Seeing that we are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, we can allow ourselves but three educational instruments — the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit and the presentation of living ideas.
— Charlotte Mason (Vol. 6, p. 94)
Charlotte Mason boiled this principle down into her famous motto, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” In the next few days, we’re going to talk about this in much greater depth. If she’s going to say that these things actually are education, then we need to take a close look at them.
But today I’d like to talk about these things more generally.
First, what does she mean by “instruments?” In many ways, we could say that our books and pencils are our tools, and we wouldn’t be wrong, but in this context, she is using the word tool in a certain way. In this quote, an instrument is what we use to motivate the child, to get the child to learn in the first place.
This can sound strange, but in the preceding paragraphs, she has gone through many of the common ways we try to manipulate children into doing what we want them to do, and discarded all of them, and what was left were these three tools of education. There’s nothing else, because she believed everything else was a form of manipulation, or it was preying upon the child’s sinful tendencies.
Miss Mason explains that we are very tempted, when we want a child to jump through the proverbial hoops in school, to prey upon their personalities. But in order to do this, we have to appeal to some part of their flesh — some sinful or weak tendency they may have. The result is a child who has done what we wished of him, but whose character has meanwhile been corrupted by the process.
You see, Miss Mason was not just about ends. How we went about things mattered as much to her as what the end result turned out to be.
She discusses things like “marks” (what we call grades) and scholarships. Those things do motivate, but she found that the child motivated by them lost his natural love of knowledge-for-its-own-sake over time. He would jump through hoops, but the longing of his heart was to perform well, not to come to know. Whereas once he was a curious little guy who desperately wanted to know, to understand, now he is a bland young man who only cares about winning the next prize, or being top of the class.
As someone who was motivated by such things, this makes complete sense. For example, my sole purpose in taking Spanish as a teen and young adult was to get an A grade in the class, and to complete the requirements for graduation. This is very sad, but it honestly never crossed my mind to use those classes to actually learn a language. Now, when I want so badly to communicate well with my Spanish-speaking neighbor, I greatly regret wasting my time doing only what it took to get a grade.
Because let me tell you: you could get the grade without knowing anything real about Spanish, especially if you were always only taking the bare minimum language requirements.
I also had a scholarship frighten me away from taking challenging classes in college. If I lost my scholarship, I would have to go home, and keeping it was dependent upon getting good grades, so I deliberately chose classes I knew I could easily pass.
During my last semester of college, my GPA finally didn’t matter. I threw myself into some very difficult classes, and I fell back in love with knowing as a result. My grades were not as perfect (there were some A-minuses in there), but the adventure re-awakened in me a desire to know that has never left me since. Imagine how my college experience would have gone if I could have chosen classes for the sake of learning alone, rather than the fear of losing a scholarship in the background.
Needless to say, I did not apply for an academic scholarship in graduate school!
So, as I said, in the upcoming days, we’ll flesh out what atmosphere, discipline, and life actually are. For today, we realize that they are the tools with which we foster a child’s learning, the only tools available if we are not to corrupt their characters over time.
The teacher who proposes marks and places as worthy aims will get work certainly but he will get no healthy love of knowledge for its own sake and no provision against the ennui of later days.Charlotte Mason (Vol. 6, p. 91)
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