Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category

The Best Free-Read Books

Dear Reader,

Rereading Charlotte Mason’s first volume, I ran across this quote:

“By the way, it is a pity when the sense of the ludicrous is cultivated in children’s books at the expense of better things. Alice in Wonderland is a delicious feast of absurdities, which none of us, old or young, could afford to spare; but it is doubtful whether the child who reads it has the delightful imaginings, the realising of the unknown, with which he reads The Swiss Family Robinson.

This point is worth considering in connection with Christmas books for the little people. Books of ‘comicalities’ cultivate no power but the sense of the incongruous; and though life is the more amusing for the possession of such a sense, when cultivated to excess it is apt to show itself a flippant habit. Diogenes and the Naughty Boys of Troy is irresistible, but it is not the sort of thing the children will live over and over, and ‘play at’ by the hour, as we have all played at Robinson Crusoe finding the footprints. They must have ‘funny books,’ but do not give the children too much nonsense reading.

Stories, again, of the Christmas holidays, of George and Lucy, of the amusements, foibles, and virtues of children in their own condition of life, leave nothing to the imagination. The children know all about everything so well that it never occurs to them to play at the situations in any one of these tales, or even to read it twice over. But let them have tales of the imagination, scenes laid in other lands and other times, heroic adventures, hairbreadth escapes, delicious fairy tales in which they are never roughly pulled up by the impossible––even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” (Home Education, pp. 151-52)

Based on questions I see on CM discussion boards, I would say many of us find that once we have got a handle on how to pick “living books” for school, we are still at a loss when it comes to our children’s “free reading.”

“Free read” is not a term Charlotte used, but the “Christmas books” mentioned above seem to fill the same role. This phrase implies that books were treasured and given as gifts and that they were for the child’s pleasure. Nonetheless, standards still apply. Charlotte allows a place for “funny books,” but a small place.

Part of the problem in our own day is the immensity of what is available. I don’t think Charlotte could have even begin to imagine the large libraries our children would have access to. But even if she had conceived of public libraries with whole children’s rooms, would she have dreamed of how truly awful so many of those books could be? We are as those adrift, surrounded by a sea of undrinkable water. To those of us faced with so many unreadable books, what are we to do? How do we discriminate and find the gems in the oceans of trite chapter books?

Charlotte’s standards here are so much higher than our own. Many of us would be happy with Alice in Wonderland, considering it a classic that has stood the test of time. But Charlotte suggests that, while amusing, it is not reliable sustenance. For her this was a popular silly book (Can you imagine what she would have made of Captain Underpants?!). She recommends instead Swiss Family Robinson. Think about this for a minute: despite its unusual events and fantastical nature, Alice is incapable of inspiring the imagination the way Swiss Family Robinson can.

Lewis Carroll’s classic is too far out there, but other books may be too realistic. Charlotte mentions books about “George and Lucy.” George and Lucy do ordinary things and while the child could well imagine himself in such circumstances, he doesn’t need to. There is nothing new or extraordinary involved. On the other end of the spectrum, Alice is entertaining because it is so silly and unexpected, but one still doesn’t imagine oneself as Alice simply because it is all so extraordinary. Swiss Family Robinson is in the middle. It sucks us in because these are ordinary people like us but in very different circumstances. We can imagine ourselves there and live through the adventures with the characters.

But fantasy is not entirely to be rejected. Charlotte speaks of fairy tales “in which [children] are never roughly pulled up by the impossible––even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” A book like Alice is so bizarre and the events in it are so incongruous that we cannot somehow settle into the story. In contrast, E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It includes fantastical elements but we can and will readily suspend belief and imagine that we too have found a Psammead to grant us our wishes. The Lord of the Rings series posits a whole fantastical world, much as Alice does, but again we can imagine ourselves in this world. The key I think is that in this kind of fantasy, though the world may be so different from our own, the characters, the motives and the outcomes are still very much from our world. Though they be hobbits and wizards, yet there is something very human here.

If you are a reader, you probably do not need me to tell you what a good book is like. You have no doubt felt it for yourself — If you are sorry to leave it when it is done, if you are interrupted in your reading and look up surprised that you are not on that desert island or in that igloo, if the characters become friends you are sorry to leave, then you have experienced such a book.

As I prepared this post, I realized that I am reading such a book myself — My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I would tell you more but I am anxious to get back to Corfu so . . .  another time.

Nebby

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

New Light on Habits

Dear Reader,

One test of a living book is if you can get new things from it each time you read it. Charlotte Mason’s own books are clearly living because I am re-reading volume one and just understood something in a whole new way. This is not new information (it was first written in the 1800s!) and may not be a new idea to some of you, but for me it was a whole new way of thinking about habit-training.

When I was coming more and more to a Charlotte Mason way of thinking about education, I was slow to warm up to the idea of habit-training. There was something about it that seemed false. Of course, we discipline and train our children but the idea that habits could be so important seemed very externally focused. I have come to appreciate that while good habits may not always correspond with a right heart, that they can make life very much easier, both for parent and child.

But in my head I think I was still overly influenced by the nuances I associate with that word: “habit.” Perhaps it is a more modern understanding of the word that I was reading back into Charlotte’s writings or maybe it is just me. Habits, whether smoking or saying please and thank you, are something I thought of only as rote actions; they had nothing to do with the heart.

As I reread Home Education, I find that while habits, in Charlotte’s conception, are rote in the sense that once they are established we do not need to think about them, that they have everything to do with the heart.

In part 3 of her first book, “Habit is Ten Natures,” Charlotte begins by listing those things which contribute to the nature of an individual person. We all, she says, have a common human nature which includes both a conscience, however fallen, but also a sin nature. [If you read here regularly, you may know that my view of fallen human nature is not quite the same as Charlotte’s (see, for example, this post and this one); I will not rehash the differences here; I don’t think they matter for the purposes of this post.]

We also each have familial influences. I am not sure Charlotte had our understanding of genetics or was familiar with the nature/nurture debate. It does not really matter in her conception whether a particular predilection is genetic or cultural. In this category we might include a predisposition to addiction or a bad temper that seems inherited from parents and grandparents or learned behaviors such as bad eating habits. Lastly, each individual has his or her own personal weaknesses. These three sources — common human nature, familial influences, and personal traits — all combine to create a unique individual nature, but not perhaps a very good one.

I call this the individual nature because it is unique to the individual but also because it is natural in the sense that it is what we have before outside influences act upon it. It is what we begin with. But, I hope, we are not happy to remain here. This is a fallen nature and, as Charlotte says, left on its own it will only get worse (Home Education, p. 76). Our goal then is to improve upon the nature we are born with.

This is where habit comes in. Charlotte calls it a lever. It is a small tool that allows us to do big work. This is really where my new (to me) insight comes in — Habit is not just about a polite veneer. It is more than a smooth pathway for our lives. Habit, for Charlotte, is the means by which we begin to change our natures. “Habit,” she says, “forces nature into new channels” (p. 78). Habit transforms our individual natures. I had heard before that Charlotte speaks of habit as “second nature” (p. 80). But I had not gotten the major spiritual implications of what she is saying here. Habit is a tool by which we begin to change our inborn, sinful natures into something better, something higher. It is not a mere external nicety. Habit works on the most basic human problem.

I want to be careful that we are understanding this is a biblical context. To use Christian terms, habit is a tool for our sanctification. But this remaking of our sinful human natures cannot occur without the work of the Holy Spirit. [Though she does not make it clear in this section, I think Charlotte would agree with this statement. She sees all of education as the work of God the Holy Spirit; certainly this area is no exception.] With His aid, our efforts, though they may seem aimed at externals, have real internal effect. Without His help, our efforts, as in all areas of life, would be in vain.

I came to a Charlotte Mason way of educating late and even when I appreciated her philosophy in some ways, I was slow to implement it in others. Habit-training was not something we consciously implemented in the early years. I have at time regretted this as I wish now that my kids were more organized and better at keeping things clean and put away. These habits are easier to train in the young years than they are in teens (be warned!). But as I am realizing that habit training goes so much further beyond putting away ones’ toys. It is a spiritual tool and as such is useful not just in practical day-to-day house-keeping ways but in shaping our very natures. It is not something that stops at the teens years or even in adulthood. It becomes at some point not the parent’s responsibility but the child’s and can still be used by each of us as we live our lives as adults. Charlotte says that “The problem before the educator is to give the child control over his own nature” (p. 76). This control that we hopefully have as adults, what Charlotte would elsewhere call the Way of the Will, is really just an extension of habit-training. Habit-training builds the Will by teaching us to do what we ought and not what we would and it is by the Way of the Will that we choose not what our own human natures desire but what God would have us do.

That is my big insight for the week. I realize that I am leaving one big question unanswered — it is the practical one. How do we habit train for more spiritual habits? What do you do with teens when the goals are not about putting away toys and shutting doors but are less tangible? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

Nebby

Simple Recipe Book for Kids

Dear Reader,

My almost 12-year-old has been wanting to learn to cook more things. Now that summer is here and not so much else is going on, I told her we would begin a recipe book just for her. The idea is pretty simple — get a loose leaf binder and put in it all the things she can or is learning to cook. She thought of a couple of cool, practical features —

recipes 4

She places each recipe in a sheet protector to keep them safe from spills. This also makes it easy to change out recipes as needed.

And then she uses a dry erase marker as she goes to mark off what she had put in.

recipes 1

This is what she’s working on today — my own gluten-free, low-carb peanut butter muffin recipe.

Happy cooking!

Nebby

Is it Biblical?: CM’s 2nd Principle (Part 3 of 3)

Dear Reader,

This is the third in a three-part series within a series. You can read the first two parts here and here.

My goal for the overarching series is to look at Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles and to ask if they are biblical (I have already done the first and 20th principles). Because so many of us struggle with her second principle, it has evolved into this mini-series of posts. In the first part, I looked at how Charlotte herself explains this principle. In the second, I looked at the range of Christian belief on human nature post-Fall and our ability to do good.

Recapping where we are

Charlotte’s second principle says:

“[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.”

In her own extended explanation of this principle in her sixth volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education, Charlotte makes clear that these tendencies, we might say predispositions, to good and evil are present in all people and in all facets of the individual, “body and mind, heart and soul.”

This is a big subject and I chose to narrow it down to those questions about which I think the Bible has the most to say and on which Christians have the most disagreement. I therefore looked in the second post at how the different major branches of Christianity view the human potential for moral good. We can think of these beliefs as ranging along a spectrum from the Eastern Orthodox at one end, with the highest view of the human potential for good, to Reformed Theology at the other end with its belief in “total depravity,” that all aspects of human nature were affected by Adam’s sin.

Charlotte herself was a member of the Church of England (COE) and it is reasonable to assume that she agreed with the teachings of her church. An COE writer of the time (1885) distinguishes between “real freedom” which has been lost and “formal freedom” without which we would have “no capacity for redemption” (Joseph Miller, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England: An Historical and Speculative Exposition, 1885, pp. 18-19). He goes on to say that while man is no longer able to execute “perfect obedience and conformity to God’s holy will,” he is still able to exhibit “those relative virtues or excellencies of character” which are seen even in non-Christians (Ibid., pp. 18-19).

I hope that if you have read that second post, that you have some idea now of where Charlotte stands and where you stand. If you are on one end of the spectrum, anywhere from the Eastern Orthodox position to that of Charlotte’s own COE, you can probably rest easy; her second principle likely does not upset you greatly. If you are a little further over, however, and particularly if you subscribe to the Reformed doctrine of total depravity (as I do) then you may still be uneasy.

Coming to Terms with the Second Principle

If you are still reading, you probably find yourself, as I do,  pulled in two directions. On one hand, you may identify as theologically evangelical or reformed and you are committed to the idea that God saves us completely; we cannot do it ourselves and have little, if any, capacity to contribute to the process. On the other hand, you like Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education; it is attractive and you’d like to be able to subscribe to it without reservation, but that second principle has always made you uneasy. I am not going to have all the answers for you. What I am going to try to do is give some ways to think about the problem. (One option I am not considering here is that Charlotte’s second principle is not meant theologically. This is a common explanation, but I discussed how Charlotte herself explained this principle in part 1 and it seems to me distinctly theological.)

Option 1: Decide it’s not a problem

One of the easiest ways to deal with the problem is just to decide it’s not going to be a problem for you. You don’t need to agree with everything Charlotte says. No one but Jesus himself was ever right all the time and this could just be something Charlotte got wrong. She was reacting to forces in her own time which said some children (the illegitimate, the poor) were worth less than others and she was likewise a product of her own church’s theology. If she didn’t come as far as we would in our understanding of fallen human nature, then we can forgive her this one fault and move on to all the good she had to say about education itself.

If this is where you end up, I think that’s a fine place to be. But for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, I will point out the following: Charlotte’s philosophy is more than just a way to teach; it is a whole, comprehensive philosophy, not just of education, but of who children are. All its parts are designed to hang together. So we must ask ourselves, what do we lose if we jettison, or at least ignore, the second principle?

Here’s what I think — Charlotte Mason’s approach does not assume children are all good (as unschooling, for instance, does). If she had thought so, she would not have spent so much time discussing habit-training. But she does assume a basic predeliction to chosose the good when presented with good. She uses the analogy of food and I think it is a very apt one. We choose what to put before our kids — Cheetos, fiber and vitamin pellets, fermented veggies — and they choose what to eat. So with their intellectual diet, we can put before them twaddle or textbooks or real living books.

Unschooling (for a point of comparison) tells us that children will naturally gravitate to what they need. If they choose the intellectual equivalent of Cheetos and ignore the veggies, then we need to trust their innate judgement and know that when they need the veggies, they will find a way to get them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I think a lot of Christian parents (and non-Christian ones as well) assume that their kids will not like the veggies so they take to tricking (can you say black bean brownies?) and cajoling almost from the get-go. In intellectual terms, this can lead to one of two extremes — either it’s “well, it’s school and you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it; here are your worksheets and textbooks” with no thought when the children don’t like school that the problem might be the schoolwork and not the child, or, on the other side to an overemphasis on making schoolwork fun but hiding the knowledge in cute packages – lapbooks, unit studies, projects, anything that makes the work of learning seem like play or craft.

In between these two extremes, Charlotte acknowledges that kids, if fed on a diet of twaddle (the intellectual equivalent of those Cheetos), will like it. The evil tendency in them gives them a natural laziness that likes to soak up the easy yet unnourishing fare. It is the high fructose corn syrup of the mind and it is addicting. Textbooks are your dry fiber “cookies.” They are packed with vitamins and minerals, artificially extracted from real foods, and reprocessed into a nourishing but bland and ultimately fake bar. They may contain what kids need, or at least what we want to get in them, but they are unattractive and kids are naturally repelled by them. Charlotte tells us that, yes, there are evil tendencies in kids; they will get addicted to that corn syrup if that is what they are fed. But she also says that given a choice between the fiber bar and the fruits and veggies, that they have some natural tendency to like and take in what is truly healthy for them.

I have been speaking in the physical and intellectual realms, but as I hope I have shown in that precious post, Charlotte’s 2nd principle extends to the moral and spiritual realms as well. Charlotte acknowledges that there is a natural (evil) tendency toward a downward spiral, that a child whose conscience is not trained or who is not given good spiritual food will not stay where he is but will descend lower. But, on the other side, she also says that children have a natural affinity for their Creator. Just as a child presented with a healthy diet of veggies and living books will develop a taste for such things and learn to love them so a child given the right spiritual environment will naturally take to it.

This is a long round-about way to come back to our question: what do we lose when we jettison the second principle? If we lose the part about evil tendencies, we become unschoolers who trust the child’s instinct completely since it is all good. If we lose the bit about good tendencies, then what we are saying is that even when presented with the good choices — the veggies, the living books, God Himself — that the child is unable to choose the good over the evil.

Option 2: Common Grace

On first glance, the doctrine of Common Grace seems to help us to reconcile these inconsistencies. God’s grace is His undeserved gift to us. By His special, or saving, grace He both saves us and enables us to do good. It is special because it is particular; it is not for everyone but only for God’s people.

But, the Bible tells us, God sends rain on the just and the unjust. Those who are not among God’s people still receive good from Him. This is Common Grace. It may be called restraining grace as well since if keeps fallen, unregenerate man from being as evil as he could be. Tim Challies, quoting Berkhof, tells us that Common Grace “‘curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men’” (Tim Challies, “The Essential Common Grace,” from Challies.com). Remember that even the doctrine of total depravity does not say that man is as bad as he could possibly be, only that all aspects of his nature are fallen (this was discussed in part 2).

The doctrine of Common Grace is often used to explain why non-believers seem to do good and so it may seem to answer the inconsistencies we see between our own reformed theology and Charlotte’s principles. But we must also remember that Common Grace does not make men good. The Westminster Confession, which we looked at last time, makes clear that though the unregenerate may do things we deem “good” that they are unable to please God without the saving faith that comes through Special Grace and thus their “good” is not really “good.” If we are relying on the idea of Common Grace to get us out of this bind, then we are fooling ourselves (or misunderstanding the doctrine). A person affected by Common but not Special Grace may seem to do good but they are just as incapable as they always were of truly being or doing good.

Option 3: Covenant Children

In my post on Charlotte Mason’s first principle, I spent some time looking at what the Bible has to say about children. One conclusion of that study was that “[Children] are counted among God’s people and at important points (such a covenant renewal ceremonies) are included in the assembly of God’s people.” In my denomination, we speak of covenant children. We baptize infants, not because we believe baptism removes Original Sin, but because it is a sign on inclusion in God’s covenant people. And we assume that our children are part of that people unless they prove otherwise (as we would for those baptized as adults).

If, as Reformed Christians, we seek to follow Charlotte’s philosophy but we do not have this view of covenant children, then we are left with a conundrum. Our educational philosophy is predicated on the idea that children can choose the good, both intellectually and morally, but our theology tells us that they cannot choose or do  good until they are saved. So we are left needing to wait on their salvation before we can truly educate them.

I would like to propose a different way of viewing education. If the children of believers are included in God’s covenant community, then they already, even before birth, have those tendencies to good which Charlotte speaks of. We assume their salvation and their education becomes part of their sanctification. I think this idea fits quite well with reformed theology. If, as the doctrine of total depravity teaches, all of our nature has been corrupted by Adam’s Fall, then it makes sense that our sanctification which reverses this corruption should also act on the whole person.

The Roman Catholic Church (for the sake of comparison) has quite a high view of human reason because it sees limited effects to the Fall. If human reason has not fallen, then, once Original Sin is removed, we can have a high degree of confidence in our own reason. But if our reason is fallen along with the rest of our nature, then we cannot inherently trust it. Our intellectual aspect as well as our moral aspect needs to be regenerated.

I want to be clear that I do not think this is how Charlotte Mason herself  would have put it. This is how I, as a reformed Christian, reconcile my beliefs with the truth that I see and experience in her philosophy. I think she and I would have had some theological disagreements about human nature. But I also think that she stumbles on to some real truths about how education works for covenant children. The upshot of this view is that while what Charlotte says about good and evil tendencies may not be true of all children (or adults) that we are saying it is true of our children.

There are still be some problems with this view. It does not give us much to work with if we are teaching other people’s kids (if their parents are not believers). It also contradicts  Charlotte’s assertion that her method is for all children. Charlotte is also very big on the idea that all truth is God’s truth and that truth can come through non-Christians. I agree with both these statements but I am still trying to reconcile in my mind how these ideas fit together nicely. The problems inherent in this view are not unique to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy but are basic issues which total depravity has to address — How do we account for the seeming good of unregenerate people? and, similarly, How are such people able to discover intellectual or moral Truth?

Option 4: Re-defining “Potential”

When it comes to other people, we never truly know. As reformed people, we believe that God, before Creation, made a plan and decided (elected) who would be saved and who wouldn’t. Nothing can thwart His plan one way or another. But we still preach the gospel to all because He commands us to and because we don’t know who it is within His plan to save.

In the same way, we may present the good (whether intellectual or moral) to children not knowing which ones God will enable to accept it. From God’s perspective these things are settled, but from ours any one of them has the potential to be saved and therefore to ultimately choose the good. This option may be combined with the previous one– the children of believers are assumed to be holy and to others the offer, both of the gospel and of the good intellectual food we are providing, is presented in the hope that they will be enabled to choose it. This seems to me to be an inherently optimistic view; it hopes the best for people and expects much of them.

I called this view “re-defining potential.” We  might instead say that it shifts the possibility of good from the individual to God Himself. It says not that each child, as he is naturally, can choose good but that each child might, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be regenerated and enabled to choose good. We present the good in the hopes that this is so, not knowing if it will be so in any given case.

Corollary: CM’s Method Can Benefit Non-believers

I am not classifying this as a separate option because I think it can be combined with any of the above options. One of the big problems for those who accept the doctrine of total depravity is how it explains the good that the unregenerate seem to do. Charlotte herself addressed this issue:

“As for this superior morality of some non-believers, supposing we grant it, what does it amount to? Just to this, that the universe of mind, as the universe of matter, is governed by unwritten laws of God; that the child cannot blow soap bubbles or think his flitting thoughts otherwise than in obedience to divine laws; that all safety, progress, and success in life come out of obedience to law, to the laws of mental, moral or physical science, or of that spiritual science which the Bible unfolds; that it is possible to ascertain laws and keep laws without recognising the Lawgiver, and that those who do ascertain and keep any divine law inherit the blessing due to obedience, whatever be their attitude towards the Lawgiver; just as the man who goes out into blazing sunshine is warmed, though he may shut his eyes and decline to see the sun. Conversely, that they who take no pains to study the principles which govern human action and human thought miss the blessings of obedience to certain laws, though they may inherit the better blessings which come of acknowledged relationship with the Lawgiver.” (Home Education, p. 39)

Charlotte here says that there is a blessing that comes with obeying the law of God even if one does not recognize that one is doing so. I think if we keep this in the realm of temporal blessings, this is likely true. If you are a good steward of your body, you will likely be rewarded with health. If you meditate on what is good and beautiful and true, you will have a mind that is more healthy than the one who dwells on evil and debased content. So the one who, following the Charlotte Mason method of education, is presented with a nourishing intellectual diet, though he be unregenerate, will still benefit more than one who is fed the intellectual equivalent of corn syrup or sawdust.

Conclusions?

In the first post in this three-part series, I tried to give you Charlotte Mason’s own interpretation of her second principle. The big take-away was that she applied the idea of good and evil tendencies to all aspects of the child and that as such she included both moral and spiritual dimensions, as well as the physical and intellectual. Her second principle is not solely theological but I think it is inaccurate to say that she did not mean it theologically.

In the second part, I tried to sketch out for you the range of Christian belief on the nature of man since the Fall with the goal of both showing where Charlotte herself likely fell and of prodding you to think about where along the spectrum your own beliefs would go.

This last post is for those of us who find ourselves further over to the reformed, total depravity side of things than Charlotte herself was. If you are closer to Charlotte’s own view or if you have a higher view of the human potential for good than Charlotte did, then I don’t expect you have much argument with her second principle. But for those of us who do wriggle in our seats when the goodness of children is discussed, I have tried to present some ways of reconciling the two — both my own ideas and some that have been expressed previously — along with their objections.

For myself, I find myself at this point (acknowledging that my views have changed in the past and may again) saying that while I do not think Charlotte and I are on the same page in terms of our view of human nature and while I am not comfortable using the language she does in her second principle, I can accept her philosophy and method of education because I think that she still ends up saying something true and valuable. My own beliefs are some combination of options 3 and 4 and the corollary I outlined above.

What I would like to know from you all is if any of this makes any sense. What is convincing and what isn’t? Are there other ways to think about all this that I have missed?

Nebby

Resources: I realize that I haven’t cited a lot of sources in these posts so here are just a few to get you going —

Bible verses on man’s sinful nature:

Genesis 6:5, 8:21;  2 Chronicles 6:36; Psalm 14:2-3, 51:5; 58:3; Proverbs 21:10, 15; Job 15:14; Isaiah 53:6; Jeremiah 10:14; 13:23; 17:9; Micah 7:2-4; Matthew 12:34-35; Mark 10:18= Luke 18:19; John 3:19; 8:44; Romans 3:9-12, 23; 5:7-8, 12, 19; 8:7;  1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:3; Titus 3:3; Hebrews 11:6

Blog posts on CM’s 2nd principle; my inclusion of them here does not necessarily imply endorsement:

Charlotte Mason, Total Depravity and the Divine Image,” by Brandy Vencel at Afterthoughts Blog

Why Did She Have to Say That?” by Karen Glass at Karen Glass.net

Classically Charlotte: The nature of children,” from Simply Convivial.com

Fact Check: Did Charlotte Mason Reject Original Sin?” by Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry.org

“The Theological Significance of Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle,” by Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry.org

And some of my own posts on this principle:

“Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle: Goodness and Badness”

CM on the Goodness (and Badness) of Children”

 

Personhood and the Special Needs Child

Dear Reader,

I recently stumbled upon a chain of posts on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy for children with autism. I do not have a child with autism (though I know a good handful) and I don’t really have any expertise at all in this area so I can’t really evaluate this therapy and don’t particularly want to wade into all the controversy around it. But I am struck by how Charlotte Mason’s principles do (or don’t) play out.  Whether it is true or not (I can’t judge), the article I read paints an extreme picture, but I think it points to some very real underlying issues, not just in dealing with special needs kids but in education today. [Disclaimer: I know some object to the term “special needs.” I don’t know what else to use — challenged? handicapped? — so if I am offending, I am sorry in advance.]

Charlotte Mason’s first principle is “Children are born persons.” I have written recently on what that means and won’t rehash it now, but I think we can see that a respect  personhood is not what is described here:

“To ABA, an autistic person is nothing more than the unruly embodiment of behaviors to be reinforced, shaped, or extinguished, a list of  ‘excesses’ and ‘deficits’ to be tallied and managed. A defiant child to be made compliant. Basically, I was a glorified dog trainer.” (Birdmadgrrl, “I Abused Children for a Living,” from Mad as Bird Blog, April 3, 2017)

If you are looking for a contrary understanding of what it means to have an atypical child, A Delectable Education, a Charlotte Mason method podcast, has a wonderful program on Special Needs which makes clear above all that the special needs child is a person just as any other and that for every deficit they may have, there is likely some other area in which they are advantaged or can excel. But even if a child is severely challenged, they are still a whole person and can benefit from what Miss Mason calls the feast — a broad curriculum that feeds the whole person.

ABA (according to its critics), in contrast, presents an ideal to which the child must conform and concentrates very intensely (up to 40 hours per week of therapy) on getting the child to meet those goals:

“The ultimate objective of ABA is to make the child “indistinguishable from peers.” This in itself is abuse because you are teaching the child that the only way that they will be tolerated is if they pretend to be like everyone else. They must sacrifice 40 hours a week instead of playing because there is something “wrong” with them which they have to spend all day everyday trying to fix.” (Ibid.)

Charlotte warns us against using the child’s natural desires — his need for acceptance, his desire for praise — against him. These are tools that are easily employed and produce a result but they are manipulative and again do not respect the child as person. Adults are apt to turn to these tools because they are easy to use and, in the short-term, they achieve a goal.  Our ABA critic again tells us:

“I don’t doubt that Timmy is having fun in the moment. The kids I worked with often seemed to be having fun. But the thing is, a lot of this abuse takes place on a subconscious level. The child might not even realize he’s being abused because he’s distracted by candy, or balloons. But there is a power imbalance. And little Timmy’s brain is picking up on all of this and filing it away.” (Ibid.)

ABA is the only scientifically backed treatment for autism and thus is the one that insurance is likely to pay for. It achieves its goals, though we may question whether those are the right goals. If the child also seems to be enjoying it, that seems like a win-win, right?

As I said at the start, ABA and autism are not my area of expertise by any means. I understand that there are probably deeper issues here and that I have really only looked at one side of the argument. But I think the argument itself raises some questions which all of us parents, whether our children are “normal” or not, should be asking ourselves.

The biggest question, and the one out of which all the others flow, is: Am I valuing the child as a person? Do I see and appreciate the good alongside the challenges? As that ADE podcast I referenced suggests, do I see that there can be value even in the challenges? Or am I trying to fit a person into a mold that maybe not all of us need to fit? I’m not trying to say that we need to just let every child be as they are. Charlotte Mason did advocate for habit-training, a practice which acknowledges that we all need some  guidance in how we develop. And certainly, it helps to be able to get along in society. If there are behaviors that others will view as inappropriate, we may need to address them. But there is at the least a balance here. Because the norm in our society is institutional schooling and because dealing with large groups of students doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility, we tend to try to fit children into an ideal mold, whether it’s the very active child who is expected to sit still all day or the child who maybe needs to wait to learn to read bit is pushed to do so in kindergarten or first grade.

If we do acknowledge the personhood of the child, we also need to look at what tools we are using in education. Rewards in the form of prizes and grades and praise are easy solutions. Children seem to like them and many are motivated by them so we get what seems to be a good result. But Charlotte would say that we are taking a natural desire and feeding it out of proportion and thereby allowing it to take over. The child who gets rewards for learning stops learning for any other reason. We get immediate results but warp the personality in the long-term. The immediate effect and even the child’s own pleasure in the moment cannot be our guide if we are on the right track.

Which leads us to the big question: What is our goal and what should it be? If we begin with the personhood of the child, then our goals must also fit this vision. A goal that presents a model and fits the individual to it does not respect one’s personhood. If we aim for academic or career success but warp the personality along the way we are also not truly valuing that individual. We need to care more about who each child is, not what they become or how much they know or whether they get into college or whether they can hold a job or even whether they can function in society.

I will say once more that I cannot judge ABA or any other particular therapy. But I think the problems that its critics see are not isolated to this one approach; they are problems that arise from a much broader misconception in our society that views the child as something to be molded rather than a person to be guided.

Nebby

 

 

General Revelation and How We Live Our Lives

Dear Reader,

In my current series, I am looking at how Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy lines up with Special Revelation, that is, the Scriptures (see this post, this one, and this one). I am doing this to some extent because I can — because the Bible is a finite book and I can hold Miss Mason’s propositions up to it and ask if the two agree. But Charlotte does not claim to get her philosophy just from the Bible but also from God’s general revelation, His revealing of Himself through what she calls divine law and which we might call natural law or simply Creation.

In her first book, Home Education, Charlotte makes a strong case that we need to order our lives and our children’s lives around the principles God has revealed if we want to obtain the blessings He promises of health and wholeness:

“The reason why education effects so much less than it should effect is just this––that in nine cases out of ten, sensible good parents trust too much to their common sense and their good intentions, forgetting that common sense must be at the pains to instruct itself in the nature of the case, and that well-intended efforts come to little if they are not carried on in obedience to divine laws, to be read in many cases, not in the Bible, but in the facts of life.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 38)

In other words, we must not trust to common sense or even entirely to the Bible but must discern God’s laws for how we should live our lives from “the facts of life.” If we as Christians are not thriving while our non-Christian neighbors are, she tells us, then it is because:

“all safety, progress, and success in life come out of obedience to law, to the laws of mental, moral or physical science, or of that spiritual science which the Bible unfolds; that it is possible to ascertain laws and keep laws without recognising the Lawgiver, and that those who do ascertain and keep any divine law inherit the blessing due to obedience, whatever be their attitude towards the Lawgiver.” (p. 39)

Notice that these laws are for the most part scientific laws in that we learn them through observation and experimentation. Things that were once new ideas which encountered much resistance — that fruit should be eaten to avoid scurvy, that doctors should wash their hands — now seem completely obvious to us, but there was a time when these basic principles had to be discovered. These are the sorts of laws which Charlotte has in mind; we ignore them at our own peril.

As I read what Charlotte wrote more than one hundred years ago, I wonder if we as Christians still believe this? Do we believe that there are discernable divine laws which govern life?

Too often it seems that Christians have forgotten that there is a general revelation and that we can know anything from creation alone. If you’ll allow me, I’ll pick once again on the Trim Healthy Mama diet (THM). My main problem with this eating plan (see my review here) is not that it is illogical or doesn’t work, but that it claims to be based on the Bible but has little solid Scriptural basis. For my purposes today, the question is not is THM Bible-based but why does it think it needs to be? Why is there a bread on the market based on the grains in the book of Ezekiel? Why do some wear only fibers mentioned in the Bible?

The problem, it seems to me, is that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater; in an effort to reject certain scientific theories, we have turned our backs on a whole arm of God’s revelation to us. Without general revelation, we are left trying to find biblical justifications for all we do, a process which leads to bad exegesis and ultimately undermines biblical authority as well as texts are stretched to speak to subjects they were never intended to address.

If today’s Christians are skeptical of science, they are not alone. Miss Mason speaks from a time of great scientific progress. Her view of man’s ability to discern God’s unwritten laws is an optimistic one. I think in many ways that is not true today. In the context of her book, the issues Charlotte addresses are very practical ones — What types of foods should we eat? How much fresh air do we need? She lived in an age when science was expected to give the answers to these questions. We live in a time when low fat diets have gotten us fatter and low carb is the answer — or, wait, is it? Maybe it’s paleo, maybe it’s gluten-free, maybe the pesticides which increased our food stores and can cure hunger are secretly killing us.

We live in a time of too many voices saying too many competing things and we have lost faith in our ability to discern God’s laws. I am somewhat comforted by the idea that we still seek truth. The many competing theories out there — whether it is about what we eat or how we raise our children — at least show that we still believe there is a truth; we just can’t find it.

I really don’t know where to end with this. Charlotte disparaged common sense but I am not sure that it is not one of our best and most helpful guides. Its is no longer a matter of just obtaining scientific knowledge; we need to decide which science to believe.

Any thoughts?

Nebby

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