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.
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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.
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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