February can often be a month of lagging motivation and inspiration as winter drags on and the glory of spring and summer seem very far away. Recalling Charlotte Mason‘s most seminal tenets of education half-way through our school year can revive and inspire us to finish well.
Education is an atmosphere.
Charlotte Mason’s motto, “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life” might accurately be called “educating organically.” As parents many of us are interested in providing our children with the most wholesome foods we can offer in our day of mechanized corporate agriculture. When available, we desire organically grown fruits and vegetables, minimally processed whole-grains, free-range, antibiotic and hormone-free meats, and best of all, home grown fruits and vegetables from our own gardens! We desire, to put it simply, to provide our families with foods that are as close to nature and as unadulterated as possible. This same perspective could be applied to understanding Charlotte Mason’s methodology of education. By defining education as “an atmosphere, a discipline, a life”, Mason strove to reconnect education back to an organic understanding of it; in other words, true education happens when the right atmosphere is established that nurtures life and growth. When the human spirit is nurtured by love, transcendent truth, beauty, music, literature, adventure, imagination, play, and healthy expanding labor, the mind and the spirit grow naturally. As Ms. Mason noted, “we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food.”1 Analogous with nutrition’s importance to maintaining life is the suitable nourishment of the mind and heart.
As parents striving to avoid foods for our children that are adulterated with sugar, preservatives, unhealthy fats and chemicals, so too, our approach to education should reflect a similar devotion. Mason called the adulterated curriculum often proffered children “twaddle–the mentally inferior and useless stuff produced or written for children by adults.”2 Mason defined an “organic” curriculum as rich in “living books.”3 Because Mason recognized the inherent dignity and individuality of each child, she strove to establish an approach to education that respected and encouraged that intrinsic value. Just as parents avoid junk food with its questionable nutritional value, curriculum based upon tedious workbooks, monotonous rote work, and watered-down uninteresting stories, is to be avoided for its questionable educational value. Mason advocated only the best literature for children. As she notes, “We hold that a child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas, but is rather [. . .] a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. That is its proper diet.”4 An educational curriculum rich in scripture, classic literature, histories, biographies, poetry, and dramatic works nurtures the spirit, develops the imagination, and equips a child for life. The clear delineation of right and wrong in fairy tales, folk tales, and mythic and epic literature, nurtures the inclination of the human heart for that which is good, lovely, honest, and true. By a rich and orderly serving of living books, the child’s heart is expanded and enlarged. As the youngest child listens and understands story, he freely relates back his response to story. The growing discipline of narration initiates the child into the world of words. True education begins.
Education is a discipline.
In addition to a solid foundation of living books, Mason advocated the educational benefit of play and nature study. Indeed, Mason “recommended four to six hours outdoors each day [. . .] from April to October” for growing children.5 While Mason had the benefit of the English countryside at her doorstep, many of us must drive or plan in advance in order to provide these experiences for our children. But provide them we must. Running, swimming, skipping, jumping, climbing, and dancing will all make for happy, well-rounded children. Weeding a garden, feeding chickens, picking fruit in an orchard, all work to connect children to real life. While outdoor free play is important in and of itself, Ms. Mason also advocated nature studies that open the eyes of the child to the beauty and wonder of the outdoor world. By the discipline of observing and relating (and even sketching and recording) what a child sees as they experience and examine the natural world–terrestrial and astral, a connection to and appreciation for beauty is established. This is the beginning of wonder. In a technology-saturated culture, where children often spend little time outdoors, this becomes increasingly essential. The ability to see the small wonders of the natural world around us (even if we live in a city or suburb) gives the child a lens through which to appreciate beauty and experience life.
Education is a life.
Mason’s philosophy of education is designed to develop life-long learners. Introducing children at a young age and through their educational career to the “best which has been thought and said in the world” connects them to the rich literary heritage of western civilization–a heritage that can inform and inspire them throughout their lives.6 Opening the eyes of a child to the beauty of the natural world around them develops wonder–a defense against the cynicism and hubris of postmodern life. This can provide a critical antidote to an often violent and topsy-turvy world. Understanding their place in that world establishes a solid foundation for right relationship with God and their neighbor.
1. Mason, Charlotte. Towards a Philosophy of Education. Radford, Virginia: Wilder Publications. 2008. p. 86.
2. Macaulay, Susan Schaeffer. For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1984. p. 15.
3. Towards a Philosophy of Education. p. 118.
4. Ibid. p. 89.
5. Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Radford, Virginia: Wilder Publications, 2008. p.40.
6. Arnold, Matthew and Jane Garrett. Culture and Anarchy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006. p. 5.