Friday, May 26, 2017

Charlotte Mason & the Catholic Conundrum, Part 2

The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas

The fresco pictured here, "The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas," is to be found in Florence, Italy, in the Spanish Chapel of the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella. Please see Art Middlekauff's article, "Thomas Aquinas and the Great Recognition," as our reference point for this discussion (

Art tells us, "Thought to be executed by Andrea di Bonaiuto in the fourteenth century, these frescos unabashedly delight in the great achievements of the Domincan order." 

"The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas" is the fresco beloved by Charlotte Mason which I mentioned in Part 1, a copy of which she had in her House of Education and which she said formed her "educational creed."

Rather than paraphrase Art's entire article, I just want to sum up what I think are the issues in what he has brought out for the Catholic CM educator. First, Charlotte never once in all of her writings mentions the name of Thomas Aquinas. In chapter 25 of Parents and Children, she calls the fresco in question, "The Descent of the Holy Spirit." According to Art, she does at times call it Filosofica della Religione Cattolica (Philosophy of the Catholic Religion), but in chapter 25 there is no acknowledgement that this fresco has anything to do with St. Thomas, the Dominican order, or the Catholic Faith. This is despite the fact that Thomas is the central figure of the painting; that he is in fact larger than all of the other figures and is seated on a throne; and that it is intended to represent the supremacy of the teaching authority of the Catholic Church!

Further evidence of her intentional avoidance of St. Thomas is the way that CM discusses the Florentines, the "Florentine mind," and the Medieval scholastics in chapter 25. She attributes the ideas that she sees exemplified in the painting, which captures her notion of the "great recognition" in picture form, as seemingly flowering from the people of Florence in general, rather than from the tradition of the Catholic Church.  

And what is this great recognition? It's the idea that the parents/teachers of children must recognize that the Holy Spirit is the supreme educator in all things, religious and secular, and that we must cooperate with the Spirit in order to effectively teach. There seems to be nothing "off" in this part of CM's philosophy. Yet she goes so far in chapter 25 as to suggest that a particular educational method might either "invite" or "repel" the Holy Spirit. The logic goes that since the Spirit is the giver of life, he would not cooperate with a teaching approach which is dry as dust, which is not living. The implication is that it is her method which will best invite the Spirit. 

The Catholic Church adopted the educational philosophy and method of Thomas Aquinas, who is regarded as the Angelic Doctor of unparalleled esteem, not that of Charlotte Mason. The Holy Spirit does his work through Holy Mother Church. The education of our children is supposed to be based upon Catholic Faith Formation. Charlotte Mason interpreted the fresco to her own liking, but more problematic, she based her notion of the Holy Spirit's cooperation on her own interpretation of the Bible, and her philosophy follows suit. 

Charlotte applied Jesus' saying, "Let the children be, and do not hinder them from coming to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven," directly to her method. She tells us that we hinder the child by getting too much between him and the ideas found in living books. Let's consider narration, for example, a key CM method, which in itself is a practical tool for assimilating and remembering what is read. We are discouraged from having any influence on how the child's mind conceives of what he has taken in. We are to allow him to come to his own conclusions. Furthermore, the personality of the teacher should not have any play upon the child in his education. Her "charm" should be concealed, not used to any advantage. While St. Thomas would agree that discovery on one's own is the best way to learn anything, he also recognized that some things simply could not be learned without the guidance of the teacher, and that most people would have neither the time nor the courage to do so.

St. Thomas' method was distinguished by its conversational approach, presenting the material in engaging ways and leading the mind of the student to right thinking (the marriage of faith with reason). If we allow the books to be the primary educators of our children, then we are not following the Church's declaration that it is the parents who are the primary educators of their children! Yes, we do this with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But Charlotte's notion that a method of education itself will either invite or repel the Spirit isn't Catholic. We invite the Holy Spirit through prayer. We receive the graces of the Spirit through the sacraments and life of the Church. And teaching is an art that we need to do well. 

Charlotte's conception of the Spirit reminds me of the New Age "Universe," an impersonal energy that can be attracted (as in, the "law of attraction") and bent to one's will.

Some will say that none of this matters. That one can use CM's educational techniques, taking what one likes and leaving the rest. Homeschoolers subscribe to Charlotte's philosophy and method in varying ways and to greater and lesser degrees, so I certainly can't decree whether a Catholic can use her approach in good conscience or not. As I've written before, there can't be anything inherently heretical with using methods like copy work, narration, dictation, short lessons, and observational nature study. 

At the same time, Charlotte herself insisted that simply using some of her teaching techniques was not enough, that we must indeed understand and apply the underlying philosophy. The method flows from the philosophy. If the philosophy is marked by serious error, then we do take a risk in employing the method. 

It's ridiculous to imagine that the Holy Spirit might be repelled by, say, the use of textbooks and workbooks. This gets back to the over-emphasis on methods. What I think we need to do is to read what the Church has written on the education of youth. Remember that we are the primary educators of our children, and act accordingly. Provide them with a curriculum which presents a unified, Catholic worldview--a curriculum with faith formation at its core, which will serve in the formation of the Catholic mind. 

You might take some aspects of the CM method to accomplish your goals. I think I have done this effectively in my own homeschool, but I also think that it could be done better, and without the potential baggage that CM might bring. Future posts will concentrate upon my findings.

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