Education from Without vs. Self-Education

Dear Reader,

The next Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival is to be on the first chapter of Charlotte’s sixth book. It is entitled “Self-Education.” I am getting a bit ahead of myself here in my series working through the volumes, but I thought I would give it a try anyway.

That all education must be self-education comes as no surprise to me from my previous readings. Charlotte’s belief was that we cannot force children to learn any more than we can force them to eat. We put the intellectual food before them; they must take it in. I would add to this a concept from elsewhere in her writings, that it is God’s Holy Spirit which truly gives wisdom. So in a sense I would say that what occurs is not self-education at all but divine education.

But we may still speak of self-education if what we mean, as I believe Charlotte does here, is to distinguish it from an education forced on the child from without, by another person. I am struck particularly by her insistence that various educational programs are mere dressings, that they do not touch the child’s inner life. In her words,

“all external educational appliances and activities which are intended to mould
his character are decorative and not vital.”

Along with the editors of Ambleside Online, I also detect here a rejection of the approach of her contemporary, Maria Montessori.

I find this apparent reference to Montessori particularly striking because when I read through the introduction to the book, I was reminded very much of Montessori. Not that the two are necessarily similar approaches, but rather there seems to be a new urgency in this last of Charlotte’s volumes which reminded me of Montessori’s interests.

This sixth volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education, was written according to my print copy in 1922, after the first World War. When I began to look at Maria Montessori’s approach, I found that her primary motivating force, the overarching goal of her educational philosophy, was world peace. A grand goal for education no doubt. But for Maria, living through WWI, she looked at the world and said, as I imagine many of her contemporaries did, “how can the heart of man be so evil? How can we have gotten so bad?” The answer for Maria was in education. If we could just train children in the right way, we could make them good and they could ensure that something like “The War to End All Wars” never happens again. This may seem a bit silly or naive to us, especially as we have seen to many subsequent wars in the 20th and now 21st centuries. But the truth is we often operate under the same principles. We see education as the answer to problems that may have nothing inherently to do with it. Certainly the answer the public schools have to various crises is to increase the amount of education. Children falling behind? Start the school day earlier. Not enough scientists to keep up with China? Head-start is the answer. But even in Christian homeschooling circles we may look to education or the right techniques and approaches to make our children into what we want them to be. Worried about your kids’ ultimate salvation? Use this Bible study curriculum. Kids too sinful, always bickering? Try our new book on family relationships and discipline.

Now none of these things may be bad; they may not be wrong answers. But they also do not get to the heart of the problem. Because the heart of the problem is, as always, in the sinful human heart.

As I said above, I detect in this sixth volume, a new urgency on Charlotte Mason’s part for her educational approach to be understood and implemented. I think she too, like Maria Montessori and probably most of the world at the time, was thrown for  a loop by WWI. She did not, as far as I know, alter her approach as a result but it did lend a new fervor to her arguments.

It would be very easy at this point to treat Charlotte’s approach to education as another system that will fix our problem. Kids not smart enough? Do picture study. Try narrations. Do Copywork. But we need to beware lest we turn the CM approach into another checklist designed to give the right results. When we do so, when we try to boil down a Charlotte Mason education to a list of specifics (copywork, narration, composer study, etc.) we miss the whole point. The point is that we cannot educate our children. We cannot guarantee results because it is not ultimately up to us. We can only create the healthiest environment possible and the rest is up to them, or rather to the Holy Spirit to enable them to take it in. It is not we who mold them, but He.

Personally, I find this realization at once both very freeing and very humbling. And a little intimidating. It would be easier to believe in a program that produces the exact results we want rather than to have to trust to something outside ourselves.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Very, very good, Nebby. It is easier to believe in a program than to trust something outside ourselves.


  2. “Because the heart of the problem is, as always, in the sinful human heart” ~ a profound truth! As I homeschool my high schoolers, it is not the method (even though CM is brilliant), nor the book lists, nor the activities that produce character change … it is the heart. Recently a mom told me, “Go for the heart.” Most of this is done in prayer! Thank you for your thought-provoking post!


  3. Thank you Nebby- It is sobering for me to realize that even CM methods can become like a “program” if we are just going through the motions and not addressing the heart. Great post


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