April 30, 2024

Personhood and Curriculum

Blue Orchard Bee Resource

Personhood and CurriculumPersonhood and Curriculum


A long-standing goal at the Blue Orchard Bee is to improve the accessibility of our resources for all of our listeners and readers. This year will are working toward this goal by republishing some of your favorite episodes with new, fully edited transcripts. Originally from the Spring 2020 series, we're re-releasing this interview with Dr. Carroll Smith with this new and fully-edited transcript. In this interview, Danielle and Dr. Smith discuss personhood and curriculum.


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This file comes from the Blue Orchard Bee. We ask you to respect the copyright of this file which belongs to the Charlotte Mason Institute, Andra Smith, and Danielle Merritt-Sunseri. The file is for personal use only. You may share with family, friends, and colleagues, but do not publish the material in any format, including in any electronic format such as website, blogs or otherwise, without permission from the Charlotte Mason Institute, Andra Smith, or Danielle Merritt-Sunseri. Please note the views expressed in these files do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charlotte Mason Institute, Andra Smith, or Danielle Merritt-Sunseri. It is important that you remember that information provided on this file is not intended to represent or to be construed or received as professional advice in matters of mental health.

You are encouraged to work closely with a licensed mental health provider that fits your needs. Welcome to today's session on the Blue Orchard Bee. Danielle leads a discussion on Charlotte Mason's principle of personhood and how that principle influences curriculum. Let's join in and listen.


Danielle: Alright, let's just jump right in today. We are back with Carroll Smith and we've been talking a lot about personhood and what it is that we are so passionate about when we come to Mason to explore these educational needs of our children. So Carroll, let's talk today about how personhood is reflected in a Mason curriculum.

Carroll: Okay, so I think what I'd like to do is to start with a non-Mason curriculum in a sense to kind of give the contrast between the two so that it might help us understand a little better the significance of Mason's curriculum designed after personhood, basing it on personhood, rather than just a collection of books that might be ancient or might be considered classics or they may be considered the good books from our culture, but that's not enough of a reason to read them. They need to be grounded into something else, I think.

So I think first I'd like to just approach the idea of dualism and its effects maybe on education throughout the centuries and how then we'll talk about how Mason doesn't do that. If any of the listeners out there are interested, there's a number of books, I've got like tons of them here, and you can see this one is taped up and looks terrible, but I think the part we had this book since it was written, but let's see what's the copyright year, 1978. So that's when I bought this book. It's by Ranald McCaulay and Jerram Barrs and it's called Being Human, The Nature of Spiritual Experience, and it delves into the idea of platonic thinking and how it influenced the church.

Well, as it influenced the church, so did it influence education in many ways. Here's another one. This is by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I'm going to move my hand so people can see the name.

It's called The Great Partnership. It's really a good read and worth spending time on. This one that I'm going to read a little bit from today is called Christian Philosophy by Goheen and Bartholomew. It's well worth a read and there's another one called The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis that I forgot and left downstairs, and then there's others. I even have spent time with various theologians.

Here's an Anglican theologian. Can you see that, Danielle? It's got glares in it. I can see.

Danielle: Yeah, I can see it though.

Carroll: Okay, so if anybody's interested, they can stop the video and see the name. This is by Catholic theologian that was suggested to me by a good friend and it's an excellent read. Then probably the one that is the most helpful is this great big book by, it's called A History of Western Philosophy and Theology by John Frame. I forget what university he's out of or seminary.

It could very well be, but there you go. Those are just some of the books, some of the books that I've used over the years to read about this concept and try to understand how it affects education because I think it's had a big effect on education. Just to not, so that I don't belabor the point, I'm going to talk very narrowly about this idea of dualism and probably if a educational philosopher or a theological philosopher or whatever were listening to me--they would probably say you've made it too simple or you've, what's the word I want?

"Plato believed that the body was a tomb for the soul."

You've narrowed it down too small or something, but I don't want to, well, you can see what size books can be written because of this topic, so I don't want to go into that. Here's a very simple picture of dualism and how it came into the church. Plato believed that the body was a tomb for the soul. He believed that men, and we don't, I don't mean mankind or humankind, I mean men, had had a great fall at some point and that kind of sounds familiar, doesn't it? And their soul was placed in a tomb called a body on this place called earth and the goal for men was to do glorious deeds called virtues that could then get them out of the earth when they died and to escape from earth to heaven. So they wanted to get to heaven and we won't even go into what heaven meant for them and those kinds of things, but what happened with that thinking when it came into the church, people began to distinguish between religious activity and secular activity and religious activity because it was going to get me to heaven was more important than secular activity. Well, in the Christian paradigm of life, there is neither sacred or secular.

"All is under the Lordship of Christ."

All is under the Lordship of Christ. So it is just as important for me to change my baby's diaper every time he or she needs it as it is for me to go to a bible study or another way I could say it. It is just as important for me to clean my potty in my bathroom as it is for me to go to a bible study. And in fact, if there is a spouse that's not a Christian, it's more important to spend time with that spouse than it is to go to a bible study. But in platonic thinking, it would be more important to ignore the spouse and to go to the bible study. So life became divided into two things, secular and sacred, and it was more important to do the sacred than it was to secular. But in the Christian, again, in the Christian mindset, it should be that all of life is under the lordship of Christ. So everything is significant and important.

Now, how did this influence education? Well, Plato had this idea of forms and the forms were, let me just give an example of one. One form could be justice and it would be a capital J. And it's an abstract idea of what justice is. Now, how that's lived out is a different issue.

It's important that you have this form called justice. And what Plato, and later Aristotle, believed was that these things were fixed, they didn't change. So as time went on and we're way down into the Middle Ages, we have Galileo who is saying, hmm, oh, the sun doesn't rotate around the earth. The earth rotates around the sun. Well, today, we just look at that and laugh.

But back in that time, because things didn't change, Galileo got sent to house prison because he was making a radical statement that was not approved by the church who was following at that time Aristotle's thinking. So it's had implications throughout the church, throughout church history, and throughout education. Now, let me give a specific example of how it's impacted education because of this idea that the spiritual is more important than the physical, that what you're doing on this physical earth is you are trying to get to heaven. So everything you do here is geared toward getting to heaven.

And I grew up in a culture like that. It was all about saving your eternal soul. It was all about what you're doing now will benefit you in heaven as if right now is unimportant. And that's again, that's not to me, that's not a biblical concept.

All of life is sacred. But Plato, because he believed that the physical earth was unimportant, our current experiences were not to be trusted. Only the idea of a theory like justice was to be trusted and contemplated. In other words, you lived in the world of the theory rather than the real.

Now, how did that work out practically? It worked out that it created an obstacle to science. It created an obstacle to the study of the earth. So it had an impact, it made an impact on education itself.

So now, let's contrast that with what I think is more of a biblical view of education. And I think this is probably, I can't get inside of her head, so I can't say for sure that this is how Mason thought about it, but all of creation belongs to God. He created it all. However, he created it.

"Mason developed a curriculum that covered the three large domains for education. Education, knowledge of God, knowledge of the universe, and knowledge of humankind."

No matter if you believe in seven-day creation or if you believe he created through evolution, he created it and it all belongs to him. And therefore, there's not this dual issue going on between the physical world being unimportant and the spiritual world being the only thing that is important. And the ultimate reality that pushes this point is the incarnation. God becomes man. He becomes part of the physical world that he created in order to save it.

So as a result of that thinking, Mason developed a curriculum that covered the three large domains for education. Education, knowledge of God, knowledge of the universe, and knowledge of humankind. So that covers those three domains pretty much covers the whole curriculum, the whole of life.

Everything is within that, those three domains. And as a result, you're not getting rid of science or you're not getting rid of learning how to fix your car. You're not getting rid of learning how to clean your house. You're not getting rid of those physical things. There are all things that need to be taught to children because it's a part of living here on this earth that God has given to us to live on called the garden. And we messed up. We pretty severely messed up.

But still, even with that broken image, we have a pattern by which from scripture, we need to use to educate children. And I think Mason did a fabulous job of siphoning that down to three. In fact, she didn't do it. And I cannot remember who did.

I don't know if it was Matthew Arnold or quite who it was that came up with these three domains. It wasn't Mason. It was someone before her. Which I could remember that, but the older I get, the worse the memory is.

"The child is a person created in the image of the Infinite Person."

So I don't remember who it was, but I do think it was Matthew Arnold. Okay, so now because the physical world is important to study, along with the spiritual world, then the physical body, the mind, the intellect, the child, as a person. Now remember, some of the people back in Mason's time didn't have a very high view of children. And she stepped into the middle of that and said, the child is a person created in the image of the Infinite Person. So by doing that, she elevated the status of children. And she made it, she made it, she made children and elevated them in a way that it's good to study the development of children. So you can study it from a holistic perspective in the sense that you're looking at their bodies and their physical development, their emotional development, their intellectual development, their spiritual development. And because of that, you're looking at the whole child then when you look at all these different um, angles of the child. So I think it's really important that we understand that this biblical view is very different than the view from antiquity and that the child is a living person.

I think that is significant, the word living, because it implies something different than just getting along, just getting through life, just making it from day to day, just managing rather than really living. And I think one of the things that we want to do is to help children learn to live.

And it's sort of like the college student who came up to the college to spend the year or two at the house of education. And Mason asked her, why have you come? And the young lady explains why she's come and Mason, characteristically, from what I can understand, very patiently waited, and then just said, no, my dear, you have come to learn to live. And I think that is the difference between a curriculum that is full of great books, but it comes to you in a way that it's heavy, that it's not living, that it's not giving, versus the way Mason arranged things in her curriculum to make it very much alive, to make it very much living, because it was going to go to this child who is a living being, not a dead being.

"One of the things that we want to do is to help children learn to live."

So, I think that can move us into the idea of what does it mean to have a living curriculum. And I think that that comes out of our understanding of Genesis, the tree of life. The tree of life was there to not only provide food, which took care of the physical development of humankind, but it was also there to take care of their spiritual and their minds.

And it fed them from a number of different perspectives and not just from a physical perspective. So out of this tree of life, out of this understanding of who we are as living beings created by a living God in his image, then children need living ideas. They need living books to get these ideas from, so that it inspires them, it lifts them, it gives them hope to get through that dark valley when they need to go through that valley. If you look at Scripture, and I think this is really interesting, because if you look at Scripture, it is a series of narratives, poetry, letters, prophecies. It is not a book written in the abstract that gives us abstract ideas by a way of to live.

It gives us real, live stories of living people. Who made a lot of mistakes. If you take a half hour to sit down and read the Bible, you are going to come across somebody who blew it. I mean, it is just full of it, which is very helpful to me, because have I ever blown it? Absolutely. And so when I read Scripture, I am like, oh, I am not the only knit wit in the world. So I think it is a really encouraging thing, but it is a living thing that gives us hope, inspires us, and gives us energy, and pushes us to be living beings.

I think one of the other things that Mason had in her curriculum that I think is just a travesty that we lost and hopefully we're going to get it back. And that's the outdoor life because that's that living physical world that God created that can give so much peace and calm and energy to us in a very beautiful way. So those are some of my thoughts about curriculum and a Mason curriculum and why I think it is so exquisite and beautiful. And I think it is because it goes back to and looks at who we are as human beings. And it's it doesn't Mason didn't just say, now these are the great books. These are the books every kid should read. That's not how she did it. She first looked at the child. Who is this being that I'm going to teach? Who is he or she? And what do I need to know about them in order to be able to teach them?

"[Mason] first looked at the child."

And and I understand that some of these ideas came to her as a pretty young person and she sat on them and thought about them and cogitated on them for years. It reminds me and it's also a very hopeful thing. She didn't get to put forth her ideas until 50s. She was in her 50s. So all these years she had to sit on them. And but I don't think she was just sitting on them. I think God was teaching her and preparing her for what was to be that big long last chapter of her life that started in 1886 when she wrote Home Education.

Now we know that there are some issues with Home Education because it was some of the ideas there are based on William Carpenter's brain understandings. And that was about 150 years ago or more. And we've come a long way since then. So we've learned some things since then. So as we talked about there are times when you have to nuance the curriculum or the method to meet the needs of the person because there are things that we know now that Mason did not know in her day and in her time. We wouldn't expect her to know it.

They didn't have the tools to know it. And I think there's one other thing that is really important about the way Mason designed her curriculum and that is she followed history. And and it helps it, I think, to make sense to children when you follow history. You wouldn't, as a principal for 10 years in a government school and a teacher for seven or eight years, you would be surprised at the number of children who would confuse the Civil War with the Revolutionary War and confused as to which one came first.

Well, the word itself ought to give you a clue, but they didn't have a clue. But you don't hear that as much within the Mason paradigm because the curriculum is arranged chronologically in terms of history. But I think what's really important with that is when you are following chronologically with history, you need to include all the people that are involved in that historical context.

And we we have not in this country included African Americans as we should, Asian Americans, and many of the others have not been included in the curriculum as they should have been because they were a part of the history. And I think it's to our own detriment.

"When you are following chronologically with history, you need to include all the people that are involved in that historical context."

And I think it's also to the detriment that we're witnessing right now. With what's going on in our culture. And I don't mean this in any other any way that's ugly, but African American month is almost an insult. African Americans have contributed more to this culture than just a month. And it's it's yeah, that needs to stop and they needed they need to be included in this kind of curriculum, just like everybody else. Do you have any thoughts about what I've said or questions that you want me to clarify?

Danielle: Yeah, I have a question. I think that this can be really subtle and subconscious almost because a lot of us grew up in it and you know, we're surrounded by it all the time and you don't even realize sometimes when it's creeping in. So when we are, you know, life is happening and we are just chugging along, trusting whatever curriculum we've chosen. How do we, what are what are the signs?

What do you, what do you think? What is it that should make us question whether we need to be thinking about this?

Carroll: And "this" means?

Danielle: Whether - this meaning dualism. When, what are the signs in our real lives that dualism is impacting our thinking or the way that we're implementing things just because it's at a subconscious level.

Carroll: Well, do you - maybe this will help. If not, I can maybe address it from a different angle. But remember the other day we talked about the Hosea 4:6 scripture where it says my people. What was the words die from a lack of knowledge? Was that the word or suffer? I can't let me let me look here really fast.

Danielle: I think it was my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge - destroyed.

Carroll: Okay, there we go. Now we can put that as just religious knowledge. But I would suspect that that is should be much broader than just religious knowledge to really know God and to know about him.

"We should be studying about God throughout the whole curriculum and throughout the whole all of time."

One of the books about him is creation. And so when we confine knowledge of God just to the religious. And just a Sunday school on Sunday. Then that's a clue that we have a dualistic view of life and education. We should be studying about God throughout the whole curriculum and throughout the whole all of time not specifically for example. When I say study about God throughout when we study science and really it began to understand how God created and what's involved in rocks or what's in mountains or what's in trees. Then we are doing religious education. What we've done is we put all those things under the secular category. So we've separated those out. And that's why it's so easy now I think for people to live life during the week and go to church on Sunday and keep those things separate. So I think one of the ways that you can look at it is are you thinking consciously that when I teach two plus two or when I teach multiplication or quadratic equations I'm teaching something secular.

No you're not. You're teaching something that's within the creation of God. And therefore it's under the Lordship of Christ. So all of life is and I think this idea that things are separated is so ingrained that we don't even think about it. We don't even consider it. So does that answer your question?

Danielle: Yeah I think so. I think what I hear you saying is that if we find ourselves just trudging along but not really concerned about the fact that we're trudging along because that subject doesn't matter that much then that's a red flag there.

Carroll: I'll tell you another red flag. I took a chemistry, a person might say this, I took my chemistry class in the fall. I got that one done. I checked it off the list and finished with it. That's not real knowing. That's memorizing the facts and the data you need to memorize getting your A or your B or whatever it was and going on. That's not living. That's not chemistry and that part of God's creation coming alive. Now I think there is a difference here between whether or not you like a subject or whether or not you don't.

You can not like a subject and not want to pursue that subject but you at the same time can still see it as a living thing rather than okay got my chemistry done. Check that off my list. I'm finished. Does that make sense?

"I don't think you have to like everything as if everything is glorious."

I don't think you have to like everything as if everything is glorious. We're not capable of that. We just don't have that kind of energy. Our minds aren't big enough for everything in the world to interest us and we become skillful and knowledgeable about everything. Most of us have to settle down by the time we finish school, the K-12 part of school. We have to settle down into a particular area or two because there is so much knowledge that's packed into the universe that God has created that we cannot possibly know it all. That is why I think God continues to reveal to us things through science.

We as humans do not have the capacity to learn it all at one time. And so the revelation from God through science is a continuous thing. And therefore we should love our scientists. We should even love those scientists who are atheists. We are called to love people and to care about people and not see them as enemies.

Danielle: So, the flip side of this then, Carroll, is if we conversely value everything and everything is important how do you what do you say to the educator who is afraid to let anything drop off the feast even if there are signs that the child is clearly overwhelmed and just can't deal with all of it. How do they how do they know how to balance things and still provide access to God to the things of the universe and to the humanities?

Carroll: I think it's really important to realize that even in our perfect state let's say we had not fallen at the fall we would still not be able to know everything. We are not God. It is only God who can know all things.

We will never be able to know all things. And I think parents have to realize that in our fallen state it's even worse. And you have to make choices sometimes and you have to let some things go just because you can't handle it all. So the feast as we said yesterday or one of these sessions is very feasty but sometimes we can't handle that much of the feast. We have to be willing to observe our children pay attention and let some things go that need to go.

"We have to be willing to observe our children pay attention and let some things go that need to go."

And those are hard things to hard choices to make but we have to do that. And there's no sin in that. It's not a moral issue as to whether or not you cover a complete Mason curriculum. So yeah. Does that answer your question?

Danielle: What would you say are the signs of livingness? I know one of the things I look for is curiosity kind of spilling out. What are some of the other things you look for in a child?

Carroll: A curiosity, but also a peace. A comfortableness. A restfulness, I think. And we're back to that issue when I say this with being overwhelmed. If a child is agitated or showing signs of being overwhelmed even though they are curious sometimes we we have to let that go because there needs to be a restfulness and a peacefulness about what we're learning rather than an agitation.

"One of the things I look for is curiosity kind of spilling out...A curiosity, but also a peace. A comfortableness. A restfulness."

So, I would say to for something to know whether or not it's living. Well, there's a number of different criteria. You know, if you're looking at living books then you want books that are written by people who love the subject and can inspire you, can motivate you and encourage you to explore that subject with them. And that to me is an indication that it's that it's living. I'm trying to think of some other things here. I think a living book prompts a child to be explorative.

It prompts a child to want to know more. It prompts a child with new ideas, new thinking. And this is why I think we have to be careful how much we put in front of some children because even that can get to be overwhelming with some children. They want to take on too much and then they implode because they've taken on too much. So that's not a very good answer.

"I think a living book prompts a child to be explorative."

Danielle: I think that's a great answer. Yeah. And I think this comes back to, and I've heard you and Andy talk a few times about living within our means and what we've been given. So if we're doing that then hopefully we will see a lot of those signs that you're mentioning just now.

Carroll: I think there's, we often talk about living within our financial means and that's a pretty big subject for people out in the Christian community. It's to live within your financial means.

But I think that subject can also be applied to living within your emotional means, your neurological means, your intellectual means, along with your financial means. And I think it's the idea that I live in an apartment. I'm not going to be able to go out into some palatial garden and we do these fancy, wonderful nature study drawings at least once a week because we're out in this, we have this wonderful place to go to. If I live in an apartment, a few potted plants might be as much as I can manage. And I might not even be able to manage that unless I have a window sill. So then getting out every two weeks to a park or once a month, maybe all I can do. And even if I can't do that, then I have to live within that means.

I have to live within that context and I can't feel guilty about it. And I think so many times in the Mason community, we have, we hear these glorious ideas about nature and what we should be doing with nature that we lose reality. And then we begin to put too much stress on ourselves and then we begin to implode in some way. I think there's so many things that you have to consider as a parent, as a teacher, with the Mason paradigm to avoid a sense of guilt and shame that you haven't done it perfectly.

Danielle: Do you have other thoughts you'd like to close us with?

Carroll: Well, I think, I want to think more about this livingness of the curriculum, because I think a living curriculum promotes creativity. I think it inspires people and I think it not only promotes creativity, and I think this is sometimes one of the things lost and I don't think Mason lost it, but I think people who use our curriculum can lose it. Becoming very skillful at something. Sometimes the curriculum is so feasty, as we said, that you can lose the concept of being really skillful at something. And I think this is one of the purposes of something like sloyd, is to pay attention to the detail and learn the skill and learn the preciseness of something and having the habit of paying as close attention as you can and working with something that's within your neurological abilities.

So, this is really complicated and I think that's why God put us in families, because there's less to sort out than a whole classroom full of children. But I think it can be done in both environments. So I think the point is that we are, through a living curriculum, we're not only just promoting engagement, a fascination with something, inspiring children, hoping that they will be creative, but we're also promoting a highly skilled person who can pay attention to detail. In other words, if we have a young person who wants to become interested in chemistry and become a chemist, well, you know what that's like. You've got to pay attention to some details and you've got to be precise. And I think we need to aim for those things as well as aiming for just the humanities, so to speak, if that makes sense. Yeah, anything else?

"We are, through a living curriculum, we're not only just promoting engagement, a fascination with something, inspiring children, hoping that they will be creative, but we're also promoting a highly skilled person who can pay attention to detail."

Danielle: Not from my end. I appreciate all of this wisdom and experience and time that you're giving us.

Carroll: I hope it's helpful.

Danielle: I know that it is. Thank you so much.

Carroll: Thank you for joining us today. Join Danielle next week as she tackles the topic of the science of relations. We will see you then.

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