Ambleside Blog

An Advent Season in Everyday Life

Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute,
Candles in the window,
Carols at the spinet.
Yes, we need a little Christmas[1]

Spirits rise with this happy tune, as the festiveness of Christmas comes forth in all the trappings of the holiday. But for a moment, as the lyricist, Jerry Herman hurries us to get the tree decorated,  before the spirit falls again. Let us remember that it is yet Advent, the season of reflection and longing. When we quiet ourselves, there is a recognition that a certain waning of our spirit is too often a way of life.

Most people live a poor maimed life, as though they carried about one or other mortified limb, dead in itself and a burden to the body. But they do not realize that their minds are slow and their hearts heavy for want of the knowledge which is life.[2]

These holy days of advent are often perceived as burdensome as we prepare for the coming of Christmas. These burdens come into our lives by way of anxious thoughts and feelings about mostly everything, readying for guests who come or whose guests we are, and the lists of “to do” tallied daily in our minds. If the truth be known, the season brings these burdens because we live in this burdensome way more often than not, thinking of a time that will be, but seems never to come. Charlotte Mason reminds us that we too frequently live a maimed life amid the joys of the season, hoping for another time of rest, because of the want of knowledge which is life.

The season of Advent brings this knowledge. The  term advent was taken  from ancient times when it was used to speak about the arrival or presence of an emperor who bestowed his presence, parousia  on the ones he ruled. Advent is the time remembered when “in the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed, Almighty Jesus Christ”[3]  - a visit from God who came to enter our lives and give us life in the real sense, now.

Life, in any real sense, is the knowledge of God now; and, without that knowledge, there cannot be the free and joyous activity of our powers, the glow of our feelings, the happy living, free from care, the open eye for all beauty, the open heart for all goodness, the responsive mind, the tender heart, the aspiring soul––which go to make up fullness of life.[4]

Parousia, His potent presence in the now, unmasks us, revealing our deepest thoughts and feelings. And when we are anxious for another time, it is a reminder for us all to bring ourselves back to the present through focused attention on His presence.  

Find a place and be quiet. Direct your attention to Christ through meditative thought/centering prayer. Begin with this practice of the presence of sitting with God in the early morning and mid day. Throughout the day, when attention wanes, refocus. Emmanuel, God is with us. We are not alone!


[1] Herman, Jerry. “We Need a Little Christmas.” Mame, 1966.
[2] Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves Book II. 79-80.
[3] Rossetti, Christina, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” 1872.
[4] Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves Book II. 79.

 

Back to Art

This has been a particularly trying month for me.  When facing challenges, my default is to analyze, examine, and strategize.  But thinking is not always helpful.  This statement is practical heresy in my line of training.  Gladly, I have had just enough exposure to the power of artistic expression to deny the charge. 

(Of course, there is a lot of thinking that occurs in artistic expression.  But it does not take center stage the entire time, and…I am overthinking this.)

So my interest was piqued when I recently ran across a study titled “How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity,” in PLOS ONE, an online journal (found at: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0101035)

The ten-week study divided “post-retirement” individuals into two groups.  One group received cognitive art appreciation instruction at a museum.  The other group received visual art classes with hands-on instruction.  The differences in brain region interaction and psychological resiliency were significant.  The study concluded, “visual art production leads to improved interaction, particularly between the frontal and posterior and temporal brain regions,” and that this interaction is related to improved psychological resiliency.  The study’s authors found that, “Visual art represents a powerful resource for mental and physical well-being.”

What this means for me as a person in a difficult season is that I need to make room for artistic expression in my life.  Interestingly, I had been taking time for this pursuit regularly, but my practice fell away when “life got busy” the past few months.  I wonder now whether I would be weathering this season with more resilience if I had not forgone the practice.

What this means for me as a teacher is that I need to continue to provide opportunities for my students to engage in artistic expression.  Not just for “art’s sake,” but for the brain’s sake.

Primacy of Belonging

That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you to may have fellowship (koinonia) with us; and indeed our fellowship (koinonia) is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

I John 1:3-4

Towards the end of his life, John, the beloved apostle, begins by declaring that his primary purpose for preaching all that he had experienced of Christ was the creation of fellowship, a shared belonging in a divinely oriented community. The work of Christ establishes us as belonging to community, and this shared belonging is foundational to experience of the Father. We are to be both participants and instruments of belonging, the kind of belonging that creates joy. Charlotte Mason calls this need to belong the “desire of society” and places it among the desires that are both primary and universal.

The same desires stir in the breasts of savage and of sage alike; that the desire of knowledge, which shows itself in the child's curiosity about things and his eager use of his eyes, is equally active everywhere; that the desire of society, which you may see in two babies presented to one another and all agog with glee and friendliness, is the cause, alike, of village communities amongst savage tribes and of the philosophical meeting of the learned; that everywhere is felt the desire of esteem––a wonderful power in the hands of the educator, making a word of praise or blame more powerful as a motive than any fear or hope of punishment or reward. [1]

In this passage, taken from Home Education, she identifies three primary desires:

  • The desire of knowledge
  • The desire of society (belonging)
  • The desire of esteem (to be held in high regard).

It is worth considering both the importance and the interplay of these three.  The desire of knowledge is to the mind as hunger is to the body. Unless it be atrophied, every human has a natural desire to explore those realms open to the intellect, to feed upon history, literature, nature, science, art, other persons and ultimately God. “For this is eternal life, to know God.”[2] The mind feeds and grows, assimilating knowledge as food. But this process can be cut short. Just as, for the sake of breathing, a body will give up eating; so, a mind will give up learning when faced with threats to belonging and/or esteem. While a few might bury their heads in the books to escape the pain of not belonging or seek the accolades of “first in class” as a feeble substitute for being esteemed, none will thrive in such an atmosphere.

Positively, we get the vast majority of knowledge not from personal discovery but from communion with others. In Charlotte Mason’s words:

We learn from Society. In this way we learn, for most people have things to say that it is good to hear; and we should have something to produce from our own stores that will interest others – something we have seen or heard, read or thought… It is not only from the best and ablest we may learn. I have seen ill-bred people in a room, and even at table, who had nothing to say because they did not think their neighbor worth talking to… This is not only unmannerly and unkind, but is foolish, and a source of loss to themselves. Perhaps there is no one who has not some bit of knowledge or experience, or who has not had some thought, all his own. A good story is told of Sir Walter Scott, how he was traveling from London to Edinburgh by the stagecoach, and sharing the box seat with him was a man who would not talk. He tried the weather, crops, politics, books, every subject he could think of––and we may be sure they were many. At last, in despair, he turned round with, "Well, what can you talk about, sir?" "Bent leather," said the man; and, added Sir Walter, "we had one of the most interesting conversations I remember." Everybody has his 'bent leather' to talk about, if we have the gift to get at it.[3]

This story is both tragic and beautiful: tragic because a man had such a small world of interest, and beautiful, because another person cared enough to find even that small world and be interested. One can speculate that small worlds come from small communities of interest. If no one cares for a child’s thoughts, his thoughts will become small and he will inhabit a small and lonely world. Our personal world is only as big as the worlds we share. To be deeply satisfying, knowledge is a shared endeavor.

Teachers should remember this; for, we experience ourselves as belonging to those who are interested enough to share interests with us. Lack of interest destroys belonging. Those, whom we hold in high regard, interest us. Those who do not interest us, experience us as holding them in low regard. Let us endeavor to find the “bent leather” in every student’s mind. And let us give them a vast array of knowledge in which to share interest. Nothing builds esteem and belonging like the experience of genuine interest. You are interested in what I think. You are interested in what I feel. Not for any utilitarian reason, but simply because you find me to be of value. Few thoughts, conscious or unconscious, bring joy to the heart, as do these.

If one seeks to build an atmosphere of belonging, find something in every person that is worthy of interest. Not all thoughts and feelings are noble. Not all are worthy of interest. When we share ignoble, unworthy interests, we may negatively bond, but we do not delight in one another. Two may share disdain for a third, but that disdain contaminates the relationship not only with the third person but also between the two sharing the disdain. There must be no toleration in the classroom of disdainful attitudes and certainly not disdainful talk. Such attitudes and words must be confronted immediately as a dark, hurtful way of thinking and talking. Students must learn that just because a dark thought crosses their mind does not mean they have to accept it. Thoughts can be rejected and the mind turned to that which is worthy.

If genuine interest in me (my thoughts, my feelings, my interests and activities) builds belonging and esteem, it is augmented by appreciation. When someone sees within us that which is worth appreciating and expresses appreciation our hearts soar. Appreciation of others is a habit of mind and so is contempt. All humans are both bearers of the divine image and selfish, frail incompetents. The question is what do we see when we see another. Where does our mind go? Do we have the habit of sweet thoughts, quick to find the good and appreciate, merciful with the flaws? Or, are we quick to see the failings, to mock in our mind, and to disdain. What do we see, and what do we express? In so many classrooms, it is only the negative and the extraordinary that get expressed. We hear little appreciation for small kindnesses and small victories, little gratitude for the small contribution that each can make. What’s called for is not praise as reward for success (a response that quickly cheapens), but genuine appreciation for a rigorous effort, quietly expressed. As important as it is to identify student weakness, teachers will never be a positive support if they fail to see and to appreciate that which is worthy in every child. No classroom is emotionally safe where even a single student is not appreciated.

Just as we build interest by being interested together, so we build appreciation by sharing appreciation. We need to hear what we appreciate about each another. In this, the teacher must take the lead. Not a day should go by in which she does not publicly express concrete appreciation for some worthy trait of a student. This is not praise for performance or appearance, but recognition that some aspect of a fine and noble character has manifested itself. “John, I see your noble heart to serve others.” or, “Kathy, I appreciate your sensitivity to the needs of others.” In addition to expressing appreciation themselves, teachers should gently exhort students to express appreciation for one another. Ideas should be sown and habits cultivated. Expression of appreciation can be made a topic for regular prayer. “Lord, give us the grace to appreciate one another and opportunity to express it.” It can also be an object of direct challenge. “Let’s invite the Lord to show us something we can appreciate about one of our classmates. Look for an opportunity to express that appreciation.”

When our classes are not places of shared interest and appreciation, the atmosphere goes dark and students begin to feed upon one another. Lacking the joys of shared thoughts/feelings and a delight in one another, students start to feed upon one another. A vicious cycle begins. Increased relational pain results in further loss of interest and less ability to appreciate, leading to further increased relational pain. As relational pain increases, so does predatory behavior. Preying upon one another becomes the norm and the habit.

The teacher must lead the move against such things. He or she must be an anchor of emotional joy and strength, a sure protector. She must model interest and appreciation; always able to see that which is worthy in a child and joyfully to communicate that recognition. She must lead her students in the habits of genuine interest and appreciation. A final note, the daily habit of giving thanks can go a long way towards achieving these ends. Students must give more time to expression appreciation for that which is good than disdain for that which they do not like.


[1] Mason, Charlotte, Home Education, 100-101.
[2] John 17:3
[3] Mason, Charlotte, Ourselves, 73-75.

 

Planning a New Year

For many teachers, it is the time of year to prepare for a new academic year, or at least to start thinking about the preparation. 

This will be my sixth year of teaching my children at home with the support of Ambleside.  I have a routine of sorts when I approach my yearly planning, beginning with determining the classes for the next year, ordering inventory, planning a workable schedule, etc.  But similar to the difference between planning a meditative time with God and actually communing with Him, I am aware of the difference between planning a year with well-appointed academic accessories and a year of actual growth: one does not inevitably lead to the other.  My brain needs to be reminded of this.  By personality, upbringing, positive reinforcements, whatever the case may be, my brain focuses on the planning as if the plan will ensure the desired outcome.  All the while the quiet voice of my spirit powerfully testifies against the plan’s assertion of supremacy.  My spirit knows, if not intuitively, certainly experientially, that growth this next year will occur because of the Spirit’s communing with us, not because of my well-appointed academic accessories.

As I write, I hear the call of a red-tailed hawk. (Perhaps it is the juvenile red-tailed hawk that found its way into our home a few weeks ago, and we successfully ushered back outside.  We have discovered its nest, and we hear its parents every morning.)  A few weeks ago, we learned in science that hawks have only one mate for its life.  Soon after we learned this relational characteristic of these magnificent birds, I came across Isaiah 34:15-16:

There the owl nests and lays and hatches and gathers her young in her shadow; indeed, there the hawks are gathered, each one with her mate. Seek and read from the book of the LORD: Not one of these shall be missing; none shall be without her mate. For the mouth of the LORD has commanded, and his Spirit has gathered them.

I brought this verse before my students and we discussed the idea that God has ordered His world in such as way as to testify to the certainty of His word and plans.  God’s word can be counted upon just as assuredly as the fact that the hawk will not be without his mate.  We shared a refreshing moment of awe in God.  One that I did not plan.

When I began my school planning last year, could I have planned the Spirit’s striking instruction of us through His creation and word at just the right point in our science studies?  Could I have planned the many other times of direct inspiration where the Spirit breathed truth into our inner persons during our school day?  Of course not.  So am I to stop planning and see what happens?  No.  As Charlotte Mason says, “…we do not always make enough of the fact that Divine grace is exerted on the lines of enlightened human effort; that the parent, for instance, who takes the trouble to understand what he is about in educating his child, deserves, and assuredly gets, support from above…” (For the full context, see: http://www.amblesideschools.com/manual/Charlotte-Mason/part-iii-habit-te...) But as I plan this next year, I am choosing to give voice to my spirit that says to rest in the Spirit, not the plan.

Easter Reflection

What seems the most tender of the resurrection accounts:

But Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned and said to him in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).

In this life each of us has his or her share of suffering. One must bear a tenth measure, another a full measure, and still another ten times the normal measure. Mary has lived more than her share of brokenness and thus experienced more than her share of suffering. As this gospel scene opens, she is once again weeping. And, true to the dynamics of human physiology, her brain experiencing more emotional distress than it can process well, she can neither think straight nor see clearly. Even the glory of a pair of angels is insufficient to bring her clarity. She sees Jesus but doesn't see Him. If we quiet our hearts and reflect, undoubtedly we will all remember those distressed times when"having eyes we could not see and ears we could not hear." We see this phenomenon regularly among Ambleside students and not infrequently among parents and teachers.

Jesus speaks her name, "Mary", and all is clear. We only read the word, but what power must have in His voice, His tone conveying the:

Authority of a King of kings
Strength that conquered death
Tenderness born of long, gracious suffering
And, a love that would freely give its life.

Here again Jesus reveals Himself as the true teacher, a source of strength and a revealer of truth, with great potency and remarkably few words. Isn't it true that, when faced with another's distress and confusion, most of us attune too little and talk too much? Not so the master Teacher.

This Easter season, as we reflect on Jesus, the risen Savior, may we become more like Him.

Community

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” [i]                                                                                  

Today’s topic is something that has been on my mind since I first considered coming to Ambleside. It is something that has been written about extensively for centuries. Great thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau have debated the catalyst of its origin. Its proper employment has been and will continue to be the nucleus of every organized people group on the planet. Today it manifests itself in many different formats such as Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, and the like. We all have a deep need and longing for it and have probably all been, at some time or another, disturbed by the seeming absence of it in our lives. I have had the privilege of witnessing the Ambleside family exemplify IT more truly than I have witnessed anywhere else. So, what is - IT?  I’ve been somewhat ambiguous about the identity because I thought it would be best if I left it up to you to guess what it is I’m getting at, and because  it’s the kind of thing I get a kick out of.

Okay, the suspense is too much! The it is Community – Something I have longed for all my life, and especially since receiving faith in Christ and then reading about the early months and years of the formation of the Church community.

When looking into Ambleside it appeared to me to be a place that really sought after authentic community. It was a place that seemed, by its principles, to be impervious to communal strife. It was very attractive and has been an incredible thing to experience thus far. However, actually living in community, verses dreaming about it, has been a bit different than I had dreamt it would be. It has led me to really think about the nature of veritable Christian Community. The following is what I have learned thus far.

First, a brief lesson in the etymology of the English word “Community.” It is derived from the ecclesiastical Greek word koinonia (Koy-no-nia), which biblical dictionaries explain is synonymous with the following: fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation, to name a few. Later, the Latin phrase communitas developed and evolved into what we now know as community; a term most simply defined as a group of men or women leading a common life according to a rule. In other words, common unity.

Rule and Unity - The rule we find ourselves united under here at Ambleside is first, submission to the person and principles of Jesus Christ. Then, from that beginning, we are united in the belief that education is an Atmosphere, a Discipline, and a Life, all of which is rooted in the notion that children are persons created in the image of God. We are united under the rule that education is more than data download. That education is more important than we can imagine. That children are graciously formed by the Holy Spirit, and it is our responsibility to be mindful of the process by putting before the student a feast of the good, the true, and the beautiful in order that, in the words of Charlotte Mason, the children would have “the habits of the good life in thought, feeling and action, and in spiritual things.” This is the rule that we are united by and under at Ambleside: first, the rule of Christ, and then that which the highest order dictates regarding the bringing up of our young persons.

That sounds pretty simple. Shouldn’t all go well? We know the rule, I hope we all agree that this is the rule, so what goes wrong? And it would be hard to ignore that at times, even at Ambleside, Christian community can go awry, and has evidently gone terribly wrong at times. The only conclusion I can come to is that we sometimes forget the “rule” part of community. But I guess that is what made the whole thing go boom in the first place (referring of course to the whole fall of man thing). However, with this in mind, and it is vitally important that we keep this in mind, we still need to learn how to do life together in a healthy way that honors the blessing of Christian Community.

I believe a good start would be to rid ourselves of our disillusionment of community, if there is any. First we must answer the question: From where does disillusionment come? In his discourse on “Faith in Community,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains that we are all likely to enter Christian community with a definite idea of what life together should be and then we try to realize it. But God’s grace,” he continues “speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” Bonhoeffer’s point, I believe, is to say, when we bring our preconceived notions of what Christian Community looks like, we subvert divine reality for the sake of our ideals. We forget that Christian Community is founded on one principle alone: We belong to each other “Only through and In Jesus Christ”[ii]

 I bring this up, not because I have witnessed goings on uncharacteristic of Christian Community, or that I feel a great sense of disillusionment among Ambleside families, but because I think it is important that we be reminded that in the midst of doing life together, we should be united under one rule, and by one principle alone: We belong to each other “Only through and In Jesus Christ.”

So, what does that look like for us here at Ambleside? I don’t know, but I think a good start would be to look at our engagement in what Charlotte Mason called “The Science of Relations;” right relationships - one’s relationship to God, self, others, and ideas. This is at the core of what we do. It is why we do what we do. It is the fiber of our philosophical tapestry.[iii]

Perhaps examining the Science of Relations would be a great start as we approach the call of parenthood. As parents, when we move toward our children, in their weakness and ours, where are we in our own exploration of the Science of Relations? How do I relate to God, self, and others? Is it through my ideals, or is it through the one truth, that Jesus Christ is in me and that through Him I belong to others? I guess what seems to me most important within our framework, is recognizing that, like me, my colleagues, classmates, teachers, students, friends and family members are all in need of grace. We are all, as my pastor says at the end of each service “involved in our own great struggle.” That in this community, weakness is an opportunity for growth and that growth happens in the light of day. It is imperative that we view each other through this lens; that we step towards one another with grace and encouragement in the full understanding that our positioning is in common, that we are unified in and through Jesus Christ, and in this we will exemplify the Community we were made to be.


[i] Psalm 133:1

[ii] Bonhoeffer, D.  Life Together, 26-27

[iii] Mason, C., School Education, 182-188 excerpts

* Sculpture Kids on a Log by Paul Anderson

For the Love of Knowing

I have to tell of the awakening of a ‘general soul’ at the touch of knowledge. Eight years ago, the “soul” of a class of children in a mining village school awoke simultaneously at this magic touch and has remained awake.[1]

Here is an astounding possibility, if we would believe it, the awakening not just of one soul but of an entire class, not a class of the gifted (socially, financially, intellectually) but of a class of those who lacked the usual “advantages”. Unfortunately, we find it difficult to believe. Too many of our students are asleep, and we do not know how to awaken them. Perhaps, we do not even recognize that their minds are but asleep. We have come to see slumber as the normal state of things. So, we endeavor to prod or cajole, all in a well-intentioned effort to get the students to perform as they ought.  Yet, too many students resist. They are like the boy who, not wanting to get out of bed, rolls over hoping his mother’s nagging voice will simply go away and let him sleep. “Knowing” has been separated from “loving”, much to the child’s impoverishment.

What does it mean for the mind to be awake? A mind is awake when it is doing that which it is made to do, when it is pursuing knowledge. Having legs, toddlers desire to run. Possessing sight, they desire to see. Possessing hearing, they desire to hear. Possessing speech, they desire to speak. Possessing touch, they desire to touch and be touched. Possessing mind, they desire to know. Each capacity, seeks its own satisfaction, and the satisfaction of mind is to know. It is the desire for knowledge of persons and things that is the one all sufficient motivator of children to engage in the work/pleasure of learning. The student who hungers to know the ways of past peoples and cultures will learn her history. The student who longs for an author’s insight into the human condition will learn his literature. The student who craves understanding of the dynamics of number will learn her math. The student who eagerly awaits the revelation of some new mystery of creation will learn his science. As Charlotte Mason puts it, “The desire for knowledge is the chief instrument of education.”[2]

If Charlotte Mason is correct, then the most important variable in the education is the desire of the student to know. The desire to know is far more critical than the aptitude to know, for the great majority of students have a tremendous aptitude, for greater than that for which we give them credit. The dangers we face are twofold:

  1. If we neglect to feed the mind, malnourished its desire to know will become anemic.
  2. It is possible to paralyze the desire to know, by exciting competing desires.

First, all too often, children’s minds are underfed. Malnourished, they become indifferent.

We neglect mind. We need not consider brain; a duly nourished and duly exercised mind takes care of its physical organ provided that organ also receives its proper material nourishment. But our fault, our exceeding great fault, is that we keep our own minds and the minds of our children shamefully underfed. The mind is a spiritual octopus, reaching out limbs in every direction to draw in enormous rations of that which under the action of the mind itself becomes knowledge. Nothing can stale its infinite variety; the heavens and the earth, the past, the present, and future, things great and things minute, nations and men, the universe, all are within the scope of the human intelligence. But there would appear to be, as we have seen, an unsuspected unwritten law concerning the nature of the "material" which is converted into knowledge during the act of apprehension. The idea of the Logos did not come by chance to the later Greeks; "The Word" is not a meaningless title applied to the second Person of the Trinity; it is not without significance that every utterance which fell from Him is marked by exquisite literary fitness.  Only as he has been and is nourished upon books is a man able to "live his life." [3]

Cannot people get on with little knowledge? Is it really necessary after all? My child-friends supplied the answer: their insatiable curiosity showed me that the wide world and its history were barely enough to satisfy a child who had not been made apathetic by spiritual malnutrition. What, then, is knowledge?––was the next question that occurred; a question which the intellectual labor of ages has not settled; but perhaps this is enough to go on with;––that only becomes knowledge to a person which he has assimilated, which his mind has acted upon.

Children's aptitude for knowledge and their eagerness for it made for the conclusion that the field of a child's knowledge may not be artificially restricted, that he has a right to and necessity for as much and as varied knowledge as he is able to receive; and that the limitations in his curriculum should depend only upon the age at which he must leave school; in a word, a common curriculum appears to be due to all children.[4]

When minds are not engaged in the life-giving endeavor of a shared feeding upon ideas, it becomes malnourished and lethargic, at times bordering on the comatose. Students must be given the free opportunity to engage the best ideas of the best minds, gained chiefly through “living books.” Teachers must provide not only the suitable diet, but also a suitable atmosphere.

This desire might be paralyzed or made powerless like an unused limb by encouraging other desires to intervene between a child and the knowledge proper for him; the desire for place,––emulation; for prizes,––avarice; for power,––ambition; for praise,––vanity, might each be a stumbling block to him. It seemed to me that we teachers had unconsciously elaborated a system which should secure the discipline of the schools and the eagerness of the scholars,––by means of marks, prizes, and the like,––and yet eliminate that knowledge-hunger, itself the quite sufficient incentive to education. [5]

It is a worthwhile endeavor for all teachers to consider the well-intended activities which squelch the “desire to know.”  Most are brought on by the false belief that the teacher/parent must do something to get the students to learn. In fact, this way of thinking at the least interferes with the students’ coming to know and at worst shuts down their minds completely. We must cultivate a practice where “Teachers shall teach less and scholars shall learn more.”

It is not easy to sum up in a few short sentences those principles upon which the mind naturally acts and which I have tried to bring to bear upon a school curriculum. The fundamental idea is, that children are persons and are therefore moved by the same springs of conduct as their elders. Among these is the Desire of Knowledge, knowledge-hunger being natural to everybody. History, Geography, the thoughts of other people, roughly, the humanities, are proper for us all, and are the objects of the natural desire of knowledge. So too, are Science, for we all live in the world; and Art, for we all require beauty, and are eager to know how to discriminate; social science, Ethics, for we are aware of the need to learn about the conduct of life; and Religion, for, like those men we heard of at the Front, we all 'want God.'

In the nature of things then the unspoken demand of children is for a wide and very varied curriculum; it is necessary that they should have some knowledge of the wide range of interests proper to them as human beings, and for no reasons of convenience or time limitations may we curtail their proper curriculum.

Perceiving the range of knowledge to which children as persons are entitled the questions are, how shall they be induced to take that knowledge, and what can the children of the people learn in the short time they are at school? We have discovered a working answer to these two conundrums. I say discovered, and not invented, for there is only one way of learning, and the intelligent persons who can talk well on many subjects and the expert in one learn in the one way, that is, they read to know. What I have found out is, that this method is available for every child, whether in the dilatory and desultory home schoolroom or in the large classes of Elementary Schools.

Children no more come into the world without provision for dealing with knowledge than without provision for dealing with food. They bring with them not only that intellectual appetite, the desire of knowledge, but also an enormous, an unlimited power of attention to which the power of retention (memory) seems to be attached, as one digestive process succeeds another, until the final assimilation. "Yes," it will be said, "they are capable of much curiosity and consequent attention but they can only occasionally be beguiled into attending to their lessons." Is not that the fault of the lessons, and must not these be regulated as carefully with regard to the behavior of mind as the children's meals are with regard to physical considerations? Let us consider this behavior in a few aspects. The mind concerns itself only with thoughts, imaginations, reasoned arguments; it declines to assimilate the facts unless in combination with its proper pabulum; it, being active, is wearied in the passive attitude of a listener, it is as much bored in the case of a child by the discursive twaddle of the talking teacher as in that of a grown-up by conversational twaddle; it has a natural preference for literary form; given a more or less literary presentation, the curiosity of the mind is enormous and embraces a vast variety of subjects. [6]

  • Spend a few minutes considering those teacher behaviors which support student desire to know and those behaviors which hinder it.

 


[1] Mason, Charlotte, A Philosophy of Education,  xxv.

[2] Ibid. 11

[3] Ibid. 330.

[4] Ibid. 11-12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. 13-15

 

Atmosphere: To Love and To Know Breathed In

Pervasiveness of Dominant Ideas.––Again, we are with the philosopher in his recognition of the force of an idea, and especially of those ideas which are, as we phrase it, in the air at any given moment. "Both the circle of the family and that of social intercourse are subjected to forces that are active in the entire social body, and that penetrate the entire atmosphere of human life in invisible channels. No one knows whence these currents, these ideas arise; but they are there. They influence the moods, the aspirations, and the inclinations of humanity, and no one, however powerful, can withdraw himself from their effects; no sovereign's command makes its way into their depths…

"Whether the power of these dominant ideas is greater in the individual, or in the body of individuals as a whole, is a matter of indifference here. Be that as it may, it cannot be denied that their effect upon the one is manifested in a reciprocal action upon the other, and that their influence upon the younger generation is indisputable."[1]

In the above quote, Charlotte Mason challenges the understanding most of us have about the ideas we hold. 

  • First, most of us tend to think in terms of the primacy of individual choice in selecting the ideas which are held and those which are rejected. In fact, the dominant ideas which have the greatest impact upon us are caught not taughtThey are “in the air” and breathed in, either from the society at large or particularly significant individuals.
  • Second, most of us tend to think of ideas in terms of propositions – groups of words constituting a statement that affirms or denies something and is either true or false. While “propositional truth” statements and logical argument conducted using propositional statements constitute an essential process for discriminating between true and false ideas, Charlotte Mason considered ideas to be a much more global concept than propositions.

Following Coleridge, she saw the possibilities of an idea existing in the human mind in a “definite form” (propositional truth being one such form) or as “a vague appetency” (a desire, craving, propensity towards a thing). Further, she held that the ideas most foundational were breathed in.

Let us hear Coleridge further on the subject of those ideas which may invest us as an atmosphere rather than strike as a weapon:

"The idea may exist in a clear and definite form as that of a circle in that of the mind of a geometrician or it may be a mere instinct, a vague appetency towards something . . . like the impulse which fills a young poet's eyes with tears."

These indefinite ideas which express themselves in an 'appetency' towards something and which should draw a child towards things honest, lovely and of good report, are not to be offered of set purpose or at set times: they are held in that thought-atmosphere which surrounds him, breathed as his breath of life.

It is distressing to think that our poor words and ways should be thus inspired [breathed in] by children; but to recognize the fact will make us careful not to admit sordid or unworthy thoughts and motives into our dealings with them.[2]

Consider the student who walks into classroom and states, “Good, it’s time for math.” In making this statement, the student points to a rather definite idea about himself, math, and the relation between the two. It is important to note, that, prior to this idea ever being formed in “his head”, there was a much more indefinite idea, an appetency towards math which had taken shape. In terms of modern neuroscience, the definite idea took shape in the left, pre-frontal cortex of the student’s brain, but the “appetency” was both neurologically prior and formed by a much more global interaction of the nervous system within itself and with others. To put it metaphorically, the definite idea in the student’s “head” was determined by a prior indefinite idea which had taken shape in his “heart”. Simply put:

We live by our hearts not by our heads.

Further, our hearts are shaped by:

  1. The “atmosphere” we inhale, those “indefinite ideas” communicated to us by the community in which we live.
  2. The more “definite ideas” which seize not only our heads but our hearts as we engage in an internal, contemplative dialog with our selves and an external, social dialog with others.

Thus, our head does have an essential role in clarifying the meaning and purpose of life, the nature of what is good and what is bad, critiquing the state of our heart, pointing us in the direction of a new heart, and maintaining the dialog with self and others that helps shape our heart. But, we live by our heart, and if we are to live well our hearts must be shaped to love well. Consider the words of Augustine:

 And now regarding love, which the apostle says is greater than the other two--that is, faith and hope--for the more richly it dwells in a man, the better the man in whom it dwells. For when we ask whether someone is a good man, we are not asking what he believes, or hopes, but what he loves. Now, beyond all doubt, he who loves aright believes and hopes rightly. Likewise, he who does not love believes in vain, even if what he believes is true; he hopes in vain, even if what he hopes for is generally agreed to pertain to true happiness, unless he believes and hopes for this: that he may through prayer obtain the gift of love.[3]

These principles are profoundly important for anyone involved in cultivating the hearts and minds of children. The greater the extent to which a teacher owns them, the more effective he/she will be.

The importance of these principles is demonstrated by the power of “indefinite” ideas to shape all that happens in a classroom.  For example, let us consider a set of particularly dominant ideas which a teacher will surely communicate (by verbal and non-verbal cues) and thus establish one of two very different atmospheres. 

Atmosphere of Joy

Atmosphere of Anxiety

It is good to be me here with you.

It is not good to be me here with you.

It is good to be learning math, science, literature, history, etc.

It is not good to be learning math, science, literature, history, etc.

Personal Exercise:

  • Spend some time considering together how these very powerful ideas (It is good to be with you/to be learning… and it is not good to be with you/to be learning…) are communicated to students.
  • We cannot fake it.  When it is “not good to be me”, everyone knows consciously or unconsciously. What impact does this have on the students – the formation of their hearts and their long-term relation with a subject of study? How does it impact their love of knowing?
  • When as a teacher is it “not good to be” you or “not good to be learning”?
  • What can a teacher do when it is “not good” on the inside?

[1] Charlotte Mason, School Education, 93-94

[2] Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, 107.

[3] St. Augustine, Enchiridion, chapter 31.

 

To Know and To LOVE

It is worthwhile to stop and ask the question: what exactly are we as a school community about?

Consider the well-known parable of Jesus:

 A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.” So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! “I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.” So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” And they began to celebrate.

Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.” But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, “Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.” And he said to him, “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”[1]

In this parable we find three major players, each with a different orientation towards life.

  • The younger brother who seeks to ESCAPE and INDULGE
  • The older brother who seeks to PERFORM and CONTROL
  • The father who seeks to KNOW and to LOVE

Teachers regularly encounter students who like the younger brother seek to ESCAPE and INDULGE. They are minimalists when it comes to putting forth effort, long to be entertained, are quickly bored, are impulsive in their actions, and sacrifice the good of others for their own pleasure. Self-denial is a habit far from their experience. And, thus, they wander far from the place that would provide peace and deep satisfaction.

Likewise, teachers regularly encounter students who fit the type of the older brother. Their primary concern is to PERFORM and CONTROL. What could be wrong with seeking to perform? Nothing, if by perform one means to give one’s best effort in diligently pursuing that which is good, true, and beautiful. Everything, if by perform one means besting others for the sake of narcissistic self-satisfaction. Indeed, such persons are tragically self-focused. Like the older brother in the parable, everything is about self. They find it difficult to enter into the joy of anything that is not about “me”. They do not seek to know for the joy of knowing but to know for the sake of besting others. Older brothers are anxious and angry. They don’t know how to enter into the celebration of life. Often, teachers will fail to concern themselves with such students. They seem to be doing well. Yet, they are often harder to reach.

Then, there is the father, who seeks TO KNOW and TO LOVE. He knows his sons, reaches out to them, undeterred by their brokenness. He does not become selfish because his sons are selfish. He does not become neurotic because his sons are neurotic. He knows with a relational knowledge.  His “stuff” does not get in the way. He sees his sons, is willing to hurt with them, is unafraid, thus can love, and potentially lead his sons TO KNOW and TO LOVE.

Is this not a worthy goal to put before ourselves and our students? TO KNOW and TO LOVE – to know and to love God, others, self, flowers, birds, stars, music, art, literature, math, all that is good, true and beautiful. It is obvious that this kind of knowing is not “the parrot-like saying of lessons, the cramming of ill-digested facts for examinations” [2] which characterizes too much of so-called education. Rather, it is the kind of knowledge implied in Charlotte Mason’s statement that “education is the science of relations” or that ALL KNOWLEDGE is a product of “the teaching power of the Spirit of God". It is the knowledge gained when a child recognizes the symmetry of a leaf, the courageous heart of a literary figure, the struggle for justice in a civilization, the discovery of order in multiples, all which nurture a deepening relationship between a child and her world. Furthermore, these relationships are inherently satisfying. All coming to know is a seeing of the good, true, and beautiful relation of things (even when through recognition of the evil, false, and ugly). Thus, all true knowledge leads to love and in turn love leads to deeper knowledge. There is a relational mutuality between knowing and loving. If this mutuality between love and knowledge has been disrupted, something has gone terribly wrong.

A little over 500 years ago, western civilization made a terrible mistake. It began to associate knowledge with the cold, calculating, rational processes of the brain’s left prefrontal cortex. It abandoned the much more global RELATIONAL CIRCUITS of the brain in favor of the RATIONAL CIRCUITS.  This is not to say that the brains relational circuits are irrational. In healthy mature brains, they are supra-rational, integrating the very important data which comes from the rational circuits with the relationally meaningful data which comes from other parts of the brain and extended nervous system. In the parable above, the older brother’s rational circuits were working overtime. He had no problem rationally justifying his own indignation. However, his relational circuits were completely shut down, leaving him literally out in the cold. This happens not only between student and teacher, between student and classmate, but also between student and mathematics or student and literature. If the mutuality between knowing and loving is severed, if the relational circuits are closed down, progress will be painful, minimal, and likely enhance the neurotic aspects of both student and teachers’ personalities.

If we are to be instruments of KNOWING and LOVING, as our students need us to be, it requires that we be a certain kind of person ourselves. We must be oriented to KNOWING and LOVING. We must have our relational circuits turned on. If our relational circuits are turned off, we are part of the problem not part of the solution. Below is a simple diagnostic questionnaire[3] to assist in determining if relational circuits are on or off.

  • I just want to make a problem, person, or feeling go away.
  • I don’t want to listen to what others feel or say.
  • My mind is “locked” into something upsetting.
  • I don’t want to be connected to someone I usually like.
  • I want to get away or fight, or I freeze.
  • I more aggressively interrogate, judge or seek to fix others.

If any of the above apply, it’s a safe bet that relational circuits are turned off, that everyone around (consciously or unconsciously) knows that your relational circuits are turned off, that you are now part of the problem rather than the solution, and that the best thing you can do is give yourself a prayerful time-out to allow space to turn the relational circuits back on. Seek the support of someone who has his/her relational circuits turned on. Nothing helps us get our relational circuits back on like being with someone who keeps her/his relational circuits on in spite of us. This is, of course, always the Father’s stance with us. His relational circuits are always open to us.

What are we to be about? To know and to love. This is a worthy goal to put before students and teachers each day of the year.

Personal Exercise:

  • Identify a time when you were engaged with a student and both of your relational circuits were turned ON. Describe your experience and that of your student in as detailed a manner as possible.
  • Identify a time when you were engaged with a student and both of your relational circuits were turned OFF. Describe your experience and that of your student in as detailed a manner as possible.

[1] Luke 15:11-32 NASB
[2] Charlotte Mason, Home Education. 171-174
[3] From Jim Wilder, Ph.D. in psychology and executive director of Shepherd’s House

 

Education, the Science of Relations: We are Educated by Our Intimacies

In education, as in every human endeavor, there exists the possibility of erring to the left and erring to the right. We live in an age in which the responsibility of adults to be intentional and diligent in the formation of children’s habits is largely forgotten.  Charlotte Mason was very clear in pointing out the careful formation of habit is a vital tool for the lifting of a child beyond his nature, the deliverance of a student from the power of “chance desires.” However, the fact that our culture so frequently errs to the left does not protect us from the possibility of erring to the right. We must be careful that we do not elevate the formation of habit to a status beyond its rightful one-third of education. Habits are essential tools, tools which must be given to a child if he/she is ever to be well educated.  But, a sculptor, who is overly fixated on his tools rather than focusing on the object of his creation, will fail to bring forth the beauty latent in a piece of marble. In like manner, habits are not the heart of education. Overzealous and continuous prodding can both hinder the formation of habit and distract from the heart of education which is the cultivation of a cornucopia of inspiring relations. Consider Charlotte Mason’s writings on education as the science of relations.

Education, the Science of Relations: We are Educated by Our Intimacies.1

     "But who shall parcel out
     His intellect by geometric rules,
     Split like a province into round and square?
     Who knows the individual hour in which
     His habits were first sown, even as a seed?
     Who that shall point as with a wand and say
     'This portion of the river of my mind
     Came from yon fountain'? "––Prelude.

I need not again insist upon the nature of our educational tools. We know well that "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life." In other words, we know that parents and teachers should know how to make sensible use of a child's circumstances (atmosphere) to forward his sound education; should train him in the discipline of the habits of the good life; and should nourish his life with ideas, the food upon which personality waxes strong.

Only Three Educational Instruments.––These three we believe to be the only instruments of which we may make lawful use in the upbringing of children; and any short cut we take by trading on their sensibilities, emotions, desires, passions, will bring us and our children to grief. The reason is plain; habits, ideas, and circumstances are external, and we may all help each other to get the best that is to be had of these; but we may not meddle directly with the personality of child or man. We may not work upon his vanity, his fears, his love, his emulation, or anything that is his by very right, anything that goes to make him a person.

Our Limitations.––Most thinking people are in earnest about the bringing up of children; but we are in danger of taking too much upon us, and of not recognizing the limitations which confine us to the outworks of personality. Children and grown-up persons are the same, with a difference; and a thoughtful writer has done us good service by carefully tracing the method of our Lord's education of the Twelve.

"Our Lord," says this author, "reverenced whatever the learner had in him of his own, and was tender in fostering this native growth––. . . . Men, in His eyes, were not mere clay in the hands of the potter, matter to be molded to shape. They were organic beings, each growing from within, with a life of his own––a personal life which was exceedingly precious in His and His Father's eyes––and He would foster this growth so that it might take after the highest type." (Pastor Pastorum, by H. Latham, M.A., 6.)

…Spontaneous Living.––The laws of habit are, we know, laws of God, and the forming of good and the hindering of evil habits are among the primary duties of a parent. But it is just as well to be reminded that habits, whether helpful or hindering, only come into play occasionally, while a great deal of spontaneous living is always going on towards which we can do no more than drop in vital ideas as opportunity occurs. All this is old matter, and I must beg the reader to forgive me for reminding him again that our educational instruments remain the same. We may not leave off the attempt to form good habits with tact and care, to suggest fruitful ideas, without too much insistence, and to make wise use of circumstances.

On what does Fulness of Living depend?––What is education after all? An answer lies in the phrase––Education is the Science of Relations…. What we are concerned with is the fact that we personally have relations with all that there is in the present, all that there has been in the past, and all that there will be in the future––with all above us and all about us––and that fullness of living, expansion, expression, and serviceableness, for each of us, depend upon how far we apprehend these relationships and how many of them we lay hold of.

George Herbert says something of what I mean

     "Man is all symmetry,
     Full of proportions, one limb to another,
     And all to all the world besides;
     Each part may call the farthest brother,
     For head with foot hath private amity,
     And both with moons and tides. (The italics are mine.)

Every child is heir to an enormous patrimony, heir to all the ages, inheritor of all the present. The question is, what are the formalities (educational, not legal) necessary to put him in possession of that which is his? You perceive the point of view is shifted, and is no longer subjective, but objective, as regards the child.

The Child a Person.––We do not talk about developing his faculties, training his moral nature, guiding his religious feelings, educating him with a view to his social standing or his future calling. The joys of 'child-study' are not for us. We take the child for granted, or rather, we take him as we find him––a person with an enormous number of healthy affinities, embryo attachments; and we think it is our chief business to give him a chance to make the largest possible number of these attachments valid.

An Infant's Self-Education.––An infant comes into the world with a thousand such embryonic feelers, which he sets to work to fix with amazing energy:––

             "The Babe,
     Nursed in his Mother's arms, who sinks to sleep
     Rocked on his Mother's breast; who with his soul
     Drinks in the feelings of his Mother's eye!
     For him, in one dear Presence, there exists
     A virtue which irradiates and exalts
     Objects through widest intercourse of sense.
     No outcast he, bewildered and depressed:
     Along his infant veins are interfused
     The gravitation and the filial bond
     Of nature that connects him with the world." (The Prelude)

He attaches his being to mother, father, sister, brother, 'nanna,' the man in the street whom he calls 'dada,' cat and dog, spider and fly; earth, air, fire, and water attract him perilously; his eyes covet light and colour, his ears sound, his limbs movement; everything concerns him, and out of everything he gets––

             "That calm delight
     Which, if I err not, surely must belong
     To those first-born affinities that fit
     Our new existence to existing things,
     And, in our dawn of being, constitute
     The bond of union between life and joy."(The Prelude)

He gets also, when left to himself, the real knowledge about each thing which establishes his relation with that particular thing.

Our Part, to remove Obstructions and to give Stimulus.––Later, we step in to educate him. In proportion to the range of living relationships we put in his way, will he have wide and vital interests, fulness of joy in living. In proportion as he is made aware of the laws which rule every relationship, will his life be dutiful and serviceable: as he learns that no relation with persons or with things, animate or inanimate, can be maintained without strenuous effort, will he learn the laws of work and the joys of work. Our part is to remove obstructions and to give stimulus and guidance to the child who is trying to get into touch with the universe of things and thoughts which belongs to him.

Our Error.––Our deadly error is to suppose that we are his showman to the universe; and, not only so, but that there is no community at all between child and universe unless such as we choose to set up. We are the people! and if we choose that a village child's education should be confined to the 'three R's,' why, what right has he to ask for more? If life means for him his Saturday night in the ale-house, surely that is not our fault! If our own boys go through school and college and come out without quickening interests, without links to the things that are worth while, we are not sure that it is our fault either. We resent that they should be called 'muddied oafs' because we know them to be fine fellows. So they are, splendid stuff which has not yet arrived at the making!


1Mason, C., School Education,182-188 excerpts

 

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