Ambleside Blog

Faith Framed

Over the Christmas holidays, we visited friends on their farm. It was a brisk sunny day, as we walked corrals, pastures, and woodland, taking in nature’s sights and smells.

After surveying the land, our friends’ young son called me over to the meadow, declaring that he wanted to show me something. Looking into the tall grass, one could see a narrow path with high grasses on both sides. "The deer made the path,” he said.

I shared with him an encounter I recently had with a deer. “ I was backing my car out of the garage several weeks ago. Turning around to the right, through the early morning darkness, I saw a very large buck staring at me. I rolled down the window, looked and stared back. Greeting the magnificent creature, I said, You can stay, I will be back in a bit.” Of course, when I returned, the buck was nowhere to be seen.

This reminded my young friend of a similar story. “See that tree, with the long horizontal limb. I was riding my bicycle up the hill and when I looked back, I saw a red tailed hawk. The reason I know is because it’s my favorite bird.”

I looked and stared at the empty limb, and my young friend shared matter of factly. “I believe God showed the red tailed hawk to me.  And God showed you that buck the other day.  You have got to believe God showed that buck to you. You have got to believe,” he implored.

“I do believe. And there are a hundred things God wants us to see.” I said. God showed it to me, all right - faith through the eyes of a boy, a path in the grass, and a hawk on its perch.

May our faith increase each day of this New Year.

Do Not Hinder the Children

Do Not Hinder the Children1

In Mark 10:13-15 is found the third admonition Christ gives regarding children:

And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, "Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all."

Children are made for God. They are drawn to God; possess a spiritual capacity for God. Often, they are graced with a spiritual insight which would astound the adult. This is no denial of the fact that children are self-absorbed creatures with a great capacity for sin. It is recognition that the precious Savior and loving Father are attractive to them, unless adults get in the way.

The most fatal way of despising the child falls under the third educational law of the Gospels; it is to overlook and make light of his natural relationship with Almighty God. "Suffer the little children to come unto Me," says the Savior, as if that were the natural thing for the children to do, the thing they do when they are not hindered by their elders. And perhaps it is not too beautiful a thing to believe in this redeemed world, that, as the babe turns to his mother though he has no power to say her name, as the flowers turn to the sun, so the hearts of the children turn to their Savior and God with unconscious delight and trust.

There are several ways by which adults hinder children’s approach to Father and Son. The first is what Charlotte Mason called “nursery theology.”

Now listen to what goes on in many a nursery:––'God does not love you, you naughty, wicked boy!' 'He will send you to the bad, wicked place!' and so on; and this is all the practical teaching about the ways of his 'almighty Lover' that the child gets!––never a word of how God does love and cherish the little children all day long, and fill their hours with delight.

 While such harshness concerning the divine may be less common today than in Victorian England, does not the way we cheapen God (make Him out to be something less than the glorious, holy, lover of our souls) have the same effect?

Listless perfunctory prayers, idle discussions of Divine things in their presence, light use of holy words, few signs whereby the child can read that the things of God are more to his parents than any things of the world, and the child is hindered, tacitly forbidden to "come unto Me,"––and this, often, by parents who in the depths of their hearts desire nothing in comparison with God.

Perhaps nothing hinders a child from life-giving relationship with God, with parent, with teacher, with learning, with all that is Good, True, and Beautiful, than does an absence of love and joy in home or classroom.  There is much to be explored regarding these two, but let us begin with joy’s twin, gladness.  For if we be not people of gladness, if our homes and classrooms be not places of gladness, then surely children will be hindered from not only learning, but from God, Whom we represent. Consider Charlotte Mason’s reflection on the matter.

Love's Lords In Waiting: Gladness2

It is a seemly fashion to be glad.
The merry heart goes all the day.

Gladness enough in the World for all.––Yorkshire people say their bread is 'sad' when it is heavy, does not rise. It is just so with ourselves. We are like a 'sad' loaf when we are heavy––do not rise to the sunshine, to the voices of our friends, to interesting sights, to kindness, love, or any good thing. When we do rise to these things, when our hearts smile because a ray of sunshine creeps in through the window, because a bird sings, because a splash of sunlight falls on the trunk of a dark tree, because we have seen a little child's face––why, then we are glad. Carlyle, whom we do not think of as a very happy man, used to say that no one need be unhappy who could see a spring day or the face of a little child. Indeed, there is Gladness enough in the world for us all; or, to speak more exactly, there is a fountain of Gladness in everybody's heart only waiting to be unstopped. Grown-up people sometimes say that they envy little children when they hear the Gladness bubbling out of their hearts in laughter, just as it bubbles out of the birds in song; but there is no room for regret; it is simply a case of a choked spring: remove the rubbish, and Gladness will flow out of the weary heart as freely as out of the child's.

Gladness springs in Sorrow and Pain.––But, you will say, how can people be glad when they have to bear sorrow, anxiety, want and pain? It is not these things that stop up our Gladness. The sorrowful and anxious wife of a dying husband, the mother of a dying child, will often make the sick-room merry with quips and cranks, a place of hearty Gladness. It is not that the mother or wife tries to seem glad for the sake of the sufferer; there is no pretending about Gladness. No one can be taken in by smiles that are put on. The fact is that love teaches the nurse to unstop the fount of Gladness in her own heart for the sake of the sufferer dear to her, and out come lots of merry words and little jokes, smiles and gaiety, things better than any medicine for the sick. In pain, too, it is not impossible to be glad. Have we not all been touched by merry sayings that have come from suffering lips? I doubt if Margaret Roper could help a smile through her tears at the merry quips her father, Sir Thomas More, made on his way to the scaffold. We commonly make a mistake about Gladness. We think of it as a sort of ice-cream or chocolate––very good when it comes, but not to be expected every day. But, "Rejoice evermore," says the Apostle; that is, "Be glad all the time." We laugh now and then, we smile now and then, but the fountain of Gladness within us should rise always; and so it will if it be not hindered.

Gladness is Catching.––Before we consider the Daemons of Gladness, let us make ourselves sure of one thing. We cannot be glad by ourselves, and we cannot be sad, that is, heavy, by ourselves. Our gladness rejoices the people we come across, as our heaviness depresses them.

A London mother once wrote to me of how she took her little golden-haired daughter of two out for her first walk, and the little girl smiled at the policeman, and he was glad, and kissed her hand to some French laundresses working in a cellar, and they were glad, and smiled at the crossing-sweeper, and generally went on her way like a little queen dispensing smiles and gladness. A still prettier story was told by a Bible-woman in a big town who went out of doors depressed by the sordid cares and offenses of her neighbors; and a small child sitting in a gutter looked up at her and smiled, and in the gladness of that little child she went gaily for the rest of the day. There is nothing so catching as Gladness, and it is good for each of us to know that we carry joy for the needs of our neighbors. But this is treasure that we give without knowing it or being any the poorer for what we have given away.

Gladness is Perennial.––Now, if we have made it clear to ourselves that there is in each of us a fountain of Gladness, not an intermittent but a perennial spring, enough and to spare for every moment of every year of the longest life, not to be checked by sorrow, pain, or poverty, but often flowing with the greater force and brightness because of these obstructions; if we are quite sure that this golden Gladness is not our own private property, but is meant to enrich the people we pass in the street, or live within the house, or work with or play with, we shall be interested to discover why it is that people go about with a black dog on their shoulder, the cloud of gloom on their brow; why there are people heavy in movement, pale of countenance, dull and irresponsive. You will wish to find out why it is that children may go to a delightful party, picnic, haymaking, or what not, and carry a sullen countenance through all the fun and frolic; why young people may be taken to visit here or travel there, and the most delightful scenes might be marked with a heavy black spot in the map of their memories, because they found no gladness in them; why middle-aged people sometimes go about with sad and unsmiling countenances; why the aged sometimes find their lot all crosses and no joys.

This question of gladness or sadness has little to do with our circumstances. It is true that we should do well to heed the advice of Marcus Aurelius.––"Do not let your head run upon that which is none of your own, but pick out some of the best of your circumstances, and consider how eagerly you would wish for them were they not in your possession."

We are Sad when we are Sorry for Ourselves.––Let us get the good out of our circumstances by all means, but as a matter of fact it is not our circumstances but ourselves that choke the spring. We are sad and not glad because we are sorry for ourselves. Somebody has trodden on our toe, somebody has said the wrong word, has somehow offended our sense of self-importance, and behold the Dæmon of self-pity digs diligently at his rubbish-heap, and casts in all manner of poor and paltry things to check the flow of our spring of Gladness. Some people are sorry for themselves by moments, some for days together, and some carry all their lifelong a grudge against their circumstances, or burn with resentment against their friends.

Gladness a Duty.––We need only look this matter in the face to see how sad and wrong a thing it is not to be glad, and to say to ourselves, 'I can, because I ought!' Help comes to those who endeavor and who ask. We may have to pull ourselves up many times a day, but every time we give chase to the black dog, the easier we shall find it to be gay and good. The outward and visible sign of gladness is cheerfulness, for how can a dour face and sour speech keep company with bubbling gladness within? The inward and spiritual grace is contentment, for how can the person who is glad at heart put himself out and be dissatisfied about the little outside things of life? "Rejoice evermore, and again I say, rejoice."   


1Charlotte Mason Home Education 19-20
2Charlotte Mason, Ourselves, 131-135

 

Christmas Reflections

I have before me a six year old's rendering of a giraffe. Its body has the shape of a large tennis ball, yellow with streaks of orange. Its neck reminds one of a long rigid cane cut from a Louisiana sugar field. A banana seems to serve for a tail, and four large green tree trunks for legs. It is all together delightful. Even more delightful were the smile and kindness with which it was presented to me. It is a wonderful piece of play and even more wonderful that a bright-eyed child would, without vulgar display, freely present such a gift to her former principal. There is a tinge of grace in the play, the picture, and the presentation. Such graces shape the heart of a child. Such graces make for a hint of Christmas every day.

The dark sky had already paled a little in its frame of cherry-pink chintz. Eternity framed in domesticity. Never mind. One had to frame it in something, to see it at all.
Jan Struther, Three Stockings

Chintz is a shiny cotton fabric upon which is printed a floral pattern, a warm and suitable frame for an infinite sky. And, it seems a good metaphor for Christmas, the infinite, ineffable God made flesh, a baby held by His mother. This reminds me of a rather striking concept, learned during my days as a theology student - obediential potency. In its broadest sense obediential potency means the openness of every creature to the Creator's power to effect in it something beyond the powers of ordinary natural causes. By virtue of its very existence, every object of creation is positively ordered in accordance with God's power to act in it and through it, having the potential to accomplish a specific divine end. Chintz possesses the potential to both frame an infinite sky and be a divine instrument revealing something of eternity. In cloth and sky, we can discover something of God, for even the rocks may cry out. Tongues and hands may serve as the instruments of God. Human flesh assumes divinity. Christmas comes.
Immanuel, God with us, was made manifest in Bethlehem two thousand years ago and is still at work today. We are all too aware of our profound flaws, the many ways in which we prove ourselves inadequate vessels. But still, He uses us, you and me. May there be ever more of Christmas in us and through us.

Personal Update
As might be guessed, we are on the road much of the time. When home, we continue to enjoy northern Virginia with azaleas in the spring, dahlias blooming in the summer, multicolored autumns, and crisp winters. It is a blessing to have Maryellen's sister, Candice, in our basement flat and to have her very capable assistance with keeping the Ambleside office and website going. Ginger, our yellow lab, and Jazz, Candice's golden retriever, keep things hopping.

The work of Ambleside continues to thrive. With the addition of the Vine School in Cape Town, South Africa; Ambleside of Boerne in Boerne, Texas; and Ambleside of the Adirondacks in upstate New York; there are now ten Ambleside schools. An additional five locations are hoping to open in the near future. More than numbers, it is the bright glow on child faces and the clear growth in a joyful maturity that most encourages. We have the great privilege of witnessing students, parents, and teachers flourish.

Merry Christmas,

Bill and Maryellen St Cyr
 

 

Offend Not These Little Ones

Offend Not These Little Ones1

If we look to the Gospels seeking to find a code of education expressly laid down by Christ, all we can find is summed up in three commandments: Take heed that ye OFFEND not––DESPISE not––HINDER not––one of these little ones. Note that all three have a negative character, as if the chief thing required of grown-up people is that they should do no injury to children. Of course, if we are to do no harm to children, we will be bound to take many proactive steps; for certain omissions can be as destructive as certain commissions.

The first of these three commandments is found in Matthew 18:6 (KJV).

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

The Greek word, translated in the King James Version as “offend”, is skandalizo. This word’s literal meaning is to place a trap or a snare in someone’s path. Thus, the New American Standard more accurately renders it as “causes to stumble”. An offense is literally a stumbling-block, which trips up the walker and causes him to fall. Mothers know what it is to clear the floor of every obstacle when a baby takes his unsteady little runs from chair to chair, from one pair of loving arms to another. She does this to ensure that the baby does not come to physical harm.  Parents and teachers must be equally diligent to “clear the floor” of any obstacles that might cause a child any intellectual, moral, or spiritual harm. As Jesus points out in the very next verse, the world is full of stumbling blocks and many stumbling blocks will come, but “Woe to him through whom the stumbling block comes.”

Every child is born law abiding. This is not to imply that any child always abides by the law, but rather that every child has a sense of may and must not, of right and wrong. This is how children are sent into the world, yet still we find girls and boys who do not know what must means, who are not moved by ought, whose hearts feel no stir at the solemn name of Duty, who know no higher rule of life than 'I want,' and 'I don't want,' 'I like,' and 'I don't like'? Such are the children of seemingly good parents, but parents who are in danger of catastrophic failure, for they have not taken seriously the warning, "Take heed that ye offend not one of these little ones."

How is it that a child comes to have little or no sense of “I must,” living only by “I want”? Generally, by slow degrees, here a little and there a little, as all that is good or bad in character comes to pass. “No!” says the mother, once again, when a little hand is thrust into the sugar bowl; and when a pair of roguish eyes seek hers furtively, to measure, as they do unerringly, how far the little pilferer may go. It is very amusing; the mother “cannot help laughing”; and the little trespass is allowed to pass. Completely unaware, the poor mother has provided an offense. A cause of stumbling has been cast into the path of her two-year-old child. He has now learned that despite “No” that which he “wants” may be done with some impunity, and he goes on increasing this knowledge. Everybody knows the steps by which the mother's 'no' comes to be disregarded, as her refusal is consistently teased into consent. The child learns to believe that he has nothing to overcome but his mother's initial resistance. If it is merely her choice to let him do this and that, there is no reason why she should not allow him to do what he wants.  The child learns that, with the right kind of persistence, he can make her choose to let him do even that which she says he ought not to do. The next step in the argument is not too great for childish wits: if his mother does what she chooses, of course he will do what he chooses, if he can. Henceforth, the child's life becomes an endless struggle to get his own way; a struggle in which a parent is pretty sure to be worsted, having many things to think of, while the child sticks persistently to the thing which has his fancy for the moment.

It is for this reason that children must discover a background of “must” behind every mother’s, father’s and teacher’s decision. It is essential that each child know that mother, father, teacher “must” not let him break another’s things, gorge himself with cake, spoil the pleasure of other people, give little effort to a lesson, because these things are not right. Let the child perceive that his parents and teachers are law-compelled as well as he, that they simply cannot allow him to do the things which have been forbidden, and he submits with the sweet meekness which belongs to his age. As a general rule, children only fight long and hard when they have had significant experience of winning.

To attempt to cajole or convince a child to do what is right is usually out of place and is a sacrifice of parental and teacher authority. But a child is quick enough to read in a parent’s or teacher’s face the must, the ought, and the peaceful resolution which rules her. Children almost always submit when they encounter the peacefully resolute “you must” and “I must hold you to it, for it is a matter of right and wrong.”

While failure to maintain, both personally and from the children, a life of peaceful submission to “must” is the foremost stumbling block parents and teachers lay before children, it is somewhat generic. There are very concrete ways which parents and teachers may offend, cause to stumble, those entrusted to their care. Parents and teachers offend children when they allow a child to live in disregard of laws of physical health, laws of intellectual health, or the laws of moral health. Parents and teachers may not allow children to violate these laws through either ignorance or weakness.

  • Laws of physical health – Children must eat a nutritional diet, have vigorous daily exercise, and get sufficient sleep. They must be appropriately dressed for the season. These things are not optional, but a matter of the essential stewardship of our bodies.
  • Laws of the Intellectual Life -- A child's intellectual life may be wrecked at its outset by a round of dreary, dawdling lessons in which definite progress is the last thing made or expected, and which, so far from educating in any true sense, stultify his wits in a way he never gets over. Many a little girl, especially, leaves the classroom with a distaste for all manner of learning, an aversion to mental effort, which lasts her lifetime, and that is why she grows up to read little but trashy novels, and to talk all day about her clothes. Children must be given opportunities to develop many relations with ideas, persons and things; be provided with living books and assigned meaningful work. And, it is essential that they be held to a high standard. Diligence is a “must.” To allow sloth, shoddy work, or the escaping of one’s duty is not “to give grace” but rather to place a terrible stumbling block before a child.
  • Laws of Moral Health – Failures in kindness, base humor, disrespect for persons, lack of submission to appropriate authority, there is to be zero tolerance for these or any other moral failing. Zero tolerance does not mean that such acts never occur, but that they are never indulged. When such failures do occur, they are dealt with lovingly but firmly.

This leads to a final and horrible stumbling block which too many children find placed before them. It is a terrible thing when a child's love finds no natural outlets within her closest circle, when she is the plain or the dull child and is left out in the cold, while the parents' or the teacher’s affection is lavished on the rest. Of course such a child does not love her peers, who monopolize the affection that should have been hers too. And how is she to love the adult who is supposed to care for her but withholds affection? Nobody knows the real anguish which many children suffer from this cause, nor how many lives are embittered and spoiled through the suppression of these childish affections. One lady told Charlotte Mason the following:

My childhood was made miserable by my mother's doting fondness for my little brother; there was not a day when she did not make me wretched by coming into the nursery to fondle and play with him, and all the time she had not a word nor a look nor a smile for me, any more than if I had not been in the room. I have never got over it; she is very kind to me now, but I never feel quite natural with her. And how can we two, brother and sister, feel for each other as we should if we had grown up together in love in the nursery?

We do a great evil if we prefer the bright, outgoing, diligent child over the struggling, introverted, disorganized child. If we love the former above the later, both will know it, and we will place a great stumbling block before both.



[1] Derived from Charlotte Mason’s Home Education, 12-17.

 

Gorging on the Fruits of an Ambleside Education

After studying early American history, including the American Revolution, this semester, it was an especially meaningful experience to visit Boston this past week as a family.  We were intrepid historians as we "braved the elements" in December.  We were rewarded with having the Freedom Trail, and other historical sites, largely to ourselves.  This allowed us to linger and savor, which we did.  The Nutcracker by the Boston Ballet enchanted us as well, and was especially alive to us after studying Tchaikovsky this semester.  At various times during the performance my ten -year-old son leaned over to me and said: "This is grand!" "This is capital!" "This is wonderful!"  And the Boston Pops & Tanglewood Festival Chorus concert presented Christmas hymns and melodies with such precision and joy that each old-time favorite was as fresh as if it was just written.  We were truly regaled with the results of life-times of dedication and love of the arts.  Each artist clearly “gave their all,” backed by decades of dedicated sacrificial practice.

Upon reflection, two main ideas keep circling in my mind:

  1. What a glorious thing of beauty is a task well-done, and what glory this brings to our Creator.

Indeed, The Nutcracker and Boston Pops were holy experiences to me.  They led me to know God better and to worship Him more deeply.  I am, even now, moved to worship Him as I recall the soprano saxophone hitting his high note hauntingly, the ballerina landing perfectly en pointe, the male vocalist’s deep voice resonating through my whole body.  God is the Creator, and these creative acts were reflections of Him.

  1. That I have our Ambleside education to thank for making the historical sites and performances accessible to us. 

I readily admit, but with much dismay, that I would have brought a much different mind and attitude to this trip at my sons’ ages than my sons brought. I was reared on information suited to the test, on the grade as the goal of learning, on the experience of life as being what happens outside of learning contexts.  I fell asleep through many Nutcracker performances and symphonies as I was raised.  I wondered why they were “still” dancing when I awoke.  I entered exhibits and historical sites looking for what would be on “the test.”  In contrast, my sons, having been reared on the understanding that all of life is about growth, that all of learning is for growth, and to truly see and understand, not just watch and filter, were primed to receive the banquet set before them in Boston. 

This priming has happened these past (almost) five years as we have engaged in the liberal education of Ambleside.  Through this curriculum, we are challenged to be changed by ideas and to really know our subject, rather than be consumers of information.  We are learning to listen to music to hear its nuances and meanings; to view a painting and seek to grasp the artist’s technique, palette, mood, and treatment of the subject; to find a leaf and identify its name, habitat and unique features; to paint a picture by first seeing the elements of shape represented in our subject; to read literature and seek to understand the mind of the author; and to approach math, science, and grammar with the same zeal to understand and know, not to simply get to the answer.  This has been very tough work, but we gorged on its fruits in Boston!

A Method for Educating Human Persons: Not Getting in the Way

A Method for Educating Human Persons: Not Getting in the Way

1st Principle: Excellence in education requires the consistent application of a congruent method that reflects the nature of a child, the nature of knowledge, and the purpose of education.

Education the Science of Relations
The readings last considered concluded with Charlotte Mason’s statement that “education is the science of relations, or, more fully, that education considers what relations are proper to a human being, and in what ways these several relations can best be established.”[1] Given that every human being comes into the world with a tremendous capacity for relations with God, others, creation, and ideas and that forming such relations are the very natural work of the mind, the teacher is left with two chief concerns:
  1. To put the student in the natural position for forming these relations “by presenting the right idea at the right time” and “by forming the right habit upon the right idea”.
  2. “Not getting in the way” of this very natural process and so preventing the establishment of the very relations which education seeks to form.
At a future time, attention will be focused on “presenting the right idea” and “forming the right habit”; however, the texts below give attention to the challenging task of “not getting in the way.”
 
Four Means of Destroying the Desire for Knowledge:[2]
     (a) Too many oral lessons [the teacher explaining the text], which offer knowledge in a diluted form, and do not leave the child free to deal with it.
     (b) Lectures, for which the teacher collects, arranges, and illustrates matter from various sources; these often offer knowledge in too condensed and ready prepared a form.
     (c) Text-books compressed and recompressed from the big book of the big man.
     (d) The use of emulation and ambition as incentives to learning in place of the adequate desire for, and delight in, knowledge.
 
The Problem with Oral Lessons and Lectures[3]
Too much faith is commonly placed in oral lessons and lectures; "to be poured into like a bucket," as says Carlyle, "is not exhilarating to any soul"; neither is it exhilarating to have every difficulty explained to weariness, or to have the explanation teased out of one by questions. "I will not be put to the question. Don't you consider, sir, that these are not the manners of a gentleman? I will not be baited with what and why; what is this? What is that? Why is a cow's tail long? Why is a fox's tail bushy?" said Dr Johnson. This is what children think, though they say nothing. Oral lessons have their occasional use, and when they are fitly given it is the children who ask the questions. Perhaps it is not wholesome or quite honest for a teacher to pose as a source of all knowledge and to give 'lovely' lessons. Such lessons are titillating for the moment, but they give children the minimum of mental labor, and the result is much the same as that left on older persons by the reading of a magazine. We find, on the other hand, that in working through a considerable book, which may take two or three years to master, the interest of boys and girls is well sustained to the end; they develop an intelligent curiosity as to causes and consequences, and are in fact educating themselves.
 
 Books and Oral Teaching.––Having found the right book, let the master give the book the lead and be content himself with a second place. The lecture must be subordinated to the book. The business of the teacher is to put his class in the right attitude towards their book by a word or two of his own interest in the matter contained, of his own delight in the manner of the author. But boys get knowledge only as they dig for it. Labor prepares the way for assimilation, that mental process which converts information into knowledge; and the effort of taking in the sequence of thought of his author is worth to the boy a great deal of oral teaching.
Do teachers always realize the paralyzing and stupefying effect that a flood of talk has upon the mind? The inspired talk of an orator no doubt wakens a response and is listened to with tense attention; but few of us claim to be inspired, and we are sometimes aware of the difficulty of holding the attention of a class. We blame ourselves, whereas the blame lies in the instrument we employ––the more or less diluted oral lesson or lecture, in place of the living and arresting book. We cannot do without the oral lesson––to introduce, to illustrate, to amplify, to sum up. My stipulation is that oral lessons should be few and far between, and that the child who has to walk through life,––and has to find his intellectual life in books or go without,––shall not be first taught to go upon crutches.
 
The Danger of Playing Upon Student Ambition and Affections
[4] He is a poor thing who is content to be beaten on all hands. We do not quarrel with the principle of emulation [desire to equal or surpass another] any more than we do with that of respiration. The one is as natural and as necessary as the other, and as little to be brought before a moral tribunal. But it is the part of the educator to recognize that a child does not come into the world a harp with one string; and that the perpetual play upon this one chord through all the years of adolescence is an evil, not because emulation is a vicious principle, but because the balance of character is destroyed by the constant stimulation of this one desire at the expense of the rest.
[5] Emulation becomes suicidal when it is used as the incentive to intellectual effort, because the desire for knowledge subsides in proportion as the desire to excel becomes active. As a matter of fact, marks of any sort, even for conduct, distract the attention of children from their proper work, which is in itself interesting enough to secure good behavior as well as attention.
 
Affection as a Motive.––That he ought to work hard to please his parents [or teacher] who do so much for him, is a proper motive to bring before the child from time to time, but not too often: if the mother trade on her child's feelings, if, 'Do this or that to please mother,' 'Do not grieve poor mother,' etc., be brought too frequently before the child as the reason for right doing, a sentimental relation is set up which both parent and child will find embarrassing, the true motives of action will be obscured, and the child unwilling to appear unloving, will end in being untrue.
 
Attractiveness of Knowledge.––Of course, the most obvious means of quickening and holding the attention of children lies in the attractiveness of knowledge itself, and in the real appetite for knowledge with which they are endowed.
 
Additional Dangers[6]
 
Danger of undervaluing Children's Intelligence… I am inclined to question whether, in the interest of carrying out a system, the charming Kindergarten teacher is not in danger sometimes of greatly undervaluing the intelligence of her children. I know a person of three who happened to be found by a caller alone in the drawing room. It was spring, and the caller thought to make himself entertaining with talk about the pretty 'baa-lambs.' But a pair of big blue eyes were fixed upon him and a solemn person made this solemn remark, "Isn't it a dwefful howid thing to see a pig killed!" We hope she had never seen or even heard of the killing of a pig, but she made as effective a protest against twaddle as would any woman of Society… And, if the little people were in the habit of telling how they feel, we should learn perhaps that they are a good deal bored by the nice little games in which they frisk like lambs, flap their fins, and twiddle their fingers like butterflies…
 
Danger of Personal Magnetism.––Most of us are misled by our virtues, and the entire zeal and enthusiasm of the Kindergarten teacher is perhaps her stone of stumbling. 'But the children are so happy and good!' Precisely; the home-nursery is by no means such a scene of peace, but I venture to think it a better growing place. I am delighted to see that an eminent Froebelian protests against the element of personal magnetism in the teacher; but there is, or has been, a good deal of this element in the successful Kindergartner, and we all know how we lose vigor and individuality under this sort of influence.
 
The Dead Wall of Systematized Education[7]
 
Miss Sullivan [teacher of Helen Keller] on Systems of Education.––Like all great discoveries, this, of a soul, was, in all its steps, marked by simplicity. Miss Sullivan had little love for psychologists and all their ways; would have no experiments; would not have her pupil treated as a phenomenon, but as a person. "No," she says, "…I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built up on the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think, whereas if the child is left to himself he will think more and better, if less showily. Let him go and come freely, let him touch real things, and combine his impressions for himself, instead of sitting indoors at a little round table, while a sweet-voiced teacher suggests that he build a stone wall with his wooden blocks, or make a rainbow out of strips of colored paper, plant straw trees in bead flower-pots. Such teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experiences." It is a great thing to have a study of education as it were de novo, in which we see the triumph of mind, not only over apparently insuperable natural obstacles, but over the dead wall of systematized education––a more complete hindrance to any poor child than her grievous defects proved to Helen Keller.
 

[1] Mason, Charlotte, School Education, 66.
[2] Ibid., 214.
[3] Ibid., 227-231 (excerpts).
[4] Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, 220.
[5] Charlotte Mason, Home Education,143-145 (excerpts).
[6] Charlotte Mason, Home Education, 187-190 (excerpts).
[7] Ibid.,195-196.

 

Thanksgiving Proclamation

I hope and pray this season of Thanksgiving brings warmth and the many blessings of Providence to your family. I recently knocked the dust off a collection of speeches and writings by Abraham Lincoln to take my annual look at his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. It is always good to read as it tends to reorient my mind to the meaning behind this American tradition. In his proclamation, which came in early October of 1863 with the country ferociously engaged in civil war, President Lincoln brought to light the blessings of “fruitful fields and healthful skies;” a very positive take on the condition of things. Lincoln goes further by mentioning that some of our “bounties” are so often enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, but, he adds, some blessings “are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.” I find my heart can easily become “habitually insensible,” thus I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the many blessings, both great and small, that Almighty God has heaped upon my plate this past year.

In line with Lincoln’s instruction to observe “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father,” I want to take a moment to express to you just a few particulars of the daily occurrences of God’s “gracious gifts” in my life at Ambleside. I am thankful:

That I get to witness the Holy Spirit work in the minds and hearts of God’s children; for a school that recognizes that all of our study of creation would be for not, if it does not draw us to the Creator; for the opportunity to take a walk around the block with an anxious student; that I get to pray with a student who is not quite understanding the pain that at times accompanies life in this world; for foursquare without squares; for *“sharks” and for “minnows”; for “Littles capture Bigs”; for parents who care enough to see the immense value of a proper education; for parent volunteers who do more for nothing than some do for much; for the cultivation of life giving habits of mind and body; for the spirit revealing a new scriptural insight through a 6th grader’s application of a scripture recitation from the previous year; that I get to read and discuss the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at staff meetings and talk about how we apply the principles of community in our classrooms; that I get to witness a student connecting the spelling/meaning difference between “speed” and “sped”; that a place exists in the world that sees weakness as an opportunity, the way Jesus did; that I finally get to experience what it’s like to be undefeated at the tether ball pole; and the list could go on and on and on.

In sum, Ambleside is a truly remarkable place and I count myself immensely blessed to be in the midst of Christ in and through you as we work things out together. This community is a blessing in my life that is of so “extraordinary a nature, that [it] cannot fail to penetrate and soften” my heart.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Russ York

Principal of Ambleside School of Fredericksburg

Specialized Brain Training

The last fifteen years have seen a revolution in neuroscience. Central to this revolution is the recognition of brain plasticity. The brain is plastic. It molds, changes as we learn. Though lacking the benefits of modern technology, one hundred years ahead of her time, Charlotte Mason recognized the importance of neuroplasticity, "Physiologists tell us that thoughts which have become habit make somehow a mark upon the brain substance" Philosophy of Education.

Today’s popular recognition of neuroplasticity has led to the birth of an entire industry. The websites of such companies suggest that they have found, thanks to the wonders of neuroplasticity (and indeed neuroplasticity is wondrous), the secret to fixing the brains of struggling children everywhere. While there is no reason to doubt, the intentions of persons so employed, there is great reason to doubt whether their proposed solutions are right for most struggling children. A neurosurgeon once told a friend of mine that there was nothing wrong with his lower back that surgery couldn’t make worse. It is certainly true that at times back surgery may be called for. When such is the case, we are thankful for its availability. But, it is a gross mistake to think of surgery as the primary solution for most backache. This is very much the case with various brain repair programs now popularly marketed. In most cases, children’s brains don’t need to be fixed. They need to be provided the opportunity for healthy “due self education.”

In bullet form, my critique is as follows:

  • An important distinction needs to be made between brain capacity and brain skill. Brain capacity has to do with the potential of a child's brain to acquire a particular brain skill. For example, a child with severely damaged optical nerves may lack the capacity to learn how to read. But, the fact that a child has the capacity does not guarantee that he/she will have developed the skill.
  • The human brain is the most complex entity in the universe and its capacity far exceeds the sum of particular skills. When effort and attention are applied, the human brain has an amazing capacity for growth. It does not need to be treated, so much as given the opportunity for growth. "All education is self education."
  • The great majority of children have the necessary brain capacity (which defies our ability to measure) to master the skills necessary for a full and free life.
  • In the great majority of cases, children will naturally develop the necessary brain skills simply by following the due curriculum in the right manner, in optimal atmosphere, with the shoring up of weakness through the training in habit.
  • The direct training of specific brain skills (or faculties) is not education and, in the case of children with normally function brains (the great majority of children) is counter productive to healthy cognitive/emotional development. Much as the feeding of healthy children with medically developed food substitutes is contrary to physical health.
  • There are cases in which brains with normal capacity have not mastered certain brain skills, usually because of the lack of an abundant, highly engaged, attuned relationship with an adult who possessed the brain skill and who through an abundance of healthy life together, consciously or unconsciously provided the child's brain with the opportunity to learn the needed skill. For example, we learn to appropriately balance our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems by focusing our attention (being in an attuned connected relationship) on an adult who joyfully self-regulates and expects us to grow to do the same.
  • If a teacher approaches her class by looking for brain dysfunction to treat rather than personal weakness to support, the teacher-student relationship will be highly distorted and the atmosphere of the classroom very much contaminated, and "we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly or even tenderly we commit the offense."
  • In the cases of children who have not developed sufficient mastery of a given brain skill at the usual stage of development, there is the possibility of lack of brain capacity (rare) or lack of appropriate support at the needed time of development (increasingly common). In such cases, specifically targeted opportunities for growth (not brain treatment) may be very helpful. And, the “brain train” industry may be helpful, providing exercises that allow mind and brain to practice tasks in a way that facilitate needed growth. But, as a paradigm for education, they are vastly inadequate and, as a norm for student-teacher engagement, actually destructive.

The Child's Estate

Having recently become a third-time grandparent, I am drawn to the writings of Charlotte Mason on the development and training of children, particularly infants. Seeing little Adam, and considering the person of him, I am strongly reminded of her cautionary words that the “parent begins instinctively by regarding his child as an unwritten tablet, and is filled with great resolves as to what he shall write thereon.”1 What a temptation this is, yet what an erroneous vision! An unwritten tablet, innocent, pure, transparent, vulnerable.

We know that this is not the approach to take with children, and if we are to consider children as persons, we will instead see little ones such as my new grandson with different eyes. Charlotte Mason quotes the Swiss educator, Johann Pestalozzi, when she says, "The mother is qualified, and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child; ... and what is demanded of her is––a thinking love ... God has given to the child all the faculties of our nature, but the grand point remains undecided––how shall this heart, this head, these hands be employed? to whose service shall they be dedicated? A question the answer to which involves a futurity of happiness or misery to a life so dear to thee. Maternal love is the first agent in education."2

This is a grave and daunting mission - a “thinking love.” What does that mean? How is it carried out? Our answer can be found in several places, as we consider the value of a child. Jesus says we must become as children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). A child is a human created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Charlotte Mason’s foundational premise for education is that a child is a person. A thinking love involves time, patience, consideration, listening, respect, knowing, relationship, selflessness, working for and watching for the “bringing up” of the other.

This is the mission to which we as parent-educators are called; to refrain from seeing our children (and grandchildren) as “unwritten tablets,” and to instead provide them with a breadth of living which will allow them to become all that the Creator has planned for them to be. In Miss Mason’s words, the “little being who is entrusted to the care of human parents...is much more--a being belonging to an altogether higher estate than ours; as it were, a prince committed to the fostering care of peasants.”3

As I watch my grandson in his newness and innocence, I am moved by a stanza of poetry Charlotte Mason quotes from William Wordsworth, and am awed once more by this little life which is, even now, enriching mine.

     "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

     The soul that rises with us, our life's star,

          Hath had elsewhere in its setting,

               And cometh from afar;

          Not in entire forgetfulness,

          And not in utter nakedness,

     But in trailing clouds of glory do we come

               From God, who is our home:

     Heaven lies about us in our infancy!4


1 Mason, Charlotte, Home Education, 4.
2 Ibid, 2.
3 Ibid, 11.
4 Wordsworth, William, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood part V

New School Year

As another school year begins, parents and teachers take stock of the daunting privilege of nurturing the inner lives of children. In this task of sowing seeds today, in the hope of fruit tomorrow; I find in the passage below a perspective to be embraced.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, and no pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

† Amen

Archbishop Oscar Romero

Salvadoran Archbishop and Martyr 1917-1980

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