Last time, I discussed Charlotte Mason’s 4th principle concerning the tools a teacher ought not to use in educating her student. The following four principles, Principles 5-8, discuss the three educational instruments that Mason identifies should be used by a teacher: “atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.” Today, I am discussing the first of these.
(principle 5a&6) “Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments–the atmosphere of environment…
When we say that “education is an atmosphere,” we do not mean a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child’s level.”
As I progress through my study of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principle’s of education, it becomes more apparent to me how interconnected these principles are. Brandy, in her study guide “Start Here,” has helpfully paired the principles to discuss only one at a time, but it must be remembered that they are interconnected, and one does not work in isolation of the others.
Atmosphere of Environment, not Asthetic
To the moms who feel like they do not have it all together in their homes, whose decor hasn’t been updated since they got married because they have been knee-deep in diapers and dinner while teaching a tribe of kids, whose goal has been to just keep everyone alive and fed and happy and educated—be encouraged! When Mason talks about “atmosphere of environment,’ she is not talking about having the Pinterest perfect, spa-like, minimalist oasis that we idolize nowadays on TV and in magazines. In fact, she criticizes what she calls the “Cult of aestheticism” that she saw in her own day. It seems that the idea was that the right color schemes, with the right pictures on the wall, and the right sounds and right “gracious persons” would, by osmosis, furnace in a child a “high soul.” This kind of thinking can deceive us even today. But aesthetics do not a virtuous man make. Let me insert a caveat right here. Having a well organized and aesthetically calm and pleasing physical environment can be helpful in the preparation for learning. If you like a minimalist aesthetic with neutral colored walls and furniture made of natural materials with beautiful artwork on your walls (like I do), go for it. But the carefully constructed physical environment itself does not produce an educated virtuous person and is not required for education to take place.
When Mason talks of the atmosphere of environment she is also not talking about the modern day classroom aesthetic, “especially adapted and prepared,” with the ‘educational’ posters on the wall and primary colored decorations of fake paper trees or birds or fish etc. Mason criticizes the dumbing down of a child’s environment to something artificial then calling it “education.” She saw this as a betrayal of the personhood of the child.
“It is not an environment that these want, a set of artificial relations carefully constructed, but an atmosphere which nobody has been at pains to constitute. It is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us.” – Vol 6, p96
So what is Mason talking about? The atmosphere of the home is not primarily concerned with what it looks like. It goes beyond the physical space. It is about relationship.
Atmosphere as Relationship
Mason paints a beautiful picture of Atmosphere, “the natural conditions under which a child should live,” as relationships that a child develops with the people and things around him. It is a lengthy quote but well worth reading in its entirety.
“We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby’s needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges. And, what tempered ‘fusion of classes’ is so effective as a child’s intimacy with his betters, and also with cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner, with everybody who comes in his way? Children have a genius for this sort of general intimacy, a valuable part of their education; care and guidance are needed, of course, lest admiring friends should make fools of them, but no compounded ‘environment’ could make up for this fresh air, this wholesome wind blowing now from one point, now from another.” – Vol 6,p96-97
So, when your house is a mess and your children have all but neglected their math for a week because they have been caring for a sick baby goat who can’t nurse from his mama, you are utilizing the exact tool that Mason says is education. It is not sheltering them from the hard knocks by creating an artificial “child environment,” but cultivating relationships with people and the world so that they grow in virtue through the hard knocks.
It is when you tell your child that they can’t do that activity today because dear Mrs. Smith is not well and you need to bring her a meal and make sure she is ok. Or, when they spend the whole morning in the garage with Grandpa as he shows them his tools, tells them his stories, and has them help him build his latest project. Or when you pray as a family for a church member who has a great need. It is the atmosphere of relationship with the real world that is “fresh air, this wholesome wind blowing now from one point, now from another..”
My son has a play kitchen that he enjoys playing with which satisfies his imagination for a short time. But it by no means fools him to thinking that it is anything like the real thing. He gains much more satisfaction in being in the real kitchen with real running water and a real oven and stove where he can help stir the evening’s meal. He is most satisfied when he knows that he has contributed to the house by helping cook our meal. It is this atmosphere of serving, contributing, and experiencing real life that is most formative. Because they know the difference.
“…no artificial element be introduced, no sprinkling with rose-water, softening with cushions. Children must face life as it is.” Vol 6, p97
Atmosphere as Love and The Common Pursuit of Truth
I have discussed before Mason’s belief that the love of knowledge ought to be the primary motivation for learning. This idea permeates her writings.
“We foresee happy days for children when all teachers know that no other exciting motive whatever is necessary to produce good work in each individual of however big a class than that love of knowledge which is natural to every child” – Vol 6, p98
This atmosphere of the love of learning diverges greatly from our utilitarian culture. Passing a test is now substituted for actual education. But this is a poor facsimile and does not attain to the goal of growing in godliness and virtue. Knowledge itself is worth knowing. Pursuing knowledge for its own sake teaches us to love what is lovely. And ultimately, if we think rightly about the knowledge we are pursuing, it leads us to worship God. He is the Creator of all things. All knowledge comes from Him for His glory. And we, His creatures, should delight in His world and glorify Him because of it.
When books and read-alouds, beautiful music and art, nature walks and enjoying the outdoors are part of your everyday family life; when working hard, diligence, kindness, gentleness, love and thoughtfulness towards others are a common pursuit in the atmosphere of your home; when worship and delight of God are part of the everyday conversation and vocabulary of your home, you are utilizing this powerful instrument afforded to us by our loving Creator: Atmosphere.
“… and this atmosphere in which the child inspires his unconscious ideas of right living emanates from his parents.” – Vol2, p37
Atmosphere is like the fresh air of life. It is not materials and a pretty classroom set up. It is developing relationships with real people in the real world. It is a home where parents have a love for knowledge and seek to grow in knowledge alongside their children.
“The bracing atmosphere of truth and sincerity should be perceived in every School; and here again the common pursuit of knowledge by teacher and class comes to our aid and creates a Current of fresh air perceptible even to the chance visitor, who sees the glow of intellectual life and “moral health on the faces of teachers and children alike.” – Vol 6, p97