Children Are Born Persons Part 1

This is the first of a series of blogs on the pivotal foundational truth of Ambleside Schools International’s philosophy of education. In the words of Charlotte Mason:

The first article of a valid educational creed – “children are born persons” – is of a revolutionary character; for what is a revolution but a complete reversal of attitude?[1]

Ambleside of Hout Bay

Nothing is more central to our views on education than our understanding of what it means to be human. Some theory of man is implicit in every parent’s parenting and every teacher’s teaching, be it consciously recognized or not. When we pause to ask, What does it mean to educate? We find ourselves unable to answer without first reflecting upon the more fundamental question, What does it mean to be a man or a woman? The world has its answers, impoverished though they be.

  • Some educators see man as a complex machine. These hold that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile. Knowledge is merely brain-processed sensation. Knowledge is relevant if it facilitates the human machine’s working “successfully,” both as an individual and in a network of other machines. Knowledge is the data and the algorithms that allow one to get the “right” answer. A right answer is one that “works.” Education is the successful download of data and algorithms that work. Such a download is verified by examination. Most of us received this kind of education.
  • Other educators, opposing the view that man is a machine, see humans as autonomous, self-actualizing beings, demi-gods constantly creating and recreating their own reality. Knowledge is “my truth.” Education is my self-exploration, my self-creation, my self-actualization, my meaning created. Consider the student who, when asked to write a critical analysis of Moby Dick, decided to be as outlandish as she possibly could. To that end, she proposed that the great white whale represented the country of Ireland. The truly unhinged professor, failing to see the obvious, was effusive in his praise.
  • Still other educators see humans as a cog in the wheel of the historical struggle for the equitable redistribution of power. Something is terribly wrong, and something must be done about them. The problem is them and we must be done with them. The only truth worthy of the name is truth that empowers change. In the words of Karl Marx, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[2] All knowledge is propaganda. It is true if it is useful in advancing the struggle. It is false if it hinders the struggle. The purpose of education is to raise consciousness of the struggle and equip for service in the struggle.

We propose more for man. We propose that man and woman are more than machines, more even than autonomous, self-creating demi-gods, and certainly more than cogs in the revolutionary wheel. We propose that every man and every woman is a person and that every person is a gift in time and space from beyond time and space. Every person’s unique existence is by Divine Providence, not by meaningless chance. In an act of profound, incomprehensible love, our Creator authored each into being. Not an accident, not a product of chance, each of us imagined in the Divine Mind prior to the creation of the world. In due time, each of us formed in our mothers’ womb according to a Divine plan. If we only have eyes to see, this alone changes everything. In Charlotte Mason’s words:

This concept, of the mystery of a person, is very wholesome and necessary for us in these days; if we even attempted to realize it, we should not blunder as we do in our efforts at social reform, at education, at international relations … The mystery of a person is indeed divine, and the extraordinary fascination of history lies in the fact that this divine mystery continually surprises us in unexpected places.  Like Jacob, we cry, before the sympathy of the savage, the courtesy of the boor: “Behold, God is in this place and I knew it not.”  We attempt to define a person, the most commonplace person we know, but he will not submit to bounds; some unexpected beauty of nature breaks out; we find he is not what we thought, and begin to suspect that every person exceeds our power of measurement.[3]

Modern science (and with it the modern world) has been built on measurement. We measure; we problem-solve to manage outcomes. By so doing, we have split atoms, sent the Voyager spacecraft ten billion miles from earth, mapped the human genome, and created the internet. Given the success of science, it is not surprising that the modern educator seeks to utilize the same methods when working with students. But dare we treat a student as an object to be measured and labeled, a problem to be solved, a computer to be programmed, or a product to be managed?

In tens of thousands of classrooms every day, well-meaning teachers underestimate and devalue the spiritual and intellectual capacities of children. We label – ADHD, dyslexic; spectrum disorder, math child, artsy, first born, middle child, extrovert, shy, etc. We define the child and thus, our expectations accordingly. The problem is not in the descriptions of behavioral and/or cognitive weakness; this is an essential part of facilitating growth. The problem is in the labelling, defining and limiting.  Children and  adults alike  identify and act as a result of our labels, definitions and perceived limitations. We make accommodations and endeavor to help our children get by, but do we help them grow? Too frequently, we treat them with benevolent contempt.

We remember the divine warning, ‘See that ye despise not one of these little ones’; but the words convey little definite meaning to us.  What we call ‘science’ is too much with us.  We must either reverence or despise children; and while we regard them as incomplete and undeveloped beings, who will one day arrive at the completeness of man, rather than as weak and ignorant persons, whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own, we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly or even tenderly we commit the offense.[4]

It is a common failing of adults to lose sight of the sacred mystery that is each child. Whenever one sees a child primarily in terms of a few, relatively narrow performance metrics (i.e. test scores) or specific personality traits (i.e. extrovert), one loses sight of the Imago Dei, the divine image. Poets, such as William Wordsworth and Thomas Traherne, can help us see beyond our limited perceptions.

Wordsworth had glimmerings of the truth:  poets mean, not less, but a great deal more than they say; and when the poet says [speaking of a child], “Thou best philosopher,” “Thou eye among the blind,” “haunted forever by the eternal mind,” “Prophet, Seer blest,” and so on – phrases that we all know by heart, but how many of us realize? – we may rest assured that he is not using poetical verbiage, but is making what was in his eyes a vain endeavor to express the immensity of a person, and the greater immensity of the little child.[5]

 

Consider the poet Thomas Traherne’s meditation upon his experience as a child:

How like an angel I came down!
          How bright are all things here!
When first among His works I did appear,
          Oh how their Glory me did crown!
The world resembled His Eternity
          In which my soul did walk;
And everything that I did see
          Did with me talk.
The skies in their magnificence,
          The lively, lovely air;
Oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
          The stars did entertain my sense,
And all the works of God, so bright and pure,
          So rich and great did seem,
As if they ever must endure
          In my esteem.
The streets were paved with golden stones,
          The boys and girls were mine,
Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!
          The sons of men were holy ones,
In joy and beauty they appeared to me,
          And everything which here I found,
Which like an angel I did see,
          Adorned the ground.[6]

Not all of us have such romantic memories of childhood, and our vision may be impoverished by the lack. Too many of us either never knew of or have forgotten the glories of childhood. Great indeed is the dignity of persons, and vast is their inheritance. We must be careful not to injure their dignity nor rob them of their inheritance. Each is a bearer of the Imago Dei and must be honored accordingly.

If all of this is true, if each of us is gloriously created by the loving hand of our Heavenly Father, it is very good news. And it is also challenging news. It is good news because our lives are inherently imbued with fullness of meaning, glory and purpose. Our Creator meant something in our creation, and He meant something very good. Our Creator intends something for our lives, and He intends something very good. We may not know the precise details of this divine purpose. We will likely never know entirely, but with the right education, we can know sufficiently. More importantly, He knows and is quite capable of accomplishing His purposes in us, through us and with us. This is inspirational!

But, to the modern mind, this is also a challenge; a challenge because if created with Divine meaning, than no person is free to assign meaning to himself. If created for a Divine purpose, then no person may give himself to his own purposes. If created by God, we belong to God. If we belong to God, we are not our own. The importance of this truth cannot be overstated it is to be written on our hearts and on the hearts of our children.

Fearfully and wonderfully made, each one glorious, the very image of God. Each of such innate giftedness as to defy our capacity for measurement. Yet, not our own. It is the fulness of each person’s glory, that aware or unaware, she or he belongs to God. Personhood is the pivotal truth upon which an Ambleside education is built.

 


[1] Mason, Charlotte. "Children As ‘Persons’." The Story of Charlotte Mason. Petersfield: Child Light, 2000. 221.

[3] Mason, Charlotte. "Children As ‘Persons’." The Story of Charlotte Mason. Petersfield: Child Light, 2000. 221.

[4] Ibid. 223.

[5] Ibid. 222.

[6] Ibid. 223.