Tuesday, April 9, 2013

More than Habit

Charlotte Mason's first volume, Home Education, emphasizes the importance of habits in making our lives run smoothly.  We all operate on lines of habit, either good or bad habits; most choices we make are not made consciously but are made habitually.

We are all mere creatures of habit. We think our accustomed thoughts, make our usual small talk, go through the trivial round, the common task, without any self-determining effort of will at all. If it were not so––if we had to think, to deliberate, about each operation of the bath or the table––life would not be worth having; the perpetually repeated effort of decision would wear us out.  Volume 1, p. 110
 Modern neuroscience actually supports this idea, calling the "ruts" of Ms. Mason's terminology "neurological pathways" instead.

Reading Volume 1, with its emphasis on formation of solid habits, it is easy to lose site of another part of Ms. Mason's philosophy.  Habits were a useful tool, in her estimation, and at the time of the writing of Volume 1 she had high hopes that careful training in positive habits could initiate great societal change.  (By the time of the writing of Volume 6 she had begun to question the usefulness of habit training, although some of her doubts have been refuted by modern science.)  But even at the zenith of her enthusiasm for habits, still more important to her was a respect to the personhood of the child.

Volume 1 does not begin with a paen to habits.  First, Ms. Mason lays out our parental responsibility to our children.  She even calls children "public trusts," but she does not mean, as some do today, that parents have no authority over their children.  She means that parents have a duty to raise their children to be a benefit to the world around them.
Now, that work which is of most importance to society is the bringing up and instruction of the children––in the school, certainly, but far more in the home, because it is more than anything else the home influences brought to bear upon the child that determine the character and career of the future man or woman. It is a great thing to be a parent: there is no promotion, no dignity, to compare with it. The parents of but one child may be cherishing what shall prove a blessing to the world.  Volume 1, p. 1
 Therefore, she asserts, parents must learn what they can about the most effective ways of raising children, so that their efforts will produce the best possible results.

Once the importance of the role of the parents is established, Ms. Mason moves toward identifying the nature of the child, looking specifically at what Jesus says about children in the gospels. 
It may surprise parents who have not given much attention to the subject to discover also a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ. It is summed up in three commandments, and all three have a negative character, as if the chief thing required of grown-up people is that they should do no sort of injury to the children: Take heed that ye OFFEND not––DESPISE not––HINDER not––one of these little ones.  Volume 1, p. 12
 I do not intend here to go into detail analyzing these biblical statements or Ms. Mason's analysis of them, although that would be a worthwhile enterprise.  The point I wish to make is that, even when most hopeful for the benefits of habit training, that training was not Ms. Mason's primary, first focus.  The respect for the personhood of the child and the responsibility of parents towards him received her first attention, as it should receive ours.