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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Reason and the Catholic Mind



Those who...honestly accept the final effect of the Reformation will none the less face the fact, that it was the Schoolman (Thomas Aquinas) who was the Reformer; and that the later Reformers were by comparison reactionaries... For instance, they riveted the mind back to the literal sufficiency of the Hebrew Scriptures; when St. Thomas had already spoken of the Spirit giving grace to the Greek philosophies. He insisted on the social duty of works; they only on the spiritual duty of faith. It was the very life of the Thomist teaching that Reason can be trusted: it was the very life of Lutheran teaching that Reason is utterly untrustworthy."   --G.K. Chesterton  (emphasis mine)

In the words of a popular 1990s song, Woop, there it is!  I started reading Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas today, and already in the first chapter a fundamental difference between the Catholic and the Protestant (and modernist) mind is succinctly stated. And herein is further elucidation on the question of Charlotte Mason's appropriateness for Catholic educators.

Charlotte quite clearly did not trust in Reason, for the reason that the mind can logically defend any notion that it already believes to be true. In other words, we can easily fool ourselves. In this point I will agree. We can rationalize our way out of a nailed shut coffin. Today psychologists label rationalization as a defense mechanism used to justify bad behavior. It is a fallacy of reasoning, only superficially seeming to be logical. This is not a true use of the human faculty of Reason. But alas, Charlotte also disagreed with the training of the mind's faculties. She did not believe in the faculties of the mind at all.

This explains why CM discouraged Socratic questioning, why she wanted to leave the child free to come to his own conclusions. She seemed to believe that putting questions to the child's mind was encroaching upon his personality; and she argued that when given the ideas found in living books to feed his mind, he would not fail to come to the right conclusions on his own.

In the article recently discussed, "Thomas Aquinas and the Great Recognition," Art Middlekauff draws the distinction between Charlotte's educare, to nourish, and the classical educere, to draw out. Once again I must agree with Art--Charlotte was not a classical educator, in that her philosophy and method were not based upon the Greek and Latin studies of antiquity. He quotes her to prove his point:

Specialists, on the other hand, are apt to attach too much importance to the several exercise of the mental ‘faculties.’ We come across books on teaching, with lessons elaborately drawn up, in which certain work is assigned to the perceptive faculties, certain work to the imagination, to the judgment, and so on. Now this doctrine of the faculties, which rests on a false analogy between the mind and the body, is on its way to the limbo where the phrenologist’s ‘bumps’ now rest in peace. The mind would appear to be one and indivisible, and endowed with manifold powers; and this sort of doctoring of the material of knowledge is unnecessary for the healthy child, whose mind is capable of self-direction, and of applying itself to its proper work upon the parcel of knowledge delivered to it. Almost any subject which common sense points out as suitable for the instruction of children will afford exercise for all their powers, if properly presented.  (emphasis mine)

I do in fact agree with Charlotte to a certain extent. This is why I'm not truly "classical" either. As I argued in the last post, I don't believe that Latin is absolutely necessary for training the mind in the faculty of Reason. I don't think her science on the brain is quite right, however. We do know that injury to a certain area of the brain can affect a particular function, such as memory, and that certain kinds of exercises can strengthen such functions. She is right that the brain is more complex than originally imagined and works as a whole, but we now know that all brains are not created equal. The male brain is more compartmentalized; while the female brain is more complex, with a greater amount of connective tissue between the two hemispheres. No doubt we will continue to develop better understanding of the science of the brain as time progresses.

I agree with Charlotte's emphasis on nourishing the mind on living ideas, as opposed to merely teaching a child how to learn, which seems to be the classical emphasis. I think that what Charlotte achieved was a nice balance in this respect. For example, memory recitation was a part of her method, but the curriculum wasn't centered upon rote memorization. It wasn't limited to, or even focused upon, the trivium of antiquity. There is no reason that children should have to wait until high school and college to obtain knowledge in a variety of subject areas, to have intimate acquaintance with many ideas and things. Both are right, both are necessary--educare and educere. And this is the Catholic Way, isn't it, the "both/and" frame of mind? I would have to argue with Art on this point: the Catholic Way is not "classical" as defined by his terms. It's scholastic.

Thomas Aquinas reconciled Aristotle to the Catholic Faith. Faith and Reason could live together in harmony; in fact, could not really live apart. Now, you may be wondering, why wasn't this point obvious to me before, that Charlotte Mason was simply not Catholic, and that of course there would be areas of disagreement. The thing is, I'm only now coming to understand why that matters. It's not just "Bible only" Christianity vs. Scripture and Tradition. It's Charlotte's philosophical rejection of Reason against St. Thomas' validation of Reason. Charlotte placed too much faith in the self-direction of the mind of the child, perhaps to the point of magical thinking; and hers is a Bible-only, educare-only philosophy. Training the Reason is the proper antidote to rationalization. And in a proper Catholic curriculum, the marriage of Faith and Reason is inherent.

Clearly we must be guided to developing our powers of Reason and the ability to come to the Truth. Vatican II put a primacy on the informed conscience of the faithful in decision making. It wasn't until college that I realized how bad I was at making decisions. Being presented with the most trivial of decisions (ie., a restaurant menu) would fluster me. If the conscience has not been properly formed, then the faithful will likely make decisions in opposition to the teachings of the Church. Hence we have Catholics and other Christians who support abortion rights, who live together before marriage, who believe in homosexual "marriage", etc.

Vatican II presupposed that Catholics would be raised with the proper development of their faculties of Reason! That they would know both what they believed and why, and would be able to defend the Faith. That they would be, with grace, safeguarded against rationalization. We see the results of watered-down catechesis and the failure to develop critical thinking skills all around us.

Charlotte Mason got part of the picture right, and to the extent that she was right, we can emulate her. But we have to be very aware of the ways in which her philosophy is diametrically opposed to Catholicism, and we have to choose the Church first. I would go so far as to say that the truths she "discovered" were already inherent in Catholic philosophy; and the more that we understand the Church's teachings on education and everything else, the less we Catholics will need to depend upon her. 

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