First posted March 2010; part of the Month with Charlotte Mason series.
But if we’re not to undervalue children’s capabilities, not to ignore or abuse their mental as well as their physical needs, not to sidetrack their spiritual lives, not to fall unthinkingly into utilitarianism, what is it that we are to do? Let’s ask the same questions that Charlotte Mason did.
First of all, what is education about? Why must children learn at all?
She says that “our business is, not to teach him all about anything—isn’t that a bit of a stress-reliever?-- but to help him make valid, as many as may be of
'Those first born affinities,
'That fit our new existence to existing things.'” (Wordsworth, "The Prelude")
In other words, a child has the right to learn what it means to be part of the human race, to be living in this world and to be in a relationship with God the Father; and he needs to learn in order to grow.
(Remember the definition of leisure proposed in the second post? Having the freedom (time, space, opportunity) to discover what makes you fully human.)
Second, we ask what the child is to learn.
Charlotte Mason said, “The object of education is to put a child in living touch with as much as may be of the life of Nature and of thought…. a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we must train him upon physical exercises, nature, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books….Add to this one or two keys to self knowledge, and the educated youth goes forth with some idea of self management, with some pursuits, and many vital interests.” That simple, right?
A more detailed curriculum? Miss Mason felt that there were several non-negotiable subjects that all tied in with each other and balanced each other. From her Volume 6, Philosophy of Education:
“But what if in the very nature of things we find a complete curriculum suggested?....A child of man has a natural desire to know the history of his race and of his nation, what men thought in the past and are thinking now; the best thoughts of the best minds taking form as literature, and at its highest as poetry, or poetry rendered….as art….he is a child of God, whose supreme desire and glory it is to know about and to know his almighty Father: as a person of many parts and passions who must know how to use, care for, and discipline himself, body, mind and soul: as a person of many relationships,--to family, city, church, state, neighbouring states, the world at large: as the inhabitant of a world full of beauty and interest, the features of which he must recognize and know how to name, and a world too, and a universe, whose every function of every part is ordered, by laws which he must being to know. It is a wide programme founded on the educational rights of man….Our part it seems to me is to give a child a vital hold upon as many as possible of those wide relationships proper to him.” Those were the things she thought it was most important that every human being should learn—the things that make us fully human.
It may not sound very "leisurely" to tell (or remind) you that Charlotte Mason’s students, by high school, were expected to be on their third or fourth foreign language including Latin, to be taking two or three branches of mathematics and the same in science, to have studied more history and geography than most of us ever learn, and to be able to recast both Bible lessons and current events into lines of verse; not to mention keeping nature notebooks and more. For many of us (and our young people) that may not be realistic, although it’s certainly not impossible; I’ve heard of super-accomplished CM-educated graduates who have covered an amazing amount of material in their high school years, and who may not even realize what an out-of-the-ordinary (yet within reach of others) thing they've done.
But the key to this is not so much copying every branch of everything in the same way that CM did (studying all the same languages just because she did, or ignoring new areas of science), but following her principles, grounding children in the habits of attention and observation from the time they're small (as well as the moral-type and hygiene-type habits), and studying the subjects we do cover with books, Real Books—with Real Things as well, but largely with Real Books, inspiring real ideas and real questions, modeling real vocabulary, awakening real curiosity, offering real mind-food.