A Catholic Mom’s Thoughts on Charlotte Mason’s “Way of Reason”

way of reason

Charlotte Mason believed that the goal of education is to shepherd a child toward wisdom and virtue, toward right thinking so that it might lead to right action and good character. She encouraged parents and teachers to provide children with a feast of beautiful, rich experiences that reveal the wonder of life and creation — not because these experiences were superior or would make the child better than other kids, but because they might lead the child to virtue, which is the foundation of fully-lived human life.

Charlotte described two “guides” that might help children learn the value of virtue, to make wise choices, and to develop a sound character. She called these “the way of the will” and “the way of reason.” As I have reviewed these two concepts through the writing of Karen Glass in her important book Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition, I noticed several resonances with Catholic teaching and spiritual tradition.

I’d like to explore these ideas in two posts. Today I’ll explore the way of reason.  Obviously these are my own reflections as a Catholic: I am illuminating what is already good in Charlotte’s teaching with a lamp from my own spiritual tradition.

What Is the Way of Reason?

The way of reason teaches kids one basic thing: just because something seems logical or reasonable doesn’t mean it’s right. According to Karen Glass, Charlotte Mason didn’t think children needed to be trained in formal logic.

By “formal logic” Glass is referring to the branch of philosophy which looks at the form of statements – you know, the way philosophers use little symbols to stand in for statements in order to evaluate the logic of the statement. An argument might be TRUE in reality, but, in formal logic, if the form of the argument is presented incorrectly, then it’s invalid. This is super abstract stuff, and apparently Charlotte did not think it necessary to teach this to kids, except as it relates to math. (Note that this contrasts with the neo-classical movement which often suggests introducing kids to formal logic as early as middle school.)

Charlotte Mason, however, thought it critical that we teach children to recognize the limits of reason, which can be achieved through training in informal logic. Informal logic focuses on errors of reasoning within arguments themselves – on the content — and not on the form of the argument. Through informal logic, kids can learn to recognize fallacies in the arguments or positions of others, and even within himself. How easily we can be fooled or fool ourselves into thinking that something that is immoral is okay because it seems reasonable or logical:

“For ourselves and our children it is enough to know that reason will put a good face on any matter we propose; and, that we can prove ourselves to be in the right is no justification for there is absolutely no theory we may receive, no action we may contemplate, which our reason will not affirm.”  On Education, 143.

“This is one of the by-lessons of history which quite a young child is able to understand – how a good man can, as we say, persuade himself that wrong opinions and wrong actions are reasonable and right.” Ourselves, 407.

Isn’t this true? I think we have all convinced ourselves to do something because it seems sensible on the surface or we convince ourselves (or allow somebody else to convince us) that the action is harmless or even right. Human reason is a great gift, but it can lead us into all sorts of trouble.

Modern commentators on Charlotte’s way of reason suggest that we can help our children understand the weaknesses of human reason through character training, Bible lessons, and discussions with us when we are reading troubling scenarios in literature. When they are older we can offer lessons in the common logical errors made in arguments. (I have my eye on this book for Claire, age 12.)

I think this is great advice. But Catholic spiritual tradition brings another insight to the discussion, particularly in relation to character training: our children can learn to understand their own interiority, their own spiritual state of being, so that they are more likely to recognize when they are kidding themselves and using their reason to justify an immoral or unwise act.

St. Ignatius and the Discernment of Spirits

Ignatian “discernment of spirits” teaches us that we are never really spiritually sitting still: we are always either moving toward God or away from God. A wise Christian pays attention to his inner spiritual state, to the stirrings of his mind and heart, because the spirit of darkness and the spirit of light (the devil and the Holy Spirit) are working through those stirrings to influence us to move in one direction or the other.

According to St. Ignatius, our spiritual feelings can be divided into two broad categories: consolation and desolation. We are in spiritual consolation when we feel an increase of faith, gratitude, and desire to serve God and others. When we are in consolation, we are generally more peaceful, joyful, and connected to others.   Joseph Tetlow, S.J., describes consolation as “the soul weather that makes it easy for you to do good, in the way a sunny day makes it easy for flowers to bloom” (Making Choices in Christ, 86). In contrast, when we are in spiritual desolation, we feel a heaviness and turmoil within us. We may feel isolated and anxious. These feelings move us away from God and decrease our faith.

If we are actively seeking God and living rightly, dark thoughts and heaviness are likely a sign that the evil spirit is trying to pull us away from God through trickery. He doesn’t want us to do good, to love God or one another, so he tries to lure us away through doubt and temptation. But if we are living in sin, that darkness and heaviness is probably the Holy Spirit trying to push us to look honestly at ourselves, to save us. When choosing to remain in sin, the devil will try to deceive us, encouraging us to see the logic and fun in our choices. As Charlotte Mason understood, we can engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics to justify ourselves. Everyone is doing it. It’ll be fun. It won’t hurt anyone. Nobody will find out. The Church is probably wrong about this. I can always go to confession.

So we always have to ask ourselves where the feelings are coming from and where they are leading us, because a spiritual battle is waged daily for our soul. In this battle, Ignatius gives us a weapon of resistance: the Examen. The Examen is a daily prayer with a set format in which we review our spiritual experiences, and our actions and thoughts, considering when we were joyful or anxious and where those feelings may have come from. We look for the moments of grace and blessings, hidden in ordinary experiences. When you get into the habit of praying the Examen daily, you become very aware of these two spirits moving in your life. Through the Examen, we recognize with humility that too often we cannot see the deepest truths about ourselves without God’s help.

Returning to Charlotte’s hope that children be led to the way of reason, we can use the Examen with our child in addition to character training and Bible stories. At bedtime, we can help our child reflect on how her day went.  How was she blessed?  Did she love well?  How did she use her gifts and talents? Did anything happen to hurt her or did she hurt anyone?  She can thank God for the blessings of the day and ask him for help in serving him better and more fruitfully tomorrow.

Leading children in the daily Examen gives them practice in noticing their own interiority so they can be honest with themselves and God, so that they can recognize when their faulty reason has become a tool of Satan in leading them to desolation.

Adding this perspective to Charlotte’s wonderful insights gives our children one more tool in walking the way of reason, and I think it’s an important tool. The Examen will get our child into the habit of checking in with themselves, so that they attain greater spiritual self-awareness. That awareness really breathes life into character training. Character training helps our child see where she wants to go, while Ignatian discernment helps her to be honest about where she is right now.

I think it’s also important that our children see the work of grace in their lives. We parents have to be humble about the limits of our human efforts: No matter how many lessons we give our children in virtue and character, no matter how many moral scenarios we review with them, sometimes they will make it through tough situations and temptation only by the grace of God.

Next time: A Catholic Mom’s Thoughts on Charlotte Mason’s Way of the Will

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