Thinking about Kingsley, Part Two

(Adapted from a talk given at the 2019 L’Harmas Retreat in Kingsville, Ontario)

We’re going to play word association for a minute. Close your eyes and think about…limestone. Is it a word that has any meaning for you? Do you live near any limestone formations? Do you care much whether you do or don’t?

Last year, Karen Glass and I wrote some blog posts about Charlotte Mason’s Volume Five, The Formation of Character. We called our project Take the Fifth. One of the chapters in the book is one that I discussed, an imaginary conversation at an English dinner party in about 1890. It begins with the confession by a father that his lack of knowledge on subjects like astronomy is kind of embarrassing. Other parents agree that they don’t know enough to deal with their children’s questions about nature and everything else around them, and they can’t seem to find time to go out and look for answers themselves. It is suggested that, as a remedy, people could take extra holidays and discover the counties of England, one by one; that families could research their trips together beforehand; and that they could really get to know and appreciate each region of their country, learning about rocks, plants, old ruins, and so on.

The dinner guests argue about the practical matters of how to manage such a trip, and whether their children would actually be interested, and finally one of the mothers points out that many people would not be well-versed enough in history and nature lore themselves to make such attempts practical, which was the same problem that was brought up in the first place. One of the fathers suddenly gets a Cunning Plan. He suggests they form, “quote,” “a college, or club, or what you like…[but don’t] let it be a social thing, with tennis, talk, and tea!” This “college or club” is to be a learning organization for the parents, “for the consideration of matters affecting the education of children…” And here is the twist: Charlotte Mason added a footnote that says, “A forecast fulfilled in the formation of the Parents’ National Educational Union,” which, for any of you who don’t know, was the educational organization that she directed for over thirty years.

Now I don’t know if collective bafflement over not knowing about geography and nature study was the actual spark that ignited the PNEU; and a couple of chapters on, Mason says right out that the goal of “a liberal education for all” is “formation of character,” not just recognizing butterflies. But what really interested me here was wondering why she created that scenario about going on trips to look at rocks and ruins, and then implied that that was the key idea in the formation of the PNEU. She could have written a whole different scene about, I don’t know, teachers complaining that they didn’t know how to teach poetry or Latin verbs or something, or she could have gone with something along the lines of her early Parents Review article complaining that lone-ranger homeschoolers didn’t have enough grit, and either of those problems might have inspired a grass-roots organization. But, instead, she chose this story about people feeling out of touch with the natural world around them, and she planted it in a book about Formation of Character. Why did she do that? Was it just a prediction that a hundred and thirty years later people would be sending their children to forest kindergartens? It’s something to think about.

Oh…about limestone?  Recently I’ve been doing some intensive reading of Charles Kingsley’s book of earth lore for children, Madam How and Lady Why. The book is about a father and son as they take walks and talk about  earthquakes and glaciers and giant crabs that smash coconuts; but their conversation keeps coming back to what’s right under their feet, and that is, the chalk formations that formed the landscape right in their own part of their own county of Hampshire, in the south of England.  The Hampshire chalk is a form of limestone, which originated with tiny creatures swimming in long-ago seas, which has a lot to do with caves and valleys and with the creation of things like the Elora Gorge, and the glacial potholes in Rockwood Conservation Area, and the Niagara Escarpment, and the Bruce Peninsula, and Manitoulin Island where the geology gets really interesting; I think it would have made a great extra chapter in Madam How. Actually, in Canada and in a lot of other places, it’s really hard to get away from limestone, and dolomite which is similar to limestone but not exactly the same thing.

Have I got you at all interested yet? As Charlotte Mason’s little boy in Japan says, “everything seems to fit into something else.” But you can’t start with the general, with everything. You have to begin with the particular, with something.  And sometimes, like Charlotte Mason’s dinner party parents, or like the father in Madam How, you have to be the *one* who begins.

(To be continued again)

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