Charlotte Mason in Modern English

Charlotte Mason's ideas are too important not to be understood and implemented in the 21st century, but her Victorian style of writing sometimes prevents parents from attempting to read her books. This is an imperfect attempt to make Charlotte's words accessible to modern parents. You may read these, print them out, share them freely--but they are copyrighted to me, so please don't post or publish them without asking.
~L. N. Laurio

School Education, Volume 3 of the Charlotte Mason Series

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Chapter 17 - Education as the Science of Relationships:
We are Educated by Our Intimacies as Illustrated by Wordworth's Prelude and Ruskin's Praeterita

'But who's going to divide up his intellect in some geometric pattern,
Splitting up his mind like a province of neatly shaped farmlands?
Who can know in which moment his first habits were sown, like seeds?
Who can point to different areas of his mind and say,
That part of the river of my mind came from that particular fountain over there'?
     -- adapted from Wordsworth's 'Prelude'

I don't need to emphasize what kind of educational tools we should use. We know that 'Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.' By that, we mean that parents and teachers should know how to make the best use of a child's circumstances (atmosphere) in order to advance a solid education; they should cultivate his self-discipline by training him to have the kind of habits that will make his life run smoothly (discipline), and they should nourish his mind with ideas, since that's the kind of mental food that develops their personalities (life).

Only Three Educational Tools

We believe that these are the only three tools that we can validly use in raising children. Any shortcut we take by taking advantage of their sensitivities,

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emotions, desires, or passions will bring grief to both us and our children. The reason is simple: habits, ideas and circumstances are all external and it's never wrong to help any person to improve in those things, but it's wrong to directly interfere with someone else's personality. It isn't right to play on his ego, his fears, his affection, his ambition, or anything that's his by right and is a part of what makes him the unique individual that he is.

Our Limitations

Most conscientious people are sincerely concerned about the best way to bring up children. But that can sometimes make us want to control more than we're entitled to, and not recognize the boundaries that limit us to only the outer manifestations of the child's personality. Adults and children aren't much different. One gracious writer has helped us by following Jesus's method of educating the twelve disciples.

He writes, 'Our Lord respected whatever the person had within himself on his own, and He was very careful to encourage the natural development of his individual personality . . . In His view, people weren't merely clay in the hands of a potter to be molded into shape. He saw them as organic, living beings, with their own individuality growing from within, with a life of their own--a unique, personal life that was enormously precious to Him and His Father. He encouraged this development so that it would grow to its highest, most noble potential.' (Pastor Pastorum, by H. Latham, M.A., pg 6)

We Manage Too Much of Children's Lives

I don't think we allow life and normal circumstances to just naturally occur in children's lives. We control too much, as if we were shielding little lambs from the wind. We shelter them from knowledge about pain, sin, need, suffering, disease, death

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and other hazards in ordinary life. I'm not saying we should expose children's tender souls to distress with careless abandon, but we should recognize that life has a calling for them, as much as it does for us. Nature provides them with a subtle protection, as subtle as the scent of a violet, that screens them from traumatic shocks. Some parents won't even read their children fairy tales because they're afraid that they'll expose the children to the ugly facts of life too suddenly. It's worthwhile for us to consider Wordsworth's experience. I don't think we make use of two very useful treasures that we as parents and teachers could be using. Those treasures are the autobiographies of two great philosophers--William Wordsworth and John Ruskin.

Fairy Tales Act as a Screen and Shelter

Wordsworth tells us that, shortly after he started school at Hawkshead, the body of a suicide victim was found in Esthwaite Lake. It was a ghastly incident, but we can take comfort when we see how children are protected from shock. Wordsworth, the little boy, was there, and saw it all:

'Yet, as young as I was, not even nine years old,
No depressing fear possessed me, because, in my mind,
I had seen such sights before among silvery streams
Of fairyland in the romantic forests.
The memory of my imaginings covered the real tragedy
With an ornament of perfect grace.
It gave the incident a dignity, a smoothness, like the works
Of Greek art, or the purest poetry.'

It's reassuring to hear a child who went through it say that such a terrible scene was kept separate from him by an atmosphere of poetry, and a veil woven from fairy tales by his own fanciful imagination.

That doesn't mean that we should take unnecessary risks. We should use

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a calm, matter-of-fact tone when we talk about fires, car wrecks or other terrors. For some children, the thought of Joseph being in the pit is scary, and even many of us adults can't handle a horrifying tale in the news or literature. The only thing I'm suggesting is that we treat children naturally and let them have their fair share in experiencing life as it really is. We shouldn't allow too much caution, or let our own panic dictate the way we deal with them.

Spontaneous Living

As we know, the laws of habit are one of God's divine laws. Forming good habits and inhibiting bad habits are some of a parent's most important duties. But we need to remember that all habits, whether they're helpful ones or hindering ones, only come into play occasionally. Spontaneous living is going on all the time, and the only thing we can do to help that is to drop in inspiring ideas when we have the opportunity. All of this is old news, but I hope my readers will indulge me in saying again that our educational tools don't change, they stay the same. We can't leave out carefully and tactfully forming good habits any more than we can leave out subtly suggesting productive ideas and taking wise advantage of circumstances in our child's life.

What Does Fullness of Life Depend On?

What exactly is education? The answer lies in this phrase: Education is the Science of Relationships. As I said before, I don't mean it in the sense that Herbart did. He meant that ideas are related to each other, so we need to take care and be sure to pack the right ideas in the right order so that, once they've gotten into the child's mind, each idea can attach itself to its cousins and form a cliquish 'apperception mass.' What I mean is that we personally have relationships with everything that exists right now, everything

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that's ever existed in the past, and everything that will exist in the future above us and all around us, and, for each of us, our fullness of life, broadness of mind, expression and ability to be useful depends on how much we grasp these relationships and how many of them we seize.

George Herbert expresses it well:

'Man is all symmetry,
Full of proportions, one limb connected to another,
And connected to the whole world besides;
Each part of him can call on its farthest brother,
Because the head and the foot have a private bond,
And both have a connection with moons and tides.'
(Charlotte Mason added the emphasis.)

Every child is heir to a vast inheritance, inheriting all of the past ages and everything in the present. The question is, what procedures (speaking educationally, not of legal papers) are necessary so that he can take possession of what's already his? The point of view is changed. It's no longer subjective, but objective regarding the child.

The Child is a Person

Seen from this perspective, we no longer talk about how to develop his faculties, or how to train his moral nature, or guide his religious sentiments, or educate him towards his future career or social standing. We don't need the joys of 'child-study.' Instead, we accept the child as he is--a person with a lot of healthy affinities and inborn attachments. Therefore, we perceive that our task is to give him a chance to make the largest number of these attachments good [by exposing him to as many things as possible.]

A Baby's Self-Education

Infants are born into the world with hundreds of these inborn

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sensors, and they go right to work to establish them with surprising energy:

'The baby,
Nursed in his mother's arms, sinks off to sleep
Rocked on his mother's breast. With his soul,
He drinks in the feelings of his Mother's eyes!
For him, there exists in one dear Person
A virtue that radiates and exalts
Things through the widest connections of sense.
He's no bewildered and depressed outcast.
All of his infant veins are interfused with
The appealing and obligatory bond
Of nature that connects him with the world.'
-- adapted from 'The Prelude'

He attaches his being to Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Grandma, the man in the street that he calls 'dada,' the cat and dog, spider and fly. Earth, air, fire and water are dangerously fascinating to him. His eyes crave light and color, his ears crave sound, his limbs crave movement. He's interested in everything, and from everything he receives:

'That calm delight
Which, if I'm not mistaken, must surely belong
To those first inborn attractions that help connect
Our new existence to things that exist in the real world,
And, in our first days, make up
The bond that joins life with joy.'
-- adapted from 'The Prelude'

And, when he's left to himself, he also gets real knowledge about each thing, and that knowledge reinforces his relationship with that particular thing.

Our Role is to Remove Obstacles and to Pique Interest

Later on, we step in to educate him. It's only in the proportion to how many living relationships we expose him to that he'll have wide, meaningful interests that will give his life fullness. It's only in proportion to how aware he's made

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of the laws that govern every relationship, that his life will be lived in duty and service. As he learns that every relationship with both people and things needs to be maintained with deliberate effort, he'll recognize the laws of work, and the joy of labor. Our role is to remove obstacles, pique interest and provide guidance to the child who's trying to get in touch with the vast world of things and thoughts--the vast world that's his rightful inheritance.

Our Mistake

The tragic mistake that we make is that we assume that we're the tour guide who's going to show him the world. Not only that, but we act like there's no connection between the child and the universe unless we decide to set one up for him. We imagine that we have all the control, and if we decide that a low-income child only needs to be educated in the 3R's, what right does he have to want anything more? If his idea of life is Saturday nights spent partying at the local bar, it's not our fault! If our own children graduate from high school and college and don't have any meaningful interests or connections to worthwhile things, we're convinced that that's not our fault, either. We resent it when they're called 'dull slouches' because we know that they're really decent people. And so they are. They're splendid material that never quite completed in development.

Business and Desire

Hamlet said,

'Every man has business and desire.'

That was undoubtedly true in the boundless days of the great Queen Elizabeth. But what about us? Yes, we have business, but do we have desire? Are there lots of enthusiastic interests calling to us after we're done with the work we have to do? Maybe not, otherwise we wouldn't be enslaved by the uninspired 'joys' of Ping-Pong, Solitaire, Bridge and other trivial games. The

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thing is, real interests aren't things that can be picked up on a whim at the spur of the moment. They spring up from affinities that we find and hold onto. As one old writer said, 'When it comes to worldly and material things, whatever is used is spent and gone. But when it comes to intellectual and spiritual things, whatever isn't used is lost.'

Once we recognize that it's up to us to provide more for our children than financial security, the question is, how do we go about it?

Setting Up Dynamic Relationships

A child should have what we call dynamic relationships with the earth and water. He needs to run, jump, dance, ride and swim. Here's an example of how not to do it from Praeterita:

'And so on to Lianberis and up Snowdon . . . if only my parents had recognized my real strengths and weaknesses. If only they would have given me a shaggy old Welsh pony and let me spend time with a good Welsh guide and his wife! If I'd tried to get any coddling, they would made a man of me . . . If only! But they could never have done that, it would have been as unlikely as throwing my cousin Charles into the Croydon Canal. My father took some time off from his work once or twice a week and took me to an enclosed square sky-lit riding school in Moorfields with sawdust on the floor. It was more like a prison. Even the smell of it as we turned into the gate to enter it was a terror and a horror and abomination to me. There, they put me on big horses that jumped and reared up, and circled, and sidled. I fell off every time the horse did any of these things. I was a shame to my family, and felt disgraced and miserable. Finally I sprained the forefinger on my right hand (it's never been the same since) and riding school was abandoned. They bought me a well-broken Shetland pony and the two of us were led around the roads of Norwood with a rope by a riding teacher.

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'I would do pretty well as long as we were going straight, but then my mind would wander and I'd fall off when we turned a corner. I might have gotten the hang of it if they hadn't made a fuss about it and continued to ask how much I'd stayed on and how many times I fell off, but as soon as I'd get home, my mother would give me the third degree about my day's disgraces, and I just got more stressed and nervous with each fall. Finally, riding lessons were given up altogether. My parents consoled themselves as best they could by concluding that my inability to ride horseback must signify that I had great genius in some other area.'

Ruskin's Accusations About the Limitations of His Situation

Ruskin suffered for his condition. His parents were suburban middle class people who tend to think too much about bringing up children, but not very wisely. They tend to choke out a good part of living with too much over-protectiveness and coddling, and they're apt to be convinced that their children don't need any other outlets than the ones they themselves think to provide. Suburban life is a necessity in our culture, but it's a misfortune, too. Well-to-do people in a suburb are around their own kind too much. They're cut off from the lowly, from the great, from honest work, from adventure, and from needs. I think that all parents who live in the suburbs should read Praeterita. Even though John Ruskin shows chivalrous loyalty to his parents, his book gives an accusation, not of his parents, but of the limitations of his situation. One can almost hear the child crying out on every page, like Laurence Sterne's caged starling--'I can't get out, I can't get out!'

One might say that, whatever the faults of his education were, a great man like John Ruskin was the result. But who can say how much better an influence Ruskin might have been

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if he'd been allowed his right to a free life when he was little? And it's also safe to admit that not every child born and living a sheltered life in a mansion will be another Ruskin! We can't follow the setting up of Ruskin's further connections with the dynamic relationships that were suitable for him, because his parents didn't allow it, so nothing happened. He says that his mother 'never allowed me to go near the edge of a pond, or be in a field that a pony was in.' But he comments 'with thankfulness the benefit I got from a ditch in Croxted Lane that had tadpoles.' He says that Camberwell Green had a pond, and 'one of the most treasured joys of my childhood was when my nurse would let me stare at this contemplative pond with awe from the other side of the way.'

Wordsworth's Recognition of His Opportunities

Wordsworth's childhood was a lot more rough and tumble! When he was nine, he was sent to the school in the little village of Hawkshead, and he lived with Mrs. Tyson in the cottage [perhaps in a dorm setting??]. Most things at home and school pleased him. He didn't get lessons in horse riding, skating, hockey or tennis, but the local boys probably made it clear that he'd have to do what they did if he wanted to fit in. But by the time he went to school, he was already a healthy, strong little boy because his mother had allowed him to really live.

'How many times as a five year old
In a small creek cut off from the stream
I spent the whole day playing in the water,
Basking in the sun, playing, and basking some more.'

Here's what he says about his childhood:

'My soul had good time to take root, and I grew up
Nourished by both beauty and fear.'

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Before he turned ten, he moved to his 'beloved Vale.' He says about it,

'There, we were let loose
To enjoy an even greater variety of amusements.'

Those Hawkshead boys did all kinds of things! He writes about times,

'When I hung
Higher than the raven's nest, by clumps of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
Hanging precariously and almost (it seemed)
Held up only by the gusty wind
That blew against the crag.'

Those boys went skating:

'Wearing steel blades,
We'd skim along the polished ice playing organized games
That imitated the chase,
And the sports of the woods--blowing horns,
The dogs barking, and the hunted rabbit.'

They played:

'Week after week, and month after month, we lived
A life of activity. Every day our games
Lasted in summer until it got dark.'

They went boating:

'When summer came,
On bright days when we had half the day free,
We would sail along the plain of Windermere
Racing with our oars . . .
This kind of race,
Never ended in disappointment,
There were no sore losers, no frustration, no jealousy.
We rested in the shade, everyone satisfied,
Both the winners and the losers.'

Young Wordsworth also had his share of horseback experiences when he and his schoolmates would return to school

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with plenty of things to talk about after their long vacation. They would hire some horses from a 'courteous innkeeper' and ride off, 'proud to curb, and eager to spur on the galloping horse.' And then they'd come home:

'Through the walls we flew,
And down the valley, making a circle
In a carefree way. Through rough and smooth paths,
We scampered towards home.'

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Paraphrased by L. N. Laurio; Please direct comments or questions to cmseries-owner at yahoogroups dot com.