Saturday, September 6, 2014

Thoughts on CM and "The Grand Conversation"

Conversation  noun \ˌkän-vər-ˈsā-shən\
(1) : oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas (2) : an instance of such exchange : talk (Mirriam-Webster)
Within our Charlotte Mason Group an exchange has popped up on the phrase "The Grand Conversation".  It is used in educational circles and I have noticed it buzzing around more recently among general CM groups.  I will share a couple of posts that might help to clarify and bring some consideration to the topic.

It began with some resources shared and the thought that it was hard to find where Charlotte Mason talked about this 'grand conversation' and that even google couldn't seem to bring up and relationship.

We often seek out ways to help us be more effective with our students, especially as they get older.  Many times we find we are woefully lacking.  Fortunately, our own educational experience isn't a reflection of what our child's must be; as a matter of fact, it shouldn't be (or they would be just as woefully lacking!).  Since Charlotte Mason proposes that "Teachers shall teach less and scholars shall learn more" through our educational philosophy, the responsibility of learning is upon the learner not the teacher.  Our job as teachers is to provide them with vital ideas, many vital thoughts with a wide and rich buffet!

Here are the relevant posts (by permission).  Please feel free to contact me if you would like to talk more...

If I remember correctly, the Grand Conversation is not a CM term and that may be why it’s difficult to find information on it coming from a CM stance.  I have some notes somewhere here…I’ll try looking for them touching on what the Grand (or Great) Conversation is.
Remember that we don’t have to know a lot about it (unless we are the student).  The feast is spread, the student takes what he needs and he can share that with us.  The student needs to assimilate that information to make it knowledge – not us.  I don’t think we can have or need to have a grand conversation with everything.  I don’t know where in Charlotte Mason’s writings or in Parent’s Review Articles that it states that every narration must end in a Grand Conversation.  Do we put too much pressure on ourselves at times?   Do we tell ourselves that we HAVE to have this Grand Conversation or the narration was for naught?  Sometimes there just isn’t anything to have that Grand Conversation about. 
From what I’ve learned, I believe that if we want to participate in that then we need to become a student ourselves and read that particular book.  Have you read “How to Read a Book”?  I am working my way through it – very slowly and I have learned a lot so far. 
Here are some Mason quotes that may help remind us what narration truly is and who is responsible for that narration.  I think the term Grand Conversation comes from a Childlight Article and is the name some have put on the final step of narration. 
These quotes may be helpful in reassuring us that we do not have to be well-versed in all the topics that our children are studying.  In fact, we need to make sure that we don’t get in the way.  They need to form their own ideas and opinions.   
"The teacher affords direction, sympathy in studies, a vivifying word here and there, help in the making of experiments, etc., as well as the usual teaching in languages, experimental science and mathematics." Vol. 6, pg. 19

"we do not realise that in the nature of things the teacher has a prophetic power of appeal and inspiration, that his part is not the weariful task of spoon-feeding with pap-meat, but the delightful commerce of equal minds where his is the part of guide, philosopher and friend." Vol. 6, pg. 237

"The children, not the teachers, are the responsible persons; they do the work by self-effort...The teachers give the uplift of their sympathy in the work and where necessary elucidate, sum up or enlarge, but the actual work is done by the scholars." Vol. 6, pg. 241
"but let us be careful that our disciplinary devices, and our mechanical devices to secure and tabulate the substance of knowledge, do not come between the children and that which is the soul of the book, the living thought it contains." Vol. 3, pg. 181
If I’m truly interested in a book or want to discuss more with my kids and not just ask questions then I need to pick up the book and read it.  We are there to guide but the student has to do the hard work of reading and digesting the material.   

Vanessa explained it well.  I really like how we can check our methods by going back to the Charlotte Mason volumes and clarifying, seeing how and educational method or concept fits with our philosophy of education.  That’s where the breakdown comes so often, for me anyway.  I find it is important to study regularly the “whys” of the “hows” that I am using with my students.  

Actually, “The Grand Conversation” comes from a speech that Jim Higgins gave at Arizona State University in 1985. Which then began a new educational tool developed by a couple of teachers in 1989 and presented as a method to use in a classroom to help facilitate discussions.  The tool is not all bad and can be used in a CM education, but often can evolve into crossing over the line of masterly inactivity (another much misunderstood term that applies to the teacher getting out of the way of the scholar’s learning not an activity time - more later on that).  Dr. Jennifer Spencer does a lovely job in describing how “the grand conversation” tool can look in a Charlotte Mason application in her article “Golden Nuggets and the Grand Conversation” which you can find on the CMI blog (

I personally think Jim Higgins may have misquoted the term and actually intended to reference “The Great Conversation” which is an essay by Robert Hutchins, see also Great Books of the Western World, 1952 (who, by the way, has a strong association with Mortimer Adler of How to Read a Book) where he discusses liberal education.  Hutchins discusses the idea of the Great Conversation being between authors across the traditions and ages; how the ideas presented by the great authors create a conversation on those ideas with the implication that, once a person is knowledgeable and has the context for those topics and ideas, he can join the conversation.  Personally I think that’s where the fallacy lies in trying to apply something of a “Grand Conversation” today.  We should not expect our students, even our high school students or ourselves, to join a conversation where we have not had the broad exposure and a personal understanding (“the students must know for themselves”).  They may actually be there in some areas by the end of their upper years in a Charlotte Mason Education paradigm, but that requires maturity that may just not come without living and learning the next year, etc.. I think it is a dangerous and unwise thing to give a student other individual’s opinions as their basis for understanding something.  I read Francis Schaeffer - often, and he clearly lays out propositions and logically supports them; usually I can follow that-but I have context my student does not have at 13 years of age.  If I hand some Schaeffer book to my student, they may not have the ability or maturity yet (think CM and reason-“as they become mature enough to understand”).  A maturity and context that helps them think through and able to accept or reject the ideas; they may just take Schaffer’s opinion as their own with out the real knowledge and understanding of those ideas.  That has grave implications.  That can happen with any philosophical tradition or ideas without context your student isn’t ready to grapple with or… join the Great conversation about.  It is also a problem to attempt to initiate a “Grand Conversation” with a student about a chapter from a book they are reading if there is not enough context and supplant the “Great Conversation” by getting between the student and the idea, becoming the middle man that has no place in the middle.  We are not “the showman of the universe”.  That doesn’t mean not having conversations though!  A student may prompt a great conversation about ideas that have grown from his readings and narrations.  That is just thinking and discussing things and, as long as we don’t venture to “offer our opinions as [the captain idea]”, those conversations are a great way to be “the delightful commerce of equal minds”.  

Hope that helps clarify the background and history of “The Grand Conversation” vs. “The Great Conversation” and how that can and how it cannot fit a Charlotte Mason approach.
Grace for the day,