I’m about to start my last full semester of college. As I prepare for commencement this May, I think back and remember all my semesters of college learning.
Including the classes that I took when I was sixteen at my local community college, I will have had thirteen semesters in all.
Those thirteen semesters have been filled with paper-writing, homework assignments, tests, quizzes, drills, studying, listening to lectures, practicing my instrument, presentations, performances, proficiencies, stress, worry, late or all-nighters, anxiety, good and bad grades, good and bad professors, good and bad roommates, and good and bad classes.
No matter whether my experiences in a certain class or with an individual professor were good or bad, there are universal truths to a college education. You have no time. You don’t sleep. You’re busy. You’re stressed. Even if you love school, you still look forward to spring break. A slightly humorous graph came out a few years back that summed up a college experience. It simply presented the choices “Sleep,” “Good Grades,” and “A Social Life,” and below them it read “Pick two.”
That is the life of a college student. The truth is, college can severely compromise a student’s love of learning. Out of all my friends in Boston (the college hub of America) many of them are stressed, overworked, and suffering from depression or anxiety. It’s a hard adjustment no matter what education background students come from, and I’ve had a lot of friends pulled out of school by concerned parents.
In such a stressful, rigorous environment, how does Charlotte Mason fit into it all? Can she? Would it help to encorporate her ideas into college learning, or would the act of trying be just another thing to worry about. Who really needs something else to juggle in their precarious balancing act, right?
I hope to answer some of these questions. But first, I’d like to share my personal experience with college. I have the privilege of pursuing a double major in Performance (voice) and Film Scoring at Berklee College of Music. With concentrations like that, my studies aren’t all about attending lectures and cramming for tests. I have two voice lessons a week, two or three composition projects a week, plus nightly rehearsals for performing groups like choirs, orchestra, and the opera.
Inserting a bit of Charlotte Mason into my diet was essential for surviving my first semester at Berklee. When school was wearing me down, I checked out “Barnaby Rudge” by Charles Dickens from the library, and devoured it in my free time. I was assigned to attend a play for my English class, and I took the subway off campus to watch a six-hour production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1 and 2. I took trips to the Museum of Fine Arts (free for Berklee students!) and sat in the Impressionists room sketching the paintings. In the next few semesters I continued to draw and paint with watercolors, learned to play the clarinet, and watched A&E literary films in my spare time.
But that spare time began to be few and far between. My sophomore year I was able to finish writing the fantasy novel I had started in high school, and even get far into writing its sequel. But then came my junior and senior year: the most stressful and busy years I’ve ever faced. I didn’t have time to read living books, much less write my own. But that was okay. I could still read short stories on my iphone kindle app on the subway. The stories I had always meant to read, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” and H.G. Well’s “The Time Machine.” My husband can tell you, I wouldn’t shut up about “The Lost World,” even though I was drowning in work that semester.
Liberal arts classes can be the bane of college existence, but they can also provide the art, history, and humanities supplements to an otherwise borish college curriculum. I didn’t have time to go to the art gallery on my own, but I took field trips with my Art History class. I learned about Irish history in my Irish Music, Culture, and Film class. I’ve found that Charlotte Mason-raised students tend to thrive on liberal arts classes like that. They’re used to caring about history and art and music, and it’s easier for them to become invested and interested in the class.
Even when I was done with my liberal arts core and was only taking music, if someone told me I “wasn’t living a Charlotte Mason lifestyle” anymore, I would disagree. I was taking unique, hands-on classes: acting, chamber music ensemble, musical theater workshop, jazz improv, diction, composition, orchestration, dramatic scoring, plus directing and singing in an opera, arranging music from soundtracks and co-leading a choir every week with my husband, conducting performances with live orchestra and choir, and I even sang at Symphony Hall.
To be able to balance ten classes plus performances and leading the choir and opera required just a little scheduling and habit training, not to mention loving to learn each of the topics of those ten classes. And I think I made my life vibrant with the feast I set out for myself. Singing an opera role may not seem like an intellectual feast of meaty learning, but I definitely wouldn’t call it twaddle.
If the goal of my Charlotte Mason education was to create a whole person out of me, then it has succeeded. I do focus on music, but within music I do so much (probably too much.) And I’m not happy with all music all the time. To survive drowning in music, I spent free time screenwriting with Tim, sketching, reading those short works of literature on my kindle app, and enjoying simple things like a nightly cup of tea, learning to cook, and going to church on Sunday.
Now, I’d like to return to Charlotte Mason’s role in a college education. When the first generation of Ambleside Online-reared teens started going through college, we had the opportunity to discuss ways to make the higher education experience more like a CM education. We came up with three different approaches to a Charlotte Mason life in college:
- The Transfigured Approach: Taking what you are given (aka your college course materical) and changing the way you study it. How would you study this homework at home, in order to retain the information? Truthfully, I would have made up a silly song which would have stuck in my memory and given me a relationship with the information, but I think the idea here is more of an academic one. I used to orally narrate the lectures I attended to Tim over the phone during our long-distance engagement.
- The Supplemental Approach: This is the “Field Trip Tactic,” and involves looking to sources outside the classroom (museums, concerts) to form a relationship with the material. Studying Shakespeare? Go to a Shakespeare play. Studying Monet? Watch “the Impressionists” BBC mini-series (ladies, it stars Richard Armitage as Monet, that’s reason enough.) This is what I did as a lower classman, when I actually had time. This approach can also consist simply of adding living course material to your classes to read alongside the required text. This is probably the idea that makes the most sense. After all, parents taught us with living books, so that should be the best way to learn in college too. Unfortunately, college is already so much busy work that few if any students would find this a helpful way to learn. Which brings me to my favorite approach lately, the Refuel.
- The Refuel Approach: Doing things outside of school to nourish yourself as a person. Take a hike and listen to the leaves crunch underneath your feet. Go to an art gallery, and spend the whole time in one room, just staring at the paintings. Go to the library, read a book for fun. Have a picnic. Chase some geese or pigeons. Go kayaking down a small river. Have that cup of tea, maybe even take it outside if it’s warm enough. Go to the symphony, lean back, and let Mahler wash over you. It’s okay if you fall asleep, you’re there to relax. Go out to eat once in a while and have a good talk with your friends about the things that matter to you.
I hope these three ideas help you and your college-bound student. They’ve certainly helped me over the past five years. Along with these ideas, here are some general advice I would offer for surviving college. Always find the fun in the assignment. Keep your chin up and remember why you love your major. Above all, never lose sight of why you’re in school, and what your ultimate goal is. And of course, it helps if you love to learn, at least a little.
© 2014 by Hannah Hoyt