“The question is not,—how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education—but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” (Mason, 1989B, pp. 170-171)
This question of Mason’s—“Not how much does the youth know, but how much does he care”—is echoed by James K. Smith: “What if education weren’t first and foremost about what we know but about what we love” (p. 138). It is a question that forms and directs the education of my children and one that is the bedrock of what, how and why I teach. As I worry over that question in my mind, I keep coming to the thought that love only happens when you have a deep connection or relationship with someone. Without a relationship, there isn’t love.
Ultimately, our goal in education, in life, is that we are in relationship with God. That He is in our thoughts, our minds, our hearts and that we live and move in Him. How do we do that? How do we form our character so that we live for Him? It depends on what we love. We have been given a living example in Christ. “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love . . .” (Eph.5:1, NET Bible). Love for what, for whom? Is not that what we are trying to find out as we learn to be imitators? The connections—relationships—we make form who we are. And those we learn to love, whether they are people in our present or people in the past, they change us. The connections we form with them informs our own character. And as James Smith says, “You are what you love.”
So how do we connect with people in our present? It seems simple, right? We talk to them, discover who they are, what makes them tick. It’s not too difficult to do with those you are already attached to. It’s much more difficult and requires effort, with those you aren’t. Sometimes conversations never get past the small talk, something that is more and more true with our new world of social media where conversations are considered complete with an LOL or three-word text. It’s hard to get past the surface. But in order to form a relationship with anyone, we have to!
My son has a new girlfriend. Alyssa is brilliantly gifted in a field—namely chemistry—that is a frightfully elusive subject to me and as I drove her home the first time we met, I was wracking my brain to find something to talk about. I brought up the fact that I had made a new glaze for my pottery—and then the spark ignited. She lit up as she examined the details of the chemical problem I was having. Although I may only have understood one in ten words, the joy and excitement that came bubbling from her was joy to me. I had discovered her “bent leather!” We had made a connection and I had a little glimpse into her soul. The spark of a relationship.
Our family has continually talked about Mason’s “bent leather.” In her Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education, Mason (1989A) says, “Perhaps there is no better way of measuring a person of liberal education than by the number of substantives he is able to use with familiarity and discrimination. We remember how Scott tried a score of openings with the man on the coach and got no further until he hit upon ‘bent leather;’ then the talk went merrily for the man was a saddler. We have all had such experiences, and know to our shame that we ourselves have victimized interlocutors who have not been able to find our particular ‘bent leather’” (p. 261). This story has become our mantra when meeting someone new; everyone has a story, a passion, and it is up to us to find it in them if we ever hope to make a connection.
This chance conversation with Alyssa has stuck in my mind for weeks now and I wonder if this idea may be the most important thing that Mason has taught me and that I in turn have sought to teach my children. Could it be that of all the things we learn, the connections one makes with people—past or present—are what last? Of all the things I’ve ever taught my children in the past eighteen years, I wonder if what sticks in the end, what forms them, will be simply that: if they have formed a relationship with or made a real connection with a person or idea, it will stay with them. If not, it will not stay with them.
I can think of four simple daily practices that are building blocks for forming relationships with people in the past. Narrations, Commonplace book entries, the Way of the Will chart and our Grand Conversations have been vital in solidifying the connections formed in our readings. Each one of them in turn challenges the learner to look inward, because a real relationship goes both ways—you invest in a person, and you receive back. Imagine spending a month, maybe a few months, sometimes a year, reading a great book about a certain person. All year that person will be with you, in the back of your mind. You may question their motives, become angry when they make a poor choice, rejoice when they act the way you hoped they would. Spending all that time thinking about them, they become close to you. Mason (1989A) puts it this way: “ . . . that only becomes knowledge to a person which he has assimilated, which his mind has acted upon” (p.12).
“Mind appeals to mind and thought begets thought and that is how we become educated. For this reason we owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; and the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books.” (p. 12)
These books are the springboard to forming relationships. The follow-up is just as important. This is the point of narrations. We hope that in the telling back of a reading, in the writing, acting, drawing, speaking narrations that we continually ask for, the ideas will somehow stick. Sometimes it becomes rote. But something else happens in the telling back: the children put into words what has moved them. And that is when I think it not only sticks, but starts to influence and shape them, to become them. The same thing happens with our Commonplace entries. The lines from books, poems, Shakespeare that grab us, we write down, keep, read and re-read and link us to the speaker. Again, they become a part of us; it is this connection with an idea or person that has power to move and shape us.
Knowing how important and life-shaping a meaningful relationship is, I sometimes try to force it. It feels that way with our Way of the Will chart sometimes. Each Friday my kids are to choose a person—real or fictional—that they have met that week and describe their character: whether this person is governed by will for good or ill, or whether they are willful. This always sparks the rather frustrated discussion of what part of the person’s life they are referring to. People are not always consistently governed by will or willful! They change and its not easy to slot them into a neat compartment. But as my kids objectively try to understand the people they have met, admired or despised, they continue to form that relationship with them, clarifying the reasons they are drawn to or repelled from them. And as that relationship is formed, it in turns forms my children.
Lastly, as the kids grow older I find that oral narrations quickly turn into discussions; that the sharing of Commonplace quotes turn into discussions; that the Way of the Will choice is frequently disputed, as they dig into the character of the people they have met. Our post-reading time sometimes takes longer than the readings and has become the most valuable time of our day. The discussions, or Grand Conversations, are a time of digesting and assimilating our knowledge and contribute to the forming of a lasting relationship with the character in question. Best of all, they open a door to discussing who we are, what we want to be, what we care about, what we believe. Through the Holy Spirit’s guiding, prompting and directing, our conversations go to the heart of learning: what do we love?
As we continue throughout our whole lives to learn and grow, it is my prayer that we will strive to build a real relationship with people we meet today and those we read about from the past so that we will not become static, but will be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind. Then we will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2, NIV).
Mason, C.M. (1989A). A philosophy of education. Wheaton, IL; Tyndale House. (Original work published in 1925).
Mason, C.M. (1989B). School education. Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1925).
Smith, J.K. (2016). You are what you love: the spiritual power of habit. Grand Rapids, MI: BrazosPress.
© 2018 Sandra Zuidema