So Brandy of Afterthoughts is leading a study of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles of Education at the Ambleside Online forum, and even though I don’t use Ambleside, I very much respect and admire Miss Mason’s principles. So, I thought I’d follow their discussion and also work out here how her principles align with classical categories.
Principle of Education #1: Children are born persons.
Children are born as image-bearers of God, yet also subject to sin. They are not blank slates. They are not malleable, shapeless lumps of clay. They are not mere animals. They are not angels. They are people, persons, individuals, from the beginning. They are made in the divine image and are not made to be simply fodder for the economy.
A well-known educationalist lately nailed up the thesis that what children want in the way of knowledge is just two things — How to do the work by which they must earn their living and how to behave as citizens. This writer does not see that work is done and duties performed in the ratio of the person who works: the more the man is as a person, the more valuable be his work and the more dependable his conduct. […] Human thought expressed in the forms of art is not a luxury, a tit-bit, to be given to children now and then, but their very bread of life, which they must have in abundant portions and at regular periods. This and more is implied in the phrase, “The mind feeds on ideas and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.”
This has many applications, but I am only going to touch on three that I find foundational to how we treat our children.
Children are born persons; therefore, they are immortal souls.
Children are not playthings, pets, or projects. They have souls that can never die, and they will answer directly to the Lord for their lives when their physical bodies die. They will not ultimately answer to their parents or teachers, but to God; instead, it is we who will have to answer for how we nurture and bring them up.
Children are not lumps of clay to be stamped factory-style with whatever print we desire. Whatever instruction and nurture they receive, they receive it and mingle their own personality with it. We can help them control and cultivate and develop the expressions of their personality, but we should never forget that their personality is a necessity to their being, not an inconvenience to our plans. A differing style is not defiance or obstinacy.
In their work, too, we are too apt to interfere with children. We all know the delight with which any scope for personal initiative is hailed, the pleasure children take in doing anything which they may do their own way; anything, in fact, which allows room for skill of hand, play of fancy, or development of thought.
Children are born persons; therefore, we must respect them as responsible people.
The goal of childhood is not to be a child, but to mature into an adult. We respect the personhood of our children when we do not condescend to them or patronize them, when we do not baby them and intentionally cultivate their childishness. Of course we must remember their frames and their stage, but our job is to help them grow and mature; our job is not to make their life smooth and pain-free.
Today it is typical to not want to be an adult. Adults speak wistfully of their irresponsible college days. Parents patronize (literally, are patrons of) their children’s irresponsible college lifestyles. We tell our children we don’t want them to grow up. We counsel young married couples to not have children soon so that they can have fun and avoid more responsibility for as long as possible. This ought not be so. Responsibility, stewardship, development is where the satisfaction is life is to be found, not in ease and fun. We should not shirk our own and we should help our children grow into theirs.
Children want to grow up. We should not discourage them either by babying them or by bad-mouthing being a grownup.
We do not let children alone enough in their work. We prod them continually and do not let them stand or fall by their own efforts. […] Perhaps it is a result of the hurry of the age that there is a curious division of labour, and society falls into those who prod and those who are prodded. Not that anybody prods in all directions, nor that anybody else offers himself entirely as a pincushion. It is more true, perhaps, to say that we all prod, and that we are all prodded. Now, an occasional prick is stimulating and wholesome, but the vis inertiae of human nature is such that we would rather lean up against a wall of spikes than not lean at all. What we must guard against in the training of children is the danger of their getting into the habit of being prodded to every duty and every effort. Our whole system of school policy is largely a system of prods. Marks, prizes, exhibitions, are all prods; and a system of prodding is apt to obscure the meaning of must and ought for the boy or girl who gets into the habit of mental and moral lolling up against his prods.
It would be better for boys and girls to suffer the consequences of not doing their work, now and then, than to do it because they are so urged and prodded on all hands they have no volition in the matter. The more we are prodded the lazier we get, and the less capable of the effort of will which should carry us to, and nearly carry us through, our tasks.
Children are born persons; therefore, their own minds must act for them to learn.
Children are not receptacles for knowledge to be poured into. We can’t make them learn anything. Perhaps we can make them do something, but learning is an act they must do themselves. We can help them, but we can’t be the primary agents while they are the passive receivers. In all our education plans and theories, we must keep in mind that the children have minds of their own — and that’s a good thing, not an inconvenience and a nuisance.
We need to focus more on addressing our child’s person, our child’s mind, and engaging him fully. We need to focus less on what curriculum the state or the catalog says we need to cover in such and such an amount of time. This isn’t child-led and it isn’t child-centered, but it is child-focused. We are a guide, we know the direction we should be traveling, and so we can’t let the student pick the path on his own whim, but we also can’t kidnap the child and force him down ours at gunpoint. We are nurturing our children in the way they should go, so we need to be speaking directly to our students where they are, not pushing them, gagged and bound, through hoops and books because some “standards” told us where we should be.
Enough, that the children have minds, and every man’s mind is his means of living; but it is a great deal more. Working men will have leisure in the future and how this leisure is to be employed is a question much discussed. Now, no one can employ leisure fitly whose mind is not brought into active play every day; the small affairs of a man’s own life supply no intellectual food and but small and monotonous intellectual exercise. Science, history, philosophy, literature, must no longer be the luxuries of the ‘educated’ classes; all classes must be educated and sit down to these things of the mind as they do to their daily bread. History must afford its pageants, science its wonders, literature its intimacies, philosophy its speculations, religion its assurances to every man, and his education must have prepared him for wanderings in these realms of gold.
Charlotte Mason in School Education:
We hold that all education is divine, that every good gift of knowledge and insight comes from above, that the Lord the Holy Spirit is the supreme educator of mankind, and that the culmination of all education (which may, at the same time, be reached by a little child) is that personal knowledge of and intimacy with God in which our being finds its fullest perfection.
Children are persons who need and who can love this full education.