Authority and Attention

Dear Reader,

In preparation for the next Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival, I have been reading the fourth chapter of her sixth and final book, Towards a Philosophy of Education.  There are two big ideas that struck me in this chapter, one is about authority and the other is about attention.

The title of the chapter, “Authority and Docility,” tells us that it will have something to say on that subject. And one can find plenty of modern Christian books that talk about our need to have authority over our children. While Charlotte assumes that the parent or teacher will have authority, in our day that is not a given. So perhaps we tend to overemphasize parental authority out of a desire to over-correct for our society. What struck me most about what Charlotte has to say here is that we are parents need to show and tell our children that we are also under authority. Our authority means nothing if it does not come from God, the source of all authority. In her words:

“The higher the authority, the greater distinction in obedience, and children are quick to discriminate between the mere will and pleasure of the arbitrary teacher or parent and the chastened authority of him who is himself under rule.” (p.71)

The second thought I had was about the habit of attention. This is something Charlotte speaks of frequently. But it is something I have struggled with. We all want our children to be attentive to their lessons, to show an interest, but how do we cultivate that in them? The quick answer in CM circles seems to be “short lessons.” But how do short lessons become longer and the habit still be maintained? How can one teach or instill something so intangible?

In this chapter Charlotte seems to approach this issue from two angles. On the one hand, she pooh-poohs the tendency to make everything an entertainment for the children. I hear here particularly a condemnation of the unit studies approach which seeks to tie everything together and make connections for the kids. In Charlotte’s words:

“This food must be served au naturel, without the predigestion which deprives it of stimulating and nourishing properties and no sort of forcible feeding or spoon feeding may be practised.” (p.72)

So on the one hand, we must not try to keep children’s attention by predigesting their food for them, by clothing each lesson in layers of our own invention. All those resources with lots of coloring pages and crafts and dioramas and clever lesson plans, they do not lead to a long term habit of attention. Because what happens when they are taken away? The child who is used to being entertained needs more and more novel entertainments and is bored without them.

Instead, we must cultivate  a habit of attention that comes from within the child himself, a natural interest in his lessons. All children are born with this. They have an inborn appetite for knowledge:

“Hungry minds sit down to such a diet with the charming greediness of little children; they absorb it, assimilate it and grow thereby in a manner astonishing to those accustomed to the dull profitless ruminating so often practised in schools.” (p.72)

Unfortunately, for many, this appetite has already been lost or at least suppressed and then it is much harder to revive than it was merely to sustain it had we started at the beginning.

There is only so much we can do on this account. At a certain point it is up to the child; it is their responsibility to pay attention, to learn:

“All school work should be conducted in such a manner that children are aware of the responsibility of learning; it is their business to know that which has been taught.” (p.74)

This is perhaps the hardest things parents can hear– that we ultimately cannot make this happen. We have to trust our children to pay attention, to at some point take  a stake in their own education, and to make sure it happens.

But there are ways in which we hinder attentiveness and so there are  a few things we can do to at least get out of the way and let attentiveness and learning happen. The first is to not predigest the lessons for the children, however tempting it may be to try and make their lessons interesting for them. Secondly, we must not repeat:

“To allow repetition of a lesson is to shift the responsibility for it from the shoulders of the pupil to those of the teacher who says, in effect,––”I’ll see that you know it,” so his pupils make no effort of attention.” (p.74)

Thirdly, we must not underestimate children. We must give them mental food that they can really dig their teeth into. We do not need to bring things down to their level, at least not nearly so much as we do. The fourth and final point is similar: we must not limit the subject matter of their studies to that which is merely practical. I think we today in America tend to do this particularly. We are so concerned about math and science education, that we neglect other “less practical” areas such as history and the arts. But without all these areas, we lose creativity, we lose interest.

I notice that as I write this I have done something; I said I was talking about attention but I keep throwing the word “interest” in there. I find I cannot talk about the former without the latter. We are not asking our kids to focus their attention on the dullest material. That is too much for most of us. It is actually a very good habit to cultivate, to be able to focus one’s attention even on something that is of no interest. But I think that comes later, after years of practice. Initially, at least, we must call them to focus on material that is of interest, hence the short lessons and living books of  CM education. But our role in this is to select material that is inherently interesting because it is living, not to take their lessons and gussy them up with projects and coloring sheets to make them interesting.

I have blogged a lot about motivation lately, and I wonder if this matter of attentiveness and giving interesting materials is not such a different topic. If a child seems unmotivated, isn’t that the same as saying they will not pay attention? The two are very similar at least. And so perhaps some of the answers to the motivation question are the same. It all begins with selecting the right materials, with giving the child something to dig their mental teeth into. There is a time and a place and a need for the more routine, the multiplication drills and perhaps even the Latin roots. Charlotte recognizes the need for such things also. But if we struggle in these areas, with attentiveness or motivation, I think the first step is often to take a step back and look at what we are feeding our kids. Are they getting something that is worth their attention, something that is capable of drawing them in?

A Charlotte Mason education asks us as parents to give up a lot that is hard for us to let go of. It asks us to acknowledge that we can’t force our children to pay attention or to learn. But there are some things we can control and the most important is our responsibility to select good materials for our children’s attention to focus on.


4 responses to this post.

  1. I always appreciate reading your blog, Nebby. You have thoughtful things to share.


  2. I too enjoyed this reading. Thanks for sharing.


  3. I love your conclusion: “A Charlotte Mason education asks us as parents to give up a lot that is hard for us to let go of. It asks us to acknowledge that we can’t force our children to pay attention or to learn. But there are some things we can control and the most important is our responsibility to select good materials for our children’s attention to focus on.”

    It is a challenge–especially when my own school education was so different. I really appreciated this post.


  4. The more the culture conforms to common core curriculum and standardized education, the scarier her ideas seem. But, they restore creativity and curiosity, which are being killed by treating children as products.


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