I think that many of us who study the works of Charlotte Mason understand that her founding principle of education was the personhood of children. She says in the preface to the Home Education Series, “The central thought, or rather body of thought, upon which I found, is the somewhat obvious fact that the child is a person with all the possibilities and powers included in personality.” The little phrase “ body of thought” aptly conveys that there is much to say about personhood. Understanding who we are as image bearers of God is truly a “body of thought” and cannot be easily defined or stated in a few words.
However, one idea about personhood that I wish to introduce to you and explore briefly in this blog is the “Sabbath of Learning,” a term I’ll use to describe the need of children, as image bearers, to have time to process their learning. The “Sabbath of Learning” idea came together as I was reading the work of two writers: the Jewish Rabbi, Abraham Heschel and the German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann. Heschel (1966) writes in his great essay “The Sabbath” about the idea of time (Sabbath) versus space, while Moltmann (1985) in his book God in Creation writes about the six days of creation and what the seventh meant. First, let me say why I believe the topic Sabbath of Learning is important.
I frequently go in and out of schools where very kind and gentle people are instructing students. Some of the children are eager to listen but others have long ago checked out for various reasons. Could a chief reason be that our current model of education in many schools is about stuffing children with atomized information and skills like stuffing a sausage or about having children memorize information as if that is all young children are able to do? This model has a very different anthropological foundation than one based on Scripture. Mason (1954) near the beginning of her book An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education suggests that the reason some men did not fight with valour in the Great War was due to a weak and deficient education. Maybe her thoughts apply to the current situation. It could be that the problem with young people today and their poor ‘performance’ in school has far less to do with the children and their backgrounds, and more to do with the educational offerings they get in current schools and homes through a bare-minimum and lifeless curriculum.
A young man recently shared this reflection with my daughter: “One thing I was thinking about [is] … the difference between modern knowledge and ancient knowledge: modern knowledge seems to be something we possess which gives us power and is from a nonpersonal perspective… ancient knowledge seems to be something we love (philosophy = the love of wisdom) which teaches us to live excellently and deeply and is personal and spiritual… whoever came up with the idea of progress?” This is the problem stated very succinctly that applies in education today. We are stuffing children with atomized information to give them power so they can pass a test and get a career (that bare minimum curriculum). Or, we are satisfied that young children are only good for memorizing information. However, the purpose of education is not to teach and encourage students to gain more data so they can get a great paying job, but to live all of life and to live “excellently and deeply.” The problem then is that children are hurried and scurried day after day to memorize (quadratic equations, for example, with no conceptual understanding) but not to live richly and deeply or to love wisdom. What might be a step in the right direction to solve this problem?
This problem is huge so there is no way I can address it in this blog. The very small piece that I want to tackle is the idea that comes from a closer look at creation. Let’s begin with Heschel.
Heschel (1966) speaks about time and space in this manner.
To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.” (p. 4)
Here is another view from Bertrand Russell about time. Heschel (1966) says that Russell (1914) believed that time was “an unimportant and superficial characteristic of reality . . . To realize the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom” (pp. 166-167). It is this second view that has taken over in most schools. The time to ponder, reflect and consider is a rare commodity for children and is considered, as Russell says, “unimportant and superficial.” Heschel’s view teaches us to respect time and to realize we have no control over it. The Sabbath is outside our control except to rest, ponder, reflect, consider and enjoy God’s creation–unless we want to use the Sabbath for power or control. When we use the Sabbath in this way then we use it “To gain control of the world of space.” Like my daughter’s friend said education becomes a ‘thing’ to possess not a means of living excellently and deeply.
In education today (of course not in all circumstances, but in many) children are hurried from one subject to another to cover material to be prepared to take tests and do well on those tests (school achievement test, standardized tests or SATs) so the US can keep its standing in the world. Or, just as bad, some think that young children are only good for memorizing or stuffing in information that can be used at some later date devoid of context or meaning. Time to process learning and to integrate it deeply within one’s self isn’t allowed. There is no time for the sacred process of internalizing what one is learning. This is quite tragic in its effect on children because children need time to internalize information and when they do not have that time they often tune out or disengage. When the facts, divorced from narrative or their context, keep coming at them all day long, many students feel disconnected and see no relevance because the atomized bits of information or the morsels they receive are not interesting, engaging or contextualized.
Moltmann (1985) says the Sabbath is the completion of creation. He says, “The goal and completion of every Jewish and every Christian doctrine of creation must be the doctrine of the sabbath; for on the sabbath and through the sabbath God ‘completed’ his creation, and on the sabbath and through it, men and women perceive as God’s creation the reality in which they live and which they themselves are” (p. 277). It is interesting to me that it is within the context of “time” or the Sabbath that God “completed” his creation.
The idea of completion is key to the point that I wish to make. God completed his creation on the Sabbath (Genesis 2:2). As God completed his creation on the Sabbath, so children need “time” as Heschel refers to the Sabbath to complete their learning. In this sense, new learning (not packed-in atomized information), is a new creation for children. After learning something new children need a Sabbath, a time to process, internalize, to find pleasure in the new learning, and to make connections to previous learning. The new creation (new learning) is not complete without this Sabbath. Frequently children do this when they are playing or having “time” that their minds can work on the new learning. An example is the seven year old who said that he remembered what he learned in the morning during recess.
Today’s demand to spend every minute stuffing atomized information into children’s brains is, as we mentioned above, an attempt at controlling more space (career, college, test scores or just decontextualized information). We must reorient our way of doing education so that learning is viewed as the process of learning to live excellently and deeply in relationships with God, the universe and humankind. Time, as equated by Moltmann and Heschel, must be a part of children’s education. They need a Sabbath of learning. They need the “time” to complete their learning in their “repose” (Moltmann, 1985, p. 281). For many children today there is no “delight” in learning, no love of wisdom. Children’s learning is identified with a grade, test score or the amount they can memorize to indicate their accomplishments and not with a love of wisdom. Love of wisdom is pushed away by a barrage of facts. The time to ponder and process is tragically lost in such utilitarian purposes.
I will explore this topic further at the 2012 Charlotte Mason Conference.
Heschel, A.J. (1966). The Sabbath: Its meaning for modern man, (Expanded Ed.). NYC: Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated. (The essay was written in 1951.)
Mason, C. (1954) An essay towards a philosophy of education. (3rd ed.). Oxford: The Scrivener Press.
Moltmann, J. (1985). God in creation: A new theology of creation and the Spirit of God. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Russell, B. (1914). Our knowledge of the external world. London: Open Court Publishing.
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