Last week, I discussed Charlotte Mason’s principle of authority and obedience. I chose to focus on her exploration of parental authority. This week, I am continuing the discussion by considering the other side of authority: self authority.
Parents have authority in the home, but we need to recognize that our children have been given a certain degree of authority too. Their authority, like ours, has been given by God. Their authority is the responsibility they have for their own learning.
Education Is a Feast
Throughout her philosophy of education, Mason uses the analogy of a feast to describe what education ought to be. Imagine Christmas dinner. When you sit down to share this celebratory meal with your family, you do not expect to be served only one kind of food. If all you got served was meat that was two days old and had already been chewed up for you, you would feel pretty disappointed and would likely not want to eat at all. The expectation is that the Christmas dinner table will be full of all kinds of food—rich, delicious, nourishing food that will feed your body the nutrients that it needs while tasting amazing. There will be plenty and there will be variety. And being a special meal, it will be the best food that the cook is able to produce for such a special occasion. This is the analogy that Mason has in mind when she discusses education. The teacher/parent supplies a well-ordered, varied, and nourishing feast of living books filled with living ideas. Mason explains over and over that ideas are the food for the mind. And ideas themselves are found in living books. These living books should be of the best quality that will nourish the mind with ideas of history, science, geography, art, music, and all areas that touch humanity. Since children are born persons, made in the image of God, their mind has the same capabilities as yours to deal with these ideas for themselves.
Learning Is Their Responsibility
“All school work should be conducted in such a manner that children are aware of the responsibility of learning; it is their business to know that which has been taught.” Vol. 6, pg. 74
Self-authority means that it is up to the children to “deal with these educational offerings in their own way and for themselves.” This is where Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education diverges greatly from the traditional school/teacher mindset of how to educate children. It is tempting to want to hand feed them to make sure they ‘know’ all the facts. To drill them to oblivion to make sure they ‘get’ it all. We, in a sense, want to chew up their food for them. But what does that say about how we view the child? Do we believe that they are capable of dealing with ideas for themselves, or is it necessary to chop it all up and pre-package it with nice little fill-in-the-blank worksheets and comprehension questions? When we chop it all up we have decided for them what their minds should take away from a lesson. Instead of predigesting knowledge for them, the role of the teacher is to provide the best and most nourishing “food” through living books and allow the children to digest the food (ideas) and take what nutrition their mind needs for themselves. Teachers are to give the children the best books and let them do the work of knowing.* This is how they learn to think. Children need to be allowed to develop their own relationships with history, science, geography, and especially God. Lets not deprive their minds of the food’s nourishing properties but instead allow their mind to do its own work.* It is their responsibility to know.
We Are Made To Know
“But to make yourself attend, make yourself know, this indeed is to come into a king-all the more satisfying to children because they are so made that they revel in knowledge.” Vol 6. pg. 77
Remember when you went to the zoo and the children got excited seeing “Prickly Porky” the porcupine and proceeded to tell you all about their quills and their diet because you had read about them with delight in The Burgess Animal Book? Remember when you read Robinson Crusoe to your daughter and she earnestly interrupted you to tell you why Robinson shouldn’t have been complaining, but should have been grateful? Remember when you read that chapter in the history book about the steam engine being built, and she became excited as she remembered reading about the steam engine in her science book, making a beautiful connection between the invention and the time period for herself, while telling you all about it? We are made to know. We are made to revel in knowledge.
Mason’s lofty vision for education is “that children grow to revel in knowledge. That knowledge for its own sake is satisfying.” This might sound idealistic, but if we consider that children are creatures that bear the image of the Creator, isn’t it possible that these children, born with capable minds, are able to know and be satisfied in that knowledge?
It is true that children will not always want to know everything that is set before them. But why should that alter what is offered to them? They should want to know. The responsibility for knowing should be kept with them. Their minds have been created by God for the work of knowing. So as parents, we need to make it clear that this is what God requires of them. They will also learn the habit of wanting to know through a continual offering of the feast. We can hinder our children’s love for learning by repeating lessons instead of requiring them to pay attention the first time around. We can aid this growth by reducing the effort of their decisions through developing routines and habits as part of their school day.* This also removes the constant negotiating of the child to do what he wants to do rather than what ought to be done. This training in “mechanical obedience will set them in good stead for reasonable obedience later.”
“The man who can make himself do what he will has the world before him, and it rests with parents to give their children this self-compelling power as a mere matter of habit.” Vol 3. pg. 20
Parental authority (discussed in this post) and a child’s self-authority are the two conditions which Mason believed were necessary to secure the willing obedience of the children.
“Two conditions are necessary to secure all proper docility and obedience and, given these two, there is seldom a conflict of wills between teacher and pupils. The conditions are,—the teacher, or other head may not be arbitrary but must act so evidently as one under authority that the children, quick to discern, see that he too must do the things he ought; and therefore that regulations are not made for his convenience… The other condition is that children should have a fine sense of the freedom which comes of knowledge which they are allowed to appropriate as they choose, freely given with little intervention from the teacher.” Vol 6. pg.73-74
Children will not always obey all of the time. They are sinners just as we are. We live in a sinful world. Just as we sin and fall short of the glory of God, so too children sin and fall short of the glory of God. They will disobey. There will be times when discipline is required. But Mason believed that the establishment of this principle of authority will give surer footing for both teacher and taught. We will help our children toward obedience when they observe and are taught that parents are under the authority of God just as they are. They are to obey because parents are to obey. We will also help the children by showing them that the responsibility for learning is on them. They will come to understand that if they do not attend, if they do not give their full attention, if they do not make themselves know, they will not know. There is also joy in learning for the child who knows that they have freedom to deal with the educational offerings themselves. They more happily obey because of this freedom. These two principles will help to establish a right thinking of what the role of the parent and the student is and what God has created them for. We have been created to know. We have been created to know Him first, and then to know about what He has created. The responsibility for learning is on each individual for themselves. When this self authority is established, it is more joyfully attended to as we spread the educational feast fit for the minds of these persons.
*how to do this will be discussed in later principles.