You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
— Inigo Montoya
Did you ever ditch class in high school? A good friend and I were teacher’s aids during one of the afternoon periods. We were good girls, but when our teacher gave us permission to leave campus — to go “study” at a nearby park — we jumped on the opportunity! It took no time to decide; we grabbed our bags and headed out the door. Culturally, we call this sort of behavior “spontaneous,” meaning very little thought precipitated the event. We were given an opportunity, and we took it without spending time reflecting on whether the choice was a good one or not.
We homeschool moms admire this type of spontaneity, as long as it isn’t taken to an extreme. Many of us have trouble letting the daily routine and schedule go, but we secretly respect the mom who does. We heart her Instagram when she posts photos of how she confidently blew off a homeschool day when the weather was fine and headed out for a hike or a romp at the local zoo. At the same time, we frown when a grown man quits his job out of the blue, without consulting anybody, and leaves his family finances in jeopardy.
Spontaneity has its accepted limits, after all.
Regardless of our particular relationship with spontaneity — whether we’d like to be the one ditching school or we’d rather just hear about someone else doing it — we all frame our understanding of what it means to be spontaneous in this way.
This makes it very hard to read Charlotte Mason. Take, for instance, the note at the end of her 17th principle of education:
It would seem that spontaneity is a condition of development, and that human nature needs the discipline of failure as well as of success.Philosophy of Education, p. xxxi
What in the world does this mean? Lack of planning and giving into our impulses is a condition of development? And how does this relate to failure and success?
At times, Charlotte Mason uses the word “spontaneous” in the way we are accustomed to use it, but mostly, she uses an older, Latin-based meaning of the word. The Online Etymological Dictionary gives us this definition:
“occurring without external stimulus,” from Late Latin spontaneus “willing, of one’s free will,” from Latin (sua) sponte “of one’s own accord, willingly,” a word of uncertain origin.
In her 17th principle, this is what Miss Mason means by “spontaneity,” and it is this we must explore if we are to comprehend her meaning.
Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy aims at more than merely coming to know. Miss Mason wanted good character. She spent much time giving us insight into how to develop good character because we so often go about it in the wrong way. We concern ourselves with results and behaviors, even though these externals may not reflect true character. We are all familiar with “good kids” who showed themselves to be anything but once they left home and were no longer under parental control.
Charlotte Mason teaches us a great secret about developing good character: good character is the result of free will. When we make choices, we are actually choosing what kind of person we are going to be. This begins when we are very young, when we make our earliest choices about who will be our friends, what sort of quality will be our work when we do chores, and more. As we age, our choices often become more important, but the underlying principle that we become who we are through the choices we make never changes.
Consider a grown man, a judge, deciding an important verdict. He is being influenced in some way. Maybe he is being blackmailed – someone has photos of him doing drugs, for example. We may dislike his decision when he announces it, but because we do not know what has happened in his personal life, we believe his is a free choice. There is nothing further from the truth, of course. This choice is not free because something else is influencing the decision beyond the man’s free will.
To use our new word: the judge is not being spontaneous. His will has been bound and influenced via blackmail.
When you see the word “spontaneity” in Miss Mason’s volumes, this is often what she is getting at. When she reminds us that “human nature needs the discipline of failure as well as of success,” she means that it is only through encountering the real consequences of freely made decisions that we learn about life and who we will be as persons.
We can think of spontaneity, then, as a sort of zone where children are making decisions in a truly free way. They’re not being pressured by Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa.
Does this mean there are to be no good influences in their lives? That we are to leave the children to themselves entirely? May this never be! As Charlotte Mason said:
[W]e should train children so that we should be able to honour them with a generous confidence.School Education, p. 40
As the children grow older and are given more freedom (there is a nice list of freedoms in Charlotte Mason’s third volume), they should be influenced by their conscience. They should be influenced by their training. They should be influenced by all the good books they have read, all the wonderful sermons they have heard, all the Bible verses and poetry they have memorized, and more. In a Charlotte Mason education, we give them a great wealth upon which to draw. But they ought not feel their parents hovering over them, watching for whether or not they make the right decision. We are there to love and support them, of course, but ultimately we know that character is built when they are allowed to, as Miss Mason so aptly said, “stand or fall by their own efforts.” (School Education, p. 39-40)
“Teachers mediate too much,” complained Miss Mason.
The children might echo Wordsworth’s complaint of ‘the world,’ and say, the teacher is too much with us, late and soon. Everything is directed, expected, suggested. No other personality out of book, picture, or song, no, not even that of Nature herself, can get at the children without the mediation of the teacher. No room is left for spontaneity or personal initiation on their part.Home Education, p. 188
To Charlotte Mason, personality and character are wrapped up in using your will and making free choices. When we consider that the goal is for our children to be able to live as mature adults, this makes a good deal of sense. Children flourish and grow when we give them the proper support, training, and instruction, and then carefully move out of the way.
This article first appeared in Common Place Quarterly Magazine. If you don’t yet subscribe, I highly recommend it!
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