Tuesday 27 April 2021

Feed Them on Things Worth Caring For

If you are familiar at all with the writings of the 19th Century educator, Charlotte Mason, you will know that one of her signature ways of illustrating a liberal education is to compare it to that of a feast that is spread before the child.

As educators we are responsible for choosing the food for the feast. If we provide a variety of excellent food and allow the child liberty to choose what appeals to their taste, nourishment will take care of itself.

I think the feast metaphor is very apt. A child’s food preference can change over time and they can acquire a taste for things they rejected in the past. One of my sons would have lived on bread alone if I’d let him, but it wouldn’t have been a healthy diet. His tastes in food developed much more diversity as he grew, as did his intellectual tastes and appetite, because he was served nourishing food – literally and metaphorically.

The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton was published in 1922 a year before Charlotte Mason died. I read it recently and was impressed by a couple of passages that touched on education as they shared a close similarity to Mason's educational ideas.

Wharton was American but she spent much of her time in Europe (The Glimpses of the Moon was set mostly in France). During WWI she remained in Europe and established schools for children escaping from Belgium after the German occupation. She had a 'gift for languages and a deep appreciation for beauty - in art, architecture and literature': Edith Wharton | The Mount | Edith Wharton's Home

Merry Family by Jan Steen, 1688

'Take care of five Fulmers for three months! The prospect cowed her.'

The Fulmers were an artistic couple living in a cramped cottage and both Susy and her husband to be, Nick Lansing, had spent time with them and their noisy family before they had considered marriage. They couldn’t understand how the Fulmer’s lived as they did - bad food and general crazy discomfort -  but they had more amusement in their company than they had with any of their rich friends and their opulent house parties.

The Lansings married some time afterwards after hatching a scheme whereby they’d live off their wedding gifts of money and accommodation but with the understanding that if either of them found a way to climb the social ladder, the other would not stand in the way but agree to a divorce. Barely a year later their plans had unravelled and out of desperation Susy agreed to look after this ‘uproarious tribe’ while their parents were in Italy.

'But in these rough young Fulmers she took a positive delight, and for reasons that were increasingly clear to her. It was because, in the first place, they were all intelligent; and because their intelligence had been fed only on things worth caring for. However inadequate Grace Fulmer’s bringing-up of her increasing tribe had been, they had heard in her company nothing trivial or dull: good music, good books and good talk had been their daily food, and if at times they stamped and roared and crashed about like children unblessed by such privileges, at others they shone with the light of poetry and spoke with the voice of wisdom.

That had been Susy’s discovery: for the first time she was among awakening minds which had been wakened only to beauty. From their cramped and uncomfortable household Grace and Nat Fulmer had managed to keep out mean envies, vulgar admirations, shabby discontents; above all the din and confusion the great images of beauty had brooded, like those ancestral figures that stood apart on their shelf in the poorest Roman households.'

Charlotte Mason believed that children should be given the best going on the subject - really good books; that we should try, however imperfectly, to make education a science of relationships. These thoughts from Edith Wharton on education - feed children only on things worth caring for - were an unexpected surprise to me and echoed the ideas that I've been reading in Charlotte Mason's writings.  

The tentacles of the science of relationships are far reaching.

We're using The Glimpses of the Moon instead of The Great Gatsby for Literature in AO Year 11.

Saturday 17 April 2021

In The Steps of the Master by H.V. Morton (1934)

H.V. Morton’s In the Steps of the Master is a wonderful mix of travelogue, history, archaeology, and adventure. He wrote the book in an attempt to express the thoughts and the encounters that a traveller through Palestine ‘with the New Testament in his hands’ would have experienced.

At the time the book was written in 1934, Palestine and the neighbouring territory of Trans-Jordan was administered by Great Britain after they had been taken from the Turks in WWI. The country was divided into provinces headed by Commissioners and under them were the village headmen. A British Inspector General of Police commanded a highly respected police force that was made up of British, Jews and Arabs. 

The country and its way of life had remained remarkably unchanged over the centuries and even the law of the land was a modified form of Ottoman Law. In the time of Christ three official languages were recognised - Latin, Greek and Hebrew. In 1934 the Mandate for Palestine stated that the official languages of Palestine were English, Arabic and Hebrew.

The book begins with the author boarding a boat on the Suez Canal in Egypt. From there he crossed to El Kantara where the railway that was constructed by Allenby’s troops during the War followed an ancient route through Gaza, Lydda, Jaffa, and into the mountains of Judea. 

‘As the train climbs and winds into the hills towards the mountain capital of Jerusalem, you are aware of something fierce and cruel in the air. You have the same feeling in Spain when the train crosses the Sierra de Guadarrama towards the mountain capital of Madrid. But Judea is fiercer than anything in Europe. It us a striped, tigerish country, crouched in the sun, tense with a terrific vitality and sullen and dispassionate with age.’

Morton visited many different places mentioned in the New Testament such as Galilee, the Mount of Olives, Golgotha, Samaria, Bethany, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem:

‘My first thought was amazement that Jerusalem should ever have been built. A more unlikely place for a famous city cannot be imagined...There is a splendid defiance about the situation of Jerusalem, or perhaps it would be more correct to say that no people who did not believe themselves to be in the special care of God would have dared to have built a city in defiance of all the laws of prudence.’

Everywhere he went he saw around him people unconsciously illustrating the Bible and he often delved into aspects of the Bible that a person who had never been to Palestine would overlook. From his travelling experiences he was able to make interesting connections and comparisons. For example, having seen the ruins of Ypres after WWI he likened them to what the Christians would have faced upon their return to Jerusalem after the siege of Titus in 70 A.D. 

Herod the Great, Saladin, the Emperor Julian, Pontius Pilate, Tiberias, and the Crusades, besides many other lesser known people and events, were vividly described. Lady Hester Stanhope was one of these. She makes an appearance in Alexander Kinglake’s Eothen and Morton gives us a sympathetic cameo of her life and her tragic end.

The artist William Holman Hunt also gets a mention. He painted one of his best known paintings, The Scapegoat, while living in Palestine.

These cultural insights and the exploration of history and archaeology are extremely helpful in understanding the background of the New Testament.

‘The Gospel accounts...are always meticulously accurate.’

‘The hideous instability of mind which the Passover mob shared with all mobs in history is clearly seen in the Gospels when the people one say cried, “Hosanna!” And the next “Crucify Him!”

We are using In the Steps of the Master this year for Geography (Ambleside Online Year 11) but it covers so much more than geography. It is beautifully written and captures Palestine very much like it would have been when at the time of Christ.

Thursday 1 April 2021

The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott (1825)


‘All Scott’s work is marked by three characteristics: a genius for enriching the past; a love of Nature; a sturdy humanity. He loved the pomp and pageantry of a bygone age. His imagination lived naturally in the stirring tales of yore. He was a historical novelist by temperament rather than by profession... There have been historical romancers more accurate than Scott in the details of the story, but none so true to the inmost spirit of the age depicted.’ - from the Introduction by Robert Harding 

The Talisman is set in the Levant (the historical name for the region of the Eastern Mediterranean) towards the end of the Third Crusade. In 1187 A.D. Jerusalem was captured by Saladin and the Third Crusade was launched in 1189 to retake the city. The book, a work of historical fiction, focusses on Richard I, the ‘Lionheart,’ Saladin, and a fictitious knight by the name of Sir Kenneth. 

The Crusaders were encamped in the Holy Land and in disarray. The Lionheart was very ill with a fever and partisan politics were threatening the progress of the Crusade. Meanwhile, in the desert of Syria, Sir Kenneth meets a Saracen and after fighting and neither winning, they acknowledge each other’s prowess and continue on their travels together. The Saracen leads Sir Kenneth to the hermit he had been seeking and they then go their own ways. 

There are twists and turns, double identities, misunderstood prophecies and plenty of adventure as the story continues. 

'...the unfortunate Knight of the Leopard, bestowed upon the Arabian physician by King Richard rather as a slave than in any other capacity, was exiled from the camp of the Crusaders, in whose ranks he had so often and so brilliantly distinguished himself. He followed his new master...to the Moorish tents which contained his retinue and his property, with the stupid feelings of one who, fallen from the summit of a precipice and escaping unexpectedly with life, is just able to drag himself from the fatal spot, but without the power of estimating the extent of the damage which he has sustained.'

Scott gets a little theatrical and the chivalry is over the top at times, as you might expect of the writing from this time, but he really brings Richard and Saladin to life. Their characters are realistically portrayed and Edith, one of his main female characters and a relative of the King, is interesting, intelligent and plucky. 

Scott doesn’t glorify the Crusades in any way and Saladin is treated very positively. It was interesting to read Scott’s description of him as I had just finished a chapter in another book, In the Steps of the Master by H.V. Morton, where the author stated that Saladin was ‘...the one enemy of Christendom whose name runs through all the history books as that of a brave and chivalrous foe.’

I have to say that I used the dictionary fairly regularly when I was reading The Talisman! There are quite a few obscure words and although a glossary is provided at the beginning, it looks like it's the original from 1825 and doesn’t include all the words that have gone out of circulation since. 

The Talisman is scheduled as a free read for the Ambleside Online Year 7 curriculum and is a book all my children have enjoyed at some point. A great book to add to your Charlotte Mason high school.

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