The Still Progress of Growth

Progress! It’s a modern word to match a modern concept. Observable, calculable, measurable, definable, quantifiable progress! We measure our economic progress from every conceivable angle–new housing starts, consumer confidence, and gross national product. We measure our technological progress–this model is faster, bigger, more powerful, multi-functional. We measure our scientific progress–we gather vast quantities of data, calculate percentages and ratios, and deliver our results as statistics and percentages. Wherever we are today, we know that progress is being made, and tomorrow or next week, or next year, we will be further along the road. Progress means that we are going somewhere!

So when it comes to education,  progress must often be measurable as well. So many pages, so many problems, so many books, so many items checked off the “to do” list for the day. If a child could add 1+1 last week, he needs to add 2+2 this week–and that’s progress. If he worked up to page 10 last week, and up to page 15 this week, then he’s made progress. Or has he? Is progress simply about motion–going somewhere, getting something done, moving along to the next book, or test, or subject?

Charlotte Mason lived at the time when “progressive” education was coming into its own. New ideas, primarily centered around the new interest in science, were the only ones that mattered, and traditions and older methods were discarded simply because they were old. If education was going to “make progress” it had to be going somewhere, and that surely meant leaving the old behind.

Charlotte Mason had something to say about this.

“Is there not some confusion of ideas about this fetish of progress? Do we not confound progress with movement, action, assuming that where these are there is necessarily advance? Whereas much of our activity is like the waves of the sea, going always and arriving never. What we desire is the still progress of growth that comes of root striking downwards and fruit urging upwards. And this progress in character and conduct is not attained through conditions of environment or influence but only through the growth of ideas, received with conscious intellectual effort.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 297.)

This contrasting picture that Charlotte Mason gives us is an excellent way for us to think about our educational progress. Movement and motion are not always “progress”–they do not always carry us forward toward a desired goal, but may be like those ceaseless waves, “going always and arriving never.” The picture of a growing, living tree opens to our minds another idea of progress–the “still” progress of growth.

A growing mind, like a growing tree, might not show visible, tangible progress at any given moment. But what we can immediately observe is not all that there is. Perhaps, deep underground, the roots are lengthening and reaching deeper, anchoring the tree and making it stronger against future storms and winds. Perhaps the trunk itself is thickening and strengthening. Perhaps even now the sap is rising and a burst of visible growth–leaf, flower and fruit–is imminent.

There is a great deal of scope in the tree analogy. Perhaps some branches have failed to produce, or are growing at wrong angles, hindering the growth of other, stronger, more productive branches. When those branches wither and fall, or are cut down, that pruning is part of the tree’s growth. When the tree in full leaf is soaking in the sun, rain, and vital earth, it is producing its own food, and feeding itself, though we cannot see it. Then, of course, there are those seasons of harvest when the tree yields up its fruit, more or less, and each year’s crop is not the same, either in quality or quantity.

When we apply the metaphor of the growing tree to the growing mind and heart, we can comprehend that perhaps there is progress of growth that we may not be able to see or measure. It may be that the ideas from a book will not offer us anything new and fresh, but will reinforce what we already know and believe, thus lengthening and deepening the roots of our foundational knowledge. Another book might force us to view an old idea from a new angle, giving us sharper perspective. A book with which we disagree may strengthen our own position, as we deal with its flaws or errors in reason. When the ideas have truly germinated and grown in our minds, we may find ourselves using them in new and creative ways.

As our minds grow and expand, we may discover that certain assumptions we had been making are wrong. We may run across conflicting ideas, and have to choose between them. We shed our wrong or outgrown ideas as a tree sheds its dead branches. Useful in their time, they are no longer needed. There will be times when it seems that every sermon, book, and even television program will be feeding the same thoughts and ideas, and we feel that our efforts have not been in vain because the relationship with knowledge has become real to us. Opportunities will arise for us to share knowledge and spirit-growth with others in some way. We will bring forth fruit in season, and the seasons follow, one after the other, at their own pace.

Growth of mind cannot be hurried, any more than growth of body. Natural growth is not always even. Some years show more growth than others. If any one part is growing out of proportion to the rest of the body, discomfort and awkwardness may be part of the growing process. If we continue to compare mind-growth to tree-growth, we should consider that the branches of a tree are not always of equal size and strength, and that they grow in every direction. So we may understand and have knowledge that is much greater in some areas, while others are less well-developed. At the same time, healthy, balanced growth should be taking place on several fronts. Heart, soul, mind, and body are important.

Recognizing that we cannot hurry our intellectual or spiritual growth and development (nor that of our children) is not equivalent to doing nothing. In the same way that we feed and exercise our bodies, we must be feeding and exercising our minds. Charlotte Mason tells us that this kind of growth comes by way of “conscious intellectual effort.” We must choose to read and think, to discuss and write, and to select materials that will meet the needs of this season, while allowing for growth in future seasons of our lives.

This comparison of the mind and spirit of man to a growing tree is used in Scripture as well. Psalm one describes this most clearly: “But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and
whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” (Psalm 1:2,3 KJV.)

This kind of growth is not a gift, and it does not happen by accident. It is a result of “conscious effort.” In considering your own growth, or that of your children, you must begin where you are. There will always be people who have read more or know more about any given subject. No matter how many books you have read and will read, there will always be some that you never read. Our focus should not be on comparison–that way lies either pride or discouragement. The growth of heart and mind that leads to character and “magnanimity” will happen only when we consider our own situation and needs.

Have you been “meditating” on God’s Word? Have you selected a challenging book to read this year, perhaps by an author you find difficult? Have you never read poetry or listened to classical music, but desire to do so? Have you always wanted to know more about economics or political theory or biology? None of these things are likely to happen without that “conscious intellectual effort” that leads to growth.

Which brings us to the subject of discipline–a feature of every education, including our own. Charlotte Mason considered discipline to be one-third of the educational process.  If we truly have a desire to know and to grow, it will begin with disciplining ourselves to feed that desire–by reading, thinking, discussing, or writing.

If there are trees around you now, take a look at them. Some time ago, someone with a vision planted those trees. Or perhaps, if you live near a forest, the trees are the natural progeny of the trees that stood there long ago. Many of us, the products of public schools, lack that “natural heritage” of intellectual growth and development. We will have to plant the seeds ourselves if we want to be like the tree planted by the rivers of water. We must discipline ourselves to sow the seeds–to read and think and make conscious intellectual effort–and the still progress of growth will soon be visible progress. Every mighty oak began as an acorn; there are no exceptions.

Copyright 2002 Karen Glass