Comments 5

“The Higher the Fewer” by Laurie Bestvater

People are naturally divided into those who read and think and those who do not read or think…” CM Vol.6 p.31

The day I graduated high school from a small south eastern Ontario village, my drama teacher took me aside and very seriously told me, “Remember, the higher the fewer.”  Puzzled though I was, he would give no further explanation. He was a little “weird” as teachers go (he once won a school-wide bet with another teacher over who could resist washing his person for the longest period of time…I’ll leave you to extrapolate!) so I wasn’t terribly worried not to understand his advice but I do have to admit that it has stayed with me all these years.

Beginning with the university graduation address which assured the class of ____ that we were in the top 1% of the world intellectually, over time this saying began to take on a personal meaning somewhat akin to: the higher your education, the fewer people you will find as peers. While I can not condone the elitism coming out of this secular education, I do affirm a profound loneliness in following the advice of people like Mason or Benjamin Disraeli who said, “Nurture your mind with great thoughts for you will never go any higher than you think.” (Was he educated in a CM influenced school?)

Isn’t it dangerous to think “great thoughts?” I sometimes feel that if we are educating with the “goods of the gods” relying on Mason’s observations of atmosphere, discipline and life, they are gifts that the majority of people no longer or rarely want. If the goal is children who can live for Truth, Goodness and Beauty, participating in the Great Conversation, it can seem often as if they will be speaking mostly monologues.

Two men at our church were overheard commenting on my daughter’s unusual (to them) academic abilities and future prospects at university: “too bad she’ll probably come back over-educated.” They said. A friend has shared that even amongst her peers she is considered too idealistic in her understanding of education to be “practical.” In working with other Christians in various educational settings I have also been seen as suspect, my CM views “unorthodox,” perhaps even heretical. Many of us have tried to explain this wonderful “new” understanding of education we’ve found only to find that words can not easily do it justice before our listeners’ eyes glaze over or their brows furrow in hearty concern.  Is this a case of the higher our understanding the fewer opportunities we have for true community?

Jack Beckman’s article,” Charlotte Mason College (1938-1960)–The Struggle Stateward” in The Charlotte Mason Educational Review this spring points out that the counter-cultural aspect of Mason’s paradigm was, if not always, then eventually (and might I say inevitably,) under fire.

“… circumstances of economy, population, and
State pedagogy conspired after 1934 to open the
way for a trajectory leading to the College’s
ultimate dissolution in 1960 as a vehicle for
Mason’s educational gospel.

Although we are not deifying Mason, there is a sense that we who have been “converted” to her way of seeing and can never be the same, are “missionaries” with this “good news” in a post-Christian culture bent on suppressing such a radical simplicity.  As such, it seems to me that two major sets of questions arise for those of us concerned with the spread of her ideas, as they must have in Mason’s time and shortly after:

How do we bring the “good news” to a population with no felt need thereof?

And what kind of things do we do to be community to each other along the way?

I realize that each of us will answer these questions in personal and individual ways but I think it is really invaluable to have venues like this blog and the ChildlightUSA conferences in which to share our various paths and strategies. Perhaps I have assumed we are a “movement” erroneously, from my own experience in moving from a personal to a more global desire.  I began with home schooling, a microcosm, because of the feeling that there was something terribly wrong with the state’s paradigm.  I grew to realize that I cared for more than just changing the lives of my children who often also felt isolated; the only ones to answer in Sunday school class, ridiculed for their large vocabularies, searching for peers even in university classes etc.  I committed to facilitating a study group leading others to explore Mason’s wisdom.  I taught small groups of children when I could. A few of us “co-oped” in a book club that included recitations and Shakespeare and eventually debating and worldview classes. I used Mason to teach ESL and all the while have struggled with whether this could be a call to earn “certification” in order to have a wider influence.  For the moment, I am exploring how CM and classical education interrelate as some in my community wish to start a classical school.  In short, I am committed to understanding as much of Mason as I can and sharing it in all the ways I can.

What is your story?  If we could sit around a table at Gardner-Webb, this is what I’d ask you.  Is this your experience, “the higher the fewer?” What do you wish to see happen with Mason’s ideas?  How do you see us best positioning ourselves to do this effectively?  Do you sense a movement reawakening? Do you feel isolated or as part of a strong “we?”  How have you managed to find “kindred spirits” for the journey–for your children’s journeys?

Since I graduated high school (and university) before Internet and Google, this phrase, “the higher the fewer” had no context until just recently I clicked “search” and found that it is really part of a so called “non-sense riddle” that has been floating around our culture for a long time. Originally it was, “Why is a mouse when it spins? Because the higher the fewer.”  Further research indicated that there is actually a sensible answer. “The meaning had to do with the centrifugal governor on an old steam engine-the weight was called the mouse, and as the engine rpm increased the mouse would rise due to centrifugal force. But as the mouse rose, the arm would force the steam valve in the more closed direction, thus reducing the rpm, that is, the higher (the mouse,) the fewer (rpms.) So for a given setting for the mouse on the arm, the engine would run at a constant speed.

Perhaps the riddle of our efforts in Mason is like this; what we may perceive as isolation and an almost futile mouse-like “orbit” all our own, will turn out to be an integral part of great engine that is already picking up speed and will change the face of education the way the steam engine changed North America. We ought not “despise the day of small things,” as scripture says.

“To bring the human race, family by family, child by child, out of the savage and inhuman desolation where He is not, into the light and warmth and comfort…of the presence of God, is, no doubt, the chief thing we have to do in the world.” CM Vol.2 p.50

This entry was posted in: Philosophy


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


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    Yes! I interact with few homeschoolers in real life because there are not many in my town of population 4,000. When I do connect with homeschoolers, none are interested in Mason’s ideas. I would be okay with that except that there is no one in real life who shows an interest in living books, living ideas, fine art, Shakespeare, etc. I do believe people in my church see me as the idealist.


    Right now my focus is to graduate my youngest! However, I did something very subversive this week. My church asked me to be the storyteller for two days of VBS this week. When told I only had fifteen minutes, I decided to throw out the twaddle and teach a typical Mason lesson and . . . it worked. I backed off on the narration because I know it is hard at first, so I had them “reproduce” what they were hearing in my Bible reading by handing me the pictures that accompanied each scene in the story. I blogged it if anyone is interested. The children loved it: they made connections, they loved the story.


    I do sense a movement reawakening because people are yearning for more humane ways to educate children.


    ChildLightUSA has been the primary source of kindred spirits for me. Going to the conference every year is the highlight of my year. We are starting a fledgeling little group in Columbia SC, so I will be like our Canadian friends, driving three hours round trip to connect with kindred spirits. I do have some online friends with autistic children who are also implementing Charlotte Mason’s ideas and they are a great source of emotional and spiritual connection.

    I love this article Laurie because you have captured my experience well!


  2. Lanaya says

    I’m a little late to commenting on this blog, but I feel there is definitely a resurgence of Charlotte’s ideas. More and more of my homeschooling peers are trying to use her methods. I had never heard of her until 4 or so years ago, and now I’m seeing her everywhere! That could also be because I’m searching for everything I can read about her. 🙂 I’ve not thought about how far her methods should go beyond homeschooling my own children. Well, actually, I would love to see a Sunday school curriculum for children that is CM based. There is so much twaddle in Sunday School! How do you get an educational movement to catch on? That seems so beyond my grasp…. I wouldn’t know how to begin that in the public sector for sure (government education). I could see private schools being started and maybe something coming out of that? Anyway, I know you all at CLUSA are working on all of that, so I’ll leave it in your hands and be grateful for your work. But it is very interesting to consider…..

  3. anniem says

    As a nearly irrelevant footnote, your eccentric drama teacher was likely a Star Trek fan. That meaningless phrase that stayed with you all these years was stated in that same solemn manner and was merely used as a conversation stopper in an episode of The Next Generation. (I raised boys. That is my excuse.)

  4. The steam-engine governor solution is tempting, but was the lump actually ever called a mouse? Or was it called that in retrospect especially to produce this solution?

    It’s just not convincing. For one thing, it is not true that the higher the mouse the fewer the rpm. Once the mouse rises past the critical height the rpm should remain constant. Below that, the lower the fewer.

    Like the nonsense riddle Lewis Carroll gave (Why is a raven like a writing-desk?) it need not have any solution at all. Such is our thirst for answers, many convincing answers have been devised for that too, including one by Carroll himself.

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