What relation does a child’s education have with his or her mental, emotional, and spiritual health?
How can we as parents and teachers cultivate the kind of resilient whole-person health in our children–and even in ourselves–that will stand any circumstance?
As we begin the new year together, I can’t think of many questions more important to answer when considering our children and students. With our national culture facing record numbers of people experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation (and many acting on that), this is as relevant as any other topic when considering a child’s education.
At RMCA, we are blessed with some distinctive resources, goals, and ways of thinking about education that naturally lead to helping strengthen a child’s inner life. The opportunity that each parent and staff member–all educators–have this spring is to increase our effectiveness by working together, now more than ever.
One place to start is that of ideas.. It probably isn’t a big leap for any of us to consider the role that ideas play in a person’s education of his or her mind. But what about the rest of a person? How could ideas affect a person’s inner person, their heart, soul, and spirit? Should we be interested, even concerned, about the kinds of ideas that our children accept and digest? Would it be priority to give that at least as much attention as we do their food?
It may be helpful for me and you to consider a more historical understanding of how ideas have been understood. While ideas may be considered as propositional statements describing things we believe, they once were also viewed as descriptions of an apprehension of a deep truth about reality. This is particularly true with ideas such as “I love you” or “I am loyal to you.” Such ideas are not easy to describe with words, but we quickly recognize their presence or absence. It turns out the most important ideas can also be the hardest to define! Human expressions such as poetry and literature perhaps come closest to articulating these ideas that transform, but even they are limited. In the end, some ideas really can’t be described by words; they have to be experienced through relationship.
As a sidenote, it is an idea that really carries the meaning of a study, not simply a body of facts, as interesting as they may be on their own. This is a cornerstone of the Ambleside educational model that we pursue at RMCA, namely, the primary engagement of ideas as the means for education. This doesn’t replace facts in any study. It does connect those facts to one’s life in a vital way through the ideas that give them context and meaning. Otherwise, one is just learning lots of facts, figures, and numbers without the context of the all-important why.
Now, back to the connection that ideas have with one’s mental health. Consider with me for a few moments how ideas affect one’s mental state and health? How can an idea lift up or bring down our emotions, much less our spiritual relationships with people and God? What is a recent example in your own life? In your child’s or student’s life?
As with so many other aspects of personhood, Charlotte Mason spent much time a century ago reflecting on the wisdom of Scripture and the experience of many generations of people to describe how ideas affected a whole person’s education and life.
I invite you to spend a few minutes with me revisiting the following remarks from Mason on this subject from her first volume in her educational series, written specifically to parents.
“In the early days of a child’s life it makes little apparent difference whether we educate with a notion of filling a receptacle, inscribing a tablet, moulding plastic matter, or nourishing a life, but as a child grows we shall perceive that only those ideas which have fed his life, are taken into his being; all the rest is cast away or is, like sawdust in the system, an impediment and an injury.
For the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body…
What is an idea? We ask, and find ourselves plunged beyond our depth. A live thing of the mind seems to be the conclusion of our greatest thinkers… We all know how an idea ‘strikes,’ ‘seizes,’ ‘catches hold of,’ ‘impresses’ us and at last, if it be big enough, ‘possesses’ us; in a word, behaves like an entity. If we enquire into any person’s habits of life, mental preoccupation, devotion to a cause or pursuit, he will usually tell us that such and such an idea struck him. This potency of an idea is a matter of common recognition…
Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word or mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest… our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs…
“She [the mother or teacher] must ask herself seriously,
Why must the children learn at all?
What should they learn?
And, How should they learn it…?
The child must learn…in order that ideas may be freely sown in the fruitful soil of his mind. ‘Idea, the image or picture formed by the mind of anything external, whether sensible or spiritual…therefore, if the business of teacher be to to furnish the child with ideas, any teaching which does not leave him possessed of a new mental image has, by so far, missed its mark.
Now, just think of the listless way in which the children too often drag through reading and tables, geography and sums, and you will see that it is a rare thing for any part of any lesson to flash upon them with the vividness which leaves a mental picture behind.
It is not too much to say that a morning in which a child receives no new idea is a morning wasted, however closely the little student has been kept at his books…
But how does this theory of the vital and fruitful character of ideas bear upon the education of the child? In this way: give your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information; for the child who grows up with a few dominant ideas has his self-education provided for, his career marked out…” excerpts from Parents and Children, Volume One of Mason’s Educational Series
That’s a lot to consider! But this is only scratching the surface on how ideas shape our perspective, will, and even reasoning.
We’ve all experienced this–perhaps you are right now. Consider how each of us deals with stress, frustration, and other people’s mistakes, particularly when they affect our day. If a person has taken to heart literally the idea that Jesus shared with his disciples on the evening of this betrayal,
“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” - John 16:33
...then that person will likely have more capacity to deal with whatever happens in his or her day with a measure of joy, confidence, and courage.
However, if that same person has taken to heart a different idea, then imagine with me how that would affect his or her response to hardship? And how will that individual’s internal state either lead others to peace or distress around him or her? And what effect does a repetition, a cycling, of such ideas constantly impress upon a person’s inner being?
This does not negate the reality that diagnosed mental and emotional conditions exist or that trauma and other relationally-negative experiences do not have their own toll. However, as images of God we are still blessed with choices, particularly in how we bring up our children.
The good work at this juncture is to consider how we, as the parent-teacher community, can ask the hard questions and seek to answer them wisely and courageously. How can we cultivate with a child the kind of internal health that will withstand whatever hardships he or she will face?
Here are some questions that I invite you to consider with me to continue this idea.
What are the ideas that lead to life or death?
What ideas limit or grow one’s capacity for joy, belonging, and courage?
What truths and lies, encapsulated in ideas, do I believe about myself?
Which ones are my children or students already believing?
When is the last time that I checked up on my child’s thought life?
What are the major influences of ideas for my child? Where is he or she gaining ideas on what it means to be human?
How can I help a child know that particular people in particular communities love him or her?
How can we as a community help each child be prepared to help others through a strong, resilient internal health?
I invite you, dear reader, to consider with me and our whole RMCA community the power of ideas so that we may grow together for the sake of our children. May they be even be wiser and more courageous than their parents and teachers!