Compassion, Choice and the Constitution

I have not been as active an educator as I’d like these days. My mother took a fall in November, and the time came for her to move into assisted living after several years of frequent ER visits and concern over her nutrition and other activities of daily living. Assisted living is something of a misnomer, I’ve discovered, because even with all of the assistance she has there I have needed to completely take over her finances, her home, her medical appointments, and advocacy with the staff.

I was treated well as a child – my parents took good care of me and ensured I would grow up to be an educated, responsible woman. My mom even sowed the seeds of feminism into my young soul. Yet I would not consider myself close to my mom, despite having weekly contact with her. In fact I’ve only survived the emotional rigors of her care by thinking of her as a client rather than as a parent. She can be a difficult person, and I’ll leave it at that.

Legally, I could walk away from her. There are no filial laws in this state; I could leave her to deal all alone with the IRS, with her many pains, with people who would take advantage of her. As an adult she has the right to her own decisions and the right to the consequences of those decisions. She has no “right” to be cared for under the Constitution. Yet Mom would surely have died, at one point several years ago, had I not stepped in.  I care for her out of love and moral responsibility, what the old fashioned call “duty.”

Another group that has no “right” to care is the unborn up to 20 weeks of gestation, according to Roe v. Wade. Those who advocate for greater access to abortion say that the care of the preborn infant – the provision of life support, when you get right down to it – should be the choice of the woman in whose uterus the baby resides. These women want to be able to walk away. Those who advocate a right to life find that appalling. It is most certainly as morally wrong to abort your infant child as it is to abandon a parent. Yet many women do so because it’s easier to abdicate responsibility if no one knows you had it in the first place.

The third group that has few rights in this regard are immigrants. I hesitate to say they have no rights under the law, but the far right has a point when they say foreign nationals have no “right” to cross our borders. In fact, the Washington lawsuit against Mr. Trump’s executive order banning entry to nationals of 7 countries was successful because they argued that it is the businesses in our state that have the right to employ them once they become legal, and that to allow them entry and then capriciously deny it to them hurts these companys’ chances for success. It’s an impediment to commerce. The only “right” these immigrants have is spelled out in a 1965 law that states the U.S. must not discriminate in allowing entry based on religion or nation of origin. This is the law that prioritized familial relationships over national quotas. It kept us from preferring Northern Europeans above all others and has greatly improved the level of melanin in our national skin tone. Given that only 7 Muslim nations were named, however; it will be difficult to prove that the intent of the EO was to discriminate against Muslims.

What do these groups have in common? The elderly, the unborn, and the alien have no right to our care under the Constitution. We show who we are as a people by how we treat those who need us. We have a moral imperative to accompany the elderly on their final journey, to support new life until it can support itself, and to welcome the alien until they become one of us.

And yet, there is a difference. You see, even if no law protects the elderly and the unborn, we can choose as citizens to act according to our best instincts. No one can prevent me from caring for Mom. No one could have forced me to kill the child in my womb. In those situations it is good to have a choice. There are people who were abused or abandoned by their parents, surely we can’t force them to care, just as we can’t really force a woman to bear the child of rape or incest, or to bear a child that could destroy her health were it to come to full term. That’s why we have those choices, because we don’t know the particulars of everyone’s circumstances. We can still be a nation that does the right thing no matter what the law says.

Surely there are situations that would prevent us from welcoming everyone into our country, hence we give that choice to our executive. We, as individuals, cannot legally welcome the stranger without the permission of the government. We can be prevented from doing good by the stroke of a pen. Supported by people who, in their xenophobia, fear the stranger more than they fear drunken Axelrod with his massive gun collection, the president can shut down our boarders to people fleeing violence. In doing so, he’s ensured that only our own will kill us, that’s certain. But he has also shut out the doctor that could save us, the engineer who may fix the bug in your computer, the future teachers, restaurant owners, cleaners, farmers and everyone else who just needs a safe place to start over. By exercising his choice, he has taken away ours. We can’t do the right thing until he does.

The Year in Books 2016

A new year, a new look at the books of the past year!

In rereading my book blog of 2015, I discovered that while the sea beckoned me then, it would be the farm that captured my attention in 2016. This was the year my daughter and I discovered Wendell Berry, Willa Cather, Jane Smiley, and Stella Gibbons. I read two of Berry’s works set in rural Kentucky, in the fictional town of Port William: Jayber Crow tells the story of the town barber who is accepted into the Port William Membership as a young man and lives out his entire life there, never starting a family but intimately involved in the lives of others. Hannah Coulter is an honest, sensitive tale of womanhood told from the perspective of an aging, widowed grandmother who feels the loss of her children when their education takes them away from their roots. Willa Cather’s One of Ours  won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize: it tells the story of a young man who feels trapped in caring for the family farm, finding escape in his education and finally in war. I also read O Pioneers! about a Swedish immigrant family trying to successfully farm in Nebraska. Both Cather novels have dark endings, but I want to finish the trilogy that is started by O Pioneers! and I’m about a third of the way through Song of the Lark.

ccfStella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is a hilarious novel about a farm family under the powerful but depressed misrule of an aunt/mother who had once been traumatized by “something nasty in the woodshed.” It had an oddly satisfying appeal to the side of me that just wants to fix people. The most modern novel I read was Some Luck by Jane Smiley. It, too, takes place on a farm, and covers two generations starting just after WWI. I found I better recognized the teenaged sons in this family than in Cather’s or Berry’s books, and I hope she writes another novel with these characters.

I think in these books my Lord was preparing me to deal with my uncle’s passing in June. He left me a sheaf of letters from my grandmother and great grandmother. It was out of such a life that my parents and grandparents came to the West Coast, from rural Iowa. Their letters were filled with the weather and the harvest, and family visits. With  the simultaneous longing for exotic places and pining for home.

ciagobI did have time to finish a few science books with my daughter. We read both Life Itself by Boyce Rensberger and A Meaningful World by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathon Witt. Life Itself covers cell biology, including embryology and biochemistry, while Meaningful World covers chemistry, biochemistry, mathematics and art to make the argument that our world is designed, not a happy accident. While I found their constant grinding on the ax of “materialist reductionism” a bit overworked, I did find that both books together provided a framework for me to consider if and how something as clearly tragic and immoral as abortion can still be a legal choice. Life Itself would not be an enjoyable book for someone who believes in 5 days of creation, or the literal hand of God in the forming of life, but it is nonetheless the most living book on the topic I have seen yet. We also checked out Clouds in a Glass of Beer by Craig Bohren, about atmospheric physics. It was much more challenging than I expected, and I was delighted when the author emailed me to answer our questions.

cbcMissT’s last year of school afforded me the chance to introduce her to my very favorite books from high school: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis’s retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, and Cry, the Beloved Country – Alan Paton’s moving tale of South Africa. So of course I reread them and of course I recommend them. Also, her graduation gave me permission to indulge in a little fantasy, so I completed Brandon Sanderson’s first (and only) two Stormlight novels The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance. Kings, magic armor and swords, ordinary people gaining magical powers, scary beasties, bad weather, prophecies. You know, everything you like from a fantasy novel. And 1300 pages each.

My two reading goals for 2017 are both books I’m reading with others: St. Augustine’s Confessions and David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility, a treatise on classical education. There has been something of a debate within the Charlotte Mason community as to whether Mason’s method could be considered to fall under the umbrella of a classical education. On one side there are those who see enough similarity, particularly in choice of reading and subject matter, to consider her grounded in classicism. On the other side are those who feel she had come up with something entirely new, with goals and intentions quite different from classical educationalists. This book influenced the creators of Ambleside Online, and I look forward to reading it with that group of women on the Ambleside forum.

Identity – the Other Side

Of course, there’s always the other side.

I thought of it reading the paper today. There is an editorial ripping into Initiative 1515, a proposal in Washington State to limit the liability of businesses that reserve their bathrooms for persons of one biological/genetic sex or the other and to require schools to deny permission to children who identify with the opposite sex to enter that bathroom, while making an attempt to provide them with suitable facilities.

You can read it here.

What gets me about the above article is this statement: “These laws (anti-discrimination laws from 2006) have functioned as intended, until socially conservative lawmakers this year ginned up absurd, fantastical scenarios about transgender people flashing their genitals at children in bathrooms and locker rooms.”

Um, that’s not quite right.

The scenarios don’t involve transgender people at all. They involve men, full men, men that identify entirely as men, using the law as a way to expose themselves to women and children, for whatever bizarre reason that men do this.

I’ve been flashed several times, and I still don’t understand why men do it. But I know that it makes women feel small and powerless, and a little bit afraid. It reminds us that it’s only a few steps up from a flash to a rape. So it’s illegal. How difficult would it be, honestly, for a man to flash a woman in a locker room, and then tell the authority that she imagined it, he was just minding his own business trying to get dressed. Behavior matters, like I said before, but it sometimes takes a while for certain behavior to be caught and punished. That’s how sexual harassment works: a woman has to endure it a long time, documenting it, before she can be believed.

I have known transgendered women, and one who was in the process. This guy, a coworker, told me that in order for him to be approved for the surgery, he had to live like a woman. He had to “live her truth” so to speak, and using the women’s bathroom was only one of the last stops in a long process. I am sure I’ve shared women’s bathrooms with a dozen men and have not noticed – because that’s the point. Behavior matters. If there’s no way to tell if your man is transitioning, if he/she makes no effort to “live their truth” and then exposes quite another truth to you, then how do you know? If you write the law and leave out protections that recognize this conundrum, then you’ve failed to protect at least 49% of the population from the kind of people who could use the law as a shield. That’s a real concern; it has nothing to do with hate. I have no interest in walking in on the full monty in the YMCA shower room and then trying to determine if it’s safe to take my clothes off.

Rather than accusing people who struggle with these issues of “hatred” we would do well to find a third way, one that does not involve entrenching ourselves in the purity of our positions. Those businesses working to improve the privacy of their bathrooms are to be commended. Schools can employ adult “bathroom monitors” to ensure that children are not violating one another’s privacy while allowing transgendered kids the freedom to use the restroom they need to. Whatever! Let’s just think practically and assume the best of those who care enough to argue about it.

Today I learned that the entire town of Fallujah, in Iraq, is starving to death. Literally starving to death, because two sides are entrenched in their positions and can’t agree long enough to get food to them.

We can do better.


I identify as a feminist.

Mostly, I am an old-school feminist from the 70’s and 80’s. Old school feminists tend to hold on to the notion that to be feminist means that you believe that women are capable of doing anything that men can. Radical old-school feminism believes that all gender difference, outside of reproductive equipment, is culturally defined, that there are no true differences between the sexes. Therefore, women should have the same opportunities as men, women should be paid the same as men for the same work, and women should not be relegated to a subservient role in the family – marriage is a pact between equals.

By the 90’s, this position softened a bit. Statistically, some tendencies were identified as feminine and others as masculine. The point then became to value that which is feminine and that which is masculine equally, and to accept that these characteristics can appear in either gender.

I will know that this attitude has taken hold when a man can dress in women’s clothes without social stigma, just as women can dress in men’s clothes. That hasn’t happened yet. We understand and applaud women who want to take on male characteristics and male occupations, but we’re not all there yet when it comes to men. While the growing number of men who put in equal time caring for their small children is heartening, the stay-at-home dad is still sometimes considered a freeloader.

Identity is tricky, because consistency is something we long for as human beings, yet the world is just not that consistent.

I was going to stay out of the bathroom debate, until I saw this video:

Because I find it vaguely annoying that someone would go to my alma mater to play “Gotcha” with young students who don’t have enough experience in the world to respond thoughtfully, I think someone needs to educate the Family Policy Institute on just what constitutes “identity.”

Family Policy Institute, like many Christian organizations, finds it necessary to remind people that yes, there is absolute, objective truth out there. They’ve reduced the truth about human identity to the following: Men are men because they have a penis, women are women because they have a vagina and mammaries. So the interviewer, Joseph Backholm, decided to drive this reductionist point home by taking on some other identities and seeing how UW students reacted. He asked them what they would say if he told them he was 7 years old. Or Chinese. Or 6’5″. All of which left the students uncomfortable, but standing their ground on his right to identify himself however he wished, physical evidence to the contrary. FPI takes this as evidence that today’s youth are doomed.

Obviously, Backholm isn’t 7 years old. Chronologically. Yet there’s a 29 year old woman at my church who has the mind and skill set of a 7 year old. She wears her hair in pigtails, plays with toys, watches cartoons, and in a sing-song voice reminds me about her birthday 2 months in advance. She requires care and supervision. While she is physically able to have children, I would not have put my children in her care because for all practical purposes, she is a child herself.

Backholm doesn’t look Chinese. However, I have a Filipina friend who looks African American. She was born and raised in the Philippines, however, so that makes her Filipina, does it not? My Mexican coworker’s father was Swedish. She doesn’t look Mexican, but she speaks Spanish and makes tamales and misses her country. There are people born and raised in China of British parentage. Backholm could very well be Chinese, and it’s certainly his prerogative to say he’s Chinese. What makes a person American? Can you tell by looking at them?

Backholm is not 6’5″. Ok, there you got me. I could get a ruler and measure him and say nope, you are only 5’10”. Or, 70″. Or 177.8 cm. But that isn’t identity, is it? That’s merely a physical characteristic. I thought we were getting away from basing identity on physical characteristics, such as the color of one’s skin, or height, or dress size.

The point is that sex and height are physical characteristics that are small parts of identity. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct that is a result of two things: 1) statistical preferences and skill sets associated with a given sex, 2) social roles associated with, and sometimes assigned to, a person of a given sex. Because human society has spent hundreds of years determining the full meaning of gender, for better or worse, it’s not going away soon. People whose desires and preferences and skill sets match the opposite sex are in something of a social bind. Our human drive for consistency will lead us to try and make a match. Technology has made that possible for transgendered persons.

The reason those college students were uncomfortable was because Backholm’s behavior did not match his claims. He did not dress like a woman, he did not speak with a Chinese accent, and he was not carrying his toy truck with him. A transgendered person is in that bathroom to behave consistently with their gender, and their privacy needs are more like those of the opposite sex. Therefore, he will be dressed and shaved like a woman in the woman’s bathroom, and she will have her lady parts covered in the men’s bathroom. If this is not so then yes, you can be suspicious and uncomfortable. Behavior matters. A pair of size 12 pumps in the stall next to me worries me a lot less than the woman’s face peering in through a crack in the stall door (no doubt checking to be sure I don’t have a penis).

Take faith, for example. I identify as a Christian. We know there are Christians who look like they just stepped out of gangs, with piercings and tattoos and the like. We know Christians who swear and listen to rough music. We don’t judge Christians by their appearance, but by their beliefs and behavior. Gradually, we find that Christians adopt a “look” and a standard of behavior that is consistent with mature belief informed by the Bible, while at the same time we recognize the diversity of cultures that fit under the Christian umbrella.

Family Policy Institute would do well to concentrate on bathroom policy that truly helps families, such as baby changing tables in men’s bathrooms, than to try and convince people that adopting a simplistic view of the world is going to make abuse disappear. We’ve attached a lot of complicated baggage to the sexes, and it’s going to take a while before men can be comfortable as men in dresses, or women can likewise be themselves around other women.


The Year in Books 2015

Happy new year, dear friends! Following the lead of my other blogging friends, I think it’s time to start a tradition of posting the books I’ve read this past year (many alongside my daughter), and some of the books I hope to finish in 2016. I would love to hear your favorite books of 2015, if you can take the time to comment, or link to your own book posts!

Some of the books I/we read in 2015

Some of the books I/we read in 2015

It seems I read a lot of survival at sea books, an adventure genre that never gets old for me. I started with Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan and followed that by Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, in which Louis Zamperini follows being shot down and lost at sea with surviving a Japanese POW camp in the latter part of WWII. I then finished this genre streak with Endurance, about Ernest Shackleton’s ill fated trip to Antarctica.

Speaking of sea stories, I finally read Melville’s Moby Dick, a long time bucket list item, as it was on Miss T’s reading list as well. Other literature selections we made it through include Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Hugo’s Les Miserables (I freely admit to skimming through many of Hugo’s digressions – although his assessment of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo is not to be missed), To Kill a Mockingbird (I could read that one again and again), and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, about the emptiness of wealth in 1920’s America.

Along the lines of Gatsby, but written in 2011, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain tells the story of Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson from her point of view. It, too, comes across as a strong indictment of the Jazz Age, and perhaps the trauma of WWI, as gradually a loving couple is torn apart by the excesses of their lifestyle and the ghosts of war. In addition, Miss T and I together read another critical look at WWI from the perspective of a young life torn apart by it: A Testament of Youth, the memoir of feminist, pacifist author Vera Britten.

We finished Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People with The Great Democracies this year, covering the latter half of the 19th century. We also read material from that era in American history, in particular Arguing About Slavery by William Lee Miller. This book examines in excruciating detail the legislative battles over the issue of slavery, which Congress would gladly have avoided, even to the point of writing legislation to ignore any petitions relating to slavery, if not for the work of dedicated abolitionists and John Quincy Adams, who returned to the Senate after his term as POTUS. The parallel to the abortion debate today is unmistakeable: when does a government have the responsibility to make what is arguably immoral, illegal as well?

Science reading, of course, placed high on the list. We read the biography of Marie Curie by her daughter, Eva. We also read the second volume in Asimov’s Understanding Physics, as well as Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman and A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking. We finished The Microbe Hunters by de Kruif, and I detoured into reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which I have yet to finish. We enjoyed two science books that cover topics in biology with a touch of activism:  E.O. Wilson’s Diversity of Life and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. In fact, Miss T has decided she will no longer eat beef that isn’t grass fed, and thanks to Wilson’s idea that our willingness to depart from a limited diet can do much to save plant diversity, she’s tried a couple of exotic fruits that she otherwise would not have allowed into her mouth. A win for bibliotherapy!

There were a number of books I started this year that I didn’t finish, I’m ashamed to admit, but in addition to the book on cancer I also hope to finish Alan Turing: The Enigma, which was a book group selection that has tested my faculties easily as much as the above physics books, and G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which describes how he came to accept the Christian faith in a way that is remarkable dense, but certainly interesting. Now that I’ve read Karen Glass’s book Consider This, which looks at the classical roots of a Charlotte Mason education, I hope to finish David Hicks’s book Norms and Nobility and possibly C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. I intend, too, to give my Spanish a workout by finishing Doña Perfecta. That’s as close to a New Year’s reading resolution as I get, ladies and gents.

Three books that disappointed me were Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (not bad, but perhaps I’m finding the theme of how women can be abused in patriarchal systems a bit tired?), Hardy’s Far from the Maddening Crowd (shudder, but perhaps I didn’t give it enough of a chance, as I had to return it to the library before finishing) and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (just bad, bad, bad – really not worth the time).

My favorite book of 2015? Hands down, it was West With the Night, by Beryl Markham. A contemporary of Ernest Hemingway’s, she grew up in Kenya, and would, as a child, join her native playmates hunting boar, among other adventures. She was by turns a racehorse trainer, a bush pilot, and the first woman to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic. Despite the fact that she had little, if any, formal education, the book is gloriously written. In fact, Hemingway himself had this to say about her:

She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers

If I could only aspire to such lofty heights as a writer.

Yes, I Do Have an Opinion about HR 4038

According the the UNHCR, the refugee agency of the United Nations, there were 4 million, 289 thousand, 792 refugees from Syria spread out among 5 neighboring nations, all of those nations, with the exception of Jordan perhaps, having had recent issues with war and violence themselves. Hence 800,000+ have attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, in addition to trying other routes, routes that have been gradually cut off as European nations feel the strain experienced by Middle Eastern countries as they attempt to meet the needs of a desperate, homeless, frightened group of people.

The borders are porous, which at the moment serves ISIL well, because an easy to penetrate border allows them to continue to fund their caliphate through the sale of contraband, oil, and through cash fundraising. It also allows them to spread their hatred to other countries. It is not hard to imagine, therefore, an ISIL operative entering the ranks of the refugees, just as it is also easy to imagine an intelligence operative entering the ranks of recruits.

The plight of 4 million people is hard to ignore. Taking 10,000 (.25%) of those people does not seem like too much to ask, yet our country is like the urban homeowner responding to homelessness. You want to allow homeless people to stay in your home, you know that the majority of people are law abiding, decent people, but it only takes one to steal from you or knife you in your sleep. However, most of us don’t spend 2 years vetting every potential resident in our homes. The U.S. does.

Evidently, it is difficult to obtain good information from Syria these days. The Washington Post reports that FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress last month that  “Although…the process has since ‘improved dramatically,’ Syrian refugees will be even harder to check because, unlike in Iraq, U.S. soldiers have not been on the ground collecting information on the local population. ‘If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data,’ he said. ‘I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.'”

FBI Director James Comey in 2013

FBI Director James Comey in 2013

So the motivation behind the House Republican sponsored H.R. 4038 appears to be, on the surface, the safety of the American people. Just an additional layer of security. It is so deceptively reasonable that 47 House Democrats voted in favor of it. All Congress asks is that the FBI director and the director of Homeland Security personally certify  that a “covered alien” (that is, a refugee from Syria or Iraq) does not pose a threat to the United States, and reports monthly to 12 Congressional committees. It bumps the background check process to the highest level of government. But they assure us that it will have no appreciable impact on our refugee program, except to make it safer.

I find it terribly disingenuous for the party of no gun control to be suddenly so concerned for the safety of the American people.

The sincerity test would be to apply the wording of H.R.4038 to gun control. What if everyone who bought a gun had to be certified as no threat to the American people by the director of the FBI? No one waits two years in this country to purchase a gun, and to have the highest police officer in the land certify you as safe? The idea is laughable; of course that would bring gun sales to a virtual halt and the politicians advocating for such a change would find themselves on the NRA’s blacklist. The slaughter of innocent Americans is a “tragic but acceptable risk” for the sake of 2nd Amendment freedom, but no risk is acceptable for the sake of compassion.

Once James Comey made the statement that it would be impossible to know everyone’s story for sure, Republicans found the perfect way to impede the progress of compassion under Obama’s plan; there is no way Comey can sign off after saying what he’s said without some major change to the program. And, predictably, Comey has balked at this legislation. Who knows how long it could take, and whether it can be done without sending foot soldiers to Syria, against Obama’s better judgement.

Even during the Cold War we could not certify that there were not spies among the defectors that eventually made it to the United States. The fact is that no one, not anyone can guarantee that anyone else, stranger or neighbor, is perfectly safe. To expect that sort of guarantee before you offer safe haven to the refugee is ludicrous. Surely there are better ideas out there?

Meanwhile, millions of refugees are crowding into nations that can barely hold their own in the international community, and ISIL is using the internet to recruit disaffected youth from all parts of the world. In fact, Comey testified in writing in October “It is no longer necessary to get a terrorist operative into the United States to recruit.” ISIL wants to take us from within, using terrorists sprouted out of our own soil and nourished from afar by their propaganda. This was the case in Paris, in Nigeria, in Mali. H.R. 4038 is a smokescreen, a diversion that hands ISIL exactly what it wants.

A nation willing to risk the lives of its young men and women in a ground war overseas can surely risk its own comfort and convenience to care for its victims.



Charlotte Mason for Children with Special Needs, Part 2

In my last post, I related how two of Charlotte Mason’s three instruments of education – discipline and life – allow our special needs children to partake of the great feast that is their schooling. By saying that education is life, we acknowledge that our children crave knowledge to the same degree as typical children, and that no area should be closed off to them. By saying that education is discipline, we look at therapy with new eyes, in the hope that learning skills consciously will allow our kids to overcome at least some of their obstacles.

Education is an Atmosphere

Now I will turn to education as an atmosphere. When Mason said that education is an atmosphere, she was not referring to the decor or the background music. She mocks that sort of thinking in Volume 6, the idea of education by osmosis, and I have to admit that having placemats of the U.S. states and the periodic table did not magically help my kids learn their geography or their elements. Atmosphere refers to something modern educators came to realize when they started making the connection between children missing meals at home and their grades at school. If you don’t have your basic needs met at home, you aren’t going to learn in school.

Atmosphere refers to to healthy food, adequate sleep, exercise and fresh air (in Mason’s day, the air was heavy with the products of combustion – ventilation was a must if you expected kids to concentrate). Our kids may have some additional needs that need to be met: their diets may have to be restricted, they may need to bounce as they listen to a story, they may have to wear soft clothing with no labels, special glasses, hearing aids. Their physical needs must be attended to before they can do the work of meeting their academic needs.

The emotional atmosphere is also important – parental authority must be well established and “the strong must not lay their burdens on the weak.” Further, children must be spared the effort of decision (although they don’t need to have all choice removed). The structure of the day, for example, is the parent’s job to establish. This creates a secure environment, and doubly so for our special needs kids. However, kids are not to be sheltered. A wide variety of social interaction is necessary and normal for our kids, the child is not to be “isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared” but allowed to “live freely among his proper conditions.”

The Method

Moving from principles to method, there are aspects of how Mason put her ideas to practice that are already well suited to our children.

  1. Lessons are very short, and varied. This is particularly of value to our ADD/ADHD kids. A lesson may be 5 minutes long, and lessons only reach the 50 minute mark in high school. Our kids may not get to that point, but some will.
  2. Mason encouraged daily out of door time, and some sort of daily exercise or drill. Everyone wins with this.
  3. With varied lessons and activities, one will inevitably support another. A child whose hand struggles to write will be strengthened by piano playing and handicrafts, for example.
  4. Mason said “Let there be a definite time table.” Autistic children feel secure with a lot of structure, and understand better the passage of time. We invested in a tool called the time-timer to keep us both on track. It helped ensure that I didn’t plan lessons that were overly long.
  5. For kids with auditory processing issues, there is less reliance on having to listen to a teacher talk. This gave my daughter time to work up to listening to lectures.
  6. The writing process is broken down into its component parts: copywork, dictation and finally composition. In school, kids are expected to handle letter formation, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and composition all by the age of 7, all at once. Mason recognized that as insanity. Miss T. had issues with eye tracking, so even copying letters was a huge challenge. And the concept of invented spelling made her crazy – if it didn’t look like what she saw in the book, it wasn’t right. Mason’s idea of ensuring the child never sees a word spelled wrong sat well with Miss T.
  7. Hands-on activity, or “education by things” receives equal billing with education by books – or at least books have a supporting role. Science, nature study, handicrafting, these are legitimate areas of study. So a child need not feel handicapped by language if they can draw what they see, or engineer their ideas in some form.
  8. The absence of cramming, or of memorizing isolated bits of information is a relief to those who struggle with short term memory issues.


Even given all of the above, there are aspects of Mason’s ideals that are extraordinarily difficult for those of us with kids who struggle with language. Mason believed in the power of language, in learning multiple languages, and her expectation was that children would easily catch on to difficult vocabulary as long as they had the power of attention to do so. She believed that even slower children had this power. So it is hard not to feel bitter when our children look at us blankly after a reading, without the power of expression, without the ability to make sense of words on a page. In order for our kids to access the power of a Mason education, then, it is possible to support them without departing from the method. Supports can be gradually lessened or even removed over time.

  1. Task your child only with what they can accomplish perfectly. If your child is 10 years only and can only read at the level of a first grader, then that’s where you start. If they can only make straight lines, but not curves, then that’s where you start.
  2. Find the next increment. It may be smaller than you would expect of a typical kid. They may not write capital A’s, but can make upside-down V’s. So there you are. Or, maybe they need to start with cursive writing if they tend to reverse their letters when they print. They may not complete a paragraph for their first written narration, but perhaps they can caption a picture.
  3. Use technology, but sparingly. Just because they cannot read on their own yet does not mean they can’t comprehend it read aloud. This does not mean you quit trying to get them to read their own material, you just don’t close off their access to great works because they can’t read for themselves. The same goes for writing. My daughter is a fluent typist, her written narrations are three times as long typed as written. However, there is a place for handwriting and we don’t give that up. The kid who just can’t memorize his multiplication tables may still be able to comprehend how to solve a tricky algebra problem.
  4. Many children, such as kids with Down’s Syndrome, will need the support of pictures as they learn to translate language into mental images and vice versa. Children who cannot speak can manipulate pictures or figures to narrate while you verbalize what they are trying to communicate.
  5. The choice of reading programs for kids with dyslexia is a controversial one within the Mason community. Most specialists recommend a phonics-based approach, while Mason’s approach was decidedly visual. Because people with dyslexia can learn to read, I would be willing to assume that it was more important to Mason that children be able to access the written word in whatever manner – the most important thing to her was that children belong to the group of people who “read and think.” I think the same is true for math. Mason had ideas about math, she knew it was hard for some kids, but she encouraged them to develop the discipline to solve problems with speed and accuracy.

Education is a lifelong endeavor, and for some of our kids their basic education will not end at age 18. There will be weeks without progress, months of slow progress, and then remarkable breakthroughs. It will feel like all of your time is spent with the neediest child. Give yourself grace, get professional support if you can, and don’t ever give up. And pray.