‘Knowledge . . . is the product of the vital action of the mind on the material presented to it’ (CM, School Education, 224)
Once again I am writing this blog just a day or two after returning from Greece, where each July for many years now I have had the pleasure (and it really is a pleasure when you have enthusiastic students) of teaching Homer in his original Greek to an international group of students from all over Europe. I now have the help of a Greek teacher, Antony Makrinos, who actually works at London University. This year we all read parts of Iliad book 6. From the whole Iliad this is the one book where for a while Homer pauses from the war raging on the plain of Troy, and he describes Hector’s return to the city to see his mother Hecabe, his brother Paris with his wife Helen, and his own wife Andromache and his little son Astyanax. Now all Homer is great stuff, but I didn’t fancy a whole week and more of blood and battle, so I chose book 6 of the Iliad.
As a teacher I was not trained specifically in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. I suppose over the years, in schools and in university, I have tried to follow what I thought were my own most inspiring teachers, with a bit of educational theory thrown in, and I have thus developed, as I think all teachers do, my own style of teaching. Then I look back, as I have just done, at what Charlotte Mason said, and I find that in School Education, which happens to be on the bookshelf next to me as I type this, she summed up what I have been trying, with mixed success, to do all these years. She distinguishes clearly between Knowledge and Information. She says (reference above) ‘Information is the record of facts, experiences, appearances, etc., whether in books or in the verbal memory of the individual; knowledge, it seems to me, implies the result of the voluntary and delightful action of the mind upon the material presented to it.’ As so often, we find that Charlotte Mason said in the later 19th century what has been taken up by other educationists and has gradually become best practice in teaching. But ‘best practice’ has to be worked at; and it is so easy to revert to bad habits.
Well, I hope that my students in Greece did experience at least some of what Charlotte was advocating. I put to them the idea that in really getting to know the original text of Homer (a living book if ever there was one) we can, in a sense, meet the poet himself, just him speaking directly to us in his own language. Do you remember Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets’ Society? I didn’t go so far as to tell my students to tear out the editor’s introduction in their books, but the film did have a similar message, and perhaps a little bit of Charlotte Mason was in there. We read some of the Greek text together, and then students, in groups of two or three, worked at sections of the text themselves (there really is no substitute for sorting it out oneself). They had to translate the text into English, by the way, since they needed to communicate their translations to the rest of the class. We only had one native English speaker among the eight languages (including Modern Greek) spoken in the class, so for most this was an additional mental exercise.
Then on the final day of the conference we did a presentation to the rest of the conference (there were nearly 100 people there). In five groups students read a section of the original Greek text, a translation of it into English, and a translation into their own language. All I had to do was to link the passages with a short account of the story in between (it’s all on video on the Facebook site of Antony Makrinos). So I do hope that the students did experience ‘the voluntary and delightful action of the mind upon the material presented to it.’
After the presentation one of our students from Athens said to me, ‘I was terrified! I’ve never spoken to an audience before!’ Of course, if she had been taught narration then she would have done so many times before.
© Dr. John Thorley 2012