Beauty, Philosophy
Comment 1

Beauty in a Postmodern World by Jennie McClellan

urinalI read in the Fall/Winter issue of the Charlotte Mason Educational Review that the topic for the next Charlotte Mason conference is: Beauty. I have been mulling this idea in my head for several weeks trying to figure out what beauty in a Charlotte Mason context means. I’ve also been reading and listening to a lecture series on Post-Modernism which has a lot to say about beauty. These two ideas are converging in my mind, and here I am trying to sort them out…..Bear with me for thinking out loud.

Beginning my studies of CM’s writings in earnest three years ago, her works are slowly dismantling many unworthy habits and ideas as well as solidified several truisms in regards to children, education, and parenting I have long held. After grappling with her philosophy and comparing it to Christianity, I do find most of her theories and methods to align very closely with Scriptural principles. Her writings were considered in her day to be counter-culture, but in light of our current trends, her insights transcend time and are desperately needed in our postmodern society.

Many ardent CMers read of her theories and strive to implement her methods in our classrooms and homes as closely as possible. We love the idea of doing nature study or picture study; sprinkling our day with classical music in the background, and a poem or two. We attend symphonies and ballets, visit museums and observe nature preserves for field work. We build real and virtual communities with other CMers for co-ops, support, encouragement and social gatherings. But why? What is the purpose of all this?

In School Education, Charlotte Mason says that studies serve for Delight, for Ornament and for Ability. (p.214) Paraphrased, studies should serve us for enjoyment, beauty and to enable us to do something. Paraphrased, studies should serve for us enjoyment, beauty, and the enablement to do something. Studying a subject for pleasure sounds easy to accomplish.  Even learning how to do something useful seems simple enough.  But, just how do our studies bring beauty into our lives?

An acquaintance of mine signs her emails with this tag: “Truth, Order Beauty.” I read this tagline soon after being introduced to CM and found it to be intriguing; it was simple yet profound. Another friend of mine has shared her Sunday school class’s lecture transcriptions with me. They have been studying Covenant Seminary professor Jerram Barrs’ lectures on Postmodernism and Evangelism. He points out many consequences of living in a postmodern culture of individualism and moral relativity, one being that absolutes have been obliterated. You can no longer speak about absolute truth, order or beauty–it all depends on your own interpretation. You can no longer say what is right or wrong–that depends on your own experience. Based on personal experience and opinion, you can have your own truth–but it does not have to apply to anyone else. Furthermore, you cannot challenge anyone’s opinion or their right to decide what is true and beautiful. Pushing your opinion and agenda infringes and violates the rights of others.

Sadly, with this mentality, everything loses meaning. Art, for instance, is all subjective. A urinal has been deemed an acceptable form of art and has “become a recognizable icon in the history of modern art. Chaotic music without melody or rhythm is considered just as noteworthy as Bach’s “Air on the G String”. A wordless play is as worthy as Macbeth, given credence, and considered an interesting observation of humanity.

One of the saddest results of Postmodernism is that all this individualism lands us on isolated islands without bridges for communication or relationship. You can express your own ideas, but what’s really the point? Others will simply disagree or have a different opinion, a different truth. Relationships are no longer convenient because of these clashing viewpoints. Plus there’s the added expectation of serving another at the expense and sacrifice of your own self-interests. “You just keep your ideas of truth, order and beauty to yourself and I’ll keep mine to myself,” seems to be the sentiment. Staying consistent with this line of thinking, we are led to a dismal place devoid of joy or beauty. We are left alone, depressed, and hopeless.

But alas, we are not without hope. There is an absolute Truth! This is where I see Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and methods stepping in to shed light upon a darkened, deadened mind. Her philosophy is a path to living a beautiful life by enriching our lives through joyful learning. Charlotte said “Of the three sorts of knowledge proper to a child–the knowledge of God, of man and of the universe,–the knowledge of God ranks first in importance and is indispensable and most happy-making.” (A Philosophy of Education, p.158.) Charlotte recognizes that knowing God is truly the path to a joyful, beautiful life. She continues:

“The most important part of education is religious training, and our mission is to give children the knowledge of God. We won’t go into the area of intuitive knowledge; we’ll stick to the knowledge that is attainable because it’s what God expressed for us. That knowledge comes from the Bible. The worst indignity we can commit on children is giving them our own rendering of scripture or a well-intentioned re-telling of the clear, beautiful language and poetic phrasing of the Bible itself.” (Modern English translation, A Philosophy of Education, p. 160)

Defining two aspects of religion: our attitude toward Christianity and our perception of God, she illustrates this with a reflection of the life of Goethe and his own quote:

“In the first of these senses, Goethe was never religious, but the second forms the green reposeful background to a restless and uneasy life and it is worthwhile to consider how he arrived at so infinitely desirable a possession. He gives us the whole history fully in Aus Meinem Leben, a treatise on education very well worth our study. There he says,––’Man may turn where he will, he may undertake what he will but he will yet return to that road which Dante has laid down for him. So it happened to me in the present case: my efforts with the language” (Hebrew, when he was ten) “with the contents of the Holy Scriptures, resulted in a most lively presentation to my imagination of that beautiful much-sung land and of the countries which bordered it as well as of the people and events which have glorified that spot of earth for thousands of years. Perhaps someone may ask why I set forth here in such detail this universally known history so often repeated, and expounded. This answer may serve, that in no other way could I show how with the distractions of my life and my irregular education I concentrated my mind and my emotion on one point because I can in no other way account for the peace which enveloped me however disturbed and unusual the circumstances of my life. If an ever active imagination of which the story of my life may bear witness led me here and there, if the medley of fable, history, mythology, threatened to drive me to distraction, I betook myself again to those morning lands, I buried myself in the five books of Moses and there amongst the wide-spreading shepherd people I found the greatest solitude and the greatest comfort.’ It is well to know how Goethe obtained this repose of soul, this fresh background for his thoughts, and in all the errors of a wilful life this innermost repose appears never to have left him. His eyes, we are told, were tranquil as those of a god, and here is revealed the secret of that large tranquility.” (POE, p.160-161.)nanobe

The other ingredients necessary for joyful learning and beautiful living: Knowledge of man and knowledge of universe are an outgrowth of this knowledge of God and all He has created. Charlotte encourages us to learn about people past and present that shape our current culture and worldview. She reminds us that being made in His image; we are creative beings with desires to create works of beauty through the arts. We are free to discover with wonder and awe all that God has created in the universe. We explore the created world, observe patterns, collect information, formulate hypotheses, and simply appreciate God’s handiwork. From the smallest organism to the grandest, we leave no rock unturned in our pursuit of analyzing the “rocks and trees, the skies and seas, His hand the wonders wrought.” Through the study of nature we see that

Black Eye Galaxy

“This is my Father’s world,
the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white,
declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world:
He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.”


These branches of knowledge are off-shoots from the foundational understanding that Christ is King and knowledge of Him is supreme. Herein lays our hope. Seeing the beauty of life that surrounds us gives us hope. Our hope is in Christ and his finished work on the cross. Christ, our righteousness, is beautiful. His truth reigns, there is order in the universe, and knowing Him is the most beautiful relationship we will ever know.

When teaching using CM’s principles, our children’s lives will naturally become infused with these characteristics of truth, order and beauty. They will emulate this beauty. Their lives will communicate to others this Truth and the beauty of righteousness. They will become the salt and light to future generations, perhaps without saying a word. (I Peter 2:12)

As a Christian parent and teacher, I want my children to come to the saving knowledge of our Lord. I want them to lead a life that ultimately glorifies God, adoringly worships Him, and delights in serving Him.

photo4

Specifically, Charlotte’s advice on habit training has greatly helped me to diligently train my children inrighteousness. She has enlightened me with powerful reasons and practical methods to disciple my kids.

We use living books to introduce people, minds and ideas of the past and present; to consider their struggles and triumphs which connect us across time and space one to another. These living books spur within us new ideas which open new vistas of thought and action. We broaden our horizons by delving into the realm of human achievement and created beauty in song, paint, clay, wood, dance and words.

But again, I must ask, why? Why do we bother to learn all or any of this? Knowledge just for the sake of knowledge puffs up. Why do we care so much about learning using the Charlotte Mason method? What do we want our children to do with all this knowledge? There must be something more.

I believe Charlotte’s ideas and methods resonate deep within us on a core level. We do this because we want our children to live beautiful lives Coram Deo meaning before the face of God. No matter what their circumstances are in any given moment. We want them to live the truth in such a way that commends the law of God and commends true righteousness to all people (Jerram Barrs, Lecture 8, p. 3). We yearn for them to live a genuine life of beauty so that all who see it will give glory to God.

As Charlotte Mason knew full well, this beauty is derived only from a supreme knowledge of Christ–who illuminates the darkness–who considered equality with God something not to be grasped–who humbled himself by taking on the form of a bondservant–who became obedient to death, even death on a cross–who is our Hope.

We want our children to effectively demonstrate and communicate Christ’s lasting, eternal beauty to a lost and dying world–perhaps without saying a word. Beautiful!

Alfred Stieglitz, Original version, The Fountain (1917) Lost, photo, http://arthist.binghamton.edu/duchamp/fountain.html
Reuters, Wordless Play not Exactly Entertainment, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN2860703020080229 (February 28, 2008).
This entry was posted in: Beauty, Philosophy

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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.

1 Comment

  1. willowspring says

    Jennie, that was a breathtaking post. I really appreciate what you’re saying. And it’s great to sit back and remember why we’re doing this.

    I recently looked over Ambleside Online’s book choices for various years to see what I might want to add to our home library and was astonished at how many of their recommendations involve stories of noble acts, heroes, and the like. When we fill our children’s lives and hearts with noble thoughts and beauty, I believe the impact on our postmodern culture will be great. Where there are even a handful of students being ignited by large ideas and fed on such a banquet of magnanimity and joy and beauty, who knows what can happen. Exciting!

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