Volume 5, Part 2: “Education is the Maker of Character”


The next five chapters in Formation of Character are subtitled “Parents in Council.” Four of them are written as imagined conversations concerning education and family life. The fifth contains the ponderings of a grammar-school headmaster (Karen will be discussing that chapter in more detail.).

Thinking This Way Could Start a Movement

After Part One, which dealt almost exclusively with matters of character, the beginning chapters of Part Two (“What a Salvage!” and “Where Shall We Go This Year?”) seem to take a shift in subject. The first conversation begins at a dinner party, in about 1890, with the confession by a father that his lack of knowledge on subjects like astronomy is embarrassing. Others agree that they don’t know enough natural history to answer their children’s questions. It is suggested that, as a remedy, families could take extended holidays and discover the counties of England, one by one; that they could research their trips a bit beforehand; and that they could really get to know and appreciate each region of their country, including geology, plants, castles, and so on.

One of the mothers, “Mrs. Henderson,” says, “All this is an inspiring glimpse of the possible; but surely, gentlemen, you do not suppose that a family party, the children, say, from fifteen downwards, can get in touch with such wide interests in the course of a six weeks’ holiday?” (Wouldn’t many employees today–or even in 1890–envy such generous vacation time? But perhaps six weeks of “holiday” was not such a treat for mothers.) “Mrs. Henderson” points out that parents might not be well-versed enough in history and nature lore to make such attempts practical. Both then and now, adults could graduate from school without knowing any more astronomy than the Big Dipper, or without recognizing any leaf beyond a maple and an oak, or any butterfly other than a monarch.

Another skeptical parent complains, “To skim over all creation in an easy, airy way is exciting, but, from an educational standpoint, it is comic to the father with a young swarm at home who care for none of these things” (p. 129).

The problem of the uninterested children is dealt with quickly: “Try ’em.” “What they see and delight in you may pin endless facts, innumerable associations, upon, and children have capacity for them all…only, the thing must come first, the words which interpret it, in the second place…” (p. 128-129). But the same speaker immediately brings us back to “Mrs. Henderson’s” question: “…but who in the world is to teach them? A child’s third question about the fowls of the air or the flowers of the field would probably floor most of us.” Some of those present are knowledgeable in one area, but not in the others. Others don’t know much about anything. All the dinner guests, so to speak, put their chins in their hands.

But here’s the clever twist of the chapter: “Mr. Morris” suggests they form: “a college, or club, or what you like…[but don’t] let it be a social thing, with tennis, talk, and tea!” (p. 130). This is not a co-op to enrich the children’s lessons: it’s a learning organization for the parents, “for the consideration of matters affecting the education of children…”

A footnote adds, “A forecast fulfilled in the formation of the Parents’ National Educational Union.”

Thinking for Ourselves

Chapter III, “The A-B-C-Darians,” is a short sequel to the conversation of Chapter I. One of the mothers asks why it isn’t enough for a parent to be given a list of health rules, for example, and to attempt to follow them. The response is that parents, to avoid the confusion of the many voices offering advice, need to learn basic principles of physiology, enough for “the preservation of health, the increase in bodily vigour” (p. 139). They also need to add some psychology and “moral science” (p. 142), and even theology, so that they know some principles of each, and can more intelligently consider new theories that come along before deciding if and how to apply them. We also see this in a later chapter dealing with Sunday observance, where Mason enumerates several principles but leaves the application of them up to each family. (Now we begin to see the connection with Part One!)

Thinking on the Train

In Chapter IV, the title of which translates as “New Times Demand a New Education,” or “New Schools for the New Times,” incoming headmaster “Michael St. John Harrowby” ponders whether the tried and true is irrelevant, useless, dead, or just classic and timeless. The German educational article he is reading quotes students as complaining that they get too much religious content (“Nothing but Moses!”), but as he thinks it over, he decides that it’s probably worse not to read about Moses at all. In England, he thinks, “Psalm, hymn, and catechism have departed; the Bible lesson is pared down to a shred; and, in our zeal, we do not see that we have deprived the people of the classics, the metaphysics, the ethics––as well as the religion––peculiarly their own. Instead, we have put into their hands––“Readers”––scraps of science, of history, of geography––saw-dust, that cannot take root downwards and bear fruit upwards in human soil” (p. 148).  This, as Charlotte Mason would say in her own voice, is the opposite of a generous curriculum and a liberal education for all.

Thinking Deep Thoughts

One might have gotten the idea from the first two chapters that the PNEU was formed to amend deficits in nature knowledge. However, Chapter V (“A Hundred Years After”) explains what the “club with the stuttering initials” (p. 159) was really about. Charlotte Mason imagines a 1990 dinner party commemorating a hundred years of the “great educational revolution,” and the conversation recorded on that occasion. She makes no attempt to describe a changed physical or technological world; there are no jokes about people dining on food pills. Boys still get sent away to school, and ladies still “retire” after dinner to have their own conversations. (I think that’s the greatest shortcoming of this chapter! It would have been much more interesting to hear what the women had to say, perhaps in a “Chapter V Part Two.” Perhaps someone should write one.)

In their after-dinner conclave, the men of the party raise a toast to the past hundred years. These educational rebels have apparently carried out their work so quietly that even their guest “Dr. Oldcastle,” “the head-master of an old-established foundation school,” doesn’t realize where the credit should go for his students’ improvement. “Dr. Oldcastle” believes that classical languages and mathematics provide the best education, and he mildly resents the “revolution” for adding things like modern languages and natural science to the pot. When pressed, however, he says that

“A boy is educated when he knows what every gentleman should know, and when he is trained to take his place in the world.”

On that, they all agree. “Dr. Oldcastle” even concedes that boys coming to his school in 1990 are“more apt to learn,” they seem to take an interest in the natural world, and they have a “taste for adventure…But they do as they’re bid, I grant you…” (p. 167).

“Well,” says “Dr. Brenton,” “…you owe the incalculable advance in character which has taken place in the period we are considering entirely to us doctors” (pp. 161-162).

This is met, naturally, by some scoffing. How could advances in medicine cause this unexplained improvement in the character of schoolboys? Is there instead a magic tonic? Maybe it’s a combination of education and civilization? The clergyman present, “Dean Priestly,” is miffed about the omission of the Church in that equation, but he is reassured in the end.

“We’ve shown you,” says the doctor, “what is the one possible achievement before you; that is, the elevation of character. Education which fails to effect this, effects nothing. There, that’s what we’ve done” (p. 162, italics Mason’s).

The headmaster, “Dr. Oldcastle,” still harrumphs. What do they think he’s been doing all these years?

In response, “Dr. Brenton” gives his version of something already familiar to students of Charlotte Mason: “that action (including speech) depends on thought, and that action—repeated action—forms character…” (p. 167), and that science had finally proved that “the human frame, brain as well as muscle, grows to the uses it is earliest put to” (p. 168, italics hers). Therefore, “the formation of habits is among the chief aims of education” (p. 169). The doctor isn’t claiming credit for vitamins or the understanding of germs, but rather the discoveries of neuroscience, particularly the physiological basis for the formation of habit (which brings us, again, back to the discussion in Part 1).

“Dr. Oldcastle” is impatient with all this so-called new science. The Greeks and Romans knew about habit. Everybody believes you should teach good habits. Why do these people think this is new information?

For this reason, says “Dr. Brenton”: the parents of this association have been training their young children for the past hundred years along the scientific principles he has just described. “They take it in hand once and for all, until the habit is ingrained in the stuff of the child’s character” (p. 170). In case anyone thinks he’s talking about behaviourism or brainwashing, he also refers to living ideas, conscience, will, and the spiritual being, and the “food” necessary to sustain them. And hasn’t the teacher just admitted that he’s seen an improvement in the students coming to his school?

“Dean Priestly” agrees that “the growing soul cannot thrive upon husks” (p. 171), and he thanks the educational revolution for its attention to the “ardent young spirits” (p. 172).

Thinking as Preventative Medicine

But “Dr. Brenton” has a final word. He says that a family doctor should be focused as much on “wellness” as on illness. These days we might call that a holistic approach. If we apply the wellness model to parenting, academic, even spiritual ideas (Philippians 4:8), where might it take us?

To quote “Harrowby,” the schoolmaster from Chapter IV:

“Are we not on the verge of a new criticism, not historical, and not natural, but personal? Is not physiology hurrying up with the announcement that to every man it is permitted to mould and modify his own brain? That, not heredity, and not environment, but education is the final and the formative power? That character is the man, and education is the maker of character, howsoever much she owe her material to the other two?” (p. 154).

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