For a number of years, I kept hearing that the AmblesideOnline Advisory really liked this book called Endangered Minds. So I put it on my wishlist and forgot about it. Until I got a match, of course, and then the book arrived. I happened to be in a reading slump at the time, and so I picked it up to see if it could cure me.
Needless to say, I can see why they appreciate the book! Chock full of research on the development of the human brain, Healy essentially proves that Charlotte Mason was on the right track. This was especially interesting to me because just today I encountered the comment that “times are changing and surely Charlotte Mason would have changed with them.”
Well, yes and no.
Some ideas in Charlotte Mason’s volumes are, I think, truly a product of her place and time. When it come to those things, I’m sure she would change or at least update what she said and did. We know that she changed over time, which is why there is such a vast difference in what she says about, for example, mathematics between her first and final volumes.
But much of what she says is not hers. It belongs to the conversation folks have been having about education for centuries — for millennia. To the extent that what Miss Mason said was touching on the Permanent Things, then no. These things are, by definition, things that do not change with time.
I try to base my approach to education upon things I do not need research to prove to me. I know, for example, that children are persons because, first and foremost, I believe this is self-evident. Beyond that, it isn’t that Miss Mason said so, but that Jesus said children were capable of coming to Him, and that of such is the Kingdom of Heaven. Naturally, the Kingdom consists of persons. When Miss Mason wrote in her first principle that “children are born persons” I loved it because it was true; not because it came from her.
She had a knack for truth.
Back in the 1990s, Jane Healy went on a mission to figure out why children are so different — so difficult to teach compared to, say, the 1950s, and possibly all of human history. She doesn’t phrase it exactly this way, but she’s trying to find out what is wrong with them. What she finds is not only interesting, amazing, and, sadly, not unexpected, but it is also a confirmation of what Miss Mason wrote oh so many years ago.
I thought I’d give you a sampling by juxtaposing some quotes. My only struggle here was choosing which ones, there were so many!
On Brain Ruts
We think, as we are accustomed to think; ideas come and go and carry on a ceaseless traffic in the rut — let us call it — you have made for them in the very nerve substance of the brain.
This relation of habit to human life — as the rails on which it runs to a locomotive — is perhaps the most suggestive and helpful to the educator; for just as it is on the whole easier for the locomotive to pursue its way on the rails than to take a disastrous run off them, so it is easier for the child to follow lines of habit carefully laid down than to run off these lines at his peril. It follows that this business of laying down lines towards the unexplored country of the child’s future is a very serious and responsible one for the parent. It rests with him to consider well the tracks over which the child should travel with profit and pleasure; and, along these tracks, to lay down lines so invitingly smooth and easy that the little traveller is going upon them at full speed without stopping to consider whether or no he chooses to go that way.Vol. 1, p. 109-110
[W]hat children do every day, the ways in which they think and respond to the world, what they learn, and the stimuli to which they decide to pay attention — shapes their brains. Not only does it change the ways in which the brain is used (functional change), but it also causes physical alterations (structural change) in neural wiring systems.p. 51
Old Habits Die Hard
But, supposing that the doing of a certain action a score or two of times in unbroken sequence forms a habit which it is as easy to follow as not; that, persist still further in the habit without lapses, and it becomes second nature, quite difficult to shake off; continue it further, through a course of years, and the habit has the strength of ten natures, you cannot break through it without doing real violence to yourself…Vol. 1, p. 110
It is much more difficult, however, to reorganize a brain than it is to organize it in the first place. “Organization inhibits reorganization,” say the scientists. Carving out neuronal tracks for certain types of learning is best accomplished when the synapses for that particular skill are most malleable, before they “firm up” around certain types of responses.p. 53
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.Vol. 6, p. 26
Over thirty years ago I published a volume about the home education of children and people wrote asking how those counsels of perfection could be carried out with the aid of the private governess as she then existed; it occurred to me that a series of curricula might be devised embodying sound principles and securing that children should be in a position of less dependence on their teacher than they then were; in other words, that their education should be largely self-education. A sort of correspondence school was set up, the motto of which, — “I am, I can, I ought, I will,” has had much effect in throwing children upon the possibilities, capabilities, duties and determining power belonging to them as persons.Vol. 6, p. 28-29
In urging a method of self-education for children in lieu of the vicarious education which prevails, I should like to dwell on the enormous relief to teachers, a self-sacrificing and greatly overburdened class; the difference is just that between driving a horse that is light and a horse that is heavy in hand; the former covers the ground of his own gay will and the driver goes merrily. 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
Therefore, teaching, talk and tale, however lucid or fascinating, effect nothing until self-activity be set up; that is, self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature.Vol. 6, p. 240
There is no education but self-education and only as the young student works with his own mind is anything effected.Vol. 6, p. 289
I often ask myself when I am struggling to “make” a student learn something, Whose brain is growing today? It always helps to consider: Who is interested? Who is curious? Who is asking the questions? Children need stimulation and intellectual challenges, but they must be actively involved in their learning, not responding passively while another brain — their teacher’s or parent’s — laboriously develops new synapses in their behalf.p. 73
Too much “teacher talk” gets in the way of such higher-level reasoning because it prevents children from doing their own thinking!p. 96
I could go on, but I’ll stop.
This book has been so encouraging to me. Sometimes what we do here on the microhomestead can seem “slow” or “backwards” because so much (and yet so little) is asked of young children today. I try to remind myself that as a culture we are graduating people of less and less quality, so asking more does not equal being more in terms of the caliber of the person at the end of the process.
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