When my friend’s daughter, Lauren, was very little, she learned the song “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart” in Sunday School. One day my friend heard her daughter singing the song, complete with its second verse. She had a good chuckle when she realized that Lauren was singing –at the top of her voice–“I’ve got a piece of plastic understanding down in my heart!”
Lauren is all grown-up now– a beautiful, intelligent young woman. She knows that the words to this song are “I’ve got the peace that passes understanding down in my heart.” Chances are she has no idea when or how she came to realize what the actual words are. Her initial misunderstanding and her subsequent correct comprehension of the words are great examples of how most human learning takes place.
Our learning can indeed be “plastic” in the sense that it remains superficial when we “cram to know” and reduce ideas to facts. It can also be “plastic” in the sense that it is malleable, mold-able, changing and adapting over time. Just how it does this isn’t always directly accessible to us, but certain practices go with the grain of how we’re created, allowing humans’ unique learning ability to flourish. Other practices—often those whose view of humans is too materialistic—shut it down.
In his books Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (2009), and (editor, with David I. Smith) Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning (2011), Calvin College Professor of Philosophy James K. A. Smith explains that humans are “affective, embodied creatures” who inhabit the world as “not primarily thinkers, but by feeling our way around it.” Because people are “desiring creatures”, our identities “unfold and develop over time (2009).”
Smith is adamant that the ways in which we teach are just as important as the content that we teach and the atmospheres we create in which to teach. Those who educate must correct their underlying presuppositions about the nature of human beings (their anthropology, Smith explains) and examine the ends (telos is the term he uses) to which they educate.
Mechanistic and sheerly rational models of teaching and learning—cramming the outer room of the mind, as Charlotte Mason says—presupposes a set of beliefs about humans that does not fully account for their hearts, which Smith believes to be the true core of man.
Smith maintains that the legacy of postures and practices that have characterized the Christian church through the centuries are more effective means of forming humans, and, with his colleague David I. Smith, has collected several educators’ accounts of their attempts to employ such Christian practices as hospitality, fellowship, fixed-hour prayer and lectio divina in teaching their higher education courses.
Of course, my copies of these two books are filled with frantic scribbling, underlinings and frequent exclamations of “CM!” in the margins. Consider this experiment in reading (Smith, 2009) in light of Charlotte Mason’s practice of narration:
“A class in German literature adopts the Christian practice of lectio divina. In addition to fostering a more loving, attentive approach to texts (rather than the usual consumptive, chew-it-up and spit-it-out voracious reading that our syllabi encourage), student journals indicate that the dispositions and habits formed by the practice of lectio divina are beginning to spill over into a general hermeneutic, a general stance toward the world, as one of the students finds herself “reading” a problematic stranger in the coffee shop differently than she would have before engaging in the practices of lectio divina.”
James K. A. Smith and David I. Smith would take great interest, I think, in Charlotte Mason’s prophetic wisdom concerning the utilitarian turn that education has taken over time. They would likewise appreciate her accurate anthropology of human learners as well as the monastic practices she employed in her teachers’ college and the PNEU schools.
Charlotte, after all, had no tolerance for superficial “pieces of plastic understanding”, but calls us to an educational practice that, by acknowledging the complexity of human learning and by fostering a contemplative environment for such learning, offers educators and their students a “peace that passes understanding.”
Would you like to join me in discussing these two books? Send me a message or “friend” me on Facebook at Lisa Melton Cadora and I’ll explain when and where we can enjoy discovering parallels between these authors and Charlotte’s thought.
© Lisa Cadora 2011