The perspective of two graduated Ambleside Online students, happily engaged, both currently studying abroad in Europe.
(All page numbers refer to A Philosophy of Education.)
The two of us started reading through Volume 6 together this summer, the first time for us both. We didn’t get very far; life, especially the part called School, caught up with us. One thing that struck us in what we did read, though, was that amid all the talk about narration, nature study, furnishing the mind with ideas, and forming a habit of attention, Charlotte keeps bringing up the idea of citizenship. We were surprised at how visionary she was. She was not thinking just about teaching the material, or even of helping students to form relationships with their studies—though that is important—but about how to shape great men and women to make the world a better place. She wanted to educate people of character who would help to create a healthy society: people who could be leaders and servants for their fellows, people who would be knit by common interests and a common culture.
When I (Timothy speaking) was explaining this idea to a schoolmate of mine this week, he said that her vision sounded Platonic: state education creating good members of the state. Charlotte’s vision was more holistic than this, however. She decried the type of education which gave children only what they needed to find jobs and function in society (76). Her goal was a generation of “good and thoughtful citizens” (20) living in happy and peaceful community (92). As she talks about the different elements of her educational method, she keeps bringing the focus back to this idea of a closely-knit society filled with noble-minded, great-hearted people.
The question of citizenship has been on our minds lately because we are both studying abroad this semester—Hannah in Greece, Timothy in England. Being in different nations, and seeing how their citizens feel about their national community, has made us more aware of what our citizenship means as Americans. In Charlotte’s terms, citizenship means putting your nation before yourself—not the government but your compatriots, the people with whom you share society (187). But it’s been difficult for us to identify ourselves with the US to that extent as we’ve grown up.
The bit of American patriotism that I have (Hannah speaking) comes from my community in my own state, and the friends that I have in other states, not from historical significance or national pride. Despite my mother’s efforts to teach me about the Revolution, Civil War and World Wars, and despite the patriotic songs she taught me, I couldn’t relate to them at all. America was just so big, and I lived in such a small part of it. America seemed to belong to everyone else, not to me. It seemed that I lived in Virginia, and that America was the world around it.
The one part of American history that I identified with was the story of Pocahontas, because I grew up living near Jamestown. I’ve noticed that a lot of people grow up identifying with a community: a state, city, or neighborhood. A man from Boston is proud of his city and his baseball team. Another is from Kalamazoo Michigan, and his pride comes from his college and his old football team. How often people say “I’m from Brooklyn” or “I’m from Philly” or “I’m from Nashville” and identify their patriotism with their area, where their community is. It is only by living now in Athens, Greece and telling people “I’m from America” that I truly feel for the first time like an American.
Coming to Oxford (Timothy speaking now) has given me a similar experience. I’ve always considered myself an Anglophile, so much so that sometimes I felt like I had one foot in America and one in Britain. Living in England, however, has made me realize how very American I am. It’s not that I’ve suddenly realized how much better America is than other places. Rather, I’ve realized that certain parts of America are part of who I am: things like the rolling hills of rural Tennessee, or a love of baseball, or being overenthusiastic (by British standards). It’s little things too, like missing sweet tea or saying “Okay!” all the time—things that I take for granted because I’ve grown up with them. Maybe, as Chesterton has said many times, we don’t get a real sense of our home being our home until we leave it for a while.
Looking back on our education, it seems pretty clear that our sense of citizenship, at least in part, has developed by building a relationship with a national history. But as we’ve already said, that nation hasn’t always been the US.
It seems to be a common trend in the AO students that we’ve met (ourselves included) to be drawn to England. We seem to have a sort of British patriotism. It’s small wonder why. We’ve read England’s literature. We’ve formed attachments to Robin Hood, King Arthur, Ivanhoe, Shakespeare, even Ebenezer Scrooge. We were taught history with such books as “Our Island Story” and “The Birth Of Britain.” We learned about the Battle of Hastings, the Battle of Agincourt, the Plantagenets’ rule, the War of the Roses, the Crusades, the Tudor dynasty, the Elizabethan Era, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the English civil war, and Queen Victoria.
Let’s face it, England has a much richer history than America. Its stories make our eyes light up: they are filled with knights, pirates, queens and princesses, outlaws, crusaders, evil advisers, and kings both good and bad. These are the elements that spark love and imagination in children, and make them think of grand adventures. When faced with this, how can America’s one revolution and one civil war compete, especially when they are so sadly lacking in swords and kings?
Whatever creates it, national identity—the sense that we belong to a larger society of people and have a responsibility to them—is not a given. We’ve already mentioned how Americans seem to identify more with their local communities than their nation at large. The riots in Britain this summer suggest that even that kind of citizenship is fragile. More than one writer has commented that these riots looked like simple anarchy: no promoting a cause, no neighborhood gang warfare, but the complete breakdown of community. A large cause of the riots seems to have been young people feeling excluded from society. (See, for example, “Why London’s burning” in The Australian ( http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/why-londons-burning/story-e6frg6z6-1226113579983 ) or The Guardian’s articles by sociologists ( http://sociologyandthecuts.wordpress.com/2011/09/05/guardian-riot-series-written-by-sociologists/ ).)
In contrast to these, the riots in Greece seem to show something that is lacking in America today: the citizens’ willingness to stand up for what they want. The Greek rioters are protesting their rights getting taken away, their salaries staying stationary while the euro rockets prices everywhere, and the government adding more jobs so that the people doing those jobs already are getting less business (taxi drivers, for instance). There are as many elderly men marching in the protests as there are students.
I used to think (Hannah speaking) that people are the same everywhere, but there are major differences in the general attitudes of Americans and Greeks. In Greece, the people don’t just sit there and let their freedoms get taken away. They actively protest, go on strike, have demonstrations, and let their government know that they are willing to fight for their rights. On the other hand, when Americans are faced with an infringement on their rights, they vent about it online and stay at home. Where were the protests, rallies, and demonstrations when the nude body scanner scandal happened last year? How many Americans sat back in their chairs at home and waited for the government to do something about it? We can’t help wondering what Charlotte would have to say about the riots in Britain and Greece, and about American apathy, knowing how important citizenship and social responsibility were to her!
It’s clear, reading through Volume 6, that Charlotte has specific qualities in mind when she talks about raising good citizens. For one thing, she says that every child should have the experience of holding an official position, however small, so that he or she will learn the responsibility to serve others that comes with authority (74). For another, she says that, just as students should learn to do their schoolwork willingly, they should also learn to respect the day-to-day requirements of living such as being on time to appointments or replying to that email from the financial aid office, because “the life that does not obey such conditions has got out of its orbit and is not of use to society” (70).
She says that exam-based learning promotes an intellectual ‘survival of the fittest,’ encouraging greedy ambition and selfish competition. The same spirit gets into public life and government, where it makes people strive for public office because they want the power and prestige that come with the position, without having any sense of their place in society. Learning that is founded on the love of knowledge, on the other hand, tends to make people content with their lot and willing to serve. With this method, people learn because they like it, not to ‘get ahead’; and it fosters common spirit when you know that all your fellow learners, or fellow citizens, love the same things you do. (92) She also says that humane learning—art and literature and music and such—is crucial to forming a good citizen, because when you hire a worker or elect a public official you are getting a whole person. (76)
I love this (Hannah speaking) because it goes against the idea of workers being like machines, as if they are gears that fit into society in a certain way. The whole idea of a person learning only enough to function at their job takes away much of what makes them a person. It makes them unable to relate to their fellow humans. If all they have in common with their coworkers is their ability to function at work, how will they be able to form a community and positive working environment? And how will they be able to relate to the very world that they live in, or the people they are helping by performing their jobs?
Responding to a writer who wanted children to be taught only what they needed to know to get a job and to function as citizens, without any of the humanities, Charlotte wrote that “work is done and duties performed in the ratio of the person who works: the more the man is as a person, the more valuable will be his work and the more dependable his conduct: yet we omit from popular education that tincture of humane letters which makes for efficiency!” (76)
The late Steve Jobs echoed this sentiment when he said of his company, “I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, poets, artists, zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.” People working together in a certain field are able to do their job better because of the common interests between them and the fact that they are all “whole persons,” not just computer scientists.
But well-rounded people are not the only fruit of liberal education. Charlotte thought that the common knowledge of a shared language and literature is the foundation of a closely-knit society, not only because people have similar interests, but because they understand each other better through common points of reference: you can say “that man is as trustworthy as Uriah Heap” and everyone will know exactly what you mean (77-78). This principle we have found to be true in our own experience.
We (that’s Hannah and Tim, now) have both been concerned for a long time about how Charlotte Mason students, with their unusual upbringing, can find like minds with whom to form friendships. With this in mind, a few years ago we started an online community for CM students called Ambleside Online: Unlimited. Since it began we’ve had dozens of other CM students join. And we’ve discovered something wonderful about getting to know other CM students. We have so much in common! Not just common interests like writing or nature study, but a broad and rich tapestry of relationships, relationships with stories and ideas and art, which we all share. It’s easy for us to become friends because we have such a large foundation of shared knowledge to build upon.
This is especially true—as Charlotte said it would be—when it comes to literature. Having grown up reading the same books, we share some of our oldest and fondest memories. We are friends with the same characters, from Odysseus to Jane Eyre to Mrs. Whatsit. We have grown up in the same places: Narnia, the Hundred Acre Wood, Wildcat Island, Mole and Ratty’s riverbank. Our imaginations are the citizens of the same imaginary realms, whether it be Middle-Earth or Merry Old England.
This is the sort of fellowship that Charlotte hoped for. But her vision stretched beyond a small community of fellow students to encompass the entire nation:
“One of the main purposes of a ‘liberal education for all’ is to form links between high and low, rich and poor, the classes and the masses, in the strong sympathy of common knowledge. The Public Schools have arrived at this through the medium of the classics; an occasional ‘tag’ from Horace moves and unites the House of Commons, not only through the urbane thought of the poet but because it is a key to a hundred associations. If this has been effected through the medium of a dead language, what may we not hope for in the way of common thought, universal springs of action, conveyed through our own rich and inspiring literature?” (77-78)
The two of us have found this “strong sympathy of common knowledge” true in an even more personal way, too. When we met, we didn’t just meet the person we happened to be at the time. We didn’t meet an opera singer or a pianist or an English major. We met a whole person. And not just someone who is well-rounded in their current life. We got to know each other as we have always been. We met as the little boy and girl who read all the same books growing up, and could discuss them together. Through the shared love of studies, we also had shared childhood memories, even though our studies were done miles away. Our common relationships allowed our own relationship to grow. We share things, common to most Charlotte Mason students, that it might take a stranger years to understand, and which they might never be able to share in the same way.
Our experience of belonging to a community which shares a bond of common knowledge has been invigorating. We know we have a lot to learn about Charlotte’s ideas of citizenship and how to put them into practice. But it’s encouraging to see her vision coming true, even on a very small scale. We’ve seen that a Charlotte Mason education does create a shared culture, and that shared culture does foster close relationships. The beginnings might be small, but who knows what the next step might be? And even if it never grows beyond a small community, the friendships that we’ve made with other Charlotte Mason students are some of the closest we have, ones that we will keep for the rest of our lives.
© Timothy Laurio and Hannah Hoyt 2011