(an alternative to burn-out)
A little phrase in Miss Charlotte Mason’s writing popped out at me. I thought, here’s a reason to rejoice. I highlighted it in yellow. Later I underlined it in green. The 60 years Miss Mason was in close contact with countless children gave her a keen understanding of how they learn. Combine the right atmosphere, books of literary quality and regular opportunities to digest them, and a child’s face will be radiant with the glow of intellectual life. *1 It is wonderfully true. I’ve seen it work. Have you?
Granddaughter wearing Grandma's kitted purple pinafore
Years ago, I read the lecture that the mystery novelist Dorothy Sayers, delivered during vacation-school in Oxford in 1947. Educators in America today refer to this lecture as being a kind of classical approach. In this lecture, Dorothy Sayers starts out apologizing for not ever having taught children. Her opinion is based on a reasonable historic premise that dates back to the Middle Ages and seems lofty, somewhat stiff, and impressive. Yet, when you get right down to it, her opinion is really supposition – what she assumes (without experiment) to be the best possible way to educate children.
After being persuaded to follow the advice contained in Dorothy Sayer’s ten-page essay mothers are experiencing burn-out. The children are, too. Mothers who end up writing me claim so, that is. Therefore, when a mother also shares with me that she has decided to turn another leaf, back to the approach and the lady who first inspired her, Charlotte Mason, I always cheer her on. Welcome back.
News reached my ear again over summer (and recently). Giving the young mother anonymity I am sharing the gist of it. I hope to guide any who are in a similar situation or – quandary.
Dear Mrs. Andreola,
I dropped out of a classical co-op. Because of the thousands of dollars it cost me I stayed in for the year. In hindsight, I could have dropped out sooner. But my son liked the games. My daughter liked seeing her friends. I felt less lonely. Now I’ve lost my friends. Some aren’t returning. They’ve decided home teaching is too stressful and they’re putting their children in the government school. Yikes.
I should have known better. I read your book, A Charlotte Mason Companion before I got involved and even started reading Charlotte Mason’s books. I’d like to make new friends. I haven’t found any yet, though, who follow what you describe. In my heart-of-hearts I want to see Miss Mason’s ideas through.
I guess I gave in to fear. I thought I needed to heap more memory work upon my children’s heads. I was afraid, along with the other moms, that my children wouldn’t do well in college unless they had the superior advantage that only memorization can give – supposedly. All school year we put in the effort. We kept up the memorization, covering and re-covering lists, facts, names and dates. We spent less time with living books, very little time outdoors observing nature, appreciating art and good music. I wish I had never signed up. For all this exhausting effort all I feel is burn-out.
Thanks for listening. If you could give me some advice I would appreciate it. Feeling alone, Anonymous.
Anything we do differently than large groups of people can feel lonely. I remember my loneliness. Here’s some good news. You have more of an opportunity today of meeting parents who have chosen the Charlotte Mason approach to education, than I and many of my readers had, 30 years ago. Friends have spread her ideas far and wide.
A Quilt of Flying Geese - My latest Mother Culture Project
Walk by Faith, Not Fear
When a mother worries that her children aren’t covering enough—or fast enough - anxiety hangs in the air. Anxiety wears a mother down. It disturbs the atmosphere of learning. It is natural to want children to learn. But love and faith must be stronger than our fears. Without faith it is impossible to create a peaceful, pleasant intellectual atmosphere.
Fear is a strong motivator. It definitely gets things moving. Like the sting of the whip that quickens the horse, fear motivates the teacher. It is also used to motivate children. It is used in schools today, though more subtly than the Victorians used it, when it was common for a child to receive a caning of his fingers as swift punishment for a blot of ink on the page of his copybook.
The Child is a Person
A child is not one of Pavlov’s dogs or merely a subject for Skinner’s behavior modification. He is not a memory-machine, either. He is created in the image of God. He has a soul. Education is a spiritual matter. [It is] by knowledge one grows [and] becomes more of a person.*1
|Hand-quilting around the leaves|
Faith in Something Big -Curiosity
To educate by faith it is helpful to understanding that God has endowed our little persons with curiosity. They are born with an appetite for knowledge. It is calming when we stop to consider how large a part curiosity plays in a child’s learning.
It is not the only feature, but it is capable of doing the lion’s share of the teaching. For instance, throughout the day a 2-year-old can be heard to ask, “Wus tha?” as he points to one object after another, for the pleasure of hearing his mother name the bird at the feeder, the rain on the windowpane, the car in the driveway. His mother is, in a sense, cooperating with curiosity. She is cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit in the child’s life.
Miss Mason refers to the Holy Spirit as the Divine Educator.
Curiosity is so precious, so valuable a player in acquiring knowledge, that it needs to be preserved. You might even say, “pampered.”
Sadly, this precious feature of childhood is seen as something insignificant. Therefore, it is squashed - as if it were nothing but a pesky bug. How? When an inordinate amount of time is given to memorization. Then, we reap what we sow. “We get a narrow, accurate, somewhat sterile type of mind,” says Miss Mason.*2
Curiosity cannot thrive when the emphasis is on rote memorization. It withers away. Therefore, with curiosity so withered children are inevitably made to be motivated by:
• Prizes and Contests
• Fun and Games
• Praise and Approval
• A Profusion of Quizzes and Tests
“A school may be working hard, not for love of knowledge, but for love of [grades], our old enemy . . .”*3 The above incentives all motivate the student to work, but his work becomes mechanical. For instance, he will study for an A on a test even if it demands midnight cramming for what he soon forgets.
“Then, young faces are not serene or joyous but eager, restless, apt to look anxious or worried. The children do not sleep well, and are cross: are sullen or in tears if anything goes wrong, and are generally difficult to manage.”*4
“We foresee happy days for children when teachers know no other exciting motive . . . is necessary to produce good work in each individual of however big a class than that of the love of knowledge which is natural to every child.”*5
Tiny snow drops beside the basement doors.
Expanding Horizons with Ideas
Memorization is a tool for learning, yes. But it must never supplant or supersede a life of ideas – especially in the early years of a child’s education. If the child is a person, he must do the work of a person - not a parrot. We owe it to our young people to expand their horizons, to give them new ideas to think about, to lay out for them wide open fields of study.
“Astonishing fair things will grow in that garden of mind in which we are invited to sow the seeds of all knowledge.”*6
Children trained by the Charlotte Mason Method linger with knowledge, for sake of knowing, for the sake of growing - in wisdom and favor with God and man.
You can place your trust in the following list also. These things will not be new to you. I am reminding you of those things you say you originally held "in your heart-of-hearts."
Trust in Your Calling
The Majesty of Motherhood is a concept that is meant to leave you with a strong impression. You are the queen of your household. The day your little one was placed in your arms was your coronation day. You were crowned with authority from God and are accountable to God. Your duty is to rule with a firm, loving hand while understanding the nature of children. Your children, in return, are to honor and obey, cheerfully.
Trust in Your Children
When hunger is satisfied by wholesome intellectual food children will delight in lessons. Then, you will see signs of a reawakened curiosity, and a quiet contentment. Reach for those library books that are nestled in the basket by the sofa. Read about the kinds of things your child has a desire to know. Open your field guide to identify the living things that surround you.
Trust in Living Books
We are not educated by memorization. Miss Mason says that we are educated by our intimacies. It is important to note that knowledge-made-personal and information-memorized are two different things. The typical schoolbook (especially the memorization of it) with its dry factual treatment of a subject, was one of the first things Charlotte Mason found to be a stumbling block to curiosity. A living book enlivens the child’s mind with ideas.
Using books of literary quality enables students more brilliantly tell in their own words what an author is sharing. This is the impression-expression of an intellectual life. Rather than note-taking for tests, hearing lectures whereby a teacher’s explanation does the thinking for the child, Miss Mason let the children connect directly with the mind of an author. She says, “Let the lessons be of the right sort and children will learn with delight. . . . The children must do the work for themselves. They must read the given pages [once through] and tell what they have read, they must perform . . . what we may call the act of knowing.*7
Trust in Narration – the Art of Knowing
Give memorization a lower seat of important. It is far better to require the child to use his whole mind rather than be wearing down the grove of a narrow part of it. Narration is no “parrot-exercise,”*8 says Miss Mason. To narrate, to tell the passage in one’s own words, takes the place of memorizing names and dates, multiple-choice quizzes, and questionnaires.
As he forms his narration, a child ponders. He forms a train of thought; he digests, sorts, summarizes, he sequences events, etc., as he reflects upon the reading – without a teacher’s meddling. This “act of knowing,” is a kind of self-education. It is deliciously satisfying. The teacher may highlight the names and dates from something read (once through only). Then, require the student to tell the history (story) passage in his own words - using the names and dates indicated. The student will be using his own mind - with a cohesiveness that makes the names and dates meaningful and memorable. To ponder is better than to parrot.
Trust in a Wide Array of Subjects
The long hours some are dedicating to memorization (claiming it to be the Charlotte Mason approach) is startling to me. Miss Mason insisted upon a wide curriculum. This wide ground can only be covered by keeping lessons short. With short lessons optimum attention is achieved, especially with what she calls the disciplinary subjects, such as math, spelling and grammar. You’ll have time to transition, to alternate lessons with Bible, poetry, history, fiction, art, folksong, outdoor nature study, recess, chores and life skills like cooking, to keep minds bright (and allow for freedom of movement). It isn’t the number of subjects but their duration that tires the mind (and makes a sedentary body). We did a quick math drill every morning and a review of the same facts before supper. A better memory of facts was the result. Memorizing Scripture (which is the living Word) or poetry (which opens the eyes of imagination) verse by verse takes minutes a day. Scripture and poetry also warm the sympathies. They are not dull, dry facts alone.
Trust in the Discipline of Habit
With the 3 tools of teaching; Atmosphere, Discipline, Life of Ideas, we usher in the blessings of the intellectual life. A calm and contented intellectual glow can be seen on the faces of teacher and children alike. Over-much memorization results in intellectual feebleness – Miss Mason pointed out. Such undue emphasis is unknown in homes where her philosophy is tried.
I close with Miss Mason’s beautiful words:
“The bracing atmosphere of truth and sincerity should be perceived in every school; and here again the common pursuit of knowledge by teacher and class comes to our aid and creates a current of fresh air perceivable even to the chance visitor, who sees the glow of intellectual life and moral health on the faces of teachers and children alike.”*9
Children brought up by Miss Mason’s method do enter college and do well. I’ve seen this first-hand and brought this up in an earlier post.
Thank you for writing,
End Notes from Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy of Education
*1 pg 325
*2 pg 277
*3 pg 97
*4 & 5 pg 98
*6 pg 277
*7 pg 99
*8 pg 273
*9 pg 97
Sundry photographs taken at Landis Valley on Dean’s phone this February.
You can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org