A Charlotte Mason Education, Culture, Habit Formation, Philosophy
Comments 7

Crossing Guards and a “Nation of Idiots” by Jen Gagnon

If I have not timed my trip well, I end up becoming part of a long procession of vehicles stuck behind a school bus. If it is around 2:30 in the afternoon, it is the high school buses, and if it is an hour later, the elementary school kids are being dropped off.  For the younger set, you know when the bus is going to stop, for along the route spaced at 50 yard intervals or so there is a small cluster of parents waiting for the return of their children.

The process is quite interesting.  First the bus comes to a complete stop. A mechanical crossing guard arm on the driver’s side springs out with a large STOP sign, showing oncoming traffic, and those behind the bus, that they must stop. The doors are then opened; the child walks down the bus stairs to the road and hesitates at the front of the bus.  Looking for the driver’s signal of a clear passage, he then walks confidently across the road with his eyes on his mom.

Children must walk if they live within a half a kilometer of the school, but there they have living crossing guards to keep them safe when traversing any roads close to the school. In our Canadian town of 19,000, we have a traffic light within one block of each of the two elementary schools. At the public school a crossing guard is set up one block away from the traffic light on the main road at a courtesy crossing.  A courtesy crossing is a suggestion to both the driver and pedestrian. The person on foot may cross the road safely if the cars wish to stop for him. Once he is confident that the way is clear, he may make it to the other side without dodging vehicles.

At our courtesy crossing, the crossing guard, sporting his orange safety vest, with his arm held high showing his two sided stop sign to the traffic coming both ways, stops in the middle of the road.  Meanwhile, the children, who are waiting to cross and are either talking with each other or maybe engaging in a little roughhousing or shifting their backpacks uncomfortably, pay no attention to the guard. When the guard deems the road safe, he signals to the children; they respond by blithely crossing the street.

At the Catholic school, the crossing guard helps the children cross at the traffic light. When a group of students gather and the light gives them the right of way, the first thing that happens is that the crossing guard walks to the middle of the road with her two sided stop sign held high. When she deems the situation safe, she signals to the children, and they casually cross the intersection.

This winter, a grade 10 student merrily made her way across the courtesy crossing near the high school and was hit by a car.  (She had some minor injuries and was back at school within a few days).  The school’s and townships’ response is to install a full set of traffic lights at that exact spot in time for the next school year. This makes five sets of lights about every 2 blocks all on the same road in a town in which times of high traffic volume is called “rush minute.”

Charlotte Mason gives us an idea of how this could happen:

Habit, tradition, and society’s accepted norms have so much influence over us that we get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, go about our morning routine and evening leisure without even thinking about it; it is second nature. One thing we do know about the will: its function is to choose. It decides for us. It seems certain that the harder the act of making up our minds becomes, the weaker our general will becomes. Opinions are spoon fed to us. We absorb our principles second-hand, or even third hand. Our habits are whatever is most convenient and accepted as mainstream. What more do we need for a decent, orderly life? (Laurio, vol. 6 p129)

When I heard that a teenager, a person of an age old enough to know better, was hit by a car, I was outraged.  Not at the child, but at the systematic overpowering of students’ ability to learn. It is now second nature for students to cross intersections unless a person in an orange vest says not to.  My question to the school board is when are they going to teach a child to cross the road, on their own, safely?  It seems that the answer is: never. As long as it is “convenient and accepted” by parents and school officials, nothing will be changed. When I confronted the local high school principal and vice principal during a parents meeting, they did not even bat an eye. The fact that a traffic light will go up solves the problem for them.

Our CM Study Group was studying the chapter on The Way of the Will in Volume 6 just a few weeks after this incident.  I thought it illustrated Charlotte Mason’s words perfectly:

“We teachers must make ourselves understand that our aim in education isn’t so much conduct as it is character. We can get decent conduct from students via various indirect methods, but good behavior is worthless to the world if it doesn’t stem from inward character.

“Every attack on a person’s flesh and spirit, no matter how subtle, is an attempt to compromise his integrity or will. However, in these days, we’re threatened with a war upon us. This war is no longer indirect, but it’s aimed deliberately and directly at the will, which is the person. The only thing preventing us from becoming a nation of idiots is that there will always be a few people with strong wills among us who will resist the general trend” (Laurio, vol. 6 p. 131).

We are in danger of becoming crossing guards in our homes and in the classroom and contributing to the “nation of idiots”. We can manipulate a student into a position that life becomes good for us.  Just because a class is orderly or our children are behaving passively does not mean they are learning or care to learn.  Our job is to offer “the tools that give him the ability to direct himself (because they) are as much a part of him as his intellect, imagination and hunger. Those tools are his conscience and his will. The conscience can’t do its job without regular, consecutive education” (Laurio, vol. 6 p.131).

If we are always telling, the child is never learning. Like a baby bird, automatically opening its mouth to swallow the predigested food from its mother, it is not until the mother starts its training does the bird start figuring out how to feed itself.  How does a 16 year old get hit by a car at a crosswalk? She is still being fed like an infant. Mason tells us “a person can exercise his will wisely, justly and with strength only if all of his powers have been trained and instructed” (Laurio, vol. 6 p133). We must train and instruct.

Mason Quotes from  http://www.amblesideonline.org/CM/6_1_08.html Copyright © 2003 Ambleside Online. All rights reserved.   Paraphrased by L. N. Laurio

© Jen Gagnon 2012


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. I am learning this lesson right now as my son prepares to leave for college. His suitcases are in his room, open and ready for all his worldly goods. But he doesn’t really know how to pack. He is tossing clothes and other items around the room, trying to figure out what to take. I could go in there and pack for him in about ten minutes flat, but then how will he figure it out the next time? So instead, I am biting my tongue, staying nearby, answering questions, mentioning weight restrictions on the plane, and scaffolding as best I can. This is tough stuff! It’s second nature for a mother to step in and “fix” things — both large and small. Our child gets a bad grade, and we want to storm into a parent teacher conference and demand the teacher changes it. Our society is full of helicopter parents. But the other day, we had a huge victory. Our daughter had a conference with the Dean of Students at her university. She asked us to go as well, to explain her financial aid dilemma. But when we arrived, we hardly said a word. She handled the situation with maturity, dignity, graciousness, and courage. In the end, we wondered why we had even gone with her in the first place. She thanked us for the moral support, without which she said she would not have been able to go in there and stand up for herself. It can be hard to find that middle ground where you are not stepping between the child and the material or life situation. We are learning how to hesitate. It’s not instinctual to do that, but it’s necessary for growth. Thanks for the reminder, Jen!

  2. Lori Lawing says

    Wow, Jen! What a great illustration of “the way of the will”! Megan has shown us how it applies to the college bound son. My mind went the other way, and I thought of the toddler. When babies are young, we strap them into the high chair for their safety so they don’t fall out. At some point, though, that older, willfull toddler – still in the high chair – can learn to remain seated (for some extended family dinner conversation) according to his will. We remove the straps and teach him to overcome his desire to stand up and climb out. Some, like the school board, may object saying it isn’t safe! But isn’t more accomplished when the child learns to discipline his desire for freedom and his will is trained to remain in the high chair of his own accord?

    Thank you, Jen, for your insight!

  3. At a wedding this weekend, a friend was lamenting how she had spent 11 hours in her college-bound daughter’s room helping her pack! I thought to myself that this incoming college freshman probably wasn’t ready for the demands and responsibilities college will present her if just the process of packing was so daunting. Unlike the wise Megan above, this mother saw her help as a heroic marathon. No wonder we have a nation of stressed out and sometimes resentful parents. Great commentary on CM, Jen. Thank you!

    • Hahaha, thanks, realoves! I’m laughing because once when I was young, my mother answered the phone, and it was a wrong number. They asked for Mrs. Wisdom. She said she wanted to say “Speaking. How may I assist you?” If she was still with us, I would tell her you called me wise Megan and we’d have a giggle over that. Thanks for bringing a smile to my face, and I’m sure that college freshman will find a way to muddle through just fine!

  4. Why do we as parents think we can do everything better for our children? Kids learn how to cross a street by watching others and they do not need a guard with them at all times nor a traffic light. Unfortunately accidents do happen to people.

  5. Megan, our sons must be kindred spirits. My son did the same thing and I just closed my ends and waited for the list of things he forgot. LOL Fortunately, I had to be in Charleston about five days later and dropped off the first batch (smaller than anticipated). He has asked me to mail him a thumb drive.

    When I saw how carefully and neatly his roommate’s stuff had been packed, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps his mother had taken care of it. Either that, or it is going to be the odd couple enduring a very long semester.

  6. I heard a story on the radio yesterday about how teachers can always tell when a student has completed a project and when the parent has done the whole thing — and how important it is to allow a child to fail if that’s what it takes to improve his motivation and work ethic. I vaguely remember junior high science fair projects that were so very snazzy. One year, I looked down at my pitiful collection of igneous and metamorphic rocks and my crooked handwritten descriptions of them and was so forlorn. It never occurred to me that those kids had not done the work themselves. But looking back, it makes perfect sense. The explanations were eloquent, the handwriting perfect. The electric light my friend’s dad built was so amazing! But it wasn’t actually built by my friend. I knew that somewhere deep down. But when he said his dad helped him, I assumed he only helped. And it affected my self-esteem. But what I’d never considered was how much it hurt the student whose parent gave him the opportunity to kick back and do nothing. What did that teach the kid??? And I think those of us who homeschool can be tempted to do that, too, because a poorly crafted science project reflects poorly on us as their teachers. We don’t want to look bad!

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