Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #19: Beyond Us

I said yesterday that I was going to go in a certain direction with this...but I changed my mind.
"I think of a young woman I met at the corner store once who was toting a little one; I asked her if she knew about the mom-and-tot play programs and drop-ins that our community centre offered. She just looked at me without much interest and said, "He'd rather play in the toilet." Maybe she was joking? I've never been sure."--2005 post here about poverty
If there's anything I feel apologetic about in Charlotte Mason, it's that...in a way...homeschoolers have appropriated her ideas, made them our own, and turned Charlotte Mason into...well, Charlotte Mason. Something that takes us an hour to explain (including the necessary biographical details) and causes people to wonder (as one lady asked plaintively at a support group meeting), "um...are there any OTHER ways to homeschool?"

It's true that Miss Mason warned even school principals not to take up her methods too "lightly," and if it was a danger for them, surely it is for us as well...a lot of what online CMers have worked at over the past decade or so has been meant to balance the proliferation of "Charlotte Mason Lite." It's also true that if you want to know what all this is/was about, you cannot do better than to read Charlotte Mason's books. Forty years of experience packed into a few paperbacks..."the best thoughts of the best minds" and all that.

However... there are two points, two big ones anyway, that get missed in this. One is that Charlotte Mason headed the Parents National Educational Union, which was a nation-wide group. In other words, it wasn't just CM and her best and closest friends; this was a large iron-sharpening-iron community. You can call her the inspiration, the head, even the heart behind this educational movement...but she didn't do it alone. She edited the Parent's Review, but she didn't write it alone. She headed the House of Education training college, but she didn't teach it alone. She wouldn't have called her philosophy and methods "Charlotte Mason Education." I'm not even sure what she did call it. In the books she refers to "this method," "PNEU methods" and so on, but "it" doesn't even seem to have a more official name...and perhaps that's the reason we've fallen back on referring to it as "Charlotte Mason" or CM, just like "Montessori schools." But perhaps if we started saying that we homeschool using PNEU methods, it would get even worse...people would do Google searches and come up with travel guides. Or we'd get people asking about how you homeschool using that pneu-monia method. Without trying to discredit Charlotte Mason, I wonder if someday we'll come up with a name for her method that nails it without requiring an entire workshop's worth of explanation.

The second issue is this, and it's why I pasted that quote at the top: there is a need for the wisdom-made-practical that we have benefited from ourselves, even if it's not labelled CM or packaged the way we expect. Charlotte Mason appreciated excellent educators, even if they'd never heard of her methods (or they had lived before her time). She particularly mentioned a teacher in a mining community who taught his students what they really wanted and needed to know, helped them find answers to the things they wondered about, and (I think) showed them that they were intelligent enough to learn those things. It reminds me of Marva Collins teaching inner-city kids stuff that was way off the expected-results charts. It reminds me of some of the books on the website Learner's Library, like Richard B. Gregg's Preparation for Science, published in 1928, endorsed by Mahatma Gandhi, and meant to give rural students in India a strong start in science...which also reminds me of George Washington Carver and his college students scrounging stuff to make their own lab equipment. It reminds me of some of the points in For the Children's Sake, that CM's methods can be used in the most unlikely settings.

And those unlikely settings...perhaps...are where we should be setting our hearts, using our creativity. The unlikely children, even the ones with the "play in the toilet" parents. Especially those ones. Many of us have cultivated our creative frugal homeschooling...and yet it's not even our children, necessarily, who need that creativity the most. I live on a somewhat limited budget, but I could go out and buy a math game if I needed to; I just prefer to make my own, or to use what we already have, or to scrounge a used one. For some parents, using any available materials would be necessity, not choice...but even more important, for some of those same parents, the materials may be there but the motivation and the knowledge to use them are not. Simplest example: many homeschoolers know how to use a deck of cards to teach math skills...you count the spots, you learn the numerals, you play simple games...and don't most people have cards around the house, or pencil and paper, or Cheerios? Using Cheerios, or beans or raisins or pennies, you could exactly duplicate the very detailed early math lessons that Charlotte Mason gives in Home Education. We have this information...we have used it, we've expanded on it, we've created games, we've taught our children... but to a lot of people, a deck of cards is just a deck of cards.

So where to from here? Literally, where to?

Who to?

I greatly admire our online friend the Deputy Headmistress, and I've often drawn on her CM ideas myself. She's been one of the driving forces behind Ambleside Online for years. What has impressed me lately, though, is how she's...reinvented isn't the right word, but I'm searching for a better one...retooled how she does CM/AO, to work well under special circumstances, for two children of a different cultural, different economic/family background. She and her family are giving them the atmosphere and the discipline (sorry about the tulips), the ideas and the living books. What Blynken does for school when he's there doesn't have to look exactly like AO Year 1 (well, he's only in kindergarten anyway). It couldn't, because he isn't there all the time.

But this is the whole point...that this thing is based, according to Charlotte Mason, on a few principles and truths about the way our minds work, about who we are, about what we need. It's not a Victorian/Edwardian/George the Fifthian, English, one-old-woman-in-black movement. It has roots going back to Comenius and Plutarch and classical education as a whole (see some of Krakovianka's posts for discussion on that). It resonated with twentieth-century Christians working at L'Abri. It can reach forward into a time when it's most needed...a time that's already here when we're forgetting so much of even our own past century's history, when people don't want to read anything longer than Twitter, when we don't know how to survive without our plug-ins, or how to cook food that comes without a package and directions. Mr. Fixit has a young German-raised co-worker who didn't recognize the term "Austro-Hungary" (where Mr. Fixit's grandparents were born), and who knows almost nothing about the Third Reich. As another example, when the Apprentice started public high school she was somewhat surprised to find that she knew more about women's history issues (such as the right of a woman to be recognized as co-owner of a family farm) than some of her friends did. And we are hardly militant feminists here.

I don't think the answer, somehow, is going to be in hosting scare-you-off CM workshops, even basic ones. The world is full of Blynkens, and toilet kids, and teenagers who could still find a bigger room to step into if they had some encouragement. Not all of us can handle weekend (or two-week) unofficial foster kids. But some of us can find...need to find...other ways to reach out beyond our own few lucky homeschooled children. The world may not need (or think it needs) more "CM," but it does need more magnanimity, more imagination, more story, more humanness, more connection points, more wonder. If that's what we're able to give our own children, that's good. But if we can find a way to pass it on even further...wouldn't that be amazing?

Something to think about, anyway.

1 comment:

Katie said...

I think this is exactly what CM was aiming for. She was so disturbed about the new direction of education toward utilitarianism for the poor people in her community, and thought everyone should have a liberal education, believing that a person who has had his feet set in a large room would be trainable, would *be* the good worker, a much better one than a person who had been "educated" to operate in one narrow sphere-- and would be able to embrace his humanity in the richest and most God-honoring sense, which would provide the man more joy in life.

I was visiting with our kids' theater director last night and commenting on how amazing it was to me that she had looked inside my child and seen the "Charlotte" (from Charlotte's Web) that was in her, even before any of us knew it was there. Sort of like Michelangelo helping release a form from the marble, I said. She told me how she thinks the hardest thing a director has to do is casting-- if the director gets the casting right, the rest is easy. You just set the actors going and give little hints here and there as they bring what is already inside them to bear on the character.

It was a pretty inspiring conversation. That's what we should be doing with these kids-- "help them make valid as many of those first-born affinities that fit our new existence to existing things."

Makes me want to go out and collect children. But we have kids in our lives already that we can draw out as we walk by the way. We have to stop being so busy, though, in order to be available for this kind of ministry.