.294)

I am still thinking all of this through.  If one accepts Mason's view on this, there is still much to be done.  She says it best:

"Let us who teach spend time in the endeavour to lay proper and abundant nutriment before the young, rather than in leading them to criticize and examine every morsel of knowledge that comes their way." (Mason, 5.295)

This is huge and has ramifications for K-12.    What do you think?

From joy to joy,
Nancy

The next post continues these thoughts - Borrowed Views: An Addendum.


28 comments:

  1. I think you have raised a very good question?

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    1. Carroll,
      Thanks. Judging from how much I KEEP thinking about it myself, I agree! Just thinking about how this could change so much of our current ways...it's exciting!

      -Nancy

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  2. Wow! Lots to think about there.... Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    1. Patti,
      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      Nancy

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  3. Here is my question....What is meant by critical thinking? The reason I ask is that I wholeheartedly agree with Charlotte Mason on what she says about literary criticism and analysis. But it seems like people also consider critical thinking to include things like learning to collaborate (project-based learning) and doing things like math curricula where you don't just plug different numbers into the formula you learned in that day's lesson. You have to construct the problem and figure out what formulas and information you need to answer the very open-ended question. Do you understand what I'm trying to say (because its hard to explain it!). I've really been stressing about this lately. It seems like the cart is being put before the horse. But this is the current trend and if I don't follow it, will my child be ruined (exaggerated but you know what I mean)?

    I'm grateful you wrote this post because this has really been bothering me!!

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    1. Dear honeybee,
      Thank you for your question! I don't know that I fully understand it, so if you want to further clarify it here,please do.

      I suppose the thing to do here is look at the underlying principles of Mason's philosophy. Is the student's mind thoroughly furnished - furnished enough that it automatically begins to do some comparing and analyzing on its own? Are they being distracted by activities? Have they experienced years of the slow, involuntary process in which knowledge is attained?

      If nothing else, when that cart is put in front of the horse, it's probably not the best thing...

      HTH,
      Nancy

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  4. "Many educators feel they need to explain these things to their students and often feel inadequate to the task." I have found myself doing this more than I'd like to admit, especially in the first few years of homeschooling. Invariably it goes wrong. Over time, I have learned to restrain myself and wait until my children *ask* a question related to what we are learning.

    I've also had the painful experience of hearing my own critical words repeated by my children, knowing immediately that they came from me. Ouch! While this may be a slightly different meaning of "critical" than CM meant, I think how too much criticism can take the joy out of many experiences, much as a mouthful of delicious food.

    This is wonderful encouragement to all parents to "lay proper and abundant nutriment before the young" and leave the critical thinking for a later date. Thank you for sharing this with us, Nancy!

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    1. Tracy,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Tracy. I can relate to each point!
      From joy to joy,
      Nancy

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  5. I love this post, Nancy.

    Classical educators need to understand this better. Too much, too soon, before the heart and mind are ready leads to disinterest, even disdain for books that could have profoundly affected the child if teachers had just waited a little longer for analysis. The KIND of analysis used is also very important. I believe a much more holistic approach is needed than what is being offered.

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    1. Lindafay,
      Good point. I am finding that these concepts are violated within the philosophies of MANY different educational systems, judging by the comments here and in emails I have received. And I agree with you about the more holistic approach (read - a cm education!)

      Thanks for your insightful comment.
      Nancy

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  6. it's a scary thing we're doing... scary to allow our little people to be their own persons and to [gasp!] chew their own food!

    ;)

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    1. Amy,
      LOL! I thought you might draw on some Peruvian custom of pre-digestion. But I'm glad you didn't!

      -Nancy

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  7. This parallels what I think about when I come across parodies marketed to children which are really meant to entertain the purchaser parents. They short circuit the enjoyment of the original story. The connections that should be humorous when made independently don't even register when the parody (or exaggerated explanation) comes before the child has time to chew on the real thing.

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    1. Sarah,
      Indeed - another application of this basic principle of Mason's. So much really is meant to entertain the purchaser parent!

      -Nancy

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  8. I agree with Mason. Why can't we just let students enjoy literature for its own sake without tearing it apart for critical analysis? I have never thought it fair that the "experts" dictate how a certain piece of literature should be taken by and individual.

    As for students not forming the proper worldview, Mason writes elsewhere that if their minds are filled with wholesome, edifying literature, this should take care of itself.

    If by chance the teacher finds something within the literature that may require some guidance, he or she should simply initiate a conversation by saying, "Tell me what you think about XYZ."

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    1. Great comment, Tiffany! Thanks for weighing in!

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  9. Thanks for this, Kelly. I shared the same paragraph Brandy liked so much, and translated it at my Sp. blog.

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    1. You're welcome, Silvia. Glad I could help!

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  10. SO interesting! Thank you for posting this. :) It gives much food for thought...

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  11. I do like to read very good writers who do analyze and help me to see: Amy Carmichael, Charlotte Mason ( very transforming to my life) , Tim Keller, Makoto Fujimura, Schaeffer ..... to name a few. I do put these authors in front of my students and my children who are all almost quite grown. Thinking skills come about with narration. I can tell which students who come into my class have not had that proper and abundant nutriment.

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    1. Me too, Bonnie. It's when the student's mind is NOT thoroughly furnished through years of abundant learning and the critical thinking that the mind performs itself through narration that things can go awry, I think.

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  12. But sometimes I have to just be taught something I never see in a book or an idea. DO you know what I mean? Mako has taught me how to think differently about culture care or even Emily Dickinson. BUT certainly, younger students have to learn to pay attention and develop the thinking skills that come with narration of the written word or a painting or a piece of music or nature. So much is being trained in the continued exercise. As the student grows in age and grade levels, much discussion should occur too.

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  13. I'm constantly amazed by the things my small children say and do when I just stop saying and doing! ;) This is such a great post. The other day I was just marveling and meditating on the thought about "being in the world, but not of it" and I started to think about education...Miss Mason's thoughts really tie into this for me...we don't have to follow the current model of education really at all...we shouldn't feel ANY pressure from school/world standards...we can choose a better way...I realize this is a little off topic here but I was just thinking on it and started blathering...

    I think what I'm TRYING to say is along the lines of Amy in Peru's comment...so many of my friends (even those using a "CM approach") get so worried and bogged down my making "sure" their children are learning etc (they often don't even know what standard they are using) that they miss the very joy of it all and just how the laying out of ideas, thoughts, and great literature IS the best learning there is...

    Anyway... ;)

    ~Amy

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  14. Very thought provoking post, Nancy. Thanks! My brain needed a little food to chew on today. :)

    This is one of the first things I noticed when I started being around kids who were being brought up with purely CM philosophies as compared to those in the main stream that I was used to being around. Their thinking skills far surpassed those in schools who were being 'taught to think critically,' and it all seemed so natural to them, as if they didn't even realize they were doing it.

    The JOY of new ideas and the spark of natural curiosity wasn't stamped out of them yet.

    There's that natural law behind it all; what goes in to the mind is what you will get out. So simple, yet so deep.

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  15. I plan to blog this later, but something interesting happened last week at our Wednesday afterschool program. After the Bible lesson, I always try to help kids connect to the universe of things (handicraft, nature study, etc.). After the kids and I studied details of the Ishtar gate from Babylon and read a few verses about Daniel (he is our focal point this year), we watched my pet snail. The kids practically taught themselves because there was enough corporate knowledge for one child to share with another. The only thing I did was tell them what those "second set of eyes" were (feelers) and ask them about the number of feet. We watched it crawl and then I turned it sideways so they could watch it upright itself (an idea from Comstock).

    Then, children drew or painted snails (except for one boy who decided to draw a diamond back rattler from memory). I showed them our nature notebooks to give them ideas of how Pamela and I draw. I did not tell them how to draw unless someone asked. Then we talked about seeing the shapes in the snail and drawing that. The others worked independently.

    One child said happily, "I love this class. I wish I could come home with you for a week!"

    I realized that it is not *ME* but it is the gentle, but fulfilling way of living and learning that must be so lacking in how these children are taught in the schools in our area (I have a mix of public and private school children in my class).

    Children come prepared to do these sorts of things if WE get out of the way, spread the banquet, and guide them only when they need guiding.

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  16. I think this falls in line with her view on the nature of the child, the person - he is curious, comes wanting knowledge. And by approaching it in degrees, in the right way, without hindering it, it makes way for interested learning. It is probably more unnatural for a child *not* to have an interest in analysis and literary criticism than we realize.

    "Here we have the right order. That which was born of the spirit, the idea, came first and demanded to confirm and illustrate." ~Vol. 6, p.39

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  17. Great insights here from your post and comments. It's a discipline to not 'interfere' with what my children are processing and narrating from our living learning - and often their amazing reflections and developing thoughts are far 'higher' than my 'learned' opinion! I need to trust what I'm doing more...I wholeheartedly believe in CM's methods...living out is a different story but one I'm committed to!

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