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Heredity, Total Depravity, and the Role of Education

A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: Principle 2

They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.

Before beginning my study on this principle, it was clear to me that I would need to place this statement in its historical context to properly understand Charlotte Mason’s meaning. On first reading, this statement appears to say something against the doctrine of original sin. I had been told and believed that this was not the case, but until studying this principle this month I had not spent any time investigating for myself.

Mason does not deny the doctrine of original sin. Karen Glass, author of Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition and Know and Tell: The Art of Narration, has written a very helpful article on what it was that Mason was addressing, which I encourage you to read. In my own rudimentary Google searching into the subject I found historical explanations that will help set the context.

In the time of Mason, the beginning of the 20th century, the rise of Darwinism and the theory of evolution through natural selection led to a greater consideration of the role that genes play in the development of psychological as well as physical traits in an individual. The idea, now termed biological or genetic determinism, known then as heredity determinism, became an idea widely disseminated in society. “Most theories of biological determinism viewed undesirable traits as originating in defective genes” (Garland Allen)—that is, that the behavioral, as well as physical characteristics of a person, were solely determined by genetics. Mason saw that many parents and educators began to think that there was no point in trying to instruct a person in morals and right behavior because it was already determined by their genes. A bad egg will breed a bad egg and that was that.

In this principle, Mason argues that this is not the case and that education can contribute a great deal in training a person to right living and thinking. She says,

“There are good and evil tendencies in body and mind, heart and soul; and the hope set before us is that we can foster the good so as to attenuate the evil; that is, on condition that we put education in her true place as the handmaid of religion.” Towards A Philosophy of Education, p.46

As Glass points out in her article, Mason is not making a theological statement. She is commenting on the potential of all children to learn as an argument against the commonly held belief that some children, particularly the poorer classes, did not have any potential.

With this context in view, through my study of this principle, my mind has been occupied with considering the idea of the “possibilities for good.” Specifically, how much potential for ‘good’ do we really have outside of Christ in light of the doctrine of original sin and total depravity; and what role does education have, if any, in the training of good in our children.

The work of justification is the work of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing that education can do, in and of itself, toward the salvation of a person’s soul from being “dead in trespasses and sins” to “alive again in Christ.” Nor is sanctification a work that we alone can do. It is only with the Holy Spirit that we can grow in Christlikeness. Mason does not deny these truths. But she saw from experience that education is a servant to religion, a tool which ought not to be squandered, in leading children toward right thinking and living, and our ultimate hope, toward God. That all children, no matter what their station or economic status in life, no matter if their father is a poor alcoholic or a statesman in good standing, all have the possibility to learn what is good, just as much as they have of what is bad. This is directly related to Principle 1: Children are born persons. God has given all children His image and therefore, as discussed last month, His communicable attributes. He has given the ability to love, to be generous, to show mercy, kindness etc., and a mind with which to learn and grow in knowledge and wisdom.

As Christians, we acknowledge that it is only by God’s grace, common to all, that we can say or do any good. Any good we do in this life is still marred by sin. It is not the perfect good that is found in God alone, but it is a broken good that, by His grace of restraining our sinfulness, many, even non-Christians, achieve to some degree.

John Calvin explains.

“But here it ought to occur to us that amid this corruption of nature there is some place for God’s grace; not such grace as to cleanse it, but to restrain it inwardly… This God by his providence bridles perversity of nature, that it may not break forth into action; but he does not purge it within.” Institutes, p. 292-293.

Education is a tool that God can use to extend that common grace to us and restrain us from being as wicked as our hearts have the potential (and desire) to be.

I labor this point because of a great many discussions I had with my husband this month as I studied this principle. I struggled to articulate to him why Mason was not making an unbiblical statement. And each attempt at an explanation revealed that I did not hold rightly to, or at least could not articulate rightly, a biblical view of the sinful state of man’s heart. My husband took great pains to impress upon me how dire my heart really is without Christ. Yet my brain still wanted to say, “I have the ability in and of myself to be good because I choose to be.” But Jesus disagrees with me.

“No one is good except God alone.” Mark 10:18

Calvin expounds.

“Man’s understanding is pierced by a heavy spear when all the thoughts that proceed from him are mocked as stupid, frivolous, insane, and perverse.” Institutes, p. 290.

No. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, we have no possibility for good. And yet, God, because of His common grace, and out of His mere good pleasure, saw fit to endow to some a special grace that makes possible admirable and heroic actions for the blessing of mankind. These “special graces,” as Calvin calls them, are gifts from God and reflect His image. Education is used by Him as a tool to instruct all in what is right and be a blessing to mankind. Further, that through education some might be lead to know Him. “How are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14). Or, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). By the means of education, He can lead us to humbly accept our fallen state and our need of Him.

“Thus it rests with parents to ease the way of their child by giving him habits of the god [spiritual] life in thought, feeling, and action, and even in spiritual things. We cannot make a child ‘good’; but, in this way, we can lay paths for the good life in the very substance of his brain.  We cannot make him hear the voice of God; but, again, we can make paths where the Lord God may walk in the cool of the evening.” Formation of Character, p. 141-142

If you’d like to join me in studying Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles, get your copy of Start Here and see this post for details.

A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles Directory

Children Are Born Persons

A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: Principle 1

At the foundation of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education is a simple, yet profound principle: children are born persons. As a Christian, this seems obvious. We believe that all of us, including children, are made in the image of God.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27.

 
From conception we bear His image. We have value and dignity as persons because we bear His image. We are not God, nor does being created in His image mean we share His divine attributes (immutability, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc.). But we do reflect to a much lesser degree the beauty of God, the ability to know and understand truth, to be creative, to love, to show compassion, mercy, kindness, and so on.

Even though this truth is understood by most Christians, its wider educational implications can often be overlooked.

What are the educational implications of this understanding of children? Why did Charlotte Mason feel it necessary to point to children as persons as the first and primary principle of her education philosophy?

Because how we view children impacts how we educate them.

Mason begins her discussion on this principle by considering the mind of a child. She explains that we are not created “huge oysters” with empty minds waiting to be filled. We are made fully equipped with a working mind that from the moment of birth interacts and learns from the world around him. She describes in detail all the ways that infants demonstrate their fully-functioning mind.

“The other view is that the beautiful infant frame is but the setting of a jewel of such astonishing worth that, put the whole world in one scale and this jewel in the other, and the scale which hold the world flies up outbalanced.” Vol. 6, pg34

As the child grows she explains that, 

“Reason is present in the infant as truly as imagination. As soon as he can speak he lets us know that he has powered the ‘cause why’ of things and perplexes us with a thousand questions.” Vol. 6, pg37

Those who have raised toddlers know this all too well.

If you have ever had the delight of raising a 4-year-old girl, you know that before they have even come close to a school book their little minds are more than capable of reason, to the point where you are unwittingly negotiated out of or into something by a true expert in the art of negotiation. Clearly this little human is born with a complete and capable mind to be able to do this before any formal education has begun. Mason puts it most profoundly this way:

“If we have not proved that a child is born a person with a mind as complete and as beautiful as his beautiful little body, we can at least show that he 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.” Vol. 6, p36

Because the mind of even the smallest child is capable and fully equipped “for his occasions,” we ought to give it the fullest respect in regards to its capabilities. The child’s mind is to feed on ideas. Give them meat. Give them the best books that put their minds in direct contact with the minds of those that love and care for the subject and write with an excellence worthy of the child’s mind.

“Mind must come into contact with mind through the medium of idea.” Vol. 6, pg 39

As children are born persons, they already come to us with their own personalities intact. They come as they are. We can have ideas about what we would like our children to do or be, but the reality is, they are already them. We need to educate, cultivate, and direct within their personalities, but we are not to encroach on their personalities. This means we are not to manipulate children with wide eyes and baby voices, coaxing them to follow our lead, or squelch their personalities when they are different from our own. When we do this we devalue the child and his aptitude to deal with the ideas themselves.

My oldest daughter helped at Vacation Bible School for the first time this year. After the first day she came home quite disturbed, realizing that she had spent the day talking down to the younger children simply because they were younger and smaller than her. She realized she spoke to them in a higher pitched voice with wide, excitable eyes, condescending to them. It is so easy to do, yet she immediately identified that this was not truth. It was devaluing them as persons who were able to understand perfectly well without condescension. She made it her distinct work to talk to them as she would any other human being. “It just felt unjust. I’ve read in books when the younger sibling realizes they were being talked down to. It doesn’t feel nice. They need to be told the plain facts and not spoken to like they are lower than I am.”

Because children are born persons, made in the image of God, we not only need to esteem highly the capabilities of their minds, and respect their personalities, we also need to be careful about incessant prodding and coaxing that can negate their responsibilities as persons. Mason says,

“What we must guard against in the training of children is the danger of their getting into the habit of being prodded to every duty and every effort. Our whole system of school policy is largely a system of prods. Marks, prizes, exhibitions, are all prods; and a system of prodding is apt to obscure the meaning of must and ought for the boy or girl who gets into the habit of mental and moral lolling up against his prods.” Vol. 3, pg39

This idea of prodding becoming a crutch to the mind of a child is a difficult concept for today’s educational culture. As in Mason’s day, our curriculums and school philosophies are full of such prods. But instead of prodding with prizes and question after incessant question to arrive at the answer the teacher wants to hear,

“Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses.” Vol. 6, p40

The temptation to prod is difficult to resist. But the benefit to the child if we do resist is life altering. As Mason says,

“Children must stand or fall by their own efforts.” Vol. 3, pg38

With my daughter’s permission I tell you this story.  For 3 years my daughter had been narrating her books beautifully. But Last year (AO Year 4), when handed her history books to read on her own, she struggled to pay attention and narrate. I did my best to guide and support her, but still, her attention to what she was reading was not adequate to narrate well. I was beside myself with frustration. Every time she came to narrate to me with, “There was this guy…I think there was a battle… I don’t know…” I wanted to prod her with questions.

You might be wondering, what would be wrong with asking her questions to get something out of her? But this child had been asking and answering her own questions in her narrations for the last 3 years. Narration does that. So to go from asking and answering her own questions to being prodded with questions by me would be to devalue her mind’s ability to continue to deal properly with the ideas before her, and teach her that the habit of attention was not important.

I had come to a point where I had to seriously consider if holding to this philosophy was what was best for this child. This led me back to the question: what is the purpose of education? Is it so that she could answer some questions on a test, or so that she would grow in wisdom and knowledge and virtue? Is it something to endure in her childhood so that she can get a job as an adult, or something to embrace as a life? What was the worst thing that would happen if we continued as we were, with me encouraging the habit of attention and trusting that her mind would eventually do the work it was made to do? The worst thing would be that she would not know about the that period of history (right now). What would she gain? She would gain the understanding that “all education is self education.” That is, that her learning was her responsibility and her mind has been created to do its own learning. I came to the conclusion that if we got to the end of the school year and she learned that lesson, the year was far more valuable than if she did know all the answers. So, with great difficulty, I trusted Mason and resisted prodding. I told my daughter that this was her education, not mine. It was her responsibility to pay attention and narrate to the best of her ability. Because at the end of the day, she is the one that will not know if she does not. The year continued in much the same way. Then came exams. My daughter struggled. When she couldn’t answer, I moved on to the next question and said nothing. By the end, she was in tears. Afterwards, as we hugged it out on the couch, we talked about why she thought she couldn’t answer the questions. A couple of weeks later I interviewed the children about how they felt about their school year. When asked what she needed to work on, this daughter answered, “History… because it is hard concentrating and I want to learn more about what happened.” By resisting prodding, the responsibility for learning was properly placed on her. And I can tell you, this year, she has taken that responsibility with enthusiasm and has narrated beautifully.*

“…every child has been discovered to be a person of infinite possibilities.” Vol. 6, pg44

How we view children influences how we educate them. Their education should respect their minds and honor them as whole persons made in the image of God.

There is so much more that Mason spoke of in this principle that I haven’t even touched on and am still mulling over in my mind. But this post is enough to begin the conversation. Now it is your turn. What stood out to you in your study of this principle? What questions did it raise? What practices have you changed in your teaching because of considering this principle? What ideas are you struggling with or still pondering? I’d love to hear from you.

It’s not too late to start studying Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles along with me! Get your copy of Start Here and see this post for details.

* Physiological and developmental considerations were taken into account, but were beyond the scope of this discussion. The point remains, to prod her during this time would have been a disservice to her mind’s capabilities.

A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles

As I mentioned last week, I will be studying Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles of education. To do this I will be using Brandy Vencel’s Start Here study guide. I invite you to study along with me. Here are the details for the study.

Required reading
In addition to the Start Here study guide, you will also need For The Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay and A Philosophy of Education (Volume 6) by Charlotte Mason. Volume 6 is available to read for free online at Ambleside Online if you don’t own the hard copy.

Schedule
We will discuss a principle a month most of the time, except where Brandy has combined principles that are related. These are outlined in her Start Here study guide. I plan to post my thoughts on the 3rd Tuesday of every month. I will try really hard to keep to this schedule but I cannot guarantee that life will not get in the way from time to time. I highly recommend that you subscribe to the blog to get notified of the next post in the study. You can do this by entering your email address into the orange box on the right or the bottom of the page.

Participation
Once I’ve posted my thoughts about the principle, it is your turn. Post your thoughts, questions, and discussions points in the comments. Feel free to link to your own blog in the comments if you have a post that discusses the principle being considered.

Keeping it together
This page will serve as a landing page for the study. There will be a list of links to each post for easy navigation. I will continue to add links as we make our way through the study.

Who was Charlotte Mason?
Lastly, Brandy says it is a good idea to know who Charlotte Mason was and why it is worth our time to study her. Read this article to learn about Charlotte Mason herself.

 

A Journey Through Charlotte Mason 20 Principles Directory

  • Principle 1:
    Children are born persons.
  • Principle 2:
    [Children] are not born either good or bad, but with the possibilities for good and for evil.
  • Principle 3:
    The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental…
  • Principle 4:
    These principles [of authority and obedience] are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.
  • Principle 5a & 6:
    Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments – [the first is] the atmosphere of environment…
    (6)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.
  • Principles 5b & 7:
    Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments – [the second being] the discipline of habit…
    (7)By “education is a discipline,” we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e., to our habits.
  • Principles 5c & 8:
    Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments – [the third of which is] the presentation of living ideas…
    (8)In saying that “education is a life,” the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.
  • Principles 9,10, and 11:
    We hold that 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.
    (10)Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher’s axiom is, ‘what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.’
    (11)But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas.
  • Principle 12:
    Out of this conception [that the child’s mind comes fit to deal with knowledge, and that facts must not be presented without their informing ideas] comes our principle that, – “Education is the Science of Relations”; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, naturelore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of–
    “Those first-born affinities
    “That fit our new existence to existing things.”
  • Principle 13:
    In devising a SYLLABUS for a normal child, of whatever social class, three points must be considered:
    (a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.
    (b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity).
    (c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.
  • Principles 14 & 15:
    As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.
    (15) A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarizing, and the like.
    Acting upon these and some other points in the behaviour of mind, we find that the educability of children is enormously greater than has hitherto been supposed, and is but little dependent on such circumstances as heredity and environment.
    Nor is the accuracy of this statement limited to clever children or to children of the educated classes: thousands of children in Elementary Schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behaviour of mind.
  • Principles 16a and 17:
    There are two guides to moral and intellectual self-management to offer to children, [the first] we may call ‘the way of the will’…
    (17)The way of the will: Children should be taught, (a) to distinguish between ‘I want’ and ‘I will.’ (b) That the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts from that which we desire but do not will. (c) That the best wayto turn our thoughts is to think of or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting. (d) That after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its work with new vigour. (This adjunct of the will is familiar to us as diversion, whose office it is to ease us for a time from will effort, that we may ‘will’ again with added power. The use of suggestion as an aid to the will is to be deprecated, as tending to stultify and stereotype character. It would seem that spontaneity is a condition of development, and that human nature needs the discipline of failure as well as of success.)
  • Principles 16b and 18:
    There are two guides to moral and intellectual self-management to offer to children, [the second] we may call ‘the way of the reason’…
    (18)The way of reason: We teach children, too, not to ‘lean (too confidently) to their own understanding’; because the function of reason is to give logical demonstration (a) of mathematical truth, (b) of an initial idea, accepted by the will. In the former case, reason is, practically, an infallible guide, but in the latter, it is not always a safe one; for, whether that idea be right or wrong, reason will confirm it by irrefragable proofs.
  • Principle 19:
    Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.
  • Principle 20:
    We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.

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