All Our Teaching of Children

All Our Teaching of Children

Knowledge awakens. It’s the inspiring, startling, audacious claim of Charlotte Mason, a claim that’s at the heart of her method. “We know that religion can awaken souls,”[1] she writes. That claim isn’t so controversial, even today. But knowledge?

I have to tell of the awakening of a ‘general soul’ at the touch of knowledge. Eight years ago the ‘soul’ of a class of children in a mining village school awoke simultaneously at this magic touch and has remained awake.[2]

Mason’s faith in the awakening power of knowledge moved her to call parents and teachers to put their children in direct contact with knowledge — and lots of it — in terms of both quantity and variety. To achieve this, Mason urged them to renounce the “error … that we must act as [the child’s] showman to the universe,” and instead to “remove obstructions” so the child can “get into touch with the universe of things and thoughts.”[3] The stakes are high and the opportunities are great. In fact, “It may be that the souls of all children are waiting for the call of knowledge to awaken them to delightful living.”[4]

Parents and educators read these words and it is as if a mist is lifted from their eyes. Homeschooling need not be a chore. A love of learning need not be instilled — if Mason is to be believed, it is already there. Just bring knowledge of the right kind and in the right form, and the child’s latent hunger will emerge. And when that happens, studies shall “serve for delight,”[5] and the home schoolroom shall become a locus of joy.

And yet I hear one heartbreaking story after another. The inspired mother takes her children out for a nature walk, and they complain the whole way. The kids just want to get home. Another says, “I can’t get my children interested in brush drawing,” and a child tells his mother that sloyd is his most dreaded lesson of all. A mother told me that her son dislikes Bible lessons, and “he asks most days if it has to be first and if we could do something else.” Plutarch is too hard to understand. Math lessons lead to tears. A child is too embarrassed to recite. Narration becomes, “People did a lot of things.” And when dictation comes up, a child runs to the closet to hide.

Again and again I am asked, “Why isn’t this working for me?” The unspoken cry is clear: knowledge is supposed to awaken. Why isn’t it doing its job? Is the problem with me or my child? My books or my schedule? Or was Mason wrong after all?

Over the years I have listened to these questions with compassion and empathy. I have reflected on my own journey, my own highs and lows, my bittersweet relationship with knowledge and its awakening power. I have given out partial answers and suggestions here and there. But I have come to see that my answers all revolve around a theme. It is a theme that recently became clear to me as I was discussing the Great Recognition — Mason’s other inspiring, startling, and audacious claim — that “God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself the supreme Educator of mankind.”[6]

I have written much about this exquisite thought. I have explored the theology that undergirds it, the journey that led Mason to it, and the relationship it has to other ideas. But one concept seems to have eluded my direct attention. It is a concept embedded in a phrase that recently leapt up from the page and seized my mind and heart:

All our teaching of children should be given reverently, with the humble sense that we are invited in this matter to co-operate with the Holy Spirit; but it should be given dutifully and diligently, with the awful sense that our co-operation would appear to be made a condition of the Divine action; that the Saviour of the world pleads with us to ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me,’ as if we had the power to hinder, as we know that we have.[7]

I just can’t get those weighty words out of my mind. “All our teaching.” Not just some of our teaching. All of it. “Should be given reverently.” Reverently. What does that mean?

Even in Mason’s own day she wrote, “We have lost the habit of reverence.”[8] If that was true of Britain in 1906, what could possibly be said of America in 2021? We have lost more than just the habit of reverence. I think we have lost the concept of reverence. How can my teaching be given reverently if I don’t even know what reverence means?

My church used to meet in a college auditorium. The seats folded up and down and all had little folding desks. The sermon took place on a stage. The ceiling seemed to hang low and oppress me. I felt that there was no room for heaven. I wanted to be close to God. But how could He fit in such a small place? And what was sacred about the spotlights, the curtains, and the elements of the show?

And then miraculously our church was given our own building. We had pews instead of lecture chairs. We had a chancel instead of a stage. The vaulted ceiling rose dozens of feet above our heads and directed our thoughts upward. The space was special. It wasn’t used for shows or plays. It was designed, built, used, and dedicated for one purpose and one purpose only: the worship of God.

I loved it. One might hope that it would awaken me — that architecture awakens. Except that it didn’t. I am a busy man and I try to pack in tasks on Sunday morning before church. I was chronically just a few minutes late. Barbara would glance at me disapprovingly as I would sheepishly slide into our pew during the opening hymn. Not just one Sunday. But almost every week.

Not just my phone but even my watch beckoned me relentlessly through the 90-minute service. Somebody is sending me a message. A server at work is down. I have a question that I can answer with a simple Google search. I wonder who posted on Facebook today? Did I get a comment on yesterday’s post? And what breaking news has come in since the service started 30 minutes ago?

The whole church was quiet for the sermon. Only one voice was speaking. But you wouldn’t have known it from the cacophony of voices in my heart. I would watch the pastor’s mouth move, but I would not listen to his words. Instead, my heart would rehearse conversations from the day before. Form plans for the afternoon. Compose my next blog article. Worry about my upcoming performance review. Until, tired out from sprawling mental exertion, my mind would just shut down. The room would grow dark. Until Barbara would nudge me. The sermon was over. Time to wake up.

Architecture awakens. The Word of God awakens. Sermons awaken. Sacraments awaken. Music awakens. I was in the house of God. Every power was present to awaken and transform my heart. But all that power meant nothing to me. Because I was missing one very important thing.


Gradually I began to realize something was wrong. My first step was dramatic. I started leaving my phone in the glove compartment of my car when I parked at church. There would be no notifications, no Google searches, no breaking news, no social media during this service. Placing that wonderful and horrible device completely out of reach was the first and most important step in my journey back … to reverence.

The next two changes came hand-in-hand. Time and peace go together. I started to arrive early. I stopped rushing. I started to linger. Mason describes the lure of busy-ness and its horrible toll:

Sometimes events hurry us, and sometimes—is it not true?—we like the little excitement of a rush…

Anyway, it is one of those fussy, busy days which we women [and men :)] rather delight in. We do more than we can ourselves, our nerves are ‘on end,’ what with the fatigue and what with the little excitement, and everybody in the house or the school is uncomfortable. Again, the children take advantage, so we say; the real fact being that they have caught their mother’s mood and are fretful and tiresome… Leisure for themselves and a sense of leisure in those about them is as necessary to children’s well being, as it is to the strong and benign parental attitude of which I am speaking.[9]

I can’t speak for women, but I can say that I do delight in busy days and the excitement of a rush. The problem is that it puts me in fight-or-flight mode, and everyone around me is then on notice. Why am I in church anyway? To check a box? To rush through until I snatch some particular blessing that I think I need? What am I going to find in this state of mind? In short, what am I going to find without reverence?

So I started giving myself more time. But leaving my phone behind and adding margin to my schedule are simple external acts. They are easy things to control. The much harder battle is in the head. Reverence, I believe, requires attention. We do not revere what we do not attend. I have no reverence for the Bible when I don’t listen to the words as they are read. I have no reverence for the sermon when it is not the focus of my thought.

One of Charlotte Mason’s great insights is that not paying attention causes incalculable damage:

Here is the secret of the weariness of the home schoolroom—the children are thinking all the time about something else than their lessons; or, rather, they are at the mercy of the thousand fancies that flit through their brains, each in the train of the last.[10]

Here is the secret, too, of weariness in church. I am thinking all the time about something else — or rather, I am at the mercy of the thousand fancies that flit through my brain. I am anywhere and everywhere, except for here.

Mason elevates the notion of attention to the level of integrity. Being present, being attentive, being completely engaged, is the mark of the man who is whole:

It is a fine thing to look back upon even a single year in which the tasks that came to hand have been done, wholly done, in which we have kept our integrity—as son, in such small matters as exactness in messages; as pupil or student, by throwing our whole mind into our work. Even games want the whole of the player, they want Integrity.[11]

I read these words to my son in our citizenship lesson and he gave me one of those, “See, Dad!” looks. And then his words cut me to the core. “So no more looking at social media while we are playing games together.” If games demand my full attention, what should be said about the preaching of the Word of God? The author of Hebrews writes:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.[12]

My time at church is prime time for me to receive this provision of God. A voice is calling out to exhort me. Am I listening? Where is my reverence?

Fundamentally, attention is a habit. It is not something we can turn on and off on a whim. We are either attentive persons or inattentive persons. I either pay attention to sermons, conversations, plays, and songs, or I don’t. I either control “the thousand fancies” that flit through my brain, or they control me. It’s one or the other. It’s a habit:

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this habit of attention. It is, to quote words of weight, “within the reach of every one, and should be made the primary object of all mental discipline”; for whatever the natural gifts of the child, it is only in so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that he is able to make use of them.[13]

Thankfully the brain is plastic, even for fifty-somethings like me. The habit of attention is within reach of even me. And when I pay attention, then I can revere. Then I can have reverence.

Why all this talk about church? I am a product of an irreverent culture, and church is a base from which I can build a mental model of reverence. If there is anything I revere, it is God. The easiest place for me to understand reverence is to start with Him, and the special time and place specially devoted to Him.

But there is another time when God the Holy Spirit is particularly active. If Charlotte Mason is to be believed, the Holy Spirit is a benevolent and immanent agent in a most sacred activity which occurs every single day:

… the teaching of grammar by its guiding ideas and simple principles, the true, direct, and humble teaching of grammar, without pedantry and without verbiage, is, we may venture to believe, accompanied by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, of whom is all knowledge.[14]

In short, if Miss Mason has correctly apprehended a transcendent truth, then there is an activity I should be thinking about in the same way as I think about church. That activity is lessons. And so again:

All our teaching of children should be given reverently, with the humble sense that we are invited in this matter to co-operate with the Holy Spirit; but it should be given dutifully and diligently, with the awful sense that our co-operation would appear to be made a condition of the Divine action; that the Saviour of the world pleads with us to ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me,’ as if we had the power to hinder, as we know that we have.[15]

I have seen the power of irreverence to hinder just about everything the Lord has for me on Sunday morning. What is the power of irreverence doing to my lessons? Could it be that the awakening power of knowledge can be hindered, impeded, even nullified, by this attitude of the parent’s heart? Granted, the parent is not the showman of the universe. But what child would be captivated by the beauty of the universe if the parent were standing by his side, yawning over a game of Tetris?

As I have been meditating on these words of Charlotte Mason, I have become more and more aware of my “duty of … reverence.”[16] I have begun to see specific and tangible ways that I can be more reverent during lessons. I have learned from Mason that reverence is a habit that can be acquired like any other habit.[17] I have grouped these attitudes and actions of “reverent lessons” into five categories:

  1. Reverence for the time.
  2. Reverence for the child.
  3. Reverence for the content.
  4. Reverence for the materials.
  5. Reverence in action: co-learning.

In the next article of this series, I plan to explore some practical aspects of each of these five categories, based on what I have learned from Mason’s writings, the writings of her students, and my own experience. I hope that the ideas and suggestions will help you increase the reverence which, according to Mason, should accompany all of our lessons.

In Charlotte Mason’s timeless essay on the Great Recognition, she speaks of the mother’s key:

In the things of science, in the things of art, in the things of practical everyday life, his God doth instruct him and doth teach him, her God doth instruct her and doth teach her. Let this be the mother’s key to the whole of the education of each boy and each girl; not of her children; the divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child. Because He is infinite, the whole world is not too great a school for this indefatigable Teacher, and because He is infinite, He is able to give the whole of his infinite attention for the whole time to each one of his multitudinous pupils.[18]

In 2018, I attended the Charlotte Mason Living Retreat. At the retreat, Vanessa Kijewski introduced a simple but elegant ring which she referred to as “the mother’s key.” The message was clear: wear this ring as a reminder of the wonderful truth of the Holy Spirit’s active and personal agency in the education of your child. At the time, the ring itself had no particular appeal to me. First, I’m not a mother. Second, I already know and believe the Great Recognition. I know that every lesson must be taught in a “living way.”[19] My reminder was my curriculum.

My daughter, however, spoke at that 2018 retreat. She obtained one of Vanessa’s rings and wore it ever since. During her first semester of college, however, she lost it. I was deep in thought about the concept of reverence as I tried to get a replacement ring for her. My daughter had lost her “key.” I think, in a sense, I had lost mine too.

So I asked Vanessa for a ring for me too. A ring to wear on my little finger. A ring to remind me that church isn’t the only time that I enter into God’s presence. A ring to remind me that at lesson time, my hope is that the Holy Spirit will be active and present. And I want a reverent heart to be there to meet Him.


[1] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxv.
[2] Ibid.
[3] School Education, p. 219.
[4] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxv.
[5] Francis Bacon, “Of Studies.”
[6] Parents and Children, p. 245.
[7] Ibid., p. 48.
[8] Formation of Character, p. 313.
[9] School Education, pp. 34–35.
[10] Home Education, p. 139.
[11] Ourselves, Book I, p. 170.
[12] Hebrews 3:12–13, ESV.
[13] Home Education, p. 146.
[14] Parents and Children, p. 274.
[15] Parents and Children, p. 48.
[16] School Education, p. 17.
[17] Home Education, p. 166; Parents and Children, p. 237; School Education, p. 144.
[18] Parents and Children, p. 273.
[19] Parents and Children, p. 278.

6 Replies to “All Our Teaching of Children”

  1. Thank you, Art. This is excellent. My husband has been studying the ideas of true worship and reverence recently. We’ve been talking about it quite a bit, and this fit perfectly with what we have been seeing in Scripture. I needed this reminder, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

  2. I’m grateful for this reminder and looking forward to the following posts. I find it personally timely as I am finding quite a bit of success and purpose in homeschooling, but these are coinciding with relationship dynamics I find less than ideal. It’s a mixed bag and I want to be careful of the ‘baby’ as I look to dispense with the plentiful ‘bath water’. I especially will be looking to the habit and habit formation side of this, because as helpful as a reminder to be present and mindful and reverent is, it can get to be another voice amid all the swirling voices…. “HEY, WHILE YOU’RE AT ATTEMPTING TO ORDER YOUR ENTIRE UNIVERSE, REMEMBER TO DO IT WITH REVERENCE!!”

    1. Joy,

      Thank you for this feedback. I hope you find the remaining articles in this series to be helpful. Let me know if you find that the suggestions do in fact point to habit formation rather than simply becoming yet another voice among many.


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