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What I've Learned from Charlotte Mason [Part 7]

“We reap as we have sown:” Reflections on A Philosophy of Education 

As the final volume of Charlotte Mason’s epic six volumes on education, A Philosophy of Education is a true capstone to her lifetime of work. It is also a testimony to the dedication and work of many thousands of parents, teachers, and students who explored together what a whole person education could look like in the early decades of the 20th century. 

Today, we get to the same thing for the 21st century. 

Finished a few years before Mason’s death in 1923, this final book features a recapitulation of many of the principles, insights, and observations that she shared in the previous five volumes. It also addresses many of the social and cultural trends that we continue to experience in the 21st century. From Marxism to labor and civil unrest, she is concerned with exploring what it means to give a child his or her educational, cultural, and spiritual inheritance.

There’s much to consider here for parents and teachers–both educators. 

As I read, It was a delight to see how our community is already embracing so many of the principles and ideas that Charlotte engages with in this book. Granted, we can all grow (particularly school principals!). However, it is also good to note and celebrate where growth has and is occurring in our community. 

I will focus my comments in this posting on the latter chapters of this worthy text and primarily on the ultimate goals of any child’s or adult’s education, what best supports that education, and what are some of the obstacles. (By doing so, I’m skipping many wonderful insights. However, they are waiting to be discovered by you when you pick up the book yourself.)

Let’s start with a reminder from Charlotte on the definition of education itself. This was always a key component of her method and goals. Otherwise, without a proper sense of where we are going with children, how can we know how to lead and walk alongside them? 

On pages 240-241, Miss Mason introduces the following ‘captain’ idea: 

“Self-education is the only possible education… The children, not the teachers, are the responsible persons; they do the work by self-effort.” 

She continues in succeeding pages, noting how critical it is for a person’s mind–no matter how old they are–to have access to transformative ideas as the basis of knowledge. Charlotte rightly views this as the true food of a person’s mind, and by extension, the basis of all of their relationships. On page 256, she states,

“As I have said, knowledge, that is, roughly, ideas clothed upon with facts, is the proper pabulum [food] for mind. This food a child requires in large quantities and in great variety. The wide syllabus I have in view is intended in every point to meet some particular demand of the mind, and the curious thing is that in a syllabus embracing a score of subjects the young learner is quite unconfused…” 

How can one really know and love a study, a book, a person, an element of creation, God Himself, without knowledge, a knowing of the object or person? This is at the heart of this transformative education and way of living. Charlotte always emphasizes this idea of a person, child or adult, connecting in a living and receptive way through relationship. It is a way of learning and being that cannot be done for someone else. This is the reason behind her consistent reminders that what a child ‘digs for,’ learns himself or herself, is something that becomes an earned possession. Her metaphor eating or drinking, of course, points to the necessity of taking-in ideas and knowledge that sees reality truthfully. 

In all of this, we as adults can tend to short-circuit the process by insisting on a child’s response or demonstration or learning in a way that makes us feel effective. Charlotte warns against that temptation throughout her six volumes. A little later on page 258, she notes,

“We as teachers [and parents!] offend deeply in this matter. We think that we shall be heard for our much speaking and we preat and enforce, explain and illustrate, not altogether  because we do love the sound of our own voices, but because we depreciate knowledge, we depreciate children, and we do not understand that the mind and knowledge are as the two members of a ball and socket joint, each of them irrelevant without the other. ‘Education’ will have turned over a new leaf once we realize that knowledge is to the mind as food is to the body, without which the one faints and flags and eventually perishes as surely as does the other.”

This is a perenially-important reminder for any educator of children–classroom teacher or parent–to check to make sure that we are not “too much” with a child in his or her learning. While we always can be a support and encouragement, we do well to resist being the ‘sage on the stage,’ the resident expert. Our power will be shown more through being a consistently firm support in reminding, through action and word, what it looks like to be the kind of adult who does what is necessary to take care of others. 

Charlotte also reminds her readers then and now about how easy it is to substitute the true goal of education for an easier but inauthentic one. She includes the following sobering thought on page 266:

“Academic success and knowledge are not the same thing and many excellent schools fail to give their pupils delight in the latter for its own sake or to bring them in touch with the sort of knowledge that influences character and conduct. The slow, imperceptible sinking-in of high ideals is the gain that a good school should yield its pupils.” 

A little later on page 277,  she continues with the following statement:

“We are apt to work for one thing in the hope that we shall get another and a very different thing; we don’t. If we work for public examinations , the questions in which must be of a narrow academic cast, we get a narrow, accurate, somewhat, sterile type of mind. We reap as have sown.” 

Grades, class standings standardized tests, ACT/SAT scores–any of these could be contemporary stand-ins for the “public examinations” of Mason’s day. While any of these educational tools can be helpful, Mason reminds us that they can be used in a way that is detrimental to a child’s sense of learning. This is where one’s priorities in education–what is most important goal to strive for–makes all the difference. A child who is taught to learn because it is good to know and learn, and grow has a different reason to learn that one who is simply going through the motions to get other ends. May we continue to prioritize the pursuit of the true, good, and beautiful in our dealings with children! 

In closing, I strongly recommend to any adult who cares about the upbringing and education of the next generation to read one or more of these books. They are truly “living books” that are a reminder of ideas and truths that many have forgotten. Charlotte Mason herself is a figure that can help us remember what it means to educate in a truly Christian way. Like many others before her, she is part of that “great cloud of witnesses” who in life and words point to what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ.