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What I've Learned from Charlotte Mason [Part 5]: The Educated Conscience and the ‘Good Life'

The Educated Conscience and the ‘Good Life': 

Gems from Mason’s School Education: Developing a Curriculum 

Greetings, Dear Reader! 

I believe that it is safe to say that each parent or teacher reading this wants the best for their child or children. That sense of goodness or wholeness that we hope that they have no doubt is informed by what we want for ourselves. 

Whether we call it that or not, we want a good life for our children. Granted, that kind of life can be defined in many different ways. However, I imagine that you and I could agree that the good life is not only defined in material terms. We can all see that having more stuff, more status, more power, even more health does not guarantee a sense of good. In fact, many of those things can even get in the way of understanding what it means to experience good, do good, and know good. 

Like so many over-used words, we have to be able to define good itself. Ultimately, that is going to be a work of one’s conscience, an understanding of both good and evil, and why one should choose the first and avoid the second. Starting with that, then, how do we then apply that to all of one’s life? And how do we cultivate that sense of goodness with a child so that he or she has an opportunity to live a good life?

Charlotte Mason wrote about just this topic in her third volume, School Education. She draws out ideas, principles, and strategies on how adults can think more clearly and act more intentionally to help children reach toward an authentic–even eternal–version of the good life. 

Several chapters in, we find Mason discussing these ideas on p. 129: 

No doubt every child is born with a conscience, that is, with a sense that he ought to choose the right and refuse the wrong; but he is not born with the power to discern good and evil. An educated conscience is a far rarer possession than we imagine"…

The blame rests on our faulty moral education, which has hardly made us aware of fallacious thought and insincere speech; we believe that Latin and Greek [or in our day, science and math] must be taught, but that morals come by nature. A certain rough-and-ready kind of morality, varying with our conditions, does come by heredity and environment; but that most delicate and beautiful of human possessions–an educated conscience–comes only by teaching with authority and adorning by example.” 

This idea of the ‘educated conscience” stands in opposition to many contemporary ideas about children in particular and humans in general. The idea that there is actually absolute truth that has the ability to define good and evil is these days not a ‘common sense’ perspective. The Christian belief that Jesus Christ Himself is Truth, the origin and sustainer of all truths in the world, is the foundation for any understanding of an educated conscience. Likewise, the understanding that one may have an ‘educated conscience’ also means that one may also possess an ‘uneducated’ version. Both may speak to us and give discernment, but which one will actually lead a child or adult toward truth and even Truth? 

How educated is our own conscience? And how are we intentionally educating the consciences of our children and students? And toward what goal are we educating them? These are lingering questions that every parent and teacher will answer. 

All of this discussion about conscience matters much to considerations of the good life. If one believes that any life can be considered ‘good’ to the extent of its connection to the Living God, period, then it becomes critical to ponder and decide on what it means to be in connection to Him. 

While the Scriptures are the most authoritative place to go, we also have the lives and words of the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who went before us. Charlotte Mason is one such person! In School Education, she continues with several reflections that speak deeply to the kind of cultivation and encouragemtn that children need the most to live the good life. 

On page 145, she notes that 

Perhaps the first vitalizing idea to give children is that of the tender Fatherhood of God; that they live and move and have their being within the divine embrace. Let children grow up in this joyful assurance, and, in the days to come, infidelity to this closest of relationships will be as shameful a thing in their eyes as it was in the eyes of the Christian Church during the age of faith…

We are tempted to look upon Christianity as a ‘scheme of salvation’ designed and carried out for our benefit; whereas the essence of Christianity is passionate devotion to an altogether adorable Person.

Charlotte’s emphasis is that any authentic sense of duty, any true stirring of the conscience, is an impulse of love toward God. We, as parents and teachers, have the opportunity to be a vital part of a child’s life in this most important of relationships. And as the conscience and sense of duty are deepened, he or she will have a maturing understanding of what a good life truly is. 

One final note here to those of us who are parents and teachers. Like our children and students, we have a duty, couched in our own love for God, to seek out the best for our children. This is not equivalent to the easiest or the most comfortable. We hold authority for a reason and for a season. As Charlotte Mason shares on page 12, 

…we know now that authority is vested in the office and not in the person; that the moment it is treated as a personal attribute it is forfeited. We know that a person in authority is a person authorized; and that he who is authorized is under authority. The person under authority holds and fulfills a trust…

Likewise, it is our responsibility and privilege to help a child grow in his living out today of what it means to live a good life. Today is the day to do so. Or, in the words of Charlotte, 

Let us not despise the day of small things nor grow weary in well doing” (p. 23).

May we continue to do what is needed and take joy in it! 

Serving together,