What do we do with the ideas we have been given through Charlotte Mason’s principles 1-4? We can accept that we were born – and still are – persons, that we are on a long journey of sanctification and that our character is still a work in progress. We feel the pull of both authority over our families and the call of docility towards God, and we recognize that we can’t just add ‘character growth’ to our to-do list as if it were a box to tick. God calls us to be intentional, but for the right reasons and in the right way. Otherwise, we’re not on the path to self-improvement, but to self-centeredness.
This brings us to Charlotte Mason’s fifth principle – one that often passes without comment. In part, this is because the principle seems self-explanatory. We can also find ourselves distracted by the principles of ‘Atmoshere, discipline, and life’ that follow.
However, therefores are extremely important – and the Charlotte Mason’s fifth principle begins with a big therefore. So let’s look at this principle, rewritten for moms, and see why it’s necessary.
Therefore, the atmosphere of our environment, the discipline of habit, and the taking in of living ideas are the means to the growth of our character.
Principle Five draws together the first four principles.
The first four principles are progressive – they build on one another. Shown as bullet points, the logic develops like this:
- Mothers are born persons, just like anyone else
- Since we are persons, our character can grow better or worse
- We are called to be docile toward God, who wants our character to grow for the better. In order to improve our character, we need to do what we can, for the right reasons. We need to be teachable.
Principles One to Four have answered fundamental questions about who we are, our purpose, and what we are meant to be doing. Principle Five reminds us that everything that follows hinges on these premises. It is a grand wrapping up of the basic philosophy that Charlotte Mason accepted.
Principle Five points us to action.
Education is an applied philosophy, and the fifth principle turns our attention to the application of the first four principles. We can’t just read that we are born persons and continue about our day as if nothing had changed. These principles, if we agree with them, have consequences for our actions.
The first four principles should leave us with the question, ‘How do I go about growing my character in the right direction and in the right way?’ The fact of our personhood has removed rewards, fear, pleasing others, and ambition from our toolbox of motivation. She encourages us to simply feed the right desires and allow the growth to follow. But still, what exactly do we do next?
What remains, according to Charlotte Mason, are the atmosphere of our environment, the discipline of our habits, and the taking in of living ideas. The following three principles each address one of these educational “instruments”, and so I will define these in later posts. But we need to remember that atmosphere, discipline, and life are action-oriented. These comprise the ‘how-to’ of mother culture and so we need to consider the next principles in the context of practical application.
Principle Five does not elevate any one educational instrument.
When I see Charlotte Mason’s motto, ‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life’, I am always struck that she felt that these instruments were even thirds. There is not one tool that is more important, more useful than the other. There is not one that requires more or less of our attention or consideration. What’s more, when we use, appreciate, and rely on these tools in equal proportions, I believe we will find balance in our efforts, and much grace when we find that one isn’t going as well as we would like.
In the next three posts, I will consider the roles of atmosphere, discipline, and life in turn.