“Children are Born Persons” in a Modern World

Dear Reader,

We are going to have a local Charlotte Mason discussion group – Yay! In preparation for the first meetings I have been reading various selections on the first of CM’s 20 Principles: “Children are born persons.” Though I have blogged on this before (find all my CM themed posts here), I do have a few new thoughts on this topic which have been rattling around in my head.

Specifically, I have been wondering how this principle — that children are persons — sets us apart in today’s world. If you read through Charlotte’s own writings on the subject, you can see that she is rallying against the ideas of her age. Her contemporaries alleged that children are born blank slates and that their faculties (to use an old-fashioned word) needed to be developed. She also argued strenuously against the idea that some children just could not learn — whether because they were poor, were the sons and daughters of miners (or others of low-estate), or even were illegitimate.

In our own day and age, I don’t think anyone would say that some children just can’t receive or shouldn’t receive an education.  Inclusive classrooms are in, even for the most disabled. Nor do I hear people arguing for children as blank slates as such.  But there are still plenty of ways in which we (as a society) act contrary to the principle of personhood.

One of the biggest of these which I think can be found in all educational spheres, from public school to homeschool, is simply that we see ourselves as the instruments of our children’s educations and think that if we can just get the right program in place and start it early enough or diligently enough that we can shape them into what we want them to be. We see this in the public schools which respond to failure through more programs, earlier education, more hours in the school day, etc. Their solution to the problems they face is just more, more, more of the same.

But homeschoolers, unfortunately, do not have  a very different attitude. They too are often in search of just the perfect curriculum which will assure that little Johnny or Janie will learn to spell, to do math, to think critically, . . . There is a huge and growing industry out there which wants to convince us of just this — that the right curriculum will guarantee the results we desire, whether those results be academic, moral, or even spiritual.

The children subjected to such approaches naturally rebel against them. Charlotte likes to use the analogy of food — the mind needs to consume ideas in order to grow just as the body needs to consume food. To extend this analogy, we are so rabidly anxious that our children get the nutrition we think fit for them that we force feed them. They, quite naturally, respond by choking. They instinctively reject that which is forced onto them.

If they will not take in the food we have deemed good, then what are we to do? Well, we seek to motivate them. We use grades and other rewards. But these motivators only further undercut the personhood of the child. They are nothing more than a way to manipulate him into doing what we want him to do. Though they work to an extent, they do not lead to (intellectually) well-nourished children who will grow into adults able or even eager to feed themselves.

Charlotte says that the only proper food of the mind is ideas. If our children reject what we give them and must be cajoled or tricked into consuming it, it is because they instinctively know that this is not good and proper food for them.  I think we are all aware to some extent that what the public schools teach these days, more and more, is not true education. Our schools “teach to the test” and require children to parrot back that which they have only unwillingly and most likely temporarily swallowed in the first place. But as homeschoolers, many of us are not much better in the quality of food we present to our children. Unit studies predigest the food for our children by making the connections they are supposed to find on their own. The modern classical approach to education feeds the youngest children on a diet of dry facts at a time when they are capable of so much more.

I’d like to end by revisiting something I said at the start: “we think . . . that if we can just get the right program in place and start it early enough or diligently enough that we can shape them into what we want them to be.” The last clause here is key: what is our goal in educating our children? The public schools care about what our children become — Will they contribute to society? Will they go to college? Will they make a good income? Will they contribute to the economy? Will they help us edge out the Chinese? Many homeschoolers have the same sorts of goals. Others do care more about who their kids will be than what they will be, yet even here we must be on our guard that we are not dictating to them who we want them to be. Homeschooling parents are very involved in their kids’ lives and it is natural that they should care very much how their children turn out (whatever their ideal may be) and it is hard to step back and not try to control that process. But what we must remember, and I think of all Charlotte’s ideas this is the most important, is that there is One who is working in them in ways which we cannot, no matter how we try. And this, ultimately, is the meaning of personhood– that each of our children, indeed each of us, has our own unique standing before God and our own relationship with Him. We need to recognize that He is working on our children and we must not stand in the way of what He has planned for them even when that path is through stumbling and hardship.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Some of what you said about “teaching to the test” reminded me of something I read in John Mighton’s Myth of Ability. I quoted it here: http://plouffes.blogspot.ca/2014/03/wednesday-with-words-myth-of-ability.html
    I think your last point is so important (and so hard to live out sometimes!). I hope you have a great CM discussion group.


  2. […] Blog. I shared some new thoughts I had had on the first principle, “Children are born persons,” here. Now it is time for that tricky second principle: “Children are not born either good or bad, but […]


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