Reason: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

We’ve been looking at core values of a Charlotte Mason approach, and last time in this series we looked at the difference between “I want” and “I will” and how important it is that our children understand that difference. If you haven’t yet read that post, I encourage you to do that in order to get the background for what we are going to discuss today.

Those of you who have read that post will remember that “There are two guides to moral and intellectual self-management to offer to children, which we may call ‘the way of the will’ and ‘the way of the reason’” (A Philosophy of Education, p. xxxi). We talked about the way of the will last time. Today we want to look at the way of the reason.

It seems like the world around us loves to put a big emphasis on logic and reasoning, and Charlotte was not opposed to training children in reasoning; however, she was also careful to point out the limits of logic, which I think many people today tend to overlook.

Here’s how she explained “The way of reason: We teach children, too, not to ‘lean (too confidently) to their own understanding’; because the function of reason is to give logical demonstration (a) of mathematical truth, (b) of an initial idea, accepted by the will. In the former case, reason is, practically, an infallible guide, but in the latter, it is not always a safe one; for, whether that idea be right or wrong, reason will confirm it by irrefragable proofs” (A Philosophy of Education, p. xxxi).

Let’s unpack that substantial statement. One function of Reason is to give logical demonstration of mathematical truth, and in this task, Reason is practically an infallible guide. We can make a definite statement of fact and prove logically that if we have 15 candies and divide them equally between 3 friends, each friend will get 5 candies. Reason is a very valuable guide in mathematical truth. And Charlotte’s approach to teaching math gives children plenty of opportunity to demonstrate those truths for themselves as they think through the logic of them. If you’re not familiar with the Charlotte Mason Elementary Arithmetic Series, go take a look. It’s a fabulous way to help your student discover and demonstrate mathematical truths for himself.

Reason is helpful in math; that’s its first function. Its other function is to give logical demonstration of an idea that has been accepted by the Will. You remember that Will is the gatekeeper. His job is to stand at the gate to your heart and mind, and, as ideas present themselves, he chooses which ideas to allow in to influence thinking and behavior. But he does not have to do that job alone. He has two counselors that help him: one is Conscience and the other is Reason.

Conscience can give good counsel if it has been instructed in what is good. But Will has learned not to trust Reason too much, because Reason is a yes-man. He waits to see what idea Will decides to invite in, then Reason goes to work to confirm that Will made the right choice. And Reason will present “irrefragable” proofs, that means proofs that cannot be refuted or disproved. 

We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we? Once we set our hearts or minds on something, we can “prove” that we made the right decision. In other words, we can reason ourselves into or out of anything if we want it badly enough. And there’s the rub, because for every single idea, there can be two people taking opposite sides, “and each will bring forward infallible proofs which must convince the other were it not that he too is already convinced by stronger proofs to strengthen his own argument” (A Philosophy of Education, pp. 139, 140).

It’s very important for our children to know that just because something sounds reasonable or logical, that does not automatically make it right. Hitler came to his conclusions using logic, but that logic did not make his choices and his actions right. We must be very careful that we don’t elevate Reason to the role of master; it must remain a servant—and a servant whom we absolutely know to be fallible and fickle. Reason is a yes-man.

“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.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. 143

The Role of Reason

Now, as in so many things, Charlotte was well balanced in this idea. Yes, Reason must be recognized as fallible. We must realize that we can’t trust it implicitly, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore it. Reason can and should be a solid servant in our children’s lives and our own lives. And, happily, Charlotte gave us some practical ways to help our children become familiar with Reason and learn how to put it to work.

First, introduce reasoning through everyday objects and ideas.

“There is no object in use, great or small, upon which some man’s reason has not worked exhaustively. A sofa, a chest of drawers, a ship, a box of toy soldiers, have all been thought out step by step, and the inventor has not only considered the pros but has so far overcome the cons that his invention is there, ready for use; and only here and there does anyone take the trouble to consider how the useful, or, perhaps, beautiful article came into existence. It is worth while to ask a child, How did you think of it? when he comes to tell you of a new game he has invented, a new country of the imagination he has named, peopled and governed. He will probably tell you what first ‘put it into his head’ and then how the reasons one after another came to him. After,—How did you think of it?—the next question that will occur to a child is, How did he think of it?—and he will distinguish between the first notion that has ‘put it into his head’ and the reasoned steps which have gone to the completion of an object, the discovery of a planet, the making of a law.”

A Philosophy of Education, pp. 141, 142

Be curious about manmade objects around you, and encourage your child to be curious too. Consider together how objects that you use or see every day were invented, and don’t just focus on the finished product, but the thought process—the reasoning—that occurred all along the way and resulted in that object. What pros, or benefits, might have motivated the inventor? What cons, or obstacles, might she have had to overcome? 

And do the same when your child invents something, such as, a new game or even a name for an imaginary country. Be curious and ask, “How did you think of it?” to encourage your child to start noticing the steps in his reasoning. Where did the initial idea come from? How did he get from that initial idea to the final product? Those informal conversations will lay a habit of thinking in your child’s mind. And eventually, it will become natural for the child to ask that same curious question about objects and ideas that he encounters for himself: “How did they think of it?”

Second, use history, literature, and current events to give your student practice in tracing arguments and detecting fallacies in reasoning. The beauty of reading living history books and good literature is that they present people as multi-faceted. No one is all good or all bad. People of good character can still make poor decisions sometimes, and people of poor character can make good choices sometimes. And those real portrayals of real people offer wonderful opportunities to discuss thought processes, to trace arguments, and to point out fallacies in reasoning.

You can start this with young students in a gentle, informal way. For example, when you’re reading Little House on the Prairie and Ma Ingalls makes the statement “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” you have a prime opportunity to discuss why she might have said that (she was probably frightened) and what fallacies were in her thought process. It doesn’t have to be some deep philosophical discussion; in fact, it shouldn’t be with younger students. It can be as simple as “Do you think Ma had met every single Native American there was? Do you think there may have been good Native Americans?” And then later, in The Long Winter, when a Native American takes the trouble to come warn the townspeople about the coming harsh winter, even though they don’t speak the same language, you can gently remind the students of Ma’s statement and point out how that incident disproves her generalization. Point out the fallacy in her thinking. So start with those gentle examples and, gradually, over the years, work your way up to deeper discussions and more complex examples.

Shakespeare is a great resource for this, by the way! Challenge your older student to trace Macbeth’s thought process as he changes from loyal protector of the king to murderer of that king.

Charlotte said, “Probably we cannot give better training in right reasoning than by letting children work out the arguments in favour of this or that conclusion” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 140).

Do the same with figures in history or historical events. You see, this is yet another reason to read about historical and literary characters with whom you don’t agree. You and your students can examine their reasoning and discover the fallacies in it. These are prime opportunities to learn how to use Reason well. Don’t miss them!

Charlotte also used current events to give the older students practice in tracing arguments and detecting fallacies in reasoning. She would do this in a couple of interesting ways. 

Sometimes she would share a crime that had been committed, and the students would learn about the thought process behind the crime: why the criminal thought he should commit the crime. Why would she do that? Because it reinforced the truth that Reason will argue in favor of whatever idea is welcomed into the heart and mind. She said,

Sometimes a child should be taken into the psychology of crime, and he will see that reason brings infallible proofs of the rightness of the criminal act. From Cain to the latest great offender every criminal act has been justified by reasoned arguments which come of their own accord to the criminal. We know the arguments before which Eve fell when the Serpent played the part of the ‘weird Sisters.’ It is pleasant to the eye; it is good for food; it shall make you wise in the knowledge of good and evil––good and convincing arguments, specious enough to overbear the counter-pleadings of Obedience. Children should know that such things are before them also; that whenever they want to do wrong capital reasons for doing the wrong thing will occur to them. But, happily, when they want to do right no less cogent reasons for right doing will appear.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 141, 142

Then she also used current events by encouraging older students, high-school age students, to read newspapers that presented opposing sides to an issue of the day. They would read and narrate both sides of an argument and then look for and discuss fallacies in the reasoning of either side. 

A modern-day alternative for us might be to use helpful websites that present opposing sides to current issues. You might take a look at ProCon.org or allsides.com, for example. Now, remember, these discussions are for high school students, and I highly recommend that you first look over any articles that you think you might want to use. Review the content first, then select the ones that would fit your student and your family best.

So use literature, history, and current events to give your student practice in tracing arguments and spotting fallacies in reasoning.

A third way that we can help our children become familiar with the way of the Reason is to gently use your child’s own fallacies in reasoning as opportunities to learn.

Charlotte pointed out that “the fallacies they themselves perpetrate when exposed make them the readier to detect fallacies elsewhere” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 148). Of course, this exposure must be done with the right heart attitude. We must be careful that we approach such moments with due respect to the personhood of the child and a kindred spirit of humility, that we are all learning and growing together as fellow human beings. A harsh or mocking spirit in those moments will cause more harm than good. 

And if you are feeling like you could use a refresher course on spotting such fallacies in reasoning, or if you want a more structured study for an older student, you might take a look at The Fallacy Detective by Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn. Don’t just assign it to your older student, though; go through it with them and discuss the ideas in it.

Then, the fourth way we can help our children, as they grow in understanding the way of the Reason, is to emphasize timeless principles. Solid guidelines for life will give the children a standard against which they can compare ideas and reasoning that they encounter. Charlotte highlighted two kinds of ideas especially: idle propositions and blasphemous proposition.

Arguing either of those types of arguments will not lead to anything fruitful. They’re a waste of time. So Charlotte encouraged us to make sure our children have a good foundation of Biblical principles that will help them discern when to make the effort to apply Reason and examine an argument and when to ignore a proposition because it will lead to nothing good. Here’s how she defined those two types of time-and-energy-wasters:

What are we to do? Are we to waste time in discussing with children every idle and blasphemous proposition that comes their way? Surely not. But we may help them to principles which should enable them to discern these two characters for themselves. A proposition is idle when it rests on nothing and leads to nothing. Again, blasphemy is a sin, the sin of being impudent towards Almighty God.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 148

So don’t get caught up in reasoning just for reasoning’s sake. Focus on meaningful examples and ideas as you help your student learn to trace arguments and detect fallacies. And above all, feed his mind and heart with good, noble, and beautiful ideas from which he can grab hold of timeless, unchanging principles that will guide him along the right paths in his thoughts.

Do you see how an understanding of the way the Will works and the way the Reason works can be so helpful to your child—and to you? As in everything, that understanding will be a gradual process and it is best taught, not as formal lessons necessarily, but in the moments, as the occasions arise to (1) introduce reasoning through everyday objects and ideas; (2) use history, literature, and current events to give your student practice in tracing arguments and detecting fallacies in reasoning; (3) gently use your child’s own fallacies in reasoning as opportunities to learn; and (4) emphasize timeless principles that will guide your child into right thinking.

Reason, so far from being infallible, is most exceedingly fallible, persuadable, open to influence on this side and that; but is all the same a faithful servant, able to prove whatsoever notion is received by the will. Once we are convinced of the fallibility of our own reason we are able to detect the fallacies in the reasoning of our opponents and are not liable to be carried away by every wind of doctrine. Every mother knows how intensely reasonable a child is and how difficult it is to answer his quite logical and foolishly wrong conclusions. So we need not be deterred from dealing with serious matters with these young neophytes, but only as the occasion occurs.

A Philosophy of Education, pp. 150, 151

That’s the way of the Reason, and that’s a core value of Charlotte Mason.

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