Thursday, February 28, 2013

Like a Drunken Peasant on Horseback: The Importance of Integrating Reason and Imagination within a CM Education

by Megan Hoyt

The Mind. Ideas. Knowledge. Curiosity. Reason. Imagination. Feeling. Sensation. Thought.

Is it really all that important HOW we teach? Can't we just show up at school and teach the kids what we know? I just want it to be easy. The short answer is yes. It's incredibly important. The "how" is every bit as crucial as the book choices we make. I've been reading Parents' Review articles lately to see if I can glean any further information that wasn't in the series that will ignite my passion for teaching my son. After 16 years of homeschooling in three different states, I'm a little burned out. It's been an interesting study. I'm finding all sorts of juicy tidbits to nourish my threadbare faith in my own ability to pull this off a fourth time. Having graduated three wonderful human beings already, you'd think I'd be an old pro at this whole thing, but the truth is, every child is different. The needs and desires of one can be 180 degrees different from those of another. And that is what I'm facing this year as I rethink how I'm teaching my youngest son. He's 16, so it's not like I have a whole lot of time left to get this right. The need is urgent.

You're probably wondering why I titled this post "Like a Drunken Peasant on Horseback." Yeah, well, that wasn't just for dramatic effect! I've learned so very many important lessons this week from two inspiring though obscure Parents' Review articles. I'll start with Madame de Stael and the Philosophy of L'Allemagne. (no, don't ask me to pronounce that!) This was a LONG article filled with explanations I didn't much understand. I was just beginning to wonder why in the world Miss Mason included this Joseph Charles article when the ideas began falling into place. Then my aha moment arrived. Like a drunken peasant on horseback. So you may not understand this excerpt at first. Give it a try, though, and see if you can follow what she's saying.

excerpts from

By Joseph F. Charles, Author of Modern Thought and Modern Thinkers
Parents' Review, Volume 3, 1892/93, pp. 24-30

Luther once said that the human mind was like a drunken peasant on horseback; when he is raised on one side he falls on the other. Thus man has been always balancing between his two natures. Either his thoughts are all abstracted from his sensations, or his sensations absorb all his thoughts, and he attributes everything alternately to the one or the other source. (Parents' Review,
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 24-30)

Madame De Stael's remarks on the philosophical underpinnings of the nation of France after the enlightenment are notable because she was alive to witness the transformation. She saw the results of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon's vast empire firsthand. What an enviable position to be in as an observer of human nature! To me, Madame De Stael's ideas about the demise of a nation's sense of morality are important. And that Miss Mason included an analysis of her work, L'Allemagne, in the Parents' Review is beginning to make more sense.

According to Joseph Charles in this Parents' Review article and also to Claudia Moscovici, author of Velvet Totalitarianism (2009) and founder of the post-romanticism movement, Madame De Stael's work is important on many different levels. Here's an excerpt from Ms. Moscovici's blog:

"Such is the case with the legacy of materialism and sensationism, which, as noted, Mme de Staël holds responsible for spreading the dangerous assumption that life is reducible to sensations. Exploring the implications of such a view, she observes:

'The past hundred years we saw originate and grow in Europe a kind of mocking skepticism whose foundation is metaphysical, that attributes our ideas to our sensations. The first principle of this philosophy is not to believe anything that can’t be proven as a fact or calculation ... '

Interestingly, Staël groups together as skeptical both empiricism and rationalism, meaning the theories of knowledge that rely upon either physical evidence or rational proof in their conception of reality. Such theories, she claims, similarly neglect the role played by intuition, curiosity, feeling and imagination in how we come to know the world. She goes so far as to charge that they also encourage immorality, asserting that 'Dogmatic disbelief, which is to say that which places in doubt all that which can’t be proved by our sensations, is the source of the great irony of man towards himself: all moral degradation stems from that' (117)."

Ah, now I see why this woman's work was so important to Miss Mason. To rely on sensation and empirical proof in our quest for knowledge would have been abhorrent to Charlotte Mason, who so firmly believed in the importance of imagination, curiosity, and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. But to go so far as to insist that dogmatic disbelief, as Madame called it, was responsible for all moral decline seems like a stretch. It suits our nation's conservative Republican ideals perfectly, of course. And for a woman watching the French Revolution and Napoleonic era unfold, it would certainly make sense. Still, I'd like to think that within every human being lies a warmth, a sense of right and wrong, a morality of sorts. And it's our goal to blow gently on that fragile flame until it burns brightly. So really, teaching is the noblest of vocations. What could be more valuable than the ability to draw out a child's morals and ethics and help them become decent human beings? 

Joseph Charles continued, in The Parents' Review: " Mr. John Morley has well observed, a 'virulent dissolution in the biting acids of Voltairism' (Voltaire chap. v., p. 220) is a far less safe remedy for moral and social evils than the slow working of the Protestant spirit." It's unfortunate that no one was listening to the previous centuries' words from Luther or Calvin or Zwingli. They were, instead, counting on reforming their nation's ills in much the same way the Americans did in 1776. Only we did it sans guillotine. Minor detail! I'm sure many more citizens than our poor Madame De Stael marveled over the rise of Napoleon so shortly after the revolutionary brotherhood years. What was it all for?

This was tough reading for me. I'm not used to deep, philosophical work. But it was worth it. Here's more of what Joseph Charles said in The Parents' Review:

"It seems to me that now the moment has arrived for a permanent doctrine, that metaphysics must submit to a revolution similar to that which Copernicus made in the system of the world. Our soul must be replaced in the centre, in like manner as the sun, round which external objects trace their course, and from which they borrow their light.
... Feeling, imagination, reason, all help each other. Each of these faculties would be a disease, a weakness instead of a force, if it were not modified or completed by our whole nature. The arithmetical sciences need imagination at a certain height. Imagination, in its turn, must lean on an exact knowledge of nature. Reason appears the one of these faculties which could most easily dispense with the others, and yet if one were entirely devoid of imagination and feeling, one might, as it were, dry up, and become reason-mad ... A false system of education is followed when the endeavour is to develop exclusively one or another quality of the mind." 

The mind. Again. I know you thought we were done talking about mind last week!

It's important to treat a child as a person with a spirit, soul, mind, and physical body uniquely intertwined. We see the importance of exercise to our health, of eating the proper foods, of drinking enough water, of spending time in prayer and worship to nourish our faith and interact with our God, of working our brains to create rails of habit and yet, what of the mind? It requires a delicate interaction between feeling, imagination, and reason. Without all three, we're nothing but drunken peasants on horseback, tossed from side to side, sometimes reason wins, sometimes emotion, sometimes imagination, sometimes feeling, sometimes thought. One day we'll integrate them all perfectly. And what a sight that will be!

Next week, I'll share the other article that impacted me. It was about habits. Have a great week!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Considerable Speck: Recognizing the Importance of Mind in the Life of a Child

by Megan Hoyt

Architect Antoni Gaudi's House of Mind in Barcelona, Spain
"We go round the house and round the house, but rarely go into the House of Mind; we offer mental gymnastics, but these do not take the place of food, and of that we serve the most meagre rations, no more than a bean a day! Diet for the body is abundantly considered, but no one pauses to say, "I wonder does the mind need food, too, and regular meals, and what is its proper diet?" (Charlotte Mason, vol 6, p 24) 

What does the mind feed on? Is the mind different from the brain? Charlotte Mason believed it was. Dr. Rodolfo Llinas, professor at NYU Medical School offers little to dispel her reasoning. Listen to what he says about creativity:

"The neural processes underlying that which we call creativity have nothing to do with rationality. That is to say, if we look at how the brain generates creativity, we will see that it is not a rational process at all; creativity is not born out of reasoning." (Rodolfo R. Llinas, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self)

The House of the Mind 

by Joseph Beaumont (1616-1699)

AS earth’s pageant passes by,
Let reflection turn thine eye
Inward, and observe thy breast;
There alone dwells solid rest.
That’s a close immurèd tower
Which can mock all hostile power:
To thyself a tenant be,
And inhabit safe and free.
Say not that this house is small,
Girt up in a narrow wall;
In a cleanly sober mind
Heaven itself full room doth find.
Th’ infinite Creator can
Dwell in it, and may not man?
Here content make thy abode
With thyself and with thy God

Miss Mason wrote much about the life of the mind in her six volume series. Still more is discussed on blogs as we hash out together the meaning of "A child is a born person" or "Education is the Science of Relations" or one of the other catch phrases we commonly associate with Charlotte Mason's educational methodology. But did you realize that when she talks about the mind she does not mean the brain at all? Did you get that? I had such a vague understanding of her beliefs about the mind that I thought I'd take this week and ruminate on some of what she said in volume six about it. 

Miss Mason begins by talking about Self Education and the importance of stepping back and allowing the child to make connections and grapple with knowledge until he makes it his own. But within that delicate dance where we step in, offer a living book, step back, check in, ask for a narration, step back again, it's hard to know exactly what to do to nourish their young minds! And it's a little scary, too. I mean, you don't want to do it wrong, so there's this tension that's palpable. It hovers in the air above the home school room. Am I doing it right? Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Am I (gulp) spoon-feeding information rather than serving a broad banquet of ideas?

"It is no easy matter to give its proper sustenance to the mind..." (vol. 6, p. 25)

Oh, the pressure!
She goes on to say:

"Knowledge is not sensation, nor is it to be derived through sensation; we feed upon the thoughts of other minds; and thought applied to thought generates thought and we become more thoughtful. No one need invite us to reason, compare, imagine; the mind, like the body, digests its proper food, and it must have the labour of digestion or it ceases to function." (vol. 6, p. 26)

So, let me get this straight. We offer them thoughts and ideas rather than information? We don't need to trick them or cajole them or entertain them or beg them? They naturally want to: Reason, Compare, Imagine? They really will do the hard work of assimilating knowledge when it's fed to them by literary means and when the knowledge presented is alive? What a relief!

I did a quick google search on the mind and came up with some terrifically interesting research that's going on right now. Here in Wired Magazine something caught my eye. It's about how we assimilate and store memories. The research was done by neuroscientist
Joseph LeDoux:

"Memories are not formed and then pristinely maintained, as neuroscientists thought; they are formed and then rebuilt every time they’re accessed. 'The brain isn’t interested in having a perfect set of memories about the past,' LeDoux says. 'Instead, memory comes with a natural updating mechanism, which is how we make sure that the information taking up valuable space inside our head is still useful. That might make our memories less accurate, but it probably also makes them more relevant to the future.' "

It sounds to me like both Dr. LeDoux and Charlotte Mason are telling us the child needs to put forth effort or work for knowledge to be retained. Without this effort, they are only able to do that memorization and regurgitation that we're all so very familiar with and that leaves the child's mind starved for nourishment and his soulish man proud -- of his grades, his handwriting, his ability to memorize facts, anything but what is really worth being proud of. Charlotte Mason says the mind is spiritual, not physical. She's definitely not talking about the brain itself. But even if she got things a little muddy in that department, the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Children DO remember what they retell. And retelling it again and again keeps the memory alive. Modern science tells us that.

I see the brain as a complex human organ that we use to store memories, to store and sort knowledge, regulate emotion, etc. I believe human beings are complicated, with a spirit man that relates to God and the universe and ideas (whether we do that by using the brain as a vehicle or not). Charlotte Mason says the brain is like a piano and the mind is the music pouring forth. So it's the mind -- that inner essence of who we are -- that grapples with ideas and works to understand concepts and make connections. The mind does all the real work. It governs, loves, creates beauty, and more. And it's the mind we want to nourish. The brain, too, yes -- with lots of essential fatty acids through fresh, low mercury seafood, lots of fresh veggies and fruits, etc. Plenty of water, too. But the mind! Ah, the mind. That's an entirely different matter. The mind is nourished on living ideas.

So what is our duty as educators? Well, we know what NOT to do by now, don't we?

"But the children ask for bread and we give them a stone;
we give information about objects and events which mind does not attempt to digest but casts out bodily (upon an examination paper?)" (vol. 6, p. 26)

Then what DO we do?

let information hang upon a principle, be inspired by an idea, and it is taken with avidity and used in making whatsoever in the spiritual nature stands for tissue in the physical" (vol. 6, p. 26).

But wait, there's even more to digest here.

"We begin to see light. ... Our business is to give him mind-stuff, and both quality and quantity are essential. Naturally, each of us possesses this mind-stuff only in limited measure, but we know where to procure it; for the best thought the world possesses is stored in books; we must open books to children, the best books; our own concern is abundant provision and orderly serving" (vol. 6, p. 26).

Abundant provision and orderly serving. Now that's something we can hang our hats on, something solid to get us started. In order to help children, we need to offer them abundant provision and serve it to them in an orderly manner. That sounds doable, don't you think?

The best books. An abundant amount of the best books. A wide variety of the best books.

Filled with the best, most noble and magnanimous thoughts. Abundantly provided and served to them in an orderly fashion. I think I can do that!

"Now mind, being spiritual, knows no fatigue; brain, too, duly nourished with the food proper for the body, allowed due conditions of fresh air and rest, should not know fatigue; given these two conditions, we have a glorious field of educational possibilities; but it rests with us to evolve a theory and practice which afford due recognition to mind. ...

"We give them a 'play way' and play is altogether necessary and desirable but is not the avenue which leads to mind. We give them a fitting environment, which is again altogether desirable and, again, is not the way to mind. We teach them beautiful motion and we do well, for the body too must have its education; but we are not safe if we take these by-paths as approaches to mind." (vol. 6, p. 38)

So, to recap...

We give them living books filled with noble ideas to grapple with. 

They naturally reason, compare, and imagine.

They should play, but that doesn't necessarily reach the mind.

We should give them a fitting environment, but that doesn't lead to the mind.

We should teach them beautiful motion (exercise in various forms) but that doesn't lead to the mind.

So how
do we get to the mind exactly?

"It is still true that that which is born of the spirit, is spirit. The way to mind is a quite direct way. Mind must come into contact with mind through the medium of ideas. ...

"The mistress of an Elementary School writes,––'The father of one of my girls said to me yesterday, "You have given me some work to do. E. has let me have no rest until I promised to set up my microscope and get pond water to look for monads and other wonders." ' Here we have the right order. That which was born of the spirit, the idea, came first and demanded to confirm and illustrate." (vol. 6, p. 39)

Ideas come first. They demand to be confirmed and illustrated. 

So... We give them living books filled with noble ideas to grapple with. 

They naturally reason, compare, and imagine, because the ideas demand to be confirmed and illustrated. Now we're getting somewhere! But what does it look like in practice?

"History must afford its pageants, science its wonders, literature its intimacies, philosophy its speculations, religion its assurances to every man, and his education must have prepared him for wanderings in these realms of gold." (vol. 6, p. 43)

Maybe what we're really after is a different way to convey knowledge to children. After all, the knowledge within a textbook for fourth grade social studies is the same whether taught via that dull, dry textbook or through lush, living books. The information is the same, I mean. But one student, the one who reads the textbook, will likely not retain the information longer than he needs to in order to pass a test. The other student will reminisce longingly about the days he spent lingering over Horatio Hornblower and will never forget the nautical terms he learned, the sailing techniques he looked up on his own after reading the book. His imagination will long after entertain him (and his friends) through play, storytelling, and more. Which would you rather do? Educate by temporarily dropping facts into the brain's storage facility or draw out a child's mind and inform it by allowing for endless connections to be made and delight to be stirred within?

This is what I love about a Charlotte Mason education.

I'm not suggesting that our efforts don't require any work on the part of the child. That's not what she's saying at all. There is real work to be done while grappling with the ideas our students find in their living books! To understand this, I went back to google and found another interesting explanation of how we retain memories. This is from the March 6, 2012 entry in the House of Mind blog:

"Every memory begins as a changed set of connections among cells in the brain. If you happen to remember this moment—the content of this sentence—it’s because a network of neurons has been altered, woven more tightly together within a vast electrical fabric. This linkage is literal: For a memory to exist, these scattered cells must become more sensitive to the activity of the others, so that if one cell fires, the rest of the circuit lights up as well. Scientists refer to this process as long-term potentiation, and it involves an intricate cascade of gene activations and protein synthesis that makes it easier for these neurons to pass along their electrical excitement. Sometimes this requires the addition of new receptors at the dendritic end of a neuron, or an increase in the release of the chemical neurotransmitters that nerve cells use to communicate. Neurons will actually sprout new ion channels along their length, allowing them to generate more voltage. Collectively this creation of long-term potentiation is called the consolidation phase, when the circuit of cells representing a memory is first linked together. Regardless of the molecular details, it’s clear that even minor memories require major work. The past has to be wired into your hardware."

He calls the process long-term potentiation. I call it narration.

Here are a few tips from Miss Mason to get you started. The example she gives is from a Geography lesson (vol. 6, p. 40):

"A map of the world must be a panorama to a child of pictures so entrancing that he would rather ponder them than go out to play; and nothing is more easy than to give him this
joie de vivre. Let him see the world as we ourselves choose to see it when we travel; its cities and peoples, its mountains and rivers, and he will go away from his lesson with the piece of the world he has read about, be it county or country, sea or shore, as that of 'a new room prepared for him, so much will he be magnified and delighted in it.' All the world is in truth the child's possession, prepared for him, and if we keep him out of his rights by our technical, commercial, even historical, geography, any sort of geography, in fact, made to illustrate our theories, we are guilty of fraudulent practices. What he wants is the world and every bit, piece by piece, each bit a key to the rest."

"He reads of the Bore of the Severn and is on speaking terms with a 'Bore' wherever it occurs. He need not see a mountain to know a mountain. He sees all that is described to him with a vividness of which we know nothing just as if there had been 'no other way to those places but in spirit only.' "

I love what she says next:

"Who can take the measure of a child? The Genie of the Arabian tale is nothing to him. He, too, may be let out of his bottle and fill the world. But woe to us if we keep him corked up." (vol. 6, p. 42)

Woe, indeed! 


The teacher who allows his scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere instrument of forcible intellectual feeding. (vol. 6, p. 32) 

That's so encouraging! I don't have to be the shoveler of facts or the dumper of facts into my students' brains. I can be their guide, philosopher and friend. Whew! Relieved again. 

As I was preparing for the blog this week, I came across this Robert Frost poem. It's so perfectly appropriate for this moment that I had to share it:

A Considerable Speck


A speck that would have been beneath my sight

On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
Then paused again and either drank or smelt--
With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn't want to die.
It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
Then in the middle of the open sheet
Cower down in desperation to accept
Whatever I accorded it of fate.
I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
Collectivistic regimenting love
With which the modern world is being swept.
But this poor microscopic item now!
Since it was nothing I knew evil of
I let it lie there till I hope it slept.

I have a mind myself and recognize

Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Robert Frost

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to leave comments, narrate, ruminate, give us your thoughts on these weighty matters of the mind. I'll leave you with one last meaty quote:

"The educable part of a person is his mind. The training of the senses and muscles is, strictly speaking, training and not education. The mind, like the body, requires quantity, variety and regularity in the sustenance offered to it. Like the body, the mind has its appetite, the desire for knowledge. Again, like the body, the mind is able to receive and assimilate by its powers of attention and reflection. Like the body, again, the mind rejects insipid, dry, and unsavoury food, that is to say, its pabulum should be presented in a literary form. The mind is restricted to pabulum of one kind: it is nourished upon ideas and absorbs facts only as these are connected with the living ideas upon which they hang. Children educated upon some such lines as these respond in a surprising way, developing capacity, character, countenance, initiative and a sense of responsibility. They are, in fact, even as children, good and thoughtful citizens. (vol. 6, p. 21)

Friday, February 15, 2013

Miss Mason's Legacy: Carved in Stone

by Megan Hoyt

Legacy. What we leave behind. The lives we have impacted for good along the way.

Have you thought much about your legacy? What piece of your life will remain when you are long gone? How deep is your imprint? Who will remember your contributions to the world? Who will remember mine? I wonder about such things. And often. What greatness have we brought to the world that will endure with any amount of longevity? Do our lives really matter? As I approach the big 5-0, this idea is coming to the forefront of my mind with increasing urgency. I feel like such a nobody! Just some aging woman who obsesses over Downton Abbey and makes a mean cup of Ghirardelli hot chocolate. But take a look at who IS leaving their mark on our society. I mean, what do Brad Pitt, Clive Owen, or Ben Affleck have to tell the world that's more important than the wisdom I find in this man, a humble Romanian monk living in the mountains who few have even heard of?

If my heart's cry is to leave a legacy of love, kindness, joy, depth, and peace to my children and to provide them with an atmosphere filled with the glory and wonder of Almighty God, I know I can find all that wrapped in elegant paper with a giant Charlotte Mason bow on top. How do I know?

I began rereading Charlotte Mason's Original Homeschooling Series a few months ago -- Volume 1 through Volume 6. I'm not done yet, but I've learned a lot. Way more than I did the first time I read them, in my fresh, naive, over-eager state. I have also been reading Parents' Review articles. Ideas are now swirling in front of me, gradually taking shape and coming into more precise focus. I read the original programmes Miss Mason used with her students recently. As I did, I tried to imagine what her days would have looked like.

I noticed that on the programmes there was quite a bit more study devoted to the Bible and Christian texts than I had before realized. Their days were filled with the wonder and glory of Almighty God. His creation. The universe. Us. (The other thing I noticed was that her students weren't allowed to use pencil in art. But I'll save that for a later post!)

I have educated my children at home according to the tenets of Charlotte Mason, while teaching a lovely gaggle of delightful children at a Charlotte Mason styled homeschool co-op. I have delved more deeply into educational philosophy, reading everyone I could get my hands on from John Amos Comenius to Alfie Kohn and John Taylor Gatto, with a few dreary stops in front of Herbart and Locke and a bewildered glance at Raymond Moore and Cynthia Tobias. I have fallen in love with Thomas Rooper, Lewis Carroll (yes, the creator of Wonderland wrote about education) and Thomas Traherne. The more I read, the more firmly I believe in following the Charlotte Mason method. And I know my time would be well spent sharing this way of life with others.

I think when it comes to legacy, we'll never really know what ours is. Someone else will determine that -- my children, my students, my friends, my readers. Maybe we don't leave a legacy so much as we just... well... leave. And others remember the important things we did. And maybe they won't even be close to what we thought they were. 

Somewhere along the way during all this soul-searching at mid-life, I decided to take a peek at what was written on Charlotte Mason's tombstone. When it comes to our legacy, it's generally going to be boiled down and chinked in stone there if it's going to show up anywhere, right? Here's what it says.
photo courtesy of
In Loving Memory of
Charlotte Maria Shaw Mason
“Thine eyes shall see the King in His Beauty”

"Founder of the Parents’ National Educational Union,
The Parents’ Union School, and The House of Education,
she devoted her life to the work of education,
believing that children are dear to our heavenly father
and that they are a precious national possession."

“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life”
I Am, I Can, I Ought, I Will”
"For the Children’s Sake"

I had never read this before. "Thine eyes shall see the King in His Beauty." 

This woman we all love and admire, who spoke so often about the beauty God has placed within our grasp in the world, was finally beholding Him face to face in all His beauty. How wonderful that must have been for her. What a blessed continuation of the delight she had already found in Him while on earth. 

The verse is from Isaiah 33. Here is the context:

"Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off... But there the glorious LORD will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby ... Thy tacklings are loosed; they could not well strengthen their mast, they could not spread the sail: then is the prey of a great spoil divided; the lame take the prey.

Tacklings are the riggings of a ship. I know it's a gigantic stretch, but when I read that verse I couldn't help but think that as Miss Mason's tacklings were loosed (as she passed away) the prey of a great spoil was divided among the lame (us). Her legacy gave us the treasure. Now it's up to us to share this broad feast with everyone we meet, wherever we may be. That can be our legacy.

"She devoted her life to the work of education, believing that children are dear to our heavenly Father and that they are a precious national possession."

Dear and Precious. That is what children are. They are of inestimable value to God. Diamonds in the rough, full of possibilities.

Jesus didn't say "Let those griping, back-biting, arrogant, hard-hearted, ambitious, limelight-seeking adults come unto Me, for of such is the kingdom of Heaven," did He?

In this lovely poem she wrote, reprinted in Miss Mason's In Memoriam, we see that for her, Heaven had already begun on earth. And I believe, by following her educational methods, our children can have an early slice of Heaven, too. God promises us we can, through the Holy Spirit, Whom He sent as an earnest or promise of things to come.
Death opes not heaven’s gate; for long ago,
Soon as the King
Shone in upon the soul
Did heaven begin:
A blessed state, a lifting up for ever;
Not some far seats when soul and body sever.

In his book Commentaries of Heaven wherein The Mysteries of Felicitie Are Opened and ALL THINGS Discovered to be Objects of Happiness (long title!) Thomas Traherne tells us more about God's promises:

"God is Almighty. He is all-sufficient. He is able to supply our wants, to hear our prayers, to deliver us out of miseries, to comfort us in afflictions, to protect us from dangers, to enrich us in the world, to pardon our sins, to comfort our souls, to give us peace of conscience, to enlighten our understandings, to sanctify our natures, to subdue our enemies, to raise us friends, to prosper our undertakings, to lengthen our lives, to crown us with honor and glory, to give us immortality, to advance us unto Heaven, to furnish us with powers and faculties, to prepare objects, to beautify all ages, and to fill eternity with delights and treasures. He is able by reason of His all-sufficiency to be our Creator, Preserver, Redeemer, Sanctifier, our Light and Example, our Shield and Glory, our exceeding great Reward, our Life, our Joy, our Greatness, our Love, our Friend, our Blessedness, our Counselor, our Father, our King, our God, our Benefactor, our Aid, our Strength, our Bridegroom, our End. Finally, by this, He is all in all."

This great God, who knows our needs before we ask and gives abundantly to us of His Holy Spirit, poured out the prescription for a nation's educational ills onto his humble servant, Charlotte Maria Shaw Mason. And now He allows it to trickle out yet again through our own feeble efforts. May we keep this in mind as we teach our children, since it is for their sake that we do what we do. 

I'll leave you with this lovely video tour of the city of Ambleside and its surrounding fells. This is where Charlotte Mason walked, traveled, and taught.  This was the "nature" of her nature study; these were the lovely surroundings in which she met with God. This is also where William Wordsworth was inspired to write his lush, beautiful poetry and where Beatrix Potter lived and worked.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why Beauty Matters -- a documentary by philosopher Roger Scruton

"As for that aesthetic ‘appetency’ (to use Coleridge’s word) upon which so many of the gentle pleasures of life depend, it is open to many disasters: it dies of inanition when beauty is not duly presented to it, beauty in words, in pictures and music, in tree and flower and sky. The function of the sense of beauty is to open a paradise of pleasure for us.” (Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6, A Philosophy of Education, p. 56, via Ann Voskamp, A Holy Experience)

Many thanks to Linda Fay, via Hans Gruen, for telling us about the importance of this thought-provoking documentary. In advance of a future blog post on beauty, I'm posting this (for adult viewing only). If you haven't yet seen Linda Fay's blog, Charlotte Mason Help, do check it out soon. She offers very concrete explanations that will help you grow in your ability to teach using the Charlotte Mason method.

Wishing you many blessings as you seek to immerse yourselves in this glorious way of life,


"Using the thoughts of philosophers from Plato to Kant, and by talking to artists Michael Craig-Martin and Alexander Stoddart, Scruton analyses where art went wrong and presents his own impassioned case for restoring beauty to its traditional position at the center of our civilization." Hans Gruen

Lamenting the current state of the art world, Stefano Acunto, chairman of the Italian Academy Foundation, says, “Our art spurns reason in a tipsy, self-inebriated and self-anointed binge of self-expression, attempting to capture the soul of our age by holding up a mirror of its very emptiness.”

"Art is an extravagant beauty, it feeds us more than what we need just to exist or survive. It is a rich feast for the senses. Great art is a reflection of God’s truth, His images, His creation." (Jeannette Tulis, Classical Ideas of Truth, Goodness and Beauty in a Charlotte Mason Curriculum) 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Government through the Desires: Unhealthy Competition and Other Ruinous Things We Learned on the Playground

by Megan Hoyt
Now, we see why it is that the child finds himself in a new and very stimulating element when he goes to school. For the first time, he has to find his footing amongst his equals. At home, he has seldom had more than one equal, and that his friend––the brother or sister next him in age. Here, he has a whole class of his fellows, some stronger, some weaker than himself, working with him, shoulder to shoulder, running neck and neck with him in lessons and games. (Charlotte Mason, volume 5, Formation of Character, p. 180)

I had something completely different in mind to talk about this week, but while I was reading Charlotte Mason's Formation of Character, this passage leaped off the page at me. And suddenly I understood all the weaknesses and frailties of my own character -- all in one divine moment. Then I read President Obama's speech to the families in Newtown, Connecticut, and I knew I had to write about this. But first, here's an inspiring video for you on what I consider healthy competition. Meet Brooke!

Brooke says, "I love climbing because there's a lot of challenges in climbling. I don't know, it seems so cool just to be doing move after move with different holds. There's so many different ways that you can climb."

She climbs because she loves to climb. She wins because she trained herself well to do what she loves to do. She's gifted in this area -- and that may be partly genetic. She works hard in training, not because she wants to show others she's better than them. She does it because it brings her joy. That is my idea of healthy competition. Now for what Miss Mason has to say about it:

Parents prize the discipline of the playground almost as much as that of the schoolroom; and rightly so––not only for the unequalled physical training that the games afford; but for the "pluck," the "endurance, foresight, strength, and skill," the obedience to law, the deference to authority, the readiness to give place to the best man, the self-reliance, the faithfulness to each other, even in a bad cause, cultivated by means of the school games––with their laws, their captains, their contests, their rivalries. And what finer training could the boys [and girls] have for a world in which pluck and temper win the prizes?

Megan (me!), the only kindergartner who climbed the flagpole and rang the bell at field day, 1969
The playground does invaluable work, and has much to do with the making of what is best and most characteristic in Englishmen; but, indeed, the training of the playground, as that of the schoolroom, is incomplete. The fact is, that the discipline of schoolroom and playground alike is largely carried on by stimulating and balancing, one against another, those desires which are common to us all as human beings––the desires of power, of society, of esteem, of knowledge, of mere animal activity, of excelling the rest, of work, or action, even avarice––the desire of wealth. 

Here is a formidable list; and it is quite possible, by playing upon and adjusting these natural desires, to govern a human being so that he may make a respectable figure in the world, while yet he has little sense of duty, feeble affections, and dispositions left to run wild, wanting the culture which should train mere disposition into character

Now, this way of governing a person through his desires is the easiest in the world. The nurse knows it very well; his desire, of praise, or play, or lollipops, leaves something always in her hands wherewith to reward the child's good behavior. When attempts are made to stimulate people en masse, it is through their desires. They want work or play or power, money or land, and whoever plays upon any one of these desires gets the popular ear. 


Because this government through the desires is the easiest kind of government it is the most common, in the school as elsewhere; prizes, praise, place, success, distinction, whether in games or examinations, these are enough to keep a school going with such vigour, such éclat, that nobody is conscious of the want of other springs of action.

All these desires are right in themselves, within certain limits, and we may believe they were implanted in us as spurs to progress; the man who has no desire of wealth, no ambition, does not help himself and the world forward as does he, who has these desires. Again, in the school the desires are, on the whole, well regulated, one brought into play against another, and the result is, such sturdy qualities, sterling virtues, as "make a man" of the boy brought under school discipline. The weak place is, that boys and girls are treated too much "in the rough," without regard to the particular tendencies in each which require repression, or direction, or encouragement. The vain girl is made vainer, the diffident is snubbed: there is no time to hand a crutch to the lame, to pick up the stumbling. All must keep the pace or drop out of the race. 

It is astonishing how crude may be the character, how unformed the principles, how undeveloped the affections towards country, kindred, or kind, after a successful school career; the reason being, that the principle of government through the desires has left these things out of count. Nor is this the whole; the successful schoolboy too often develops into a person devoid of intelligent curiosity who hates reading and shirks the labour of thought.

This passage is so meaty that I hardly know where to begin, and I can't believe I surged right past it all the other times I read volume five. But please stick with me here. The first thing I want to address is this idea that our physical attributes and even our natural personality traits somehow give us value in society. I used to be very athletic -- up until around the age of eight when I began getting unexplained headaches. I now think they were probably caffeine headaches since my parents allowed me to drink coffee when I was young. No one in the seventies really talked much about caffeine addiction. I even had an EEG, and nothing was found. Silly to think about it all now. But my point is that life can be extremely unpredictable. If I had based my value on my ability to win a three-legged race or the fifty yard dash or the fact that I was the only one who climbed the flagpole, that would have been a gigantic mistake. In a few short years, my body was rendered incapable of physical exertion without getting a massive headache. And there went my brilliant success on the playground. It took with it all manner of glory and self-esteem, too. But see, that should not have happened! My worth does not come from my athletic ability. Or my academic ability. Or my humility and spirituality. These are all gifts from God. Success is the result of hard work, true. But do you know how many people have worked every bit as hard at their careers as the CEOs of all the fortune 500 companies and have NOT been successful? What a shame to place value on someone based on how well they navigate the playground.

Now let's talk personality. How many of you have met me in person? For those who have, you'll note a lack of zest for life, an inwardness. I'm very introverted and introspective, easily worried and generally anxious. I'm quiet and reserved. I sometimes am able to rise to the occasion and mask this with extroverted humor, but only once I know someone really well. I tend not to take on high profile work where I'll be the center of attention, preferring to work with small groups of children at a co-op or on my computer from the safety of my home office. Live and in person I am not very "large and in charge," in other words. But who is considered "successful" in this world? Here's what Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, say: "The winner is not the one who practiced more. It's who competes better. It's who lives up to the moment when the band is playing, the lights are bright, and the judges are watching." 

Introverts don't stand a ghost of a chance of winning then. It's the leader, the schmoozer, the one with the sparkling personality, who rises to the top like the cream of the crop. But are they better people? Or were they simply better at the game of desires they learned on the playground? Meanwhile, the vain girl is made vainer, the diffident is snubbed: there is no time to hand a crutch to the lame, to pick up the stumbling.

 This ought not to be so.

Bronson and Merryman wrote another book in 2009 called NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children that turned the idea of praise and rewards on its ear. I haven't read it, but one reviewer, Daniel Murphy, said this: "What does a ten thousand foot overview of childhood development strategies say? The best evidence implies that the book you want to read if you want your child to become a highly functioning and happy adult is To Kill a Mockingbird. Raise your girl like Atticus Finch raised Scout, and your boy the way he raised Jem: have dinner with them every night. Discuss current events. Read to your children at bedtime. Speak clearly about your values (compare Atticus Finch's approach to the problem of racism to the methods suggested in NatureShock). Make them play outside on a regular basis. Make them go to bed on time, after you make them do their homework. Not very glitzy, is it? A bit labor intensive, maybe? But find a mentor teacher, or a great pediatrician, and my bet is they'll place their money on Scout and Jem to succeed best in the long run."

The "point" to life is not to win or to get rich by any means possible, or to achieve the status of movie star, rock star, or millionaire, despite the emphasis we often place on the opinions of said "stars," both in the media and to be honest in real life for many Americans. I believe, and I think Miss Mason would agree, that the "point" is to love God, form strong bonds with His creation, and form relationships with our fellow man that nurture and that we can treasure. The way we get there is to play fairly, love deeply, and cherish what is good while spurning what is bad. 

I LOVE the relationship these two sisters have with one another. And I love their art, too.

"When we first started painting, it was for enjoyment. I really didn't want to sell my paintings because I loved them so much! People ask, you know, that maybe it's inevitable to feel a little bit of competition with your sibling, but I actually don't really think so. I feel like this kind of relationship I'm very blessed to have. " Victoria Yin, and sister Zoe, art prodigies

It sounds pretty easy, really. Love and be loved. Serve and create beauty in the world. Be rewarded for it or not. These girls don't really even think about the money. 

And lest you think I am completely against competition and rough-housing, I found this in the current Vanity Fair, excerpted from the book Brothers Emmanuel, by Ezekiel Emmanuel about growing up with his brothers, Rahm and Ari. I may have to buy this book!

"When Ari was still sleeping in a crib, Rahm and I would climb onto the top level of our bunkbed and jump into it with such force that it rattled the hardware that held it together and bounced Ari off the mattress and into the air. Unlike Rahm when he was an infant, Ari loved it. 

The wild physical play helped us to bond as brothers. There was also something about sharing a room that made it easy for us to develop an intense level of loyalty and trust. There, we tested ourselves against each other and, in the unguarded moments before we fell asleep, we confessed our worries and hopes and practiced a boy's version of empathy."

I think I believe in "safe" competition where a child is affirmed and loved throughout. Here's one more excerpt, then I'll move on. I love this!

"At the time it seemed a bit strange that our father never taught us much about music or skiing, two passions of his. To his credit, though, he did eventually introduce us to chess, which he played extremely well. These after-dinner and Sunday-afternoon games were played either at the dining-room table or in the living room, where the board was set up on the round, white marble coffee table. 

My father did not believe in falsely building his sons' self-esteem by purposely letting us win, or tolerating sloppy play. Sometimes he would simply stop the game and then show us, with quickly moving hands, how the next dozen moves would inevitably lead us to defeat." 

In stark contrast to this even-handed treatment, our unspoken playground rules offer us a more cutthroat method by which to live. Evolutionists would say this is the result of homo sapiens' natural inclination toward a "survival of the fittest" mentality, and there may be some small shred of truth to that idea when it comes to childhood competition (although I prefer to think of it as our inherited sin nature coming out). So am I just not "fit" for this planet because my parents didn't know not to give me caffeine on an irregular basis? What does that say about people who die in car accidents or who are murdered senselessly as children in Newtown, Connecticut? Were they unfit? If I were to follow evolutionary theory, I'd have to say that Mother Teresa was a nobody who didn't matter, as were Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus Christ. Jesus turned this whole idea of survival of the fittest on its head. If you want to be great in God's kingdom, you must learn to be a servant. Wow. Quite a difference! And the Helen Keller's of the world along with Chris Reeve and Nick Vujicic are proof that type of thinking is 100% wrong. 

While competition can be good and helpful and can lead us toward stronger intellectual habits, it can also punish us mercilessly and lead us to despise ourselves. I've seen dejected kids, chosen last for teams, clinging desperately to one another for comfort and friendship. They're bright, intelligent, normal children who don't have money for clothes that are in the latest style or don't have access to a dad who can teach them to throw a ball well or whose minds don't operate well when competing because of anxiety and fear or who don't wash their hair as often as they probably should because no one at home cares to tell them they need to. Nerds, we call them. Outcasts. Worthless. Worthy of nothing but bullying according to the other playground players. And God's heart is pierced because He made them beautiful. His inward glory shines through them. He has placed within them a kernel of grace to achieve their heart's desires just as He has in the hearts of the other kids. If only their value was seen by those who matter to them in life. Like Gungor says in the song, "You make beautiful things; You make beautiful things out of us." Let's also remember where we would be without "nerds" like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, not to mention all the incisive comic book wit we would miss out on without Charles Schulz who identified with his Charlie Brown character and Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, or all the brilliant economists, statisticians, scientists, inventors, authors, artists, and composers who were thought of as odd, socially awkward, or somehow less than perfect in some other way (think Beethoven).

Couldn't resist putting up this pic of my boys.
The playground can make or break a child. So can the classroom. So can their home life and friendships. Or lack thereof. Teachers, that's where we come in. We have to help dispel all the negative self talk our students bring into the classroom because of a "Government through the Desires" mindset that skewed success toward the athletic or the quick thinker. They have NOT failed in life just because they failed the playground test.

So what about the "pluck," the "endurance, foresight, strength, and skill," the obedience to law, the deference to authority, the readiness to give place to the best man, the self-reliance, the faithfulness to each other, that children learn on the playground? Those are all good things that naturally occur as a result of healthy competition, supervised by teachers or parents whose authority keeps the students in check. And it's the parents' influence, too, (like good ole Atticus Finch) that makes a difference in the heart of a child.  
Here's what gripped my heart about President Obama's address at Newtown:

"Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside your body all the time, walking around. With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves -- our child -- is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice. And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet, we also know that with that child's very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us, that we won't -- that we can't -- always be there for them. They'll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments. And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear. 

This is our first task -- caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how as a society, we will be judged."

He continues to say:

"The warmth of a child's embrace. That is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves and binds us to something larger -- we know that's what matters. We know we're always doing right when we're taking care of them, when we're teaching them well, when we're showing acts of kindness."

I want to leave you with two thoughts here from Miss Mason about how to conquer our habitual tendencies toward pronouncing success on our children without working on those areas of extreme importance within their character. These are the most important functions of a Charlotte Mason lifestyle, which is, I know, what we all aspire to as it honors and glorifies God. Here's how we can teach and train our children without focusing on producing desire for success by offering rewards, which is really what happens on the playground and in the classroom -- even if the reward is being well thought of and adored by peers instead of stickers, ribbons, and lollipops.

photo courtesy of
 Government of the Kingdom of Mansoul (Yes, we're going there again.)

"We have now to consider a subject of unspeakable importance to every being called upon to sustain a reasonable life here, with the hope of the fuller life hereafter; I mean, the government of the kingdom of Mansoul. Every child who lives long enough in the world is invested, by degrees, with this high function, and it is the part of his parents to instruct him in his duties, and to practise him in his tasks. Now, the government of this kingdom of Mansoul is, like that of some well-ordered states, carried on in three chambers, each chamber with its own functions, exercised, not by a multitude of counsellors, but by a single minister.

"The will is the controller of the passions and emotions, the director of the desires, the ruler of the appetites. But observe, the passions, the desires, the appetites, are there already, and the will gathers force and vigour only as it is exercised in the repression and direction of these; for though the will appears to be of purely spiritual nature, yet it behaves like any member of the body in this––that it becomes vigorous and capable in proportion as it is duly nourished and fitly employed" (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p 319).

May we all endeavor to repress and direct our own wills and help our children and students become vigorous and capable in the employment of theirs by nourishing and invigorating it with much practice -- not by rewarding the strong and stepping on the weak but by the careful selection of living materials that will nurture a child's heart of compassion toward his fellow man and by creating healthy competition born out of struggle and humility. As I grapple with these tough concepts, I think my (our) understanding and compassion for my children and students continues to grow. What an important job we have!

"If anyone should wish to deliberate why God prizes children so highly, he will find no weightier reason than this, that children are simpler and more susceptible to the remedy which the mercy of God grants to the lamentable condition of men." (John Amos Comenius)
Megan and her dad, circa fourth grade or so