Half attending to social feeds, half to airline lounge announcements, I was recently gobsmacked mid-article by the advice of David I. Smith of Calvin University to educators:
“Once your studies are done and your career starts, choose a deep, important thinker as a lifelong conversation partner…keep coming back to this conversation partner. “
Lightbulb! Inadvertently I had been heeding that advice and knew he was absolutely right about the formative power of such a voice.
“…understand what concerned them and how they went about engaging with their concerns…if you chose someone who had pursued truth with depth and range and diligence, if you interacted with them regularly and repeatedly, you might learn not so much the right answers—they might well be wrong about things—as how to think well about important things.”
His past tense dawned: Smith’s conversation partner was neither a clever schoolmate nor a beloved professor from undergrad but he’d traversed 350 years to education reformer, John Amos Comenius. Suddenly the career-long conversation I had been having in my head and heart with a deeply thoughtful Christian woman of almost a century ago was not only legitimate but prescribed.
It’s 25 years since I “met” British educationalist Charlotte Maria Shaw Mason. Indeed, I would not be who I am today without my decades-long dialogue with her—with her writings, with the organizations she established, and with others in conversation with her. Smith gets it!
“There is something like a developing friendship, in the process of working to understand [a person], an idea, living with [them] for a while, coming back with objections and testing them, wondering why [they] chose that word in particular, wrestling with apparent inconsistences, figuring out how on earth they can have believed that, realizing that this passage was connected with another one they wrote years earlier, and all the other processes of slowly deepening engagement. There are risks—such as becoming too wedded to one person’s foibles—but it can be an excellent apprenticeship in thinking past the surface.”
Charlotte Mason caught my attention as a young high school math teacher. I could factor an equation with the best of them but sadly had neglected to probe the deeper questions in education like, ‘why do we do what we do?’ Wrestling with whether to keep our unhappy 5-year-old in a school where she was not being nourished, I read For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay.
“Try a simple experiment,” she wrote. “Take a small child on your knee. Respect him. Do not see him as something to prune, form, or mold. This is an individual who thinks, acts, and feels. He is a separate human being whose strength lies in who he is, not in who he will become. If his choices made now and in the future are to be good ones, this person must understand reality and see the framework of truth. In the shorthand of language, we call this ‘knowing’. The child is a person who needs to grow in knowledge.”
Schaeffer Macaulay quotes Charlotte Mason throughout the book; my apprenticeship had begun.
“We must know something about the material we are to work upon if the education we offer is not to be scrappy and superficial. We must have some measure of a child’s requirements, not based on his uses to society, nor upon the standard of the world he lives in, but upon his own capacities and needs.”
With this summons—this new-to-me anthropological revolution—I began to see our child, our children, differently, and to see our responsibility to them differently too. And I began to yearn to know more about Charlotte Mason and her extraordinary wisdom.
Author and Reader. I soon learned that Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), a prolific writer, founded a journal published for 99 years and authored about 18 books, including six volumes on education that continue to be republished and studied around the world.
Organizational Founder. Mason was a brilliant leader. She established a teacher training college which continues today as part of the University of Cumbria. She captured the imagination of parents and founded a parents’ union with local chapters across the world. Then networks of schools. Soon a dynamic curriculum. She understood that to endure, ideas need embodiment in organizations.
Relational Networker. Charlotte Mason was gracious and inviting, informally engaging the foremost educational thinkers of her time, bringing them into dynamic conversation with ordinary parents and teachers.
The more I learned about Mason—eventually writing a master’s thesis on her design for education and receiving government grants to digitize her archives— the more I found myself turning to her for wisdom. She is a friend; she is a mentor. Her courage, her faith, her gentle tenacity as a woman in a male-dominated profession inspired me. She’s encouraged me and asked me hard questions: am I reading broadly, attending to my writing, respecting others and working well within organizations? Am I living in a wealth of nourishing relationships?
“He was surely not right about everything,” Smith writes of Comenius, as we might of any of our friends, “but… I have found it unfailingly edifying to keep returning to his work and trying to get to the bottom of what he was thinking.”
I don’t know how Smith chose Comenius. I’m not even sure it works like that; who chooses or is chosen? Friendship is a mystery. But I am certain of his relational prescription. If you’re a leader in Christian education, I can wholeheartedly wish for you such a lifelong conversation partner.
In fact, I can recommend a really fine one.
Schaeffer Macaulay, Susan. (1984). For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School. Crossway Books.
Smith, David I. (January 2020). What Year Is It? On Christian Teaching. At: https://onchristianteaching.com/what-year-is-it/