Sharing things that are good: Beginning to read Charlotte Mason

by Mr. Sheehy

When it comes to educational philosophy, I have a worry that I have articulated in tidbits here and there. Essentially, the worry is tied to the word relevance. We educators want to make education relevant to students in order to motivate them, to draw their interest, and to train them most appropriately. Some say with scorn that the education students receive today looks like the education that students received yesterday. Many fear the future, the great unknown future, and relevance appears to be an antidote to this; if relevance is not a panacea, it is at least preferable to Shakespeare.

Ultimately, I do not believe all relevance is a good thing, especially the kind of relevance that examines good curriculum and tosses it in favor of new, less challenging material. We don’t teach grammar to middle school students or Great Expectations to ninth graders because students have trouble with it or find it irrelevant. With things like Dickens and grammar, I agree they have trouble with them, and as a teacher of ninth and tenth graders, I am not sure I want to be the guy who fights the tidal wave by reviving Pip’s love for Estella or trying to explain the object of the preposition, but I do not think that what we are reading instead, be it My Sister’s Keeper or The Secret Life of Bees,  or the way we are writing, is better.

I get leary of myself when I spout off philosophy of education comments here. I tend to reach too far and I am not interested in finding the examples of what I mean, because I have lots of other things I need to be doing, like planning my next unit for my English 9 students. Perhaps some day I will sit down, do the research, and articulate my hunches in more formal and well evaluated forms.

For now, I’ll quote Charlotte Mason, a woman whose approach to education is surprisingly modern and practical, but is still rooted in a respect for higher learning. I have a feel for who Mason was but have not read her myself. I am getting an introduction to her through Susan Schaeffer MacCaulay’s book, For the Children’s Sake, and have a hunch that I will eventually end up chasing Mason’s own books through the used bookstores of the world.

Here is a sample of what I mean. In a quick paragraph, quoted by MacCaulay, Mason articulates why learning the things of books (for me this especially means literature and poetry) is essential for creating an educated person:

Our journals ask with scorn,–“Is there  no education but what is got out of books at school? Is not the lad who works in the fields getting an education?” and the public lacks the courage to say definitely, “No, he is not,” because there is no clear notion current as to what education means, and how it is to be distinguished from vocational training. But the people begin to understand and to clamour for an education which shall qualify their children for life rather than for earning a living. As a matter of fact, it is the person who has read and thought on many subjects who is, with the necessary training, the most capable whether in handling tools, drawing plans, or keeping books. The more of a person we succeed in making a child, the better will he both fulfil his own life and serve society. (14)

Fourteen year-olds are smart enough to follow the ideas of Shakespeare, given a bit of help through the oddities of the language. They are smart enough to read great poetry, poetry not written by Prelutsky or Silverstein, given a chance to interact with the poem and to think. And if they can interact with those ideas, they will become better at that relevant, practical stuff as well (at least, in a more specific way, I’d claim they will become better at becoming better). Too often we lose track of how the one truly does help the other, even if folks like Ted McCain are convinced that the book knowledge is irrelevant.

Today, I am thinking that teachers like me need to remember how capable these students are, and how mature they are. I need to remember to be like Mason herself, who MacCaulay notes “never felt that they weren’t old enough to appreciate and think about things which she knew were good” (16).

Thanks for reading.

MacCaulay, Susan Schaeffer. For the Children’s Sake. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1984.