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Some Thoughts on The Sabbath of Learning by Carroll Smith

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. 

©  All Rights Reserved  Carroll Smith 


  1. Rosemary Moore says

    Excellent message, Carroll. I look forward to it’s continuation. Po Bronson states in Nurtureshock that children today receive one hour less sleep per night than their parents. This is sacred space for assimilating what was taught during the day. The brain “downloads” what we have been exposed to over a period of hours. If we do not have our required sleep, we are not nourished by what we have learned, and have not truly learned.

  2. James Schorr says

    Excellent post. So true; “down-time” makes a huge difference in our kids’ lives. I see it spark their creativity, they become more passionate to seek out new things to learn about, etc…

  3. Naomi Heidorn says

    Carroll – very well stated! I agree 100% and have seen evidence of this with my own children, and the children in my schools.
    Charlotte often uses the analogy of the body’s digestive system as a parallel to learning. We need time to digest food, we all know this. Our body can’t use the food until digestion is complete. Likewise, the mind needs to assimilate the knowledge before it can be “used” or applied.
    Sure wish I could come to the conference to hear more. After the conference if you have something written that you could share with me, I would really appreciate it.

  4. Rosemary, James and Naomi, First great to hear from each of you! Thanks for your comments. Each of us needs to keep adding to the knowledge on this topic for our culture today certainly needs a deeper understanding of how to “live.” Thanks Rosemary for the author suggestion. And, yes, James we cannot think creatively without the space in terms of time that allows our brains to do that work. Naomi I hope to expand this article and will let you know when I do and make sure you have access to it. Thanks to all of you.


  5. Barbara says

    Great article. I wholeheartedly concur. I think it is important to be sure too to really be explicit about what downtime is. This sabbath shouldn’t be crammed full of organized scheduled “fun” acitivites. So many children today never get a chance to breathe. While they may not be at school doing school work or at home doing homework (and they spend way to many hours at both) they are instead scheduled for a myriad of other activities that never let them sit alone with themselves and experience that quiet of mind which is so necessary to comtemplation. Why do so many have this consuming fear that a child may be bored?? In an effort to prevent the dreaded condition we make them stimulant dependent. This dependence/conditioning is certainly an impediment to them even being able to make good use of downtime when it occurs. I look forward to hearing more at the conference.

  6. julie silander says

    YES! I’m feeling this. It was a slippery slope, and I’ve recently declared that we’re “taking back our peaceful pace of life” next year. Thank you for your words and wisdom. I’ll look forward to hearing more…

  7. 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?


    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.”


    There is no time for the sacred process of internalizing what one is learning.

    I find this true at all levels of society today. American culture seems to want to perpetually move faster and get more. Yet, I think the need for Sabbath is inherently human (crossing culture). In addition, Sabbath seems to be vital to all areas of life. I think that’s why God instituted it from the very beginning. We ALL need time for reflection.

    🙂 Thanks for this.

  8. Reblogged this on On Planting Seeds… and commented:
    Such an important message for parents, homeschoolers and school teachers. Children are not empty vessels to be filled, but thinking beings. To train our kids to pass tests teaches them to be passive observers of life.

  9. Thank all of you for your comments. You are really making me think and consider this topic even further. Barbara I remember Susan Schaeffer Macaulay writing years ago about how busy American families are with transporting kids everywhere. My wife and I decided then (our children are adults now) that they could choose one activity to be involved in outside the home simply because we did not want to always be on the road. Consequently they played a lot with Playmobile and other imaginative means such as being outside a lot. Amy, I think you are correct. Sabbath is for everyone. It is inherent to who we are as humans! And the truth is that our educational system, although on one hand seems to want to promote active learners, ends up promoting passive learners because teachers feel so much pressure to teach to the tests.

    Thanks to all three of you for your comments.


  10. Absolutely, Carroll.
    10 The Short Synopsis
    ” Such a doctrineas e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle ,lays the stress of Education ( the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher, Children taught on this principle are in danger of much teaching with little knowledege; and the teacher’s axiom is ” what a chiold learns matters less than how he learns it.”

    Of course there is a place for direct instruction e.g. explaining how to change a plug or work a computer and CM never emphasised that aspect of learning- not too keen on mathematics either or perhaps, scientific research methods.

    She was blown away by the excitement of ” ideas” gained from reading and understanding books and wanted to pass this on. When she asked a student why she had come to Scale How, the student said, ” To learn how to teach” CM replied that she had come to learn to ” live.” reminding us that there is plenty of time away from work and study to engage with ideas.

    Cholmondeley in “The Story” p 149 writes well on how they kept Sunday special.

  11. Pingback: The Woods, a Mole, and Homeschool Sanity

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