In Volume 1 (titled "Home Education") of her six-volume series, Charlotte Mason talks about the kindergarten, which at the time was a new concept. She discusses this new approach to educating small children in terms of its educational value and then in terms of its philosophical value. She had concerns about both. In this post I’d like to look at her second area of concern, the philosophical underpinnings of the kindergarten.
CM criticizes the "garden" concept as setting up a false analogy–children are not flowers and the sort of care effective with plants does not work well for children. "The outcome of any thought is necessarily moulded by that thought, and to have a cultivated garden as the ground-plan of our educational thought, either means nothing at all, which it would be wronging the Master to suppose, or it means undue interference with the spontaneous development of a human being." Vol 1, p. 189
I believe she is saying that these "gardens" give each child the same treatment, expecting the same result at the end for each child. There is no recognition that children are actually "born persons" (remember the 20 principles?) and that they may have natural bents that differ from each other and even from what we’ve planned for them. But CM always recognizes that children are people from the very beginning and that we must work with them as they are, in their individuality. She goes on in the following paragraph and decries the organized activities for infants that are so popular even today. What is her concern? That the natural, sweet play of mothers with infants is being supplanted by something less when we substitute pre-planned games for spontaneous play. She follows this by decrying the unnatural arrangement which puts many children of the same age together for hours on end every day. Then she explains, with two points:
1) "It is possible to supplement Nature so skilfully that we run some risk of supplanting her, depriving her of space and time to do her own work in her own way." Vol 1, p. 191
God made us to grow in a certain way. Sometimes, when we try to help the process along, we actually interfere.
2) "Nature will look after him and give him promptings of desire to know many things; and somebody must tell as he wants to know; and to do many things, and somebody should be handy just to put him in the way; and to be many things, naughty and good, and somebody should give direction." Vol 1, p. 192
On the other hand, children can’t just be left on their own to grow without direction. Parents are there to answer their questions and help them learn to do things and to help direct their moral development. We must not interfere overmuch, but we must not let them alone altogether either.
"The educational error of our day is that we believe too much in mediators." Vol 1, p. 192
We can make this error at home just as well as it can be made at school. If we try to control the environment and development, hoping that in doing so we are ensuring a positive outcome, we are trusting in ourselves as mediator. (This can be, in fact, a form of idolatry.)
Sometimes as homeschoolers we think we are avoiding many potential pitfalls by bringing our children home to educate, but I think the problems CM has with the kindergarten are often replicated in our own homes, even in homes where Charlotte Mason’s principles are being followed.
I believe this happens because so many of us find it so easy to slide into the "system" approach to homeschooling/parenting rather than using CM’s principles as a "method". For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, this is covered in Volume 2, where CM explains that she is giving a method (essentially some general principles to follow) rather than a system (a lined-out set of rules).
I believe that if you are viewing CM in terms of general principles that should be applied in a way that suits your particular child, you aren’t gardening. At least, what I see CM telling me to watch for and diligently apply myself toward is very different from the externally-focused efforts that so many programs emphasize.
*But* if I instead try to outline her principles, look at the PNEU programs, see what others are doing, and then compile them all into a template that I can use in my home, and if I think that by following this template I will inevitably receive on the other end the sort of people I hoped for, then I’m making CM into a system, which was not her intention at all.
I think one big culprit in this is the popular books about CM that really describe her philosophy in terms that easily become a system, a checklist of activities and experiences. Another big culprit is our natural human tendency to prefer systems to methods. Systems are easier and require less from us, and they also leave us with less responsibility.
Charlotte Mason calls us to be much more than gardeners, much more than mediators or gatekeepers. She is calling us to exercise our God-given role, with the help of our intellect and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to assist in the work God is already doing with our children. We can’t shirk our responsibility or foist it off onto someone else (a teacher at school or the creator of a curriculum), but we also shouldn’t believe that we are solely responsible for the outcome or that we can, by completely controlling the situation, ensure the results we desire. The results we desire will come only by the grace of God.