by Ali Laing (transcript of speech presented at Cultivate Night, August 28 and September 4, 2018)
For those who are new to our community, I want to introduce you to a lady named Charlotte Mason, a British educator who, over a hundred years ago during the Industrial Revolution, developed an education method based on a scriptural understanding of how God created us to live, love, learn, and relate to our world and our Creator. She said that “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” It isn’t supposed to be a stultified 12+ years’ progression of information accumulation that ends with a piece of paper and a slap on the back. Education is a lifelong love of learning! She wrote six volumes of books on home education and founded the Parent’s National Education Union, which was a teaching school for parents and teachers in Britain around the turn of the century. Today, the Charlotte Mason method of education is a growing movement within homeschooling communities around the world. We feel so blessed to share this method with fellow homeschoolers in our community, studying her books and learning together as we go.
Tonight, we’re talking about the first of Charlotte Mason’s Twenty Principles of Education: “Children are born persons”. It’s crucial for us to understand this first principle because it is the basis for all the other principles, and really, the basis for her entire educational method. In her day, children weren’t highly valued. With high birth and mortality rates, children were often seen as inconveniences and not highly celebrated like in our culture today. So Charlotte’s assertion that “children are born persons” was a revolutionary concept at the time. Without laying out a conceptual understanding of who children were - whose they were – the rest of her method would have been truly irrelevant, so Charlotte had to establish this idea from the start.
Today it’s what one might call a fairly obvious statement: children are born persons. Of course they are! Aren’t we all made in God’s image, after all? Psalms 139: 15-16 says, “My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in secret, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all my days were written in Your book and ordained for me before one of them came to be.”
Each child born into this world is a fresh creation sent to us straight from God, with their complete life’s purpose spread out before them. The poet, William Wordsworth, captured this idea so eloquently when he wrote, Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The soul that rises with us, our life’s star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
I love that: Heaven lies about us in our infancy, as if the smell of Heaven still lingers on our babies. Who could argue with that, those of us who cannot resist the smell of a newborn? Babies pretty quickly make their personalities known to those around them in their first few weeks of life. Their uniqueness of personhood is clearly evident right away; and their capability to deal with the world as it comes is fascinating to observe. Charlotte, unlike other educational philosophers throughout history, believed a child “always has all the mind he requires for his occasions; that is, that his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind.” (A Philosophy of Education, vol 6, p 36)
Reflect for a moment on that last phrase: his mind is the instrument of his education and his education does not produce his mind. Think about how education is generally viewed in America today. Are children approached as capable, independent persons able to receive new ideas without our interference or incessant analyses? Are they given space and time to assimilate ideas, using their imaginations and intellects to form their own opinions? Do we give them freedom to form relationships with the world around them when their minds are ready?
Or are they lined up in a compartmentalized system and fed a standard diet of predigested information from one year to the next without much reverence for their individualities? I think many educators operate under the incorrect assumption that information input produces mind - produces successful students - produces productive citizens, as if their efforts as teachers effectively shape the personhood and character of their students before they join the ranks of society. To be clear, personhood is not created or bestowed by man; and as many of us have seen or experienced, fact accumulation does not produce minds. Who remembers the answers to all those multiple choice tests in school? Dates without meaning, names without stories, formulas without application? Is that what we want for our children? Is that true education? Does fact dumping breathe life into children?
Charlotte scorned utilitarianism because it put usefulness to society above personhood and relationships. Who I am today has very little to do with the systematic cramming of information I received in school and more to do with who God created me to be and the meaningful relationships and ideas that impacted my mind and spirit along the way. Here’s a little girl I remember. She is me. I still remember being this little girl, soaking up life just like I do today. Many things have changed for me because of life’s experiences. I’ve grown in maturity and understanding. But the instrument of my mind is the same. I had the same capacity then to deal with ideas, relate to people, and think for myself that I have today. Try to remember yourself as a child growing up. Did you ponder and grapple, imagine and create? Perhaps you did those things even more so then, without the distractions that come with being an adult. Do you ever look at your child and see them for the adult they will be one day? Do you ever consider that they are already the complete person God created them to be? Or do you, like so many, operate under the assumption that you’ve been tasked with shaping their minds and personalities through your endless efforts to prod, push, and force learning? What an unfortunate burden for you to carry. It doesn’t have to be that way! I had a great-grandma whom we called “Ninnie”. She lived up until about twelve years ago, watched me grow up and watched a couple of my children grow for a few years. Ninnie had the gift of treating each person she encountered with the same level of respect and attention she would have given the Pope. She just knew how to look you in the eye and really listen, and then speak to you like an equal. And you knew you could trust her with your thoughts because she never tattled to anyone.
During my whole youth, I stayed with Ninnie (and Daddo, my great-grandpa) for several weeks every summer. They had an abundant garden about a half acre in size with rows and rows of vegetables, fruit trees, and berry bushes. I had so much time to play and wander through that garden, digging, catching horny toads, eating berries, and thinking. What a playground for my imagination that was! Then Ninnie would sit with me for hours, talking about the things pressing on my mind. I never felt like a nuisance or a waste of her time. She made an effort to be available. She didn’t chase me down in the garden pointing out facts about bugs and plants. She didn’t chastise me for losing Daddo’s tools in the dirt pile time and again. She didn’t care that I tracked mud onto the linoleum. But she was always in the kitchen with homemade blackberry cobbler or fresh cantaloupe, just waiting for me to bring my thoughts to her.
As I grew up, the subject matter varied, but I always knew I’d have a riveting conversation to look forward to with Ninnie because she was truly a lifelong learner, continuing to engage with the world around her up until her last days. She respected me as a person and I respected her as a person. And through that, I learned that I was valued as a person, that I had something to contribute, even as a child. More importantly, the world had so much to teach me if I would only engage with it. Ninnie encouraged my appetite for learning just by treating me as a person and by listening and lovingly introducing me to new ideas. I wish everyone had a Ninnie in their life!
Do you wonder, as you look at your child, what kind of person they will be as adults? If you’ve spent any amount of time really listening to them, you might already have some idea. I think it’s fun to look through my kids’ younger photos and videos and notice glimpses of their personalities shining through, even as newborns. Spending time reflecting on our children’s personalities and really listening to them, looking them in the eye, recognizing that they are complete and individual persons from the start, we often find renewed levels of grace, respect, and patience as we carry on our days throughout this homeschooling journey.
Just a few weeks ago, I had to set aside my copy of For the Children’s Sake (ironically) to hear my six year-old son’s analysis of his Transformers characters and all their special quirks and abilities. It’s so much easier to listen to the tedious narrations of that little boy when I recognize him as a person made in the image of God, a brother in Christ traveling a similar path through this world. Many times we have to set aside the “important work” of whatever is occupying our attention for the most important work: treating our children as persons, making them feel the way my Ninnie made me feel as a child. Because as a matter of fact, it makes a difference. Many times I learn something from my kids! They do have something to contribute. It takes a certain level of humility to approach our children this way, to lay aside the presumption that we have things figured out so much more than they do. Rather than view ourselves as purveyors of all knowledge and wisdom, perhaps it's more accurate to say we are "facilitators" of new ideas and experiences for our children.
Last week, I received a text from a friend who had just dropped my daughter at home after babysitting for a Bible study group. She said, “J___ was such a blessing to our group tonight. We had some pretty cranky kids and she handled everything with gentleness and grace. She makes me feel like our kids are valuable and not a burden!” (emphasis mine) That was a double-edged moment for me because I often inwardly criticize myself for being cranky with my kids, not handling things with gentleness and grace. But somehow my daughter developed the skill that Ninnie possessed: making those kids feel valuable and not a burden. So despite my Irishwoman tendencies (yelling and whatnot), apparently my kids are somehow still getting the message that they are valuable and not a burden. Isn’t God’s grace amazing? He works around my imperfections, reaching my children’s hearts. We need to let go of the idea that we have any control over the personhood of our children. Sure, we have influence. Definitely. But they are their own selves. They are not an extension of us. They are not products that we have made.
As far as education goes, God didn’t create His children to be information receptacles parroting back facts. He didn’t call us to homeschool so we would feel an unnecessary burden to mold their minds and shape their character. No. Our job is simply to feed their minds with an abundant feast of ideas because He gave our children a natural-born capacity to deal with this world as it comes to them. Their minds are tools, instruments to soak up ideas and form opinions, to reason through hard lessons and come up with original thoughts. He created His children to have relationships – with Him, with each other, with our world – to live in the full personhood of who they are. He created us all in His image because He loves us. Children are born persons, complete and whole in the image of God, with a mind ready to learn and a personality ready to be respected by other fellow persons. Listen to your children. You may be surprised by what they teach YOU.