The Question of Competition (One more excerpt from Revitalized)

It seems to me that education which appeals to the desire for wealth (marks, prizes, scholarships, or the like), or to the desire of excelling (as in the taking of places, etc.), or to any other of the natural desires, except that for knowledge, destroys the balance of character; and, what is even more fatal, destroys by inanition that desire for and delight in knowledge which is meant for our joy and enrichment through the whole of life.

Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 226

In twenty-first century culture, for a number of deeply-felt reasons, we seem to be divided on the question of merit-based rewards, and also punishments. For instance, it is rare that a child is bluntly said to have failed in school. And there have been many attempts, over the years, to promote co-operative versions of games, where the fun is simply in the playing, and “everybody wins.” Such initiatives have to be applauded for their attempts to promote kindness and acceptance of others. At the same time, we as a culture adore success and status; we love to know that “our team” has won the trophy. And we hear of parents who push their children to excel in academics or sports or the arts, to the unhappiness of all concerned.

Further, we may criticize some of this “coddling” which now takes place in schools, saying that the real world (of work and power and so on) is not like that at all. Which workers will get promoted? We hope it’s the ones who do the best work (although sometimes it’s the proverbial boss’s nephew, and that’s also the “real world”).

Is Miss Mason saying that those who show the greatest talent or diligence should not get their due reward? Is she actually criticizing all practice of prizes and scholarships? (Should we play down our personal talents so as not to make other people feel inferior?) Interestingly, the Parents’ Union, from time to time, offered both (such as the Rooper Memorial Scholarship), so the answer would seem to be “no.” For instance, the nature notebooks of the student teachers were submitted to an outside examiner, and his comments about each book were printed in the Parents’ Review. The notebooks were also classed in something like the “A” group and the “B” group, as were certain other exam results, so there was certainly no shirking the idea that superior work deserved higher praise.

However, what seems to be discussed in the passage above is the motivation behind our desire to succeed. Miss Mason describes the “cult” of physical perfection, pointing out the difference between desiring to be strong or healthy or even beautiful for one’s own sake, vs. keeping one’s body fit for the purpose of service. In another place, she talks about those who aim for moral perfection, but for the affirmation of their own egos. This would seem to be a similar problem, in that, ultimately, if you do a great job at something (if things are fair, though they sometimes aren’t), you know that you might get a promotion. Or a scholarship, a medal, a Nobel Prize, or a sticky star.

And then again, you might not.

And that’s the point.

How do we communicate that to children? How do we encourage them to aim for excellence, and acknowledge their successes (or oh-so-close-to-successes), without obsessing over external rewards? It’s a tough one. Perhaps literature can help, including biographies. And the reading of verses like Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn,” or Matthew 20:16, “The last shall be first, and the first last.” None of that takes away the disappointment when an honest effort still isn’t enough; but it can help us to keep on trying.

Excerpted from Revitalized: A new rendering of Charlotte Mason’s School Education, by Anne E. White.

Another excerpt from Revitalized: In which Miss Glass discovers something important in Wordsworth’s poetry

[bell ringing]

Miss White: Time to go for Swedish Drill with Miss Duran.

[much bustling and putting on of shawls]

Miss Glass: Wait, what? Oh my, girls, I just discovered something important here. Don’t go…All right, fine, I’ll read it on the way.  

Tamed to their bidding; they who have the skill

To manage books, and things, and make them act

On infant minds as surely as the sun

Deals with a flower; the keepers of our time,

The guides and wardens of our faculties,

Miss Capehart: Oh, not the faculties again. Look, there goes a hawk.

Miss Glass: But did you notice? “Books, and things.”

Sages who in their prescience would control

All accidents, and to the very road

Which they have fashioned would confine us down,

Like engines; when will their presumption learn,

That in the unreasoning progress of the world

A wiser spirit is at work for us,

A better eye than theirs, most prodigal

Of blessings, and most studious of our good,

Even in what seem our most unfruitful hours?

Miss White: Swedish Drill is not exactly my most fruitful hour.

Miss Capehart: Well, wiser spirits have decided.

Miss Glass:

A race of real children; not too wise,

Too learned, or too good; / but wanton, fresh,

And bandied up and down by love and hate;

Not unresentful where self-justified;

Fierce, moody, patient, venturous, modest, shy;

Mad at their sports like withered leaves in winds;

Though doing wrong and suffering, and full oft

Bending beneath our life’s mysterious weight

Of pain, and doubt, and fear, yet yielding not

In happiness to the happiest upon earth.

Simplicity in habit, truth in speech,

Be these the daily strengtheners of their minds;

May books and Nature be their early joy!

And knowledge, rightly honoured with that name —

Knowledge not purchased by the loss of power!

Miss Laurio: Simplicity in habit, truth in speech.

Miss Breckenridge: And power over oneself. Yes, we get it.

Miss Bruce: And Miss Mason obviously did too.

Revitalized is available on Amazon.

An excerpt from Revitalized

July 27, 1904

My dear Margaret,

And what about the formation of intellectual habits?

That need not occupy us long. We know that the possession of some half-dozen such habits makes up what is well called ability. They make a person able to do that which he desires to do with his mental powers, and to labour at the cost of not a tenth part of the waste of tissue which the same work would exact of a person of undisciplined mental habits. We know, too, that the habits in question are acquired through training and are not bestowed as a gift. Genius itself, we have been told, is an infinite capacity for taking pains; we would rather say, is the habit of taking infinite pains, for every child is born with the capacity.

But how do we get ourselves—or our children—able to make full use of those mental habits? Teachers trust–perhaps a little blindly–to the training which certain subjects give in certain mental habits. The classics, we consider, cultivate in one direction, the mathematics, in another, science, in a third. So they do, undoubtedly, so far as each of these subjects is concerned; but possibly not in forming the general habits of intellectual life which we expect to result. Remove the mathematician from his own field and he is not more exact or more on the spot than other men; indeed he is rather given to make a big hole for the cat and a little hole for the kitten! The humanities—such as reading the Greek classics—do not always make a man humane, that is, liberal, tolerant, gentle, and candid, as regards the opinions and status of other men.

I think the fault does not lie in any one of these or in any other of the disciplinary subjects, but in our lazy habit of using each of them as a sort of mechanical contrivance for turning up the soil and sowing the seed. But there is no reprieve on this for parents! It rests with you, even more than with the schoolmaster and his curriculum, to form those mental habits which shall give intellectual distinction to your children throughout their lives. Are you up for the great task?

You will say, perhaps, that you have already given Philip and Beatrice a great deal of training in good habits. I know that to be true, my dear—you don’t need to argue your case in that matter! You have paid careful attention to their physical and also their moral habits; I am referring here, though to some intellectual habits which should be matters of careful training during the period of childhood. Here is a little list for you:

Attention, the power of turning the whole force of the mind upon the subject brought before it

Concentration, which differs from Attention in that the mind is actively engaged on some given problem rather than passively receptive

Thoroughness, the habit of dissatisfaction with a slipshod, imperfect grasp of a subject, and of mental uneasiness until a satisfying measure of knowledge is obtained

Intellectual Volition, the power, that is, of making ourselves think of a given subject at a given time (if the child is accustomed to take pleasure in the effort as effort, the man will find it easy to make himself think of what he will) 

Accuracy, which is to be taught, not only through arithmetic, but through all the small statements, messages, and affairs of daily life: 

Reflection, the ruminating power which is so strongly developed in children and is somehow lost with much besides of the precious cargo they bring with them into the world. There is nothing sadder than the way we allow intellectual impressions to pass over the surface of our minds, without any effort to retain or assimilate.

And I can mention only one other invaluable habit, that of Meditation. Now, don’t laugh at that, dear Margaret, as funny as it might sound to you to think of your children deep in meditation. Meditation is also a habit to be acquired, or rather preserved, for we believe that children are born to meditate, as they are to reflect; indeed, the two are closely allied. In reflecting we ruminate on what we have received. In meditating we are not content to go over the past, we allow our minds to follow out our subject to all its issues. It has long been known that progress in the Christian life depends much upon meditation; intellectual progress, too, depends, not on mere reading or the laborious “getting up” of a subject, which we call study; but on that active surrender of all the powers of the mind to the occupation of the subject in hand, which is intended here by the word meditation. And of course there might be a dozen more words we could use, and thinking of some of them might keep us profitably employed for a while. But here is the question we must ask now: on what do intellectual habits sustain themselves? I think you already know the answer: the intellectual life has but one food whereby it lives and grows—the sustenance of living ideas.

It is not possible to repeat this too often or too emphatically, for perhaps we err more in this respect than any other in bringing up children. We feed them upon the white ashes out of which the last spark of the fire of original thought has long since died. We give them second-rate story books, with stale phrases, stale situations, shreds of other people’s thoughts, stalest of stale sentiments. Well, we will have other opportunities to talk about what is in books, but let us also not forget their illustrations! We have so many opportunities to share good, meaningful art in our homes, but so many parents hang “cute” pictures in the children’s rooms, and their books are illustrated on a lower level still. In regard to book illustrations, we are improving a little, but still there is room for something much better.

And in that vein, I am enclosing two little books by Miss Beatrix Potter, who now lives quite near here, at Hill Top farm in Near Sawrey. I think Philip and Beatrice (almost a namesake!) already own The Tale of Peter Rabbit, do they not? These two are her newest titles: The Tale of Two Bad Mice and The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. Please read them to the dear children with a fond embrace from their great-aunt.

(And perhaps the next post will have something in it for yourself.)

Yours affectionately…

In School Education, Charlotte Mason examined most of her educational principles: authority and obedience; the respect owed to personality; and the uses of environment, habit, and living ideas. She also compared the educational ideas of her Parents’ Union with other psychological thought and worldviews; explored the building of early affinities through literary examples; and provided specific application of those principles through samples of student work. This rich treasure chest of thought has now been re-imagined for a new era, using formats such as letters and conversations, while attempting to remain as faithful as possible to the original work. It is offered not with the intent of presenting “much teaching with little knowledge,” but rather to encourage the growth of lifelong affinities. Revitalized: a new rendering of Charlotte Mason’s School Education is now available on Amazon.

Saviour alike of all

from “Christmas,” by Isabella Whiteford Rogerson (1835-1905)

Saviour alike of all,
      King, shepherd, great and small;
Only the sinless could for sin atone;
      And so the King above,
      Pure, holy, full of love,
Came down to die for sin — sin not His own.     

 What wonder we should raise
      Our loftiest hymns of praise,
And keep with sacred joy this Christmas day!
      What wonder earthly grief
      Through Him should find relief,
And like the snow in summer pass away!      

Hail, blessed Christmas morn,
      On which our Lord was born!
We want more love and loyalty to Him,
      Who paid our ransom down,
      A kingdom and a crown —
Our love should soar beyond the Seraphim.

A selection of poems by Isabella Whiteford Rogerson is included in the new book Canadian Companion to the AmblesideOnline Poetry Anthology (Amazon U.S., Amazon Canada). Her poems can also be read on the AO website.

“Which-who?” (Excerpt from Minds More Awake, Revised Edition)

We see that we, too, live in a great age and a great country, in which there is plenty of room for heroes; and if these should be heroes in a quiet way, who the world never hears of, that does not make much real difference.

Ourselves Book I, p. 37

Who was Benjamin Whichcote, and what is the purpose of that short quotation of his that comes before the Principles of Education? And, while we’re on that subject, what does Charlotte mean when she mentions the “old divines?”

The second question is the easiest to answer: a “divine” is a clergyperson whose theological writings became influential in the church. Author-scholar-priests, we might say. Benjamin Whichcote, who lived through most of the seventeenth century, was one of these. He was one of a group of Anglican theologians at Cambridge University who were later referred to as the Cambridge Platonists. In the book The Panther and the Hind: A Theological History of Anglicanism, Aidan Nichols, OP, attempts to explain exactly where they stood on the various lines of philosophy, theology, and natural science; let’s just say that it was complicated. What I think it helps us to know is that the seventeenth century was a sort of weird space between old ideas and new; and there was a lot of “new,” especially in science. Sir Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica in 1687, right after Benjamin Whichcote’s death. Nicolas Steno, who made great contributions to the study of geology, found that most of the opposition to his work came not from the church (as it had for Galileo), but from other academics. To keep all this short, there was a huge and growing interest in knowledge, how we know things, what we can know, and what part God plays in that. These particular “Cambridge divines” rebelled against certain doctrines of both Calvinism/Puritanism and Roman Catholicism; for instance, they refused to accept a doctrine of total depravity, believing instead that human beings retained something of God’s nature (they called it the “Candle of the Lord”). They tried to find a theological middle ground which would also make room for rational, scientific thought, though not letting the “rational” side of things overpower the “revelation”; but that was a bit of a losing battle, as the Age of Reason was coming into its own. And, interestingly, the theological pushback to this “middle” position soon went the other way, with the Great Evangelical Awakening and its emphasis on the heart rather than the mind. So historians think of this group, if they do think of them at all, as part of a transition rather than an explosive force themselves; a few thoughtful people standing at a crossroads between several powerful worldviews (and Godviews), and trying to make sense of it all.

But something about their way of thinking, their interest in knowledge, their belief that people were born with possibilities for good and evil, and their vision of a God who influences and accesses our intellects as much as He does our hearts, struck a chord with Charlotte Mason. This particular passage by Whichcote obviously meant a great deal to her, as she used the first part to begin the Principles:

No sooner doth the truth of God come into the soul’s sight but the soul knows her to be her first and oldest acquaintance. Though they have been, by some accident, unhappily parted a great while, yet having now, through the divine Providence, happily met, they greet one another and renew their acquaintance as those that were first and ancient friends. Nothing is more natural to man’s soul than to receive truth. (Benjamin Whichcote, quoted in The Panther and the Hind)

Look at her last principle:

20. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and “spiritual” life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.

We probably envision the Cambridge theologians as living in an academic/theological ivory tower, where the table-talk was more likely to be about the fine points of church practice, or perhaps some controversial discovery in physiology. Very highbrow, right? And what does that have to do with a child’s arithmetic teaching or habit training or pinecone examining?

All the interests, duties and joys of life.”

Because education is the science of relations. And “nothing is more natural” than loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths.