Saturday, March 5, 2011

"Desultory" Education

Charlotte Mason discusses "desultory education" across several of her books, as here in School Education:

Education not Desultory.––But I am not preaching a gospel for the indolent and proclaiming that education is a casual and desultory matter. Many great authors have written at least one book devoted to education; and Waverley seems to me to be Scott's special contribution to our science.

Edward Waverley, we are told, 'was permitted in a great measure to learn as he pleased, when he pleased, and what he pleased.' That he did please to learn and that his powers of apprehension were uncommonly quick, would appear to justify this sort of education. But wavering he was allowed to grow up, and 'Waverley' he remained; instability and ineffectiveness marked his course.

I am reading Waverley right now for the first time. Here's the chapter on Waverley's education that CM thought interesting.  I'll quote part of it:

Sir Everard's chaplain, an Oxonian, who had lost his fellowship for declining to take the oaths at the accession of George I, was not only an excellent classical scholar, but reasonably skilled in science, and master of most modern languages. He was, however, old and indulgent, and the recurring interregnum, during which Edward was entirely freed from his discipline, occasioned such a relaxation of authority, that the youth was permitted, in a great measure, to learn as he pleased, what he pleased, and when he pleased. This slackness of rule might have been ruinous to a boy of slow understanding, who, feeling labour in the acquisition of knowledge, would have altogether neglected it, save for the command of a taskmaster; and it might have proved equally dangerous to a youth whose animal spirits were more powerful than his imagination or his feelings, and whom the irresistible influence of Alma would have engaged in field-sports from morning till night. But the character of Edward Waverley was remote from either of these. His powers of apprehension were so uncommonly quick as almost to resemble intuition, and the chief care of his preceptor was to prevent him, as a sportsman would phrase it, from over-running his game—that is, from acquiring his knowledge in a slight, flimsy, and inadequate manner. And here the instructor had to combat another propensity too often united with brilliancy of fancy and vivacity of talent—that indolence, namely, of disposition, which can only be stirred by some strong motive of gratification, and which renounces study as soon as curiosity is gratified, the pleasure of conquering the first difficulties exhausted, and the novelty of pursuit at an end.

Andrew Lang wrote an introduction to Waverley in which he said:
Scott was, apparently, seriously of opinion that the "mental discipline" of a proper classical education would have been better for himself than his own delightfully desultory studies.
On the other hand, Cardinal Newman wrote that if an education only gives the habit of application, that it is not nearly enough. Though certainly he was not blind to the problematic aspect of auto-didacticism, here he takes note of its advantages:

How much more profitable for the independent mind, after the mere rudiments of education, to range through a library at random, taking down books as they meet him, and pursuing the trains of thought which his mother wit suggests! How much healthier to wander into the fields, and there with the exiled Prince to find "tongues in the trees, books in the running brooks!" How much more genuine an education is that of the poor boy in the Poem —a Poem, whether in conception or in execution, one of the most touching in our language—who, not in the wide world, but ranging day by day around his widowed mother's home, "a dexterous gleaner" in a narrow field, and with only such slender outfit

"as the village school and books a few
This almost sounds like a description of Waverley's education, not to mention the early education of Guy Morville in The Heir of Redclyffe.  Though this type of education may have its lacks, I can think of worse outcomes of education than is evidenced in Waverley's youthful life.    Waverley is generous, noble of impulse, sympathetic to people of very different types.   In the novel, he avoids the zealotry, ineffectiveness, narrow-mindedness and machievallian maneuvres of some of his associates, and ends up finding happiness and honor.   Though he makes mistakes, they are shown to be noble mistakes, and opportunities for growth in character.   Where is the downside here?  Within the book, the answer is not obvious. I suppose it is implied in the sketch above -- if Waverley had been of different material, the style of education might have been more harmful.

Not plugging for desultory education, of course, but it does make me wonder about what the outcome of a good education should be.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting question. One of my greatest fears in regards to homeschooling is that my own lack of self discipline may lead to a "desultory" sort of education.


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