In today’s chat, I’m interviewing a humble Charlotte Mason homeschooling dad who wears many hats. He is an engineer, a traveller, writer, speaker, board member at the Charlotte Mason Institute, husband, and father…a father who has an active role in the homeschooling of his children. If you have not ever had the chance to meet him and have only ever read his articles from Charlotte Mason Poetry, then you may think that he is a super serious, uber scholarly guy. I had the pleasure to meet him and his lovely wife in February at the In a Large Room Retreat, and the first thing that struck me about him was that he was absolutely hilarious! While he is most definitely uber scholarly (I’m not so sure about the super serious part…unless he’s talking about Charlotte Mason haha!), he is an incredibly fun natured guy, and I knew that I had to somehow coerce him into being interviewed for a Chat! I’m so glad that he agreed, and I’m confident that you’ll come away from this Chat with Art Middlekauff with some treasures for your pocket and tools for your toolbelt.
How did you first meet Miss Mason?
The first time I read the name Charlotte Mason was in the summer of 2003. My firstborn was about to turn four and I was trying to figure out how to homeschool. I read a book called Hewitt’s Home Education Guide, and it said that the parent educator needs to decide what “teaching approach” he or she would use. The book then listed several teaching approaches, beginning with “Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy.” I was reading the fourth edition, published in 2000, and it summarized Mason’s philosophy as follows:
•Children must be respected as persons. Their choices, feelings, and thoughts need to be respected, or they will never learn to respect themselves.
•The way of the will—children need to be taught the difference between I want and I will and to develop the self-discipline to do what they know they should do as opposed to what they feel like doing.
•The way of reason—children should realize that one of the main things they will do in life is accept and reject ideas.
•Education should nourish the mind without neglecting either physical or vocational training.
•“… teachers shall teach less and scholars shall learn more.”
•Intellectual work is done in the morning, and afternoons are spent in more hands-on endeavors.
•The desire for knowledge (rather than awards, rewards, etc.) is the chief motivation for learning.
•The teacher’s job is to expose students to the great ideas of life.
•There is no “great gulf fixed” between teacher and student.
•We are each (including children) responsible for our own education.
As I recall, I was not merely impressed by these bullet points. Rather, I was intrigued that all of these points were integrated into a single philosophy. I wanted to learn more about this educationalist who seemed to have been able to systematize education into a unified whole.
The next “teaching approach” listed in the book was “Classical”:
This recent movement within the home-school movement is a revival of the curricula and methods of the schools in the middle ages. The study of Latin is a central point, usually beginning in the third grade. The Trivium follows… In the Middle Ages, this was then followed by the Quadrivium…
So on the very first day that I read the name Charlotte Mason, I also learned that her philosophy was separate and distinct from classical education. Hewitt’s Home Education Guide got it right. The guide listed several other “teaching approaches,” including “Traditional Textbook Approach,” “Unit-Study Approach,” and “Unschooling.” None of them were particularly interesting to me. The only one that lit a spark was Charlotte Mason. I wondered why I had never heard of her, but I decided I needed to find out more.
In transitioning to a Charlotte Mason education, what did you find difficult in changing your own perspective of what education means?
The hardest thing for me to do has been to resist my desire to control the educational process and let my children learn at their own pace and in their own way. I have had to learn to be patient and flexible, and it has not been easy. I used to think that a lesson was only successful if complete understanding was achieved. Henrietta Franklin describes the error I had to overcome:
Do we not make an unnecessary fetish of ‘understanding’? How often an idea will lie dormant unsuspected in the mind and bear fruit in after years. Is it too a safe doctrine to always ‘suggest’ admiration and condemnation? Shall we not thus manufacture little copies of ourselves and little prigs who only admire what they are supposed to admire? We must just put them into the right relation with beautiful things and trust that they will gradually develop their own opinions and their own tastes.
As a parent, I have struggled for many years with being demanding and impatient with my children. I learned from introspection that my feelings of frustration come from a dissonance between what I expect from my children versus what they actually are. I have had to slowly learn to watch my children unfold into what God has created them to be, rather than to impatiently press them into what I want them to be. It has been an extraordinarily difficult lesson. But in the end, children are persons. When I begin to see them as persons, rather than as marble to be sculpted by my hand, frustration gives way to awe. The answer is not to try harder. The answer is to trust, to admire, and to love.
I find it fascinating that both you and your wife do lessons with your children. What are some of the things that are your responsibility and what are some of the things that are hers, and why did y’all divvy it up that way?
When my children were younger, my wife Barbara and I divided the schooling by subject. I took reading, Bible, math, and French, and Barbara took everything else. I would do lessons with the children daily, either in the morning before work or in the evening after work. I had the pleasure of teaching my three children how to read, an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life.
When my firstborn reached high school, he became somewhat resistant to Barbara’s authority. Barbara spoke to another mother who had experienced something similar and in the end this mother had stopped homeschooling and sent her son to a private high school. At this school, he had male teachers who challenged him and whom he admired. This conversation made an impression on Barbara. We reflected on how our boy was growing up to be a leader, and would one day lead his own wife and children. Perhaps it was only natural for him to no longer want to be under a woman’s authority.
Rather than send my son to school, I chose to take on the full responsibility of his homeschooling. It was a momentous decision, and it committed me to an enormously difficult task. For four years I gave up countless weeknights and weekends to teach my son. I pushed myself to the absolute limit. But I believed in homeschooling and I loved my son. It was all uncharted territory for me, but whatever I lacked in skill I made up in willpower. My son is graduating from high school next month and I am very pleased that he is going to the university of his choice to study the field of his own choosing.
What does your workspace look like right now?
My job requires a fair amount of travel, and when I am not on the road, I still feel like somewhat of a nomad, bouncing around from place to place and task to task in the home. So my workspace is really just my Mac. I have pretty much everything on it. Whether I am in the kitchen or in India, I just need that one device to retrieve anything I have written, most of what I have thought (or so it seems), and much of what I have read.
As a husband, what encouragement would you give a homeschooling mother who has “less than supportive” spouse?
Interestingly enough, my problem was the opposite. Neither Barbara nor I were interested in homeschooling when my father-in-law pulled me aside and told me to seriously consider homeschooling. He was a man in authority, and so I listened carefully. He gave me Homeschooling: The Right Choice by Chris Klicka and asked me to read it. I dutifully obeyed, and carefully read this book which presented a biblical case for the responsibility of parents to educate their children.
I was convinced. I chose to homeschool and I never looked back. But I had to convince Barbara to completely change her lifestyle and vision for her life and become a homeschooling mother. She is an amazing woman and out of love for me she gave up her job and her comfort zone and essentially became a full-time educator. It is a sacrifice that I will always be thankful for, and it gives a glimpse of what a remarkable woman she is.
When the spark was lit in me by the name “Charlotte Mason,” I began to study, and I simply could not get enough. Here I am 14 years later and I am still wanting to understand more about this educationalist and her wonderful philosophy. The interest has been driven solely by me. I have never been asked or encouraged by Barbara to read about Mason or dig in more.
I wonder how it would have all played out if Barbara had been the one to decide to homeschool, and if she had been the one to get excited about Charlotte Mason. Would I have been so excited about it? I have enjoyed feeling like a leader in my home. I feel good about telling people that it was my father-in-law that got me started on this journey, and a book by a male lawyer that convinced me it was the right path to take.
I suppose my advice to a homeschooling mother would be to remember that your husband wants to lead and wants to be seen as competent and capable. Men don’t typically like to be outperformed by their wives and so they tend to shy away from activities where they fall short in comparison. When the wife is a CM expert, that can be intimidating for the husband.
That is one reason I started the Idyll Challenge, a study group for men only. Men come together every month and read and discuss Mason’s writings, and no wife or mother is there to question our competence. We have been meeting for almost a year now, and it has been a truly wonderful experience. These men are learning for themselves and they are really learning. These are all very smart guys and their deep engagement with Mason’s writings has only increased my respect for Mason’s remarkable insights and work.
Mason shows us in her first, third, and fourth principles what it means to respect the personhood of another human being. Wives should follow these principles when they engage with their husbands on this topic. In Mason’s thinking, the lawful ways to influence other people are through the reality of atmosphere, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. Those three means are also sufficient for wives to influence their husbands. Avoid at all cost anything even remotely reminiscent of manipulation, conditional love, or unfavorable comparison. Be absolutely loyal to your husband and don’t ever complain about him or let others know that you wish he would become something different.
Be patient and leave the timetable in God’s hands. If your husband does not wish to learn about CM, then at a minimum be thankful if he allows you to employ the method yourself.
Tell me about a book you’ve read within the last year or so and what was your favorite thing about it.
One book I read last year was Poetic Knowledge but James Taylor. My favorite thing about the book was that it really helped me understand the difference between the classical education approach to knowledge acquisition versus the Charlotte Mason approach. After reading the book, I can see why someone might mistakenly think that Mason followed the classical philosophy because of some superficial similarities between some outward elements of the two educational models. But just below the surface, the differences are enormous and irreconcilable. I am thankful that Taylor explained classical education so thoroughly and clearly that it was easy to document the huge chasm that exists between classical education and Mason’s philosophy.
Honestly, I think it would be very difficult to implement a Charlotte Mason education in the home without the support and encouragement offered by a CM retreat or conference. I experienced some of my most profound insights into Mason’s philosophy while attending retreats and conferences. The combination of the plenaries, workshops, and conversations with others, along with an intense and extended focus, afford the opportunity for a quantum leap in understanding and motivation. If you’ve decided to do CM, then you need to attend a retreat or conference at least once per year. It’s as simple as that.
You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What color are you and why?
I would be a strange crayon indeed. Every time you bring me out of the box and put me in front of a piece of paper, you never know what you’ll get. Sometimes the page will be covered with dreary charcoals and grays. Sometimes there will be bright orange and yellow. At other times, it will be metallic, and then the next moment it will be pastel. It’s mysterious, I know, but that’s what happens when a crayon is a person!
Answers © 2017 Art Middlekauff
This was such a fantastic Chat! I really enjoyed hearing from a dad’s perspective, and I hope you did, too. And I was surprised to hear that his father-in-law was the one who planted the homeschooling seed in his mind. Was there anything that you found was surprising?