Sunday, November 29, 2015

Challenges and Encouragement: The Education of Catholic Girls

The Education of Catholic Girls by Janet Erskine Stuart

Originally written in 1912 (with an imprimatur), this book speaks to the educators and parents of Catholic girls, though much of the content applies to all Christian students, male and female. There are chapters on religion and character, Catholic philosophy, lessons and play, mathematics, natural science, English, modern languages, history, art, manners, and higher education of women.

The sections focused on mathematics and science are the ones most likely to seem outrageous to modern readers. As a woman with a degree in cell biology and genetics, I believe the author's discouragement of women and girls studying such subjects is incorrect. Men and women all contribute to the glory of God and many women may do so in math, science, and engineering. Yet finding a balance between the blessings of intellectual abilities and what it means to be a woman, how that might shape our families and our lives (because there are differences between men and women), is a challenging struggle. One of the most important reasons she presents for her hesitation in young women pursuing higher education is that "an atmosphere for the higher education of girls has not yet been created in the universities." I believe universities still lack such an atmosphere. Many women who successfully maneuver through sciences do so by bravely sacrificing their respectability as scientists to serve their families or reluctantly sacrifice service to their families (or a family at all) in order to compete in what is still a field dominated by men and a set of expectations nearly unchanged since the publication of this book.

Let us admit the author is incorrect in some of her assumptions regarding the intellectual capabilities of girls and continue reading regardless.

The early chapters focused on faith, specifically the Catholic faith. Many faith-filled and well-meaning materials for children are, in fact, childish. Mother Janet rejects simplifications. (I think Charlotte Mason would agree.)
The best security is to have nothing to unlearn, to know that what one knows is a very small part of what can be known, but that as far as it goes it is true and genuine, and cannot be outgrown, that it will stand both the wear of time and the test of growing power of thought, and that those who have taught these beliefs will never have to retract or be ashamed of them, or own that they were passed off, though inadequate, upon the minds of children.
For this reason, I love the Faith and Life books for catechism for our homeschool. They are not exciting and lack a story or narrative (other than the narrative of creation), but they are clear and precise at every level. There are no simplifications or glossings in even the earliest books that must be clarified later on.
The habit of work is another necessity in any life worth living, and this is only learnt by refraining again and again from what is pleasant for the sake of what is precious.
Another aspect of this book was the encouragement to develop our own characters, knowing that as educators our very persons and daily actions are more important than any "subject" we teach.
We labour to produce character, we must have it. We look for courage and uprightness, we must bring them with us. We want honest work, we have to give proof of it ourselves.
I declared this year the Year of Nature Study in our homeschool and therefore took careful notice of the sections on nature study. Week after week, we go out for a nature walk and week after week, I am doubtful we have learned anything of value. Perhaps we have...
The object of informal nature study is to put children directly in touch with the beautiful and wonderful things which are within their reach. Its lesson-book is everywhere, its time is every time, its spirit is wonder and delight.
Our walks are certainly "informal." A friend and I have a small co-op for nature study, among other things. I commented to her our nature walks are more Last Child in the Woods than Handbook of Nature Study, but at least we're there.
How little we should know if we only admitted first-hand knowledge, but the stories of wonder from those who have seen urge us on to see for ourselves; and so we swing backwards and forwards, from the world outside to the books, to find out more, from the books to the world outside to see for ourselves.
Repeatedly this year we have read something and then encountered something similar or related in our nature walks. Rivers and Oceans (which is outrageously expensive so use this link instead) and Rocks, Rivers and the Changing Earth come to mind.
One must know the whole round of the year in the country to catch the spirit of any season and perceive whence it comes and whither it goes.
We have also been visiting a few of the same places to acquaint ourselves with them through all the seasons.
The outcome of these considerations is that the love of nature is a great source of happiness for children, happiness of the best kind in taking possession of a world that seems to be in many ways designed especially for them. It brings their minds to a place where many ways meet; to the confines of science, for they want to know the reasons of things; to the confines of art, for what they can understand they will strive to interpret and express; to the confines of worship, for a child's soul, hushed in wonder, is very near to God.
The author's thoughts on recitation and memorization struck me as well. I wrote about our own poetry memorization years ago, and have continued to ponder its worth. Mother Janet believed there is a value to recited poetry aloud (even when not memorized) because the sound of his or her own voice saying beautiful words outside his or her normal vocabulary expands the student's repertoire. In her experience, recitation leads to a desire for memorization. Memorization then leads to a love of reading and the formation of a literary taste. She cautions, however, to choose pieces wisely.
But it is a matter of importance to choose recitations so that nothing should be learnt which must be thrown away, nothing which is not worth remembering for life. It is a pity to make children acquire what they will soon despise when they might learn something that they will grow up to and prize as long as they live.
Reading aloud is eloquently supported.
Their first acquaintance with beautiful things is best established by reading aloud to them, and this need not be limited entirely to what they can understand at the time. Even if we read something that is beyond them, they have listened to the cadences, they have heard the song without the words, the words will come to them later.
A final quote:
A "finished education" is an illusion or else a lasting disappointment; the very word implies a condition of mind which is opposed to any further development, a condition of self-satisfaction.
Overall, I felt challenged and encouraged as an educator, of boys and girls, by reading this book.

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