Just over two years ago, I first read the article “Three Educational Idylls,” by Charlotte Mason. Published in 1912, it reveals many profound thoughts about Charlotte Mason’s vision for education. (To be honest, I had to look up the word idyll; it means, “a simple descriptive work in poetry or prose that deals with rustic life or pastoral scenes or suggests a mood of peace and contentment.”)
After several careful reads through the article, my eye lingered on a footnote about the Home Education Series:
some five volumes, of which, had they the good fortune to have been written by someone else, I should be able to say, read them through every year or two, so that the truths they embody may become a usual and natural part of your thinking.
Of course this was before the publication of the sixth volume. But this footnote hit me hard. In her humble way, Miss Mason was encouraging her audience to read through her volumes on education every one or two years. Only then, she says, can the method become a “usual and natural part” of your thinking.
We have been employing the Charlotte Mason method of education in our homeschool for more than a decade. But I don’t only follow the method; I also write and speak about it. I felt a sense of responsibility to follow the recommendation of this footnote. I resolved to do it.
Naturally, I chose the easier option: to read the volumes in two years rather than one year. I suppose one excuse I had was that now there are six volumes, and in 1912, they only had to read five volumes. So it was decided. I would read through the six volumes in two years. It was a grand intention. But I had lived long enough to realize that there is a huge gap between intending something and actually doing something.
These thoughts were rumbling through my mind during the long drive to the Living Education Retreat in July of 2016. (It always seems to be a long drive, doesn’t it?) My mind inadvertently started brainstorming. How would I bridge the gap between intending and doing? How would I keep from starting to read the volumes with great zeal, only to have the business of life (not to mention other inspirations and intentions) crowd in and prevent me from completing my plan? How could I have not only a strong start but also a strong finish?
The thought of “accountability” came to mind during this private brainstorming. Staring at the road ahead of me, with my hands on the steering wheel, I began to meditate on this idea of accountability. Who would I ask? Why would someone want to keep me accountable about something like this? How could I stay on track for a two year project? My brain didn’t give me answers.
So I prayed. “Lord, please show me how You would like to hold me accountable to reading the volumes in two years.”
I arrived at the LER and the opening night activity for men was a fireside chat. Now I’ve been to CM events where I was the only man. But that was not the case at the LER in 2016. There were other men there. Twilight was approaching as we sat in an irregular circle around a fire by the lake. The mood was quiet and serious. There was no chit chat and no cheerleading.
Sometimes guys have a hard time opening up, but that was not a problem that night in July. The men revealed some of their challenges as fathers, as husbands, as children of God. I listened with a bit more surprise than empathy; I suppose I wasn’t expecting these dads to be so real.
Near the end of the evening, for some unknown reason, I told the guys: “I have an intention of reading through Charlotte Mason’s six volumes in two years.” The response was not dismissiveness or chuckling. The response was that it was a good idea. In fact, in the discussion that followed, the idea emerged (I’m not sure whose idea it actually was): how about issuing an open invitation to men to read the volumes with you?
Honestly, I thought the idea was ridiculous. I have been going to CM events for years, and I have seen dads here and there, but with very few exceptions, none have been eager to seriously study Charlotte Mason’s own writings. It is hard enough to get homeschooling mothers to want to read Mason’s volumes for themselves! I thought that there might at most be two or three men on planet earth who would want to read all six volumes with me in two years.
But I slept on it, and as I awoke a plan began to emerge. We would meet once per month. For sixty minutes only. We would always start on time and end on time. The format would be simple and consistent. We would meet online, using video over Zoom. We could get it done if we read 90 pages per month. Just 3 pages per day. Maybe, just maybe, it might work.
Before the close of the LER, Nancy Kelly gave me the opportunity to announce the idea to everyone at the retreat. By now I had a name for it. I recalled the footnote in the article “Three Educational Idylls.” This would be the “challenge” of the “Three Educational Idylls.” But that was too many words. I shortened it. This would be simply “The Idyll Challenge.”
Two years and a day ago, I posted “The Idyll Challenge” on the Charlotte Mason Poetry blog. Again I was hoping for at least two or three guys to join me. I figured at least that many would be out there who would accept the challenge.
I was stupefied by what happened next. Within weeks, more than forty men had accepted the challenge. I was shocked. I learned a lot from this response. I learned that there are men out there who want to learn the Charlotte Mason method. I learned that there are men who are willing to read 90 pages per month. I learned that there are men who want to discuss fatherhood and education with each other.
And I learned something about myself. Remember the gap I talked about between intention and action? I asked God what He thought I needed for accountability. His answer? Forty men. Wow. God knows my heart. Instead of sending me off with a squad, he showed me that I needed a platoon.
I had a creative design for the order to read the volumes. I had all kinds of fancy reasons for not reading them in chronological order. It seemed to make sense at the time. But then Morgan Conner helped me see that reading the volumes is a lot like counting: usually it’s best to start with 1 and go from there.
The format for each meeting has worked out well. Every month each guy has to read the 90 pages, and come to the meeting with his own answer to three questions:
1. What is a question you have about this month’s reading?
2. What is one thing you disagree with in this month’s reading?
3. What is one thing you would like to put into practice from this month’s reading?
We meet online the last Saturday of the month at 9 AM Eastern Time. We always start on time. We finish in exactly 60 minutes, and spend approximately twenty minutes on each question, in the above order.
About two weeks ago we had our 23rd meeting. Every meeting has been rich, challenging, and thought-provoking, as men from so many different walks of life share their perspective. We are different in so many ways, but find such a powerful common ground as children of our Heavenly Father, attempting to be faithful in the calling He has placed on our lives.
We started with a platoon. Not every man was called to the finish line. Everyone who left did the right thing to follow their conscience and prioritize the best things first. It was a long patrol, and as it comes to a close, all we have left is a squad. But it is a squad that has seen a lot of action, and we feel a brotherhood that goes much deeper than the pixels we see of each other on the Zoom video screen.
Charlotte Mason didn’t say to read through the volumes just once. She said, “read them through every year or two.” I am still using the Charlotte Mason method with my children. I am still speaking and writing about Charlotte Mason. I don’t plan on stopping any of that anytime soon, and I still need “the truths” of the method to “become a usual and natural part” of my thinking. The first Idyll Challenge ends in just a few weeks, on July 29.
I am still inspired. I am still motivated. I still have an intention. And I still face the gap between intention and action. So I am asking for men to join me on a new round. This will be the Idyll Challenge 2.0. We will read the six volumes in numerical order in two years, beginning on August 1, 2018 and ending on July 31, 2020.
I can think of a lot of reasons not to join the challenge with me. Reading 90 pages may seem easy but life gets busy and sometimes it can be hard. Charlotte Mason is a great writer, but some of her Victorian language is hard to get used to. Making commitments is hard and we all need to make sure we don’t overcommit.
There is an even bigger reason not to join, however. Some books you can read, think about, and walk away. These volumes are not that kind of book. The volumes are packed with living ideas. They make “splash” in your brain. And when you narrate those ideas to other men each month, they start to become part of who you are. And then you start to change, one step at a time, to become a different man.
Are you comfortable? Do you want to keep thinking the same thoughts and living the same way? Then don’t join the Idyll Challenge 2.0. Are you not sure you want to make a two-year commitment? Then don’t join the Idyll Challenge 2.0. Are you reluctant to do a lot of reading? Then don’t join the Idyll Challenge 2.0.
I can think of a lot of reasons not to join the challenge with me. Please just know though that you don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be well-read. You don’t have to believe everything Charlotte Mason wrote. You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to be the perfect father. You don’t even have to be a homeschooler. But you do have to be willing to make a commitment.
With all the reasons not to join, you might think there are only two or three guys on planet earth who would want to go on the next journey with me. But I feel differently this time. You see, I’ve prayed for accountability. God knows how weak my heart is. I believe He’ll send a platoon again.
If you’re in, comment below or send me an email by August 1. And then get ready for living ideas to change your life.
Note: Veterans from the first challenge are all invited to stay on for the second round.