Thank Your for your Service

Both Mother’s Day and Memorial Day are celebrated in May.

One of my top 5 strengths is Connectedness (from the Clifton Strengths Finder), so naturally I wonder about the connection between motherhood and military sacrifice. Of course, there could be a thousand wry jokes that come to mind about the similarities, but the connections run deeper than that.

The military is not, for most, a career. The same is true for motherhood. Both are a service. But for many, that service can turn into a career: mothers of many, foster mothers, and career military men and women who work their way up the ranks. Many soldiers and sailors retire from the military and move into second careers, which are fulfilling, just as mothers “retire” when their children are grown and they resume or take on second careers.

I was reading All Quiet on the Western Front last month and was struck by how many times the main character mused that he could not imagine himself after the war (this is WWI), could not imagine how he could be good for anything else, could not see himself as a farmer, or a tradesman, or anything but a soldier. I remember my mother, how she cast about for something to do, some work after we had all left home, but could not envision herself as anything but a mother. This, among other things, contributed to her long decline into depression. There is sacrifice involved in both services. Today, this Memorial Day, we honor those for whom the sacrifice was permanent.

I started thinking about writing this essay after I watched John McCain’s funeral. I thought to myself, if any man had the moral authority to talk about what I should and should not do with my body, it would be this one. We women have the luxury today to choose whether or not we become mothers and bear a child. That was not always true, and in some states may soon again not be true. Likewise, men now have the luxury to choose military service or not, and that also was not always true. John McCain gave up his body to torture, to permanent injury, in service to people he did not know, to people who would eventually ridicule him as a “loser.” The pain of childbirth is nothing, nothing in comparison.

We are becoming adults later and later in our lives. I read a blog saying that Millennials are unable to obtain the typical milestones of adulthood because they are not paid enough to own their own homes or cars and feel they can not shoulder the costs of starting a family. I cringe at the kind of materialistic thinking that underpins this point of view. Adulthood comes at the point one becomes responsible for oneself and at least one other human being, and not before.

Military service is typically the quickest route to manhood for boys, as motherhood is the quickest route to womanhood for girls. I should say that I believe this applies in the opposite direction: Fatherhood (active fatherhood) also makes makes men out of boys, and military service makes women out of girls. I’ll repeat myself: giving yourself in responsible service to another is the single most direct route to adulthood.

The reward of military service can be hard won glory, a place in history, and deep friendship forged in the fire of hardship. The reward of motherhood is a lifetime relationship with a person for whom you feel pride and love. Early Twentieth Century history and recruiting posters emphasized the glory of war, promising that men would return as heroes. Women were promised that there was nothing more fulfilling than motherhood. We mothers know we are the most important, most influential human in our children’s lives (teenager protests notwithstanding). Today we hear more messages from the opposite point of view; we want to believe that there is no call to use violence to defend oneself from violence. We are put off by the rigor and loneliness of motherhood.

States in this country who decide to make motherhood compulsory ought to give mothers the option of support like it gives the military: food, housing, training, medical care, and a stipend. Mothers who do not need this kind of support need not take it – this kind of support always leads to a loss of freedom and privacy.

Mother’s Day is about sacrifice. Women who move backwards in their careers to take on a life of anonymity. Who clean up the same mess multiple times a day. Who make hundreds of decisions on a daily basis. Who must say “no” and deal with the brunt of their children’s anger at the limits set for them. Whose “yes” might mean money and time spent pleasing someone else. Who risk estrangement from children for whom the lure of unhealthy lifestyles and opposing values becomes stronger than their relationship.

Memorial day is about the ultimate sacrifice, though. It’s about those men (and some women) who never became fathers (or mothers), who never saw more than a glimpse of a life beyond the dirt and violence and pain and boredom of war. Or who left parents and spouses and children behind. It’s about those young people who put themselves in harm’s way, who gave up 50+ years of living, so that we might live long, prosperous and free lives.

Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifice.

I am the Vine, You are the Branches

My family’s beloved Catholic parish is on the chopping block, along with a few others in the Archdiocese of Seattle. I say “beloved” even though I have not attended in over a year, if not more, because of the pandemic and because I work for another parish. I say “beloved” even though both of my adult children, having dutifully attended with me through their childhood, no longer feel the need for church. I say “beloved” even though I question my Catholicism, as the Church shifts towards a strict “Catholic identity” and away from the “big tent” Catholicism I chose 37 years ago. I expect I will become one of the “hyphenateds,” those Christians who no longer strictly identify with a single denomination, who freely adopt theology from wherever and seek only a community of faith that becomes an extended family.

Our parish is our family.

The Archdiocese is looking at declining church attendance, the “hemorrhaging of celibate men out of the priesthood” (quoted from a speech I did not write), and the tendency of American Catholics to express displeasure with the hierarchy by withholding funds. They are saying it is time to do some pruning. Time to cut off branches that aren’t producing enough fruit so that resources can flow to larger parishes.

The problem is that the Archdiocese is operating out of the wrong metaphor. Jesus is the vine, not the Church. We are the branches, not the parishes. If an individual Christian walks away from the faith, or fails to nourish himself or herself through prayer, the Word, participation in a church community, and the sacraments, that individual Christian cuts themself off from the Vine, and their faith withers and dies.

The Church is the body of Christ. Its individual communities are the arms and legs, the fingers and toes, the eyes and ears and mouth and nose. Size does not determine the usefulness of a limb – each finger, each toe, is vital to the body’s functioning.

The human body does not respond like a plant. When a limb is cut off, the entire body feels the pain. I realized that this is true when a Presbyterian pastor friend blogged this:

…I am not Roman Catholic (Even though one of the highlights of my life was when the abbot of the Franciscans in Israel said to me, “You are a Franciscan”). And the expression of the Church I serve in as a pastor differs in a multitude of ways from the Catholic Church…But I believe the Church is one, just as the Apostle Paul has written: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-5). And the older I get, the less important it is to me to grade the various denominations and expressions of the one body…So, while I rejoice in the spiritual vitality alive at MBPPC, I grieve the closing of these two Catholic churches that have been a significant part of my faith life. In these fractious times, may we all see our oneness in Christ.

Leland Seese, Mt. Baker Presbyterian

To be sure, if a limb is diseased, it must be cut off before it infects the entire body. But first you apply medicine, the right medicine in the right dosage. Because once a limb is amputated, the body does not grow a new one in its place. The other limbs do not become larger or more robust because the body does not automatically redirect resources to the remaining parts. Amputation is a last resort.

Long after the initial wound is healed, the body feels the phantom pain of a limb that is no longer where it belongs. One never cuts off a healthy limb, no matter how small, no matter how odd looking it may be.

The church that retrenches loses the capacity to grow. Closing churches is an admission of defeat, a sign that the church has lost its faith, a choice of efficiency over mission. It is not pruning, it is amputation-a trauma to the body of Christ.

Information, Ideas, Opinions, and Lies

Ashli Babbit died for a lie. Only 35 years old, she served our country in the Air Force for 14 years and then gave up her future. She believed that Donald Trump was the true president, that he was the hope of America, and she believed that dark forces were holding the truth hostage. She believed she was part of an army that would change the course of history, somehow, if only she could get in to the Capitol building and get her hands on whichever “pedophilic, satanic” lawmaker she could find and force them to see things her way. She believed she was part of a revolution akin to the Revolution that started this country, and not akin to the sorts of revolutions that have been fought in Syria, Afghanistan, the Congo, Somalia, and such nations since the beginning of civilization. She believed it because Donald Trump and QAnon told her it was so.

As an educator, as a Charlotte Mason educator, I have to question what role her education played in this story. Ashli graduated from public high school in San Diego. I could say she didn’t have enough education, except many of her co-conspirators had more than a high school education. I could blame a substandard public school system for her willingness to accept without question the outrageous conspiracy theories she bought into, easily except for one thing: a handful of my Charlotte Mason counterparts believe these same kinds of lies. Those that don’t were willing to go along with it anyway, saying, among other things, that rhetoric and character don’t really matter in a secular leader if he does what they want him to do.

The homeschool community across the country is notoriously conservative, so for the most part, this is no surprise. I have struggled with how to respond. I have asked myself whether taking a stand for truth and against this man meant that I should let go of anyone and anything that might support him. When a Mason education has as its primary aim to turn young scholars into persons who read and think, it is astonishing to watch Mason educators elect a president who does neither merely to uphold a handful of conservative policy choices. A president whose use of rhetoric is abysmal and whose lies are well documented. Who treats nature as something to be exploited and immigrants as the enemy. A man who allows others to commit sedition, insurrection, and murder for his sake. I utterly fail to understand this.

I wondered, is there something about a Charlotte Mason education that I missed? Do we so value ancient and classic texts that we are blind to their role in perpetuating ideas that we now consider false? Is it possible that we have become so focused on teaching our kids to mirror our values when it comes to goodness and beauty that we have not prepared them at all to know what the truth is? Is that a weakness in her method? Is there something we, as educators, need to add to a Mason-based education in light of an age where information, and misinformation, flows literally at the speed of light. What role can a Charlotte Mason education play in helping our scholars choose to follow narratives that are not only lovely, but true?

Mason cautioned her readers that Reason can be used to defend just about any position that the mind has already accepted as true, but says little of how to arrive at a determination of what is true. Her 19th principle is stated thus:

Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.

A Philosophy of Education. Synopsis (p xxxi)

Mason repeatedly asserts that information without ideas is not knowledge. That children (and adults) feed upon ideas, not bare facts. Facts are forgotten without the emotional connection to ideas. However, she was also very clear about this: ideas must be clothed (today we might say “supported”) with fact, history, and story. Ideas without information are “naked generalizations,” she says, mere opinion. Of naked generalization, Mason says “neither children nor grown persons find aliment (nourishment) in these.” (pp 110-111) I would be willing to take this a step further. Ideas that are clothed with fabrication, fantasy, and lies are conspiracy. When fed a steady diet of this, children and adults face not just starvation, but poisoning. Ashli was poisoned.

We as educators need to address how we teach our students to know what is true, what should cause them to reject or accept certain ideas. I would like to challenge the larger Charlotte Mason community to weigh in on the teaching of truth in this age, if not the events of the past week, including Charlotte Mason Poetry, Simply Charlotte Mason, CMI and Ambleside Schools International. If anyone considers Charlotte Mason a mentor I think they should look closely at the resources they are using in the home and classroom and weigh them in the balance of what is Truth and not just for their literary and inspirational merit. Our aim is to equip students and teachers to be “capable of reading their newspapers intelligently, of considering questions from every point of view and forming their own judgments.” (From HW Household, Parents Review, 1944, found here.) It’s not just wide reading that does this, but also wise reading. We should never place the literary value of a work over its truth value unless we are prepared to help children confront and evaluate the ideas within, not just assimilate them.

Often, Mason educators will ask about sources for information for current events, because they no longer trust the mainstream media. In Mason’s day, they had less than a handful of newspapers, and some were less than scrupulous about getting their facts straight. Even today, media can leave out important context, use sensational terminology, focus video in a way that misrepresents events, and choose to quote only those persons with a certain perspective. These problems don’t magically disappear when you disavow mainstream media, these problems are present in fringe media as well. It is important to teach our youth to search for truth in what they read and see and hear, to ask themselves what is said, what is not said, why certain words might be used, why someone might be motivated to speak a certain way. Further, we have the advantage of instant access to full video and transcripts of speeches and legislative proceedings, the full text of bills and laws and executive orders and many scientific studies. We don’t have to depend on the press to filter everything for us. That said, we can evaluate the reliability of a news source when we compare its reporting to what we know is true, and then we don’t have to bury ourselves in the minutiae of every single issue or event.

In summary, Mason educators rely on the following to help students determine which ideas are true:

  • We give them principles of conduct. When those principles are violated, we hope they ask hard questions.
  • We give them knowledge over a wide range of subjects. The more background a student has, the better they are able to evaluate the significance and the plausibility of a given claim to truth.
  • We get our information from as close to the source as we can get.
  • We avoid passing off our opinions to our children as knowledge. Instead, we offer ideas supported by facts, history, and story.

We as educators of our children have the responsibility to always, always seek the truth, and we cannot just treat facts as dry, boring things that are irrelevant to the teaching of ideas. We owe our children nothing less. Truth has to be our aim, our highest goal, and we must be willing to revise what we hold to be true based on evidence and facts. Of all of the virtues I would be willing to die for, only Love comes higher than Truth.

I Have a Superpower

Helen Parr, a.k.a. Mrs. Incredible, is my favorite superhero. Perhaps it’s the red hair that swings so naturally in the animated breeze, or that I just adore Holly Hunter’s voice-over work. Helen is Elastigirl, the woman who can stretch her body to unimaginable proportions, combining elasticity with amazing strength. She can reach across great distances to catch a ball, she can slither under closed doors, she can stretch herself across the underside of an enormous flying drone to carry her family in a camper across the ocean and then set it (not very lightly) down in the center lane of a busy highway.

Her body is uniquely designed; there is no other like her. Her gift is special.

One thing that fascinates me about her is that after protesting so heartily her intention to continue superhero work indefinitely, once told she could no longer exercise her special power in service to humanity she not only adapted to life as stay-at-home mom of three, she thrived there. She had no desire, in fact, to return. Superhero work seriously gets in the way of family life, this being a great bone of contention between Helen and her Incredible husband, Bob. And don’t even get me started on how expensive the work wardrobe must be, when Edna Mode is the sole supplier of the clothes that stretch when she does.

In the movie, Helen is forced to give up superhero work by a government that did not want to be liable for super mistakes. Recently, I’ve been wondering about the opposite scenario. Can a superhero be forced back to work? In nearly every super movie I have seen, there’s a chapter where the government agent comes in and gives a reluctant superhero “the talk,” and the hero always comes around. What if the world decided they needed Helen and her super stretchy body, and she decided she was perfectly happy as a stay-at-home mom? What if she said, “No”? That’s her choice, isn’t it?

It is her body, after all.

…Since I first wrote this in 2017, a second Incredibles movie came out. Helen did, indeed, return to work. Interestingly, superhero-ing is a family business. There’s a lot to be said for family business. I initially meant this to be a metaphor for the abortion debate. I come down firmly on the side of the government agent that gives “the talk.” But only to the extent that the agent can persuade. Only a woman can bear a child: no currently available technology can take that on. In the best of all worlds, a woman makes the choice to see her pregnancy through with the support of her family and the government. Still, it is for the woman to decide if she will give her life so completely to another living being. I hope to make this the best of all worlds in which to raise a child. Every woman can be a super hero.

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.