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Image courtesy of Calvary Schools of Holland.

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Equipping Students to Grapple with Tough Questions

In considering their children’s education, parents often ask themselves “what kind of person do I want my child to be like when he or she turns 18?”


At Ambleside, we recognize that education is something much more than building a resume, gaining job skills, or becoming a “productive member of society,” however desirable these might be. Rather, the gift we give every child is that they might become the man or woman our Father in heaven intends.


I was privileged to witness firsthand what that looks like at a picnic at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. That, by the way, is my favorite spot in the Washington DC area; from it, you can see the Monuments, the Capitol, Georgetown, and the National Cathedral, while lounging in the cool grass.


In a previous career, I served on Capitol Hill. One of the staples of Washington tourist life, often coinciding with the blooming of the Cherry Blossoms, is student tours to our nation’s capital. Every Congressional office hosted groups, showed them the Capitol building, explained how a bill becomes law, and answered questions from these leaders of the future.


Needless to say, the students did not always pay close attention. Some were simply uninterested. Many were glued to their phones. Others were cynical in their questions.


But the Ambleside Member School whose picnic I attended that day, Calvary Schools of Holland (Michigan), was completely different. After a nice meal – and an improvised, student-led game of capture the flag in which everyone willingly participated – the teachers gathered the students in a large circle to discuss their impressions of the Holocaust Museum they had toured that morning.


Each student shared his or her thoughts – not out of compulsion or begrudgingly but wrestling with the deepest questions of our time! We all recoiled when considering how the most advanced and sophisticated society of the time – the country that gave us Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven and Bach – could give itself over to the throes of mass hysteria and nihilism and seek to exterminate an entire race of people, not to mention the fact that that race is God’s chosen people?


These students seemed to grasp the enormity of that exercise. They were polite, respectful, articulate, sad … they shared ideas, emotions, feelings, theories.


One of the hallmarks of the Ambleside Method of education is the use of narration, whereby the student reads a text once and then “tells back” what he or she has read. The same applies to the observance of works of art and of nature; students are able to pull so much detail from a highly developed habit of attention through this method.


That, too, was readily apparent from the discussion. The Museum contained a number of works of art illustrating the devastation of the Holocaust. The careful observation by these students, conveyed respectfully and thoughtfully, with plenty of time to ponder, yielded a treasure trove of insights.


It was as if I was witnessing a graduate level seminar in moral philosophy, ethics, and logic; not in a self-absorbed, pretentious, or cynical way, but rather with open minds, seeking the leading of the Holy Spirit.


Most school groups skip the Holocaust Museum and instead opt for something a little lighter and more interactive, like the Spy Museum. Nothing wrong with that outlet, mind you, but the willingness to grapple with the most difficult questions of our time, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, is a touchstone of our model.


If fact, I would humbly posit that any Christian parent who saw what I did would send their children to an Ambleside school!


Ambleside is based on the philosophy of Charlotte Mason, a British educator who believed that education involves three primary aims:


1.      Cultivating the Knowledge of God


Of the three sorts of knowledge proper to a child, the knowledge of God, of man, and of the universe, — the knowledge of God ranks first in importance, is indispensable, and most happy-making.1


Let them grow up, too, with the shout of a King in their midst. There are, in this poor stuff we call human nature, founts of loyalty, worship, passionate devotion, glad service, which have, alas! to be unsealed in the earth-laden older heart, but only ask place to flow from the child’s. There is no safeguard and no joy like that of being under orders, being possessed, controlled, continually in the service of One whom it is gladness to obey.2


2.     Transforming Disposition to Character


The child brings with him into the world, not character, but disposition. He has tendencies which may need only to be strengthened, or, again, to be diverted or even repressed. His character — the efflorescence of the man wherein the fruit of his life is a-preparing — is original disposition, modified, directed, expanded by education; by circumstances; later, by self-control and self-culture; above all, by the supreme agency of the Holy Ghost, even where that agency is little suspected, and as little solicited.3


3.     Establishing Many Relations


We consider that education is the science of relations, or, more fully, that education considers what relations are proper to a human being, and in what ways these several relations can best be established; that a human being comes into the world with capacity for many relations; and that we, for our part, have two chief concerns––first, to put him in the way of forming these relations by presenting the right idea at the right time, and by forming the right habit upon the right idea; and, secondly, by not getting in the way and so preventing the establishment of the very relations we seek to form.4


They [children] come into the world with many relations waiting to be established; relations with places far and near, with the wide universe, with the past of history, with the social economics of the present, with the earth they live on and all its delightful progeny of beast and bird, plant and tree; with the sweet human affinities they entered into at birth; with their own country and other countries, and, above all, with that most sublime of human relationships––their relation to God.5


I started this piece by asking what we, parents, want for our children. In a way, though, we are also asking what we want for ourselves. Because, in the end, don’t we all want to be able to pay closer attention to the working of the Holy Spirit, to be able to hear and discern the Holy Spirit’s teaching, wisdom, and guidance in each part of our own lives as we seek to make sense of this life? Come, Holy Spirit, come.


Dean Peterson
Executive Director

1 Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989), 158.
2 Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989), 57.
3 Ibid., 23.
4 Charlotte Mason, School Education (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989), 65-66.
5 Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989), 72-73.