12 August 2012

Judaism and Charlotte Mason

A lot of people find this blog by Googling "Jewish Charlotte Mason", and I am sorry there is not more here on the subject to welcome them. So I'll take a stab at it, although I am no expert.

If you just want to see it in practice, check out my friend's blog at Al Pi Darko Academy.
If you want the opinion of someone who is an expert, read this nineteenth-century essay.

The post here that gets the hits is Charlotte Mason on Secular Studies. That post is just the tip of the iceberg, though: CM is a complete theory of education.

I'll start with her attitude toward secular studies.
What Charlotte Mason has in common with Torah is the understanding that one's life as a religious individual is a whole into which certain general studies can be incorporated, without resulting in a religious-secular "double life".
Off the top of my head, I would hazard that under rarefied conditions (and there is a spectrum of opinions on just what that means):
-Good science can help you to live sensibly and appreciate the wisdom and love of the Creator.
-Good humanities can also show you what is in a person or what is in the world, can illustrate poignantly and poetically principles of how to live or how not to live.
-It can be helpful for a person to be exposed to beauty, order, and genius.

Where Charlotte Mason and Torah part ways in general studies is on whether the arts and sciences are seen as an end in themselves.
Charlotte Mason's branch of Christianity, so far as I can make out, seems to have adopted the Classical Greco-Romans as its honorary forebears, and so to have inherited the Classical values of beauty, order, and genius for their own sake: of beauty as an end in itself. Thus, in CM it is an independent moral duty to study nature and to acquire discriminating artistic taste.
CMers, do I have this straight?

How Charlotte Mason, and the religion behind her, decided which Classical principles to accept as eternal and which to reject, I cannot make out.

In Judaism, things are valued according to whether they are used to bring G-dliness to the world. Judaism is keen on beauty, order, and genius, but only "in the tents of" truth: in the service of the Torah principles of love, justice, and education. So artistic taste and knowledge of botany are excellent things to have; but if we ever find ourselves back in the Stone Age, we will miss botany and art, but we won't feel less Jewish for lack of them.

What I like about Charlotte Mason, then, is not why she teaches the arts and sciences, only how. I do think her methods are excellent, and a lot closer to Jewish ideas than a lot of educational theory out there. But one can't pluck the religion bits out of a CM education, tack a Judaic Studies curriculum on the CM general studies, and call it Jewish Charlotte Mason. Her reasons for studying secular studies inform her approach to them and her choices of material. If you want Jewish Charlotte Mason, you'll have to look into a truly Jewish approach to secular studies. Personally, I like the one Rav Hirsch spells out in Vol. VII of his Collected Writings, which is here [not to imply that I think this blog lives up to it].

Thus far, general studies.
There are more obvious differences between Charlotte Mason and Judaism when it comes to issues like Bible study and theology.
We have an oral tradition that explains the text and helps us draw life-lessons from it. (As Rav Hirsch puts it, reading the written text without the oral tradition to reading shorthand lecture notes.)
Charlotte Mason was not heir to the Jewish oral tradition; she engages less with the text and when she does draw lessons from it, ten to one they are incompatible with Jewish tradition.

This is just one point in a whole host of differences to be expected given that Charlotte Mason was not Jewish. You will not find "Jewish Charlotte Mason" in her chapters on religious education. Go to the original sources.

What about the area of overlap between general and religious studies, values and the development of good character? How much of that do Charlotte Mason and Judaism have in common?
Here I must confess that my Vol. 4 of Charlotte Mason is lent to a rebbetzin down the hill so that I can ask her this question.

[I have to tell you, just because I find it amusing, that the form of this volume is peculiarly reminiscent of medieval Jewish texts on the same subject: the preface says, more or less, I searched for a treatise on character traits, but could not find one; I therefore presumed to write one; I shall list the character traits, together with the means of acquiring them, the obstacles to acquiring them, and the means by which these obstacles may be overcome....]

I did ask one teacher of mine what we think of Charlotte Mason's value of loyalty: Miss Mason opines that it is immoral to shop in other neighborhoods that offer lower prices, that one should be loyal to the shopkeepers nearest one's house, so long as the price is fair.
This teacher answered that in Judaism there is a value of chesed, lovingkindness, according to which one should allow one's neighborhood shopkeeper the peace of mind that comes with having a regular, familiar customer; and that chesed must be balanced with the value of being financially responsible; but that the kind of loyalty Charlotte Mason demands, independent of its effects, is not a separate Jewish value.
Two Jews, three opinions; the next teacher I asked was not so sure. So I am not going to pull apart Charlotte Mason's Ourselves for you and attempt to identify what is a Torah-sourced idea and what is not. A good address for this sort of thing is Mussar Truffles.

In sum: my feeling is that Charlotte Mason (and, from what I've seen of it, the Classical Education movement) is a great resource for how to teach general studies, but not why, and only sometimes which. They are definitely not helpful in figuring out how or why to teach kodesh. And my jury is still out on her treatise on character traits... but it's not really necessary to go there: we have a  mesora on those; do Mesilas Yesharim instead, with something (or someone) like Rav Leuchter dot com to unfold it for you.

1 comment:

  1. Are you sure those searchers weren't looking for Jewish Freemasons living in Charlotte, NC? <grin>

    I have been wondering why R' Leuchter's webmaster doesn't use podcast format. (And why I never get a reply when asking for access to the full data set.)