by Ali Laing and Heather McAdow
(a transcript of the speech delivered at Cultivate Night, August 22, 2017)
Charlotte Mason once wrote that “education is the science of relations.” I wonder if one can wholly grasp the depth of that profound statement at first glance. She was saying true and meaningful learning happens when we connect and form relationships with the things, ideas, and people we study. She further explained that “we personally have relations with all that there is in the present, all that there has been in the past, and all that there will be in the future, with all above us and all about us; and that fullness of living, expansion, expression, and serviceableness, for each of us, depends upon how far we apprehend these relationships and how many of them we lay hold of.” (Charlotte Mason, V6, p. 185-186) Fullness of living is in direct proportion to the relationships, both in quality and quantity, which we establish and cultivate with the world around us - past, present, and future.
Appreciating the beauty of this type of education doesn’t come readily for everyone. Because Charlotte Mason’s methodology is counter-intuitive to today’s standard classroom practices, some people require a re-working or re-training of their mindset before getting to that point. Sometimes our minds cling so tightly to the bedrock of standardized education with which we are familiar, we are not open to receiving the precious pearls of wisdom Ms. Mason offers us in exchange. The two are not compatible. We must choose. When people new to homeschooling or new to Charlotte Mason ask, “Where do I start?”, the answer is, find your vision. What is your end goal? This may elicit additional considerations. Where are you coming from? How were you educated? Do you want the same experiences for your children? To what end? To pass the test, to make the grade, to earn the degree, to get the job? Or is there more to it? Institutional educators, professionals, even some well-meaning friends and family would have us believe today’s standardized education - education measured by grade-specific expectations and standardized evaluations - is the final authority on the scope of things necessary for successful learning. This utilitarian perspective effectively plunders beauty from a wholesome and meaningful education, leaving many with a childhood of mere “fact assimilation”. Automated education void of relational context often leaves children bored and frustrated, not to mention, ill-prepared for relational dealings in the real world. Beauty and relationships have widely been lost in the public system, but we are home educators! We have the freedom to teach however we choose, doing what is best for the children God has given us. Creating a vision for capturing the beauty of learning ensures our children have the opportunity for a meaningful education while also providing us hope, focus, and direction. “We learn for life, not for the schools.” (CM, V5, p. 148)
How is this vision of beauty to be achieved, you ask? Thankfully, we have a rich resource in the writings of Charlotte Mason, who said, “Knowledge is not instruction, information, scholarship, a well-stored memory. It is passed, like the light of a torch, from mind to mind, and the flame can be kindled at original minds only. Thought, we know, breeds thought; it is as vital thought touches our minds that our ideas are vitalized, and out of our ideas come our conduct of life.” (CM, V6, p. 303) Learning should be inspiring! New ideas presented to our children through daily feasts of quality books, pictures, music, and nature become the actual conduit of their lives. Children have an almost unquenchable appetite to connect with the world around them, daily, hourly asking the questions: who, what, when, where, and why? They have little use for disconnected, memorized facts, commonly the primary source of mental nutrition in many educational settings. Children need to relate and digest the facts to the point they become a part of their overall sphere of understanding. Without relationships, there is no connection, no understanding.
True learning happens when one idea sparks an interest to know more and new relationships are begun with the world. This “science of relations” begins to weave throughout everything, ultimately leading us toward the source of all knowledge, our Creator. It became Ms. Mason’s life mission to provide an education method based upon biblical principles, with the understanding that we are here for a bigger purpose than ourselves, bigger than our utilitarian contribution to society, bigger than our relatively brief time on this earth. In her very first lectures, given in 1885 and which later comprised the pages of her first volume in the homeschooling series, she shared Bible passages whereby she had discovered “a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ.” (CM, V1 p. 12) The more we read of Ms. Mason’s writings, the more evidence we see of the source of her wisdom, as it consistently and soundly resonates with God’s Word. “All our teaching of children should be given reverently, with the humble sense that we are invited in this matter to co-operate with the Holy Spirit.” (CM, V2, p. 48) In keeping with God’s view of His children, she said, “Children are born persons…the child's mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.” (CM, V6, p. xxiv-xxxi)
Ideas feed upon ideas, especially when cultivated in meaningful relational environments. Ms. Mason’s methods employ living books over dry textbooks and worksheets, narrations over multiple-choice exams, and short lessons, which maintain focus and optimize retention. Children study the great heroes, poets, artists, composers, and hymns of renown, knowing the stories, struggles, and triumphs of each. Through the works of authors like Aesop, Shakespeare, and Plutarch, they learn firsthand lessons on character and nobility, successes and failures, establishing a moral compass to carry with them throughout life. For science, they study nature and read living books, scientific research journals, and other resources that connect them directly with creation and scientific observation. Bible lessons teach them the history of the universe and our purpose for existence, then offers them, most importantly of all the knowledge that exists, the message of the Gospel of Christ! Children study biblical worldview, theology, and church history. For parents, the rich instruction made available to us through Ms. Mason’s books and publications is worthy of our diligent study, for us and our children. When we read and apply her principles, our homes gradually become environments where learning happens gently and naturally. Beauty - there it is!
The structure of Ms. Mason’s methodology is built upon the foundation that “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” (CM, V6, p. xxiv) Atmosphere refers to the environment of our living spaces. New ideas and inspirations come from our surroundings, what our families see on a daily basis. It isn’t necessary to create an artificial classroom at home. Let your family be inspired by their natural environment so that learning becomes an organic and lifelong activity. Discipline refers to habits - habits of thought, character, hygiene, schedules, all of which play a part in successful learning. Ms. Mason was tuned in to the relatively crude science of her day, stating that the physiology of the brain is strengthened by habitual lines of thought. More recent science shows that, indeed, synapses between brain cells are structurally developed and strengthened by repetitive (habitual) thoughts and actions. How did she know? Lastly, Life is the full-time activity of learning, going back to the idea that education is a science of relations. Ms. Mason said, “a human being comes into the world with capacity for many relations; and that we, for our part, have two chief concerns – first, to put him in the way of forming these relations by presenting the right idea at the right time, and by forming the right habit upon the right idea; and secondly, by not getting in the way and so preventing the establishment of the very relations we seek to form.” (CM, V3 p. 66) In orchestrating this “life” for our children, whether through books, sights, sounds, people, or experiences, we let them form the relationships. It cannot be forced on our part. My husband often marvels at how the children in our homeschooling community have the ability to comfortably carry on intelligent conversations with people of all ages, much to the credit, we believe, of this relational education our families share. In the end, “the question is not – how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education – but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” (CM, V3, p. 171)
Children deserve the best we can offer them. Operating with a deliberate and thoughtful vision rooted with the end goal in mind, we give our children a precious and beautiful gift. Then we step aside and let the relationships do the work of education. Ms. Mason said that every day a child needs three things: someone or something to love, something to do, and something to think about. The beauty of a Charlotte Mason education lies in these relationships. So put your child in the way of forming as many as possible!