Thinking about Cultivation, Charlotte Mason, Consent, Care, Anti-Racism and Autonomy.
Cultivate verb : To nurture and help grow. To prepare ground. To develop, enhance, encourage, foster, refine. From the latin root Cultus, meaning ‘care’.
I find something profound and quite enchanting in the cultivation of plants. All a plant will become, all it needs to know to be itself, is already contained within its seed. Enormous oak trees tucked into teeny acorns. It’s a quiet, everyday kind of magic. We get to see it every time we visit our allotment and something new has sprouted, or we can harvest food we nurtured with our own hands.
Watching the seasons change on our nature walks during lockdown, consciously observing that ordinary, everyday wizardry, I’ve been struck by the parallels between cultivating seedlings and home educating the way I do.
Children are whole persons. I believe that with all my heart. They aren’t blank slates waiting to be filled, blobs to be moulded or proto-adults waiting to be fully formed humans. A child is as much a person as an adult, in the same way that a caterpillar is as much a creature as a butterfly. It isn’t a not-quite-butterfly. It is a caterpillar. A perfectly wonderful thing in its own right. All that it needs to become a butterfly is already within it. But what it is in that moment, before it pupates, is just as valid and wonderful and important and special. It has innate worth equal to the butterfly.
Children are perfectly themselves; they could be no one else. They have unique personalities, drives, talents and quirks. Their own needs and desires. Crucially, they have their own voices. Perhaps the greatest privilege of being a parent is watching that potential unfurl as they grow, like petals, and getting to share in their journey of connecting up and connecting with the world.
Which might lead us to think, what role should parents play in this Great Unfurling? And particularly as home educators, how should we support our children entirely, in a world and culture that routinely separates out education from the rest of life?
A seed is complete, but without enough water, or sunlight, or nutrients, it cannot thrive and grow effectively. To reach its potential, it needs to be tended. Even wild seeds (i.e the more unschooling/self directed/autonomous end of the home educating spectrum) are tended insomuch as we take care not to pollute their environment, pull their leaves or petals when we walk by or let chemicals leach into their soil. We are actively passive in our approach to wild growth. There is an intentional “letting be”. And when invader species or pests or aggressive land management threaten, we protect and advocate and try our darndest to keep those plants safe to grow as they should. We know both instinctively and thinkingly that this is the right thing to do.
I know I’m rather over extending the metaphor, but bear with me.
When we think of education, we tend to think of all the things we need to put into the child. Facts, figures, skills, opportunities, extra-curriculars, whatever it might be.
Except educating for me isn’t a putting in, at all. It’s a drawing out. It’s about creating the circumstances for that acorn shell to crack, roots to delve deep and stem to soar.
Leah Boden, a home educator over at Modern Miss Mason first drew my attention to this term, drawing out, as I began exploring Charlotte Mason education. It was the spark of connection I’d been missing. I’d been focused on the same principle but without that key bit of vocabulary to explain the enormous paradigm shift away from a mainstream view of education. (Check out Leah’s stuff, she’s exceptionally knowledgeable about Charlotte Mason and a very genuine and warm human being).
I’m a pretty eclectic educator (maybe that’s code for “indecisive”? Or, perhaps I just see merit in many schools of thought. I’m an Enneagram 9 if that means anything to you; seeing all sides is our thing.) but I’ve been really drawn to aspects of Charlotte Mason of late, in no small part thanks to the lovely Leah and also Amber O’Neal Johnston of Heritage Mom. Not as a hard-and-fast curriculum, which it isn’t intended to be (Charlotte thinks of it as a philosophy, with practical application), and certainly not verbatim; some of the views of the Victorian era have moved on vastly (or should have). But as a set of principles to consider as we depart from the mainstream and explore education outside of the box.
I think it is necessary (for the rest of this post and because it’s important to say this stuff out loud, loudly and often) to state my view that present day education needs to be actively anti-racist. There is a definite need to decentralise white history and stories to ensure BIPOC/BAME voices and achievements are celebrated and history is depicted accurately, without whitewashing and nostalgic views of Empire and Colonialism, in an ongoing battle against white supremacy. There is so much rich and varied history across the Earth. So, so many stories exist beyond the classical Western canon. Often, these are stories that are at best overlooked and at worse considered unimportant, pointless or even “not educational”, against a (white) Western ideal. It’s acutely necessary in the world we live in to address these issues and one advantage of departing mainstream education is we can address it head on. I want to make it a much bigger priority for our family; we had already made a start but I’ve realised I need to do more as my children grow. Perhaps it seems incongruous or jarring to bring race or diversity up in a post as a white person, but, then, perhaps we need to ask ourselves why, if that’s the case. The “uncomfortable” facts of white history globally are not the sole responsibility of BIPOC/BAME communities to know and explore. It really can’t be said enough.
And this is just on a personal level of learning. Home educating itself is a counter-cultural movement and opting out of the standard system is necessarily political. We can all do more to support fellow home educators, from all pedagogies, especially those from BAME communities, for whom home education can be a bigger risk or come at a higher cost, due to systemic racism. This is a bigger topic for another post as I’m focusing today on individual learning, but my points sit within this context and I’m holding space for how what I choose to do, say, vote for, support or teach/facilitate in my own home impacts other home educators around our family. It’s important to remember that while especially British schools are not teaching explicitly about racism or Black British history and that needs to change, we have to cover this at home as our children’s primary educators, or they simply won’t be exposed to it in an educational context.
Which isn’t to say we should solely focus on the difficult periods and struggles within non-white history, just as we wouldn’t focus solely on the struggles within white history. Of course not! We should celebrate BIPOC/BAME inventors and authors and artists and engineers and trailblazers, and also simply acknowledge and illustrate the ordinary, day to day lives of people beyond our own culture, enjoying their families and playing and eating together and working and just doing ordinary things. The common threads of humanity are just as important to acknowledge as our differences.
Amber at Heritage Mom (linked above) is a home educator in Georgia, USA who is vastly more knowledgeable than me when it comes to honouring Black history and achievement through life giving literature while still upholding Charlotte Mason’s principles and I am learning so much from her writing – I encourage everyone to check out her blog and speaking engagements, as well as her book recommendations. She gave an amazing talk called Mirrors and Windows recently at an online Charlotte Mason conference, which is available to watch for free online. I really encourage you to Google it because it was excellent.
I think I am drawn to Charlotte Mason for several reasons, the first being her assertion that all children are born persons, which acts as the foundational tenet of her work. She believes that with guidance in good habits and exposure to a huge range of living ideas and books, as well as opportunity to engage with the world (especially nature) with all of the senses, a child can grow and learn in the way that suits them as an individual, into the person they are meant to become (i.e. not the person outside forces wish they were).
There is no education but self-education and only as the young student works with his own mind is anything effected.Charlotte Mason, vol. 6
I feel I float between unschooling and Charlotte Mason as I figure out how to honour my children’s autonomy while consciously ensuring the breadth of their exposure to living ideas beyond just the mainstream white-dominated narrative, which is very pervasive. There is a lot internal work going on as I consider and test how I can do this in a practical sense, without limiting their ability to meaningfully consent (or dissent).
Sometimes, I wonder what on Earth I’m doing. Perhaps this is just unschooling with conscious strewing. Perhaps, given my kid’s ages, it’s CM’s “quiet growing time”, full of nature and a bigger range of living and life-giving books, celebrating a huge range of people and achievements. Maybe we’re in the middle but off to one side, forging something new, like Julie Bogart of Bravewriter, author of The Brave Learner, finding what works for our individual children season to season, seeing our children as whole people first and formost, more relaxed than CM about what constitutes “good” books but still embracing many CM principles. (I genuinely love Julie’s work and feel I have barely scratched the surface of her prolific content, but I do feel very at home in her space). Perhaps, we just resist labelling altogether. Given we prioritise enthusiastic consent, I suppose it’s a Charlotte Mason-flavoured, brave-learning, unschooling pathway? I feel it’s important to name what we do but given we’re in the early years and I’m clearly still working all this out, it’s hard to pinpoint! Anyway, I digress.
Therefore, teaching, talk and tale, however lucid or fascinating, effect nothing until self-activity be set up; that is, self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature.Charlotte Mason, vol. 6
As home educators, we set the atmosphere of education, indivisible from our ordinary family lives. Cultivation for us is the preparing of the ground, layering the compost and keeping everything watered, in our homes and family culture, and in our wider cultural context. We want to make sure our educational compost (as it were) celebrates, honours and engages with multiple cultures and experiences. It can’t shy away from the atrocities committed (even now) by the white dominant culture and the truth of the histories of both individuals and nations (for example, we didn’t “discover” America, as if it were empty before, we conquered it. Nuance matters). And it equally can’t only tell of woe and strife when so much has been accomplished by all of humanity, from learning to leaven bread right up to standing on the moon and beyond (I heartily encourage you to look into the “hidden figures” at NASA – Aeryn’s absolute superhero role model in life is Katherine Johnson, a black mathematician who played a critical role in the success of manned space flight). If we acknowledge that children are whole persons and deserve to be treated as such and credited with intelligence and competence, they deserve the whole picture. To deprive them of either the good or the bad, however well intentioned, only diminishes the power and richness of the education we provide to them. It’s like a deprivation of nutrients – it stunts their growth, it gives fewer points of connection to the world.
Learning is (really can only be) a self motivated activity. Teaching can be done to a student, but the process of assimilating any knowledge or skill, teacher-taught or self-taught, can only be completed by the student, internally. I want to pile up my compost so that my children are inspired by it and find it worth engaging with because it fills their need to know, understand and connect with the heartbeat of the world around them. I want encourage engagement with the serious and difficult issues facing the world, while still acknowledging that learning is a self-driven process. Essentially, I want to help them care.
So, how can we approach this, practically? Lots of ways.
We can fill our homes and days with books that brim with life, with conversations full of meaning and with striking objects and artwork and nature that appeal to our senses, or stimulate discussion and emotional responses. We can confront difficult things together with openness, and prioritise love and respect. We can play and explore our environment and engage with those around us. We can actively seek out events that educate us about the experiences of different people. We can spend hours outside and at libraries and museums and consciously choose books that give us more perspective. We can actively challenge our privileges. We can seek and explore other world views, respectfully and with open minds, and consciously choose the voices we listen to. We can question our sources, who wrote our books or made our movies and ensure we’re listening to marginalised voices and experiences. We adults in the room can become excited about our own learning and this can spill over into our children, further enriching the soil in which the plant their toes. From this abundant feast of ideas, wrapped up in the love and security and good food and fun of family life, our children can grow and learn and blossom. But we don’t get to decide the sort of plant they will grow into – they will grow their own way into whoever they should be!
My job isn’t to force my children to be a certain way. It’s a great idea to build good habits, like paying attention when needed or brushing their teeth every day, but ultimately my goal is to help them discover who they already are and allow them to connect their own dots. I want to show them as much of the natural world and the world of ideas as I can, but it is their internal responses to all of this stuff of life that matters.
Can I force them to care about important things like anti-racism? No, they have to choose to engage. But empathy isn’t innate, it is learned. My work to educate my kids necessarily begins with my own education. They need to see me engaging with things worth caring about, be it the climate or injustice or reading for pleasure or challenging racism or anything else, in order to know it is worthy of care. Julie Bogart consistently reminds us that the parent is also a brave learner in a home educating context, not just the child. And she’s right, we need to be brave to forge this path, to actively and resolutely cultivate a learning space that rebuilds what learning even means from the ground up. I feel I’m still at the beginning of this world shifting journey, but I’m ready to put in the work.
If my children can tell back to me what we talk about or read about or experience in their own words because they’ve been captivated by it and made it their own, that’s education. If they can look at a sunset and feel moved and are reminded of a poem or artwork or moment in a novel, that’s education. And if they can see injustice in the world and know the legacy of all that hurt in our history and ask with all their heart “I want it to change; help me learn how to help.” (which Aeryn (5) said a couple of weeks ago when we talked very frankly about George Floyd, and I felt both an immense weight to do this well and a great relief that what I’m trying to do is working), well, that is education. They are educated because they care. The nitty gritty of learning fractions or adverbs is a very small part of a bigger journey which prioritises intrinsic motivation, play and exploration (of ideas and places!), and addresses that thirst we all feel to be connected to the world and all those who inhabit it. And that is what I want to cultivate when I home educate.
“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”Charlotte Mason, Vol. 3