Last week the children and I watched a nature video. We gazed in wonder as thousands of beautiful snow geese returned from their southern migration to celebrate spring in the far reaches of the north. Part of their celebration was the hatching of their sweet little goslings— bright-eyed little balls of fluff, all peeping and waddling about near mama goose.
Then the music changed as we were alerted to a fox on the prowl. It skulked its way to an outlying nest and pounced, grabbing two fuzzy, squeaking goslings in its teeth. I could feel my indignation rising. If you had asked for my opinion at that point, I would have told you without a moment’s hesitation that the fox was the bad guy in this scenario.
But then the camera angle changed to show four of the most adorable furry fox kits you ever saw, waiting for their mother to return with some food to keep their poor little tummies from starving. Immediately my opinion of the fox changed. She was simply doing what she was supposed to do; it was nature’s way. She was fulfilling her responsibility toward her babies.
So what caused the fluctuating opinion? I was being led by my heart instead of my head. I was jumping to a conclusion without all the facts.
Read, Mark, Learn
Charlotte Mason outlined four steps that we can take to make sure we are not being pulled hither and yon by our emotions, but are forming just opinions as we go through life.
We must read, notice, learn, listen, and consider. In other words, gather facts.
“We begin to see what is our duty about opinions. In the first place, we must have ‘a thinking’ about an immense number of things. So we must read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest; must listen and consider, being sure that one of the purposes we are in the world for is, to form right opinions about all matters that come in our way” (Vol. 4, Book 1, p. 185).
We must not depend on ready-made opinions, as we discussed last week.
“Next, we must avoid the short road to opinions; we must not pick them up ready made at any street-corner” (Vol. 4, Book 1, p. 185).
We must reason through the facts we have gathered and look for any fallacies. (We will discuss this point more next week.)
“Next, we must learn—and this is truly difficult, a matter that takes us all our lives—to recognise a fallacy, that is, an argument which appears sound but does not bear examination” (Vol. 4, Book 1, p. 185).
We must seek to understand all the responsibilities that rest on any person or position involved.
“Next, before forming an opinion about anyone in place and power, we must try to realise and understand that person’s position and all that belongs to it” (Vol. 4, Book 1, p. 185).
Gather Facts and Understand Responsibilities
Gather facts and seek to understand responsibilities— those were the steps I was missing when I watched the video. I had gathered some facts, but I had neglected to look at both sides of the issue.
Charlotte encouraged parents and students to research both points of view: “We must read our newspaper, of course—newspapers on both sides”; but we must be careful of simply grabbing whichever viewpoint we feel best about, because “he who founds upon his newspaper is an ignorant patriot and an illiberal citizen. His opinions are no more than parrot-like repetitions of other men’s sayings” (Vol. 4, Book 2, p. 74).
Once we have gathered all the facts we can and have tried to consider all the responsibilities involved, we have one more step to perform: examine the viewpoints for fallacies. We’ll talk about that more next week.
In the meantime, let me encourage you and your students to be knowledge-gatherers. Every book we read, conversation we hear, poem we enjoy, and picture we study can contribute something to our storehouse of knowledge and give us practice in forming just opinions. I think this is one reason that Charlotte wanted her students to have a full curriculum and to read a variety of authors. It’s a good habit to continue into (or form in) adult life.
“We spend a good many years, while we are young, in getting the knowledge which should enable us to think. When we are grown-up, also, it is still necessary to spend time in getting knowledge, but few can give the chief part of the day to this labour, as we all have the chance of doing while we are young. This chance is, however, wasted upon young people who read to learn up facts towards an examination. The lectures we hear, the books we read, are of no use to us, except as they make us think” (Vol. 4, Book 1, p. 182).
Let’s urge our children to take the time to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest,” to “listen and consider.” And let’s be careful that we are setting the proper example, rather than showing them how to grab whatever opinion makes us feel good or has popular support at the time.
Let’s make sure we’re leading with our heads, not just our hearts.