Patterns for Life
Excerpt 1- Introduction
Of all holy works, the education of children is the most holy.
~ St. Theophan the Recluse
Raising Them Right: A Saint’s Advice on Raising Children
The first time we look into our child’s eyes and encounter the immortality that pools in their depths, we suddenly become aware of the immense responsibility we carry as parents. There are so many ways to serve the Lord in a lifetime, so many different paths to take, so much good to do; but the order of things suddenly crystallizes into a new pattern the moment we become parents. For of all the good there is to accomplish, nothing carries the weight of raising another human person. Whatever we may have thought was good and holy before pales in comparison to the sheer potential we have before us in the form of a fresh, new person who depends on us to raise him or her in the faith. We are responsible for helping this child to step out on the way of salvation, and we are easily overwhelmed by such a huge undertaking.
But we set out to do it anyway. At first, we even think we are up to the task and that we will be able to do all the right things and raise our children the right way. This is a normal stage in the growth and development of a parent. But eventually we start to understand that even the best techniques and systems out there cannot completely diminish the effects of our fallen-ness or the broken-ness of the world in which we live. We realize, little by little, that the task of raising children and educating them is so important that we dare not fail, and yet we simultaneously recognize that our own efforts will always fall short.
If the stakes are so high and the way so narrow, why in the world did the Lord give us to each other to raise? He must know that we are able to rise to the task: He has made us for each other in these family units He has assembled out of our many different personalities, and surely His choices were neither random nor meaningless. Of course, being capable of a task does not mean the task will be easy; this is the story of our entire salvation! “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it (Matthew 7:14, KJV).”
It is of utmost importance that we deal with our children as if our salvation depends on it, because in a way it really does.
Who Was Charlotte Mason?
More than any other modern educator, Charlotte Mason wrestled with the foundational questions and premises of education. What exactly are children, she asked, and what do they need from an education in order to be what they are supposed to be? Having brought them into the world, what do we owe them as parents and teachers? The answers she found to those questions are based on particular ways of understanding both the nature of education and the nature of children. Her patient thought process offers invaluable insights to those of us who wish to be the best parents we can be, and her wisdom has a way of instructing those who teach as well as those who are taught.
But who was this enigmatic woman, and why does her pedagogy matter? Charlotte Mason was an educator in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who wrote several volumes on educational philosophy and practice and ran a teacher’s college for the purpose of training teachers in her methods and philosophy. Her observations of children in the classroom led her to formulate a set of principles which were the basis of those methods.
On the surface, Mason does not sound remarkable. But her appeal is undeniably universal; her practical, whole-hearted Christian faith makes her accessible in that peculiar and perennial way that characterizes Christian writing since the days of the early Church. Time spent with Charlotte Mason will prove that what she had to offer was necessary to a holistic practice of education, and remains so to this day, particularly in her insistence that education eschew systematization in favor of patterns of respect for personhood and the embodiment of Christian love in daily life.
So why write a book about Charlotte Mason, if her thoughts and ideas are so unique and important? The obvious question is: Why not go to the original sources?
Of course, many parents and teachers have done just that, and have benefitted tremendously. However, reading Charlotte Mason as a twenty-first-century Orthodox Christian poses two very different challenges.
The first challenge has to do with time, style, and culture. Charlotte Mason wrote in the fashion of her era: wordy prose with long, flourishing sentences and ideas grandly connected with poise. Plenty of people enjoy Jane Austen and Charles Dickens for all their linguistic quirks, and plenty of people suffer through the style for the sake of the story. Reading Charlotte Mason can be a bit of a slog if you are not in the mood to drag out your Victorian thesaurus.
You cannot escape the fact, though, that Charlotte Mason was on to something pretty big in how she articulated the personhood of the child and the atrocity of educating such a person as if they were a product or a machine. What she had to say was, and is, truly important; so far, no one has done a better job in articulating the scope of her educational philosophy. Therefore, one of the primary goals of this book is to “translate” Charlotte Mason’s big ideas into something more approachable, something that the typical parent can take in and act upon in short order, while scrambling some eggs and balancing a toddler on a hip.
The second challenge is particular to a much smaller audience, for Charlotte Mason was also a Church of England Protestant. While most of her works are theologically sound from the Orthodox perspective, at times Charlotte Mason either misses the mark or is lacking a piece of the puzzle. The latter is far more common: sometimes she will say something almost correct, and that last little bit can be filled in by either an Orthodox understanding of the Scriptures or a familiarity with the Church Fathers and Mothers. Therefore, another primary goal of this book is to “fill in the gaps” of Charlotte Mason’s works with the robust spiritual tradition of our Holy Church, and connect her modern pedagogy with the timelessness of unbroken Christian tradition.
Patterns, Not Systems
All parents educate their children in their homes, but of course not all families “home school.” It is not the intent of this book to suggest that homeschooling is the only holy path, the best path, or even a viable choice for every family. God has made all of our families with unique situations and needs! But whether or not our children spend their childhoods at home or in a school building, certain general principles of education can be of help to all parents as we carry out the work we have been given.
The purpose of this book is to offer an alternative philosophy and general pattern of education to Christian parents who are concerned about the education of their children. While we write unapologetically from the perspective of Christians who are part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, we are confident that the greater part of this work will be a boon to all Christians, regardless of denomination, who sincerely wish to opt out of the current system.
But to what, exactly, are we offering an alternative? Regardless of where your child goes to school, this is an important question. There are many different answers, but most of them revolve around the secular values of success and consumerism. Academic success, social success, financial success, and so on; though these values are not bad in and of themselves, they are also quite easily subject to being pursued in the wrong order and to excess. For what would it profit a child to receive all A’s, enroll in university, and get a good job, if he should accidentally lose his soul in the process?
More insidious than the temptations of success are the understandings about lifestyle and human purpose that are implied by the values of consumerism. Human beings, according to a consumerist mentality, are nothing more than objects to be used or products to be consumed. We are not valuable in and of ourselves, but only based on how useful we are or what we can provide for someone else, and this use is often determined by employing a financially utilitarian calculus. The consumerist spreadsheet on humanity tallies how much money we make, how much money we spend, and the many little ways our psychological profiles can be trained to respond desirably to advertising and social messaging, but there is no column for honoring the icon of the human face.
From the consumerist point of view, the desired, socially acceptable goals of success should be pursued whatever the cost, even at the expense of real people, whether they be family, friends, or even self. Training to think this way begins in childhood and is a fundamental function of many of our public institutions. It may sound cynical, but a perusal of 20th century writers such as Jacques Ellul, Edward Bernays, Aldous Huxley, Marshall McLuhan, and so many others up through the recent work of John Taylor Gatto will reveal such training to be an undeniable fact of our modern existence. Indoctrination is a feature, not a bug, and it is less about adopting a set of mental beliefs than it is about adopting a lifestyle. Much as faithfulness is spiritual belief in action, lifestyle choice is what our fundamental beliefs about our culture look like in practice.
We see the tenets of a consumerist lifestyle emerging when we observe first graders sittings at desks all day and still coming home with homework. It is growing in power when we notice our children totally apathetic to the content of their learning, but rather ticking the boxes to get the grades they want. When we ask them about their thoughts, they have no answers for us beyond the quotation of a vapid meme and we find ourselves unable to shake either their indifference to ideas or their magnetic orientation towards their peers. The consumerist lifestyle is the unspoken, guiding principle of families constantly on the go, never having time to breathe and enjoy each other’s company—let alone church services or dinner together—because they are involved in activity after activity, all for the sake of getting ahead and pursuing some kind of success. Nearly all of our modern institutions promote consumerist values to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a grave challenge for ourselves and our children. We can only address this challenge with a clear, Orthodox understanding of the purpose of human life, and therefore, the purpose and role of education.
Patterns for Life: An Orthodox Reflection on Charlotte Mason Education
Authors Lisa Rose and Laura E. Wolfe
Published by Basilian Media and Publishing
Somewhere in the wild exists a beautiful creature: a shining, living beast of loveliness that frolics and delights in the joy of creation. Even the Psalms sing its praises. We are speaking, of course, of the unicorn.
As much as we love the idea of the unicorn, we have never seen one with our physical eyes, and we are betting you have not either.
by Matushka Melissa Elizabeth Naasko, author of Fasting as a Family.