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31 Days of Charlotte Mason: Education is a Life (Day 10)

October 10, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

Lately, we’ve been talking about Charlotte Mason’s three tools of education. We discussed atmosphere here and here. Next, we discussed discipline here and its attendant conception of habit formation here. Today, we’re going to talk about the tool she called life.

Now, saying that “education is a life” starts to make it sound like we mean something along the lines of “all of life is school.” It isn’t that this isn’t true, because I think most of us recognize that we are always learning, which is why things like habits and atmosphere matter. But here Miss Mason means something above and beyond the “all of life is learning” mantra.

This is what she says:

We have left until the last that instrument of education implied in the phrase ‘Education is a life’; ‘implied’ because life is no more self-existing than it is self-supporting; it requires sustenance, regular, ordered and fitting. This is fully recognised as regards bodily life and, possibly, the great discovery of the twentieth century will be that mind too requires its ordered rations and perishes when these fail. We know that food is to the body what fuel is to the steam-engine, the sole source of energy; once we realise that the mind too works only as it is fed education will appear to us in a new light. The body pines and develops humours upon tabloids and other food substitutes; and a glance at a ‘gate’ crowd watching a football match makes us wonder what sort of mind-food those men and boys are sustained on, whether they are not suffering from depletion, inanition, notwithstanding big and burly bodies. For 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.

Vol. 6, p. 104

In this sense, education is a life because it is life-giving. And how is it life-giving? It brings ideas to the mind, which is like giving food to the body. Ideas, says Mason, are what nourish the mind — they are that upon which the mind grows.

And do we feed minds a miserly meal?

May it never be!

These ideas are given to them in regular, ordered, and fitting quantities.

Regular, meaning in an often and predictable manner. The child can depend upon it. His mind is fed daily.

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.

Vol. 6, p. 25

Ordered, in that there is a rhyme or reason. There is a scope and sequence, a curriculum that is being followed. It is not that there is never time for rabbit trails, but that Miss Mason keeps to the road during lesson time (see here). Rabbit trails are for the child’s personal time.

Fitting, in that it’s appropriate. It’s according to what the child is ready for and can handle. The content is morally acceptable as well.

All of this begs the question of, “What is an idea?” I suppose we could spend 31 Days discussing this question, if we really wanted to. Today, we can only be brief.

Ideas are distinct from information. This does not mean that the CM student does not learn information (which we might call facts) but that facts are not the core of their education, and it is acknowledged at the outset that facts do not have the ability to grow the mind.

We can think of the idea as being clothed with facts. The facts are the circumstances in which the idea is made evident. They are necessary to its communication.

A question I have heard a number of times is: “How do we get to the ideas?” Well, to some extent, the ideas are simply there, as long as you are not using an information-only approach in your curricula selection. The more your mind is fed upon ideas, the more apt you are to have an eye for ideas over time.

For example, many of us were taught that meaningless rhyme, “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” As a child, that was pretty much all I knew about Columbus.

Let me repeat: all.

As an adult giving a child a living education, the entire world has opened up to me.

So back to Columbus.

A fact which may present itself in your study is that Columbus read the book in which Marco Polo wrote of his adventures. Some historians hint at the underlying idea when they say that Columbus was “inspired” by Polo’s work. The idea? Well, actually there are many! One idea is that one man may inspire another well after his death, if he has only written down something worth reading. An ancillary idea is that if we read the ideas of the past, we may find they change the future, even in our personal lives.

Now isn’t this more worth thinking about than that silly rhyme about 1492?

Silly rhymes do not nourish the mind.

This is why Miss Mason’s eleventh principle says:

[F]acts are not presented without their informing ideas.

Are there other foods of the mind? According to Mason, no.

The mind is restricted to pabulum of one kind: it is nourished upon ideas and absorbs facts only as these are connected with the living ideas upon which they hang.

Vol. 6, p. 20

I have heard some say that facts are the “pegs” upon which ideas can later hang. Whether you agree with that statement or not, you need to understand that it is the complete opposite of what Miss Mason believed, which is that facts hang upon ideas, and ideas are what serve as the “peg.”

But the children ask for bread and we give them a stone; we give information about objects and events which mind does not attempt to digest but casts out bodily (upon an examination paper?). But let information hang upon a principle, be inspired by an idea, and it is taken with avidity and used in making whatsoever in the spiritual nature stands for tissue in the physical.

Vol. 6, p. 26

Let’s leave off with the one word of caution that Miss Mason gave in regard to ideas. We may be tempted to think that if ideas are the food of the mind, we might as well skip the information and feed the child upon a “pure” diet of ideas, sort of like the mental equivalent of going raw.

One other caution; it seems to be necessary to present ideas with a great deal of padding, as they reach us in a novel or poem or history book written with literary power.

Vol. 6, p. 109

She says shortly before this that ideas are of a spiritual origin, so I think it’s no coincidence that she sees the need to keep them clothed. Just as a body without a spirit is, according to Scripture, naked, so is an idea without poem or prose to keep contained. This is one reason why Miss Mason emphasizes the need to use only books of high literary quality. Ideas are naturally modest, and must come to us fully clothed in Story.


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7 Comments

  • Reply Tracy Barton Niles May 27, 2018 at 4:42 am

    thank you for this! It broke it down into pieces I could digest! 🙂

  • Reply Education Is for Life, a series » Simply Convivial September 3, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    […] Mason said that “Education is a life,” by which she meant it requires food and it grows; unschoolers say, “Life is […]

  • Reply Anonymous October 11, 2013 at 12:20 am

    Very good! Thank you for working on this, Brandy.

    JoyH

  • Reply Mystie October 10, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    I *love* your last sentence.

    I go back and forth on the peg thing. Is it bad to memorize the four principle parts of our Latin verbs now, when we are only using 2 of them (and my student only understands 1 of them, because he still doesn’t get an infinitive. I think he’ll get it naturally after doing conjugations for awhile)? Is it bad to know a jingle to keep a few dates in your head that help you order the random ideas and concepts and people you’ve “met”?

    I don’t think there’s necessarily a sharp divide between the two. If ideas and understanding predominate, then I think introducing some factual pegs is ok, because the student knows instinctively that although they don’t know what they are yet, there *are* ideas behind that peg that they will want to learn.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 11, 2013 at 11:34 pm

      I go back and forth on the ideas-as-pegs, facts-as-pegs thing, too, Mystie. My desire here {as I’m sure you already guessed} was to accurately represent what I believe Miss Mason thought.

      Sometimes, I think that — for example in your Latin instance — facts-as-pegs is necessary when we are trying to recover something. Let me see if I can flesh this out…

      I am not learning math with my child. I already know it. So though my children memorize their math facts, I always start with ideas. To paraphrase Miss Mason, they do not memorize a multiplication table until they have first made one.

      But in Latin, I AM learning with my child. I can’t start with ideas because I don’t know the ideas. I can’t teach the facts of conjugation and declination in the context of fluently spoken sentences because I’m not good enough to do that. But I am all my child has, and so we’re using the grammar-first method, which does have sentences, but I wouldn’t call it idea-based.

      My ultimate dream, though, would be for my grandchildren to hear Latin songs and have heard simple Latin stories BEFORE they hit fourth grade Latin grammar, because their parents know enough Latin to provide that sort of thing without it being such a big deal.

      So I think ideas-as-pegs is the ideal, but that facts-as-pegs has to sometimes suffice for us in reality.

      I have flip flopped on this before, so I can’t say I’ll agree with myself in a year, but that is where I am at this point.

      I deliberately made that comment, though, because I have come across so many people wanting to memorize timeline facts and call it CM because later they hung ideas on it, and they don’t realize that CM said precisely the opposite. I really don’t care if they agree with CM — I don’t think she is the ultimate authority on everything — but I hate seeing her misrepresented. I’d rather them say that this is where they disagree with CM, you know? I think it is more intellectually honest.

    • Reply Mystie October 14, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      Yes! I think intellectual honesty is important, and knowing that most people are mixing philosophies and practices is important, especially when we start to run into difficulties…perhaps we have a mix that is not actually compatible.

      I like your distinction between the ideal and the recovery-phase.

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