Liberal Arts Education: Not for Prize Pigs

we don't train prize pigs

Goal: to give ideas and experiences in as many branches of our relationships as possible. (relationships with the natural world, the technological world, relationships with the story of mankind past and future, and the chief relationship, that with the creator).

This type education is not taught by making it as your goal to teach them ‘all about’ a country in their geography lessons, for example. Rather, when we study geography, to spark such interest in and curiosity about the places in our reading that they will want to discover more on their own, and they’ll look into books of travel, and make plans one day to travel to the place itself, to view its panoramas or take their share in its future destinies.


“First.–Proceed from what is known to what is unknown, in other words touch upon old associations with former lessons or experiences before plunging into something fresh.

Secondly.–Give simple ideas before complex.

Thirdly.–Work from the concrete to the abstract, or don’t fly before you can walk.

Fourthly.–Illustrations are the hooks which fasten ideas to the mind.

Fifthly.–Reproduction is the only proof of retention, therefore narration or recapitulation must form a part of the each lesson.

Sixthly.–An idea is valuable in proportion as it enlarges the mental vision, forms the ground-work of a valuable habit, and is simple, clear, definite and suitable to the degree of experience in the pupil.

One other condition will affect our choice of ideas; they must be “interesting” in their nature or in their method of presentation.

This doctrine of interest explains why we should omit dry areas of foreign countries, strings of parliamentary enactments; what is interesting to us and therefore to the children, is the nature of the scenery of a country or the spirit of a bygone age.”

“No lesson is valuable which does not promote self-activity by making the child think, exercising its powers of narration or reproduction, or laying the ground-work for some future mental habit, making the idea given a well-spring of activity.”
Lap-books, scripted activity books assigned by the teacher, unit studies where the teacher makes the connection and gives the children activities to do- these are not ‘self-activities’ unless the child seeks them out and plans them himself.

“No, it is the child who has to become accustomed to an idea, or led to discover a fact with as little of the teacher as a middleman, and as much “direct trading” as possible.

Therefore we teachers often have to pass a self-denying ordinance, and instead of showing off to our children how much we know, we take our children to the fountain-heads of knowledge and stand by in “masterly inactivity” which they drink.”

Which subjects are chosen, and why:

Bible– for ethics and a closer relationship with their Creator.
“We do not, even for tiny children, advocate “Bible stories,” but actual passages from the sacred text, for the wonderful grand old English in which it is written has been more than one great writer’s school of language, and will, with necessary explanations, be far more impressive and likely to carry the contained idea, than the paraphrase of some well-meaning but common-place teacher.”
(note: there were at least two other more contemporary translations than the KJV available in Miss Mason’s time).

     Secular History: to give them heroic ideas, hearts full of brotherly love, patriotism, and the desire to do and be for the good of others!

That the past shall for them be peopled with noble examples, dear friends, and awful warnings–not for nothing did “Boney” take the place of “bogey” in the nursery when Napoleon was devouring the world.

We want the children to learn their history lessons, not “William the Conqueror, 1066,” but God’s dealings with humanity, the sequence of cause and effect; we want to train their moral judgment, that they may put the motive before the deed, nor dub all men with neat little labels of good or bad.

How: Life stories of the great; readings from original and contemporary or standard and classical sources; select from the best authorities such passages as will most vividly leave with the children the spirit and ideas of the time, not teach naked facts from a miserable text-book.

Century charts- the children fill the small square allowed for each year with little pictures, drawn by themselves, of the events which have struck them most, anecdotes, pictures, connection with places familiar to them, reference to events in their own experience illustrating the same forces at work.

Literature: The dividing line between history and literature is almost imperceptible.
If the child learns his history at first hand from the writings of the times, whether they be the Saxon Chronicles or _With Kitchener to Khartoum_, the phraseology will help him as a model on which to form his own, as well as a key to the spirit of bygone ages.

In studying the masterpieces of literature we do not learn about them in text-books (though we must concede a point by using the invaluable little Stopford Brooke to show us in what constellations the bright peculiar stars shine), but we introduce the children to the first sonnet, or to Malory’s _King Arthur_, or Tennyson’s _Idylls_.

We choose the children’s books, not on the score of “prettiness,” but on account of the score of their true literary flavour; _Robinson Crusoe_ and _Don Quixote_ are quite as much literature as Macaulay’s _Essays_ or Gibbon’s _Decline and Fall_.

We therefore choose sundry really valuable books, which are to be read to or by the children every term, not leaving their literary taste to be formed by the first story-book which catches their fancy.

As we study the history of many nations and of many times, the Hebrew race, the Ancients–Greek and Roman, and the modern peoples of Europe, so we must also study their literature; older pupils will work at the “classics,” works crowned by the French Acadamy, the masterpieces of Goethe, etc., in the language in which they were written, while for younger pupils there is the wonderful classical library now published by which we can enjoy Plato, Virgil, Petrach or Racine in our mother-tongue.

Learning to read– Our method for that “battle”–learning to read–is, teach by the eye as well as the ear.

Choose words which convey an interesting idea to the child and he will as readily learn to recognize robin-redbreast, as one-syllable words like “cat.”

Then if he knows the sounds, not the names of his letters, he can build up Bobbin, Dobbin, or any number of words from those already familiar, and put the words he already knows into different and yet sensible order, and the sense of power gained will be tremendous!

There will then be (supposing the child to learn to recognize five new words a day, build up others on them, and finally make them up again out of loose letters and put them into sentences of his own) no gap between reading, spelling, and composition, they follow one another in natural and reasonable sequence.
This is followed by grammar, which is also learned contextually at first, rather than through workbooks, through the introduction of names for the ideas with which the child is already familiar- we use words to make sentences and convey thoughts. Sentences which are about nobody or nothing are not sensible and do not convey complete thoughts- and so on (more in volume one)

Foreign Languages– taught by immersion, orally, not through textbooks and worksheets, best learned from a native speaker.
We believe in the necessity of learning as many languages as possible, because we believe in that “open-door” policy, and though a language may not be learned fully during school-days, even a slight familiarity with Italian, for example, may lead to –Dante?

Languages are valuable, not only as an end in themselves,but as tending to give us wider interests and sympathies with our fellow-men, and a more cosmopolitan insight.

Geography: The educational value of geography, both as alone helping us to understand all the intricacies of the former (how Holland’s dykes kept her free, and how France had her two languages–the Langue d’oc and the Langue d’ocil) and as enlarging our conception of the wonderful, beautiful world in which we live, and of helping us to understand contemporary issues as well.

Maps should be part of daily life.
Comparison with what they know at home, on a smaller scale, or comprehension by contrast, as for example, “Imagine those green fields to your left reared straight on end, and they would be like the South Downs, etc,”–are valuable as bringing facts, very remote in themselves, within the children’s experience. The first beginnings of geography–its foundations will be laid long before the schoolroom days, at home, for geography is essentially a subject which must progress outwards from the circle of the child’s experience, he begins by learning to know a hill, a river, a field, a village, and to reproduce them in sand or clay.

Science: “teach the thing before the name.”

“Go out,” we say, “into the country, learn its sights, its sounds, its smells, learn the flowers by sight and by names, the creatures in their homes and by their customs, the stones of earth by their look and from touch, and the configuration of the country.”

Then you will have learnt at first hand from the most wonderful books, and have something to classify and amplify in your later studies.

From their earliest babyhood children can and should be given interests and pursuits, therefore we encourage them to note their observations and to reproduce, however roughly at first, in their nature note-books, the treasures they have found, and above all we want them to have that loving interest in “birds, and beasts, and butterflies” which will teach them that life is a sacred cycle, not be tampered with, so that the protection of an apparently valueless lady-bird means fewer green-fly and therefore more roses and therefore more pleasure in life.

Astronomy (taught by identifying the stars you see in the night sky) should give ideas of awe, wonder, reverence, and our own insignificance. In the same way, in every branch of science the children will be led to see the Creator in the created, to reverence life and enjoy it, and to gain that largeness and sympathy and catholicity of interests, which an open-air life or the love of it seems to bring.

Mathematics.–We turn from the sciences of facts as we see them to the science of facts as they must be.

Truth is the key-note and core of mathematics.

There is no “nearly right” or “probably is so” or “certainly may be” about 2+2=4.

Logic, the putting of two and two mentally and inevitably together, and truth in all her majesty and tidiness are to be the mental acquisitions gained from arithmetic, Euclid and algebra.

How then do we teach them?

Why we try to crystallize the idea of numbers by treating each fresh number that the child learns to count to an analysis comprising the four great processes, for example, 6=5+1, 6+2×3, 6=8-2, 6=3+3, 6=4+2, 6= 12/2, 6=2+2+2, 6÷2=3, etc.

Concrete before abstract

Geometry trains the mind to severe reasoning, the hand to absolute accuracy, and it lies at the root base of many important and honourable professions, which is a real though utilitarian reason why we should teach it.

The child begins to learn geometrical truths when he finds out that the top of the table is a flat thing with edges (a plain surface) and that the parallel hedges of the high road do not meet together in the far distance.

It is on this common and already existing knowledge on which we must base our first lessons on geometrical definitions and axioms.

The recognition of the beautiful and the cultivation of taste are, we hope, to form part of our children’s education and character.

It is only what we have truly seen that we can truly reproduce; hence, observation is enormously trained by art-teaching.

We want the children to get form, colour, and gesture, so we sit them down before some flower or object, already interesting to them…

Nature Note-books

But execution is only one side of art, appreciation is the other, and this we try to give the children by putting them in the way of seeing beautiful pictures which convey noble ideas.

Manual Training.–But art is a wide word, covering many fields, of which painting is only one.

The child is only truly educated who can use his hands as truly as his head, for to neglect one part of our being injures the whole, and the learned book-worm who is ignorant of the uses of a screwdriver, also lacks that readiness and resourcefulness, mental neatness and capability, and reverence for labour and its results, which a knowledge of practical matter gives.

Any work which employs the creative instinct to good purpose and produces a reputable and artistic result (not mere exercises which waste the children’s time and material for nothing) finds favour with us.

Basket work, wood carving, etc., all so adapted to the children’s age and capabilities that they may be able to attain a habit of perfect execution, and that sense of the mastery of our spirits over matter which is surely part of our divine heritage.

Music: Here we plead that children may be taught its wonders and its history from the first, and get idea of key, scale, etc., by ear as well as by mere telling and teaching.

Physical Education: Grace, and health, and development are the children’s right, and necessary if they are to have healthy bodies and healthy minds.

We would also have that prompt obedience to command, that quick self-discipline which, when they become habitual, will influence the whole, not merely the physical life.

Swedish drill, military dumb-bell exercises, and the old Greek deftness and grace with the ball, will clear away mental cobwebs by their delightful alertness, and prepare fitting temples for the beauty of character.

However- these our ideas and goals for educating children.

We don’t train “prize pigs,” we educate children in keeping what whatever we dimly discern are God’s gifts to them of especial environment, circumstances, talents, and disposition.

The personal influence that one good life may have, widening out from generation unto generation, is an inspiration, and if the child in our care will only be what God meant it to be, we shall be amply rewarded.

We cast our bread upon the waters, and often sow in tears of discouragement, but we believe that after many days we shall find it again and return rejoicing.


Adapted from and often quoted directly from this 1899 article of the Parents’ Review.    Since it was 1899, the nationalistic fervor was a bit strong for my tastes, as was the optimistic view of the messianic nature of education.  WW1 would later put that optimistic spirit to shame and even break its heart and shatter its hopes.


Series at a glance- see the linked TOC for the entire series of Grammar and Composition/Language Arts the CM way posts


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