G.K. Chesterton has famously said, “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly” (Chesterton, 1910, p. 320). Charlotte Mason specifically says (and often implies) that “what is worth doing is worth doing well” (Mason, 1989d, Book I, p.172). Is it possible to reconcile these two ideas with the reality of our lives?
A couple of years ago I came upon an article in The Parents’ Review entitled, “An Apology for the Mediocre Person.” I was intrigued. Nothing about Miss Mason or the PNEU had ever struck me as mediocre. I wondered how this article could fit in with Mason’s philosophy. The author, Mrs. Grace Gwynne, who “Does nothing in particular, And does it very well,” says this:
In the storm and stress of modern life, which has become almost wholly competitive, each individual struggling for distinction, each trying in their own province to press to the front, it sometimes occurs to the thinker, “What room nowadays is there for Mediocrity? Life is success, failure is annihilation!” And from the obscurity of dull country towns and the loneliness of great crowded cities where the failures hide themselves, comes the retort, “What rest or happiness is there in success? Is it not to us you turn for soothing for your jaded brain and nigh-worn-out body, after your so-called successes?”
The very dictionary takes their part, and says, “Mediocrity is a middling state; a mediocrity of success is most favourable to morals and happiness, and mediocrity of talent will generally ensure respectability.” (Gwynne, 1901, p. 779)
This was an interesting perspective and a bit of a revelation for me. This notion that mediocrity is “a middling state” and not the same as outright failure, that it might even be better than great success, more restful and more enjoyable, seemed to me like permission to be average. It reminded me of the idiom, “jack of all trades, master of none.” Up until that point, this idea had a negative connotation in my mind, and it was something I had personally struggled with. But then I began to really consider the idea.
As a child, I had developed a habit of only doing what came easily to me, like the little girl who says, “Oh dear… I’m just like Julius Caesar, I don’t care to do a thing at all if I’m not best at it” (Mason, 1989f, p. 189). If there was a game I couldn’t win, I simply wouldn’t play. If there was a class I didn’t excel in, I would drop it. No matter what it was, unless it came easily, I wouldn’t do it. I just didn’t feel it was worth my time to put energy into something that I couldn’t be “best at.” I hated to be wrong or look foolish, so I only tried what I was certain I could do well. There were enough things that did come naturally to me, so either no one noticed, or no one was concerned about this habit. Everything I did, I did on my own terms.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had made my life small. Rather than risk mediocrity, I had created a bubble around my strengths and in so doing, I had made my life rather uneventful and very predictable. And I thought I liked it that way. Every person, including the Holy Spirit, had only as much space as I had allotted in my bubble. Not until I became a mother did I begin to see that my bubble was not sustainable. On my personal path towards spiritual maturity and sanctification, I found that motherhood, the strengthening of my faith, and my introduction to Charlotte Mason were three roads that converged into one.
Of the many things I never did, one of them was sing. I never, I mean never, ever, sang around other people. Not at church, not at birthday parties, and certainly never solo. But when my oldest daughter was born, it felt perfectly natural to sing to her. It became part of what we did in our time together. It was how I got her to sleep and how I soothed her when upset. It was something I did for the two of us. Then it wasn’t long before I had to sing in front of my husband. How silly to be embarrassed about that! I was embarrassed, but I still sang. And when my daughter began to speak and request songs around other people, I sang because I realized (finally) that it wasn’t about me. It was about her. And then I realized that in all the years that I wouldn’t sing in church, it was because I had made it about me, not Jesus. Respecter of persons that He is, the Holy Spirit waited for me to come to this conclusion on my own.
I continued to turn the focus of my life away from myself. That included quitting my job to stay home with the children, to better support my husband and homeschool. When I told one of my friends and coworkers that I was quitting, she said, “What a waste.” That’s it. It took a couple of years for that one to hit me. I had to move from the daily affirmation of the quality of my work and appreciation of my abilities to the obscurity of spending my days with young children who, for the most part, did not acknowledge my efforts and took them for granted. I was surprised at my own emotional response when I shared my friend’s words during Nancy Kelly’s talk on the Humble Plant. It is really hard to step out of the spotlight in your own life. In those couple of minutes, I mourned the loss of my old self and fully came to the realization that my particular talents, talents I had nurtured for years, were now to be put aside. In their place, obscurity.
Obscurity was not the only part of my new reality; mediocrity was there too. From the time I started learning about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, I was in. Fully in. I have never doubted that Miss Mason’s philosophy and methods, complete and in the purest form, are the right path for me and for my family. I love every part. I see the value in everything she lays out. I could actually be really good at this. If my husband had normal working hours. If my eight year old could ignore distraction. If my six year old wasn’t so impulsive. If my three year old didn’t talk non-stop while I read. If I had a maid. If I could spend an hour on my nature journal without being interrupted every three minutes to get more water, say no to snacks, or locate a lost toy. I could be really good. If I could make my children fit into my own idea of a perfectly ordered Charlotte Mason life, I would be a perfect Charlotte Mason homeschooler. But while I know I am called to homeschool my children using Miss Mason’s philosophy and methods, I am not called to be a perfect Charlotte Mason educator. Because none of this is about me; it is all for the children’s sake. I am called to be mother and teacher, both of which involve the act (Mason calls it the “art”) of standing aside (Mason, 1989c, p 66). Likening the role of the teacher to the ministry of John the Baptist, R.A. Pennethorne says:
Teaching was to be a mission carrying the breadth of life to God’s children… not looking for results or rewards or the praise of men but praying for our children that they “might increase” even as we “decreased.” (Pennethorne, 1923, p. 76)
So I stand aside. With joy and enthusiasm I keep doing the next thing, as best I can. That makes me an amateur. Of the amateur, Chesterton says:
A man must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without any hope of fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it. (Chesterton, p. 84)
I love Charlotte Mason’s ideas. I love her words. I love to pore over articles in The Parents’ Review and research the people who influenced her work. I love nature study, handicrafts, poetry, Shakespeare, literature, history. I even love singing hymns and folk songs.
At the start of this article, I mentioned the famous quote from G.K. Chesterton. Throughout his writing, he maintains a particular regard for the amateur. I feel that the following paragraph gives an accurate portrayal, down to the watercolors, of where I am right now:
There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the color of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education; and closest to the child comes the woman—she understands. To say what she understands is beyond me; save only this, that it is not a solemnity. Rather it is a towering levity, an uproarious amateurishness of the universe, such as we felt when we were little, and would as soon sing as garden, as soon paint as run. To smatter the tongues of men and angels, to dabble in the dreadful sciences, to juggle with pillars and pyramids and toss up the planets like balls, this is that inner audacity and indifference which the human soul, like a conjurer catching oranges, must keep up forever. This is that insanely frivolous thing we call sanity. And the elegant female, drooping her ringlets over her water-colors, knew it and acted on it. She was juggling with frantic and flaming suns. She was maintaining the bold equilibrium of inferiorities which is the most mysterious of superiorities and perhaps the most unattainable. She was maintaining the prime truth of woman, the universal mother: that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. (Chesterton, 1910, pp. 318-320)
Does all of this contradict Miss Mason’s philosophy? Am I doing it all wrong because I’m not doing everything perfectly? I don’t believe so. I may be “juggling with frantic and flaming suns” right now, but it is Mason that I am following. She has set a high standard, but she has also laid out a clear path. While we may not be moving at top speed, each day we get closer to the goal. Mason herself seems to recognize the intricacies of the position of mother and teacher. In Parents and Children she writes:
Method, a Way to an End—It is only as we recognise our limitations that our work becomes effective: when we see definitely what we are to do, what we can do, and what we cannot do, we set to work with confidence and courage; we have an end in view, and we make our way intelligently towards that end, and a way to an end is method. It rests with parents not only to give their children birth into the life of intelligence and moral power, but to sustain the higher life which they have borne. (Mason, 1989b, p. 33)
And what gives us confidence and courage? The method and the key. The key is “that God the Holy Spirit is Himself, personally, the Imparter of knowledge, the Instructor of youth, the Inspirer of genius” (Mason, 1989b, pp. 270-271). If I was good at all of this, if it came easily, I wouldn’t need to depend on the Holy Spirit every day. I suppose I wouldn’t need Mason’s method either. If I could do it all in my own power, I would, but then who would get the glory? After refusing to take the thorn from Paul’s side, the Lord says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 9:9, ESV, 2016).
In coming to terms with my own weakness, I can attest to the truth of this statement from Mrs. Gwynne: “How differently does the frankly mediocre person regard life! To him the world is a garden full of beauty, sweetness and satisfaction” (Gwynne, 1901, p. 780). There are few things more exciting to me right now than an exceptional narration or an uninterrupted math lesson. I (usually) cheerfully accept the limitations of my life as it is now. There are some things I will get better at over time, such as painting, time management, and housekeeping; but there are some things that I will never be good at, like singing. Still, these things are worth doing for the sake of themselves. And they are worth doing badly.
Chesterton, G. (1903). Robert Browning. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Chesterton, G. (1910). What’s wrong with the world. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.
ESV. (2016). The Holy Bible: English standard version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Gwynne, G. (1901). An apology for the mediocre person. In The Parents’ Review, volume 12 (pp. 779-788). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Mason, C. (1989b). Parents and children. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989c). School education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989d). Ourselves. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989f). A philosophy of education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Pennethorne, R. (1923). Miss Mason of house of education. In In Memoriam (pp. 76-77). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.