‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline and a life’ is a well-known idea to those who are familiar with the Charlotte Mason Method of Education. This idea didn’t originate with her but with Matthew Arnold, a British poet and critic of Victorian times.
In Chapter XIV of School Education, Charlotte Mason shows how neglecting any one of these three aspects of education, or leaning on one more so than the others, can result in a lopsided education.
Education is an atmosphere
You only have to scroll through Instagram posts from Charlotte Mason homeschoolers to see how ‘atmosphere’ appeals to us. Curated photos of beautifully presented ‘school rooms,’ home libraries, teatime set ups arrayed with poetry books, pretty china and enticing edibles.
Education as an atmosphere generally appeals to us the most. ‘Look after the environment (the externals) and education will look after itself,’ is a comforting thought. Beautiful posters, educational aids, fancy blackboards, wooden toys, colourful books arranged on dust-free, pristine bookshelves; spacious rooms with a place for everything and everything in its place and arranged just so.
Get the ‘atmosphere’ right and education will drop into our children’s lives without too much effort from us. The environment we create is the evidence that education is taking place – so we think.
But what if I live in a pokey little apartment, use the kitchen table for lessons and have a constant pile of laundry waiting to be folded on every available chair?
What we often think of as atmosphere is really environment, i.e. our physical surroundings, and Charlotte Mason observed that children brought up upon ‘environment’ soon begin to show signs of inanition (lethargy, lack of healthy curiosity and an inability to pay attention).
Parents and teachers need to make sensible use of a child’s circumstances i.e. atmosphere – the non physical things that influence us. Such as relationships within the home, the words that we speak, the time we spend with our children – these don’t depend on how much money we have or our home decor.
Our circumstances may have their limitations but if we feed our children on things worth caring about and understand that education is the science of relationships, these often intangible aspects of our lives are the things that bring beauty .
We can make a fake environment that looks great in a snapshot but we can’t fake a healthy and loving atmosphere. When we understand this, all the environmental enticements thrust in our faces won’t make us feel we’re second rate parents and educators.