Charlotte Mason Volume I Part IV:II-VI

II. The habits of application, etc.

More factory training — instant answers, rapid thought and work, steady and untiring effort.

I know she’s not really in favor of factory training. And really, I know that it’s better, more interesting, more effective, when kids are engaged in their work. I see Amy sometimes lounging around procrastinating on a task, and prolonging her own misery. And I think Charlotte Mason would say that the most effective strategy is to make the work appealing, pleasing, and to time it right. Not to stand with a whip of nagging and scorn.

It’s just that when she says things like “The child must not be allowed to get into the mood in which he says, ‘Oh, I am so tired of sums,’ or ‘of history'” (150), it calls to mind the typical conservative parenting model in which parents and kids are adversaries and kids must be pushed and prodded and trained and everything. Perhaps what Mason really means by “must not be allowed” is more like “don’t leave your kid to languish with work he is not in the mood for — help him find work his mood would fit, or connect with him in a way that would refresh his mood, or leave that work for another time.”

Also, there are plenty of times when thought and work are slow without being dawdling.

III. The habit of thinking.

One person’s simple observation, informed by familiarity and understanding of a situation, is another person’s long train of focused thought to figure out the string of cause and effect involved in the observation. Our children should learn to do the same sort of figuring — connecting causes and effects, comparing and contrasting, connecting premises and conclusions.

IV. The habit of imagining.

Lessons should alternate among mechanical, intellectual, and imaginative effort.

Care should be taken to not over-develop the sense of absurdity, incongruity, ludicrousness — not too many books of nonsense. Some are fine — the ludicrous and absurd and simply funny things are fine — just not out of balance with things of more substance.

Mason thinks that kids find tales of unfamiliar or foreign things more compelling and interesting than tales of the ordinary and familiar. I’m not sure of that — I think both appeal to Amy, but perhaps the ordinary appeals more. She does often play at and think about and read about such things as school, parents and children, friends, various activities we do, and so on. Perhaps it’s an age / stage thing. Or perhaps what matters more is the quality of the story — some stories of the ordinary or the unusual are told moralistically, didactically, over-simply, condescendingly, etc — others are told with imagination, a strong grasp of what is really important or interesting, and with a great respect for the subject(s) and for the readers.

Imagination — when some great idea can fill the mind and heart — leads to great ideas and large open hearts, to see what is possible, and what is suitable — in a broad and poetic sense, not a dull and empty and rote sense.

Imagination grows through pretend play / role playing / fantasy play and especially through books that lead a child to live vicariously in, to fully enter, the story. Even history and geography and math and science books can be written is such a way, and such academic books that do not so lead children will not help them learn much.

Thinking, like many other skills and habits, comes with practice. Mason’s example here is appropos — she talks about how parents tend to immediately answer their children’s “why” questions, when they ought to be asking the children “why” instead — or at least letting the kids consider the issue with some effort before giving the answer. I have tended to answer Amy’s “why” questions from a sense of respect and not wanting to be condescending — how irritating it would be for one adult to treat another adult in this way — “Well, Mary, what do YOU think?” — when the first adult clearly knows the requested answer. I am trying to encourage Amy to sit with her “why” questions a little more — but to stay light and warm about it and not make it feel like I’m irritated, concerned, or ashamed about her. The most irritating “why” questions for me have been the instant ones that are applied to things that should be obvious, or where it should be obvious that there really isn’t a clear conscious “why” answer. I don’t want to have to explain every little preference or mood I have, for example, why I don’t want to play X right now, or why I don’t like mushrooms. On the other hand, it’s good to be able to discuss even such things as little preferences — there’s always reasons.

V. The habit of remembering.

It’s good to be able to recall, recollect, what is stored in our memories — but even what we can’t recall has played a role in developing our present ideas and knowledge.

Sometimes it’s useful to be able to “cram” for a short-term project and then forget what was crammed. But that sort of thing should not have a place in real education and learning — kids should not get good grades and high class ranks without retaining what they have learned. (I’ll add that in the same way, things that are not worth retaining should not be the focus of assessments, and we should take care that what is really valuable appears valuable to the student.)

The brain records memories in some physical / mechanical way.

Attention is necessary for the brain to take strong impressions.

For strong recall / recollection, ideas must be linked — associated with other ideas. (I remember learning — in grad school? — that learning involves assimilation, which is linking the new idea with existing ideas, and accommodation, which is adjusting existing and new ideas to make them link together.)

Mason talks about making sure each lesson is interlaced with the previous, all the way back to the beginning. This brings to mind the Sunday School class I observed at a Reformed Baptist church, in which most of the class seemed taken up in long lists of recall — and was dull and overwhelming. All that to say, yes, we should be concerned about not teaching things as isolated ideas, but we should also remember that the strongest connections are the ones the child forms through her own reflection and application. This has been one of the criticisms some CM types have about unit studies — that unit studies can force ready-made connections which are therefore unlikely to sink in meaningfully.

With sufficient attention and time for associations to build, the brain seems unlimited in its recording capacity. And to maintain accessibility of ideas, they must be used — an obvious example is the fluency in foreign language a student may have, that fades when the grown person no longer has occasion to speak or read that language.

Mason talks again about the importance of associations for recollection. She mentions how we get associations from sensory experiences such as smells, sounds, or colors, but “links of this sensuous order can hardly be employed in education” (159). Not so, says Montessori, whose method and materials take great advantage of sensorial experiences in all areas of learning. (Mason was a critic of Montessori, even though I think there could be a lovely harmony of their ideas.)

VI. The habit of perfect execution.

Mason argues that only work that the child can do perfectly should be assigned to him, and that he must persist in the work until he does it perfectly, and that six perfect letters formed are much better than a slateful of sloppy letters.

I agree that excellence is a good thing to encourage, and that it is good to not assign work too far above a child’s abilities, and even good to encourage persistence to do the thing well and to finish it. And yet — I am not sure to what extent this idea should be applied. Take art, for instance. Amy will often make a little book, or a bookmark, or a card for someone, and fill it with squiggles — they take little effort or time. She is able to draw some lovely things, not in any objectively or absolutely perfect way, but perfectly suited to her drawing ability — and so I hate to see her do the squiggles, especially on something that is a gift for someone. And yet I am not sure how to encourage her to do her best work on such things. I think timing may be part of it — to be sure that a gift work is done when she is in the right frame of mind to want to do her best on it and has enough time to do so. She also takes some comfort in familiar and easy things, and I need to be careful that my excitement about a new kind of drawing or a new progress in drawing skill does not discourage or pressure her or make her think that her previous work is bad.

In her Montessori school, Amy has several times brought home copy work that is imperfect — some nice letters or numbers or stamped images or whatever, and some sloppy, all together. I would kind of rather she be encouraged to keep the paper and erase and try again to fill the few spaces with only beautiful letters… rather than bring home a finished but sloppy one and do another another day. But… at the same time, I think she understands beauty and excellence and likes her own work best when she has done her best with it — and that perhaps it is not my responsibility to add my nagging or pressure or discouragement or judgment to her own.

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3 thoughts on “Charlotte Mason Volume I Part IV:II-VI

    • Thanks for reading — I really like CM’s approach to homeschooling, with the emphasis on nature study, narration, living books, and short varied lessons. It’s a little harder sometimes to read her book, though! I am aware that some of my reactions say more about my sensitivities and prior experience and associations than about Mason’s real ideas — I hope that the more I read the more I’ll get her whole picture. I’m sure there will still be aspects that I disagree with, and that’s okay.

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