Thursday, February 28, 2013

Like a Drunken Peasant on Horseback: The Importance of Integrating Reason and Imagination within a CM Education

by Megan Hoyt

The Mind. Ideas. Knowledge. Curiosity. Reason. Imagination. Feeling. Sensation. Thought.

Is it really all that important HOW we teach? Can't we just show up at school and teach the kids what we know? I just want it to be easy. The short answer is yes. It's incredibly important. The "how" is every bit as crucial as the book choices we make. I've been reading Parents' Review articles lately to see if I can glean any further information that wasn't in the series that will ignite my passion for teaching my son. After 16 years of homeschooling in three different states, I'm a little burned out. It's been an interesting study. I'm finding all sorts of juicy tidbits to nourish my threadbare faith in my own ability to pull this off a fourth time. Having graduated three wonderful human beings already, you'd think I'd be an old pro at this whole thing, but the truth is, every child is different. The needs and desires of one can be 180 degrees different from those of another. And that is what I'm facing this year as I rethink how I'm teaching my youngest son. He's 16, so it's not like I have a whole lot of time left to get this right. The need is urgent.

You're probably wondering why I titled this post "Like a Drunken Peasant on Horseback." Yeah, well, that wasn't just for dramatic effect! I've learned so very many important lessons this week from two inspiring though obscure Parents' Review articles. I'll start with Madame de Stael and the Philosophy of L'Allemagne. (no, don't ask me to pronounce that!) This was a LONG article filled with explanations I didn't much understand. I was just beginning to wonder why in the world Miss Mason included this Joseph Charles article when the ideas began falling into place. Then my aha moment arrived. Like a drunken peasant on horseback. So you may not understand this excerpt at first. Give it a try, though, and see if you can follow what she's saying.

excerpts from

By Joseph F. Charles, Author of Modern Thought and Modern Thinkers
Parents' Review, Volume 3, 1892/93, pp. 24-30

Luther once said that the human mind was like a drunken peasant on horseback; when he is raised on one side he falls on the other. Thus man has been always balancing between his two natures. Either his thoughts are all abstracted from his sensations, or his sensations absorb all his thoughts, and he attributes everything alternately to the one or the other source. (Parents' Review,
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 24-30)

Madame De Stael's remarks on the philosophical underpinnings of the nation of France after the enlightenment are notable because she was alive to witness the transformation. She saw the results of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon's vast empire firsthand. What an enviable position to be in as an observer of human nature! To me, Madame De Stael's ideas about the demise of a nation's sense of morality are important. And that Miss Mason included an analysis of her work, L'Allemagne, in the Parents' Review is beginning to make more sense.

According to Joseph Charles in this Parents' Review article and also to Claudia Moscovici, author of Velvet Totalitarianism (2009) and founder of the post-romanticism movement, Madame De Stael's work is important on many different levels. Here's an excerpt from Ms. Moscovici's blog:

"Such is the case with the legacy of materialism and sensationism, which, as noted, Mme de Staël holds responsible for spreading the dangerous assumption that life is reducible to sensations. Exploring the implications of such a view, she observes:

'The past hundred years we saw originate and grow in Europe a kind of mocking skepticism whose foundation is metaphysical, that attributes our ideas to our sensations. The first principle of this philosophy is not to believe anything that can’t be proven as a fact or calculation ... '

Interestingly, Staël groups together as skeptical both empiricism and rationalism, meaning the theories of knowledge that rely upon either physical evidence or rational proof in their conception of reality. Such theories, she claims, similarly neglect the role played by intuition, curiosity, feeling and imagination in how we come to know the world. She goes so far as to charge that they also encourage immorality, asserting that 'Dogmatic disbelief, which is to say that which places in doubt all that which can’t be proved by our sensations, is the source of the great irony of man towards himself: all moral degradation stems from that' (117)."

Ah, now I see why this woman's work was so important to Miss Mason. To rely on sensation and empirical proof in our quest for knowledge would have been abhorrent to Charlotte Mason, who so firmly believed in the importance of imagination, curiosity, and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. But to go so far as to insist that dogmatic disbelief, as Madame called it, was responsible for all moral decline seems like a stretch. It suits our nation's conservative Republican ideals perfectly, of course. And for a woman watching the French Revolution and Napoleonic era unfold, it would certainly make sense. Still, I'd like to think that within every human being lies a warmth, a sense of right and wrong, a morality of sorts. And it's our goal to blow gently on that fragile flame until it burns brightly. So really, teaching is the noblest of vocations. What could be more valuable than the ability to draw out a child's morals and ethics and help them become decent human beings? 

Joseph Charles continued, in The Parents' Review: " Mr. John Morley has well observed, a 'virulent dissolution in the biting acids of Voltairism' (Voltaire chap. v., p. 220) is a far less safe remedy for moral and social evils than the slow working of the Protestant spirit." It's unfortunate that no one was listening to the previous centuries' words from Luther or Calvin or Zwingli. They were, instead, counting on reforming their nation's ills in much the same way the Americans did in 1776. Only we did it sans guillotine. Minor detail! I'm sure many more citizens than our poor Madame De Stael marveled over the rise of Napoleon so shortly after the revolutionary brotherhood years. What was it all for?

This was tough reading for me. I'm not used to deep, philosophical work. But it was worth it. Here's more of what Joseph Charles said in The Parents' Review:

"It seems to me that now the moment has arrived for a permanent doctrine, that metaphysics must submit to a revolution similar to that which Copernicus made in the system of the world. Our soul must be replaced in the centre, in like manner as the sun, round which external objects trace their course, and from which they borrow their light.
... Feeling, imagination, reason, all help each other. Each of these faculties would be a disease, a weakness instead of a force, if it were not modified or completed by our whole nature. The arithmetical sciences need imagination at a certain height. Imagination, in its turn, must lean on an exact knowledge of nature. Reason appears the one of these faculties which could most easily dispense with the others, and yet if one were entirely devoid of imagination and feeling, one might, as it were, dry up, and become reason-mad ... A false system of education is followed when the endeavour is to develop exclusively one or another quality of the mind." 

The mind. Again. I know you thought we were done talking about mind last week!

It's important to treat a child as a person with a spirit, soul, mind, and physical body uniquely intertwined. We see the importance of exercise to our health, of eating the proper foods, of drinking enough water, of spending time in prayer and worship to nourish our faith and interact with our God, of working our brains to create rails of habit and yet, what of the mind? It requires a delicate interaction between feeling, imagination, and reason. Without all three, we're nothing but drunken peasants on horseback, tossed from side to side, sometimes reason wins, sometimes emotion, sometimes imagination, sometimes feeling, sometimes thought. One day we'll integrate them all perfectly. And what a sight that will be!

Next week, I'll share the other article that impacted me. It was about habits. Have a great week!

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