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Must We Read Only Christian Authors for Science

I frequently receive the following question, or some form thereof. I thought it might be time to answer it here.

I am wondering about the Christian content, or lack thereof, in your science guides and the books they accompany. Could you share a bit about your philosophy in this area and how that philosophy plays out in your science guides?

I guess the first thing you need to know is that I am a Christian. I proclaim those words with tears in my eyes because I know that it was only my Lord’s love for me that made my salvation possible, with exactly zero effort or warranting on my part.**

The next thing you need to know is that while I am amazingly grateful for Christian authors and publishers that focus on the field of science, having “Christian” stamped on the cover does not tell me what I need to know about a book.

What I need to know is this:

Is it a living book? It is our children’s due to be provided material that is living. No sawdust should be provided, no matter who published it. What good is it to offer a Christian text that does not cooperate with the divine Spirit? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Charlotte Mason said it plainly,

The mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body; there are no organs for the assimilation of the one more than of the other.” (Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 105)

A textbook is a textbook is a textbook. And textbooks don’t inspire. Even if they are written by a young earth Christian publisher or a Christian publisher who doesn’t adhere to a “literalistic model of the earth.” Even if they claim to have one author, or they claim to keep the textbook small and manageable. (I’ll have to write another blog about when a textbook is not really a textbook. I’ll give you a hint at my answer: a textbook is always a textbook.)

Is it inspiring? This world we live in — with its butterflies and stem cells, its laws and slime, its hydrocarbons and wildflowers — is GOD’s world! If we studied the Bible in a way that left our children uninspired, would we not consider what we were doing wrong? How can we then propose to study the world God made without caring if our children are inspired. That doesn’t mean they must all become scientists, but as Miss. Mason said, “Where science does not teach a child to wonder and admire it has perhaps no educative value.” (Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 224)

Does the author mock Christianity in any way? There is absolutely NO need for that. There have been books I’ve come across that were antagonistic towards Christian beliefs. I have one in mind that I had high hopes for, but there is no question on this. I will never use a book like that. It’s one thing for the author to be blind, but it’s another for them to be hostile.

Is the author pushing an agenda? There was a time in history, say the early to mid-1900s when the authors of good living science books didn’t push an agenda. They simply told about the plants or animals, or the laws of physics and chemistry without any added commentary. Even in the few chapters that recounted the formation of the universe, they just plainly said what they thought and moved on. It’s pleasant to read these books because a student can learn about the world God created without any social input from the author.

But lest you think this is only a fault of non-believers, remember that not all Christians think alike either. I don’t want anyone to push their agenda onto my children, Christian or not. I prefer that the input my children receive in their early years come only from their dad and me.

Or are they simply telling a version of events? Earth science books are often seen as the most questionable because they usually include a rendition of how the world was created. It can actually be funny because each book tells a different tale. Before reading all of these science books I thought there were only two main schools of thought, but I was very wrong. I should note that I am most comfortable skipping those chapters in a child’s early years, but as they enter form 3 (gr. 7-8) I think there is value in our students learning just how much confusion there really is on these ideas. We are all speculating, believers and unbelievers alike.

Another interesting thing I’ve found is that many science authors, despite the fact that they seem likely to be unbelievers, can’t wholly reject the idea that there is a Creator. Recently I was reading a section of The Planets with a class of adult students. The author commented on the way the moon so perfectly fits in front of the sun during an eclipse:

Is it an accident that the Solar System’s lone inhabited planet possesses the only satellite precisely sized to create the spectacle of a total solar eclipse? Or is this startling manifestation of the Sun’s hidden splendor part of a divine design?” (Sobel, The Planets, p. 27)

The students, a group of parents, recognized how awe inspiring the short reading was, even though the author started the chapter by stating that light in the Sun may journey for a million years before breaking out and finding it’s way to earth.

I have never been more in awe of God’s creation as I was while reading that book. This is the most important thing in my opinion. Great authors tell with the most beautiful and inspiring language about the world God made, causing us to marvel at His handiwork despite the fact that the one pointing to the splendor (the author) may not even know Whom he is pointing to. It’s like beautiful art made by a self-proclaimed atheist, or beautiful poetry written by someone who doesn’t know the Creator of all things beautiful. In the end, every knee will bow.

If we carefully avoid those who unknowingly point to His revelation but speculate incorrectly about what it all means or how it all came to be, we might cause our kids to miss the revelation altogether.

Is the book either separating the intellectual and spiritual life of children or artificially cramming them together? Charlotte Mason’s 20 principle says,

We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.” (Mason, Towards A Philosophy of Education, p. xxix)

When we respond from a spirit of fear, fear that our child will not form a personal relationship with his Lord, fear that he will be misled or brainwashed by unbelievers, we can often make choices that overshoot that sweet spot, where we work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit to educate our children.

I recently read the first page of a Christian textbook, which began by explaining that there are different kinds of knowledge: one kind of knowledge is truth, revealed to us by God, and another kind of knowledge is scientific law and theory. While this sounds reasonable enough, it’s not acceptable. All truth is God’s truth and “scientific laws” are God’s laws. Of course, sometimes we only think we have a scientific law figured out, but, in fact, we have it wrong. This doesn’t make God’s laws any less His. Let a child read just one science biography, and he will have an idea of how often scientist have gotten things wrong. At the same time, let him read current events about a new “proven scientific fact, ” and he will understand that discernment is in order.

Charlotte Mason says that the attitude of parents and teachers “towards the great idea, great lesson, set for his age to grasp, is a vital part of the parents preparation.” (Mason, School Education, p. 159) She speaks in depth about the great idea of her time, which was evolution, and how men responded to it. Either they were 1) triumphant that moral difficulties may be over, essentially eliminating the need for religion; or 2) they looked for a middle ground, a reconciliation between science and religion; or 3) they reputed evolution and nailed their colors to religion. (p.156) But Charlotte Mason clarified that we must, “first of all settle it with ourselves that science and religion cannot, to the believer in God, by any possibility be antagonistic.” (p.156)

In Conclusion

These are the things I consider, then. Is it a textbook or in anyway mocking Christianity or pushing an agenda from either side? Then it’s out. Is it inspiring and thought provoking? Then I will consider it. Which means you can count on the following from me:

  • I do not always use books written by Christians. I do hope that some of our children become beautiful writers and that a few of those become beautiful science writers though. That would be wonderful.
  • I do reference Bible verses in my guides, once in a while. However, I try very hard never to tell students what to think. I just want them TO think, and then you can have robust discussions with them. In one guide, I pointed out that the section the student just read might have been uncomfortable to read. I simply reminded them that people don’t have all the answers, but our God is Master and Creator of this universe, and we can rest in that security.
  • A public charter school uses my curriculum, but for them, I remove any Bible verses I include in the regular copy. I have every hope and expectation that the children there will be exposed to God’s power and beauty without my spelling it out in so many words. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20)
  • It doesn’t matter whether I believe in a literalistic model of Creation or not. Either way, I won’t push my opinions onto your children. That is overstepping.

I hope this gives you an idea of where I’m coming from. You may not agree, and that is fine. There are other options available. But I would warn that if you intend to follow a Charlotte Mason education, textbooks of any kind are a deal-breaker.

The ends of the earth stand in awe at the sight of your wonders.
(Psalm 65)

Science Textbooks – Why Not?

I frequently use the following quote when pleading that people not subject their child to science instruction by way of a textbook:

“The mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body; there are no organs for the assimilation of the one more than of the other.” (Towards A Philosophy Of Education, p. 218)

Sawdust. That should close the book on this question, right? But you might think your child can handle a bit of sawdust in their meal, as long as it comes with a side of real food. I hear this is the case with packaged grated cheese these days, after all. But Mason tells us not to bother because our kids’ minds will reject it:

“Again, we have made a rather strange discovery, that the mind refuses to know anything except what reaches it in more or less literary form.“ (Towards A Philosophy Of Education, p. 256)

I suspect it’s the same with the cheese. The manufacturers know it will just pass right on through us, and they assure us that it won’t hurt us, so how can it be a big deal? I suspect it’s a very big deal – both the wood coated cheese and the textbook.

Just in case you need convincing that Miss. Mason held this same opinion of science books, and not just the books in other subjects, she makes herself clear:

“Books dealing with science as with history, say, should be of a literary character, and we should probably be more scientific as a people if we scrapped all the text-books which swell publishers’ lists and nearly all the chalk expended so freely on our blackboards.” (Towards A Philosophy Of Education, p. 218)

Still, some people persist. Possibly because they cannot see how their students can gather all the facts needed to pass a test someday and secure their future if they only read living books. Mason eases these fears by confirming that our children will remember all the facts they need to:

“A first condition of this vitalising teaching is that all the thought we offer to our children shall be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do; given the vitalising idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea as upon a peg capable of sustaining all that it is needful to retain.” (Parents and Children, p. 277)

Charlotte Mason is so good at saying what she means to in so few words. In that single sentence, she tells us what we must do (only offer living thought,) what we must not do (offer dry summaries of facts,) and she settles our mind that the children will be able to gather the information they need. She gently appeals to us as loving and concerned parents. But in the next sentence she lays down the hammer:

“We begin by believing in the children as spiritual beings of unmeasured powers––intellectual, moral, spiritual––capable of receiving and constantly enjoying intuitions from the intimate converse of the Divine Spirit.” (Parents and Children, p. 277)

If you are like me, you needed to read that last sentence a few times. Our children, children of God, are capable of receiving intuitions from the Holy Spirit. Would we stand in the way of that? Charlotte Mason tells us that “to accept and invite the daily, hourly, incessant co-operation of the divine Spirit in…the schoolroom work of our children.” To do that we must recognize “that the Spirit is life; therefore, that which is dead, dry as dust, mere bare bones, can have no affinity with Him, can do no other than smother and deaden his vitalising influences.” (Parents and Children, p. 277)

If we cannot bring ourselves to quit the textbook because our children cannot mentally digest it, and will, in fact, refuse to digest it, and if we cannot quit just because Mason says so, maybe we can quit because the Holy Spirit, the Divine Educator of our children, is life. To stand in His way with that which is dead would be a terrible lack of cooperation on our part.

Science Writing Can’t Survive on Charm Alone

I was asked to do a one-hour science immersion class at the In a Large Room Retreat last month, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable classes I’ve ever done. I was asked to spend 25 minutes doing one lesson with the attendees, and then answer questions for 25 minutes. I used a lesson from my form 3 astronomy guide about the sun.

I set up the lesson by telling them what a student would have learned in the last lesson, and showing them an image they would have seen. My immersion students were picking up right in the middle of the book, and even in the middle of a chapter, so I wanted to give them some foundation. I also prepared them with a few vocabulary words they would see as they read.

I had hoped to read the assigned text aloud because the author of The Planets uses very poetic language, and I thought the parents might have a hard time with it as they may not be used to the style. But I lost my voice on the first day of the retreat and could barely be heard, so I asked the participants to read it to themselves. I think I allowed 10 minutes to read the four-page passage, but I requested that they take it slowly, reading for understanding even if they didn’t get to the end of the section by the time we needed to move on.

When they were through, I asked for an oral narration for the sake of time. I suggested that instead of narrating the passage in order, participates should just tell all the facts they could remember. What did they learn? I had written down six things I thought they might comment on, but the class narrated about fifteen ideas or facts they had read!

I then read aloud a passage from Writing to Learn by William Zinsser.  Zinsser had just quoted two pages of Archie Carr’s So Excellent a Fishe, when he commented:

That’s pleasant writing; we’re there on the beach at Tortuguero, rooting for the turtles and hoping they won’t meet a wari on their crawl to the surf. But the writing couldn’t survive on charm alone; it works because it’s grounded in scientific observation and fact. What sticks out in our mind is the hundred eggs, the digging buzzards, the returning coyotes, the signaling sea.” (p. 129, emphasis mine.)

The students in my immersion class had a similar experience. Dava Sobel, the author of The Planets, has a way with words. It’s pleasant writing. But what stuck out in the minds of my students that day was the facts.

We were not done with the lesson because I always allow a few minutes for students to dig deeper into one idea before ending a lesson. This time we learned a bit more about the counter-intuitive way the sun rotates and how the solar wind creates the northern and southern lights. But an idea was distracting me while we were completing the lesson.

What if I gathered each of the facts that the participants narrated, and I explained them. Maybe I enlisted the help of a colleague to get my explanations just right, and I included a diagram or picture where it might aid the student’s understanding. Is that not the precise description of a textbook? They start with the facts they think the students should learn and then build out. A living book is quite the opposite. The author starts with a big idea and then through charm, as Zinsser says, or simply passion, they tell what they know. The facts glide through, but they are clothed in gripping ideas.

Additionally, how many pages do you suppose it would take me to explain fifteen facts about the sun? I think it might be more than the four standard size pages my students read for this lesson. So not only would I have to lengthen the reading assignment but I wouldn’t have the narrative to carry the reader along.

Some of you might have thought that if your student is to learn the massive amount of common scientific information, he must forgo the living book to make better use of his time. In other words, more can be learned in a shorter amount of time by using a textbook than can be learned when rambling through a living book. I would assert that the opposite is likely true. If you want your student to learn as much as possible, with the added benefit that he may even care about what he learns, you really must avoid textbooks and use living science books instead.

My First Elementary Study Guide!

EL Astronomy-400From the beginning of this venture I knew that I wanted to create study guides for all three levels of science, but I wasn’t sure how that would look for elementary science. There are several parts and pieces involved in a CM elementary science curriculum, that it doesn’t feel like a cohesive plan of study. Not to mention the terminology, which seems to change when you are not looking.

I’m happy to tell you that in the end, it all came together. The various parts and pieces have found their home in this guide: nature lore, science, activities/experiments, objects lessons, special studies, exams and some good old encouragement for the teacher as well. It’s all in here. When you have finished this term, you will have finished what Mason counted as a solid term of elementary science.

I hope you and your children enjoy it!

Astronomy: Elementary Living Science Study Guide

By-and-by he passes from acquaintance, the pleasant recognition of friendly faces, to knowledge, the sort of knowledge we call science. He begins to notice that there are resemblances between wild-rose and apple blossom, between buttercup and wood-anemone, between the large rhododendron blossom and the tiny heath floret. A suggestion will make him find out accurately what these resemblances are, and he gets the new and delightful idea of families of plants. His little bit of knowledge is real science, because he gets it at first-hand; in his small way he is another Linnæus.” (Mason, School Education, 1904, p. 77)

Podcasts on Living Science

Over at A Delectable Education we are in the middle of a series of podcasts on nature study and science. You know it’s my favorite subject, so I’m thrilled that we are exploring it on the podcast. So far we have talked about Nature Study, Nature Lore books and this coming Friday we will air an interview I did with Cheri Struble, an inspiring nature study enthusiast. Next week we will move onto elementary science, and then middle school and high school science rounds out the series. I hope it is really helpful to each of you. You can always ask question on the episode blog post, or on our ADE facebook page, or here.

On another note, what do you think of my new look? I hope it is working well for you. The only problem that I’ve run into so far, is that a few of the pages from my old site will not forward to my new site. If you had any of them bookmarked, you may want to update those. The following are likely the ones you’ll want:

Enjoy!