Who could live if every mouthful of bodily food were held up on a fork for critical examination before it be eaten?-Charlotte Mason, Volume 5, p. 295
Problems with Teaching Critical Thinking
How do you teach critical thinking, analysis, or literary criticism? Specifically, what did Charlotte Mason have to say about critical thinking? 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.” (Volume 5, p. 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.-Volume 5, p. 294
Miss Mason put much confidence in the student’s mind and its abilities to figure things out – much more confidence than modern education and most methods around today do. Whether you read what she said to mean critical analysis, literary criticism, worldview studies, or even the ever-present critical-thinking skills exercises – the principles still apply.
What to Do and the Role of Narration
Here’s what she said was needed in order for the mind to do this work on its own:
- the mind needs to be thoroughly furnished with ideas which it then compares and examines critically
- the process needs to be a slow, sure process of assimilating ideas
- the teacher needs to lay the proper and abundant feast
- the student must receive with attention and then fix by narration
It begins with years and years of narrating. It’s during that exercise of the mind that those critical-thinking skills are developed. Read what she says happens during narration:
Here we get the mind forces which must act continuously in education – attention, assimilation narration, retention, reproduction. But what of reason, judgment, imagination, discrimination all the corps of ‘faculties’ in whose behoof the teacher has hitherto laboured? These take care of themselves and play as naturally and involuntarily upon the knowledge we receive with attention and fix by narration as do the digestive organs upon duly masticated food-stuff for the body. We must feed the mind as the body fitly and freely; and the less we meddle with the digestive processes in the one as in the other the more healthy the life we shall sustain. It is an infinitely great thing, that mind of man, present in completeness and power in even the dullest of our pupils.-Volume 6, p. 259
Focus on Ideas and Caring
We strive to nurture students who are caring, intelligent, magnanimous, and humble. Too often I am around students (adults included) who have the right, albeit predigested answer – not what Mason was espousing. I am reminded of this quote by Mason, “We should prefer that they should never say that they have learned botany or conchology, geology or astronomy The question is not, – how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education – but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care?” 3.171
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)
Now, there is a time after the mind is “thoroughly furnished with ideas” to introduce types of literary criticism and analysis. But it certainly isn’t needed in the early or middle years of a living education. Focus on spreading the feast of ideas, working on habits that will carry them through life, and cooperating with the Holy Spirit in the instruction of the children. My guess is that you will come to appreciate Charlotte Mason’s views and methods on critical thinking.
Teaching from Peace,