Teaching Citizenship and Decency

Dear Reader,

As I work my way through Charlotte Mason’s sixth volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education, with the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival, I am up to the section on citizenship. Charlotte begins by talking about how to raise children to be responsible citizens. The main way seems to be through the reading of good books which lay out the lives, dilemmas, and decisions of historical figures. She mentions in particular Plutarch’s Lives which pairs Roman and Greek figures. I will admit that though we read some Plutarch when we were doing ancient history, we have not delved into it much and we certainly have not read the lives as he paired them which from what I hear is the way to go. I do love what Charlotte has to say about letting children see the good and the evil in people’s lives and not giving them watered down or “made nice” versions of things. As she rightly points out, the Bible shows the weaknesses of its characters so we need to be afraid to show the sort of moral mess that each of us really is inside.

I was a little puzzled at first by the turn this chapter takes. Charlotte moves from discussing citizenship to talking, in a  somewhat oblique way, about decency. But I think the connection is that some perhaps avoided things like Plutarch because they feared the more licentious sides of the stories. And I have heard that one must be careful which lives ones begins with younger children. Charlotte does recommend skipping bits, reading aloud and editing as one goes to avoid those parts unsuitable for young ears. But she also has some things to say about cultivating modest children in general. And I think these remarks should particularly make us perk up our ears. If they were relevant in her day, how much more in ours! Charlotte could not even have conceived, I think, of how sex-obsessed our society would become. The temptations are so much more these days and it is very hard to keep children innocent for long. We also have a very visual society with the ability to see images everywhere. While a story may titillate, it is nothing compared with the image presented by TV and movies which can seem to burn itself into the brain. Charlotte says that “to see impurity is to be impure” (p. 188).  I am not sure I would say it so strongly, but the fact is that it is very hard to get pictures, once seen, out of one’s mind, even if one saw them by accident.

So besides trying to avoid the worst offenders, what can we do to raise children who are decent and not sex-obsessed individuals? First, we can put positive content into their heads. Charlotte mentions her own book Ourselves which is basically an owners’ manual for one’s mind. I love this book and I highly recommend reading it with one’s children beginning around age 10 or 12. It helps one see all the faculties at one’s disposal, their potential for good but also their pitfalls. Most books or curricula that aim to teach morality I find very hard to swallow, but this one is a real treasure.

The second big suggestion Charlotte has is to keep them occupied. She mentions particularly physical activities, games and sports, which occupy the body. And this seems reasonable to me. If we tire out their bodies, and if they are using them in positive ways, perhaps they will be less likely to drift into improper uses. She seems to be talking mainly about boys in this section, but I know that in our own day it has been shown that girls who are involved in sports are less likely to have premarital sex (see this NYTimes article). I think a large part of it, at least for girls, is that if we come to appreciate what our bodies can do, then we are less likely to be tempted into degrading them through more inappropriate activities (at least inappropriate for an unmarried teen).

As we occupy their bodies, so we must also occupy their minds. Charlotte clearly subscribes to the theory that idle hands lead to trouble. In this case, of course, it is not hands but minds that are idle. A bored child is more likely to find or indulge in inappropriate content. So we must cultivate our children’s interests. Help them find things which interest them and then allow them to pursue those things. Charlotte here has a particular warning for homeschoolers who may be tempted to think that by just removing their children from the mainstream that they will avoid these temptations:

“Now a fact not generally recognised is that offences of the kind which most distress parents and teachers are bred in the mind and in an empty mind at that. That is why parents, who endeavour to save their sons from the corruption of the Public School by having them taught at home, are apt to miss their mark. The abundant leisure afforded by home teaching offers that empty chamber swept and garnished which invites sins that can be committed in thought and in solitude.” (p. 188)

In other words, the evil is not out there; it is in all of us. Our human nature is such that we will not avoid sexual thoughts and feelings by simply avoiding the culture or other people. Charlotte even suggests that homeschoolers may be more at risk because they have more free time!

In the end, the big idea here is similar to what Charlotte has to say about habit training — instill the good to leave no room for the bad. We are not going to avoid our children’s sexual maturity by homeschooling them or trying to hide them away from the world. But we can, hopefully, keep them from sinful thoughts and activities by keeping them occupied with positive ones.


2 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve thought a lot about CMs words re abundant leisure/empty minds; interesting that she says on the same page, ‘Our schools err, too, in not giving anything like enough work of the kind that from its absorbing interest compels reflection & tends to secure a mind continually & wholesomely occupied.’ Much food for thought!


    • That’s true! I focused on the danger she sees in home education because that is where I am, but that does not mean there are no pitfalls in traditional schooling. A major reason my husband and I chose to homeschool is that we were both so bored in school growing up.


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