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    Charlotte Mason’s Formation of Character

    April 29, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    I am still plugging away at Volume 5, Formation of Character, and I am still reeling from the sheer magnitude of ideas on every page. Chapter 2 is called “A Genius at School” and it traces the education of the poet Goethe. “At school” is a bit of a misnomer, for Goethe was mostly home educated, though I use the word “home” loosely, for he seems to have spent his time collecting bits and pieces of knowledge and wisdom as he went along. He was the sort that was constantly learning, no matter where he went, and he was privileged to have a generous amount of freedom to move about.

    Formation of Character by Charlotte MasonA lot of the information in the chapter was gathered from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, which was technically a novel, though inspired by Goethe’s real childhood. Mason explains that “Goethe confessedly images himself more or less in all his written work.”

    Mason once again seems to have so much appreciation for ideas which are considered “classical” in the world of education. For instance, we see the child experiencing a spontaneous mimetic {imitative} approach to his learning:

    Many parents, who do not imagine their children to be embryo poets, are a little perplexed by the delight they take in any manner of acting,…and they wonder how far it is well to encourage a taste which may come to interfere with serious pursuits. Children are born poets, and they dramatise all the life they see about them, after their own hearts, into an endless play. There is no reason why this nature gift should not be pressed into the service of education. Indeed, it might be safe to go further: the child who does not dramatise his lessons, who does not play at Richard and Saladin, who does not voyage with Captain Cook and excavate with Mr Flinders Petrie, is not learning. The knowledge he gets by heart is not assimilated and does not become part of himself.

    Therefore it is well that children should, at any rate, have the outlet of narration, that they should tell the things they know in full detail; and, when the humour takes them, ‘play’ the persons, act the scenes that interest them in their reading. {emphasis mine}

    Mason describes Goethe growing up in a city rich with history. He walked, for instance, where Charlemagne walked, and the culture in which he was reared took great pride in its past, and was, as a result, completely unembarrassed when it came to sharing the details of the great moments which took place within its geography.

    Where we live, there is little history. What I mean is, we are relatively young. No great battles have been fought here. No great works of art originated here. We could, I suppose, break out the Steinbeck and take a tour through his eyes, and that would offer a bit of family history to our children as well. But this is the extent of it. {I am always amazed when we visit my mother-in-law and she points out battlegrounds from the Civil War, old plantations, and huge statues commemorating various generals and leaders from the area.}

    Mason explains that this is what should be in Great Britain, which is also rich in history and geography and art and so on, and yet it is not so. She writes:

    There appear to be two or three reasons for our defective education in this respect. In the first place, we have been brought up to believe in what is ‘useful’ in education: it may help us to gain a living if we can read and write and cast accounts; may help us in society if we can play and sing and chatter French; or in a career, if we can scrape up enough classical and mathematical knowledge to win a scholarship. But where’s the good of having an imagination furnished with pictures that open out in long perspective, and enrich and ennoble life?

    It is the old story; utilitarian education is profoundly immoral, in that it defrauds a child of the associations which should give him intellectual atmosphere.

    Another notion that stands between us and any vital appreciation of the past is, that–‘we are the people!’ We are cocksure that we know all that is to be known, that we do all that is worth while; and we are able to regard the traditions and mementos of the past with a sort of superior smirk, a notion that, if the book-writers have not made it all up, this story of the past is no such great thing after all: that ‘a fellow I know’ could do as much any day. There are few things more unpleasant than to see the superior air, and hear the cheap sneers, with which well-dressed people…disport themselves in the presence of any monument of antiquity they may make a holiday to go and see. We have lost the habit of reverence. {emphasis mine}

    I have been thinking about this word lately: atmosphere. Charlotte Mason said that education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life. It is the first of this list with which I think we struggle most. We have devoted our lives to educating these little ones, and we do it daily, forgoing phone calls and other distractions to accomplish what we have set before us. But the atmosphere! How quickly it can slip away with one scowl on a child’s face, one little soul who got far too little sleep the night before.

    A desk full of art supplies. A library full of books. A backyard full of ducks and trees and frogs {!} and discarded lumber.

    These are a start.

    But I think again about Mason’s picture of the child out in the world, learning about what happened on the street corners of his city, and I think about the wise man in Proverbs, taking his student out into the world, pointing out the good and the bad and using life as an opportunity to teach, and I think that atmosphere is more than the things we have or don’t have. It is, to some extent, the teacher…making the most of each and every opportunity. Mason writes:

    I have heard a father in a valley of the Harz telling his little boy of five that here was the scene of Tilly’s famous march…[A]t the Hague you meet a working man taking his children round the picture-galleries, and explaining, you do not know how or what, but certainly the children are interested.

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  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts April 30, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    See, I haven’t started School Education yet, and I’m feeling the urge! I am forcing myself not to read FoC so slowly that I am tempted to get sidetracked. 😉

  • Reply Mystie April 30, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    I’m 3 chapters into School Education, 4 chapters into Home Education, and now I feel like I simply must begin Formation of Character! 🙂

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