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26 May 2017

20 Principles: Moral Teaching

Examining Charlotte Mason's writings on moral education from and LDS perspective, and in comparison to Mormon theology, for application in a Classical Christian Homeschool education.

This post is part of a series. Please visit the series index for more thoughts on Charlotte Mason's 20 Principles of Classical Education.

Teaching in the Branches was the first thing that I read a year ago when I started to study Charlotte Mason's 20 Principles, and I loved it. It challenged me and made me think very deeply about a number of things, and that thinking was the reason I started writing these blog posts about the 20 Principles in the first place: I needed a place to narrate the information myself. I learned quite a bit from reading the essay, but rereading it now, I think that I entirely missed her broader point.

This time, I found myself wondering what, precisely, she meant by "moral teaching" -- and then I realized that that was exactly what she was explaining, and that all the broad array of topics she'd talked about had been either touching on why moral teaching is necessary, or on how you might go about doing it. This time, I extracted a bit of an outline of what her main points are:

Let us consider now whether there are any principles to guide us as to the moral teachings which the branches are advised to secure:
1. Authority is at the base of a moral life, and ultimately begins with God.
2. However, even the Divine Authority does not compel.
3. Teach kids to see the safety in law.
4. Kids must be taught to discern good from evil.
5. Poetry conveys moral teaching powerfully.
6. Moral aphorisms, rendered in beautiful language, teach powerfully and lastingly.
7. Object lessons can illustrate moral teachings.
8. Art as an imperative to virtue.
9. Biographies of great men inspire virtue.
10. Calling mottoes and keeping a motto book assist moral growth.
11. Parents should have a clear idea of what virtues and morals they want their children to possess.

I think that part of the reason why I missed this so thoroughly last time is that I was still thinking of education in far too narrow of terms. When I was in school, we would ask, "When are we going to use this?" and the teachers would try -and sometimes fail- to give us decent practical applications. But if you're looking at strictly academic development in order to secure good employment when you education is "complete" (is it ever, really?), then these answers are going to be -were- terribly inadequate.

When am I going to use sine and cosine calculations? I'm haven't and probably won't.
When am I going to need to know the differences between igneous and metamorphic rocks? Still waiting to need this.
What about the German I labored over for four years? I haven't ever done much more than say hello and happy birthday, I don't think.
Even the birds that I take such pleasure in now, I love them, but knowing them will probably never bring me a dime.

From a strictly pragmatic stance, much of our education is not useful at all. But. We should not be educating for pragmatic reasons; I'm not sorry that I learned those things: these things all had their impact on my character, even the ones that aren't "useful". Sometimes the things with the least monetary value are actually the very most valuable. Careers are not enough.

Perfect education... is the full and uniform development of the mental, the physical, the moral and the spiritual faculties. The cultivation of the intellect, as said, is but one phase of the subject, and not by any means the most important one. Useful and valuable as it [may] be as a branch of education, it is of secondary consideration compared with other departments of the vast system of development by means of which, as an entirety, it is alone possible for the human soul and mind to be perfectly educated. ... Those persons who bestow every care and attention upon their minds, and who seem to have but one thought, How shall I shine in society, or make a financial success in the world? are egregiously in error if they think they are gaining the best part of life's experience, or securing the education of which they have most reason to be proud.
-Elder Orson F. Whitney, quoted in Teach the Children, by Neil A Flanders.

There's a lot of talk about how we should become educated - even that we have a duty to do so: the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life … he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:18–19). But so often the emphasis is on formal university education, and I have long wondered, "What good is it to learn history, science, and all the rest, when the information available is so fragmentary, and often polluted with teachings, ideas, and theories that are not correct? Why is that going to be valuable?"

But, as important as supporting our families is, practical economic reasons are not the primary purpose of education. In fact, I am convinced that even if practical considerations of where lunch is going to come from were not a concern, education would still be critical: education is really about character. It's not the facts and formulas that we stuff our brains with; it's the way we build our character when we expose it to the rigorous demands and intricate patterns of mathematics and music. It's not learning to perfectly conjugate verbs and match the correct article to the nouns; it's learning to communicate with God's children, and to see the world through a new lens. It's not necessarily knowing the names of every rock or every bird, it's gaining fundamental knowledge about Nature -- and through Nature we learn about Nature's God.

Fundamentally, education is about becoming like Christ:

Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily, I say unto you, even as I am. 
-3 Nephi 27:27

What Miss Mason is doing in this essay is outlining both principles and methods for how to go about our work in becoming, and in assisting our children to become ever more like Christ.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless --
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
-William Wordsworth

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