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  • Writer's pictureAlison Townsend

Can we separate the intellectual and spiritual lives of children?

Updated: Jul 31, 2022

I was asked recently what a Charlotte Mason education would look like if we took the faith element out of it. In other words, would the educational philosophy still encompass what Mason set out to achieve if God wasn’t a part of the fundamental principles?

Speaking specifically, Charlotte Mason wrote about the God of the Bible, understanding the world from a Christian perspective. In a modern sense of the word, some educators might use ‘God’ as a general spiritual concept of a greater power which might be acknowledged by many worldviews. Either way, the question remains: can we secularise and naturalise education – specifically Mason’s education - entirely? As far as the question is concerned, I would say a CM education can be aimed at, devoid of God, to a certain extent. The reach of this extent could be that knowledge is acquired, a feast of learning enjoyed, curiosity nurtured, the mind nourished, and a joy in life communicated to children without a reference to God. There’s an excellent curriculum, put together by Wildwood, which serves this very purpose, where anyone can access a CM education without the framework of Christianity, promoting themselves as ‘A Charlotte Mason education for all’ to encompass all people, ‘not favouring or assuming of any spiritual path’. They have sensitively, respectfully and diligently sought to achieve Mason’s purposes in the curriculum they have devised, and I often enjoy browsing their book suggestions, and would highly recommend them as a resource.

Of course, I think we need to remind ourselves what Charlotte Mason said about the purpose of education, and consider why, ultimately, we cannot fully detach education from God - the God of the Bible – and that there is no objective basis for understanding the world without a knowledge of the living God.

Charlotte Mason was clear about the role of education: “Of the three sorts of knowledge proper to a child, the knowledge of God, of man, and of the universe, - the knowledge of God ranks first in importance, is indispensable and most happy-making.”, and she was emphatic that “we put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion.

If knowledge of God is the primary concern in a child’s education, let’s look at a few issues that arise in secularising Charlotte Mason’s education. These are 3 that I have noticed, but I am sure there is much more that could be said.

1. Understanding the image-bearer status of every person

Mason’s first principle is that every child is already a complete person. They are not an empty container waiting to be filled with knowledge and character. They are already complete and should be treated as such. This is why she emphasised the role of self-education for every child which places the responsibility for learning more on the child than on the teacher, because that child is immeasurably capable, being created in the image of God, born with natural curiosity, and the ability to internalise knowledge. She used the analogy of any living organism, saying, “life is sustained on that which is taken in by the organism, not by that which is applied from without”. In emphasising the child’s innate worth, she says about a young infant, “the beautiful infant frame is but the setting of a jewel of such astonishing worth that, put the whole world in one scale and this jewel in the other, and the scale which holds the world flies up unbalanced.” This perspective can come fully from an understanding that every person is made in the image of God, according to Genesis 1. The immeasurable value of every individual, and their capacity for, need of, and right to knowledge comes from holding this value of the Creator-Creation relationship. Remove the Creator, and it leaves no basis for Creation’s intrinsic value. As Proverbs 9:10 says, "the knowledge of God is the beginning of wisdom".

2. Teaching children moral and intellectual self-management

So let’s consider an alternative secular CM education for the moment. In her introduction to ‘A Philosophy of Education’, Mason wrote of the consequences of a humanist approach, “Darwin’s theories of natural selection, the survival of the fittest, the struggle for existence…the ideas of the superman, the super state, the right of might…all this appears to come as naturally out of Darwinism as a chicken comes out of an egg.” She continues in her reflections of the early twentieth century, “the teaching of Darwin was accepted as offering emancipation from various moral restraints” and “we get the notion that nothing matters but physical fitness and vocational training. However important they are, they are not the chief thing.”

So, what is the chief thing?

In her 20 principles of education, Mason says that we have 3 educational instruments at our disposal: the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. She writes, “in saying that ‘education is a life’, the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is required.” She emphasises regularly through her work the utmost importance of nourishment for the mind, as the ‘necessary daily food’ that each person needs, as for the body, in order to grow and be strong.

This nourishment of the mind is part of developing moral character. Charlotte Mason said that the 2 guides to moral and intellectual self-management are ‘the way of the will’ and ‘the way of reason’. What basis can right and wrong be understood apart from God? I address this briefly in another blog post, “How do we teach our children that Jesus is the Truth in an Age of Relativism?” For a deeper consideration of the moral debate, take a look at the post "What's wrong with relativism?" at Reasons for God. Here, Carson points out: “Here’s the real issue with relativism, for most people: it is a convenient posture that helps us justify doing whatever we want to do. It often serves as an escape route from serious reflection on our moral commitments.”

If we are to teach our children the way of the will, and the way of reason, we need to have objective grounds on which to guide their understanding and practice of these habits, otherwise what reason does any person have to adhere to the Parents National Education Union (PNEU) motto, “I am, I can, I ought, I will”? I believe this can only be done fully in the context of God, or as Mason pointed out in her reflections on Darwinism, we lose the essential, objective moral restraints in the way we live our lives.

What of the criticism that we are raising children with our own preconceived opinions on the origin of existence and divine basis of morality, and that we’re laying the way for unnecessary ‘religious’ guilt? First, it’s important to remember that no education is neutral. A secular education is a one-sided viewpoint, just as much as a Christian one is. Either God exists or He doesn’t. Bias simply cannot be avoided. Nevertheless, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay writes in ‘For the Children’s Sake’, “Very early on, a child himself cries out with Paul, ‘The things I don’t want to do, I do; and the things I do want to do, I don’t”. Jesus has paid the penalty for the guilt of all who say, ‘Yes, thank you,’ to Him. A child is glad to know he is safely accepted because of the work of the Saviour. He loves knowing that he belongs…We are always to ‘Let the children come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of God.’ If we do not tell them, how shall they come?” Where is the eternal invitation to joy in a personal relationship with the Divine outside of the Bible? By placing moral instruction in the framework of Christianity, there is an open invitation for acceptance and belonging that has no reasonable basis in any other worldview.

Likewise, Charlotte Mason says, “Who shall measure the range of a child’s thoughts? His continual questions about God, his speculations about Jesus, are they no more than idle curiosity, or are they symptoms of a God-hunger with which we are all born, and is a child able to comprehend as much of the infinite and the unseen as are his self-complacent elders?”

Here we see an argument for the natural ‘God-hunger’ that every human is at least born with, and the need to know that we are redeemed to back to God through Jesus. It would be a failure on our part to dismiss this so readily for the sake of the ‘neutrality’ misconception.

3. Understanding the world through art and literature

When speaking of sustenance for the mind, it is important to have a rich and varied curriculum in which to present living ideas to children, whereby we maximise the Desire of Knowledge (Curiosity). If we limit this intellectual diet, we would “eliminate that knowledge-hunger” which is the strongest incentive to education. In fact, it is not just a need that each child has, but an absolute right. Therefore, anyone minutely experienced in a Charlotte Mason based curriculum will see the richness of ideas that are on offer, through artists, composers, folktales and folk songs, great works of literature, maths, scientific discovery and biographies. No subject should take precedent over any others, as is our modern temptation to focus on Maths and English, often squeezing in 5 minutes of something more cultural! It could be argued this is not a faith issue, and does not rely on teaching about God to be achieved. Again, I would reply ‘to a certain extent’.

In a discussion at the online forum, Uncommon Pursuit, about the Gospel in works of art, it became clear that the use of art, sculpture, poetry and other artistic expression can be a powerful way of understanding the message of the Bible: the nature of man, the need for a Saviour, the open invitation on offer to all, and consequently absolute joy in life and eternity. Often, a lesson in morality or the fundamental issues of existence is hard to communicate so that the listening child is engaged. This is why Mason says, “How many teachers know that children require no pictures excepting the pictures of great artists, which have quite another function than that of illustration? They see for themselves in their own minds a far more glorious, and indeed more accurate, presentation than we can afford in our miserable daubs”. This is why adults should “trust, not to our own teaching, but to the best that we have in art and literature and above all to that storehouse of example and precept, the Bible, to enable us to touch those delicate spirits to fine issues…[this] will do more for children than years of talk.”

With these principles in place, each child has the potential to experience a rich education, placed in the context of eternity. I can’t summarise this whole issue any better than Charlotte Mason:

“We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life”.

For a more general apologetic for Christian education, this video by Steve Beegoo at Christian Concern lays out helpful principles. Steve will also be joining us on Monday 17th October 2022 in presenting the plans for a Christian secondary school in Devon using Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. We’d love for you to join us.

All Charlotte Mason’s quotes come from Volume 6 ‘The Philosophy of Education’

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