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.