Our little Charlotte Mason Study Group is working through Brandy Vencel’s guide entitled “Start Here: a journey through Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles“. We have made our way to the 19th principle, which states:
“Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.”
If our greatest responsibility as a person “is the acceptance or rejection of ideas” than it follows that the goal of education must be to prepare an individual to be able to process the ideas that are presented to them. This is a much higher goal than a mere retention of facts, obtaining skill-based training, or gaining life skills and thus becoming a productive member of society. The goal of education can and probably should include these things. However, the goal of education must not stop there.
Ms Mason’s idea that a person must accept or reject ideas hearkens to the passage in 2 Corinthians 10:5,
“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
Any idea, opinion, or bit knowledge can be twisted and used for evil instead of good; and, as Ms. Mason argues in her 18th principle, even an individual’s reason can not be trusted. (See Proverbs 3:5-6.)
So, what ideas should be kept? and which ones rejected? Those ideas that align with the Word of God and bring glory to God should be kept, and those that do not, should be rejected. As Jesus taught,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
Jesus taught that there must be an ordering of our affections, our priorities, our actions, and of our entire being. We are to love God first and then love people. That’s it. That is the filter through which we are to process the ideas and opinions that are presented to us.
Even though this is one of her last principles, I think within it, we find one of her goals of education. Ms. Mason wrote in her third volume:
The question is not, –how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education?–but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? And, therefore, how full is the life he has before him? Vol. 3 p. 171
Do you see the connection? The goal of education must be to prepare an individual to care about God, people, and ideas, to be a thinker, and to have the resources with which to engage with the ideas presented to them. For if an individual doesn’t care then they will fail to discipline themselves to think critically about the ideas presented to them, they will fail to take their thoughts captive, and ultimately they will find themselves subject to the opinions of the day, which is like chasing after the wind.
Ms Mason proposes two ways to equip the student to engage in the barrage of ideas one will encounter in their lifetime. The first is to give “principles of conduct” and the second is to give “a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them.” So, the second tool follows the first tool, and as we will see, actually equips first tool.
Principles…. what are principles? Charlotte Mason, in her Volume entitles “Ourselves” defines principles as being those opinions which we hold of first or chief importance. These are the informing ideas that shape our thought life and work their way out into our words and behaviors. She argues that we all have principles, good and bad, and that though one can’t always put words to our principles they can be read by others through the way we conduct ourselves. Ms Mason writes,
“We gather our principles unconsciously; but they are our masters; and it is our business every now and then to catch one of them, look it in the face, and question ourselves as to the manner of conduct such a principle must bring forth.” Vol. 4 p. 190″
This leads to the question, how do we gain good principles? Ms. Mason argues we do so through exposing an individual to a “wide range of knowledge fitting them.” Since our own human experience is so limited, we must turn to sources outside of ourselves with which to broaden our perspectives. Again, Ms. Mason writes,
“But how is the conscience to become instructed? Life brings us many lessons–when we see others do well, conscience approves and learns; when others do ill, conscience condemns. But we want a wider range of knowledge than the life about us affords, and books are our best teachers.” Vo. 4. pg. 9
This is why a curriculum full of “livings books” is critical to the educational goal of preparing students to accept or reject ideas. Through the stories of the Bible, human history, biographies, poetry, Plutarch, and fairy-tales experiences can be broadened, ideas can be presented, and the mind engaged. It is through the volumes of such literature that children can watch the successes and failures of both righteous and non-righteous characters. Again, I turn to Ms. Mason’s words,
“…the way such teaching should come to us is, here a little and there a little, incidentally, from books which we read for the interest of the story, the beauty of the poem, or the grace of the writing.” Vol.4 pg. 11
I appreciate that Ms. Mason never argues that the reading of specific literature for a specific character flaw will result in the correction of that character flaw. Instead, she encourages us to read literature for the sake of the story and to allow the Holy Spirit to work in the heart of the individual to gain whatever principle He would have for us to gain through our reading. Ms Mason advocates for this gentle approach to character training in the following quote;
“Good principles are offered to us in an unobtrusive way, with little force and little urging. Bad principles are clamorous and urgent, drowning the voice of conscience by noisy talk, inviting us to go the way we are inclined and to do the thing we like.” Vo. 4 pg. 189
Now the question is, does this really work? Though my children are still young, I would argue yes. We, as parents, can not force our children into gaining certain character qualities anymore than we can force them into salvation. Just as faith is a work of God’s grace, so is the development of character. And that, as we well know through our own experience as individuals still on the road to sanctification, is a slow life-long process.