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Relations: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

There’s a big difference between recognizing someone and having a relationship with the person.

Think back to your own school days. Would you say the focus was on recognizing names and terms on the test or was it more about helping you form a personal relationship with the person or the concept? If your schooling was like mine, there was probably a big emphasis on recognition. I remember studying for exams by looking for little tricks and clues within how a name or term was spelled so I could use that hint to match it up with the right fact or definition on the test. Those multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests were all about recognition: can you recognize the correct words that belong together?

There’s a big difference between recognizing a name and having a personal relationship with the person. You could memorize the names of the twelve apostles and recite the list: Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James, Thaddeus, Simon, and Judas. You could even memorize the correct spellings and write the list, but Charlotte Mason would argue that that’s not education. When you read the Gospels, the stories of those men, and get to know them as real people with emotions and struggles and skills and personalities—when you form a personal relation with them, that’s education.

Do you remember the very first time you heard about Charlotte Mason? It was just a name. You probably would have recognized it in a program at a homeschool convention—“Oh yeah, I’m familiar with that name”—but that was all. But the more you have spent time getting to know her ideas and methods, the more you have formed a personal relation with that woman in history. And now when someone says “Charlotte Mason,” you do much more than just recognize the words; you have gained knowledge that is your own possession. You have a personal relation.

It’s the same thing with recognizing a term and having a personal relationship with the idea behind the term. You might be able to write the definition of “migration” on a test, but Charlotte would hold that you don’t really possess that knowledge until you have noticed for yourself how the hummingbirds come only at certain times of the year or have stood in the grass and heard the honk of geese overhead and looked up to see them flying south in a V-shape. 

We’re all born with that innate desire to get that personal knowledge. You rarely meet a child who simply wants to sit in a chair and memorize words all day. No! That child is moving, watching, listening, using all his senses, exploring everything around him, asking questions about everything around him. Why? He wants to form a personal relation with everything around him.

And Charlotte Mason wanted us to understand that this intrinsic desire for personal relations is the key to education. She said:

‘Education is the Science of Relations’; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of—

‘Those first-born affinities

That fit our new existence to existing things.’

A Philosophy of Education, p. xxx

I love that snatch of poetry she put at the end: “Those first-born affinities That fit our new existence to existing things.” You see, often we forget how many things there are to learn about and form relations with in this world, because we’ve been here longer. We’ve grown accustomed to the things around us. But we need to remember this simple yet profound statement that Charlotte tucked into Home Education; she said, “The flowers, it is true, are not new, but the children are” (Home Education, p. 53).

So we give that child opportunities to experience physical movement—swimming, running, jumping, throwing, catching, and dancing. We give him plenty of time in nature to observe it up close and personally. We let him experience working with yarn and wood and cloth and other materials in handicrafts. He’s not just reading about these things or watching a video about them; he’s exploring them for himself with your guidance. The same for science concepts and math concepts and art and music.

Our positive purpose is to present, in season and out of season, one such universal idea; that is, that education is the science of relations.

A child should be brought up to have relations of force with earth and water, should run and ride, swim and skate, lift and carry; should know texture, and work in material; should know by name, and where and how they live at any rate, the things of the earth about him, its birds and beasts and creeping things, its herbs and trees; should be in touch with the literature, art and thought of the past and the present. I do not mean that he should know all these things; but he should feel, when he reads of it in the newspapers, the thrill which stirred the Cretan peasants when the frescoes in the palace of King Minos were disclosed to the labour of their spades. He should feel the thrill, not from mere contiguity, but because he has with the past the relationship of living pulsing thought.

Home Education, p. 161

Now, that example of relating to an archeological discovery might bring us up short. How do you give your child firsthand experience with something like that? You can’t travel back in time to develop a personal relation with King Minos. Or can you?

This is where the living books come in. Remember, Charlotte said, “we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books.” Living books offer the next best thing to a firsthand experience. If a book is truly living, it will help the child to develop a personal relation with a King Minos or Albert Einstein or any other person in history. And not just in history. Living books can offer personal relations in geography and Bible and science too. Any person or place or idea that your child cannot experience in person can still be experienced in a personal way through a living book.

I’ve given you examples of living books in previous posts. The main thing I want to emphasize in this post is that we don’t use living books just because they’re fun. We don’t use living books because they’re easier to read or more enjoyable than textbooks. We don’t use living books simply because everybody loves a story. No, the reason we use living books is because they offer an opportunity for the student to form a personal relation. They offer the next best thing to being there; they let you spend time getting to know that person or animal or place for yourself.

Living books offer an experience that encourages a personal relation, and personal relations are where true education happens. Charlotte said,

“The more relations a child establishes within each of the groups into which we divide school work, the completer and the happier will that child’s life be” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 101).

Let me wrap up with two applications, and both of these should take pressure off you as the teacher.

Applications

1. It’s not your job to connect all the dots between relations.

Think of it this way: the more friends you have, the more likely you will discover that some of them know each other. You see, there are relations between you and a friend, plus there are relations between that friend and other people. And the more people you know, the more likely you are to discover relations between them. 

It’s the same with your child’s education. The more relations he forms with the things and thoughts and people past and present, the more likely it is that he will discover relations between them. That’s good! Let him experience that joy of discovery for himself.

Don’t rob him of that growth in knowledge by making all the connections for him and then spoon-feeding it to him. Let him make those relations for himself. They will make a much bigger impression and become his own possession if he connects the dots himself, as he notices them.

2. It’s not your job to teach your child all about anything.

Did you notice that little statement tucked into the middle of the Charlotte Mason quote we read at the beginning? Let’s read it again:

‘Education is the Science of Relations’; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of—

‘Those first-born affinities

That fit our new existence to existing things.’

A Philosophy of Education, p. xxx

It’s not your job to teach your child all about anything. Let that sink in. Your job as the teacher is to be your child’s guide into the world of living books and experiences in the world around him. We talked about this when we discussed the core value of self-education.

Your job is to make sure you are including in your homeschool schedule opportunities for your student to observe nature, work with handicrafts, look at art, listen to music, read literature, discover math concepts and science concepts, move his body, and get to know people and places and thoughts—both past and present—through living books. That’s your job.

And the good news is that even small efforts in that field will produce big rewards. 

Let us try, however imperfectly, to make education a science of relationships—in other words, try in one subject or another to let the children work upon living ideas. In this field small efforts are honoured with great rewards, and we perceive that the education we are giving exceeds all that we intended or imagined.

School Education, p. 163

Education is the science of relations. That’s a core value of Charlotte Mason.

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One Response to “Relations: Core Values of Charlotte Mason”

  1. Sofia December 22, 2021 at 9:57 pm #

    A cup of cool water for this homeschool mom. Thank you Sonya, this is so encouraging as I reevaluate and arrange our homeschool for the New Year.

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