If you have undertaken to school your children yourself rather than to send them to some sort of brick and mortar educational institution, you probably feel a lot of pressure. It may come from your town government, your friends, your in-laws, your spouse, or even just your self. I don’t happen to think teaching one’s own kids is such a radical idea, but it is counter-cultural (though becoming less so), and any such program is likely to induce stress. After all, the stakes are pretty high here. If you have made the wrong decision, your kids might never get into college or get a job or a spouse. Maybe they will be the young adults to whom a therapist actually says, “Yes, your parents were all to blame.”
While the weight of responsibility we homeschooling parents feel is understandable, it is nothing new. I have been rereading Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children’s Sake. She quotes Charlotte Mason, my favorite late 19th/early 20th century educator, who, as a young teacher, had her own qualms:
“I had at the time just begun to teach, and was young and enthusiastic in my work. It was to my mind a great thing to be a teacher; it was impossible bit that a teacher should leave his stamp on the children. His own fault if anything went wrong, if any child did badly in school or out of it.” (p. 59)
You can perhaps guess where this is going — Miss Mason found that she was not able to do the grand things she dreamed of in terms of shaping young minds. She longed for “the lever to lift each of these little worlds” for “such a ever there must be” (p. 60).
I think we can all empathize with Miss Mason up to this point — we feel, or have felt, the weight of a great responsibility. We have known how vital our task is, and yet we have also seen the times when it does not go right, when no progress seems to be made, when nothing momentous seems to be happening. And so we look about ourselves, as she did, for just the right tool, assuming that there must be such a tool. I am struck by Charlotte’s choice of a lever as her metaphor, for that simple tool allows one to accomplish great tasks with but a little effort.
As homeschoolers today, we have a multitude of tools available to us. If you have ever seen the Rainbow Resources catalog, you know just how much there is out there for homeschoolers to purchase without even considering all the websites and videos and approaches one can choose from. With such a vast arsenal at our disposal, we assume that the philosopher’s stone of education must be among them if only we could find it.
Charlotte did find her lever. It was not a particular curriculum or textbook. For her more than anything the key was a philosophy, a new way of looking at education, which in the end took the burden off of the teacher.
If you look at the tabs at the top of this page, you will see that I have dozens of posts on a Charlotte Mason education. I am not going to try to explain all over again here what that is. I’d like for now to just focus in on what we, as parents and teachers, can do in furthering our children’s educations, what tools we may use, and what we cannot use.
Charlotte spoke of three tools we are allowed to use: atmosphere, discipline and life. Taking these in reverse order — The life refers to the fact that we use living books, and music and art, in our schools. These materials are full of ideas, not dry facts. We spread them as a feast before our children, but we cannot force them to eat. Charlotte’s approach to discipline is habit-training; it is providing a good, instinctive basis for future behavior. Atmosphere is one we have to be careful with, I think, it is not about hanging the right posters on your walls. I think it is more about attitude though certainly a learning and idea-friendly environment helps.
These then are our tools. I would include among them living books, fine art, good music, exposure to nature and the like. What we as parents and teachers can do is to provide these things. But we cannot force feed them. Even in habit-training there is usually a choice set before the child — eg. “Do you schoolwork now or miss free time later.”
What we cannot do provides a much longer list and includes many of the tools that modern education relies so heavily on. We cannot use: physical force, guilt trips, their natural desire to please us, praise, their own ambitions, peer pressure. Grades, bribes, prizes — these are all eliminated. Now of course it is not that one can never praise a child or let them know that they have pleased us. But these things should not be used as the motivating factors in schoolwork. Knowledge should be pursued for its own sake and other desire, even a good wholesome, God-given one, if it becomes the motivating force will eventually fail us.
In some ways, this philosophy should be a relief because it takes the burden off of the parent or teacher. There is only so much we can do. I think it often can become a frustration because we want so much to be able to control something that we care so deeply about. It is hard to let go. Charlotte was a Christian and there should be great comfort for us in knowing that as we let go, it is not that there is no one in control of the whole situation. She spoke of the Holy Spirit as the source of all Truth and as the Great Educator. In our children’s education, as in so many areas of life, we are called to be faithful stewards, doing what we can, and not doing what we have no right to, and to leave the end results in the hands of the Lord.