Exploring Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle of Education
In this blog series, writer, teacher, and mother Tessa Carman explores the Twenty Principles of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy and their relevance in classical education.
I remember walking home one late summer evening with my toddling two-year-old daughter. “Mama, the moon!” she exclaimed, pointing at the silver orb appearing above the buildings of our little town’s Main Street. She crouched down, sitting on her chubby little haunches, gazing upward. Just looking, taking it in.
I forced myself to pause as well. Home could wait. This moment couldn’t. So I waited, as she continued gazing, drinking in the wonder of that ordinary sight. It occurred to me that she could very well stay, crouching and looking up, indefinitely. How dull we adults can be, I thought, so taken up with getting from place to place. And how ironic, too: what with my ideals of bestowing all the truth, goodness, and beauty I could upon my children and my students, this little person already had a keen awareness of beauty, and a desire to know and to wonder at the world.
We do not give our children a longing for beauty, or the desire to know and love. They have these things already, for they are born persons. Part of our job as parents and teachers is to get out of the way. Too often we interfere with our chatter, our impatience. To have snapped to my daughter, “Hurry up! It’s cold out,” when she wanted to look at the moon would have been a betrayal of my duties, a dishonoring of her personhood, and a shock to the relationship with the created world that she is made to form.
Children are born with tendencies toward the good that can be thwarted by our negligence and by their free choices. But we know too that they are born also with tendencies toward the bad. The children are like us adults: “with tendencies, dispositions, towards good and towards evil, and also with a curious intuitive knowledge as to which is good and which is evil” (A Philosophy of Education, 46). Our duty as parents and teachers is to cultivate those tendencies toward the good, but also to avoid encouraging the tendencies toward the bad—those tendencies that lead to their harm: the desire to be first, for example, or the desire to be praised.
Charlotte Mason’s second principle of her philosophy of education grows from her first: Since children are born persons, it follows that “Children are born neither good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil.” So then, since there are “good and evil tendencies in body and mind, heart and soul,” the task and “the hope set before us is that we can foster the good so as to attenuate the evil.” And the only way, indeed, to reduce the power of degrading motives, is for a child to be filled with the experience of goodness and the practice of good habits: It is far easier to turn away from a vision of ugliness when one has practice gazing at and giving attention to the beautiful.
Charlotte Mason argued that every child, no matter what class, heredity, or background of any sort, ought to have a “liberal education”—that is, an education that builds upon those desires to know and love, and to delight in truth and beauty. Every child’s inheritance is the riches of the ages. The fact that a child came from a miner’s family and might become a miner himself didn’t mean that he ought to be barred from the delights of an awakened mind and soul. A liberal education isn’t about everyone learning Latin; rather, it is about being fully alive.
This second principle perhaps most clearly directs us against the thought that people of a certain race, culture, or class are less able to, say, appreciate great art. No, says Miss Mason: Every single child is born a person—an embodied being who is made for relationship. And the spirit of every person longs for beauty and hungers for a flourishing life.
The mind—that is, the spirit, not just the brain—needs nourishment just as the body does. And just as there are tendencies toward good and evil morally, there are tendencies toward good and bad habits intellectually. Miss Mason gives us the human body as an analogy. Just as we are capable of physical evils—under-using or over-using our muscles, for example—so we are capable of not only moral but also “intellectual evils”—of over-using our attention toward something unworthy of it, or of developing habits of mind and imagination that cultivate sloppy thinking.
If our obligation toward growing persons is to encourage the good and to discourage the bad, one way in which we can do this is to avoid unhelpful labeling of our children: not only as “bad” or “good” but also as “smart” or “dull” or “lazy.” Kids labeled “smart” tend to chafe at hard work later on. Kids labeled “dull” tend to be ignored (when it is often the teacher or the reading that is truly dull!). “Bad” kids struggle to step out of their stereotype, whereas the real struggles of kids labeled “good” tend to be overlooked or ignored. Better to praise actions—Well done! I appreciate how you took care of your classmate, or how you watched out for your brother—rather than dish out identities. Rather than despair over “the failings of a child,” we must remember that “in every case the opposite tendency is there, and we must bring the wit to give it play.”
If children are beings with free will who have tendencies toward the good—toward love and justice, for example—as well as toward the bad—pleasing only ourselves, etc.—we must also be careful of abusing certain natural desires to the detriment of the good desires.
Recently I was bouldering at a rock climbing gym, and several children were belaying up the rope on the steeper climbs. One little girl was perched partway up a climb, her hands and feet holding on in zigzag pattern. Her little body was tense with concentration. This was not her first time. One could almost feel her focused energy.
But the spell was broken when, from behind, her mother told her, “If you get to the top, I’ll get you a new toy.” My insides twisted. The rush of seizing the summit—the natural reward, the intrinsic satisfaction—would now be blighted by this lesser reward.
Every child, notes Miss Mason, desires praise and appreciates rewards. But the impulse of avarice and emulation can stifle the desire for, and hence the maintenance and growth of, true knowledge. Knowledge, says Miss Mason, is bread for the soul. If we abuse “other spurs to learning”—such as the desire for praise and the desire to be first—then the desire to know is attenuated and “effectually choked; and boys and girls ‘Cram to pass but not to know; they do pass but they don’t know.’ The divine curiosity which should have been an equipment for life hardly survives early schooldays.”
But also there is the danger of the teacher with a powerful personality, which is likely to “suppress and subdue that of his scholars.” It is good to please, but it is not good to please so much that the greater ends, such as of knowing well and developing their own persons, are submerged.
So then: If we respect children as persons, and if we know that the desire for goodness, truth, and justice must be stimulated and developed continually in order to give good fruits, we will not starve them intellectually or spiritually, just as we do not starve them physically. We must give them the best—and how much they are able to enjoy the best! Miss Mason mentions the examples of surprised schoolmasters reporting their schoolboys’ delight in Shakespeare and Walter Scott. That “teachers underrate the tastes and abilities of their pupils” is “the capital charge against most schools.” There is an abundance of good in the world, and this is each child’s inheritance. Let each child encounter a good story beautifully told or a painting masterfully rendered, and allow a true relationship with that story or painting to form.
Every child needs a feast for the imagination and intellect, and Miss Mason even notes that, when children are brought up simply on the “three Rs” and nothing more, it is of small wonder that other inspirations fill the void: For example, “juvenile crime increases; the intellectually starved boy must needs find food for his imagination, scope for his intellectual power; and crime, like the cinema, offers, it must be admitted, brave adventures.”
Better, says Miss Mason, to get the teacher out of the way more often, and allow the children to encounter Shakespeare firsthand. Better to be silent when Bach is playing. Better not to obstruct the child who wishes to gaze at the moon. A classical education is simply a way of passing on the inheritance of the ages: it is the shaping of children through truth, goodness, and beauty, through deep draughts at such wells.
In the next post, we will explore Charlotte Mason’s third principle, regarding authority and obedience.
Tessa Carman writes from Mount Rainier, Maryland.
Image: Ivan Kramskoy, Children in the Forest, oil on canvas, 1887, www.wikiart.org