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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Charlotte Mason on Boredom

    May 12, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]I[/dropcap]n chapter five of Part IV of Formation of Character, Charlotte Mason seems to tie together boredom and vanity, and for the life of me I can’t quite figure out how she does it. I have considered sitting down and mapping out her logical progression on paper, but I haven’t done it yet.

    Tomorrow’s post will, hopefully, cover the vanity aspect. Perhaps I shall have an epiphany by then.

    Concerning boredom, Miss Mason begins by saying that we often offer too narrow an education, concentrating on one thing — one good thing, mind you — to the detriment of other good things. She writes:

    Now, the country is to be brought up upon nature-lore, and now upon handicrafts; now upon science, and then upon art; we will not understand that knowledge is food; and therefore we believe that the whole of education may be accomplished by means of a single subject.

    She makes a case here for her “broad and generous education” for which she consistently lobbies. She argues for the Aristotelian doctrine of the Mean  –keeping all things in balance. She mentions that the French allowed one virtue — thrift — to drown out all others (i.e., diligence, candor  kindness, and “all the graces that go to make up love and justice, all the habits that ensue in intelligence).

    So Miss Mason proposes a curriculum that is “an exemplification of the doctrine of the Mean as regards both studies and students.”

    Miss Mason says that we — children and grown men alike — spend half our time being bored. Why?

    [W]e are bored because our thoughts wander from the thing in hand — we are inattentive. When for a moment we do brace ourselves to an act of attention, the invigorating effect of such act is surprising. We are alive; and it is so good to be alive that we seek the fitful stimulus of excitement – -to be the more listless after than before, because we have been stimulated and not invigorated.

    This is so insightful, so let’s walk through it. (I had to read it through a couple times to really understand all of what she was saying.)

    1. We are bored because we aren’t really paying attention. When we actually bother to pay attention, we find the act to be “invigorating” — life giving.
    2. We seek stimulation as a substitute for this invigorating act of paying attention because we are attracted to that feeling of “being alive.” (I might add that most of us do not realize there is a difference.)
    3. We come down hard after stimulation because stimulation, according to its nature, is not life-giving but rather draining. It takes away from the person, rather than adding to him. The hours of entertainment/stimulation are empty, vapid, and nothing remains to show for them.
    4. This becomes a vicious cycle: boredom becomes a habit which we attempt to relieve through stimulus, which results in nothing being added to the person, and therefore predisposes that person to future habitual boredom.

    This is the story of our culture, which loves little and is therefore interested in little. Mason does not say that this is so, but I believe I do not err in this. Apathy — that lack of love for the world around us, for the issues of the day (or of the past), for almost anything save self — is a primary cause of boredom. We do not pay attention because we do not care and we believe that very little is worth learning about or being interested in.

    But if this really is our Father’s world, then there is much to love and discover and education — that true education born of a passionate looking-into of the way of things — is an act of repentance.

    This is my concern when it comes to, for instance, video games — that the child is gaining a taste for that stimulation which stands in utter antithesis to everything which will relieve or cure the habit of boredom, that it sets the child up for further malaise, that the hours spent upon it are forever lost.

    I, personally, try not to interrupt when the children are bored. I have found that, after being bored for an hour or so, something wonderful usually happens. Boredom can be the precursor to inventions of every sort, and shouldn’t be feared. When children harass their mothers, claiming to be bored, we can be sure that they are usually seeking “stimulus” rather than that particular fruit which boredom sometimes bears if responded to properly.

    Does this mean we ought to design an especially boring existence for our children, that they might invent great things out of the void?

    Mason says absolutely not:

    [T]o begin with the children, we may do something to keep them from getting into the habit of being bored. As it is, the best children pay attention probably for about one-third of a given lesson; for the rest of the time they are at the mercy of volatile thoughts, and at the end they are fagged, not so much by the lesson as by the throng of vagrant fancies which has played upon their inattentive minds.

    How, if we tried the same quantity of work in one-third of the time with the interest which induces fixed attention? This would enable us to reduce working-hours by one-third, and at the same time to get in a good many more subjects, having regard to the child’s real need for knowledge of many kinds: the children would not be bored, they would discover the delightfulness of knowledge, and we should all benefit, for we might hope that, instead of shutting up our books when we leave school or college, each of us, under ninety say, would have his days varied and the springs of life renewed by periods of definite study.

    When I first realized how short the individual lessons were within the world of Charlotte Mason education, I was shocked. I thought it impossible to learn anything in short bites like that. And yet, I had already had one too many encounters with losing my students — giving reading lessons which were far too long and reaping the consequence of a student who thought he hated reading. I remembered that, when I was only a child myself, I learned that varying the lesson – -a bit of book work here, poetry recitation there, and then reading aloud of an interesting book at the end–cultivated a love for the subject. It dawned on me that perhaps AmblesideOnline was like that, only on a broad scale.

    And so it was. How often I hear, “Oh, Mommy! Another chapter, please!”

    In saying no, we must wait until next time, the book becomes like sugar, a coveted treat.

    In addition to varied — covering many different areas of interest — short lessons, Miss Mason offers us more wisdom:

    But this highly varied intellectual work must not have the passing character of an amusement (is not this the danger of lectures?). Continuation and progression must mark every study, so that each day we go on from where we left off, and know that we are covering fresh ground. Perhaps some day we shall come to perceive that moral and spiritual progression are also for us, not by way of distinction, but for us in common with all men, and because we are human beings.

    This morning, I read a rather brilliant (as usual) post from Wendi, where she describes how she dealt with one of her children, who seemed like she’d never progress beyond easy-reader books. She did something that many people might consider illogical — she pulled out a much more challenging book. She describes that child now, fully grown, who though not “academic” in the usual sense, reads classic literature for fun. I loved this conclusion:

    She can read and understand more than she ever would have if I’d continued to be afraid to try this stuff that anybody could have seen was too hard for her. She can actually read and understand more than a goodly number of peers who were never challenged by the hard stuff because the adults around them figured it was too hard to understand.

    I had very good reasons for thinking this stuff was too hard for her. And every one of my sympathetic, concerned, and loving reasons was just another way of underestimating what she was capable of doing, of keeping her trapped in the same ghetto of the mind she’d come from. For most people ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ is just a cheap slogan. For me, it’s the very real way I nearly failed and cheated my child.

    We spend so much time trying to keep things “at their level” that we forget that it is in being surrounded by wonderful, high, grand things that people grow — that people thrive.

    And people who are thriving are not bored, is this not so?

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    1 Comment

  • Reply Go quickly and tell May 13, 2010 at 12:18 am

    *I’m bored* is a trigger phrase for me and usually if uttered by one of my offspring, a chore was assigned 😉

    I may buy the Charlotte Mason series just to have this chapter at my fingertips.

    Your synopsis was spot-on.

    Dana in GA


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