Every week I sort books at the thrift store. After almost two years of this, I know very well what kinds of books get bought, and discarded, around here. It's not hard to figure out anyway: walk into any chain bookstore at the mall and you'll see the same categories, the same series, the same bestsellers. And the greatest of these is Self-Help. Do you know how many copies of The Good Life I've sorted over the past two years? How many books by Dr. Phil? How many diet books, how many personal-motivation books, how many get-smarter, live-richer promises? They get bought. Maybe they get read. And in a sadly short time, they are packed off to the thrift store.
Charlotte Mason knew this. She knew a chapter title like "Self-Education" was going to get some people excited. Yes!, they would think, that's what it's about these days! Self! Education! This is the twentieth century, and we are creative and independent and smart and agile, and of course our nation's children must become even more so, because our teachers and our schools are better than they ever have been. Look at all those things the children learn to do now! Look at their physical education programs! Look at all the fine manual training they are getting! Look at all the books that are being written and bought for their classrooms! And doesn't that mean that the children will be getting not only smarter, but turn into better people all round? How can we miss?
Yes, yes, yes, she replied, as she mentally toured the schools of her day. Large-motor and fine-motor skills, all good. Science experiments, nature study, dramatics, Sloyd, and Swedish Drill! (In my own childhood, there were listening centers with headphones! Dataman! Betamax! Environmental studies! Attribute blocks!) Things to make, things to do, things to talk about. School should be interesting and balanced, no question. Just one question for the tour guide: how sure are you that all these nice things, all this money you're pouring into educational programs, is going to have any real effect on who these children become? Not what they can do, or how many facts they know, but what they are? Otherwise, all this "new" programming and curriculum and scientifically approved teaching is just so much bulletin-board trim.
Kris Kringle: (to Susan) Second grade?!
Susan: It's a progressive school. ~~Miracle on 34th Street, 1947
Let's talk about life in general, says Charlotte Mason. Being "all livin'." Well, magic hats only bring snowmen...or people...to life in the world of Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. There are things you can do from the outside of someone to take away life: but there's nothing you can do to generate it. Right? And a living body survives on what it takes in, not on what someone applies externally. No magic plant lotion will make us grow bigger. "The body lives by air, grows on food, demands rest, flourishes on a diet wisely various."
So if our minds work like our bodies (and mind meaning our whole non-physical being), they need to breathe; they need times of activity and rest; and the right kinds of food. Lots of food! Carefully considered food! And that, says Charlotte Mason, is where our children are being cheated.
Fine, we say, pencils poised; just tell us how to fix it, what to do, and we'll do it.
Not so simple, she replies. "I have asked myself this question and have laboured for fifty years to find the answer, and am anxious to impart what I think I know, but the answer cannot be given in the form of 'Do' this and that, but rather as an invitation to 'Consider' this and that; action follows when we have thought duly." I'll give you some facts. Then you put them together and figure out what you're going to do about it.
Fact One: The life of the mind [or the spiritual nature] is sustained upon ideas; and a particular type of ideas. There are important ideas about the world that you can get from science experiments and all those other school activities, but here we are talking only about “the ideas that influence life, that is, character and conduct; these, would seem, pass directly from mind to mind, and are neither helped nor hindered by educational outworks.” In other words, the stuff we fill our classes with, especially of the sensory type, isn’t necessarily a bad thing here; but it isn’t what’s needed for the nourishment of the inner person. “Our schools turn out a good many clever young persons, wanting in nothing but initiative, the power of reflection and the sort of moral imagination that enables you to 'put yourself in his place.' These qualities flourish upon a proper diet; and this is not afforded by the ordinary school book, or, in sufficient quantity by the ordinary lesson. I should like to emphasize quantity, which is as important for the mind as the body; both require their 'square meals.'”
Fact Two: “Knowledge is not sensation, nor is it to be derived through sensation; we feed upon the thoughts of other minds; and thought applied to thought generates thought and we become more thoughtful. No one need invite us to reason, compare, imagine; the mind, like the body, digests its proper food, and it must have the labour of digestion or it ceases to function.” If there are no magic hats or lotions, there are also no magic pills or potions. So what is the educational equivalent of proper food that the body digests and uses for growth? “But let information hang upon a principle, be inspired by an idea, and it is taken with avidity and used in making whatsoever in the spiritual nature stands for tissue in the physical.”
So what is the point of calling this chapter “Self-Education?” Charlotte Mason is waiting for us to emit a huge A-ha here.
No, we’re not getting it?
She patiently spells it out: “No one knoweth the things of a man but the spirit of a man which is in him; therefore, there is no education but self-education…”
Does that mean no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers, no more schools, and even no more homeschooling parents? Everybody’s on their own?
No, it means that, first, “as soon as a young child begins his education he does so as a student,” meaning that each learner, taking in ideas [of this type, meaning the normative, character-related, Big Question ideas] is also his own ‘teacher’”; and that, second, “our business is to give him mind-stuff, and both quality and quantity are essential. Naturally, each of us possesses this mind-stuff only in limited measure, but we know where to procure it; for the best thought the world possesses is stored in books; we must open books to children, the best books; our own concern is abundant provision and orderly serving.” You don't eat for your children; you don't chew their food or digest for them. But you do make sure it's there, and serve it in a way that's appropriate. The same with their reading.
With an urgency that reflects her own sense of limited days, Charlotte Mason expresses what is, in her mind, the only real task of an educator: to zero in on the mind-to-mind ideas.
All through lunch Oliver ate without knowing that he ate at all. A baked potato, two slices of liver, and a large helping of beets (which he detested) simply disappeared from his plate into himself without conscious material assistance on his part. Inwardly he had entered once more the little room that was his discovery, his kingdom. He dwelt longingly upon the thought of the two old sleds, the bicycle, the coffee grinder (which he planned to take apart), and above all the books. Tomorrow I’ll go down again, he told himself, and whenever it rains, and Cuffy takes a nap. But I mustn’t go too often. Oliver was wise for his seven years: already he knew that to overdo a thing is to destroy it. I’ll keep it secret for a long, long time, he thought. He did, too; for he had great determination, and knew the secret of keeping secrets. Also he had a kind heart. Six weeks later when Randy had to stay home from school with a toothache he took her down to the cellar and showed her his discovery. It worked better than oil of cloves: Randy forgot her toothache for more than an hour and a half, absorbed in the dusty volumes of Harper’s Young People.—“Ali-Baba Oliver,” The Four Story Mistake, Elizabeth Enright“For many years,” writes Charlotte Mason, “we have had access to a sort of Aladdin's cave which I long to throw open 'for public use.'” And here we go: look, look, look, she says: “It fits all ages! It satisfies brilliant children and discovers intelligence in the dull. It secures attention, interest, concentration, without effort on the part of teacher or taught….Parents become interested in the schoolroom work, and find their children 'delightful companions.' Children shew delight in books (other than story books) and manifest a genuine love of knowledge. Teachers are relieved from much of the labour of corrections. Children taught according to this method do exceptionally well at any school.“ “But these principles are obvious and simple enough, and, when we consider that at present education is chaotic for want of a unifying theory, and that there happens to be no other comprehensive theory in the field which is in line with modern thought and fits every occasion, might it not be well to try one which is immediately practicable and always pleasant and has proved itself by producing many capable, serviceable, dutiful men and women of sound judgment and willing mind?”
But it’s not a potion, something to rub on or pour down, she jokingly reminds us again. “After all, it is not a quack medicine I am writing about, though the reader might think so, and there is no IS. I 1/2d. a bottle in question!” And the key to the room, she has pointed out, is not dependence on a teacher, but the understanding that children’s “education should be largely self-education.” “Here on the very surface is the key to that attention, interest, literary style, wide vocabulary, love of books and readiness in speaking, which we all feel should belong to an education that is only begun at school and continued throughout life; these are the things that we all desire, and how to obtain them is some part of the open secret I am labouring to disclose 'for public use.'”
And THAT is the meaning of "I am, I can, I ought, I will."