Friday, June 06, 2008

Notes on "Three Instruments of Education"

I'm still progressing through the Charlotte Mason's Philosophy of Education and am on the chapter on Three Instruments of Education.

These three instruments are described thus:

Seeing that we are limited by the respect due to the personality of children we can allow ourselves but three educational instruments––the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit and the presentation of living ideas. ...

I should mention that I am having trouble figuring out the best way to approach these book discussions so I think I will first write notes and then later talk about whatever I please as a spin-off from that : ), in a different post.

First, about the "atmosphere of environment" --

When we say that education is an atmosphere we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a 'child environment' specially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere both as regards persons and things and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the 'child's' level.
So she is saying that an "atmosphere" shouldn't be contrived, or it will be stifling and opposed to freedom -- another one of the improper "influences" she mentioned in the last chapter.

Here are some of the examples she gives:

The cult of aestheticism in Germany -- remember that she wrote this in the early part of the 20th century, after World War I, and a lot of the book indirectly seems to deal with the problems she saw in German and English education that led to a poor showing in that war. I do not know much about early Germany except what everyone knows -- that the eugenics and aesthetic ideal combined into a kind of toxic stew that influenced the Weimar Republic and set the conditions for Hitler's exploits.

By the way, I found this book The Cult of Health and Beauty in Germany: A Social History, 1890-1930. Gee, this is interesting and sounds rather familiar, doesn't it?

From the 1890s to the 1930s, a growing number of Germans began to scrutinize and discipline their bodies in a utopian search for perfect health and beauty. Some became vegetarians, nudists, or bodybuilders, while others turned to alternative medicine or eugenics......

Hau argues that the obsession with personal health and fitness was often rooted in anxieties over professional and economic success, as well as fears that modern industrialized civilization was causing Germany and its people to degenerate.
OK, back to Charlotte Mason now. That was context and fits into some of the reading I've been doing recently about eugenics and Darwinism -- science of relations! : ).

She also mentions HG Wells' "inconclusive" educational treatise (actually, apparently a sort of novel called Joan and Peter, here in full on Google Reader). Part of the book contains a description of all the aesthetic grace and beauty surrounding Peter from infancy. She goes on to say:
It is an accurate picture of the preparation for 'high-souled' little persons all over the world. Parents make tremendous sacrifices to that goddess who presides over Education. We hear of a pair investing more than their capital in a statue to adorn the staircase in order that 'Tommy' should make his soul by the contemplation of beauty. This sort of thing has been going on since the 'eighties at any rate and, as usual, Germany erected a high altar for the cult which she passed on to the rest of us. Perhaps it is safe to say that the Young Intelligenzia of Europe have been reared after this manner. And is the result that Neo-Georgian youth Punch presents to us with his air of weariness, condescension and self-complacency?
She goes on to quote an Indian scientist (you can find the actual quote in The Life and Work of Sir Jagadis Bose online) to the effect that hothouse plants grow up feeble and lax. Electrical stimulation can actually benefit them and increase their vigor.

(It would not be good to press the plant analogy too far, because in other places, Charlotte Mason has said that a lot of educational follies (like the "Kindergarten" or "child garden") come from carrying out the plant/child comparison past its point of usefulness. Here she seems to be using it just to show the living creature's need for a bit of adversity in order to develop to full strength).

So here is the substance of what she is saying-- that an "environment" shouldn't be like a cloak or padding, beautiful or not, around the child, but more like a bracing air that you breathe. The etymology of the word "atmosphere" is as follows:

1638, from Mod.L. atmosphaera (1638), from Gk. atmos "vapor" + spharia "sphere." First used in Eng. in connection with the Moon, which, as it turns out, doesn't have one. Figurative sense of "surrounding influence, mental or moral environment" is 1797.
Atmos, you see, means vapor. And again and again, she uses metaphors of "air" and "wind" to point out the differences she sees between a child-environment and an atmosphere friendly to nurturance of a child. At home:

It is not an environment that these want, a set of artificial relations carefully constructed, but an atmosphere which nobody has been at pains to constitute. It is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us. It is thrown off, as it were, from persons and things, stirred by events, sweetened by love, ventilated, kept in motion, by the regulated action of common sense. compounded 'environment' could make up for this fresh air, this wholesome wind blowing now from one point, now from another.

At school:

The bracing atmosphere of truth and sincerity should be perceived in every School; and here again the common pursuit of knowledge by teacher and class comes to our aid and creates a current of fresh air perceptible even to the chance visitor, who sees the glow of intellectual life and moral health on the faces of teachers and children alike.

When the atmosphere is too vigorous, ie when there is too much emphasis on achievement and moral strenuousness:

When this is the case there is too much oxygen in the air; they are breathing a too stimulating atmosphere, and the nervous strain to which they are subjected must needs be followed by reaction.

Here she sums up the difference.

There are two courses open to us in this matter. One, to create by all manner of modified conditions a hot-house atmosphere, fragrant but emasculating, in which children grow apace but are feeble and dependent; the other to leave them open to all the "airts that blow," but with care lest they be unduly battered; lest, for example, a miasma come their way in the shape of a vicious companion.

("of all the airts the wind doth blow" comes from a Robert Burns poem called Jean)

And here are some practical suggestions, based on common sense, as you can see -- the normal circumstances and protections of life:

We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby's needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges. And, what tempered 'fusion of classes' is so effective as a child's intimacy with his betters, and also with cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner, with everybody who comes in his way? Children have a genius for this sort of general intimacy, a valuable part of their education; care and guidance are needed, of course, lest admiring friends should make fools of them...

But due relations must be maintained; the parents are in authority, the children in obedience; and again, the strong may not lay their burdens on the weak.

There is nothing really distinctive in this picture -- it is the sort of life children have in ordinary circumstances. It's interesting to me to see how her main concern seems to be that children should not be over-shielded or cossetted. Probably the Victorian age was one of the first times when a society COULD or had the inclination to control a child's environment. She was pointing out that just because we CAN, doesn't mean that we SHOULD.

John Senior seems to warn about something of the same thing when he talks about raising "Catholic panty-waists" -- that term has stuck in my mind for years, though I haven't picked up his book recently. His point is that over-protection from the natural challenges of life (specifically talking about a wide, eclectic reading of the Good Books, here) leads to an enfeebled mind and character.

Pope Benedict said a similar thing (HT Leonie)

Even suffering is part of the truth of our life. Thus, trying to shield the youngest from every difficulty and experience of suffering, we risk creating, despite our good intentions, fragile persons of little generosity: The capacity to love, in fact, corresponds to the capacity to suffer, and to suffer together."

Some people think that homeschooling is a hot-house. So I just want to add here that I think it is almost the opposite. If you look at the natural challenges Charlotte Mason describes above, these are exactly the kind that a family has an abundance of. Sure, a home environment can become too soft, too controlled, but a major solution to that seems to be making sure that the children get to participate in the normal crosses and adversities of daily life -- the mom and dad bearing financial burdens or health issues, the baby needing to come first, the siblings clamoring for attention. Charlotte Mason doesn't think children should be "parentified" and made to bear adult-sized burdens, but she does think that dealing with these little problems at a safe and essentially stable level helps develop strength of character and mind.

(ETA: Love2LearnMom has another quote from Benedict on suffering here)

OK, you can see that I couldn't help spinning off into my own little thought processes. Sorry about that.

Getting back to the cult of personal health and beauty in Germany, doesn't it seem we are in a bit of the same boat nowadays? That is interesting. Health and beauty are GOODS, of course -- but an excessive preoccupation with the *personal* aspects of these things always seems to me to correlate with a fear of death, and becomes strangely entangled with a fascination for death. I am not sure how it works but you tend to see them together. That is WAY off the point but I do think Charlotte Mason's books can be better understood if you see what she was seeing around her -- the problematic aspects of the philosophies of her time.

1 comment:

Dana said...

It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the 'child's' level.

This really struck me. I'm going to have to ponder more. I've been wondering for some time what effect this trend of completely reforming the environment for the sake of the child will do to our children and our culture. We are giving them a Disneyland type childhood...