Monday, January 07, 2008

Books? Or school?

I read something today that my friend the DHM posted: a snip from an old book that talked about teachers--even way back when--being of kind of a different mindset from yer average "readin' family." It made me think of some notes I had written a couple of years ago for a talk on CM. I'm pasting some of what I wrote then as a kind of followup and general agreement that this disconnect between schools/teachers and learning from books was (and is) both peculiar and very sad.

(I had been talking first about Charlotte Mason's enthusiasm for getting children outside, and wanted to use that as an analogy for her thoughts on books...)

Charlotte Mason felt that children often weren't getting exposed to a lot of ideas, either, if they had limited access to books or if they were being taught just to recite information and do the most basic kind of reading; to her that was like being shut up in another kind of room. At one point she wrote that education was like opening a door, or many doors, and she might have had that image in mind when she wrote that. (Doors can lead out as well as in!) She said that the goal of education was establishing and continuing as many of those natural relationships (with things and thoughts) as possible; so the mark of an educated person was that he would find life itself to be endlessly interesting. There's a story that Charlotte Mason asked one of her new teaching students why she had come to the college, and the young lady said that she had come there to learn to teach. Charlotte Mason said sternly, "My dear, you have come here to learn to live." I always thought that was an awfully arrogant thing of her to say, but I think I'm finally starting to appreciate what it means.

Unfortunately this kind of thinking was pretty much eclipsed during the 20th century by demands for passing more exams and preparing more workers, as well as a lot of other 20th century influences. But in 1987, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay wrote a book called For the Children's Sake, which reintroduced parents to Charlotte Mason's methods and philosophy. At about the same time, Karen Andreola got her books reprinted, and CM methods started to gain some interest among North American homeschoolers. Most of us reading these books about ten years ago felt like we were largely on our own, wading through all this Victorian prose and trying to get a picture of an education that was a lot different from what we remembered from school. One of my favourite illustrations from For the Children's Sake is a question that we're to ask ourselves as homeschooling teachers, Sunday School teachers, school principals, or whatever our teaching role is: if Albert Einstein got to sit in on science class with our sixth graders, would he be interested in what they're doing or doze off? How about if St. Paul could sit in on a kindergarten Bible lesson? Or Shakespeare sat in on eighth grade English? Is it possible even to imagine the kind of lessons that could hold their interest?

One of the keys to that would be who's doing most of the talking in the class, and another would be where the information is coming from. Charlotte Mason believed that children were able to deal with real knowledge, the great and noble ideas found in living books, without the teacher having to filter out the information for them first, or predigest it for the children and then make a sort of little mental nourishment pill for them out of what was left. She thought that teachers usually did way too much talking, lecturing, and questioning, and children not enough thinking and talking; and that schools provided way too little reading material (she complained about too little being spent on good books, and too much being spent on fancy manipulatives, models and other things that seemed to do a lot of the children's thinking for them. Sound familiar?). The kind of talking she wanted the children to do wasn't only discussion of what they had read or the teacher had read to them; she also wanted them to narrate back what they heard--not word for word, but in as much detail as possible. Then after that they could discuss some of the big ideas and questions in what was read--including asking their own questions. And that was Charlotte Mason's idea of a worthwhile class, and one that maybe even Einstein or Shakespeare would have wanted to stay awake for.


TeacherBritt said...

What a wonderfully detailed post... thanks for inspiring me!

Be Blessed,

lindafay said...

"My dear, you have come here to learn to live."

Love this! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

This is why I like Charlotte.
Great post!