The title and subheading of this chapter ("Children are not born bad but with possibilities for good and evil") are enough to raise quite a lot of anti-Charlotte Mason hackles. “What do you mean, children are not born bad? That’s anti-Christian.” “We are born with evil natures. End of story, next?” “I’m going back to classical.”
Here is Charlotte’s word on this issue: “The fact seems to be that children are like ourselves, not because they have become so, but because they are born so; that is, with tendencies, dispositions, towards good and towards evil, and also with a curious intuitive knowledge as to which is good and which is evil. Here we have the work of education indicated. There are good and evil tendencies in body and mind, heart and soul; and the hope set before us is that we can foster the good so as to attenuate the evil; that is, on condition that we put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion.” “In every child there are tendencies to greediness, restlessness, sloth, impurity, any one of which by allowance may ruin the child and the man that he will be.”
You can argue about the theological side of it after class. But that is NOT what Charlotte wanted to focus on, in this chapter; not totally. What she seemed to be doing, simply by way of introduction, was to compare the way religious attitudes and Christian education had changed towards children, with the way that she felt educational attitudes could similarly change.
She believed that Christian thought had previously over-emphasized the issue of personal salvation, to the neglect of concern for “the community, the nation, the race.”[See Note Below] She got excited when she thought about the educational possibilities that could go beyond just one child or one group, ideas that could affect “every class and country.” “The recognition of the potentialities in any child should bring about such an educational renaissance as may send our weary old world rejoicing on its way.”
Well, Charlotte was never accused of thinking small.
Yes, she is thinking somewhat of a child’s inborn moral status here. But, again, she is comparing his or her spiritual tendencies to sin; AND the parent or teacher’s responsibility, within certain limits, to teach and train those tendencies out of a young child; with his or her intellectual makeup and needs. (The last section of this chapter deals specifically with “the soul,” or the spiritual realm.)
And this is where she starts to do something interesting with this chapter. Have you read her earlier book Ourselves, which she wrote to be read to children? The next parts of chapter 3 are a very close summary of the first few chapters of Ourselves. Ourselves begins in an allegorical style, something like John Bunyan’s The Holy War. Every person is a kingdom, and in the kingdom there are governors, and good servants (who can also be bad masters), and troublemakers, and beautiful lands…all kinds of things, which she tries to put in order. “It is important that we should have before us a bird's eye view, let us call it, of human nature.”
First off, we have the physical body, including the needs of the nervous system. Then she moves on to children’s intellectual tendencies, appetites, and needs: “We do not perceive that the mind, too, has its tendencies both good and evil and that every inclination towards good is hindered and may be thwarted by a corresponding inclination towards evil; I am not speaking of moral evil but of those intellectual evils which we are slow to define and are careless in dealing with.”
Do you catch her point about “evils” here and in the upcoming paragraphs? The “intellectual evils” are mainly on the part of the educational system, the school, the teacher. The “evils” include dumbing-down, dullness, diagrams; competition for marks; token rewards (like stickers). “Good teachers know that they may not drown their teaching in verbiage.” “A child's intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find.” “No child would forget the characterization of Charles IX as 'feeble and violent,' nor fail to take to himself a lesson in self-control. We may not point the moral; that is the work proper for children themselves and they do it without fail.”
Do you know where the “feeble and violent” reference comes from? The History of Modern Times, from the Fall of Constantinople to the French Revolution, by Victor Duruy. Here’s a longer excerpt:
Charles IX. was then twenty-one, of good intellect, but of a character at once feeble and violent; spoiled by absolute power, surrounded by Italian favorites who perverted his heart, he played very well and sometimes unwittingly the role which his mother [Catherine de' Medici] left him. He had more than once found that the Huguenot chiefs carried their heads too high, and had not forgotten the homicidal counsels given him by the Duke of Alva at Bayonne. But then he was impatient of his mother's yoke and envious of the victories ascribed to his brother. Inconstant and passionate, he entered with ardor into new projects, wrote to Coligny, to Jeanne d' Albret, and urged the prompt conclusion of the marriage of Henry of Beam with his sister. The Queen of Navarre decided to come to Paris; so too did the admiral. "At last we have you, my father," said to him the young king, embracing him, "and you will not escape from us when you wish."Later in Volume 6, Charlotte writes, “Now Plutarch is like the Bible in this, that he does not label the actions of his people as good or bad but leaves the conscience and judgment of his readers to make that classification. What to avoid and how to avoid it, is knowledge as important to the citizen whether of the City of God or of his own immediate city, as to know what is good and how to perform the same.” It seems that the writing of Victor Duruy would fall under the same classification. Intelligent children reading this…assuming that they have the bits of background and vocabulary they need to make sense of the story…wouldn’t need to fill out a worksheet or be drilled by a teacher afterwards to show their understanding of Charles’s character flaws. They would get the issues with the mother and the brother, and ponder that mixed message in his greeting to the admiral. This is obviously not someone we want to emulate.
What bores children in school? Is it that they need more chance to play? Oh, said elementary teachers of years gone by—yes, what a wonderful idea! So let’s try sand tables! Classroom games! Puppets! In my time: let's videotape the puppet shows! And the teachers of today—stop-motion Lego projects! Abraham Lincoln Rap! Classroom reality shows! Because yes, we teachers get…so (yawn)…bored…hm? Oh, yes, we were saying…”What reason have we to suppose that children are not equally bored? They try to tell us that they are by wandering eyes, inanimate features, fidgetting hands and feet, by every means at their disposal; and the kindly souls among us think that they want to play or to be out of doors. But they have no use for play except at proper intervals.”
Play is for recess time. Play is for after school. If the children are bored in school…says Charlotte…it’s not because they need more play. It’s because they need more more. More stories like the one above. More to really think about and remember.
“That is the capital charge against most schools. The teachers underrate the tastes and abilities of their pupils. In things intellectual, children, even backward children, have extraordinary 'possibilities for good'––possibilities so great that if we had the wit to give them their head they would carry us along like a stream in spate.” “Just so of our parsimony do we fling aside the minds of the children of our country, also capable of being wrought into pleasaunces of delight, structures of utility and beauty, at a pitifully trifling cost. It is well we should recognise that the business of education is with us all our lives, that we must always go on increasing our knowledge.”
Chapter 3 is long, and that’s enough for one post. More in the next. NOTE ON "Savin' Yer Dirty Sowl": This is not Charlotte Mason's original thought or phrase, nor did it originate with the Irish woman she mentions. The line actually comes from Charles Kingsley's novel Westward Ho!, in Chapter 7. The character Sir Richard says, "But this is the way with your Anabaptists, who, by their very hatred of forms and ceremonies, show of how much account they think them, and then bind themselves out of their own fantastical self-will with far heavier burdens than ever the lawful authorities have laid on them for the sake of the commonweal. But what do they care for the commonweal, as long as they can save, as they fancy, each man his own dirty soul for himself?" (I'm not agreeing with him, I'm just giving you the quote.) Kingsley's line here was quoted and misquoted in various publications; for example, "'Save your souls,' says Charles Kingsley, 'each man his own dirty soul for himself.'" I don't think that's exactly the point Sir Richard was making, but in any case--the issue that the woman seem to have is the idea of someone else saving their own soul by making her their evangelical project.