Perhaps the best way to begin a conversation about atmosphere is to talk about what it isn’t. This is, in fact, exactly how Charlotte Mason goes about it:
Our motto is, — ‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.’ When we say that education is an atmosphere, we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child environment’ specially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere both as regards persons and things and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. (Vol. 6, p. 94)
I’ve written about atmosphere before here at Afterthoughts; it’s worth considering again and again, because it contains a necessary antidote to some of the foibles of our culture. In a consumer society preoccupied with image, how prone we are to assuming that creating the right atmosphere depends upon owning all the right things, having all the right experiences, being in the right circumstances. But this requires a level of privilege unattainable for most of us. How many of us can afford all the precious little wooden toys and nature prints of the dreamy homeschool Insta-aesthetic? And yet, any family can sustain a nourishing home atmosphere, because atmosphere, as Mason understands it, is created not by possessions and privilege, but through relationships:
… It is not an environment that [children] want, a set of artificial relations carefully constructed, but an atmosphere which nobody has been at pains to constitute. It is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us. It is thrown off, as it were, from persons and things, stirred by events, sweetened by love, ventilated, kept in motion, by the regulated action of common sense. We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby’s needs … no compounded ‘environment’ could make up for this fresh air, this wholesome wind blowing now from one point, now from another. (Vol. 6, p. 96)
With a proper understanding of atmosphere, ordinary family life, with all its imperfections and limitations, is seen as an essential part of a child’s education, the development of their character. Unfortunately, in our time we face an impediment to the effective use of atmosphere as a tool of education, one that Mason didn’t have to consider: we have screens.
I began with the definition of atmosphere, and the distinction between atmosphere and environment, because I believe it helps us understand some specific ways the prevalence of screens in our culture can undermine a child’s education. We all know screen addiction is a real problem for children and teenagers especially, and we frequently hear about issues such as reduced attention spans, unhealthy influences, and potential safety risks. But another serious problem is that access to a computer or phone screen creates an always-available escape route from the present moment, from ordinary, daily life. Sometimes we deliberately use screens this way, don’t we? To procrastinate, to avoid silence and boredom, to shield ourselves from interaction with others. Often these motivations are submerged, or we are so much in the habit of using screens as an avoidance tactic that it is nearly automatic.
In any event, habitually choosing to opt out in this way is not ‘just’ a bad habit, or a harmless indulgence. It is a very real impediment to the development of character because it weakens that efficacy of atmosphere as a tool of education. When we or our children become overly absorbed in screens, especially the handheld, intimate screens of smart phones, we are exempted (at least temporarily) from the living atmosphere around us. It’s no wonder we do this: to be fully present in the here-and-now demands great things of us. Daily life with even the most beloved people can be irritating, uncomfortable, tedious, obscure, vulnerable, and exhausting. It requires work and self-sacrifice and sensitivity. Our screens, on the other hand, require very little of us. In fact, they offer us the ability to curate a congenial world of influences, ideas, and amusements chosen entirely to please and affirm ourselves — an artificial environment rather than a bracing atmosphere. Children have much to lose in this trade-off.
Now, of course, this is not to say that Screens Are Bad. After all, I wrote this post on a computer for a blog, and you are reading it on a screen of some kind. These technologies can bless and support us. What I’m talking about is an addictive abuse of screens, where they become an unhealthy escape route from real life. I’m talking about teenagers staring at their phones during church. I’m talking about small children being handed a tablet to play games in restaurants, instead of being taught to wait graciously, to stay present and engaged with their families, to entertain themselves. I’m talking about older children staring at screens while valuable family time is happening around them. In order for atmosphere to educate as Charlotte Mason envisioned, we must ensure our kids are actually participating in that atmosphere and not sequestered in their own comfy technological space.
As for us, the parents and leaders in our homes, we must remember that our own education is a life-long endeavor. We too grow in character and wisdom as we participate in the atmosphere of our homes. And we too undermine this part of our education when we allow ourselves to escape it through our phone and computer and TV screens. How tempting, when daily life can be both tedious and overwhelming, to find refuge in the worlds we can curate for ourselves online. Are we willing to refuse escape and do the work of faithful, intentional, single-minded presence with our everyday people in our everyday places? It is work, no doubt about that. But the work is amply rewarded by the harvest. The more we engage with our home atmosphere, the more we truly inhabit our place, the richer and fuller our lives and places become, and the more fit we are for them.
I want to leave you with the words of Wendell Berry, from one of my favorite poems, “How to Be a Poet” — and don’t be distracted by the title, because this poem isn’t just for poets (do yourself a favor and listen to Berry read it here:
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
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