Reason is Fallible
The preface in the beginning of Charlotte Mason's volumes sets the stage for her theories in which she provides 20 principles that surmise her educational philosophy. Today we're going to unpack her 16th principle, The Way of Reason. This principle is closely tied to her 15th principle, The Way of the Will - which we discussed previously here, in case you missed it!
For starters, let's look at Charlotte Mason's 16th principle:
The Way of the Reason.––We should teach children, too, not to 'lean' (too confidently) 'unto their own understanding,' because of the function of reason is, to give logical demonstration (a) of mathematical truth; and (b) of an initial idea, accepted by the will. In the former case reason is, perhaps, an infallible guide, but in the second it is not always a safe one, for whether that initial idea be right or wrong, reason will confirm it by irrefragable proofs.¹
In the first sentence she's referring to Proverbs 3:5: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding." Why would Charlotte Mason feel this particular verse was so important to reference in her twenty principles? One thing to consider is the time period during which Charlotte Mason lived. She was alive during the Industrial Revolution and inventions such as the steam engine, typewriters and telegraphs and countless other advances made during CM's lifetime no doubt impacted her decision to intentionally point out and remind us that no matter how much we humans invent, advance and understand the world around us - our reasoning is imperfect. Proverbs 3:5 says to Trust in the Lord with all your heart. If we're leaning too much on our own understanding, our own reasoning abilities, we are failing to trust the Lord with all of our heart.
She goes on to say that the function of reasoning or logic is to essentially prove one of two things: 1) a mathematical truth or 2) an initial idea. She also admits that reason is no more reliable than when it comes to mathematics. In volume 4, entitled Ourselves she writes, "Never are the operations of Reason more delightful and more perfect than in mathematics. Here men do not begin to reason with a notion which causes them to lean to this side or to that. By degrees, absolute truth unfolds itself. We are so made that truth, absolute and certain truth, is a perfect joy to us; and that is the joy that mathematics afford."²
However, at the end of her 16th principle Charlotte Mason warns that we should not always rely on our reasoning when it comes to proving an initial idea to be true. She explains this is because our reason is not necessarily impartial and will automatically try to prove initial ideas to be true whether they are right or wrong. She explaines, "the reasoning power, acting in a more or less mechanical and involuntary manner, does not necessarily work towards the morally right conclusion. All that reason does for us is to prove, logically, any idea we choose to entertain....
"We all know that, entertain a notion that a servant is dishonest, that a friend is false, that a dress is unbecoming, and some power within us, unconsciously to us, sets to work to collect evidence and bring irrefragable proof of the position we have chosen to take up. This is the history of wars and persecutions and family feuds all over the world. How necessary then that a child should be instructed to understand the limitations of his own reason, so that he will not confound logical demonstration with eternal truth, and will know that the important thing to him is the ideas he permits himself to entertain."³
Our ability to reason is one of the things that sets the human species apart from other species. Culturally, our society attempts to paint human reasoning as infallible. But perhaps it's not as infallible as we want to believe. Charlotte Mason illustrates how our ability to reason our way to a conclusion doesn't always produce a definitive right and wrong when she writes, "But you see at once that if two equally intelligent and equally good persons are intensely convinced by their Reason of two things exactly opposite to one another––as, for example, on the one side that a certain war is the duty of a nation, and, on the other, that this same war is a crime––Reason in both these good men cannot be infallible: one or the other, if not both, must be mistaken."⁴
She goes even further to say that on reliance on reasoning has ultimately contributed to the dethronement of authority in progressive education. She traces the seeds of our tendency to over-esteem reasoning capacities to philosophers such as John Locke (Enlightenment Philosopher, 1632-1704) and Herbart Spencer (Founder of Social Darwinism, 1820-1903). She claimed the ideas promoted by these philosophers encouraged society to see our own individual reasoning as the ultimate authority. She wrote, "the enthronement of the human reason is the dethronement of Almighty God. He teaches, by processes of exhaustive reasoning, that ––
'We sit unowned upon our burial sod, And know not whence we come nor whose we be.'
From the dethronement of the divine, follows the dethronement of all human authority, whether it be of kings and their deputies over nations, or of parents over families."⁵
Reason, however, does not act alone. Charlotte Mason explains that it is The Will that is ultimately responsible for the acceptance or rejection of initial ideas. To understand why this is important, we must look at the next principle - number nineteen:
"19. Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need."⁶
She said the chief responsibility, as in primary or first, is the acceptance of rejection of ideas. And this task belongs to The Will. In this way, the conclusions our Reason brings us to actually begin with The Will. Charlotte Mason describes it this way: "The beginning, that which sets Reason in motion, is almost always a notion admitted by the Prime Minister, Will. Once admitted, Reason seizes on the notion and runs it through his mill, and it comes out at the end of his processes a finished product. This, you will see, shifts the responsibility of our conclusions from Reason, who works them out, all the way back to Will, who takes in the first notion."⁷
So we see that understanding The Way of the Will and The Way of Reason may not be quite so straightforward. It's complex because we are complex beings created by an infinitely creative God. If nothing else, these ideas presented by Charlotte Mason on The Way of Reason and The Way of the Will are thought provoking, especially when weighing the priorities of the education of our children. The more you learn, the more you can stand in awe of the wonder our Creator. So what do we do? How do we ensure that we're being intentional with our God-given ability to reason? Charlotte Mason offers her advice, "Perhaps we shall best use this wonderful power of reasoning, commonly called our Reason, by giving it plenty of work to do, by asking ourselves what is the cause of this and that; why do people and animals do certain things. Reason which is not worked grows sluggish; and there are persons who never wonder nor ask themselves questions about anything they see."⁸
¹,⁶ Charlotte Mason, The Home Education Series, preface.
²,³,⁴,⁷,⁸ Charlotte Mason, Ourselves, p. 6, 62-63, 65-66
⁵ Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 7.