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.”
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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.
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.
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.
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