As we begin the new year (2009), it seems appropriate to look ahead. What kind of a future did Charlotte Mason see?
Maria Montessori saw youth living in their own cities, problem-solving among themselves with their unadulterated inner lights free to be creative and resourceful, and this, presumably, would prepare them to go out into the world at large and solve society’s problems with fresh insight.
Miss Mason never writes specifically about her vision for the future, but it’s not difficult to see what she had in mind from her ideals as mentioned in her books. Her dream world is described in chapter 5 of “Formation of Character,” Volume 5 of her series: it’s a world where students don’t have to be coaxed to do their lessons because they love learning, and they remember more because they know how to pay attention. They set such high spiritual standards for themselves that their pastors don’t have to motivate them, and, in fact, have to work to keep up with them! And, because of their knowledge of the body and their sense of responsibility, they stay so healthy that doctors have leisure time to devote to research in preventative medicine.
I suspect that most of that is idealism, but we can get a glimpse of her hope for the future near the end of Volume 6, in her chapter about Continuation Schools. The context: in 1921, the Fisher Act was put into action, requiring eight hours per week of part-time continuing education for students aged 14-18 who had entered the work force. The question was: How should this eight hours be spent? Charlotte Mason felt very strongly that it should not be used for additional vocational training, nor should it be spent in physical sports. Because education is of the mind, the first priority for time set aside for education should be to feed and broaden the mind. It should be used to help the student reach his or her potential as a whole person and develop character, which, in turn, would make each one more valuable as a citizen and a worker. Young adults should learn enough philosophy to give them sound principles of living, enough history to draw conclusions from past examples, and enough culture to be inspired to think great thoughts and live morally. The young adult should sense a duty towards God, towards others, and towards his or her own self.
She felt that this could only be done by providing food for the mind via the Bible, history, literature, poetry, and nature–even if it was only for eight hours a week. By serving the mind with a nutritious diet and requiring the mind to assimilate that knowledge through discussion, people might live more intelligently and more ethically. By learning to have the habit of focused attention, people could be more observant and attuned to the world around them, as well as retaining more from it. No matter what line of work these people were involved with, this kind of education couldn’t help but make them better employees, more alert helpers of their fellow man, and more useful people.
We can see how this comprises her vision for the future in the same chapter where she describes a society that earned her admiration. This is what she saw on a trip to Denmark:
“At the Hague, I saw a craftsman in his work clothes showing paintings in a gallery to his seven year old son. The little boy listened carefully and looked eagerly. In the great Delft porcelain factories, young workers manifested evidence of culture and gentleness in their faces and manner. But the thing that struck me most was what I saw in a general store in some remote market in Sweden. The villagers were peasants. One shop sold cabbages, herrings, cheese and calico cloth. But in its small-paned window was a shelf tightly packed with paperback books that hadn’t been left alone long enough to get dusty. I couldn’t make out all of the titles, but I noticed that they included books in French, German and English. I saw thin volumes of Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Ruskin, Carlyle and the latest popular literature. It made a person feel like the village was a slice of heaven. One could imagine a long winter evening in any home, with one person reading aloud as the rest of the family did the evening’s chores. When friends meet, or when lovers stroll, they must have lots to talk about.” [vol 5, pg 285, modern paraphrase]
Working class people visiting art exhibits, reading classics, displaying marks of culture . . . how can we make this kind of future a reality in our own lives? As teachers and parents, can we experience the benefits of a CM education ourselves? The answer is a resounding YES! We as adults are no less whole persons than the children we’re educating.
How can we apply the tenets of CM to ourselves as adults past school age? There are a variety of ways we can do this.
If we’ve lost a sense of wonder for God’s world, we can recapture it by involving ourselves with nature study. When was the last time you stopped to watch ants scurrying around their nest? When did you last try to catch a glimpse of a bird whose song caught your ear, or try to see the Big Dipper in the sky, or look at the individual crystals on a snowflake?
We can involve ourselves in the people around us by truly listening to them and giving them our time instead of rushing on to the next activity in our busy schedules. As persons, we need to apply CM’s habit of focused attention to observing and enjoying the small happenings in our day-to-day lives–playing a board game with a child, appreciating the special touch of a flower placed in the center of a table, stopping to listen to a piece of music instead of letting it just be background noise.
We can enroll in a weekly class to learn a new skill, not to move ahead in our career or make more money, but to enhance our personal lives. Take a class in drawing, or begin piano lessons. Learn to take better pictures, or take on the challenge of a foreign language. Remember, Charlotte Mason saw potential in just eight hours a week.
We can read to stretch our minds, and discuss what we read with others. Talk about books with your co-workers or family members to get them interested, or find others who are already interested: join a local book club, or an online discussion group. Start with one of Charlotte Mason’s own books about the nature of being persons, Ourselves, and discuss the aspects of character as you read, prayerfully challenging yourself to internalize them. Being Human by Barrs and Macaulay can help to get a more “CM perspective” on life and our place in it. Read classics of the ancient Greek world to understand that people haven’t changed much, and to see the wisdom they used in answering questions we still deal with in our modern era. Read literature such as Jane Eyre and David Copperfield that provide stimulating character studies and beautiful descriptions. Find a book that engagingly tells the history of one country and go through it slowly. Pick a poet such as Tennyson or Lucy Shaw and meditate on one poem a week.
A new year is a time when we typically make resolutions for self-improvement. What better resolution can we make than to develop our whole person by giving the gift of a Charlotte Mason education to ourselves?
© 2009 by Leslie Noelani Laurio