Charlotte Mason Teaching Tuesday – the Common Pursuit of Knowledge

CM Teaching Tuesdays

The teaching selection I chose for this week speaks to a key component of a Charlotte Mason education – Atmosphere – and an aid the teacher must make use of to ensure a fresh atmosphere. Our own current family circumstances allowed me an opportunity to reflect on atmosphere from a unique position that I’ve really come to appreciate.

From: Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 97

School, perhaps, offers fewer opportunities for vitiating the atmosphere than does home life.  But teaching may be so watered down and sweetened, teachers may be so suave and condescending, as to bring about a condition of intellectual feebleness and moral softness which it is not easy for a child to overcome.  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.

As home educators, the atmosphere of our homes {versus a school} have more opportunity to be spoiled {vitiated}, says Miss Mason. I can think of a number of reasons this might happen. Perhaps an obvious opportunity for spoiling the atmosphere is in the challenge of accepting and living out our role as one in authority. A parent naturally wants to please, to soothe, to praise.  Yet, these fine attributes are not always fitting within an atmosphere that must be bracing with truth and sincerity. In fact, Miss Mason instructs us, as teachers, that in failing to discharge our authority appropriately and instead communicating with condescension {authoritarianism} or with too much sweetness {an absence of authority} can set up “intellectual feebleness and moral softness” that a child may not be able to overcome. Allow yourself to think for a moment of the culture of “the entitled” we are now immersed in – an entire culture that insists that all…that anyone…should rightfully claim experiences and things…just because. In reflecting, I think you will be able to clearly see examples of intellectual feebleness and moral softness. There are times, in exercising authority, that we must insist on stretching a child toward their best, providing a child an opportunity to grow in discipline, allowing a child to experience failure and consequences, and allowing for honest words so that a child rightly develops his conscience and sense of objective right and wrong.

The Difference Between Atmosphere and Environment

Another culprit that threatens to spoil the atmosphere of a home can sometimes be understandably confused with the idea of “atmosphere”, so perhaps it’s good to bring it out and mark these as two very different ideas: environment is not atmosphere. It’s worth saying again – if you have been knocking yourself out, spinning your wheels and your budget consumed with focus in making your home or even a room you’ve set aside as a school room to look “just so”…just as you would envision an ideal school room to look – whether you’ve been focusing on a room, shelves, desks, bins, walls, educational materials, etc., etc. – then you have been focusing on the environment. The environment is quite simply your surroundings, it is where you live and breathe. It may consist of tools in your surroundings, too. So, if we think of environment as our surroundings where we live and breathe, then atmosphere is the very air we breathe within that space – it is what we live and breathe. Does that make sense? They’re two very different things.

  • Are your children breathing in hospitality?
  • Do the children perceive there is an invitation to learn…to know?
  • Is there a sense of considered boundaries that form the backbone of discipline so that there is freedom to explore within an established framework?
  • Is there a general sense of welcome when they ask questions?
  • Is the atmosphere of your home permeated with your own sincere curiosity alongside their seeking after a thing?
  • Does the atmosphere offer your own full attention to your children {engaged? present?} reciprocating the necessary habit of the child bringing his full attention as well?
  • Does the atmosphere of your home encourage creativity?
  • Is your atmosphere imbued with wonder?

Take away environment, and your surroundings, your space has changed, your tools may not be present, but your education can still live and breathe because a CM education is rooted in atmosphere – a tone and hospitality that welcomes knowledge and nurtures relationship with people and ideas. We, as teachers, set this tone and are responsible for exercising this hospitality toward our children that invites relationship.

Now, before you begin to wonder if you should eschew all educational tools and go minimalist, I think a word could be said on behalf of material tools in home education. Just as there is nothing wrong with accepting material possessions as a gift and blessing from God that we, as families, use as part of our vocation in raising our children, it is fitting that there might be some material blessings to steward within home education! But that part is key: we are stewards, caretakers, and these tools are used so long as they are a blessing, and not the focus. Material tools will not make or break an education {so don’t place more value in them than they are due} – look back a few hundred years and you can find families with one book, usually the family Bible, and nary a single tablet, tangram, puzzle map, nor math manipulative. We generally find virtue between the two extremes – so please allow for those material tools that build a lovely environment and work for your family; please don’t allow all of your heart and focus to pour into your home education environment. Your environment may need to shift and change through the years with your changing seasons and circumstances.

An example: I am currently in the process of completely dis-assembling our learning room. It is…no more. {We are moving forward with our remodeling plans that will involve this room opening up to our kitchen and forming a lovely, large and inviting dining space.} I’ve had to relocate our learning space and streamline, consolidating to a few small shelves {keeping out only those things that I consider essential along with next year’s books}. And you know what, the process has been delightfully challenging.  I’ve actually really enjoyed it! I stared at my learning room, and then took a deep breath, and got started. I’m sure I’ll need to share more in a post all its own soon!  The point is though – as challenging as I thought it was going to be to let go of our learning room space, it was actually very instructive to me. I easily identified those things I considered essential to be at my fingertips, I quickly distinguished between good-but-possible-to-live-without, and I ended up with a very small space that is set aside as a place for those things to live.  And I discovered that in streamlining and moving things to a completely different place that the atmosphere didn’t change. My environment certainly has. Yet there is still an atmosphere of hospitality that invites knowing the good, true and beautiful. I still welcome creativity. I still invite seeking to know. It has been an excellent lesson for me in the value in atmosphere as a foundation that far exceeds the boundaries of an environment.

The Common Pursuit of Knowledge

Don’t you love those advertisements that assure you that a product or book will give you the 5 surprisingly simple steps to accomplish “x”?  They intrigue me and appeal to my need to outline and often triage information so that I can apply it wherever it fits within my life. And if something is going to work it will have be realistic and simple. So, imagine for a moment that you’re reading the back of a book promising to deliver just such a simple outline for you:

Would you like to ensure an atmosphere that is as perceptible as fresh air within your home education? An atmosphere that even a random visitor could observe? Do you want to ensure that your children’s intellectual lives and their moral health are fortified? Read on for the one surprisingly simple and easy to apply step that Charlotte Mason gives to ensure an atmosphere that is fresh and bracingly sincere.

What is it, you ask?  What is the simple and easy to apply step?? All we have to do is let go of the idea that as teacher, we must know all, provide and disseminate all the information and knowledge in our child’s entire education.  I know – huge sigh of relief, right?  So, the one surprisingly simple step that is easy to apply?

Learn alongside your children.

Isn’t that a gift in its simplicity?  It allows us to be humble participants, seeking after education, while at the same time exercising our role of authority.

Miss Mason reassures us that {emphasis mine}:

…the common pursuit of knowledge by teacher and class comes to our aid and creates a current of fresh air…

Don’t know Latin? Learn it alongside. Intimidated by science? Read alongside. Did your own public school education afford you a disjointed and rather miniscule overview of history? Great! Your own education is about to take off!

A CM teacher must read, must continue to learn, ask questions, and continue to exercise creativity…alongside her children. Seeking after knowledge and exercising creativity are not compartments that are isolated from real life and therefore only found as tidy little orchestrated subjects within primary education; they are in fact, the breath, the atmosphere of a lifelong living education. Continue to learn alongside your children with a desire to know, a sincere curiosity seeking after truth, and a willingness to express yourself creatively – in common pursuit – and the atmosphere of your home will be one that looks toward the good, true and beautiful moving as a current of fresh air.