Educational Philosophy, Home Education

All Education is Self-Education

May 29, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

Charlotte Mason said this, you know. No, really. She did! But Miss Mason obviously wasn’t an unschooler, nor was she one to promote purely experiential learning. She believed in and trained teachers, and she built her curriculum around real books. So why would she say this? Why would she say:

No one knoweth the things of a man but the spirit of a man which is in him; therefore, there is no education but self-education, and as soon as a young child begins his education he does so as a student.

How does the idea of self-education relate to the child who is a late bloomer, who seems behind? ALL means all, so it even applies here!

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How do we reconcile her insistence upon good teachers and good books with the idea of self-education?

The answer is simple, really, for she goes on and tells us what she means:

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.

It isn’t that each child is born with these amazing resources inside of himself, but that he is born with a thirst for knowledge. We all know, however, that education does not happen if a child isn’t paying attention. This is because education is not passive. A student, therefore, is one who pursues knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. He is one who learns — actively. Miss Mason required her students to be attentive, to be present in their lessons. There was no dawdling over lessons allowed, no daydreaming, no thinking about other things. Education is self-education because only the self must will it to happen. Books are useless without the self’s engagement. It isn’t that the self is the source of the education, but that it is the motor that powers the process.

Another thing we know about Miss Mason’s schools, and this is what I really want to get to, is that the days were short. Four hours or so and then they were done. They were encouraged to use their time wisely in the afternoons, but it seems they were somewhat free. They were not organized into structured play activities for the remainder of their day. They weren’t lectured by teachers. They weren’t given hours upon hours of homework.

And really, when we think about it, the brain needs space like that in order to assimilate and organize the knowledge gained in the morning.

Self-Education and Spacious Days

I was thinking about this idea that self-education doesn’t just involve structured mornings but also free afternoons as I’ve been observing one of my daughters over the past months and weeks. She is one of my late bloomers. I determined from the time that she was very young that I was not going to put pressure on her to be something she isn’t. I was an early bloomer, and so was my oldest child, and both of us are very academic besides. My big fear was that I would crush her by not allowing her to be what God made her to be.

So she has had more spaciousness than her older brother (and my fourth child has required even more!). And sometimes I admit this has made me nervous. People would ask me why she wasn’t yet doing such-and-such. Why isn’t she reading yet? I was asked when she was five. And again at six. She didn’t really read until seven-and-a-half, but it wasn’t for lack of discipline in our home. She just wasn’t ready.

Same goes for writing.

And drawing.

Oh, drawing. I admit that this is where I became the most concerned. At age four she began drawing these strange looking people. I was proud, as only a mother could be. But the years went by, and at age almost eight her drawing had only gotten slightly more sophisticated. If you had seen it, you definitely would have thought it was done by a preschooler or kindergartner.

Now, I had tried giving simple drawing lessons in the summers. We had done watercolors for nature study. Sometimes she did terribly at these things, and sometimes she did okay, but these never transferred over into what she did by herself in her spare time. I pondered trying to come up with the money for drawing lessons or buying yet another book of drawing exercises. Shouldn’t she be able to draw by now? At least somewhat?

Shortly after her eighth birthday, she began tracing animals from magazines. If I let her (and I often did), she would trace for hours each day. She figured out on her own that it was easier to trace if there was light behind her page and used her bedroom window accordingly. She colored her tracings to look as much like the original as possible.

She called herself an artist!

But my mother heart was secretly fretting. I had read all about how tracing is not the same as drawing and it sets children up to not be able to draw. Was I allowing her to handicap herself? She took such joy in it that I couldn’t take it away, but I worried about the amount of time she was spending on it and whether it was actually a further hindrance to her development in the area of drawing.

And then one day we were at our favorite used book store and I had told her I would buy her one book, if she could find a good one. She brought me a child’s drawing book and asked to take it home. I told her I already had one and she could use mine. When we arrived home, I gave her the book and she ran off to her room. I didn’t see her again until dinner time, when she presented me with beautiful drawings of farm animals, plus a barn!

It was amazing. Her drawing went from preschool level to age-appropriate in a single afternoon!

Often when this child learns it is like a switch flips on in her brain. She is not one to grow steadily. She may stagnate for months, or even years, And then she’ll leap forward in a very short period of time. This has happened consistently with her, but I never trust it; I always worry.

When I read this quote by Jane Healy, I recognized my daughter:

Many studies support the notion that brains — and the organisms attached to them — tend to gravitate to the types of stimulation that they need at different stages of development. If we encourage children to make choices from a selected variety of available challenges, both environmental and intellectual, we are no doubt following the wisest course.

I don’t know why this child needed tracing, but she was definitely seeking it out, and it bore fruit weeks later when she taught herself to draw. Learning is a fascinating thing.

Her short morning lessons protect her against specialization. They keep her education broad and generous. They tell her about things of which she knows so little that she would never even know to seek them out.

But then they are over.

She is free to pursue her interests. All of my children benefit from this, but this child seems to gain the most.

I look at the highly scheduled children around us and sometimes I feel guilty that I am not supermom. I don’t even feel capable of juggling the sorts of activities other families are involved in, to say nothing of the financial cost. But then I remember the wisdom of the past:

Multum non multa.

Much, not many.

The spacious afternoons do not contain the many programs and activities expected for children these days. But they do seem to contain much in their own way. I find such richness in giving these children time to become interested in things, to do things, to think about things. And if I truly believe that self-education involves not merely paying attention to one’s lessons, but also having the time to pursue interests, then this is the path we must continue upon.

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27 Comments

  • Reply Karen May 19, 2019 at 6:47 am

    I realize this is an older post so the link to the art book doesn’t work anymore. What is the name of it? I would love to buy it.
    Thank you!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 20, 2019 at 11:43 am

      Hi Karen! Sorry about that. It was Draw Write Now. I think I fixed the link in the post — thanks for the heads up!

  • Reply Amanda May 17, 2019 at 4:03 pm

  • Reply Mama Squirrel June 4, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Brandy, there’s another homeschool writer whose daughter traced and traced and traced–your post made me think of it. Did you ever read anything by Mary Hood? The story must have been in her first book, because that’s the only one I had.
    http://www.amazon.ca/The-Relaxed-Home-School-Production/dp/0963974009 I think her daughter did the illustrations for that book.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 4, 2013 at 3:35 pm

      I hadn’t even heard of Mary Hood before, but I put some of her books on my wishlist! Thank you!

  • Reply Caralee May 30, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    Hi! I really loved this post. I am presently reading Volume 6 and this is exactly where I am studying at the moment. So it was neat to read this post this morning. I really liked your perspective.

    I want to encourage you from one who draws portraits. Tracing is perfectly acceptable. I draw free-hand, trace, and use graphs and math calculations to draw. I too have read in different art books and magazines that tracing is ‘cheating’ when drawing, and to me that is absurd. Tracing is a very viable technique to use when learning to draw an object. It is also very good to use to observe a subject in detail, to really get to know the subject,its lines, curves, shades, attitude, etc.

    Oh and by the way, I was an artist that grew by leaps and bounds in single afternoons at time every 6 months to years. It surprised me every time I drew, how much I grew. I would get excited at my newly discovered ability.

    I loved what you said here, “Her short morning lessons protect her against specialization. They keep her education broad and generous. They tell her about things that she knows so little of that she would never even know to seek them out. But then they are over. She is free to pursue her interests.” I think this balance is very important. You stated it so well, I cannot add to it.

    I do have one question. We are only able to complete the major subjects of history, math, writing, science, grammar and so on in the morning. Our afternoons are for art, art study, music, study, practicing instruments, handicrafts, chores, life skills, and so on. If I don’t schedule these activities in, then my children won’t do them. Is this alright to do? How do I schedule these activities without making them seem like a class?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 3, 2013 at 3:59 pm

      Thank you for that encouragement, Caralee! It is nice to have an artist’s perspective on this!

      To answer your question about scheduling, this sort of thing really varies by family. Some of this will also depend on how early you start. Our family, because we keep animals, is up very early in the morning, so being “done by lunch” is a lot more attainable for us than it might be for a family that isn’t getting started until 10am, if that makes sense.

      With that said, I use my morning Circle Time to clear out a lot of the things you mentioned. Except for instrument practice. My one child who is learning an instrument practices in the afternoons. My daughter will start piano this summer and then we will have two who have to practice in the afternoons and I suppose that WILL take some time!

      The other thing I have done is tried to plan only four days of school per week. With my oldest child, he still has some AO readings because there are just too many, so up until Y4 of Y5 this works. The fifth day, then, is set apart for some of the other things. We have a co-op where we have done handicrafts, nature study, Plutarch, etc.

      I think fitting things in is very personal. As long as your children have some time, ideally daily, with which they are free to do and be and explore and think and…play!…I am not sure we have to worry as much about the rest of it.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 3, 2013 at 9:15 pm

      You know what? I just realized that Healy doesn’t forbid tracing. I got it all mixed up in my head. She does have some other things I think are progressive in their root, and she seems to think we need something “new” when in fact we need something old. She doesn’t seem well-steeped in the longer-term history of education (pre-Dewey, I mean).

      Eide discourages tracing, as does Peterson Handwriting, among other influences on the web. I hadn’t considered the idea that this was actually a progressive idea. I will have to watch for that and see if I can figure it out!

  • Reply austen_n_burney May 30, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    I wonder, I haven’t looked into it, but the whole idea of tracing is bad seems like a progressive education idea. It might stifle creativity or some such nonsense. How can we learn to be creative until we have copied the masters for years and been filled with those? We wouldn’t expect our kids to create beautiful poetry without first filling their brain with memorized great poetry. So trace away I say. It builds muscle memory if nothing else. I played competive sports for years at high levels and in order to build muscle memory (or break a bad habit) we were told it takes 2000 correct repetitions to build that muscle memory so I would say trace away and build that memory. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 3, 2013 at 3:37 pm

      You could be right! I hadn’t thought about that!

      I was thinking that Healy wasn’t progressive–and in many ways she isn’t–but as I read her section on preschool I decided that she definitely has some progressive influence and hasn’t come far enough yet {in my opinion}.

    • Reply Sarah June 13, 2013 at 11:09 pm

      When I was in art school (university) my art classes were taught using the progressive style of education where we were given a blank sheet or canvas and asked to create from little or no filling of ideas. It was very defeating and discouraging. I used to prepare for these assignments by spending hours in the library looking at art, then tracing the ones I liked. Soon as I was filled and ideas began to gel I was able to step away from the tracing and looking to begin my own own compositions. The looking and tracing filled my mind with ideas and then gave a map from where to start from.It inspired me and the anxiety would slowly dissipate as I found something I wanted to say and create.Tracing in my humble experience is a lot like the classical grammar sage where you master the fundamentals before you move on to the dialect and rhetoric stage. The progressive movement likes to skip the grammar stage and often the dialect stage to get to the expression…it comes from Rousseau and it burns out many a good artist before he has legs on which to stand. In fact in art history one can see that artists in the renaissance etc were required to copy long before they ever were allowed to create on their own original works. So we trace and copy until the student feels he or she is ready to try on their own and some jump in huge steps and some gradually in baby steps.
      I am loving reading your post….answers many questions. Thank you.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 13, 2013 at 11:26 pm

      Another art student! I feel so blessed and confirmed to have you all jumping in and saying that tracing is GOOD. I feel so comfortable now with this activity.

      She is still at it, by the way, tracing almost every day, but now also drawing her own stuff. So exciting!

  • Reply Brandy Vencel May 30, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    So it looks like two of you think tracing helps. I wonder what makes people say it doesn’t work–or even that it can handicap? It’s not just Eide–I’ve seen this same assertion as Peterson Directed Handwriting, for example.

    But tracing has worked so well for her, and that is actually how I taught my oldest to write. I think I will try tracing sheets for handwriting with her over the summer and see if that improves things. If I put them in a box for her, she’ll decide she wants to do them at some point…

  • Reply Mystie May 30, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    Honestly, I’ve never believed the warnings against tracing. My artist siblings traced when they wanted to learn something new, I traced to learn italic handwriting as an adult. As someone whose spatial abilities are not the best, tracing helps me get that initial boost to muscle memory and an early small success. Despite Eide, I still use tracing (solid light gray lines, not “connect the dots) for handwriting practice for myself and my kids. I got a drawing book awhile back that was too hard for my 9yo and after a couple frustrated attempts, he put his paper over and traced a few times, then he seemed to get it, get how the shapes were made and how they went together, and then he could draw them. That’s all anecdotal, of course, but I don’t think we need to get hung up over someone’s rules about the best way to do things if that gets it the way of it actually happening at all.

    That’s so awesome to watch and see that sort of development unfold! Good for you for braving it out and walking in faith.

    So, perhaps CM is classical in the mornings and unschooly in the afternoons? 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 30, 2013 at 4:25 pm

      “So, perhaps CM is classical in the mornings and unschooly in the afternoons? :)”

      I think so!

      She also used the afternoons for nature walks and nature study. {I would like to try that once I don’t have nappers.} I know that she mentioned teaching them lots of valuable things–not just reading, but the handicrafts, etc.–so that they had good things to fill their time with. But I don’t get the impression that anything was really mandatory. It was more like she filled up their little souls in the morning and then the afternoons were the expression of that filling. Of course, they went home {I think…} so there is also the idea that this varied from house to house depending on the parenting style.

    • Reply Mystie May 30, 2013 at 10:32 pm

      Yes, like the unschooling concept of “strewing,” which is such a lovely word and concept. It doesn’t mean doing *nothing*, it means not feeling like it has to be “school” or lessons to “count.”

    • Reply Sarah June 13, 2013 at 11:12 pm

      Marvelous! Classical in the mornings and unschooling in the afternoon. Now I know I am not a homeschool schizophrenic. Thank you so much for this helpful phrase.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 13, 2013 at 11:24 pm

      Or conversely, the schizophrenia is real, but very prevalent. You’re in good company. 😉

  • Reply Jeanne May 30, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Such a totally great post. That’s all I have to say about that.

  • Reply Rebekah May 30, 2013 at 7:39 am

    Seems as though much truth is a matter of faith. Interesting. The system says I needed to push early reading. But then there is the idea to let it come when it comes, when the child is ready. Perhaps if I had had more faith that my son would read eventually he would already be reading. But I lacked faith in that idea and we are still struggling at 10 years old. Although, it did seem like he grew in great leaps and bounds in reading skills in just a few days. This is great and I’m glad you waited it out.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 30, 2013 at 4:19 pm

      Rebekah, you are going to love this:

      “Education, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen.”
      –Charlotte Mason {Vol. 6, p. 39}

      Crazy, hm?

      As long as his eyes do not have convergence issues, I have heard of children’s brains not turning on in this area up to age 12! This daughter I was writing about did not read until I put her on the GAPS diet. We started, and three weeks later she could read. That was really weird.

  • Reply Queen of Carrots May 30, 2013 at 6:21 am

    I also have felt the tracing/copying guilt, but the one child who really loves doing it also seems to have really benefited from it.

  • Reply Sarah May 29, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Excellent post! I inevitably fret about my kids (especially my son) being a bit late in things-reading, for one. It doesn’t help that several family members are teachers in the public system and believe strongly in pushing early literacy. But my mama heart says to give him time, space, and some short, well-done lessons and he’ll get there when he gets there. Thank you for your encouragement!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 30, 2013 at 4:20 pm

      “But my mama heart says to give him time, space, and some short, well-done lessons” ←This, I love!

    • Reply Janette May 25, 2014 at 3:08 am

      Reading that a child is pushed to read, especially early, drives me mad. Research indicates there is a shift in brain function about the time a child learns to read. Sometimes that shift happens at four, other times much later. The rule of thumb is to be concerned when the child is fully seven as the norm. If reading is forced the results are often learning disabilities! It is also why fluency is not expected until third grade (when testing begins).

      The most “successful” children have emphasis on vocabulary. The larger the vocabulary “pool”, the more learning occurs.

  • Reply Ellen May 29, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    Ah, so I’m not the only one wondering if they’re providing “enough” or the “right kind of thing” when I’m feeling insecure. 🙂 Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone… Great Latin phrase, too. 🙂 The Simple Charlotte Mason blog post today was spot on for my last blog post. I guess God knew what I needed to hear.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 29, 2013 at 6:36 pm

      No you are not alone!

      I hadn’t visited SCM today so I had to go check…looks like we’re all on the same page today, hm? 🙂

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