Charlotte Mason, a Late 19th Century British Educator, said, “Education is a discipline, an atmosphere, a life.” I’ve been pondering the atmosphere factor lately. As in most spiritual truths, there is this tug on our heart between two seemingly good ways. We feel torn and want to satisfy both, but we find we can not. In regards to education, at this stage of our family’s experience, I find I am still sorely torn between wanting to accomplish “what is needed” in order to make sure my sons are prepared for their futures in society and the other, higher goal of laying out a smorgasbord of varied knowledge and letting them feast on what is proper to them at this time in life.
Miss Mason spoke against the trend in Europe during her lifetime which is ironically very similar to the current trend in America. Prior to WWII a mindset prevailed which emphasized teaching students marketable skills or at least narrowing their studies to a utilitarian function so that each individual was prepared to meet their destiny as a part of the greater whole. Children were merely to be trained up into a profession. Education outside that profession was considered frivolous as it was not part of the needed skill-set. Today we face a push to educate towards the test in public schools so that children get high scores, get into good colleges, get degrees and get high-paying jobs which help advance the society. The aspect of teaching a child to love learning for its own sake has been forgone in most formal school settings in our society. I had a Jr. High student tell me last week, as I asked him what the best part of school that week was for him, “I learned I could make $130,000 a year if I become an engineer.”
I outwardly rail against this movement. I know that there is a great benefit to a liberal education. God made all facets of life and we are gifted and blessed to explore them, enjoy them and even to master them. A beautiful education consists of taking in ideas from a buffet of variety: art, science, history, language, music, poetry, nature, and more. All these facets of God’s creation point to Him and we can relate to His goodness as we enjoy and wonder in the knowledge of each. I love to spread out a feast for my children and watch them gather up knowledge and enjoy the process. And many days our home educating life is full of that kind of sweet exploration and appreciation.
We have days wherein we take walks to the local park and bring our watercolors and a blanket and paint what we observe. We read great old books (because they truly are the best books) and we read poetry, listen to hymns, study composers, read rich recounting of history and engage with wonderful stories in literature. We are dabbling in a culture every year. This year it is Germany, so we are learning the language, some songs and the history and geography of that country. Our education is rich and delightful much of the time.
Despite all that goodness, in my own way, in my heart, I still have this other pull. I sometimes spread so much on the educational “buffet” and expect that my son will consume and digest (and recount) all that he has absorbed. I am hesitant to reduce the quantity because I don’t want to miss out on some crucial element and have him come to the end of his education at home and lack what he needs to go on to do and be whatever he wants in life. It would be my fault, you know. And who makes these lists of what “must” be covered? Well, I do, of course. I spend hours and days each year gathering the best of what I can find to assemble this gourmet feast of education. But then, rather than lay it out as on a cruise ship, trusting the passengers will surely feast in abundance, I want each morsel devoured, appreciated and the comprehension returned to me with excellence.
This is where I have run into the struggle in my heart about atmosphere. Education is an atmosphere. On the days we take our morning walks or we take our time and just explore and discuss what we can and enjoy and engage with it along the way I am at peace and that peace sets such a wonderful tone in our home. The days when my list is at the forefront I push more and I move the focus from enjoying knowledge and enjoying God to getting things ticked off a checklist. We lose our joy. I am coming to find out that I am the source of the atmosphere from which education flows. When Charlotte Mason says education is an atmosphere, she is pointing to the educator more than anything.
I have a choice. I must make it. I cannot serve two masters in this process. I must choose whom I will serve. Will it be to trust God and go forward in a more relaxed and peaceful manner or will it be to take on the role of the task master and ultimately diminish our love of learning? Yes, there are things that just must be done regardless of the joy they bring, but ultimately we can do those in such a way that is pleasant if we have the heart to do them as unto the Lord and without self-reliant expectations. My friend, Heather, says, “If you don’t push it, you can’t mess it up.” Those are words to live by.