Sunday, June 01, 2008

An Atmosphere, a Discipline, and a Life

After thinking and reading about Montessori and Waldorf for a while, over the last couple of weeks I have been digging my way back into Charlotte Mason's educational philosophy, and realising over again why I have always found it such a wise path.

With great timing, Elizabeth at In the Heart of My Home is proposing a Charlotte Mason conversation, and has kicked it off by talking about education as an atmosphere, a discipline and a life. If you click on the Mister Linky logo at the bottom of her post you will find the other contributions to the conversation (you don't need to add anything yourself to find the links, but they are not showing up on Elizabeth's post). I haven't yet checked out the Simply Charlotte Mason eBooks Elizabeth is delving into, so I'm going to throw into the pot some quotes from Charlotte Mason Reviewed by Jenny King. This is a short book (I re-read it in an hour or so on Thursday) written in the 1970s by a PNEU schoolmistress who trained at Charlotte Mason College in the 1930s. I'm not sure whether this counts as participating in the conversation, or running off at a tangent. Whatever!

Education is an atmosphere

"Charlotte Mason was not in favour of the creation of a special environment for children ... atmosphere is more subtle than environment ... It is the atmosphere of respect and understanding created in the home where the child knows he is wanted and the classroom where he can do what he is able to do.
... To create the right atmosphere we must consider again Charlotte Mason's insistence on the child as a person and not, as can be the case, a pawn in the lives of adults to be pushed around according to whim or inclination.
... It is the attitude of the adults to the children which creates the atmosphere in which they can respond and have room to grow."
I like the distinction between atmosphere and environment. Environment is physical; atmosphere is about attitudes rather than things. A child needs to be nurtured in an atmosphere of respect, where he is treated always as a person and a child of God. There is a contrast here with Montessori, which is also respectful of the child but is far more dependent on physical environment. Although it is possible to create a Montessori environment on a shoestring, it does require a certain amount of "stuff". CM's atmosphere doesn't. What it does require is self-discipline on the part of the parents, always to treat the child fairly, to exercise their God-given authority justly, and to lead by example. Respect for the child does not mean that the child rules the roost - that would simply be an atmosphere of indulgence, which is not at all what CM is about - but it does allow the child a certain amount of freedom to make mistakes and learn from the consequences.

Education is a discipline
"Charlotte Mason expressed the power of habit as being ten times as strong as nature. By nature she meant the natural desires, appetites, affection common to all humans, the sum total of which is called 'human nature'. Every society has its conventions and rules, children must not be left to the devices of human nature but directed along channels of activity by the force of habit. This is not a contradiction to the theory of letting them be but a way of easing their lives so that their attention may be taken up with interesting pursuits and achievement.
... The habit of paying attention to instructions is a case in point. Give simple instructions (one at a time to little children) and ask them to repeat what you have said before they dash off heedless of your intentions.
... The habit of consideration for others is learnt from example as are so many of the graces. This is the area in which we fail our children. We do not insist on the formation of good habits from the very start of life and we so often set a bad example ourselves.
... Charlotte Mason speaks of habits to be formed in every field of the children's lives: cleanliness, obedience, truthfulness, attention to detail. With this theory put into practice not only will human nature be trained, but also inherited traits can be brought under control, whether they are good or bad.
... So the formation of habits can be a liberating force in the life of the growing child, and in no way does it restrict the development of personality. rather it makes it possible for him to make more of himself."
Uh-oh! Habit! I can't pretend I have ever mastered the knack of instilling good habits, so I think I am going to have to tackle Laying Down the Rails: a Charlotte Mason Habits Handwork along with Elizabeth. I'm afraid example is my downfall here. How can we expect a child to have good habits if we don't have them ourselves? Consistently. And I don't. Self discipline is my great weakness, and I get trapped in a cycle of good intentions followed by backsliding.

One thing I have been doing recently is taking care over giving Little Cherub instructions, getting down to her level, making sure she looks me in the eye as I talk, and then checking that she understands. If I do that she will almost always comply - she will try to avoid my eye if she knows I am going to say something she doesn't want to hear, but once she is pinned down to "hearing" me she will follow the instruction.

Education is a life
"Charlotte Mason asks us to look upon the child's mind as a spiritual organism. It is alive and in need of nourishment just as is the physical body. Ideas are the natural diet of the mind. An idea 'strikes' the mind and is absorbed. It then begins to behave like a living cell in the physical body. By thought processes it grows and nourishes the mind. One idea leads to another and so minds make contact with one another. In saying that education is life Charlotte Mason is referring to the living ideas expressed in great works of art, music, and literature and in scientific progress in many fields. For children to effect any satisfactory relationship between their minds and the minds of great men and women they must be brought into direct contact through their works.
... When a child's mind is nourished in this way he becomes knowledgeable, that is, he is put in the way of experiencing what he learns. The faculties of reason, imagination, reflection, and judgement are brought to bear on the matter in hand which becomes part of the life of the child. If these faculties are not stultified by a diet of predigested information and illustrations which leave no scope for the imagination, or the cramming of facts which allow no time for reflection, or reveal the prejudices of the teacher, then the mind of the child will blossom and the intellect flourish.
... Men have spoken of the liberty of the individual conscience and have forgotten that there is such a thing as the liberty of the individual mind to choose or disregard the knowledge provided. Unless it is presented in the form of living ideas most of it will be disregarded."
In other words "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink". Unless something sparks a child's imagination, it will not be internalised. I think it easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we must cover everything when educating our children, when in fact we need to give them a diet of ideas from which they can expand their own knowledge, making it their own as they do so. I liked a point she made elsewhere in the book about visiting a stately home with a child - the parent tends to want to make sure the child sees everything, whereas the child's imagination may be sparked by a single room, or a particular view. Giving them time and space to make that room or view their own, to allow the working of imagination, is more important than seeing everything. For education to be a life, we have to allow time to process ideas. Just because reading one book is good, it doesn't mean that reading two, or three, or four, is better .. an overloaded mind doesn't have room to ponder.


Elizabeth Foss said...

I am thrilled you're doing this book study with us! I never fail to learn something when I click on your blog and the chance to really dig deeply into Charlotte Mason with *you* excites me to no end. Thanks so much for chiming in!

Shari said...

Lots to ponder here. Your analyses are always so clear! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'm so happy to see you coming along this little trail with us. Your insight into CM and your wisdom will add much to our sharing. I love the quotes you provided here and your thoughts on them. Thanks.

Elizabeth said...

Lots of food for thought here. Thank you!

bfarmmom said...

This was just excellent! I may have to try and pick up the book you are quoting from. Very good!