In my past life, I was a high school chemistry teacher. I lasted the proverbial five years for a new teacher, and then happily quit to stay home with my own newborn child. I imagine I began as the stereotypical new teacher–young, enthusiastic, full of ideas and passion for my subject. By the end of the five years, though, it was easy to walk away without a glance back. It had been a whirlwind journey, and I was exhausted and disillusioned. It wasn’t until that first summer home, that I actually had time to reflect on all the teaching I had done, and I came to a startling conclusion. As good a teacher as I thought I was, I wouldn’t want my own child to have to sit through my class! That was the beginning of our homeschooling journey and a search for a better way of educating our children.
It has been fourteen years since that summer, and over that time I have come to embrace the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason. In studying her ideas, I have come to discover that many of the issues that bothered me in my teaching are addressed in her writings. I have found answers about the purpose, content, and packaging of education that have re-inspired me and shaped the way our children are learning. It never ceases to amaze me that nearly a century ago, someone was putting into writing and practice the answers that I was searching for in teaching science in our STEM-focused world.
Even during college, as I completed my degree in chemistry, and contemplated pursuing an education degree afterwards, I was haunted by one nagging question: why did students have to learn chemistry? If I was going to devote my life to teaching this subject, I felt like I should have a good answer to that question. I certainly found the subject fascinating, but that didn’t mean that everyone would. I could not convince myself that all students would need to know it in the future either. Most would not go on to pursue science, and what was taught in the typical high school curriculum just didn’t seem that relevant to everyday life. I ended up teaching even though I never found a satisfactory answer. The students and I both seemed to have an unspoken understanding that they were taking this class because someone said they had to, whether for graduation, or college acceptance, or some other unknown reason, and we jumped through the required hoops together. I hoped they would be inspired and interested, but the reality was that most of them were not.
While our homeschooling studies have been much more interesting because of Mason’s methods, it wasn’t until this past year, that I finally found the answer to that question of why. I was having a conversation with my son about the whys of studying higher levels of math, when it finally clicked for me. I had read many times about Charlotte Mason’s conviction that we were not to teach for utilitarian purposes or to meet some future need, but that only answered why not to teach something instead of why we should. During that conversation, though, it all came together for me. It was such a relief to be able to look my son in the eye and tell him honestly that he may never “need to know” this math. We don’t study it because of some elusive “you’ll need it later” reason. Instead, we simply study math (and chemistry!) because we are human and it is one of humanity’s endeavors–an attempt to make sense of and explain this world we live in. I was strongly reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Dead Poets Society:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering–these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life; but poetry, beauty, romance, love–these are what we stay alive for.”
I believe that sentiment also captures the essence of why we should study math or a subject like chemistry. To ask the deep questions about this world we live in–what it is made of, how it works, and our place within it–is to be human. There is a worthy reason to study chemistry! But how we study it will make all the difference on whether we find the life and passion in the subject, and again Mason had the direction I was seeking.
I had an amazing professor in college who gave me a glimpse into all the wonders that could be explored, if not explained, through the realm of chemistry. Unfortunately, during the following three years, what I learned was how to be a really good test taker, and not how to explain the workings of the world around me. While I was teaching, my husband attended an art school and chose to do many projects that dealt with science. He would come home and ask me all sorts of questions, but there were very few I could answer, because none of them were on the tests that I had taken. His questions were of a practical nature, overlapping various branches of science, and I just wasn’t equipped with the tools to find answers for him. I couldn’t look up those answers in a textbook!
Reading Charlotte Mason’s writings, I came to see that what I had learned and been trained to teach, was not the vital knowledge of which she speaks. I had learned many facts and processes, but the ideas that give life to the subject had mostly been stripped away. And this was the system I had been trained to replicate. Mason warns us, in teaching a student, to take “care only that all knowledge offered to him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas” (Philosophy of Education, p. xxx). It was one of those ideas that led to my choice of major, but the rest of those college classes were sadly lacking in ideas. I wanted my own children’s science education to include those informing ideas, and not for them to have to rely on brief glimpses through a myriad of dry facts. This would require using the best living books available, as Mason describes, instead of the textbooks I had been trained to use.
Through my husband’s persistent questions, I also became aware of another problem. I had been trained to think of science topics as fitting into neat little boxes. It almost became a joke between us, when he would ask a question, for me to respond with, “I can’t answer that because it’s physics (or any other branch of science), not chemistry.” However, most of his questions didn’t fit in tidy little boxes. They crossed disciplines frequently. Finding an answer would require being able to pull together ideas from multiple branches of science. That was unheard of in my educational career! How refreshing and exciting to see Mason’s emphasis on the Science of Relations. Not only was I to develop relationships with many different branches of knowledge and ideas, but I would discover the overlap and interconnectedness between the different subjects as well. This was her vision for her students! How could chemistry fail to have some interest for the students if they could begin to see it at work in the everyday world around them: in the growing tree outside their window, in the flight of a bird through the molecules of air, in every breath they took, and more. Living books do not always fall into the neat and tidy categories, so that would help in forming the relations, but the idea of studying more than one area of science in a year, as Mason had her students doing, was also intriguing. That seemed like a natural way to help students begin to make some of these connections, as they thought through multiple science topics in the same term.
While teaching, I did try to inspire some wonder in my students. I hadn’t lost it all myself, and tried to pass on what I could of those ideas that had inspired me. We tried experiments just for the joy of experimenting, where they were free to mix and tinker to their hearts’ content with fun and exciting results (although not including any explosions.) Imagine my dismay as I discovered that those were their least favorite activities. They just wanted to know what to do to get a good grade and get on with it. The idea that they were just supposed to play with the ingredients and make observations was completely foreign and actually frustrated them. This was not what I wanted for my own kids! I wanted them to think for themselves, to explore, to be scientists, at least for a moment! If the school system produced the opposite result in science classes, it was time to forge a new path! So we became homeschoolers, and I learned that this was not a new path. Charlotte Mason showed that path to many before me. What I was trying to express in wanting my children to think for themselves, she summed up beautifully in saying that “there is no education but self-education” (Philosophy of Education, p. 26). This is true for the science readings, as well as for the observations of and experimentation with real things. Her ideas of nature study blend seamlessly with experiments and special studies in the later years. We only broaden the types of things and phenomena we observe, using extra tools to aid our observations such as microscopes and measuring devices, and adding diagrams, charts, or calculations to our written narrations and paintings. In this way, the students find joy in true experimenting and tinkering, and there are no more “failed experiments” because they all provide opportunities for observation and learning, whether or not we get the expected result.
In a sense, I suppose my children have ended up in my class after all. But it isn’t the same class that I taught in high school. Through the work of Charlotte Mason, I have found the answers I was searching for and have a better idea of how to achieve the sort of science education I was longing for all those years. We are now on a journey of learning together, not because we have to for some future purpose, but because this world is fascinating and we want to explore it. We are free to make relations with many branches of knowledge and to discover, as did the small boy quoted by Mason, how “everything seems to fit into something else” (Philosophy of Education, p. 157). Best of all, my kids are learning to think and to educate themselves. Perhaps they will be equipped to find answers to the types of questions that stumped me.