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The ‘Whole’ Child by Carroll Smith

I recently spent a week in Oxford at Harris Manchester College, which is one of the 39 colleges of Oxford University, UK.  The topic for this particular week of the Oxford Roundtable was children in poverty.  Dr. Petrie from the University of London gave an interesting discussion on Social Pedagogy and how the Ministry of Education in the UK is trying to look at teaching and learning currently through this lens.  What Social Pedagogy brings one to is the idea of the ‘whole’ child or ‘whole’ person.  It was an interesting and thoughtful lecture.  In the US one hears a lot about the ‘whole’ child.  For example, ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) over the last several years has created a website within its regular website expressly to provide interested parents, teachers and administrators access to the latest information on the topic of the ‘whole’ child.
Listening to Dr. Petrie discuss her views on Social Pedagogy and referring several times to the ‘whole’ child, I pondered why Mason never used the term ‘whole’ child.  She simply said the child is a born person.  One doesn’t need to look long into the context of Mason and what has happened to education since then to get a few thoughts on this topic.
Dr. Petrie said to me after her lecture that during Mason’s time the child had not been ‘atomised.’  That is, with the advent of behaviourism, cognitivism and probably other views of the child, children were increasingly studied as parts.  Various types of matterialism provide a view of children that allows researchers to study various aspects of children:  their behaviour, their stages, various labels for various difficulties in learning (Learning disabled, Emotionally disabled), their physical needs, their academic needs.  In viewing these various aspects of the child, various organisations including schools, begin working to meet a particular need.  When this begins to happen a view of the ‘whole’ child is lost and we only see the ‘piece’ we are working on.  There are several things to say about this.
Firstly, this does not imply that labels are bad things.  Secondly, it does imply that the misuse of labels is a bad thing.  For example, we would want any child in our family or school who is diabetic to be labeled so.  This informs us of what needs to be done for this child if there are issues he or she is having related to diabetes.  But, our view of this child is not completely shaped by his or her diabetic condition.  The child is still ‘whole’ and needs more than just his or her diabetic needs met.  The point is that sometimes in our best efforts to do what is best for children, over the last century, we have tried to meet their learning needs, their social needs, their physical needs, by becoming focused on one aspect of these that we lose sight of the ‘whole’ child.  A frequently used example of this phenomenon is the overused term ‘self-esteem.’  Matterialism brought about a destruction of the child as a person, which later produced children who believed no one really cared about them.  (This is a very general statement about which many books have been written.) To correct this problem, teachers then begin to focus on self-esteem issues in schools.  When a focus on self-esteem gets out of balance, building self-esteem becomes more important than academics.  It doesn’t take us long to realise that both are necessary and only when the child is ‘atomised’ do these get out of balance.   Another example is the current craze for academic success for all children as viewed through the lens of No Child Left Behind.  Again, meeting the academic needs of children is vital and must be done, but to do it without a view for the whole child causes us to lose sight of all the needs of a child and only focus on academic needs.  This is characterised now by viewing academic needs through the lens of state tests.  To make sure that all children’s test scores are improving (this is another whole issue in terms of viewing academic success by test scores only), teachers in public schools and some private schools are compelled by administrators to teach to the test only.  Other needs of children such as their need for socialisation, creativity, imagination, nature, stories of history, art, music are all forgotten to raise a very narrow set of “academics” to prove that children are having success in school.  In trying to meet all these various needs of the child without remembering the ‘whole’ child is what is meant by the term the ‘atomised’ child.
This would not have been in Mason’s framework.  She had not atomised the child and therefore would have had no need to refer to the ‘whole’ child.  It doesn’t take much reading of her works to discover that her model of education from curriculum, instruction, assessment, right through to professional growth and community involvement–sees the child as a whole person living in his or her community as a viable member of that total community.  In that ‘total’ community would have been the personal and professional needs of parents, teachers, leaders, the needs of the child for social life, church life – but even to think of things this way—to get our minds around them, we begin to atomise.
As hard as it is for us, we must stop atomising the child.  They are a ‘person,’ that is, whole and complete as they are.  They have needs such as physical (health needs), academic (history, science), emotional (living in community, social) and we must see to these needs.  However, we need to remember that they are whole persons and as parents, teachers, administrators we must keep a view of the whole person not just one or two aspects or our view of children can become less than what they truly are.

This entry was posted in: Philosophy


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.

1 Comment

  1. melaniebwalker says

    I found this to be a very helpful blog, Carroll. I love how Charlotte Mason refers to persons as mysteries – we are more than the sum of our parts. When we view our students this way, it promotes a tentative, humble posture, one that is not quite so quick to diagnose and confine them to a label.

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