Comments 4

If You Want to Build a Ship by Laurie Bestvater

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The 2009 ChildlightUSA conference will take the theme of Beauty in a Charlotte Mason Education and I have been thinking about what that means. In what has become almost a cliché, it often seems to an onlooker that a Charlotte Mason education is about Victorian lace, fine china, Stravinsky waltzes and coloured pencils.  As Van Pelt and Rusby Bell so aptly pointed out at last year’s conference, as one goes deeper into Mason, one begins to have with her the “Great Recognition” that what we really want to do in education is to trace the workings of the Holy Spirit in all the fullness and glory that that implies.

…that God the Holy Spirit is Himself, personally, the Imparter of
knowledge, the Instructor of youth, the Inspirer of genius…every
fruitful idea, every original conception, whether in Euclid, or
grammar, or music was a direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit,
without any thought at all as to whether the person so inspired
named himself by the name of God or recognized whence his
inspiration came
(Mason,vol.2. pp 270-71) (Citation 1)

It is as this Great Recognition dawns on us, as we realize that what we are truly after for our children and for ourselves is not just adding some picture study or knowing our composers, but this wonderful sense of being excited each and every day to wake up and see what the Creator and Redeemer of our Souls is going to do, what He has wrought that we haven’t yet discovered, and how He weaves beauty and relationship within the Trinity that He longs to share with us, that we understand, really understand,  that there are no subjects off limits to Christians, no boundaries to the exploration we are invited into, no sanctioned music or saccharine novels that keep us holy just because they are sold by Christian book companies. Rather, (and terror accompanies beauty oftentimes) “anything afoot in the world, in a way that shall expose sin as a God-damning waste and shall show obedient life as a joy forever,”  (Seerveld. p.39) (Citation 2) is our subject. We approach not in a puritanical, ”aha! now I‘ve found the Christian moral,” sort of way, but with a complete awe for “common grace,” seeing that God is indeed sovereign, restoring and working out His purposes in much deeper and richer ways than we can imagine. We need to hone our beauty sense; Calvin Seerveld from the Toronto based, Institute for Christian Studies, calls it,”aesthetic life.”

I think it was Mason who remarked on that mysterious phenomenon we often experience  of realizing or learning a thing, and then seeing it everywhere we turn, as if it were in the air somehow—that’s what all this thinking about the “Great Recognition” and Beauty has been like for me. The call seems to be coming from everywhere… in our recent read aloud, for example, playwright John Masefield was quoted; “the truth and rapture of man are holy things, not lightly to be scorned. A carelessness of life and beauty marks the glutton, the idler, and the fool in their deadly path across history.” (Citation 3)  In his new book, Culture Making, Andy Crouch tells me,

What was missing, (from the Christian’s stance on our culture)

I’ve come to believe, were the two postures that are most

characteristically biblical—the two postures that have

been least explored by Christians in the last century.

They are found at the very beginning of the human

story, according to Genesis:  like our first parents,

we are to be creators and cultivators. Or to put it more

poetically, we are artists and gardeners. (Citation 4)

Culture shapers like Cardus (Citation 5),  The Clapham Institute (Citation 6),  T.E.D (Citation 7),  industry, the young people returning in droves to the orthodox churches to try and recover the beauty and history of their faith, ChildlightUSA,…. in one way or another, all are urging us to take Mason to the streets–the time is so ripe for this kind of education!  If I may be allowed to generalize what they are saying, it would be something like this:  because we have all but lost the notion of Beauty as being absolutely essential to life, lost our aesthetic sense, and we are caught in the default reductionism and materialism, the Church is in danger of using the creation (and here, with Seerveld, I include culture)… simply to “get people saved.” Oh, my heart cries, the Good News is so much more than that!  We want to restore children to their awe and wonder, to give them back childhood heroes and the wealth of a nourished imagination. They need a deep cultural heritage with which to approach the challenges of the future and wills and reasons that are “buff” and strong with use to become the full persons the Lord intended them to be.  How as Christian educators may we offer less?

Last night I had the opportunity to hear Jean Baptiste Mugarura, a Rwandan native and national director for Youth for Christ in Rwanda, speak about the terrible time of genocide in his country in 1994.  In a country the size of Vermont, with a population of 7 million, one million (1/7th!) were slaughtered by machetes in the hands of the organized youth of that country within a three month period.  It seemed to crush my lungs inside my chest to hear this God follower explain that they, the youth ministers, were all the while crying to their churches as the youth were being recruited…we’ve got to do something, give the youth a picture of the beauty of Christ or Satan will give them something worse to fill the vacuum…and the church went on with “business as usual.” I spent a restless night thinking about this.  Here too was the message appearing again, only graver, what about the absence of Beauty?  We are not free, it seems, to keep this Great Recognition to ourselves, are we?   To be honest, my concern is that we may fall into “business as usual,”  enjoy the nature walks, and feel comfortable in our Christian classrooms or in homes nobly hung with the prints of masters and miss the clarion call of the Lord embedded in Charlotte Mason’s ideas.  As Seerveld points out,

The devil will easily let us Christians have a few nostalgic

meadows: he is scrounging for the hearts of men and

women in North America, including the youth of the

church, especially in the city life of technology

where the centers of human cultural power and mass

communication media are. Where the cultural action is,

its most current marketplace, that is the very place

where the Holy Spirit must be called into forceful play.

That is where young Christian artists must be encouraged

in the name of the Lord to pour their talents, bending steel,

composing melodies that fill the airwaves, filming the

complexities of our tensed, hidden lives, using the grit of

sand and glass and pigment in compositions to expose the
meaningless waste of sin around us and to show the life of

exciting joy present in our modern world when the law of

the Lord is obeyed. (Seerveld, p.36) [Citation 8]

Jeannette Tulis, in her blog “How A Charlotte Mason Education Can Grow an Artist,” reminds us well that allowing CM’s work full reign in our children’s lives creates these young Christian artists who are so sorely needed as leaders for the next generation (a cause for joy and a project of the last 20 years for me as well) but lately I have been asking myself, is this enough?  Is there not more we can do?   Mason was about giving this kind of rich, imaginative, whole education to every child: poor children and affluent, coal miner’s children and children with governesses, Christian and non-Christian alike.  As I have been working with ChildlightUSA this year and observed Nicolle Hutchinson’s adventure in the world of charter schools (Citation 9),   I have had to really wrestle with this idea: can we take this education to the public square where we may not name the name of Christ? It seems to me that Mason’s work is the best representation of a truly Christian education I have ever found, essentially Christian even. How could it be fit into a public setting? Wouldn’t something terribly precious be lost? Would it be selling out somehow? Ironically, it was my senior student, himself educated in the way Mason described and who sees beauty in constitutional law, who helped me to put this question in a useful context. “Mom”, he said as I told him my quandary, “It is a point of law, that the name of a thing is not the thing itself.”  I was stunned, I admit…one, that he “got” this so easily when I had to chew on it for quite a while, and two, that here was a leader God had raised up under my own nose ready to take things to his generation that I am just now getting around to musing about!  OF COURSE! Why didn’t I see this?!!  Our way, this Mason way, of doing education will benefit and restore personhood to children whether we name the Name or not (would I could name Christ in every educational setting and take each child to the Source of Beauty that our education will reveal). The name of the thing, is not the thing…Truth in education and our dealings with children is still Truth, no matter what we are permitted to call it.  As St. Francis of Assisi is attributed with saying, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words!”  Teach the Beauty, trace the work of the Holy Spirit who is the Source of all learning and innovation with atmosphere, discipline and life, whether we name Him or not, and open children to a hunger for this deep, aesthetic life! In so doing we reclaim their personhood, give them respect and rescue them from drab days of textbooks aimed only at passing standardized tests. Faithful in these small things who knows what this Hope will engender?

May I challenge us this Advent to consider how the Great Recognition is a calling? May I urge the carrying of these wonderful ideas and methods into all points of our public lives and encounters with children?  Can we pray together that our churches and conferences and study groups are not fortresses but public squares, our gospel not just for “the family” but the whole world?  Let’s be intentional and organized and saavy about how to bring this Good News in education to the culture, our very enthusiasm and artful living “making them long for the immensity of the sea.”

P.S. You may not know that ChildlightUSA is involved in many different ways besides the conferences and this blog to recover and support Charlotte Mason education worldwide.  Take a virtual stroll through the website for a full picture or talk to one of the board members listed there. As you consider your giving for the rest of 2008 and the new year, remember Emmanuel, God with us, in education as well and send a tax-deductible contribution to ChildlightUSA.


1. Mason, Charlotte. Parents and Children.  Wheaton, Illinois:Tyndale House, 1989.

2. Seerveld, Calvin. G. Rainbows for the Fallen World. Toronto: Tuppence Press, 2005

3. Morely, Christopher. The Haunted Bookshop. Philadelphia: J.B.Lippincott Co., 1951

4. Crouch, Andy. Culture Making Recovering our Creative Calling. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2008.



7.  T.E.D produced a video of Sir Kenneth  Robinson giving a talk at their 2006 conference called “Do Schools Kill Creativity.” It is really worth the time it takes to watch this.

8. Seerveld, p 36.

9. Charter schools are self-managed public schools that are approved by local school districts. They are created and controlled by parents, teachers, community leaders, and colleges or universities. Charter schools operate free from many educational mandates, except for those concerning non-discrimination, health and safety and accountability. Charter schools offer alternatives in education.” (from the Pennsylvania Dept. of Education.)

© 2008 Laurie Bestvater

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. Thank you, Laurie, for this article. The more I read Charlotte Mason the more I am convinced that she is providing a way to live, not merely a way to do school. I am striving to live that lifestyle. But your article challenges us to do something more: to bring that way of life to others. Keep pressing your vision! Beauty has always been God’s gift to the Church, but in our time it may be an especial means by which He designs to pour out abundant blessings on the world.

  2. Laurie,

    I don’t think it’s just because you’re thinking about the Great Recognition and Beauty that you’re noticing this everywhere. I think God is doing a work in our hearts and in this movement.

    I recently had the privilege of attending the Cardus relaunch and I think I bruised my husband with my repeated pokes. I was stunned by how connected their work is to what we are trying to do.

    “The devil will easily let us Christians have a few nostalgic meadows…” wow! That quote will stay with me a long time (God grant it so).

    Truth is truth even if we can’t call it by name. And it changes lives. Thank you for the reminder. I’ve been becoming more and more aware that we do need to do share this good news within the church too. Public squares, not fortresses, exactly!

    I’ll need to read this post over and over. It is so rich and convicting. Let’s keep talking.

    Sandy Rusby Bell (who also sees beauty in constitutional law)

  3. willowspring says

    Laurie, that quote from volume 2 is one I use often to explain what it is that I’m about in educating our children and furthering this method. The idea that God-breathed inspiration is everywhere and that His mercy and creativity have fallen on the just and the unjust is so exciting to me! And when people ask me about Charlotte Mason, I so enjoy blowing away their preconceived notions with a quote or two like that one. Thanks for this post. It’s just wonderful.

  4. rootfoodchronicles says

    Thank you for this article. I just stumbled upon it. I have been homeschooling my son this year and have been using a lot of Charlotte Mason (CM) methodology. I am so inspired and feel led by the Lord to inspire other children and parents, to take it beyond myself and my son to children who don’t know the Lord (and who do know the Lord) and CM. Your article fueled me and helped confirmed I am on the right path. What I am struggling with is how to take this methodology into the “world” and “public square” without mentioning the Lord. I love and understand the quote you incorporated:

    ‘…that God the Holy Spirit is Himself, personally, the Imparter of
    knowledge, the Instructor of youth, the Inspirer of genius…every
    fruitful idea, every original conception, whether in Euclid, or
    grammar, or music was a direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit,
    without any thought at all as to whether the person so inspired
    named himself by the name of God or recognized whence his
    inspiration came (Mason,vol.2. pp 270-71) (Citation 1)’

    You continue on with:

    “Our way, this Mason way, of doing education will benefit and restore personhood to children whether we name the Name or not (would I could name Christ in every educational setting and take each child to the Source of Beauty that our education will reveal). The name of the thing, is not the thing…Truth in education and our dealings with children is still Truth, no matter what we are permitted to call it.”

    I understand this, but what about in Romans 10:17
    “… So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

    I know there is a time and place to talk about Jesus and inspire one through the word of God. How can we teach science without mentioning the creator and not promote evolution as the basis for creation? How can this truth, for example, be taught to children without talking about the creator? Does the Lord not want us to be bold? Shouldn’t we trust and have faith in Him and talk about Him more openly? Perhaps I am misunderstanding the content of the article, and if I am, please forgive me and help me to clarify. I want to share with children the beauty and freedom of our creator,
    God the Father, God The Son, and God the Holy Spirit. I love the CM method, and I believe it is a way to show children and families the beauty of God and that we are made in His image, but I am struggling with the idea of not mentioning the truth of who He is when the timing is appropriate. Help!

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