Monday, January 12, 2015

Neither Good nor Evil?

Principle 2: “Children are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” (Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6: A Philosophy of Education, p. xxix)

When I first read the second principle, I admit I cringed at what seemed to me a clear denial of Scriptural teaching.  How can this statement possibly reconcile with what the Bible says?
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. - Genesis 1:27
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. - Genesis 1:31
All children are created in the image of God. So in that sense, all children are born good, right?

But then, all children are fallen creatures.
The heart is deceitful above all things,and desperately sick; who can understand it? -Jeremiah 17:9
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. -Ps. 51:5
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. -Ephesians 2:1-3
Surely all children are "born bad" and desperately in need of our Saviour.

Continuing to read more of Charlotte Mason's writings, I’m confident she was not denying either the image of God in children or their fallenness. In chapter 3 of Volume 6 ("The Good and Evil Nature of Children"), she speaks of the imagination, the creativity, the intelligence, the ability to love and the sense of justice all children have. What is this but the image of God in them? So what can she mean when she says they are not born good, but with tendencies toward goodness? What kind of distinction is she trying to make? She also speaks of patterns of behaviour that can only be described as sinful even in very young children. She is not denying their fallenness. So what can she mean when she says children are not born bad?

To begin to understand where she is coming from, you have to understand her context, the time in which she wrote. Karen Glass believes this principle is a rejection of the hereditary determinism of the eugenics movement (See the Ambleside Online forum, Volume 6 - Philosophy of Education/RE: CM in 2 Years, Volume 6, Week 3: Book 1, Ch 3 & 4 07-21-2014, 11:39 AM. She mentions there that she also writes about this in her book, Consider This, which I have not yet read.). Just what is hereditary determinism, you ask?

Hereditary (or biological) determinism was the idea that "goodness" and "badness" were genetically determined by the parents you had. If you were born in a respectable family, decent, church-going, moral, you were born “good”. You could be trained, and it was assumed you would probably turn out decent as well. If your father was a criminal, or you were born out of wedlock, you were born "bad," and since this "badness" was determined by your genetics, there was really not much any training or education could do about it.

There is other evidence that hereditary determinism was a very personal issue for Charlotte Mason. It is very likely that she was born before her parents were married, and therefore illegitimate. This was in a day when even illegitimate orphans were rejected from respectable orphanages because of the supposed taint of their parents’ sin. For more on this, see a very fascinating article at The Common Room Blog commenting on research by Margaret Coombs presented at the 2012 ChildLightUSA Charlotte Mason Educational Conference. (Unfortunately, I have not been able to find Coombs’ original research published. Please do your own due diligence, and let me know if you know where to read more on this!)

So when Charlotte Mason says children are not born good or bad, she is really saying that all children are the same in their tendencies towards good and evil. There are not some children born good, and others born bad, depending on the family or class they were born into. They are all made in the image of God. They are all fallen. Children are "born persons," body, mind, and soul, and these tendencies towards good and evil affect every aspect of their whole person - body, mind and soul. And she is saying that every child can be trained and educated. No one is beyond hope because they were born "bad."

Whether or not you agree with Charlotte Mason's second principle, I hope you consider this simple insight, which is at the heart of all she teaches: What you believe about children and education will work itself out in your practice. Do you believe that your children are made in the image of God? What does that mean? Are you underestimating their imaginations, their intelligence, their capabilities? Do you believe that your children are fallen creatures who need training and instruction, but ultimately, need their hearts changed by the gospel through the work of the Holy Spirit? What do you believe your role as a parent and teacher is in all of this?

I still do wish Charlotte Mason had worded this differently. I am concerned that simply accepting this principle as written without considering its context could lead to danger. What do we want our children’s first resort to be when they discover a sinful habit in themselves? Will they see it as a simple matter of replacing a bad habit with a good one? I hope we teach them to go to the cross, knowing the love and forgiveness of Christ first of all. And yet, I can not fault Charlotte Mason for focusing on the training and education side of things. Education is, after all, what she's writing about. And it is incredibly important, so long as we do not lose sight of the gospel and see it as a way of saving ourselves.

For further reading on the issue of whether or not Charlotte Mason was rejecting Christian theology here, I highly recommend Brandy Vencel’s blog post “Charlotte Mason, Total Depravity, and the Divine Image.”