Education is an Atmosphere, a Discipline, a Life

Dear Reader,

The upcoming Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival is on the sixth chapter of her sixth book, Towards a Philosophy of Education. This chapter is entitled “The Three Instruments of Education”, and it elucidates one of Charlotte’s guiding principles that “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”

In the previous chapter, Charlotte discussed some way we could motivate children to learn and rejected them as imposing as upon the child’s personality. We  may not, for instance, motivate the child through fear or love. Neither should be motivate them through grades or prizes. Instead, we are left with only three tools. We may place them in the proper environment, we may help them in developing habits, and we must feed them upon a healthy intellectual diet to sustain their (intellectual) lives. There is a ton of information in this chapter. I want to try to touch on each area briefly.

Education is an atmosphere. When I think atmosphere, I think air, oxygen and carbon dioxide and all the rest of it. It is something that we breathe in. And so too a lot of education seems to be almost absorbed from our environment. This is easy to see in the youngest children who seem to learn to move and understand and talk with almost no guidance from us. We tend not to trust so much in the atmosphere as they get older, however. We want to control it, to make it what we think it should be. And this usually means we end up creating something false, a kind of special environment for children to learn in. Charlotte Mason rejects this idea (in her case it seems to be a thinly veiled reference to the Montessori method of education). But I think we also do this. What this sub-chapter really made me think about was the different atmospheres available to our children and which is really best. Charlotte I think would say that children need to be in the real world, in the sense that we should not dumb down their environment or make an artificial children-only setting for them. But for those of us who homeschool or who have considered homeschooling, we must ask which atmosphere is real? I have heard the criticism of homeschoolers that we isolate our children and we do not allow them to interact with the real world. In this argument the traditional school setting is assumed to be the real world and we, by not participating in it, are making a kind of artificial environment for our children. Now I do know a few families who keep largely to themselves and perhaps they do create a kind of cocoon from which their children will have a hard time emerging. But most homeschoolers do not follow this model. Many would argue that, on the contrary, the school environment is an artificial one. Where else is one only with ones very close peers, all those born within a year? Homeschoolers have the opportunity to be out in the real world, going to stores and concerts and other venues and interacting with people of many different ages.

In her fifth volume, Charlotte acknowledges that the school environment does become its own sort of little society and that one must be very careful in selecting it because of this. But overall, I think we tend to think of environment as social atmosphere while Charlotte is thinking of all the ideas and experiences and opportunities which surround one. Thus I may be in my house all day, but if I am reading the works of great authors or listening to good music or looking at art, then I am still interacting with other people (though they may be long dead) through their works. Nature also is part of this environment. I suppose we may  see it also as the work of one great Artist. Which is not to say that I think we as homeschoolers should seek isolation from our contemporaries, far from it. We must be conscious of the tendency to become wrapped up on that cocoon of our own. But the traditional school setting is also somewhat of an artificial environment and on the whole I think that while it may provide us quite a lot of hours with of contemporaries, it rarely gives us quality time with our predecessors.

The second tool we have at our disposal is habit. This is what Charlotte means when she says “Education is a discipline.” We are all going to have habits, and so it is better to be intentional about them and make sure they are good habits and not bad. Some are easily agreed upon and we do not debate whether we should instill them in our children. I think here of things like brushing one’s teeth. We all agree that it is healthful and that it will be so much better for the child if this becomes a habit, something they need give little thought to, rather than something that they must constantly every day be remembering to do.

There are other areas where we might agree on what a good habit is, but we hesitate to use the discipline needed to achieve it. Charlotte, for instance, mentions the habit of punctuality. Being on time is good. It is respectful of other people. But do we value this habit enough to enforce it? Or do we fear stepping on the child’s toes and therefore we let it slide? If the child fails at punctuality and is late because they stopped to examine a flower, how do we view this infraction? Charlotte seems to say that if punctuality is the habit we desire, we must insist on it, even though the reason for being late may be an inherently good one. This line particularly struck me: “a certain strenuousness in the formation of good habits is necessary because every such habit is the result of conflict” (p. 102). In other words, bad habits are easy to come by, but the good ones are hard to form. It requires effort and persistence. Charlotte does not say, but I would, that this is the case because we battle our own sinful natures.

Lastly on habits, I will admit that I have thought, as Charlotte mentions some do, that religious habits might be mere habit and lack the real substance which gives them value. She says, “We need not be deterred by the fear that religious habits in a child are mechanical, uninformed by the ideas which should give them value” (p.103). And I do think one can have a habit of, for example, Bible reading, that becomes mechanical. We must beware lest such things lose their substance. But to not have the habit at all, merely because it might at times feel empty, is not the answer. The habit, perhaps, will sustain one through periods when the life behind it seems to be absent.

The last tool we have at our disposal is summed up in the statement “Education is a life.” What Charlotte means by this is that our minds are like living things which much be fed the food that sustains them. This food is ideas and only ideas. Too much of modern education is factual. But, as Charlotte says, “mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body” (p.105). Now there is some information which one perhaps must learn. I think of math facts and spelling as prime examples. But even these Charlotte suggests will be  better learned if one does so in a living context. She suggests, for instance, learning the lives of some famous mathematicians like Pythagoras rather than just learning their theorems. And spelling, in a Charlotte Mason education, is done in the context of copywork and dictation of real passages from living books.

Charlotte also cautions that we cannot just spoon-feed the ideas. They must come properly packaged in living materials like books and symphonies. So in the course of reading one long book, a child might absorb two or three ideas. It does not seem like a good rate of return at times, but there does not seem to be a shortcut. It is not the same for me, the parent/teacher, to try to present the idea and skip the surrounding material. The child must take it in for themselves from the context of the book (or piece of music or art).

There is risk here. I think we all want that perfect system that would guarantee a good education for our children. But as I delve into Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, I am finding more and more that it involves letting go of my control of the process. I cannot cleverly package things so that my child will learn. I cannot force learning. I need to provide the right materials and trust that the child’s natural appetite will enable them to take in what they need. And that if they don’t take something in, no matter how valuable I may feel it to be, that it may just not be something they need right now. But to counter this loss of control there is the knowledge that there is one Educator of all of us. That is, all knowledge and wisdom come through God’s Holy Spirit. Just as  I cannot ensure my child’s eternal salvation, I cannot force their learning, but  as I give up control of the process (which I can’t control anyway), I recognize that He is in control of it.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Also, I take stuff with me to do outside: nail trimmers and file (for myself and the younger kids), mail to open and read, books I’m reading, lessons I’m planning, magazine I’ve been trying to get through, anything I can do while also watching the 2 year old. I don’t just keep my nose in that stuff. I enjoy the outdoors and try to show the kids the joy of being outdoors; but I really feel I need something with me to do or I’ll get antsy and head inside. Oh, and there are lots of neighbors to talk to here too.


  2. Very thoughtful reflections upon Charlotte Mason’s ideas. Enjoyed reading your post.


  3. thanks nebby. i think you’ve articulated this all VERY well. i enjoy reading you. 🙂


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