Not so long ago, the average mid-twentysomething had achieved most of adulthood’s milestones—high school degree, financial independence, marriage, and children. These days, he lingers—happily—in a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance.
Charlotte Mason had an idea she calls the ‘science of relations’. What she meant by this is that in giving children a broad and liberal education, they will naturally connect related ideas by themselves. This frees teachers from the need to artificially force connections of ideas for the students. A good example of this artificial or forced connection is unit studies. In fact, Charlotte Mason was opposed to using unit studies in education because it relieved the child of the valuable effort exerted in making their own connections, something she believed children were quite capable of doing.
This past week our homeschool experienced a lovely example of the science of relations. During our Bible time we were reading from the book of I Samuel and we read about Israel being unhappy with God as their King. The people were complaining to Samuel and telling of their dissatisfaction with his sons and wished for God to give them an earthly king. Over the past couple years we have read through the entire Child’s Story Bible and my children know quite well how things turn out for the Israelites with their long desired “earthly kings”. After we finished reading the I Samuel passage in school and its narrations, my 7-year-old daughter got very quiet and deep in thought and then blurted out, “It’s just like the frogs, Mommy!” At this point I gave a kind of interested, yet confused look as my mind was trying to make a connection between the Israelites and frogs. She continued to say, “You know, Mommy, like when the frogs were unhappy and they wished for a king and so they begged Jupiter to give them one. Then Jupiter sent down a big log to be their king, but they weren’t happy with that either and they grumbled and complained. Finally, Jupiter sent down a crane to be their king and he ate up all the frogs. See, that’s what it is going to be like for the Israelites.” At this point, in amazement, I said, “Yes, I see that connection.” I had remembered that we read this story in Aesop’s Fables a couple of years ago.
This is exactly what Charlotte Mason was talking about when she suggested that children, even as young as 7, can make connections with bigger and broader ideas on their own. And, something very different happens when a child’s own mind labors to connect an idea themselves; they own it.
I have the distinct privilege of being the friend of a very intentional, loving mom. We have enjoyed being in relationship since our children were very young. Her youngest wasn't born when I met her, nor was my youngest. We have witnessed each other's families grow. Her oldest just turn twelve years old and is the subject of my musing today.
My friend and I meet at a park with our children semi-monthly. While they create forts and act out medieval dramas (complete with crowns and armors of ivy), we read about and discuss one of our favorite subjects: Charlotte Mason's philosophy of education. Since this summer, I have noticed the fact that her twelve year old daughter is not a little girl anymore. She has become a young lady in every sense of the word. She holds herself with dignity, dresses with modesty, possesses a loving, interested and courteous demeanor, and is not self-absorbed. She can play with the younger children with ease because she has no doubts as to her identity. She doesn't think that playing with them is below her and they love her for it. She has an unselfish confidence. Her beautiful character brings tears of wonder to my eyes. And it brings a different sort of tears to think of the loneliness of her position amongst her peers. She is almost in a class of her own.
A few years ago, at my favorite pub on Capitol Hill (Washington, DC), I shared brunch with a former student. She had been part of the first high school class to graduate from Ambleside. Having completed her university degree, she was spending the summer working in Washington. The food was typical pub food, but the conversation was excellent. She was engaging, conversant in a wide variety of subjects, comfortable in sharing her thoughts and desires, her delights and struggles. And, quite atypical of a contemporary twenty-something, she was genuinely interested in the thoughts and desires, the delights and struggles of her former teacher. It was a rich time. As we neared the end of our meal, I leaned over the table and said, “Let me tell you the most difficult, the most painful thing in your life right now.” Her eyes opened a little wider, and she began to listen intently. I went on, “You are an intelligent, engaging young woman. The way you have conducted yourself throughout our time together, the way you walked into the room, your impeccable manners, the quality of our conversation, your interest not just in yourself but in me; all of this points to the character of a mature young woman. Yet, you are surrounded by wo-girls and man-boys (physically adults, but emotionally-relationally functioning like thirteen year-olds). And, that is a very lonely place to be.” A small tear began to slide down her cheek, and I continued, “But what is the alternative.”
In a recent TED talk entitled “The Demise of Guys” (see demiseofguys.com), Philip Zimbardo points out that we are facing an enormous crisis. In his ebook by the same title, Zimbardo maintains:
In record numbers, guys are flaming out academically and wiping out socially with girls…
Young men are motivated, just not the way other people want them to be. Society wants guys to be upstanding proactive citizens who take responsibility for themselves, who work with others to improve their communities and nation as a whole. The irony is that society is not giving the support, means or places for these young men to even be motivated or interested in aspiring to these things. In fact, society-from politics to the media to the classroom to our very own families – is a major contributor to this demise because they are inhibiting guys’ intellectual, creative and social abilities right from the start.
While I don’t agree with everything Zimbardo says and he doesn’t claim to have a complete answer for the problem, he has recognized something very important. In today’s European-American cultures, young men are increasingly a mess. The typical twenty-six year old male of today is a very different creature from the twenty-six year old male of fifty years ago. And, young women are not far behind. It’s not just that biologically young adults are increasingly functioning at lesser levels of psychological, emotional-relational maturity. Fewer and fewer have any vision for maturity. They dream only of perpetual adolescence.
What went wrong? As a culture, we have forgotten that maturity is an achievement. It must be intentionally cultivated and does not occur apart from hard work on the part of child and adult. Achieving maturity is not something we come by without effort. Almost two thousand years ago, Paul of Tarsus wrote the Corinthian church, declaring:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child; I thought like a child; I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
In a highly indulgent, consumption-oriented society; this giving up of childish ways is a challenging task. It requires concerted effort on the part of young and old alike. It requires a community that has a clear vision of what maturity looks like and how it is to be achieved.
Ambleside is just such a community. In fact, perhaps the most distinctive thing about an Ambleside high school is its vision for and commitment to spiritual, psychological, and emotional-relational maturity. It is our goal, that when a young man or woman graduates from an Ambleside high school, he or she will be functioning at an adult level of maturity, able to think like a mature adult, work like a mature adult, serve like a mature adult, and appropriately regulate his or her emotional life as a mature adult.
We agree with Charlotte Mason’s words, “to direct and assist the evolution of character is the chief office of education.” Consider the graduate, who, in addition to having mastered a broad and rich curriculum, can manage emotional distress well and stay her best self; can stay on task when head and hand are tired; is careful, accurate, neat, and dutiful in work; has appropriate respect for appropriate authority; and maintains a good relationship with God, self, peers and teachers. Such a student will surely do well in university and even more importantly in life. It is just such a student that we seek to cultivate at Ambleside.
When Charlotte Mason discussed the spiritual life in relationship to ideas, she identified spiritual life as the life of thought, of feeling, of the soul, of that which is not physical. This very human life needs food, and “this life is sustained upon only one manner of diet: the diet of ideas—the living progeny of living minds.”
She uses this framework—the spiritual life is sustained only by a diet of ideas—to answer the perennial question, “What manner of school books should our boys and girls use?”
She characterized school publishers’ books as “drained dry of living thought, abridgement of an abridgement, dry bones of a subject denuded of soft flesh and living color, of the stir of life and power of moving.”
Now, as then, school books are often designed to fit an interest level, a subject, or a grade level. And they do just that. They provide information to a standard that publishers prescribe to equalize learning. As my husband often says, “No one would buy these books if they were sold at bookstores; they aren’t very interesting.” Publishers sell them to schools instead.
In the early 21st century, students only infrequently mention books; they now focus on letter and number grades, AP and honors classes, and all their homework. The conversation has changed. They seldom encounter or discuss the ideas in history, mathematics, science, or literature because order is of things to an end, says Acquinas. And the end is no longer knowledge but information.
However, books written about the ideas present in history, mathematics, science and literature reach a broad readership. Page after page, ideas stir readers’ hearts and minds with the beauty of language, the wonder of humanity, the description of laws and principles, the awe of God, and questions of humankind.
The reader of such books reads more and more. His mind and heart are satiated. Long after the class ends or the light grows dim, he thinks, dreams, wonders, believes. He lives.
As we have just completed our first full week of school, I am reminded of what a true joy it is to begin another school year with my children. Their eagerness, excitement and anticipation are simply mirrored by mine. Last week, we began our eighth year of homeschooling and our fourth year with Ambleside® Homeschool… how time slips by. Over the years I have realized that our home schoolroom is one of my most favorite places to be, the children are some of my most favorite people to be with and we are surrounded with beautiful and interesting texts, delightful lessons, and a method that is as smooth as butter when properly applied. All of this makes our homeschooling one of the most rewarding experiences for all involved. Of course with all endeavors, we have had and will have our challenges to overcome, but with all these delightful blessings in the sweet brief time my children are in my care, I wonder why others don’t do it too.
I wish all of you homeschooling families a sweet and delightful year. Enjoy the journey and cherish these times.
Today, Saturday, I spent four inspirational hours participating in a guided hike in our area. The hike was arranged by a lady who writes a column about nature in our local newspaper (that's how I found out about the hike). And it was co-led by an author who published a book about the lime kilns in our area (which we saw on the hike) and our new local head of conservation, who served as our plant expert. The setting was idyllic amidst towering redwoods, an ambling stream and the songs of the winter wren (one of which perched for a rare picture, which my camera didn't seem to save!). But the environment came alive through the enthusiastic knowledge of our guides ably passed to us in stories and the gentle planting of living ideas.
I chose to spend my Saturday afternoon this way, despite a list of other items on my weekend to-do list, for two reasons. First, because I have realized that I am prone to learning from books and being content to engage in solitary activities. So I am making an effort to learn from persons in groups as well. Second, because I have taken to heart Charlotte Mason's admonition that we must know our local area in all its richness, including the names of the flora and fauna. Although this idea struck me and took root when I first read it several years ago, I have had difficulty pursuing the names from books alone. So when I learned about this free hike, I made a commitment to participate.
As I hiked, the fact that I wanted to pass on the information and ideas to my students (my sons) made me especially attentive to every detail. I listened, asked questions, took pictures and recorded notes. I became an historian, botanist and biologist-in-training for the day. And I loved it! I even brought along my watercolors with which I painted some forget-me-nots while we paused for lunch.
As I shared my experience with my family at dinner this evening, I was struck by how recent the knowledge I had gained became the source of inspiration for others. But this is not a new experience for me, especially since starting to educate my sons. I learn. I teach. I grow. I inspire. And when I don't learn and I don't grow...well, I hinder my children. It takes extra effort to put myself in the way of living ideas and real persons, but the reward and the privilege is a deeper sense of connection and meaning within the bounds in which God has established for me. I encourage you to learn from your fellow locals!
I would also like to offer a few practical pointers:
* Evernote (www.evernote.com) is a wonderful (free) way to record notes, snapshots and audio while out in the field.
* I have found that my local nurseries are excellent sources of information in the local flora and fauna. For example, my sons and I found a plant this past year that we could not identify. We took it to the nursery. We were taken to the back office and invited to sit down while they scoured old botany books ("the older the better").
* Make a point to paint at least one thing that you see on any nature walk, even when not with your students. This helps to hone your habit of attention, increase your love of nature (which will be caught by your students), and requires you to pause long enough to soak in the surroundings.
* Find books written by local authors on plants in your area. And keep searching till you find a good one! I have searched for three years but found out about one today that I had never seen and is, according to others on the hike, the definitive guide for our area!
* Watch your local newspaper for local outings for walks, birding, painting, etc.
If a child is to get to know himself, to know who he is and what he cares for, he needs to beunafraid of silence, and this is an area of life where the school has duties as never before. Inner silence is essential for the flowering of personal identity and exterior silence is nearly always a pre-requisite for this. The modern concern for identity and the widespread sense of alienation in life and the arts is not helped by the seepage of noise into so many places where it need not be. More and more of the world is wired for sound, and too often a transistor is carried like a talisman to ward off the danger of silence. Its unheeded chatter and music give the illusion that some human contact is being made while the insight and vision that grow in silence cannot even begin to stir into life. It is ironic that people driven by the need to find peace will head for the mountain, the forest or the sea and then switch on the radio to reassure themselves that the background noise is still there. It is in childhood that we can best get a taste for silence, and the school has a duty to provide this quiet growing time. There are occasions when a happy din of activity is desirable but if it becomes the norm the child will be damaged.
Eve Anderson, former headmistress of Eton End gave me this article about silence from something she picked up while at the House of Education in Ambleside. In considering a life-giving education, we have talked about the need of silence in the classroom. In fact, interns attending our training frequently comment that the teachers are not afraid of silence. One intern remarked, “I wish I had a given time to think of something quietly.”
In being intentional about silence, I am reminded about my Mother’s instruction during Holy Week. As a child I always looked forward to Holy Week. There were times of fasting, prayer, church-going, and silence. My Mother would remind us of our need to be quiet, especially on Good Friday, as we reflected upon the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. From noon to three, we were to be quiet, sitting, thinking, praying, being. Of course, there was restlessness in silence. How much longer? I don’t know what to do! But slowly we would stop resisting the silence and give into it. We became accustomed to quiet times and were the better for it. Give yourself and your children the gift of quiet this week and be blessed in the silence.
I came to our school room this Sunday evening to make sure that I have all the materials ready for this week of school. When I walked into the room, I felt some of my energy drain just thinking of the character shaping that will happen here tomorrow (of my students and of me). As I sat down to collect my thoughts, I felt uninspired. I already have my lessons planned and the material is no longer new to me. My thoughts revealed a mindset that will limit my growth and that of my students if I do not replace it.
I began reflecting on the many times I have admonished my students to "finish well." To finish an arithmetic problem correctly, not just to begin the attempt. To complete a passage of transcription with beautiful and accurate handwriting. To reproduce an artist's masterpiece down to the last detail.
I am finding that I need to hear my own admonition tonight. We are in the home stretch of this school year (although the finish line is not quite in site). We are starting to make plans for summer even (ok, a little early, but we are). I am even starting to enthusiastically anticipate what the scope of school work will be for next year. My mind seems to be on times other than now. Is it because we are coming to the end of the biography of Abigail Adams and I think I know the end already (uh, America)? Is it because we just found out what happened with the Pepper family for read-aloud and are moving on to Shakespeare (plays to which I have been exposed)? I suspect that I have a bit of a sense of coasting, "been there, done that" in my mind tonight. My lessons are planned, the end of the year is in sight, let's move on.
But WAIT! Checking a box (finishing a book or a lesson) does not mean that growth has taken place. It does not mean I have finished well. The year-end is in sight, but the ideas yet to come have not been assimilated. Not to mention that my students haven't "been there, done that" - it is all totally new to them. And I may know the outcomes and have my lessons planned, but have I taken the ideas that are still to be revealed in each subject to a level of deep knowing (assimilation) where it has changed my thinking or beliefs or actions (Charlotte Mason's true test of education)? Have my students? Am I really finished with growing in our home school (Charlotte Mason's definition of education)? Are my students? The questions are laughable. Of course not!
What I really need to do in our school room tonight is to pray for my students, for me as their intrepid (though needing to be admonished) guide and to plead with the Holy Spirit one more time to teach us, to inhabit this space in a conscious way, to speak peace over our hearts enabling us to serve and to defer to one another, to open up the mysteries of arithmetic, nature, grammar, and all of His beautiful world, to enable us to have teachable, inspired hearts...to enable us to finish well.
Trust the Method
I remember three years ago sitting in the Ambleside Summer Institute and hearing Bill St. Cyr tell us teachers in training to “trust the method”. What he was referring to directly was the Ambleside Method of teaching a lesson, but on a broader level I have come to understand this to also mean Charlotte Mason’s method as embodied in her philosophy of education.
I recently had a conversation with a dear friend about my desire to send my children to a summer school program at a private school in my area. The reason I was considering it was that I wanted my children to have exposure to other teachers, other children and new experiences. Although this can be good in its own right I neglected to think that they would be exposed to a different method of teaching. My children have been brought up homeschooled with an Ambleside Education. My fear, and I’ll just go ahead and admit it, is that they are somehow missing something in their education by not being part of a traditional school setting. This underlying fear is only exacerbated when well meaning friends and family CONTINUALLY ask me when I am going to send them to school, as if they are not being schooled now.
Although my friend, whom I was discussing summer school with, suggested that there is nothing wrong with my children attending enrichment classes, there could be negative changes in the way they would view learning after a traditional school experience. They most likely would be encouraged to learn for the test rather than for the love of learning. Or, the school may not continue to focus the child on intellectual growth, but rather be satisfied if they simply meet the assignment. Then of course there is the concern as to how involved the teachers are in forming the development of the habits of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, etc. I was struck, upon reflection, by the realization that my children are thriving in both their academics and social life and as well as growing in the development of their own personal character, all without the traditional school.
I have seen this first hand as I have taken on another child, from outside our family, into our homeschool. This boy came from a more traditional school environment and I had to do a considerable amount of work to help him to even begin to love knowledge for the sake of knowledge rather than for a test or to fill in a blank on a worksheet. Also, habits in many areas had been neglected which caused him difficulty in school. It was such a contrast between how my children have been taught to learn. Although he is but 10 years old, I recognize that there are deep groves formed in his brain that caused him to learn for the sake of the right answer rather than for the joy of knowledge. An Ambleside education has breathed life into his academics and his life in general for what I believe may be the first time.
That being said, this conversation with my friend caused me to realize that I had forgotten to “trust the method” in my consideration of a summer school. I had succumbed to a completely unfounded concern that my children are not getting something they need in their education. My children are excelling academically - in fact they absolutely love learning, school and believe it or not, they ask for homework for fun! Their social skills are great; they are involved in a variety of sports and activities and interact well with persons of all ages. And, their character is being carefully shaped with attention to both personal and academic habits.
So what am I thinking?
The decision has been made. No summer school. They don’t need it. We are opting for a few fun summer camps to give me, Mom, a bit of a break during the day. But, bring on the swimming, horseback riding and acting camp and forget the academic summer school. Let me not be so quick next time to forget to trust the method.