I have become interested in the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason, and at the same time, a friend recommended I read ‘For the Children’s Sake’ by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay.
The book is subtitled, ‘Foundations of Education for Home and School’, and is basically the author’s summary and interpretation of several key principles as outlined in the full written works of Charlotte Mason. Lengthy quotations from the original work are provided, together with a concise summary of how these principles can be applied in our modern day homes and schools.
I think this is indeed a valuable introduction to a method of education which cuts right across many current trends within both society as a whole and particularly relating to ‘mainstream’ education. In the concluding chapter, the desired result of such an education is stated to be that ‘our children may be so educated in a total life that they are enabled to have clear, realistic and true thinking and action based upon thought and principle. May they be strong personalities, free of self and external pressures so that they will have the power to do what is right.’ What an amazing goal, one which I wholeheartedly share!
The first, basic premise is that ‘children are born persons’. Each is a unique individual, created in the image of a loving God. Anybody who has observed children will see how much young babies and toddlers are able to learn through simple exploration and experimentation, yet somehow at the age of about five, we tend to herd them together in classrooms, talk at them, and expect them to learn the same material at approximately the same rate to a similar standard. It is illogical, and yet few parents question whether it is indeed right and best. Instead, the argument outlined here is that we should continue to allow a child to explore and develop their own impressions and interpretation of the world around them. Reading aloud from good quality literature is recommended, expecting the child’s full attention, followed by asking the child to tell back the story in their own words. Hence the child is encouraged to engage and interact with the material, rather than simply learning a list of facts for the purposes of testing, or of achieving a set ‘level’ of understanding. This approach is extended to many disciplines, including art, music, nature and science, history, geography and many others. Children educated in this way will develop different strengths and interests, but education remains exciting and is primarily driven by the questions the child himself asks; this is a foundation for life-long learning.
The three foundations of the philosophy of education are that it is an ‘atmosphere’, a ‘discipline’ and a ‘life’. I have written more about this elsewhere on this blog.
I was interested to read that although holding a strongly Christian worldview, neither Charlotte Mason nor Susan Schaeffer Macaulay would recommend using only resources that are consistent with Biblical thinking; in fact they would caution against such an approach. Having witnessed a slightly claustrophobic approach from some well meaning Christian families, who seek to protect their children against any possible ‘worldly’ influence in their methods of home education, I was refreshed to see it stated clearly that such an approach is simply short-sighted. ‘Have they thrashed through the reasons why the Bible is true? Do they understand the fallacies of other positions? Can they remember numerous occasions where the Bible was seen to fit like a key into the keyhole of reality? Do they know about the historical and archaeological evidence? Are they amazed at home the philosophical ideas of the Bible fit into the way we find reality to be? They should not be left only with a feeling.... That is not enough... Do they KNOW?’ Wisdom should be exercised regarding when exactly to expose children to certain concepts and challenges, but ‘At some teenage stage, the young person should also read and appreciate good secular twentieth century literature. He needs to understand where our culture is, why the questions are so acute, and how lost and desperate so many people feel today. It helps these older children to understand why some people write like this, what they think about the human being, God, morality, society’. This is what I want for my children – not to separate their ‘faith’ into some type of box, not fully integrated with who they are as persons and with the world around them. Instead, I want them to learn and understand how all things are created by God, and how much of education is about understanding the world that He made, but that there are also many incorrect ideas and values which they will encounter.
On a similar theme is her argument for drawing from a wide range of source material. If we believe that all persons are created in the image of God, then all human creativity and expression is an expression of that nature. Again, to quote Macaulay, ‘We have tolerated a separation between the “secular” and the “religious”. Thus people have had to close their minds to all other aspects of life and intellectual questions when they entered the “faith” box, or that of “experience”. It is as if they were called upon to leave philosophy, literary questions, art, social questions, historical views, political action, since and so on in a sort of mental parking lot outside the “religious experiences”. Charlotte Mason allowed no such division between the “secular” and the “religious”. She understood that the whole of reality is part of God’s reality.’ Beauty, excellence, talent, creativity – all these should be celebrated as being part of the expression of God-created humanity.
Do I have any criticisms of the book? There were occasions when I felt a little discouraged, as though the author spoke from a perspective of having achieved that ideal balance in her own home and family without challenge or obstacle! However, she does clearly explain early on that she and her husband discovered Charlotte Mason after several frustrating years where their older two children were not experiencing the ideal, rounded education they sought. I would have perhaps been more encouraged had she described some of her own challenges as she moved to this different form of education. From my perspective, that might simply be the challenge of time and energy that is required. It is one thing to describe the beautiful freedom of children as they are provided with the rich nourishment of a diverse curriculum (often described by Charlotte Mason as a ‘feast’), but it does require energy to select resources, read stories, answer endless questions, go on field trips, allow the time and space for the children to grow and develop, and generally make choices within the home and family structure which may go against the grain not only in society as a whole but also within our churches. In the concluding paragraph, she hints at the effort required as the question, ‘Would you be willing to give your home so much vitality, life, through your creative time and effort that it becomes the “centre of gravity” in the child’s life?’ Although absolutely worthwhile, it does require time, effort, energy, perseverance, wisdom, prayer, and many other resources. As I have described here on this blog, challenges I face sometimes include loneliness and feeling misunderstood and at times exhaustion and difficulty in looking after my own health.
So, what changes might I make to what we are currently doing with our children?
Firstly, I am encouraged yet again that the choices we have made are right for our family, and worth the investment of all the God-given resources that we have. Already, I am starting to see fruit in terms of our children exploring, questioning, developing many fascinations with the world around them, and showing an incredible memory of the answers they are given in response to such questions.
Secondly, I am encouraged to consider more carefully the resources I use. I particularly like the concept of ‘living books’, whereby (for example) a period of history is best studied by reading a biography or historical novel from that time, as it truly captivates the life of a real, knowable individual in that time period, rather than being an abstract list of facts. I am encouraged not to ‘dumb down’ material for my children by deciding what I think is within their grasp, but rather to use the most excellent, most beautiful literature and allow my children to interact with it directly rather than trying to tell them how I think they should interpret it.
Thirdly, I am yet again encouraged to read the full works of Charlotte Mason, which I recently got hold of. There seems so much robust truth and wisdom contained within these writings, and I wish to learn more! I particularly am interested to read how she addresses some of the challenges that may arise during this educational approach.
(Slow internet from west Africa; I will insert crosslinks later!)