A Mason Education is SEAMLESS


Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

For the tech heavy West Coast, this looks like the ideal education. Prepare students for high paying jobs as software engineers, or in electrical, mechanical, or civil engineering, or in bio-engineering, and there’s no limit to the progress we can make as a society.

Seems a bit single track. Perhaps it should be


All of the above, plus the Arts. After all, study after study shows improved test scores in students involved in the arts.

If you were the utilitarian type of educator, creating the perfect worker for a high tech society, this would be adequate. Charlotte Mason was not utilitarian. When your goal is the growth and development of persons, persons who will live in relationship with one another and with the world around them, and with their God, then your education can only be one thing:


Science (to be sure), English (if that’s your native tongue), Arts, Math, Languages, Engineering (perhaps), and Social Studies (Civics, Economics, Psychology, Culture).

Mason believed that education was a feast to be set out, that children are hungry for a wide variety of knowledge, and to feed them only one sort of mind food is to leave them intellectually malnourished. Further, Mason educators recognize that the boundaries between the areas of knowledge are somewhat artificial. The liberal arts are used to access the sciences and vice versa – language and word problems for math, watercolor art for science, math for economics, engineering (i.e. architecture) for art.

And what of history? Notice I did not include history in the social studies. History is the grand narrative that binds the subjects together. The liberal arts help us to access the stories, the stories help us to access knowledge – those facts made vital through living ideas. We access knowledge through stories of conflict and discovery: the story of our political boundaries and ideologies, the story of scientific discovery, the story of a great painting.

Mason was adamant that no school spend an inordinate amount of time on one area of knowledge simply because it was easy to impart and to measure progress. Her schedules show remarkable balance through the ages.

A STEM education is half an education. We are not programming robots, we are feeding persons.

Charlotte Mason: Classical, Progressive or Unique? An Appetite for Knowledge

My understanding of the liberal arts was completely transformed by this paragraph in Karen Glass’ book Know and Tell: The Art of Narration. In it she says

An art is not an artistic pursuit. The historical seven liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) were called “arts” and not “sciences” for a reason. In the ancient world, a “science” represented a body of knowledge to be acquired. An art is not a body of knowledge; it is something to be practiced. An art is something that you do. This is why even in contemporary usage we speak of “practicing” law or “practicing” medicine. It is necessary to acquire some knowledge in order to be a lawyer or a doctor, of course, but when knowing is expressed by doing, it becomes an art. (p. 11)

Mason referred to some of the liberal arts-grammar and math in particular-as her “disciplinary subjects,” which caused her to categorize the Classical trivium and quadrivium in an altogether different manner. Mason overall had less interest in the liberal arts except as a tool to access the knowledge inherent in the “sciences.” It was content that she cared about; she felt that children hungered after content, not so much skill sets, whether they be liberal or utilitarian. She divided her subjects by areas of knowledge: Knowledge of God (Theology and doctrine), Knowledge of Man (Humanities), and Knowledge of the World (Natural Sciences) rather than into the classical trivium and quadrivium. She acknowledged grammar as a necessary subject area for teaching, but because she felt that grammar studies were a fairly abstract look at language (Knowledge of Man), she would not teach it any sooner than age 9. She also criticized the teaching of formal logic, noting that logic is the handmaid of an idea that is already accepted as true. Good logic can support bad conclusions.

The students’ relationship to knowledge differs between educators. There had been a traditionalist view that may or may not be associated with Classical education, a view that suggests that a child’s mind is empty until you fill it with facts, and that the mind is unable to process these facts adequately until the volume reaches some critical level.  Mason criticized Herbart, a progressive, for holding this view. Some educators in the classical camp believe that rote memorization is a valid way to provide the child with knowledge he or she requires. Mason, like educators both classical and progressive, believed that facts required context – their “informing ideas.” Mason would reject the notion that the trivium of the linguistic arts: grammar, dialectic (logic) and rhetoric, represents stages of a child’s development as articulated by Sayers in 1947. Grammar was a subject, not a stage and not including rote memorization – and should not be taught early (although, to be fair to the neoclassicists, Sayer’s age of education started at age 9). Rather, students are learning grammar up until graduation and children are capable of the basics of rhetoric from the moment they learn to speak.

Mason believed not only that children hungered for knowledge, but also that they were inherently capable of handling knowledge. They were capable of “thinking skills,” thinking is as natural to a child as digesting. Children can compare and contrast, characterize, summarize, determine the most important points of an argument, relate new knowledge to old. Educators do not give children these “faculties,” they exercise the faculties already there. Children learn to walk by walking; they learn to think by having something to think about. Classical educators, and most modern educators, tend to be more direct in teaching these skills.

So how does one impart knowledge? I can find 5 methods: Didactic, Mimetic, Diegetic, Socratic, and Praxis.

Didactic teaching is simply the presentation of the facts, ideas or their analysis in its theoretical form. The teacher teaches, the students listen and take notes. Or the text presents and organizes the facts and ideas for the students to memorize and/or utilize to solve problems. This is typically associated with Classical education. There are many variations on this method, and it will always have a place in education. However, it is almost universally vilified as a dull and ultimately ineffective way to learn from a progressive perspective. Mason felt that the view of the mind as a receptacle encouraged much didactic teaching, where even the progressives focus on merely improving their methods to be more entertaining, connecting more dots for the students, providing “much teaching with little knowledge…’what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.'”

Mimetic teaching might refer to the student’s exact reproduction of what was introduced didactically, or it might refer to a style of teaching that presents examples of a type, and allows students to draw generalizations between them. The latter is how Circe Institute presents Classical mimetic teaching. Mimesis, in the Greek, refer to theatrical and visual arts – creating a representation or image of what is to be communicated. Mason’s nature studies were mimetic, using art as a tool for observation. The student-artist reproduced the natural world using watercolor or colored pencil. Mason also relied on the magic of mimesis to teach grammar and writing skills by having them reproduce passages by great writers, and by giving them writing exercises in the style of a great writer.

I use the term Diegetic to describe Charlotte Mason’s preferred pedagogy. Diegesis is contrasted with mimesis in Greek. While mimesis means “to represent” or “to imitate,” diegesis means to “give an account of” to “narrate” or to explain. Mason uses this as her signature method, only instead of the teacher it is the student who is required to narrate, give an account of, or explain the text that he or she just read. Further, her preferred teaching media could be described as diegetic. Mason believed that information and ideas should be presented in literary form, and narrative was her favored literary device. Mason believed that children taught from the best books available on a subject, from well written narrative by authors with firsthand experience in their subjects, grew to become adults who would continue to educate themselves. Storytelling is a teaching method as old as language, so it is fair to say that narration is, in fact, a Classical method.

Socratic teaching, broadly speaking, is found in all three models. Both Classical and progressive teachers consider the Socratic method to be a form of questioning that allows students to use debate and dialog to extract deeper meanings from literature and primary source documents, particularly when ascertaining the meaning of broad terms such as virtue or when determining cause and effect. Mason approved of Socratic questioning in its narrower sense – when helping students arrive at moral convictions.

Praxis is a Greek word that means “reflective action,” a useful term for learning-by-doing. I borrow the term to cover inquiry based science, constructivism, and problem solving as tools. These activities characterize the approach most favored by progressive educators, also called “experiential learning.” Praxis already has meaning in the educational world. Paolo Freire uses it to refer to social action as education, and as such it takes on a somewhat Marxist flavor. Interestingly, Aristotle also refers to praxis as reflective moral action and he, too, used it in the context of education. Mason approved of experiential learning to the extent that it puts the child in relationship to his or her world, but not to the extent that a child becomes a technician.

Just as Classical education escapes clear definition, so does what could be considered “progressive,” “modern” or even “post modern.” Charlotte Mason, on the other hand, has a clearly defined philosophy and pedagogy that is unique in some ways, classical in others, and has both prefigured and drawn from the progressives. Even when Mason was inspired to create a unique program, drawn from her own experience and perhaps the whisperings of the Holy Spirit, she used her wide reading of the Classics to stand on broad shoulders. This gave her the perspective to see farther ahead than most of her progressive contemporaries.

Charlotte Mason: Classical, Progressive, or Unique? A Science of Relations

I have been handed a marvelous opportunity. With no teaching credential other than self study, homeschool, a fabulous liberal arts college education, and a smattering of volunteer classroom experience, I am substitute teaching at a small Classical school in the heart of Seattle.

As part of the interview process for an ongoing position, the headmaster has asked me to give him my take on how my beloved Charlotte Mason method compares to, and fits in with, the Classical method. This has been a matter of no small debate within the Charlotte Mason community since Karen Glass, one of the founding Advisory members of Ambleside Online wrote Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition. 

Was Mason a Classical educator? Glass makes a persuasive case in the affirmative, particularly if you take the view that Classical education encompasses more than the views expressed by Dorothy Sayers in her 1947 essay The Lost Tools of Learning and Susan Wise Bauer’s 1999 book The Well Trained Mind. Glass reaches farther back, to the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle before Christ, and of Quintilian and Augustine after Christ.

Because this school’s approach encompasses the ideals of education embodied in the 4th Century B.C. works of Plato, and the 5th Century A.D. works of St. Augustine of Hippo, and the 19th Century works of John Milton Gregory, along with the 20th and 21st century works above; because educational philosophy encompasses ideas that DO require a Master’s in Ed. to adequately cover; and because Classical education as practiced today has modernized certain ancient practices and then borrowed Greek terminology to describe them, it is perhaps more helpful to take a nuanced look and to consider aspects of educational pedagogies along a continuum from Classical to Progressive.

Progressivism is also a fairly large category of education, covering the mid-19th Century to the present, and including a fair number of practices that are not followed by all schools considering themselves “progressive.”

Mason was not a progressive. She shared in the educational reform efforts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries of a number of famous progressive educators, but much of her writing refutes their ideology and some of their more lamentable methods (object lessons, unit studies that drove children’s interests into the ground). But she does borrow from them. In some ways, her philosophy represents a step in the progressive direction, while in other ways she revives Classical practices that even the traditional educators of her day had abandoned. You could say that she keeps the best of the Classical ideal, but builds on it in a way that acknowledges the successes of her contemporaries and the fledgling field of psychology.

Take, as a beginning, the overall aim of education. The goal of the Classical educator is to mold the ideal man, a man of wisdom and virtue, pursuing Truth that is both knowable and accessible to fit the man for moral action. Classicists unabashedly seek to inculcate behavioral norms. Christian Classicists use the Bible as the standard for moral development and as the primary source of Truth, against which all truths are measured. The Progressive educators, at the other extreme, sought to make men (and women) that were useful to society. Like the sophists who were contemporaries of Plato, some believe that truth is not knowable, that truth is relative to personal experience. It is, at its worst, very utilitarian, but it is not without its own norms. Ideals of tolerance, empathy, and social activism are preached in the progressive classroom to this day, but these norms are arrived at by social consensus, not revelation.

There is no doubt that Mason was a Christian and believed that education could help mold men and women of character. “I am, I can, I ought, I will” – the motto of her schools – envisions educated persons who are sure of their identity, of their abilities, of their duty, and of their choices. However, she built upon the Classical aim in a very important way with this declaration, which became her 12th Principle:

We consider that education is the science of relations or, more fully, that education considers what relations are proper to a human being, and in what way that these several relations can best be established; that a human being comes into the world with a capacity for many relations… (School Education, p66)

This understanding of education as the science of relations meant that Mason believed students formed relationships with ideas, relationships between ideas, relationships with the subjects of books and through their experience of the natural world, and finally she believed that knowledge was a bridge to form relationships between peoples. This idea informed Mason’s pedagogy in some unique ways. Glass calls this sort of learning-by-relationship “synthetic,” as opposed to the analytical learning that takes place in many classical and neoclassical classrooms.   I believe, however, that for Charlotte Mason there is more to this sort of learning than the whole vs. parts dichotomy. When you develop relationships, you invest in them emotionally. You start to care.

“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”

So if you have a relationship with nature as a result of spending many hours in the woods, learning the names of trees, watching patiently for your first glimpse of the pileated woodpecker you know to live there but you have never seen, it matters to you if some developer is going to come to that wood and mow it down. If you have spent time learning about the language and culture of your neighboring country, you will think twice before going to war with that nation. This is why Mason emphasized learning modern languages in addition to Latin.  Mason’s emphasis on relationship seems to me to be absolutely unique to her philosophy, the beginnings of the kind of formal empathy training I started to see in Seattle schools in the last decade.

“I think we should have a great educational revolution once we ceased to regard ourselves as assortments of so-called faculties and realized ourselves as persons whose great business it is to get in touch with other persons of all sorts and conditions, of all countries and climes, of all times, past and present.” (School Education, pp 82-83)

Classical and Progressive education differ in their view of the teacher’s relationship to the student. Progressive educators are more willing to share their authority with students: sharing their first names, allowing children to vote on the subjects studied, activities, and even disciplinary tactics. At its most extreme, progressivism tended to regard the child as more pure than adults and in danger of corruption by the adult world. In the Classical classroom, all authority rests with the teacher, and Mason affirms that this is so. Like Classical educators both past and present, she believed that God deputed parents and teachers to hold authority over students. Mason’s teachers had control over their classrooms, over their curriculum, their resources, and their students’ learning activities.

However, while most classical educators put the teacher in the position of imparting knowledge through lecture and presentation, with the child acting as a parrot to reproduce this knowledge, Mason took the progressive view in envisioning the teacher as facilitator (“guide, philosopher and friend”). She had little use for a teacher’s involved explanation of a text, nor did she have use for a teacher’s barrage of analytical questions to test comprehension. Although she allows that some disciplinary subjects are teacher dependent (such as math), any area of knowledge that can be imparted through literary form is the province of books, and the teacher is not to stand in the way of the relationship a child forms with the ideas he or she encounters. Rather, she expected her students to articulate this new knowledge through the process of narration. Likewise, Mason expected that children would form relationships with the world around them, acquiring knowledge through observation and experience before subjecting it to analysis. She allowed the student to filter this knowledge through their own minds, knowing that children have the capacity to work on knowledge and digest it for themselves.



Advent and the Different Drummer

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music that he hears, however measured or far away.

Henry Thoreau

This quote hung on the wall of my childhood home. It was the rallying quote of the USC Entrepreneurship program, a program my dad helped to establish within the business school and he supported it until he took a position in Seattle. The logo, a circle of red dots, with one dot placed just outside the circle, adorns the entryway of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies today. I memorized this quote long before I read Thoreau’s Walden. Last month I found the quote that hung on our wall in my mother’s home.


Walden was Thoreau’s manifesto of the individual, the creed of Transcendentalism. All humans have access to divine knowledge, the transcendentalists said. Inasmuch as a philosophy that glorified the individual could have a unifying set of tenants, transcendentalism rejected the use of facts and reason as a test of truth, rejected institutional knowledge and, ironically, gave birth to a renewed social consciousness and activism. Each individual could have direct relationship with God and the natural world – and this philosophy had a profound effect upon education. While Charlotte Mason was grounded in the classics, I would not be surprised if many of her ideas around education as the science of relations and the power of idea and knowledge touched by emotion came directly from Transcendentalist thought.

But this is not where I am going tonight.

Our political era has also been characterized as the most individualistic in the last century. I just finished reading The Once and Future Liberal, a slim book by Mark Lilla. The author posits that our era began in the Reagan years, with the “Reagan Dispensation.” (Which followed the “Roosevelt Dispensation” before it) The first tenant of Reagan Republicanism is that the success of the self-reliant individual “trickles down” to the masses, offering others the opportunity to better themselves in the process. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to one side of the political spectrum. Liberals have taken their individualistic refuge in “identity politics,” where the self is defined by the self and one’s own inclinations.

While we willingly grant our respect to those who identify as feminist, Catholic, gay, trans., black, Latino, hipster or redneck, it isn’t truly easy to step outside our cultural comfort zone. And while we understand that science is flawed like any other human endeavor, we cringe when our President spouts “alternative facts.” Transcendentalists, we are not.

Now I am getting closer to where I want to go with this.

“Children are born Persons,” said Charlotte Mason. Persons, individuals. And, it appears, they can march to the music of a different drummer. No matter how individualistic our society appears there is still the strong pull of the narrative – the one that defines success by a certain path. I once identified with this path, and so I don’t leave it lightly. And while everyone I know and their children are following this path, I feel very alone as we turn away. It is not easy to be the red dot outside the circle.


I have entered an Advent season in my life – appropriate as I found out I was having each child in Advent the year before they were born. Advent is a season of faith. Of waiting. I waited 9 months to meet the child-persons my kids would be, now I am waiting to discover the adult persons they will become. Because my children have taken a path less well worn, less familiar to me, I must strain to hear the music they follow. I don’t know now if I must continue to wait on God’s work in their lives, or if it is my duty to push them in the direction of the drummer. My time to guide their steps is short and I don’t even know where this path goes. All I know, for sure, is that the familiar path is not – despite the narrative – the only one forward. There is no one Christian journey. The Lord is coming to us.

Let them step to the music that they hear, however measured or far away.




Stand up, Speak up

It is possible I was wrong. A woman does not “woman up.”

There is more required of womanhood than just being.

After I wrote this in response to Josh’s blog post here, I went to bed that night and thought of some women. I thought of my mother, who, after her divorce, put herself to bed and waited for someone to come take care of her. I thought of the woman who was raped by Brock Turner, left lying on the ground by a dumpster (I don’t even remember her name, but I surely remember his). I thought of a church homily preached by a bishop, extolling the virtue of the Virgin Mary who was silent and docile. I thought of Hillary Clinton and every other woman who was better qualified for a position that went to a man. I thought of those women our current president felt he could grab with impunity. And my blood started to boil.

Sure, be welcoming. Be beautiful. Know your worth. But that’s not enough. We are women, we cannot help but be women.

This morning I thought of my sister-in-law, who unfailingly stands up for the needs of the elderly and the disabled. I thought of a woman in Seattle who, when grabbed by the p****, took the guy’s picture with her cell phone and called him out loudly. I thought of St. Catherine of Sienna, who called out her bishops and the pope for their corrupt and unChristian behavior. I thought of the millions of women marching all over the world early this January.

The easiest thing for a woman to do is to fade into the background, to be silent in the face of wrong, to make no waves, to avoid hurting feelings, to stay out of conflict, to avoid shame. But this is a cop out as surely as it is a cop out for a man to avoid facing his realities and attending to his duty.

A woman does not “man up” because a woman is not a man. You see, a youth is told to “be a man” when his actions make him, in the eyes of the speaker, indistinguishable from the women and the boys, for whom allowance for weakness is made. It’s something of a pejorative, actually. A woman does not “woman up,” either. When one has historically been placed second in the human hierarchy, one has nothing to prove and the exhortation rings hollow.

The corresponding exhortation is: Woman, speak up. 

Don’t let anyone speak for you.

Don’t titter nervously on the sidelines when people say or do wrong, don’t try to smooth things over. Ask hard questions, assume what authority you have based upon your level of responsibility and tell people what is required of them. Assert your independence, make your ideas plain, bear witness to your own experience. Speak up for those who have no voice. Name your emotions, name the actions of others, use language as a force for good.

A stronger exhortation could be: Woman, stand up. Take your place among the others, stand up for what you believe, stand up to those who would devalue your contribution, stand up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. Get up out of your chair, get up out of bed. Take a stand, be visible. Do not be afraid.


The Proverbs 31 woman rises before anyone in her household.

When Jesus brings a girl back from the dead, his first words to her are “get up.”

After Jesus returns from the dead, He first appears to his women disciples. When Mary Magdalene clings to him, He says, in effect, “Woman, get up. Don’t cling to me. Go and tell the men.”

By all four gospel accounts, the male disciples didn’t believe the women. I’m sure Jesus knew this would happen, but still he chose women to bear the news. If women are to take their place in the Church (as members of the diaconate, at least), if the feminine aspect of the divine is ever going to be valued as equal to the masculine, then women are going to have to stand up and remind the hierarchy that Jesus gave his commission to men and women both. I take that as a mission.

Woman, get up. Go and speak the truth.


Be a Woman

Recently a teacher named Joshua Gibbs, writing for the Circe Institute blog, revived the classic exhortation “Be A Man” to his young students. Noting it applied primarily to the males in the room, he advised the young women to “eavesdrop.”

Today’s more egalitarian society looks upon such an exhortation as moderately sexist. Gibbs understands this when he suggests that we are more likely to be told, “Be a Christian,” which he correctly notes is far too open to interpretation. In secular society we expect our young people to “be the adult in the room.” This at least acknowledges that the crossing into adulthood of both men and women involves, at a minimum, developing courage, mastering emotion, and consideration of others, among other things.

The trouble is that there is no corresponding exhortation specifically for women. There is no classic sense that stepping from girlhood to womanhood involves developing the mature feminine character traits that both men and women would do well to emulate.

The reason for this is written in our history. In Western culture women were expected to keep their childlike attributes. They were allowed to be overcome by storms of emotion, they were allowed to leave difficult or risky tasks to men, and ignorance was mistaken for innocence. Women moved from dependency upon their father’s household to dependency upon their husbands. Single women, if they were lucky, were able to live with relatives. Only the poor were expected to live off of their own labor.

Further, becoming a woman did not occur by virtue of some great act of character, but rather via physical development. One became a woman at the point of maximum attractiveness to men, at which point one could expect to marry and secure one’s future. A less attractive woman may develop a charming personality, or perhaps enough household skill or money from her family that marriage was more or less a financial transaction.  Either way she was an object, not an agent. An entire industry is built upon the commodification of womanhood, and it endures.

I was educated by early feminists. I have believed that the differences between men and women are purely physical, that in this day and age women and men should be able to do whatever they choose. A woman should be able to serve in the military without losing her femininity, a man should not be thought of as unmanly because he sews beautiful clothing. Which is why I struggle to understand why there are men and women now asserting they are, in fact, the opposite sex “inside.” If gender is merely a social construct, this should not be happening. Perhaps there is something special about womanhood and manhood after all?



Women and men face some unique challenges as they transition from childhood, but the resulting maturity is available to each of the sexes. Women can be brave, men can be beautiful. The uniqueness of womanhood doesn’t necessarily extend to something so trivial as occupational choice, and there is no real evidence to suggest that either sex is more capable of leadership. So can we say: “Buck up, be a woman” ? or is that somehow inadequate?

When I face a difficult situation, I often tell myself to “strap on the brass bra.” Every superwoman has a brass bra to protect those womanly organs so that she can be transformed back into that mild-mannered, nurturing paragon of femininity she hides behind. But that’s a tad vulgar for classical use, as is “put on the big girl panties.”

Perhaps we don’t need the exhortation to become women so much as the reminder that we are women. We need to seize our feminine inheritance and make it our own. There is agency in the recognition of our own worth and the worth of others. There is the agency of choice.

Wisdom, remember, is a woman.

You are a woman, I tell my daughter. A woman knows her worth. Do not sell your love cheaply, for trinkets or mere attention. The only proper coin for love is love. Do not give of yourself to depletion in order to please others, for, in the words of Charlotte Mason, “you are not your own to give without reserve.”

You are a woman when you know you are beautiful whether or not your outward appearance has a certain symmetry or fits conventional notions of perfection.  Do not become obsessed with beauty, either your own or that of others, and do not expect to always be surrounded by beauty. You are a woman. Make your world beautiful.

You are a woman when you are mistress of your emotions, and while living a rich emotional life you are not mastered by transient feeling. To name your emotion is to give you power over your feelings. You are a woman. Only when you can bear your own emotions can you be entrusted to hold the emotions of others as their confidant and friend.

You are a woman. The women in my life I admired most were welcoming. They invited people into their midst, they were inclusive. They constructed relationships as carpenters build houses. They made everyone feel valued and important, whether or not they were intimate friends. To a woman, power is not a zero-sum game. Esteem grows when it is shared. A man will want to know if the woman in his life will build him up, both to his face and behind his back, when speaking of him. A real woman will not choose the small power of gossip and slander, but the greater power of support and honor.

You are a woman. Your womb may, if you choose to keep it open, hold new life. Whether or not you chose this one particular life within you, you may not throw it away lightly, selfishly.  You are a woman, and the truth is your life is never entirely your own. This, too, is an act of courage – to give one’s own life to new life, whether 9 months or 19 years of it. Do not succumb to self pity or despair because you are called upon to nurture the life of another. Welcome life into the world.

You are a woman is both a reminder and a rallying cry. Be that woman.

Compassion, Choice and the Constitution

I have not been as active an educator as I’d like these days. My mother took a fall in November, and the time came for her to move into assisted living after several years of frequent ER visits and concern over her nutrition and other activities of daily living. Assisted living is something of a misnomer, I’ve discovered, because even with all of the assistance she has there I have needed to completely take over her finances, her home, her medical appointments, and advocacy with the staff.

I was treated well as a child – my parents took good care of me and ensured I would grow up to be an educated, responsible woman. My mom even sowed the seeds of feminism into my young soul. Yet I would not consider myself close to my mom, despite having weekly contact with her.

Legally, I could walk away from her. There are no filial laws in this state; I could leave her to deal all alone with the IRS, with her many pains, with people who would take advantage of her. As an adult she has the right to her own decisions and the right to the consequences of those decisions. She has no “right” to be cared for under the Constitution. Yet Mom would surely have died, at one point several years ago, had I not stepped in.  I care for her out of love and moral responsibility, what the old fashioned call “duty.”

Another group that has no “right” to care is the unborn up to 20 weeks of gestation, according to Roe v. Wade. Those who advocate for greater access to abortion say that the care of the preborn infant – the provision of life support, when you get right down to it – should be the choice of the woman in whose uterus the baby resides. These women want to be able to walk away. Those who advocate a right to life find that appalling. It is most certainly as morally wrong to abort your infant child as it is to abandon a parent. Yet many women do so because it’s easier to abdicate responsibility if no one knows you had it in the first place.

The third group that has few rights in this regard are immigrants. I hesitate to say they have no rights under the law, but the far right has a point when they say foreign nationals have no “right” to cross our borders. In fact, the Washington lawsuit against Mr. Trump’s executive order banning entry to nationals of 7 countries was successful because they argued that it is the businesses in our state that have the right to employ them once they become legal, and that to allow them entry and then capriciously deny it to them hurts these companys’ chances for success. It’s an impediment to commerce. The only “right” these immigrants have is spelled out in a 1965 law that states the U.S. must not discriminate in allowing entry based on religion or nation of origin. This is the law that prioritized familial relationships over national quotas. It kept us from preferring Northern Europeans above all others and has greatly improved the level of melanin in our national skin tone. Given that only 7 Muslim nations were named, however; it will be difficult to prove that the intent of the EO was to discriminate against Muslims.

What do these groups have in common? The elderly, the unborn, and the alien have no right to our care under the Constitution. We show who we are as a people by how we treat those who need us. We have a moral imperative to accompany the elderly on their final journey, to support new life until it can support itself, and to welcome the alien until they become one of us.

And yet, there is a difference. You see, even if no law protects the elderly and the unborn, we can choose as citizens to act according to our best instincts. No one can prevent me from caring for Mom. No one could have forced me to kill the child in my womb. In those situations it is good to have a choice. There are people who were abused or abandoned by their parents, surely we can’t force them to care, just as we can’t really force a woman to bear the child of rape or incest, or to bear a child that could destroy her health were it to come to full term. That’s why we have those choices, because we don’t know the particulars of everyone’s circumstances. We can still be a nation that does the right thing no matter what the law says.

Surely there are situations that would prevent us from welcoming everyone into our country, hence we give that choice to our executive. We, as individuals, cannot legally welcome the stranger without the permission of the government. We can be prevented from doing good by the stroke of a pen. Supported by people who, in their xenophobia, fear the stranger more than they fear drunken Axelrod with his massive gun collection, the president can shut down our boarders to people fleeing violence. In doing so, he’s ensured that only our own will kill us, that’s certain. But he has also shut out the doctor that could save us, the engineer who may fix the bug in your computer, the future teachers, restaurant owners, cleaners, farmers and everyone else who just needs a safe place to start over. By exercising his choice, he has taken away ours. We can’t do the right thing until he does.

The Year in Books 2016

A new year, a new look at the books of the past year!

In rereading my book blog of 2015, I discovered that while the sea beckoned me then, it would be the farm that captured my attention in 2016. This was the year my daughter and I discovered Wendell Berry, Willa Cather, Jane Smiley, and Stella Gibbons. I read two of Berry’s works set in rural Kentucky, in the fictional town of Port William: Jayber Crow tells the story of the town barber who is accepted into the Port William Membership as a young man and lives out his entire life there, never starting a family but intimately involved in the lives of others. Hannah Coulter is an honest, sensitive tale of womanhood told from the perspective of an aging, widowed grandmother who feels the loss of her children when their education takes them away from their roots. Willa Cather’s One of Ours  won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize: it tells the story of a young man who feels trapped in caring for the family farm, finding escape in his education and finally in war. I also read O Pioneers! about a Swedish immigrant family trying to successfully farm in Nebraska. Both Cather novels have dark endings, but I want to finish the trilogy that is started by O Pioneers! and I’m about a third of the way through Song of the Lark.

ccfStella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is a hilarious novel about a farm family under the powerful but depressed misrule of an aunt/mother who had once been traumatized by “something nasty in the woodshed.” It had an oddly satisfying appeal to the side of me that just wants to fix people. The most modern novel I read was Some Luck by Jane Smiley. It, too, takes place on a farm, and covers two generations starting just after WWI. I found I better recognized the teenaged sons in this family than in Cather’s or Berry’s books, and I hope she writes another novel with these characters.

I think in these books my Lord was preparing me to deal with my uncle’s passing in June. He left me a sheaf of letters from my grandmother and great grandmother. It was out of such a life that my parents and grandparents came to the West Coast, from rural Iowa. Their letters were filled with the weather and the harvest, and family visits. With  the simultaneous longing for exotic places and pining for home.

ciagobI did have time to finish a few science books with my daughter. We read both Life Itself by Boyce Rensberger and A Meaningful World by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathon Witt. Life Itself covers cell biology, including embryology and biochemistry, while Meaningful World covers chemistry, biochemistry, mathematics and art to make the argument that our world is designed, not a happy accident. While I found their constant grinding on the ax of “materialist reductionism” a bit overworked, I did find that both books together provided a framework for me to consider if and how something as clearly tragic and immoral as abortion can still be a legal choice. Life Itself would not be an enjoyable book for someone who believes in 5 days of creation, or the literal hand of God in the forming of life, but it is nonetheless the most living book on the topic I have seen yet. We also checked out Clouds in a Glass of Beer by Craig Bohren, about atmospheric physics. It was much more challenging than I expected, and I was delighted when the author emailed me to answer our questions.

cbcMissT’s last year of school afforded me the chance to introduce her to my very favorite books from high school: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis’s retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, and Cry, the Beloved Country – Alan Paton’s moving tale of South Africa. So of course I reread them and of course I recommend them. Also, her graduation gave me permission to indulge in a little fantasy, so I completed Brandon Sanderson’s first (and only) two Stormlight novels The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance. Kings, magic armor and swords, ordinary people gaining magical powers, scary beasties, bad weather, prophecies. You know, everything you like from a fantasy novel. And 1300 pages each.

My two reading goals for 2017 are both books I’m reading with others: St. Augustine’s Confessions and David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility, a treatise on classical education. There has been something of a debate within the Charlotte Mason community as to whether Mason’s method could be considered to fall under the umbrella of a classical education. On one side there are those who see enough similarity, particularly in choice of reading and subject matter, to consider her grounded in classicism. On the other side are those who feel she had come up with something entirely new, with goals and intentions quite different from classical educationalists. This book influenced the creators of Ambleside Online, and I look forward to reading it with that group of women on the Ambleside forum.

The Year in Books 2015

Happy new year, dear friends! Following the lead of my other blogging friends, I think it’s time to start a tradition of posting the books I’ve read this past year (many alongside my daughter), and some of the books I hope to finish in 2016. I would love to hear your favorite books of 2015, if you can take the time to comment, or link to your own book posts!

Some of the books I/we read in 2015

Some of the books I/we read in 2015

It seems I read a lot of survival at sea books, an adventure genre that never gets old for me. I started with Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan and followed that by Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, in which Louis Zamperini follows being shot down and lost at sea with surviving a Japanese POW camp in the latter part of WWII. I then finished this genre streak with Endurance, about Ernest Shackleton’s ill fated trip to Antarctica.

Speaking of sea stories, I finally read Melville’s Moby Dick, a long time bucket list item, as it was on Miss T’s reading list as well. Other literature selections we made it through include Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Hugo’s Les Miserables (I freely admit to skimming through many of Hugo’s digressions – although his assessment of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo is not to be missed), To Kill a Mockingbird (I could read that one again and again), and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, about the emptiness of wealth in 1920’s America.

Along the lines of Gatsby, but written in 2011, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain tells the story of Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson from her point of view. It, too, comes across as a strong indictment of the Jazz Age, and perhaps the trauma of WWI, as gradually a loving couple is torn apart by the excesses of their lifestyle and the ghosts of war. In addition, Miss T and I together read another critical look at WWI from the perspective of a young life torn apart by it: A Testament of Youth, the memoir of feminist, pacifist author Vera Britten.

We finished Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People with The Great Democracies this year, covering the latter half of the 19th century. We also read material from that era in American history, in particular Arguing About Slavery by William Lee Miller. This book examines in excruciating detail the legislative battles over the issue of slavery, which Congress would gladly have avoided, even to the point of writing legislation to ignore any petitions relating to slavery, if not for the work of dedicated abolitionists and John Quincy Adams, who returned to the Senate after his term as POTUS. The parallel to the abortion debate today is unmistakeable: when does a government have the responsibility to make what is arguably immoral, illegal as well?

Science reading, of course, placed high on the list. We read the biography of Marie Curie by her daughter, Eva. We also read the second volume in Asimov’s Understanding Physics, as well as Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman and A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking. We finished The Microbe Hunters by de Kruif, and I detoured into reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which I have yet to finish. We enjoyed two science books that cover topics in biology with a touch of activism:  E.O. Wilson’s Diversity of Life and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. In fact, Miss T has decided she will no longer eat beef that isn’t grass fed, and thanks to Wilson’s idea that our willingness to depart from a limited diet can do much to save plant diversity, she’s tried a couple of exotic fruits that she otherwise would not have allowed into her mouth. A win for bibliotherapy!

There were a number of books I started this year that I didn’t finish, I’m ashamed to admit, but in addition to the book on cancer I also hope to finish Alan Turing: The Enigma, which was a book group selection that has tested my faculties easily as much as the above physics books, and G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which describes how he came to accept the Christian faith in a way that is remarkable dense, but certainly interesting. Now that I’ve read Karen Glass’s book Consider This, which looks at the classical roots of a Charlotte Mason education, I hope to finish David Hicks’s book Norms and Nobility and possibly C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. I intend, too, to give my Spanish a workout by finishing Doña Perfecta. That’s as close to a New Year’s reading resolution as I get, ladies and gents.

Three books that disappointed me were Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (not bad, but perhaps I’m finding the theme of how women can be abused in patriarchal systems a bit tired?), Hardy’s Far from the Maddening Crowd (shudder, but perhaps I didn’t give it enough of a chance, as I had to return it to the library before finishing) and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (just bad, bad, bad – really not worth the time).

My favorite book of 2015? Hands down, it was West With the Night, by Beryl Markham. A contemporary of Ernest Hemingway’s, she grew up in Kenya, and would, as a child, join her native playmates hunting boar, among other adventures. She was by turns a racehorse trainer, a bush pilot, and the first woman to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic. Despite the fact that she had little, if any, formal education, the book is gloriously written. In fact, Hemingway himself had this to say about her:

She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers

If I could only aspire to such lofty heights as a writer.

Yes, I Do Have an Opinion about HR 4038

According the the UNHCR, the refugee agency of the United Nations, there were 4 million, 289 thousand, 792 refugees from Syria spread out among 5 neighboring nations, all of those nations, with the exception of Jordan perhaps, having had recent issues with war and violence themselves. Hence 800,000+ have attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, in addition to trying other routes, routes that have been gradually cut off as European nations feel the strain experienced by Middle Eastern countries as they attempt to meet the needs of a desperate, homeless, frightened group of people.

The borders are porous, which at the moment serves ISIL well, because an easy to penetrate border allows them to continue to fund their caliphate through the sale of contraband, oil, and through cash fundraising. It also allows them to spread their hatred to other countries. It is not hard to imagine, therefore, an ISIL operative entering the ranks of the refugees, just as it is also easy to imagine an intelligence operative entering the ranks of recruits.

The plight of 4 million people is hard to ignore. Taking 10,000 (.25%) of those people does not seem like too much to ask, yet our country is like the urban homeowner responding to homelessness. You want to allow homeless people to stay in your home, you know that the majority of people are law abiding, decent people, but it only takes one to steal from you or knife you in your sleep. However, most of us don’t spend 2 years vetting every potential resident in our homes. The U.S. does.

Evidently, it is difficult to obtain good information from Syria these days. The Washington Post reports that FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress last month that  “Although…the process has since ‘improved dramatically,’ Syrian refugees will be even harder to check because, unlike in Iraq, U.S. soldiers have not been on the ground collecting information on the local population. ‘If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data,’ he said. ‘I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.'”

FBI Director James Comey in 2013

FBI Director James Comey in 2013

So the motivation behind the House Republican sponsored H.R. 4038 appears to be, on the surface, the safety of the American people. Just an additional layer of security. It is so deceptively reasonable that 47 House Democrats voted in favor of it. All Congress asks is that the FBI director and the director of Homeland Security personally certify  that a “covered alien” (that is, a refugee from Syria or Iraq) does not pose a threat to the United States, and reports monthly to 12 Congressional committees. It bumps the background check process to the highest level of government. But they assure us that it will have no appreciable impact on our refugee program, except to make it safer.

I find it terribly disingenuous for the party of no gun control to be suddenly so concerned for the safety of the American people.

The sincerity test would be to apply the wording of H.R.4038 to gun control. What if everyone who bought a gun had to be certified as no threat to the American people by the director of the FBI? No one waits two years in this country to purchase a gun, and to have the highest police officer in the land certify you as safe? The idea is laughable; of course that would bring gun sales to a virtual halt and the politicians advocating for such a change would find themselves on the NRA’s blacklist. The slaughter of innocent Americans is a “tragic but acceptable risk” for the sake of 2nd Amendment freedom, but no risk is acceptable for the sake of compassion.

Once James Comey made the statement that it would be impossible to know everyone’s story for sure, Republicans found the perfect way to impede the progress of compassion under Obama’s plan; there is no way Comey can sign off after saying what he’s said without some major change to the program. And, predictably, Comey has balked at this legislation. Who knows how long it could take, and whether it can be done without sending foot soldiers to Syria, against Obama’s better judgement.

Even during the Cold War we could not certify that there were not spies among the defectors that eventually made it to the United States. The fact is that no one, not anyone can guarantee that anyone else, stranger or neighbor, is perfectly safe. To expect that sort of guarantee before you offer safe haven to the refugee is ludicrous. Surely there are better ideas out there?

Meanwhile, millions of refugees are crowding into nations that can barely hold their own in the international community, and ISIL is using the internet to recruit disaffected youth from all parts of the world. In fact, Comey testified in writing in October “It is no longer necessary to get a terrorist operative into the United States to recruit.” ISIL wants to take us from within, using terrorists sprouted out of our own soil and nourished from afar by their propaganda. This was the case in Paris, in Nigeria, in Mali. H.R. 4038 is a smokescreen, a diversion that hands ISIL exactly what it wants.

A nation willing to risk the lives of its young men and women in a ground war overseas can surely risk its own comfort and convenience to care for its victims.