Is it Biblical?: CM’s 5th Principle, Part 1: Atmosphere

Dear Reader,

In my most recent post in this series, I looked at what Charlotte Mason calls the “gospel code of education” (see this post to get up to speed and to find links to all the previous posts in the series). This “code” consists of three injunctions which Charlotte takes from Matthew chapters 18 and 19. They tell us what we may not do in raising and educating our children. From these negative commands, she says we may derive corresponding positive commands:

“. . .  the positive is included in the negative, what we are bound to do for the child in what we are forbidden to do to his hurt.” (Home Education, p. 13)

Next up for us then is to look at what we may do in educating our children. I am excited to dive into this topic because there is something here that has always puzzled me. As Christians, we begin to read Charlotte’s philosophy of education and there is a lot to appeal to us — the child as a person, the Holy Spirit as the Great Educator. So far so good. But then somewhere along the way we are talking about whether to use a spelling curriculum or to rely upon dictation, about whether it is wrong to use a formal grammar curriculum, about how long lessons should be, and on and on and on . . .  How did we get from these theological concepts to the nitty-gritty day-to-day specifics? How does “the child is a born person” lead us to short lessons and living math? (We won’t get to all the answers today but I am excited to start getting into the practical details.)

What are the positive principles? Some were implied in the negatives we looked at last time — When she says that we offend a child (i.e. cause him to sin) by laughing at his infantile wrongs, we may reasonable conclude that we must discipline without smiling on wrong-doing and that we must follow through on our “no”s. Charlotte tells us that to despise a child is to not take him or his sin seriously; we may again reasonably conclude that we must deal with and not ignore his early sins. Lastly, Charlotte tells us that we hinder a child when we call him wicked, do not teach him of God’s love and fill his life with ” listless perfunctory prayers, idle discussions of Divine things in their presence, light use of holy words, few signs whereby the child can read that the things of God are more to his parents than any things of the world” (Home Education, p. 20). For each of these we can readily supply the opposite — we must teach the child of God’s love, introduce him to meaningful prayer, spare him idle conversations and allow him to overhear real ones, use holy words reverently, show him that the things of God matter more to us than the things of the world.

Though we may come to some such conclusions on our own, Charlotte herself does not immediately lay out for us positive principles. So to see what Charlotte says we may actually do in education, I am going to return to her 20 Principles and specifically to the fifth principle with its well-known phrase, the very motto of her schools: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”

Education is an Atmosphere

My methodology has been to look first at what Charlotte herself has to say and then to hold her ideas up to the Scriptures. I have asked in each post if Charlotte’s ideas are “founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures,” a phrasing I like which comes from my own church’s membership vows. We do not expect the Word of God to directly address every issue but we, as Christians, should seek out an educational philosophy which, where possible, is founded upon the Scriptures and which is otherwise in agreement with biblical principles and thought. Because this threatens to be a huge topic, I am going to divide it into three posts. First up: Education is an atmosphere.

This term tends to cause some confusion for those new to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. To  a large degree, this confusion stems from terminology. In her fifth principle, Charlotte speaks of “the atmosphere of environment.” At other times, as in her sixth principle, she uses the word “environment” pejoratively as a counterpoint to atmosphere:

“When we say that ‘education is an atmosphere,’ we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child’s level.”

Charlotte reacts here against certain educational trends of her day (some of which are still popular in our own) which said that if you just put the child in the right environment “he is to all intents and purposes educated thereby” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 94). An environment is something artificially constructed and brought down to the child’s level; an atmosphere “nobody has been at pains to constitute” (Ibid., p. 96).  Charlotte gives this wonderful description:

“It is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us. It is thrown off, as it were, from persons and things, stirred by events, sweetened by love, ventilated, kept in motion, by the regulated action of common sense. We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby’s needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges. And, what tempered ‘fusion of classes’ is so effective as a child’s intimacy with his betters, and also with cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner, with everybody who comes in his way? Children have a genius for this sort of general intimacy, a valuable part of their education:  . . .  no compounded ‘environment’ could make up for this fresh air, this wholesome wind blowing now from one point, now from another.” (Ibid., pp. 96-97)

There is a lot to take in here but I think the key phrase is “the natural conditions under which a child should live.” That is really all atmosphere is. Put thus it sounds simple but not every child is raised in the atmosphere he should live in and even in the best homes there is much that is not ideal (given that we are all sinful people in a fallen world).

I said I would let Charlotte speak for herself, but I am going to digress a bit and give you some of my own understanding of this issue because I think it is so often misunderstood — Atmosphere happens when our lives spill over into our children’s. If I go and select edifying paintings to put on the walls and classical music to play during snack time but have no interest in these things myself, that is an artificial environment. If, on the other hand, the same paintings and music are present because I love them and enjoy them myself, that is atmosphere.  I met a family recently; the father is a public school physics teacher and the children all go to public school. But in the few hours I visited their house, they discussed the books they were reading and built ramps from wooden blocks to amuse the youngest family member. These things were all done naturally and casually. There was real interest and intellectual curiosity that the kids had clearly picked up from their parents. This is atmosphere. On the flip side, we can see the effects of a poor atmosphere — How many parents withdrawing their kids from public school complain that the child has no desire to do schoolwork or to learn? We have even come to expect this of children and are surprised when a child beyond the age of 10  (or 8 or 6)still loves to learn. The child’s (bad) atmosphere has taught him not to love knowledge and to be embarrassed by learning. [Digression within a digression: Many homeschoolers argue that the antidote to such an attitude is “deschooling.” I do not think Charlotte would have agreed. I think in such cases when the child has already been damaged by a negative atmosphere, we need to do more than let them alone; we need to be proactive. See this post.]

To return to the main topic, there may be things which contribute to atmosphere, but it is not primarily physical. In the quote above Charlotte mentions some things: ” . . . his dog and cat; . . .  the fields where the buttercups grow and . . .  the blackberry hedges,” but she does not mention home décor or even having the right books. Atmosphere is about people and experiences and above all attitudes.

Atmosphere includes the moral aspect or attitude in the home:

“[H]abits of gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people, or––habits quite other than these, are inspired by the child as the very atmosphere of his home, the air he lives in and must grow by.” (Home Education, p. 137; emphasis added)

It includes the intellectual attitude, what Charlotte calls the thought-environment:

“There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs, as its atmosphere about a planet the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.” (Parents and Children, p. 37)

It also includes a heavy dose of the real world, with its pains and sorrows. Charlotte says that “children must face life as it is.” The atmosphere is one of “truth and sincerity” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 97). Elsewhere she puts it thus: “I do not say that we should wantonly expose the tender souls to distress, but that we should recognise that life has a ministry for them also” (School Education, p. 184).

The hardest part of atmosphere is this: If the atmosphere in your home is not what it should be, the solution needs to begin within you, the parent, for:

“[E]ducation is an atmosphere––that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives.” (Parents and Children, p. 247)

Before we move on, we must remember that there is a context for this principle. Charlotte does not say only “education is an atmosphere” but adds “a discipline” and “a life.” Atmosphere alone, she tells us, will not accomplish education:

” . . .suppose that all this is included in our notion of ‘Education is an atmosphere,’ may we not sit at our ease and believe that all is well, and that the whole of education has been accomplished? No; because though we cannot live without air, neither can we live upon air, and children brought up upon ‘environment’ soon begin to show signs of inanition; they have little or no healthy curiosity, power of attention, or of effort; what is worse, they lose spontaneity and initiative; they expect life to drop into them like drops into a rain-tub, without effort or intention on their part.” (School Education, pp. 149-50)

Atmosphere lays the groundwork for education but it alone is not enough to produce education.

[Another digression: Here I think we see a difference with the unschooling movement. Briefly, before I had read much on the Charlotte Mason method, I was captivated by the idea of “strewing” which I got from unschooling sources.  To strew is to leave good materials — books, pictures, music, etc. — laying all around in the hopes that the child will pick them up or will somehow absorb their good content. This is an artificial environment, but, even if it were not, and even if it were accompanied by the right intellectual environment, it would not be enough.]

To sum up, atmosphere, as Charlotte describes it:

  1. comes about naturally and is not contrived
  2. includes exposure to creation (those dogs and hedges she mentioned), to various sorts of people (she mentions cooks and blacksmiths), and to ideas (particularly those ideas which rule the lives of the parents)
  3. is more about an attitude than about things
  4. includes exposure to what we might call virtues: “gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people.” By exposure here I do not mean lessons but that children see and experience these things.
  5. includes exposure to that which is “lovely” and “divine” as opposed to what is “sordid” and mundane
  6. might be equated with the real world with its sorrows and pains

(7) Lastly, we may say that a reason given for atmosphere is that God works in the lives of children as well as that of adults.

Atmosphere and the Bible

Having looked at how Charlotte defines atmosphere, the next step is to see how this jibes (or doesn’t) with the biblical evidence. As we move further from the theoretical and more towards the practical, we do not expect to find as many biblical verses directly addressing our problem. We are more in the realm of “agreeable to” than “founded upon.” And that is okay. The Scriptures are “the only infallible rule for faith and life” but they are not the only rule nor should we expect them to tell us everything about every aspect of life. They tell us all we need to know of our sinful natures and the plan for salvation; they do not tell us all we need to know about other topics such as diet or education.

Looking at the points above, then, we can ask both Are there biblical passages which tend to support these ideas? and Are there passages which tend to contradict them?

I’ll begin at the end — Point 7 above was the reason for atmosphere (at least in part): God works in the lives of children as well as that of adults. In one of the early posts in this series I looked at what the Bible has to say about children. I won’t rehash the evidence here (you can look back at that post for the verses) but what we saw was that children are included among God’s people, that they can sin, and that they are held to the standards of holiness and righteousness. I think we can add now that the Bible gives us some clear descriptive evidence of God working in the lives of children from John the Baptist in the womb (Luke 1:44) to the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-8) to the boy David (I Sam. 17).

Some problems arise when we look for Bible verses on this topic. I would say there is a basic harmony between what Charlotte says and the Scriptures but we are not going to find anything that uses her language of atmosphere verses environment or makes the distinctions she is making.  The following passages seem to lend support to Charlotte’s view:

  • Rom. 1:20 “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted) and Prov. 6:6 “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” — The Bible tells us that we can and should learn of God through His creation. I think it is reasonable based on this to say that exposure to creation should be part of the child’s atmosphere (see the first part of point 2 above).
  • Deut. 6:7 “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” — The picture I get here is of the things of God being integrated into life; they are spoken of throughout everyday life and as such might be said to form part of the atmosphere. This sounds a lot like the last part of point 2 above, the ideas of the parents form the atmosphere.
  • Gal. 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” and Eph. 4:1-2 “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, . . .” — I am sure we could find many more verses on such virtues. If these are praised and we are instructed to treat one another in such ways, then it seems logical that our children also would be surrounded by such things (point 4).
  • Phil. 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”– One of the most on point verses; it seems to support point 5 above, that we are to provide our children with what is divine and lovely.

We see then that there are some verses that tend to support Charlotte’s idea of atmosphere. For the most part I would say that they support it in a general way, that they make her idea plausible, but they do not address specifics of how.  The second question we asked if there are any verses that argue against the points; I honestly cannot think of any (if you can think of any against or any more for, please comment below!).

Myth Busters style I am going to say that this principle is plausible. I don’t think we can say that the Bible supports a CM view of atmosphere over against the environment of, say, a Montessori classroom, but the basics of what a child should be exposed to and surrounded by seem to be quite biblical.

Nebby

 

 

 

 

 

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] This is part of an ongoing series in which I look at Charlotte Mason’s principles and ask how they line up with the Bible. You can find links to the earlier posts here and my most recent post on “Education is an atmosphere . . . ” here. […]

    Reply

  2. […] and a life.” Principles 6, 7 and 8 pull apart this motto and explain its parts.  In the post on “Education is an atmosphere . . .” I decided that Charlotte’s idea of atmosphere is plausible biblically. We are ranging here […]

    Reply

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