Best of Afterthoughts, Educational Philosophy

Starving Our Children

February 22, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

Through wisdom is an house builded;
and by understanding it is established:
And by knowledge shall the chambers be filled
with all precious and pleasant riches.


Proverbs 24:3-4

I was reading through the beginning of Charlotte Mason’s A Philosophy of Education last night.  I’ve read this portion a number of times before, but it seems that each time something new jumps out at me. Once, I was struck by the idea that all education is self-education, that the teacher can never compel the child to really know something. Another time, I was struck by the idea that she never offered any “stray lessons” based upon a child’s interest — all of the teaching was methodical because “knowledge is consecutive.”

Starving our Children

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This time, I was struck by the idea that knowledge is the natural food for the child’s soul:

Now, let us consider for a moment the parallel behaviour of body and mind. The body lives by air, grows on food, demands rest, flourishes on a diet wisely various. So, of the mind, — (by which I mean the entire spiritual nature, all that which is not body), — it breathes in air, calls for both activity and rest and flourishes on a wisely varied dietary.

[snip]

The life of the mind is sustained upon ideas; there is no intellectual vitality in the mind to which ideas are not presented several times, say, every day. … Our schools turn out a good many clever young persons, wanting in nothing but initiative, the power of reflection and the sort of moral imagination which enables you to ‘put yourself in his place.’ These qualities flourish upon a proper diet; and this is not afforded by the ordinary school book, or, in sufficient quantity by the ordinary lesson. I should like to emphasize quantity, which is as important for the mind as for the body; both require their ‘square meals.’

It is so tempting (I speak here from experience) to give children hoops to jump through in order to feel like we accomplished something in our days with them. But piling up paperwork or “kinesthetic activities” that “prove” our productivity is not the same as raising children who know:

We come dangerously near to what Plato condemns as “that lie of the soul,” that corruption of the highest truth, of which Protagoras is guilty in the saying that, “Knowledge is sensation.” What else are we saying when we run after educational methods which are purely sensory? Knowledge is not sensation, nor is it to be derived through sensation; we feed upon the thoughts of other minds; and thought applied to thought generates thought and we become more thoughtful.

We classify children as something other than human when we say that they are “too young” to have thoughts, too young to ponder, too young to read thoughtful books. Yes, children are not the same as adults, but having thoughts is a function of the soul  — to assert that children cannot be thoughtful is to deny that they bear God’s image, that they have souls at all.

I see mothers in this world who twist themselves into knots over planning expansive days for their children, full of “learning activities.” They doubt themselves, wonder if they are doing enough — there is so. much. pressure. The child must study P by studying pickles and petunias and peanuts.

The mama is tired.

Charlotte Mason takes all of this chasing after the wind and calls it like it is:

A person is not built up from without but from within, that is, he is living, and all external educational appliances and activities which are intended to mould his character are decorative and not vital.

… [N]o external application is capable of nourishing life or promoting growth; baths of wine, wrappings of velvet have no effect upon physical life except as they may hinder it; life is sustained on that which is taken in by the organism, not by that which is applied from without.

Some of us like more decoration than others. Some of us “wrap ourselves in velvet” while some of us wear jeans. As long as it does not hinder the intellectual life, these things are fine in moderation. But let us tell ourselves the truth: educational games do not provide knowledge. They provide skills. Skills are helpful only insofar as they enable the child to gain access to knowledge.

This is, for instance, why many of us focus on reading skills when children are young. We know that the world of books is the world of ideas, and that they can never reach at ideas themselves if they are illiterate.

The idea that P has anything to do with pickle or petunias is ridiculous. A child that is taught ideas will learn that seeds grow plants which grow cucumbers, which are harvested and prepared using whey or vinegar, aged, and then enjoyed as what we call a pickle but which is really a pickled cucumber.

To say that P can only deal with pickles in a child’s life is to disrespect their ability to understand ideas.

Does this mean it is wrong to read an alphabet book?

I certainly don’t think so.

But perhaps we ought to put the alphabet book in the category where it belongs. It is a skill-building decoration. To the extent that it helps children along the road to reading, it is even a useful decoration.

But it not a substitute for ideas, which are the proper food of the child’s soul.

One of the things I love about Charlotte is that she wasn’t afraid to let a four-year-old completely “waste” a day outside watching ants build a hill or birds build a nest. She didn’t think they needed to be hustled off to the next thing to learn skills.

In the same vein, she didn’t wait for a child to be able to read to encourage their reaching out at ideas. The children were read aloud to  — from broad and varied books of a high literary quality. And then those little illiterates narrated back what they had heard, claiming the ideas as their own, assimilating them into their very souls.

And eventually, with a little skill-work here and there, the reading abilities caught up to the comprehension levels.

To use an analogy: in our world, we approach children in a way that is like taking a four-year-old and saying that, as she is only capable of pouring herself a bowl of cereal by herself, and cannot prepare other foods, therefore this is the diet she ought to subsist upon until she is older and able to make something a little more elaborate.

No.

Just as mommy prepares the child a generous diet regardless of her ability to prepare it herself, so the generous teacher reads aloud from wonderful, beautiful books. We do not assume that just because the child can only make pancakes, therefore she can only appreciate pancakes. Rather, we assume that she can read the pancake books on her own, but that we honor her soul by feeding her generously, even if in the early years it is a feast of the ears rather than the eyes and it is consumed with Mom rather than in solitude.

My son, eat thou honey, because it is good;
and the honeycomb, which is sweet to thy taste:
So shall the knowledge of wisdom be unto thy soul:
when thou hast found it, then there shall be a reward,
and thy expectation shall not be cut off.

Proverbs 24:13-14

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22 Comments

  • Reply Raquel September 22, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    This was a really thought-provoking episode Brandy. My 2 year old son has just started preschool part-time, two mornings a week. He has sensory issues and with my chronic pain, I just can’t satisfy his intense desire at the moment to move his body. I still plan on homeschooling him later though, hopefully when he has calmed down a bit 🙂 Anyway, every time I pick him up from school I am given one or two “crafts” that he “made” (now I understand the lament of mothers everywhere who are inundated with their kiddos “artwork”!). It just reinforces to me the utilitarian nature of progressive education – kids must “produce” to show what they have “learned.” I am not a crafty mama at all, so it’s a relief to know that it doesn’t have to be all about pickles and petunias and peanuts, LoL.
    On another note, is this post in any other format on your website? I want to print it out for my homeschool folder, but as it is, it would include lots of graphics and all the comments (which are great, mind you!) and runs about 18 pages! I would like a more cost efficient version for my ridiculously expensive printer ink, if possible 🙂

  • Reply Thoughtworthy (Charlotte Mason Boot Camp News, Plus Podcast Episodes!) | Afterthoughts September 22, 2017 at 2:01 am

    […] And also, here is the latest AfterCast: […]

  • Reply Samantha September 15, 2017 at 8:27 am

    I’ve tried to listen to this and download it. It isn’t working, and I’ve tried several different browsers several times!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 15, 2017 at 9:06 am

      Oops! It looks like that was added to the post (the post was written a long time ago) before the podcast actually went live. That episode comes out on Thursday, September 21. If you subscribe in iTunes or some other podcast player, it’ll come straight to your device when it’s live. My apologies!

      • Reply Samantha September 16, 2017 at 1:53 am

        Ok thanks! I thought it was live as I found it listed in your podcast section 🙂 I’ll come back next week!

  • Reply Mrs.Momof6 June 1, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    Thank you! You have at once relieved my anxiety and restored my vision with regards to my struggling reader who is 9, and my upcoming eager beaver who is 4.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 1, 2015 at 4:23 pm

      You are so welcome! 🙂

  • Reply Toni May 28, 2015 at 4:53 am

    “But let us tell ourselves the truth: educational games do not provide knowledge. They provide skills. Skills are helpful only insofar as they enable the child the child to gain access to knowledge.” … “But [they are] not a substitute for ideas, which are the proper food of the child’s soul.” These are wonderful ideas on which my mind might feed. Thank you.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 28, 2015 at 8:46 am

      🙂

  • Reply mira April 2, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    I really appreciated this post, so relevant to me as I struggle to balance “catching up” with the checklists of AOy3 and realizing that sometimes (often) the real knowing happens whether I plan for it or not.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 2, 2015 at 6:48 pm

      It is a hard balance to maintain, mira! 🙂

  • Reply Heidi @ Mt Hope April 2, 2015 at 7:16 am

    “The child must study P by studying pickles and petunias and peanuts.” LOL! I am not. this. mom.

    Sometimes I feel like a complete failure as a homeschooling parent. But I rest in the fact that my children are fed at a buffet of knowledge all day long, usually more so when I am not “doing school” with them. I thank God daily for giving me reading children. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 2, 2015 at 7:19 am

      Reading really saves the day, doesn’t it? And truly, one of the things I love about Charlotte Mason was that she admitted that a book could feed a child better than the vast majority of teachers. It’s so *true*! 🙂

      I remember once that Mystie told me that she (who was homeschooled) and her husband (also homeschooled) both felt that their private reading was the most important part of their education. That’s a very powerful thing!

      • Reply Heidi @ Mt Hope April 2, 2015 at 9:26 am

        It’s a weird thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I don’t think my kids are learning something or experiencing something unless I’m there seeing the process. I have to consciously remind myself that they are their own persons and they are developing a world inside their minds and hearts that I don’t necessarily get to see. Maybe that is a harder thing to learn for a homeschooling parent who is with her children for the bulk of their formative and learning experiences. Or maybe it’s just me. 😉

        • Reply Brandy Vencel April 2, 2015 at 6:48 pm

          It’s funny you’d say this, Heidi, because I just talked with a friend about this today — this desire on my part to see evidence a Proof of Learning. I think *many* of us struggle with that! My hope is that my children, if they choose to homeschool, won’t because they are so accustomed to learning being an internal thing…

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 24, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Rebekah, I think you will truly enjoy reading Mason! The funny thing about her is that she really isn’t as original as people think. She even says so in her books. She simply boiled down most of the great thoughts of thousands of years of classical educators into a usable, effective system. Her greatest original (at least, I think it is original) contribution would be the use of narration after every reading.

    GJ, ME TOO!

    Naomi, Thank you. 🙂

    Silvia, I think you are right. In fact, after I wrote this post, I spent an evening discussing the introduction and first chapter of volume 6 (from which I quoted in the post) with some friends, and we realized there were a number of swipes taken at Maria Montessori! I hadn’t noticed that the first time I read it years ago, but I think that was because I wasn’t familiar with Montessori, nor with CM’s feelings about her methods.

    Thank you for the comment, by the way. 🙂

    Karyn, I must say that if you had asked me that when I had only 3 children, I would have been mystified. A child who won’t sit for reading?? HA! The Lord has taught me a lot through having O. He will now, at age 2.5 sit and listen for a whole picture book on occasion. But I was not able to read through a whole book to him until after he turned two! And he has NEVER brought a book to me and asked me to read it.

    In reading through CM, though, I think she actually prefers the outdoors for these little ones. It is there that they learn to understand the real things that their books are about.

    CM says attention can be trained, but with O. I find that means that I teach him to pay attention to his surroundings rather than a book. I do wonder if he won’t learn to read until much older than the other children. For now, most of the reading he hears is during breakfast. He is eating, so he is willing to sit there! 🙂

  • Reply Karyn February 23, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Such a great post! I’ve seen so many moms pack their days full of activities and skill building and your post has articulated beautifully how I feel when I see the crazy chaos that is their jam packed life.
    How do you handle reading to an extremely active, curious 21 month old who can’t sit still for more than a minute or so? I want desperately to spend time reading with H but she is a mile a minute and just doesn’t seem interested. I noticed you don’t mention what you are reading with O. so maybe that is why?

  • Reply Silvia February 22, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    Superb post. This is why precisely Mason objected to María Montessori, if I am not mistaken, because knowledge is not achieved by stimulating the senses.
    I need to see where you wrote about the second thing that you got from reading CM, her 6th volume, what you say about knowledge being consecutive.
    It is so much fashion among “school critics” and in the hs community to tailor the learning to their interests, and to see it as pragmatism (have them DO to learn), which CM did not agree with either for a reason.

    Thanks and congratulations for something so thoughtfully and cleverly analyzed and written.

    I always read you, and I apologize for not commenting much, but I benefit from your “afterthoughts” enormously.

    silvia

  • Reply Naomi February 22, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    So, so true. I love your analogy with food and how ridiculous it would be for us to only feed them what they themselves could prepare. Thank you for all your thoughtful posts! Naomi

  • Reply GretchenJoanna February 22, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Sometimes I think that the things that went on in my public elementary school were just a distraction and occasional backdrop for my education at that age. The things I retain in my conscious memory seem all to have been gained from quieter times at home. I couldn’t think very well with those teachers distracting me.

  • Reply Rebekah February 22, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    What a great essay! I was recently talking to a friend about taking up reading Charlotte Mason and this gave me a push in that direction. Thank you!

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