Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Education’

The Key to Charlotte Mason’s Thought

Dear Reader,

If you have been around here, you know I have been working through a series in which I look at Charlotte Mason’s principles and ask “Is it biblical?” (Find all the posts here, under the heading “Are Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles Biblical?”). In the past I’ve looked at many philosophies of education (see here), and what I’ve concluded is that each, whether consciously or not, is founded upon certain ideas about who we are as humans. I am also firmly under the conviction that the ideas behind what we do matter; they will always come out over time. So when I look at Charlotte’s philosophy, as much as I want to accept it all wholesale I have to ask if her view of the child is truly biblical.

I am a reformed Christian — 5 points of Calvinism, TULIP, total depravity, limited atonement, and all that. As such, Charlotte’s second principle has always been a sticking point. She says that:

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

I have read a lot of explanations of this principle. Most dismiss what Charlotte is saying here by arguing that it is not really a theological statement about the moral nature of children. It took me three posts in the current blog series to get through this principle. I began by looking at how Charlotte herself explains it. The short story is this: Charlotte believed that “the possibilities for good and the corresponding possibilities for evil” are “present in all children.” When she says this, she is not just talking about their ability to be educated but the whole child “body and soul, body and mind, body, soul and spirit.” In other words, she is saying children are able to choose and do good and it is a moral statement (read my post here to see how I came to that conclusion).  In the second post, I place Charlotte’s position (and mine) within the spectrum of Christian thought (read about that here). In the third I wrestle with how I can accept her educational ideas when we have different views of the nature of children (here).

I am returning to this topic and wrestling some more because I recently ran across a quote in Charlotte’s second volume, Parents and Children, which, while shedding light on Charlotte’s own thought, also places her more at odds with my (reformed) theology.  Here is the quote:

“But we live in a redeemed world, and one of the meanings which that unfathomable phrase bears is, that it is the duty of those who have the care of childhood to eradicate each vulgar and hateful trait, to plant and foster the fruits of that kingdom in the children who have been delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace; that is to say, all children born into this redeemed world.” (Parents and Children, p. 65; emphasis added)

Let that sink in for a minute — We live in a redeemed world, and all children born into this redeemed world have been “delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace.” If you are like me, you are thinking how can that be? Is she saying what I think she is saying and if so, where on earth did this idea come from and how can she believe it? Personally, I have never heard anyone put forward this position — that everyone born in the redeemed world, which would be since the time of Christ, is automatically in “the kingdom of grace.” So I began to google things and found that this was actually an idea around in Charlotte’s time.

In 1905 Crown Theological Library published a collection of essays under the title “The Child and Religion.” It is available from Forgotten Books here or from Archive.org here. The book itself is the outcome of what began as a debate within one congregation. As is explained in the book’s introduction, some children, ages 8 to 12, wanted to become members of the church and the leadership was unsure how to proceed. They were wondering if children even had the capacity to be saved, if they could have union with Christ. They therefore appealed to wide range of pastors of their day. The book is a compilation of essays from these men. A summary of the views they encountered was given by The Expository Times  (Oct. 1904 – Sept. 1905). They asked the following questions: “(1) Is the child born in the Kingdom? (2) Is conversion necessary to make it a child of God? (3) Are all children in a state of favour with God? (4) Are all unconverted outside the Kingdom? (5) May they grow up within the Kingdom without consciously being alienated from God?” (Expository Times, vol. 16, p. 481). The men they asked were: a low churchman (of the Church of England), a high churchman (ditto), two Presbyterians, a Wesleyan (Methodist), three Congregationalists, a Baptist, and a Unitarian (and probably a partridge in a pear tree, if they could find one).

Their answers to the first question are enough to address our purpose. Here is how The Expository Times reports it:

“The first question runs, ‘ Is the child born in the Kingdom ? ‘ What child ? Does Mr. Stephens mean all children that are born into the world? Can you say that the children of Muhammadan parents are born within the Kingdom of Christ ? Or is the meaning as narrow as the child born of truly Christian parents ? The most of Mr. Stephens’ correspondents seem to take the question in a middle way, in the sense of children born in a Christian country. And they mostly answer Yes. But Mr. Stanley, the Unitarian, says bravely that all children are born in the Kingdom of God. He says, ‘ The child comes to our earth from the hand of God with a fresh mind and a pure heart, and evokes our reverence for the mystery and sanctity of life. The little one cannot be regarded as a child of wrath, for it has wonderful and fair capacities, and where all influences favour a righteous development, it may be led to admire and cleave to holy things.’ In Mr. Stanley’s belief, the Muhammadan child is born within the Kingdom of God.” (pp. 481-2)

The position of Stanley, the Unitarian among them, is an extreme one. At the other end of the spectrum is the Baptist, a man named Lewis, who believed that “no children whatever are born in the Kingdom” (p. 482). The others are along a spectrum between these two. As far as I can distinguish them, there seem to be two main positions between these two extremes:

  1. The low churchman and one Presbyterian believe that while all must be born again, “the second birth may occur so near the first as to be practically identical with it.” Children may thus be saved in “unconscious infancy.”
  2. The other Presbyterian and the three Congregationalists believe that children may be born saved but do not say that all are. “‘[A] child may be born into the Kingdom of God when it is born into the world,'” says Watson, a Presbyterian. Similarly, Thomas, a Congregationalist says: “‘Christ claims the children, as He has redeemed them.'” But, the editor tells us, “Both seem to think of the children of Christian parents.”

Charlotte Mason proposes an educational method founded in part on the idea that children have “possibilities for good and evil.” Her philosophy assumes that there is good, or at least the potential for good, in the children she is educating. Another way to put it would be to say that in order to be educable, children must be able to choose the good. We see this paly out in Charlotte’s philosophy; she uses inherently good materials — living books, fine art, etc. — spreading a feast and allowing the children to choose what they “ingest.” If the children were not able to choose the good, then this method would make no sense. Charlotte believes all children are educable, therefore she must believe all children have this capability.

The question before us then is of which children is this true? As the Expository Times article makes clear there are a number of answers to this question. The main possibilities are: (1) no children can be converted/regenerated and made able to believe and do good before a certain age at which they are able to make a conscious decision to believe; (2) some children are saved either before birth or in “unconscious infancy”; or (3) all children are capable of good and are, as it were, born into the Kingdom of God. Within the second category — “some” children– there are still more possibilities. We must ask with The Expository Times “What child?” Those quoted in the article seem to give two answers: (2a) children born to Christian parents and (2b) children born in Christian nations.*

It is a bit unclear where Charlotte stands. On the surface, her statement seems to place her in  camp 3, all children are born into the Kingdom of God, but I think it is also possible given her time and location that she would be in 2b, children born in Christian nations are born into the Kingdom.

Having looked at where Charlotte stands, we must also ask where we fall in this spectrum. The reformed doctrine of total depravity teaches that all people, since the Fall, are, apart from saving grace, unable to choose or do good. However, grace is not dependent on our ability to choose it but upon God’s election. The psalmist speaks of having faith from his other’s womb and John the Baptists recognizes his Savior even in utero. The Apostle Paul tells us that the children of believers are holy (I Cor. 7:14). Our church baptizes infants on the belief that the covenant of God is for us and our children (Acts 2:39). In other words, children of believers are considered part of the people of God, the visible church. As such, I believe in option (2a) above: some children, namely the children of believing parents, are born into the Kingdom of God.

So what does all of this matter? On one level, it does not. Charlotte bases her system of education on the assumption that the children being educated are able to choose and do good. I believe that my children, as covenant children, have this ability, so, well and good, I can use her method in my homeschool. She is educating children she believes to have the potential for good and so am I.

On another level, however, we are quite a world apart. There is a lot of theology behind any of these positions. No theological tenet stands in isolation from others but all depend upon the other. If we say that all children are born into God’s Kingdom, we are also making statements about the nature of the atonement, the sovereignty of God, and the perseverance of the saints.

 

In the end, I am not very far from where I started. I understand Charlotte’s view better but at the same time I find myself farther from her. The provisional conclusions I had made in that earlier post still stand; while I do not agree with Charlotte’s view of all children, yet I can apply her philosophy to my children. I also feel I have a better sense of the questions I still want to answer. Above all, I feel more greatly the need for a truly reformed philosophy of education.

Nebby

*The writer of the Expository Times synopsis says that “most of Mr. Stephens’ correspondents seem to take the question in a middle way, in the sense of children born in a Christian country. And they mostly answer Yes” (p.482). However, he does not specify which corresponds hold this position. It is hard to believe that anyone today would hold such a position for it is very hard in our day to say what is a Christian country, but both these men and Charlotte herself were living in a different time.

 

 

 

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“Education is a Discipline,” Part 2

Dear Reader,

This is the second part of my post on Charlotte Mason’s statement “education is  . . .  a discipline . . . ” It is part of an ongoing series in which I look at Miss Mason’s principles in light of the Bible. You can find all the posts in this series here under the heading “Are Charlotte’s 20 principles biblical?

In part 1, we looked at what Charlotte means by “education is . . . a discipline . . .” and saw that according to Miss Mason:

  • Discipline is discipleship.
  • The child is not to be left to his nature which has evil aspects.
  • The goal of habit training is to provide a “second nature.”
  • Habit training works by replacing a bad habit with a good one.
  • Though Charlotte lists many specific habits to work on (obedience, attention, etc.), behind them all is what she elsewhere calls “the Way of the Will,” that is, the ability to make oneself do what one ought, not what one will.
  • Habit training is not just for children; when grown they are to continue to “habit train” themselves.
  • Habit training is not done apart from the work of the Holy Spirit but is a part of it.

We then looked at the biblical text and saw that many of these points, while not specifically stated in the Scriptures, are in line with what it teaches.

But there is one big elephant in the room which we have yet to address. That is the whole nature of parental discipline in the Bible. Charlotte says that physical punishment should be rare and reserved for crisis situations. In a perfect world, it need not happen at all. The discipline that parents owe their children she defines as a kind of discipleship which for her boils down to habit training. She points to verses like Proverbs 22:6 — “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted) – to show that we must establish lines, like railroad tracks, along which the child’s character will develop.

If you have read any Christian parenting books, there is another verse which probably pops into your head when you hear the word discipline:

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Prov. 13:24)

This verse, and many others like it, seem to speak of discipline as corporal punishment (with a rod, no less!). We must ask then: What is biblical discipline? How do the Scriptures define it and what do they tell us about how parents should discipline/train their children? Having answered these questions, we can then get back to Charlotte Mason and see if her assertion — that discipline should be primarily training and that physical punishment should be rare — is truly biblical.

Parenting in the New Testament

Before delving into the evidence, I should say a word about how I approach the biblical text. Both the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God. There are some changes that occur between them, the substitution of baptism for circumcision for example. But, where a doctrine or practice is not specifically negated in the New Testament, it is still in effect. I bring this all up because one easy out when it comes to parental discipline is to say, “oh, that spare the rod stuff is all Old Testament; it no longer applies to us Christians.” I reject this position. The Old Testament commands and counsels regarding child rearing are still in effect today.

Having said which, I am going to start by looking at what the New Testament has to say on parenting. Ephesians (and a parallel passage in Colossians) addresses the parent/child relationship:

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:1-4; cf. Col. 3:21; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

From this passage we learn that fathers are not to “provoke [their] children to anger” but are to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” I think it is reasonable to assume that the “instruction” refers to what they are taught. We are told many places in the Bible that fathers are to tell their children about the things God has done (cf. Ex. 13:8; Deut. 4:10; Ps. 78:4; Joel 1:3). Discipline is a trickier term, but, unfortunately, Ephesians does not give us much to go on in terms of what “discipline” looks like other than to say that there is some limit lest children be provoked to anger. 

The Book of Hebrews has more to say:

” And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,

nor be weary when reproved by him.

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.’

It is for discipline that you have to endure.

If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?  For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebr. 12:5-11)

The goal of this passage is to encourage the readers to endure in their sufferings. These sufferings are identified as the discipline of the Lord and are shown to be a sign, not of God’s wrath, but His love. God disciplines His people because He loves them.

If we look at this passage to find out what parental discipline looks like, we are taking it backwards. The writer is assuming that his audience knows about parental discipline and is using that knowledge to say something about God’s discipline. We are doing the reverse, assuming we know what God’s discipline looks like and asking what parental discipline should look like. Because of this, we should be cautious in drawing conclusions, remembering that the point of this passage is not to tell us about parental discipline. Having said which, there are some conclusions we can draw:

  • The motive for discipline is love.
  • An earthly father’s discipline is for “a short time.” I suspect this refers not to length of an individual punishment but to the fact that a father’s authority to discipline only lasts so long.
  • Discipline is not easy for the one being disciplined. It is unclear what sort of hardships the readers are enduring but the writer has to encourage them to endure. Whatever it is, it is “painful rather than pleasant.”
  • The child respects the parent who disciplines him.
  • The earthly parent disciplines “as seems best to him.” The implication is that this is not always going to be perfectly done.
  • The ideal is to discipline for the good of the child. Again, earthly parents may fall short of this.
  • God’s discipline yields “the fruit of righteousness.” I think it is not too much of a stretch to say that the ideal (again) is that parental discipline should do the same, i.e. it should produce righteousness.

The word used for discipline in this passage is used a handful of other times in the New Testament. It is the word used in 2 Corinthians when Paul says we are “punished, and yet not killed” (2 Cor. 6:9). It is also used by Herod and Pilate; they both ask why they cannot just “punish” and release Jesus (Luke 23: 16, 22). In both these contexts, it seems a very physical discipline, likely scourging (i.e. beating with whips), is what is in view. But — and this is important — this is God’s discipline which is being described. The conclusion to draw is that God’s discipline is harsh and physical and that it is compared to parental discipline. This makes it likely that the human father’s discipline is also physical in nature, but it is certainly not license for us to scourge our children.

To sum up what we have seen in the New Testament, parental discipline is compared to God’s discipline of His people. There is an acknowledgement that human fathers will not discipline perfectly, either in motive or application. This is perhaps why they must be told not to provoke their children to anger. The ideal motive is love with a goal of doing good to the child by producing righteousness in him. There is a strong implication that the nature of such discipline is physical (i.e. some form of corporal punishment), but we must keep in mind that the Hebrews passage is not prescriptive with regard to parental discipline; it is assuming we know what parental discipline looks like, not telling us how to do it.

Discipline in the Old Testament

As we turn to the Old Testament, we find no shortage of prescriptive passages. These can be grouped according to the Hebrew words they employ. Hebrew uses a triliteral (three letter) root system. Though there are a few dozen verses which address parental discipline, there are only three main root words which are used. Two are words which we often translates as discipline, chastise, or rebuke as in the infamous Proverbs 13 verse:

“Whoever spares the rod** hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Prov. 13:24)

The third is translated as “train” in that other well-known verse from Proverbs 22, the one upon which Miss Mason seems to base her view of discipline:

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. ” (Prov. 22:6)

The Hebrew Roots ykh and ysr: Rebuke and Discipline

The first two root words are ykh (if you know Hebrew, that last is a hard “h,” the Hebrew letter het,  but I don’t have the proper font for representing it)  and ysr (that’s a samech in the middle, Hebrew scholars).  The former is often translated “rebuke” while the latter is more often “discipline.” In English, these seem to be pretty different words, but as we look at the Hebrew text, we will see that the two often occur together and are used in very similar ways.***

Both are used of God’s rebuke/discipline of His people:

“O Lord, rebuke (ykh) me not in your anger, nor discipline (ysr) me in your wrath.” (Ps. 6:1; cf. Ps. 38:1)

“You shall be a reproach and a taunt, a warning and a horror, to the nations all around you, when I execute judgments on you in anger and fury, and with furious rebukes (ykh)—I am the Lord; I have spoken—” (Ezek. 5:15)

“The Lord has disciplined (ysr) me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” (Ps. 118:18)

“When you discipline (ysr) a man with rebukes (ykh) for sin,
you consume like a moth what is dear to him; surely all mankind is a mere breath!” (Ps. 39:11)

“Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves (ykh); therefore despise not the discipline (ysr) of the Almighty.” (Job 5:17)

God’s “rebuke” (ykh) is harsh– it consist of debilitating pain (Job 33:19), failure in childbirth (2 Kgs. 19:3; Isa. 37:3), or the destruction of a city (Hos. 5:9). But His “discipline” (ysr) is no less harsh. In Leviticus 26:28ff, a list of punishments is given which begins with fathers eating their own children. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

As we saw in the New Testament, God’s rebuke/discipline is compared to that of a father:

“My son, do not despise the Lord‘s discipline (ysr) or be weary of his reproof (ykh),  for the Lord reproves (ykh), him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Prov. 3:11-12)

“I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline (ykh) him with the rod** of men, with the stripes of the sons of men . . .” (2 Sam. 7:14)

“Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines (ysr) his son, the Lord your God disciplines (ysr) you.” (Deut. 8:5; cf. Deut. 11:2)

What specifically does this rebuke/discipline consist of? In I Kings, King Rehoboam says he will discipline (ysr) his people with whips and scorpions. This is figuartive (he is actually taxing them harshly), but it shows, as we saw in the New Testament, a connection to scourging. In Isaiah 53:5, the Suffering Servant, whom we know is a figure of Christ, is chastised (ysr) for our iniquities, a reference to scourging again:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

And of course there is that rod thing again**:

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline (ysr) him.” (Prov. 13:24)

This may not be all there is to discipline, however. It can also be used in parallel with teach:

“He who disciplines (ysr) the nations, does he not rebuke (ykh)?

He who teaches man knowledge— the Lord—knows the thoughts of man,
    that they are but a breath.

Blessed is the man whom you discipline (ysr), O Lord,
    and whom you teach out of your law,” (Ps. 94:10-12)

These two aspects of “discipline” (ysr) seem to occur in roughly equal measure throughout the Old Testament. At times, the root, especially in its nominal form (musar) clearly refers to something that is spoken and heard:

“He opens their ears to instruction (ysr and commands that they return from iniquity.” (Job 36:10)

“Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction.” (Jer. 17:23 cf. Jer. 32:33; 35:13; Ps. 50:17; Prov. 4:1; 13:1; 19:27; Zeph. 3:2)

In Proverbs 19, it is used in parallel to “advice”:

“Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” (Prov. 19:20)

Still, at others, it seems to refer to a physical kind of discipline:

“In vain have I struck your children; they took no correction; your own sword devoured your prophets like a ravening lion.” (Jer. 2:30; cf. Isa. 26:16; 53:5; Jer. 5:3)

In Deuteronomy 11, the “discipline of the Lord” seems to refer to the wonders He has done, specifically His drowning of the Egyptians and the deaths of Dathan and Abiram who were swallowed up by the earth for their sin (Deut. 11:2-7).

And at least once, “discipline” is a lesson which is learned through observation:

“I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,
and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles,
 and its stone wall was broken down.  Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction.” (Prov. 24:30-32)

Proverbs 23 perhaps sums up the dual nature of “discipline”; in two verses, our modern translation interprets ysr once as “instruction” and once as “discipline”:

“Apply your heart to instruction (ysr) and your ear to words of knowledge.
Do not withhold discipline (ysr) from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.” (Prov. 23: 12-13)

In the first occurrence, ysr is translated as “instruction” and clearly refers to something heard; in the second, it is translated “discipline” and just as clearly refers to physical discipline.

Summing up, then, here is what we have seen about the words translated “rebuke” and “discipline” by our Bibles:

  • The two words are frequently used together and in similar ways.
  • God disciplines/rebukes His people for their sins.
  • Human parents discipline/rebuke their children.
  • The motive for discipline is love.
  • The goal of discipline is to turn one from one’s sins.
  • There is a strong connection between discipline and physical punishment.
  • However, discipline is also something which can be spoken and heard, what we might call instruction.

Another root: hnk, “to train up”

Still, that is not quite the end of the story. We have yet to consider that other oft-quoted verse, the one which Charlotte herself seems to prefer:

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. ” (Prov. 22:6)

The word translated “train up” here is a different one, unrelated to those we have already looked at. The Hebrew root this time is hnk (that’s a hard het again). It occurs less than a dozen times in the Old Testament. Other than this verse from Proverbs almost every other occurrence of this root is in reference to the dedication of a building:

“And the chiefs offered offerings for the dedication of the altar on the day it was anointed; and the chiefs offered their offering before the altar.” (Num. 7:10)

“Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it.” (Deut. 20:5)

“Solomon offered as peace offerings to the Lord 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep. So the king and all the people of Israel dedicated the house of the Lord.” [I Kgs. 8:63; cf. 2 Chr. 7:5; Ps. 30:1 (superscription)]

“And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem . . .” (Neh. 12:27)

The only other time this root is used in reference to people is in Genesis:

“When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.” (Gen. 14:14)

In the context, hnk might also be translated as “dedicated.” Abraham takes these men because they are born in his house; that is, they are dedicated to him.

In Proverbs 22:6, then, it would be more accurate to translate: “Dedicate a youth to the way he should go.”**** What difference does it make to translate the verse this way? A dedication is something that happens once, as the dedication of a new building. When, in Nehemiah 12, the rebuilt wall of Jerusalem is dedicated, a purification of the people and the wall itself takes place, and there is a great celebration. When the altar is dedicated (Numbers 7), there are offerings. The altar is put into use, that is, it is given its purpose. It is also consecrated; it is set aside, i.e. made holy to the Lord.

When is a child dedicated? In the Old Testament, for a boy, this would be at his circumcision when he is physically included in the people of God. In the Christian era, for boys and girls, it is at baptism when the child is publicly included in the visible church, God’s covenant community.

We discipline our children because they are dedicated to the Lord, both because we love them and because we desire that they walk in the right path and turn from all sin. But I don’t believe there is much in this verse to guide us in how that discipline occurs.

Conclusions

The picture given of discipline is very similar in the Old and New Testaments. Discipline is something God does to His people and something parents do to their children. In both cases the motive is love and the goal is the sanctification of the individual. The Bible does not lay out for us anywhere just what parental discipline should look like, but in both Testaments there is a clear connection to physical punishment.  While this association is unequivocal, it does not seem to be the entirety of discipline. Oral instruction is also discipline.

For the most part, the Bible assumes parental discipline, but in two key passages there is some instructions given to the parents: In Proverbs 13:24 the parent is told not to “spare the rod,” that is, not to neglect discipline. In Ephesians 6, fathers are told not to provoke their children to anger. These two represent to us the two sides of a see-saw, the two extremes between which we must navigate. On the one hand, we must not think it is more loving to let discipline slide; on the other, we must not be so stringent in discipline that our children become angry. As God’s mercy and justice are balanced in His discipline of His children, so we as parents must seek balance between these extremes.

The original question we asked was how Charlotte Mason’s philosophy jibes with the biblical view of discipline. She, as we saw, does not deny the place of “sparing the rod” but relegates it to subsidiary role, saying that it should be rare. She emphasizes her method of habit-training. To the extent that the physical side of discipline is a response to sin (we do not spank our kids proactively for what they might do), I think Charlotte is right that the more rare it is, the better. If they sin less, which is always the goal, we will need it less. However, Charlotte goes much further than the biblical text does in downplaying that side of discipline. In both the Old and New Testaments, the physical side of discipline is the more prominent; Charlotte would have it less so.

Charlotte bases her signature method, habit-training, on Proverbs 22:6 (“train up a child . . .”). Though she is not at all alone in this, and indeed most English translations lend some support to her view, I think she misunderstands the verse. It would be more accurate to translate the verb as “dedicate” and to see it as a one-time act of devoting our children to the Lord such as occurs at their baptism. Even if this were not so, however, we must remember that there is one verse which speaks of “training” children in this way and dozens and dozens which speak of disciplining or rebuking them.

In the first half of this post, we saw that Charlotte’s ideas about habit-training, while not spelled out as such in the Bible, do seem to be in line with certain biblical principles.  In this post, we have seen that there is a verbal aspect to discipline which we can call instruction. I don’t think it is too much of s stretch to place habit training under this heading. This is not to say that habit-training is all of what the Bible means when it speaks of instruction, but I am willing to say that it is a legitimate means of instruction.

So, Myth Busters style, what can we say about this CM principle? I am calling it plausible with a caveat. It does seem that habit-training is in line with some biblical principles and that it can fit under the heading discipline, subheading instruction. But I am uncomfortable with how much Charlotte downplays that aspect which the Bible seems to most focus on, namely physical discipline.

Nebby

**If you have been in Christian circles for a while as I have, you have probably heard someone argue that the “rod” of Proverbs 13:24 is not a rod to beat with but a rod of guiding, as a shepherd uses his staff to guide the sheep. The Hebrew word for rod is shebet. It is used in Proverbs 13:24 (“spare the rod”). It is used in Psalm 23:4 when the psalmist says “your rod and your staff with comfort me.” But it is also used contexts where it is clearly a harsh sort of rod:

“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. ” (Exod. 21:20)

All in all, looking at the occurrences of “rod” in the Old Testament, I find a few cases in which the rod is an instrument of comfort (Ps. 23:4; Mic. 7:14) but many more in which is it used for beating or as a sign of conquest (Exod. 21:20; 2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:9; Isa. 10:5).

***Hebrew poetry is characterized not by rhyme or rhythm but by parallelism (see this post or this one for an intro to the topic). Though the passages we are looking at are not poems as such, they are for the most part proverbs and make use of the principles of parallelism as well.

What does it mean when two words are used in parallel, as we have seen ysr and ykh are many times? If in English I say “I am going to give you donuts and send you patsries,” then you would probably take that as two things: I am giving donuts but somehow  sending  other pastries. But if this were Hebrew poetry, then we would be talking about one action: I am going to give/send pastries, possibly just donuts, possibly donuts and other pastries. So in the Proverbs 3:11, when it speaks of the Lord’s discipline and his reproof, we have no reason to think these are two separate things. If we spend our time dissecting the terms and trying to figure out what the distinction is between discipline and reproof, we miss the point. Rather than distinguishing the two terms, the proverb is equating them.

****I looked at a number of modern translations on Proverb 22:6. Almost all say “train.” But the NIV actually handles the verb better, in my opinion. It has:

“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

 

 

 

Some Notes on Froebel

Dear Reader,

If you have read through Charlotte Mason’s volumes, you may have noticed she mentions some guy named Froebel occasionally. Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) is known as the founder of the kindergarten movement. For my own purposes, I have done a little reading about him and his ideas. I thought I would share with you the notes I have made on him. This is really only a scratching of the surface, but hopefully it can help you (and me) begin to understand the situation in Charlotte’s day. I have given a very brief bibliography at the end. I began with an internet search and ended up buying (on Kindle) and reading selections form Froebel’s The Education of Man, which seems to be his foundational work, comparable to Charlotte Mason’s Home Education, though much shorter.

Friedrich Froebel

Theology/Religion:

  • “the son of a Lutheran minister and a devout Christian” (from “A Brief History of the Kindergarten”)
  • speak of the Unity (big “U”) which he then identifies with God
  • seems to be a very Unitarian (at least not Trinitarian) view
  • Jesus (as far as I have read) seems to be spoken of as an example, not God incarnate and not a savior; he is “our highest ideal” (Education of Man, #94)
  • there is an eternal law, known through the external and the internal (but no mention of Scripture)
  • “the divine effluence” lives in all things; all is united
  • speaks of unity (God), diversity (nature) and individuality (man), but still all is Unity

The Nature of the child and of man

  • did not believe in original sin; man’s natural state is unmarred:
  • “. . . the nature of man is in itself good . . . Man is by no means naturally bad, nor has he originally bad or evil qualities and tendencies . . .” (Education of Man, #51)

  • this state is rarely seen; it is usually very brief
  • though he doesn’t use the word sin, he sees the bad parts of human nature coming in when the child is somehow interfered with; the bad comes from without, not within the individual
  • ” . . .a suppressed or perverted good quality — a good tendency, only repressed, misunderstood, or misguided — lies originally at the bottom of every shortcoming in man” (Education of Man, #52)

  • ” . . . it generally is some other human being, not unfrequently the educator himself, that first makes the child or the boy bad. This is accomplished by attributing evil — or, at least, wrong — motives to all that the child or boy does from ignorance, precipitation, or even from a keen and praiseworthy sense of right and wrong.” (Education of Man, #52)

  • The cure for badness is to find and cultivate the good that has been repressed and to build it up again. “Thus the shortcoming will at last disappear, although it may involve a hard struggle against habit, but not against original depravity in man.” (Education of Man, #52)
  • once a child is given a bad start, it is hard, if not impossible, to come back from
  • people are inherently creative because they are made in the image of God and God was first (ie in Genesis) a Creator
  • the child goes through a kind of evolution (my word, not his) mirroring what all of humanity has gone through; the individual’s growth mirrors that of the race

Ideas about Education:

  • massive development occurs between birth and age 3
  • though he argues against clear lines between the stages of life, he clearly sees different developmental stages
  • because we can have such a profound effect on children, what we do is vitally important. We can mess up their progress for life because each stage depends upon the next. And once we screw them up, it is very hard to rectify.
  • children learn about life through games: “Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”
  • “Froebel believed that playing with blocks gives fundamental expression to a child’s soul and to the unity of life. Blocks represent the actual building blocks of the universe. The symmetry of the soul is symbolized as a child constructs with blocks, bringing them together to form a whole.” (from “Friedrich Froebel: His Life and Influence on Education”) 
  • The goal of education is a kind of metaphysical unity. “The aim of instruction is to bring the scholar to insight into the unity of all things, into the fact that all things have their being and life in God, so that in due time he may be able to act and live in accordance with this insight.” (Education of Man, #56)
  • The teacher is of paramount importance because he is “an intelligent consciousness” which “hovers over and between the outer world and the scholar, which unites in itself the essence of both, mediating between the two, imparting to them language and mutual understanding.” (Education of Man, #56)

Parts of a Froebel education:

  • Kindergarten (ages 4-6?): creative play, singing and dancing, observing and nurturing plants (this is not from Froebel’s book but from others writing about him)
  • Subjects for ages 6-8/9: he mentions religious instruction as the first subject but this is not Christianity as we define it; he did not use the Bible in his schools
  • nature is to be known for it is a revelation of God (see Education of Man, p. 252 for examples of lesson); heavy on classification; seems to be more about “object lessons”; he later mentions short excursions and walks outdoors
  • other subjects: physical exercise, to learn to control the body; language exercises, beginning with object lessons (see Education of Man, p. 273); mathematics comes out of this; geometry (see below); color which includes painting; grammatical exercises; writing; reading (seems to follow writing, oddly enough)
  • there is an emphasis on what we would call geometry; he likes shapes and forms because of his emphasis on the ideal and on unity; his famous “gifts” (ie wooden blocks and other such toys) were used for this
  • Stories: boys learn about their own lives by studying those of others; this is why they love legends and tales

In the spectrum of belief (as described by CM in Parents and Children, chapter 4):

  • tabula rasa — children are blank slates
  • children are empty vases (Pestalozzi)
  • children are plants  <———— Froebel
  • “children are born persons” (CM)

Later Influence:

  • influenced art and architecture incl. Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller; Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian
  • influenced later educationalists incl. Montessori and Steiner (Waldorf)

What CM had to say about him/his work:

  • Good principles but bad, “wooden” practices: “On the whole, we may say that some of the principles which should govern Kindergarten training are precisely those in which every thoughtful mother endeavours to bring up her family; while the practices of the Kindergarten, being only ways, amongst others, of carrying out these principles, and being apt to become stereotyped and wooden, are unnecessary, but may be adopted so far as they fit in conveniently with the mother’s general scheme for the education of her family.” (Home Education, p. 181)
  • kindergarten (garden) idea tends to negate the individuality of the child: “And yet I enter a caveat. Our first care should be to preserve the individuality, to give play to the personality, of children. Now persons do not grow in a garden, much less in a greenhouse.” (Home Education, p. 186; see also Parents and Children, chapter 4)
  • “Organised Games are not Play” (School Education, chapter 4)
  • ” . . . it is questionable whether the conception of children as cherished plants in a cultured garden has not in it an element of weakness.” (School Education, chapter 6)

Sources:

Friedrich Froebel: His Life and Influence on Education,” by Miriam LeBlanc at Community Playthings

Froebelweb.org

A Brief History of the Kindergarten,” at Froebel Gifts.com

Froebel’s Kindergarten Curriculum Method & Educational Philosophy,” at Froebel Gifts.com

The Education of Man, by Friedrich Froebel.  Translated by W.N. Hailmann. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908.

 

 

Is it Biblical?: “Education is . . . a Life”

Dear Reader,

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.

What Charlotte says

In my last post in this series, I began to look at Charlotte Mason’s fifth principle:

“Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments–the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. The P.N.E.U. Motto is: ‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.'”

That post focused specifically on “Education is an atmosphere . . .” I would like to leap-frog over ” . . .a discipline . . .” for now and focus on ” . . .and a life.” (Do not fear — I will return to “discipline” in my next post.)

This idea, that education is a life, is expanded in the 8th principle:

“In saying that ‘education is a life,’ the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.”

We could even include in this discussion the 9th through 11th principles which further expand upon this notion and specifically reject some of the counter-views of Charlotte’s own day:

“9. We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.

“10. Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher’s axiom is ,’what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.’

“11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas.”

I have to say I am somewhat relieved to cover this particular principle; it seems fairly straightforward compared to some of the other ideas we have discussed. Children need intellectual and moral sustenance, and intellectual sustenance consists of ideas; they are the food of the mind:

“. . . the mind, like the body, digests its proper food, and it must have the labour of digestion or it ceases to function.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

“The life of the mind is sustained upon ideas . . .” (Ibid., p. 25)

This feeding of the mind is a spiritual exercise. Indeed the food itself, the ideas, are a spiritual thing:

“‘Education,’ said Lord Haldane, some time ago, ‘is a matter of the spirit,’––no wiser word has been said on the subject, . . .” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

“. . . .the mind, in fact, requires sustenance––as does the body, in order that it increase and be strong; but because the mind is not to be measured or weighed but is spiritual, so its sustenance must be spiritual too, must, in fact, be ideas (in the Platonic sense of images). I soon perceived that children were well equipped to deal with ideas . . .” (Ibid., p. 10)

Ideas are contrasted with information, that is, facts to be memorized:

“But the children ask for bread and we give them a stone; we give information about objects and events which mind does not attempt to digest but casts out bodily (upon an examination paper?).” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

Notice the comparison between information and a stone; a stone is not a living thing; it is inert and cannot be consumed. But an idea is “[a] live thing of the mind” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 105). It is not, of course, that our children will not learn facts, but that these facts must come in the form of ideas:

“Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 40)

It is as if we were to say, “my child needs potassium to live” and so we give him the mineral potassium to ingest. Modern science (conveniently for the purposes my of analogy) has shown that our bodies to not absorb vitamins and minerals so well in pill form. But if that potassium comes clothed as a banana, the body can take it in and gets a lot more pleasure in doing so.

But we cannot take this analogy too far. Ideas are more than an attractive way to get our children to ingest facts. Ideas themselves are what move us. Ideas have consequences. Charlotte tells us that “[a]ll action comes out of the ideas we hold . . .”(Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 80).

Ideas, these spiritual things of the mind, come from God Himself. Charlotte references Isaiah 28:24-26 (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 106-7) :

Does he who plows for sowing plow continually? Does he continually open and harrow his ground? When he has leveled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cumin, and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and emmer as the border? For he is rightly instructed; his God teaches him.” (All biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.)

Note that the ideas here are not high-falutin, philosophical things. The idea that comes from God in this case is when the farmer should plough and harvest and how he should arrange his crops.

This passage, I think, sums up  most of what we have seen already and adds a new concept as well:

“Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. ”  (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 109)

Note how these spiritual ideas, which originate with God, are transferred — they go from person to person, from mind to mind, through the media of speech, writing, music and art.

The main points, for our purposes seem to be:

  • Children are spiritual beings with minds as well as bodies.
  • As such, they need spiritual food for their minds.
  • Ideas are this mind food. They are contrasted with dry facts which provide no nourishment.
  • Children are well-equipped to deal with, to digest if you will, these ideas.
  • Ideas are spiritual, living things.
  • Ideas have consequences; they inform what we do.
  • Therefore it is important what ideas we convey to our children.
  • Ideas come from God.
  • Ideas are communicated from person to person through speech, the written word, and other media such as music and art.

What the Bible says

As we turn to the biblical evidence, we can’t expect it to use the same language which Charlotte does. But I do think we can look at these points and see if they have any counterpart in the Scriptures. If you have read my earlier posts, you will know that we need not find every principle Charlotte poses expressly delineated in the biblical text; it is not primarily a manual on education. Our goal is only to see if her ideas are “founded on and agreeable to” the Scriptures.

I am going to take the points above mostly in order (with one exception)–

  • Children are spiritual beings with minds as well as bodies.

We have discussed what the Bible has to say about children before (see this post). Suffice it to say that children are viewed as full people. And people, we are told in both the Old and New Testaments, are made up of various parts, of which mind is one (Deut. 6:5; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27).

  • As such, they need spiritual food for their minds.
  • Ideas are this mind food. They are contrasted with dry facts which provide no nourishment.
  • Children are well-equipped to deal with, to digest if you will, these ideas.

Not all these points are addressed directly. But note the passage known as the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 (shema means “hear” in Hebrew):

 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  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.” (Deut. 6:4-7)

In Hebrew thought, the heart was the seat of thought (the liver was actually the seat of emotion). So after referring to this seat of thought (which they call the heart and we call the mind), God says to keep His words on your heart (read: mind) and to teach it diligently to your children. If children can handle the Word of God, the ultimate living book, then surely they can handle other spiritual matter.

  • Ideas have consequences; they inform what we do.

The Bible tells us that it is what is within us that influences our behavior:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Lk 6:45)

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Mt 15:19)

  • Therefore it is important what ideas we convey to our children.

We have already seen in Deuteronomy that parents are instructed to teach their children the things they have learned from God. We find this again in the Psalms:

“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
    incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,

things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
    but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
    and the wonders that he has done.” (Ps 78:1-4)

And a verse I quote a lot in this series, tells us it is important what we put in our minds:

“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.” (Phil. 4:8)

  • Ideas come from God.

Charlotte herself quotes Isaiah 28 to support this claim. Remember that in that passage, the knowledge spoken of had to do with the particulars of how the farmer does his work. Elsewhere we are told that artistic knowledge and skill come from God (Exod. 35:1-5).

Proverbs and James both tell us that knowledge comes from God:

“For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Prov. 2:6)

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. ” (Jam. 1:5)

  • Ideas are communicated from person to person through speech, the written word, and other media such as music and art.

This idea is again not expressed directly in the Scriptures. But, as we have already seen, parents are to communicate ideas to their children. And when it comes to the Word of God, at least, we are told how knowledge is passed from person to person:

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? . . . For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:14-17)

We see this again and again in the book of Acts — that people hear and then believe (Acts 4:4, 13:48, 21:20).

  • Ideas are spiritual, living things.

This is the one point I wanted to save for last. Up until this point, I hope we have established that children, as spiritual beings, are capable of receiving and should be given, the Word of God; that what we put in our minds is important and that it affects what we do; and that all wisdom and knowledge come from God though they may do so through the mediation of other people.

The Bible does not tell us, that I can see, that all ideas are living, spiritual things. But there is one body of knowledge which the Bible calls living — the Word of God itself:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebr. 4:12)

God Himself is living (Deut. 5:26, among many others), and something that is spoken of as living, in the Bible, comes from Him and is living in the sense that it gives spiritual life(cf. John 4:10-11 in which Jesus speaks of the living waters). Here we see that the Word of God too is living.

Conclusions

What then can we say? I don’t think every aspect of what Charlotte means when she says “education is a life” can be fully substantiated by the Scriptures. But I do think she is firmly in the realm of biblical thought. God is Spirit. We, originally created in His image, are spiritual beings. Wisdom and knowledge come from God. The Word of God, the ultimate body of ideas, comes from Him and is said to be spiritual and living. And it is communicated from mind to mind through human speech and through His written word, just as Charlotte describes. I don’t think that we can get quite to where Charlotte is from this; we have not shown that all ideas are spiritual, but I think we get very close.

I’d like to close with a verse Charlotte quotes from the gospel of Matthew. Note that Charlotte is not the first to speak of ideas as a kind of spiritual food:

“But [Jesus] answered, “It is written,‘Man shall not live by breadalone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’””  (Mt 4:4)

Next time: Discipline!

Nebby

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

 

 

 

 

 

CM’s “Gospel” Principles

Dear Reader,

I have been slowly working my way through Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education in an effort to answer the question: Are Charlotte’s ideas founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures? To catch up and get some background, check out these posts:

On the reasoning behind this series: What does it mean to be pure CM?

Is it biblical?: CM’s first principle (plus a digression: Man in the Image of God, or Not?)

Is it biblical?: CM’s 20th Principle

Is it biblical?: CM’s 2nd principle, part 1, part 2, and part 3

CM’s first principle revisited

“The Greatness of the Child as a Person”

Whew! Up to speed yet? Until now, we have been fairly theoretical, discussing the ideas behind Charlotte’s approach to education. Having laid a groundwork by discussing who the child is, his nature, and his relationship to his Creator, I’d like to move on to more practical considerations.

My original plan had been to work my way through Charlotte’s 20 Principles. I am finding, however, that I know would like to take a slightly different tack. I will be skipping over Charlotte’s third principle entirely — not because it is not important but actually because it seems one of the least controversial. This is the one, you may recall, which discusses authority and obedience. These concepts are so central to the Bible, to parenthood, and to our relationship with God, that I hope we will have no dispute in them (though if you have specific questions, please speak up).

As we move on to numbers 4 and 5, we begin to get into the practical details which is where I’d like to spend my time now. In her fourth principle Charlotte lays out what we may not do in education and in the fifth she gives us the tools which are at our disposal. Here she uses that phrase so familiar to CM educators: “an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” As her fifth principle follows the fourth, so these positive ideas arise from negative commands. In other words, when we cross out what we cannot do, we are left with what we can do.

Where does Charlotte get these ideas? The wording is not quite the same but the concept — first eliminating the negative and then seeing what, positively, is left to us, is very similar to what Charlotte calls “the gospel code of education.” Here she finds a series of prohibitions telling us what we may not do in educating and training our children; from the negatives she then derives the corresponding positives. Here is how Charlotte explains it:

“So run the three educational laws of the New Testament, which, when separately examined, appear to me to cover all the help we can give the children and all the harm we can save them from––that is, whatever is included in training up a child in the way he should go. Let us look upon these three great laws as prohibitive, in order to clear the ground for the consideration of a method of education; for if we once settle with ourselves what we may not do, we are greatly helped to see what we may do, and must do. But, as a matter of fact, 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, pp. 12-13)

Charlotte’s Gospel Code

My modus operandi has been to let Charlotte speak for herself, to look at the biblical evidence, and then to try to evaluate her idea in light of the Scriptures with an eye to answering the question: Is Charlotte Mason’s philosophy founded upon and agreeable to the Scriptures? Let us begin then by looking at what Charlotte calls “the code of education in the gospels.”

“It may surprise parents who have not given much attention to the subject to discover also a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ. It is summed up in three commandments, and all three have a negative character, as if the chief thing required of grown-up people is that they should do no sort of injury to the children: Take heed that ye OFFEND not––DESPISE not––HINDER not––one of these little ones.” (Home Education, p. 12)

This code, Charlotte tells us, is not just derived from the gospels but is “expressly laid down by Christ.” I take this to mean that, in her view, Christ here deliberately gives us commandments regarding how we may treat children. The overarching theme is “do not sort of injury, ” a theme which is filled out by the three negative commands: “offend not, despise not, hinder not.” Let us take each of these three in turn, then, and examine both its biblical basis and how Charlotte defines it.

Offend Not

To Offend Not concerns “sins of commission” (p. 13). Here the active sins we may commit against children are in view. “An offence,” Charlotte tells us, ” . . . is literally a stumbling-block, that which trips up the walker and causes him to fall” (p. 13). Charlotte begins in this section by telling us that children are “born law-abiding “and with “a sense . . . of right and wrong” (p. 14), that is, a conscience. [I have dealt extensively with Charlotte’s view of the child’s nature in my posts on her second principle; I will not revisit the topic here.] The parent begins to “offend” the child  when she laughs at his transgressions, thinking them cute, and when she fails to follow through on a “no” she has given. By these she teaches him that he may be bad.

But it is not only in the moral realm that we may offend. As we have seen, Charlotte’s philosophy encompasses all areas of life. On this point too we may speak of the physical and intellectual realms and of the affections as well. In the physical realm, we offend when we give “unwholesome food” or otherwise disregard “the simple laws of health” (p. 16). In the intellectual realm, we offend when we allow a child to dawdle over their lessons. We offend their affections when we play favorites among the children.

In each of these ways then, and in many others, we offend in that we cause sin to spring up in the heart of a child. It may be the sin of being a bad steward of one’s body or mind, of not working diligently, of jealousy of a sibling. Whatever the sin, the parent has had some role in allowing it to begin and to come to fruition.

Charlotte does not cite chapter and verse for her “gospel code.” I take this a stylistic point at best. She clearly is immersed in the Scriptures and uses their language. So, while she does not directly refer us to the Gospel of Matthew, I think we can see in her language that she bases this first prohibition on Matthew 18:6:

“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Emphasis added; All biblical quotes are taken from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.)

Despise Not

Charlotte closely links the first two prohibitions. As offend not warns against sins of commission, despise not cautions us against sins of omission. To despise, Charlotte tells us, is to have to low an opinion of. Parents despise their children when they do not give them the best of themselves; when they do not guard them against bad influences (Charlotte speaks particularly of poor nursemaids); when they do not take their sins seriously enough, that is, when they allow their sins to pass as mere childish behavior and do not address it (pp. 18-19; cf. School Education, p. 49). This is very similar to the offense Charlotte spoke of; the difference seems to be that in one the parent says “no” but undercuts their own command and in the other, the parent fails to even address the sin. To despise, then, is to neglect, not in a criminal way, but to fail to truly attend to the child’s spiritual needs for good influences and correction.

Again we may find the reference Charlotte alludes to in Matthew 18:

“Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 18:10; Emphasis added)

Hinder Not

Children, Charlotte tells us, naturally come to their Savior “when they are not hindered by their elders” (p. 20). Hindering, as she here defines it, is a particularly grievous subset of despising. When we despise the children, we impede their moral training; when we hinder, we, perhaps unknowingly, forbid the children to come to the Lord.

How do we hinder children? We speak to them of God’s judgment and not His love. We show them only “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” (p. 20; cf. School Education, p. 48). In other words, we do not show them God or give them access to the real things of God. The highest function of parents, Charlotte tells us elsewhere is to be “revealers of God to their children” (School Education, p. 50).

In  introducing this issue, Charlotte uses the words “suffer” and “forbid.” These show us that the passage she has in mind is Matthew 19:13-14:

“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Emphasis added)

These, then, are the three points that Charlotte calls “the gospel code of education” — we must not cause children to sin, we must not overlook their sin or allow them to fall into sin through our neglect, and we must not prevent them from coming to God. In this last especially we begin to see the positive injunctions that Charlotte promised us as well — we must show them God.

The Biblical Evidence: Matthew 18-19

Charlotte has made my task easy this time. Though she does not give us references, her language clearly shows us that she is basing her ideas upon Matthew 18-19. I have already spent some time on these chapters in my post on The Greatness of the Child as a Person. In that post, looking once again at Charlotte’s view of the child’s nature, I did not agree with her interpretation of these chapters. Today, however, though we cannot entirely distance ourselves from the question of the child’s inherent nature, our focus is slightly different. The question is not who the child is but what we should, or should not, do to him.

Charlotte has isolated three phrases from the biblical text and given us an interpretation of each. The question before us then is whether in each of these she rightly represents the biblical text. Now interpretation is, well, a matter of interpretation. But I think we can at least ask if the interpretations Charlotte gives us are reasonable, if they seem to make sense in the context of the passage and to be in line with the rest of the Word of God.

In Matthew 18:6 Christ tells us that it is better to be drowned in the sea than to “offend one of these little ones.” In the preceding verses, a child has been placed before Jesus. In the verses that follow, Jesus speaks of cutting off one’s hand if it “offends” one. It seems quite clear, and indeed it is the common interpretation, that to “offend” is to “to cause to sin.”

To despise, as we said above, comes from verse 10 of Matthew 18. It is not clear from the biblical context what this means which is perhaps why Charlotte resorts to her dictionary. It is a unclear how much we should make of the immediate context. These chapters have the feel of a series of utterances that may not have originally been spoken together but which have been grouped together because of some common words and themes. Nonetheless there seems to be a link with what follows as verse 11 begins with a “For . . .” — “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” What follows is a brief parable about a man who has 100 sheep and loses one yet leaves the 99 to go look for the lost one. And then in verse 14, we read:

“Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”

The connecting words (“for” and “even so”) seem to make these verses a unit as does the return to the idea of “little ones” in verse 14. Does this help us understand what it means to “despise”? The shepherd, it would seem, “despised not” his sheep when he noted its absence and went in search of it.  To despise may then be the opposite of to notice and to care for. The shepherd does not want his sheep to be lost; the Father does not want a little one to perish. If the shepherd had despised his sheep, he would have allowed it to stay lost. If we despise “one of these little ones,” does that mean we allow them to perish — spiritually perhaps, if not physically? I think these are reasonable conclusions from the immediate context; I don’t feel rock-solid in them. Though Charlotte does not draw out these connections, her idea of “despise” seems very similar and I would have to  say it seems in line with the little context we have.

The following chapter, Matthew 19, is seen by most scholars to begin a new section. Still the subject of “little ones” appear again here. In the midst of verses about divorce, eunuchs and eternal life, we find this short section of three verses:

“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.” (Matt. 19:13-15)

On the most literal level, Jesus here tells his disciples to allow children to physically approach him. It is common, and not to great a stretch I think, to extend this to a more spiritual application — children are able and encouraged to approach their Savior. We are not to forbid them from doing so. Charlotte adds that we are not to hinder and again I think this is a reasonable addition.

Conclusions

I have only thus far touched on the negative commands which Charlotte calls the “gospel code” — offend not, hinder not, despise not. Though I am not convinced that these are laid out for us as the rule of education, they clearly have a firm biblical basis and in each case Charlotte’s interpretation seems to fit well with the biblical context.

Next time I would like to look at the positive principles which she derives from these negative commands.

Until then

Nebby

“The Greatness of the Child as a Person”

Dear Reader,

This is a follow-up to an earlier post on a Charlotte Mason article originally published in 1911 — “Children are Born Persons.” Charlotte Mason Poetry recently republished this article online (here). As I have been looking at Charlotte Mason’s principles in the light of Scripture, I thought I should address the ideas in this article as they touch on both her first principle (for which the article is named) plus many others.

Where we are and how we got there

I began this series by looking at what it means to be a Charlotte Mason purist and why we should care. The big take-away from that post was that because Charlotte claims that her philosophy is based in divine law, we should, if we accept this basis, adhere as closely as possible to her philosophy as being so founded. But that is a big “if” so I turned my attention to seeing if Charlotte’s philosophy is indeed in line with divine law as far as we can know it. This divine law is known to us from both special revelation, i.e. the Scriptures, and from general revelation, that which we can discern from God’s creation through science and observation. I am not equipped to evaluate all the science behind her philosophy but I do think we can hold her principles up to Scripture and ask if they are “agreeable to and founded upon the Scriptures.” Thus far, I have looked at her first principle (and a side post on the image of God), her 20th principle and her second principle in three parts (see: part 1, part 2 and part 3).

My most recent post in this series is a return to the first principle based on the article I mentioned above. In that post, following Art Middlekauff who has written on the article for Charlotte Mason Poetry, I delineated four points that Charlotte makes relating to the proposition that “children are born persons“:

  1. “the greatness of the child as a person”
  2. “the liberty that is due to him as a person”
  3. “some forms of oppression which interfere with his proper liberty”
  4. “the aliment which he is to live by – Admiration, Hope and Love”

I looked briefly at numbers 2 through 4 but left most of the discussion of the first point — “the greatness of the child as a person” — for another time as it is a large topic that I want to be able to delve into.

What Charlotte Mason Means

As has been my habit, I would like to begin by looking at how Charlotte explains her own idea; what does she mean when she speaks of “the greatness of the child as a person”? This concept is addressed in various points throughout her six-volume Home Education series but I find its explanation in the 1911 article to be her most concise and deliberate treatment so I will focus on what she has to say in that article.

Charlotte begins her discussion by quoting the poet Wordsworth who, she says, expresses “the immensity of a person, and the greater immensity of the little child” (Charlotte Mason, “Children are Born Persons,” as published at CharlotteMasonPoetry.org, paragraph 4). She then goes on to make the enigmatic statement that:

”  . . . not any of [the child’s] vast estate is as yet mortgaged, but all of it is there for his advantage and his profit, with no inimical Chancellor of the Exchequer to levy taxes and require returns! But perhaps this latter statement is not so certain; perhaps the land-tax on the Child’s Estate is really inevitable, and it rests with us parents and elders to investigate the property and furnish the returns.” (paragraph 4)

There are two questions immediately before us:

  • What does Charlotte mean by “the greater immensity of the child”? To what extent and how is a child greater than an adult? Is he truly more of a person as she seems to imply here?
  • What is Charlotte saying about the sin nature of children? In the longer quote about the child’s estate, she calls to mind her second principle on the goodness and evilness of children (which I have already discussed in not one but three posts, see links above). Her language is figurative and I do not want to make too much of it from this quote alone, but as we look through the rest of the article, I think we will see that we cannot separate this idea of the greatness of the child from the question of man’s original sin (I do recommend reading at least this post in which I discuss the various Christian views of man’s nature/original sin to get a sense of the variety of positions available within mainstream Christianity).

As we look first at what Charlotte calls the greatness of the child, we must be clear what she does not mean. She does not fail to recognize the child’s limitations. While making clear that the child is indeed a person, Charlotte acknowledges that he is a “weak and ignorant [person], whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own” (paragraph 6). And again: Children are “differentiated from men and women by their weaknesses, which we must cherish and support; by their immeasurable ignorances, which we must instruct” (paragraph 9).

But if they are weak and ignorant, children also have areas in which they show superiority to adults. Charlotte lists the following (paragraph 7):

  • The child “sees with a closeness of observation that we have long ago lost”
  • “he enjoys and that he sorrows with an intensity we have long ceased to”
  • “he loves with an abandon and a confidence which, alas, we do not share”
  • “he imagines with a fecundity no artist among us can approach”
  • “he acquires intellectual knowledge and mechanical skill at a rate so amazing that, could the infant’s rate of progress be kept up to manhood, he would surely appropriate the whole field of knowledge in a single life-time”

Charlotte goes on to give some examples, but I think all of us who are parents or have experience with young children can think of many of our own. We know that children seem to be made for learning languages, that they memorize quickly and well with a skill that their elders seem to have lost, that they can be quite imaginative, that they feel things profoundly (often to the consternation of their elders who find their concerns quite small). These points are more in the realm of science or observation, placing them under the heading of general revelation, and while we might quibble over some specifics, I don’t think there need be much debate or that we need take much time on them. My only observation would be that God seems to give children some of these skills  — language acquisition stands out — when they need them. Charlotte raises the question of what would happen if “the infant’s rate of progress [could] be kept up to manhood” but this is at best a hypothetical question; for whatever reason, God has given us these skills when we need them most but then chosen to diminish them as we age.

But there is something more here that Charlotte hints at which brings us back to our second question about the nature of the child. After speaking of children’s weaknesses and ignorances, Charlotte goes on to say:

” . . . by that beautiful indefinite thing which we call the innocence of children and suppose in a vague way to be freedom from the evil ways of grown-up people? But children are greedy, passionate, cruel, deceitful, in many ways more open to blame than their elders; and, for all that, they are innocent. To cherish in them that quality which we call innocence, and Christ describes as the humility of little children, is perhaps the most difficult and important task set before us. If we would keep a child innocent, we must deliver him from the oppression of various forms of tyranny.” (paragraph 9)

She further defines what she means by the child’s innocence when she speaks of:

“that liberty which we call innocence, and which we find described in the gospels as humility. When we come to think of it, we do not see how a little child is humble; he is neither proud nor humble, we say; he does not think of himself at all: we have hit unconsciously upon the solution of the problem. Humility, that childish quality which is so infinitely attractive, consists just in not thinking of oneself at all.” (paragraph 14)

Thus, just as the child has abilities beyond that of the adult in the intellectual and emotional aspects of his person, so, Charlotte says, there is a way in which he is spiritually superior. Specifically, he has a quality which she calls innocence or humility, which is contrasted with pride, and which she defines as “just . . . not thinking of oneself at all.”

Charlotte does not proof-text her ideas as we might but biblical language and thinking often permeates her writing. On this point more than some others, it is clear that she is thinking of Matthew 18. In considering what she has to say, I’d like to begin by looking at this chapter and examining how Charlotte uses it and finally looking briefly at the “scientific” evidence, i.e. what our own observations may tell us.

The Biblical Evidence

Matthew 18 begins a section of short discourses by Christ. It begins thus:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'” (Matt. 18:1-4; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

In Matthew 18:1-4, the problem at hand is a dispute among the disciples as to which of them is the greatest. Jesus calls to Himself a child and uses him as a kind of object lesson to the disciples. This, He says, is what you should be like. The word Jesus uses is “humble” — whoever humbles himself like a child — and the implication is that this is just exactly the opposite of what the disciples are doing; they are exalting themselves by all trying to be the greatest. We can find a similar idea in Luke 14 in which Jesus advises that when invited to a feast one should “go and sit in the lowest place” (v. 10) for “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 11). In this context, then, to humble oneself means to not aspire to an exalted position but to intentionally opt for a lowered one.

There is some ambiguity here in terms of what it means for the child to be humble. We can read “Whoever humbles himself like this child” either as “whoever humbles himself as this child humbles himself” or as “whoever humbles himself as this child is humbled.” In the former case, the disciples are called to do what the child does and the child has a positive virtue — he humbles himself. In the latter case, the child does not have the positive virtue of humility; it is not that he humbles himself in the sense of choosing a lower position, or at least not aspiring to a greater one, so much as that he is inherently humble because his position in society is low.

But, Christ goes on to tell us, there is protection for such a one:

” ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’” (Matt. 18:5-6)

Presumably with the child still before Him, Jesus warns that to cause such a one to sin is itself a great sin worthy of the harshest punishment. The child is called a “little one” which may be a reference to his position as much as to his size and age. [In this post I discussed the terms used for children in the Old Testament and showed that in Hebrew at least the “little ones” are likely toddlers, though their age is not strictly defined, and that they are capable of both sin and faith and are numbered among the people of God.]

As a side note — I find it interesting that He says “these little ones who believe in me.” It is not all small children who are in view but those who believe in Christ, who are counted among the people of God.

If your Bible is laid out like mine, Matthew 18:7 is a new paragraph with a new subject heading. These headings and parapgraph divisions would not have been in the Greek original; they are added by our editors. In verses 7-9 Christ rails against sin more generally saying that if your hand causes you to sin, you should cut it off. But in verse 10 He returns to “these little ones” saying that we must not “despise” them for God desires that not one should perish (v. 14). Chapter 18 then finishes with what to do if your brother sins against you including the parable of the unforgiving servant (vv. 15-34). 

[Scholars generally see Matthew 19 as the beginning of a new section as it begins with the words “Now when Jesus had finished these sayings . . . ” (Matt. 19:1).  In Matthew 19:13-15 children appear again, but while Charlotte clearly references this passage in other places, I could not find a clear reference to it in this article.]

 

The two questions we have to answer with regard to Charlotte’s interpretation of these chapters are:
  • What does it mean that the child of Matthew 18:1-4 is humble?
  • How do the other sections of Matthew 18, particularly verses 10-14, relate to this idea of the child’s humility?
My first instinct in reading Charlotte’s thoughts was to think that she goes too far when she uses the word “innocence.” This seems a very broad term and we might think it means the child is sinless, but Charlotte makes clear that this is not the case when she calls children “greedy, passionate, cruel, deceitful” (paragraph 9). Rather, she says: “Humility, that childish quality which is so infinitely attractive, consists just in not thinking of oneself at all” (paragraph 14). The opposite of humility if self-consciousness; humility ends when “a child becomes aware of himself.” The opposing sin is pride. (In this Charlotte is in line with other Christian interpreters, including Matthew Henry and Spurgeon.)
In the context of her article, it seems that Charlotte’s point is that, just as children are in some ways intellectually and emotionally better, so in this area they are inherently superior in the spiritual/moral realm (I don’t believe she distinguishes the two). In particular they possess a natural humility and are free of the corresponding sin of self-consciousness or pride.
Though most people will exhibit this particular sin, Charlotte does believe it is possible for some to avoid it:

“The principle is, I think, that an individual fall of man takes place when a child becomes aware of himself, listens as if he were not heeding to his mother’s tales of his smartness or goodness, and watches for the next chance when he may display himself. The children hardly deserve to be blamed at all. The man who lights on a nugget has nothing like so exciting a surprise as has the child who becomes aware of himself. The moment when he says to himself, “It is I”, is a great one for him, and he exhibits his discovery whenever he gets a chance, that is, he repeats the little performance which has excited his mother’s admiration, and invents new ways of shewing off.” (paragraph 14)

Charlotte in this section is dealing with the child’s vanity or sense of self from which she would spare him. She presents a nice picture of how this self-consciousness comes about.  There is no big, deliberate sin involved. The picture she gives is of something quite unconscious but which nonetheless results in a person who is different than he was before — he has learned pride.

Notice how Charlotte characterizes this change: “an individual fall of man.” Though we are all fallen in Adam, she is here saying that there is some sense in which each of us falls. This language initially rubbed me the wrong way because it could, taken out of context, be seen to advocate the view that people are not really born sinful, that we are not all inheritors of Adam’s original sin, but that we each experience our own fall, or perhaps even that we might be capable of avoiding such a fall and remaining sinless. I do not think that this is what Charlotte had in mind, however. It is not a view she advocates elsewhere nor would it have been the view of her church (the Church of England; again my second post here discusses views of original sin, including that of the COE in Charlotte’s day). I think, rather, that she equates this particular sin with the Fall  because it is the sin of pride. Pride, it is commonly believed, was the first sin, and it is the sin of Satan himself (Isaiah 14:12-15). Pride, as Charlotte defines it, is an awareness of self; so we see that as soon as they sinned  Adam and Eve became self-conscious (Gen. 3:7). When an individual learns pride, he re-enacts the original fall not because he was not previously sinful but because of the nature of the sin itself.

I mentioned above that there is some ambiguity in the biblical text as to what it means that to humble like a child. Charlotte takes this humility of the child as a positive virtue. It is not merely that the child is on the lowest rung of society; he has a positive quality which the disciples are lacking. This is not my own interpretation, but I cannot say that Charlotte’s interpretation is ruled out by the text. What she says could be true; I do not happen to believe it is true.

But Charlotte’s interpretation does not stop with verse 4. She alludes to Matthew 18:10 when she talks of “despising” the children (paragraph 6) and to verse 14 when she  uses the word “perish”:

“We can only see the seriousness of this failing from two points of view – that of Him who has said, “it is not the will of the Father that one of these little ones should perish”; and that, I take It, means that it is not the divine will that children should lose their distinctive quality, innocence, or humility, or what we sometimes call simplicity of character. We know there are people who do not lose it, who remain simple and direct in thought, and young in heart, throughout life.” (paragraph 14)

Charlotte here ties verses 10-14 closely to verses 1-4. She takes “little ones” to refer to children and she equates their “perishing” with the loss of their humility. With regard to the former, I am not fully convinced that “little ones” need refer only to children. I think it could refer to any that would be considered lowly in that society, but I will admit that to take “little ones” as children is the simplest explanation within the context of both this chapter and the Bible as a whole. It is also supported by verses 5 and 6 which use “child” and “little one” in parallel.

To take “perish” to mean “lose one’s humility” is a much bigger interpretative jump. In the immediate context of verses 10-14, the “little ones” are compared to sheep who get lost and are in danger of real, physical death. Verses 5 and 6 speak of causing one of the little ones to sin, as it is in the ESV, or, in the Greek: “to stumble.” Verses 7-9, though they do not refer to children, also use the word “stumble” and make it clear that to stumble is to sin.

In the light of verses 5-9, I am comfortable saying that when Christ speaks of little ones perishing in verse 14 that He is not referring to physical death but to the spiritual death that comes through sin. I am not comfortable linking this, as Charlotte does, specifically to pride or the loss of humility. This is due in part to our differing interpretations of what it means for the child to be humble. I do not see it as a particular virtue of the child so its loss does not become the key to my interpretation of what follows as it seems to for Charlotte. If we were to start where Charlotte does, and see the humility of the child as a virtuous condition and as the lack of a particular sin, and particularly if we accept the depiction of this sin, when it comes, as a sort of individual fall of man, then to tie the warnings of verses 5-6 and 10-14 particularly to leading the child into this sin, that of pride or self-consciousness, makes some sense.

If the question before us is “Is Charlotte’s view of the greatness of the child, as explained in this article, biblical?” then I would have to say that her interpretation of Matthew 18 is plausible. I personally don’t agree with it, but I think the text allows it.

The Evidence of General Revelation

I had said that I would not tackle general revelation, that which we know through our observation and experimentation rather than through Scripture, in this series. I am going to break that rule and at least introduce the idea here.

I have said that Charlotte and I diverge on this issue because we start out differently. A different interpretation of what it means to be humble like the child leads to different interpretations of what follows as well. But why do we start out differently? I suspect it is because our views of the child himself are different. In my many posts on Charlotte’s second principle, I showed that her church, the Church of England, takes what we might call a higher view of human nature than I as a reformed Christian would. That is, it allows for more ability or potential on the part of the individual to participate in his own salvation. That we come to these differing conclusions on Matthew 18 starts, I think, at a much deeper level. It arises from how we evaluate both our own hearts and those around us, particularly those of the children who are the most untouched members of society, the closest to their natural state.

So here are my questions for you — Are children inherently humble? Do they think of themselves? Or are they un-self-conscious? Self-focused? Self-promoting? These can be tricky questions to answer. The very smallest children, infants, are hardly aware that there are people other than themselves; the baby sees his mother as an extension of himself. My own observations lead me to say that the smallest children are quite self-focused. They do not think of the needs of others, but what this means in their case is hard to say. As they grow just a bit, they become aware of differences. I tend to agree with Charlotte that a girl will not be proud of her curls unless some adult has communicated to her that this is a point of pride. But the desire to be better in some way seems to be there almost from the start. A boy will run a race, with real or imaginary opponents, and insist that he is the fastest whether the facts support this claim or not. Charlotte sees self-consciousness, that embarrassment about one’s perceived faults, as a sign of the pride she speaks of. Again I agree that this sort of poor self-perception also stems from pride and I would also agree that it does not seem to be innate to the child but to be learned. But the opposite — to be proud of one’s appearance or abilities seems to spring quite naturally from the child’s (sinful) heart. I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts on this; do you think children innately think of themselves or is this a learned behavior?

 

Conclusions

What then does Charlotte mean when she speaks of the “greatness of the child as a person”? She sees a variety of qualities in the child which are superior to those of the adult. While we might dispute over one or two, on the whole I think we can see that there are things, like learning languages, that children are simply better at than adults. But Charlotte does not stop here. As her second principle applies to all aspects of the person, so she applies this idea of the greatness of the child to the moral realm as well as the emotional and intellectual. In particular, she lauds a quality of the child which she calls his innocence or humility. She firmly founds this idea on Matthew 18, particularly verses 1-6 and 10-14. Charlotte draws two conclusions from these passages:

  • That children have a positive virtue that the Bible calls humility and that she terms innocence.
  • That this is a quality which can and should be preserved and that those who cause a child to lose it bear a great fault for doing so.

While I do not agree with Charlotte’s interpretation of Matthew 18, I do not think it contradicts the text. I would say that the text allows for but does not necessitate this interpretation. Our interpretations differ because we have a fundamentally different evaluation of the child’s nature. This is based on a deeper division over the meaning of original sin and the effects of the Fall (which I will not revisit here) and a different perception of the small child and whether he does indeed think of himself.

My plan for the next post in this series to return to Charlotte’s Twenty Principles by looking at principle 4 and at what Charlotte calls the gospel principles of education.

Nebby

 

 
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