Walking the plank with the Roman pirates

“By such an occasion, the power of pirates on the sea began in the country of Cilicia; which was not reckoned of at the first, because it was not perceived, until they grew bold and venturous in King Mithridates’ wars, being hired to do him service. And afterwards, the Romans being troubled with civil wars, one fighting with another even at Rome’s gates, the sea not being looked to all this while; and by degrees enticed and drew them on not only to seize upon and spoil the merchants and ships upon the seas, but also to lay waste the islands and seaport towns. So that now there embarked, with these pirates, men of wealth and noble birth and superior abilities, as if it had been a natural occupation to gain distinction in.

“Now they had set up arsenals or storehouses in sundry places; they had sundry havens and beacons on the land, to give warning by fire all along the sea coast; and fleets were here received that were well manned with the finest mariners, and well served with expert pilots, and composed of swift-sailing and light-built vessels adapted for their special purpose. They were so gloriously set out that men hated their excess as much as they feared their force. Their ships had gilded masts at their stems; the sails woven of purple, and the oars plated with silver as if their delight were to glory in their iniquity. All the seacoast over, there was no sight of anything but music, singing, banqueting, and rioting…

“But yet the greatest spite and mockery they used to the Romans, was this: that when they had taken any of them and that he cried he was a citizen of Rome, and named his name, then they made as though they had been amazed, and afraid of what they had done. For they clapped their hands on their thighs, and fell down on their knees before him, praying him to forgive them. The poor prisoner thought they had done it in good earnest, seeing they humbled themselves as though they seemed fearful. For some of them came unto him, and put shoes on his feet: others clapped a gown on the back of him after the Roman fashion, for fear (said they) lest he should be mistaken another time. When they had played all this pageant, and mocked him their bellies full: at the last they cast out one of their ship ladders, and put him on it, and bade him go his way, he should have no hurt: and if he would not go of himself, then they would cast him overboard by force. These rovers and sea pirates had all the Mediterranean Sea at their commandment: insomuch there durst not a merchant look out, nor once traffic that sea.

“And this was the only cause that moved the Romans (fearing scarcity of victuals) to send Pompey to recover the seignory again of the sea from these pirates.”

The Plutarch Project Volume Seven: Pompey and Themistocles is now available on Amazon.

But where do we start with this world around us? (Part Three)

I think Charlotte Mason thought she was writing something simple when she said, “Give your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education [and we can add, perhaps, his or her character] than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information.”  “A single idea” was behind the audacious thought that we could educate our own children; that it wasn’t just something people better and smarter might be able to do, but it could be attainable for the rest of us. But to keep it from turning into a never-ending list of moral habits and particular ideas that somebody has to be constantly checking like a railway timetable, Mason also wrote “the busy mother says she has no leisure to be that somebody…but we must not make a fetish of habit; education is a life as well as a discipline.” She tries to help us relax a bit by saying that we just need to provide “…..A little guiding, a little restraining, much reverent watching…”  Wendell Berry wrote that “People who don’t care, or know enough to care, or care enough to know, don’t watch…What is necessary and attractive here is the introduction of the idea of a practical and practicing love.”

So to paraphrase Charlotte Mason, we ask not how much we know, but how much we watch, and therefore how much we love. But the important thing is that we have to begin, even if it’s with one single idea, like limestone.

    Come to your windows, people of the world,
   look out at whatever you see wherever you are…

Wendell Berry, “Look Out”

We want our students to know about the wider world, but we may be surprised how much we can learn about it by what’s right at hand, right around us, right under our feet. And the students can surprise us back, because they are also amazingly and uniquely created; also part of “whatever we see wherever we are.”

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)

My walk through the glen (Part One)

“Heather is never only heather, / as moor is never merely moor.” “Heather,” in The Lost Words, by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris


I’ve had a years-long affection for Charles Kingsley. I don’t think I was much aware of him before AmblesideOnline (other than The Water-Babies), but as our family worked through Madam How and Lady Why, Westward Ho!, and The Heroes, I felt as if I understood something of what he was (often) shouting about.

Not that there weren’t issues. Kingsley was rambly. Sometimes obscure. Often bigoted. I tried, along the way, to help teaching parents connect with him better, so that they could feel more confident about approaching his books with their students. A few years ago I wrote some study notes for one half of Madam How, but I thought they could be better, clearer, a bit more to the point. Maybe they could be combined with a slightly updated/expurgated version of the text. Maybe I could use the same format as the Plutarch study guides. But as I revisited the book, and the old notes, the “how” (that is, the practical problems of editing them) began to seem less interesting…and timely…than the “why.” (Here is the “how/why” in its final form. The two volumes are also free for use on the AO website, linked from the Year Four and Year Five pages.)

“That moor is a pattern bit left to show what the greater part of this land was like for long ages after it had risen out of the sea; when there was little or nothing on the flat upper moors save heaths, and ling, and club-mosses, and soft gorse, and needle-whin, and creeping willows; and furze and fern upon the brows; and in the bottoms oak and ash, beech and alder, hazel and mountain ash, holly and thorn, with here and there an aspen or a buckthorn (berry-bearing alder as you call it), and everywhere–where he could thrust down his long root, and thrust up his long shoots–that intruding conqueror and insolent tyrant, the bramble.”

Charles Kingsley, Madam How and Lady Why, 1869

Madam How and Lady Why is, in a large sense, a book about taking a walk, or many walks. In Charles Kingsley’s world, that might have seemed no big deal. In ours, it’s everything. In The Lost Words, Robert MacFarlane protested the apparent loss of words such as heather and fern, conker and acorn not only from children’s reading and writing vocabularies, but, more significantly, from their daily experience. Like Charlotte Mason, both MacFarlane and Kingsley are concerned with relationships. How do we begin to notice what’s around us? How do we learn to care about it? Far from being dusty and dated, Kingsley seemed prophetic and current.

(To be continued)