Greatorex had been indulging his intellect at the expense of his heart.
— George MacDonald, The Gifts of the Child Christ
I think it was rather revolutionary of Charlotte Mason to declare that, at the end of a child’s education,
The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care?Vol. 6, p. 170
In a world of exit exams — followed by college entrance exams, of course — it is easy to think that content is king, that what matters most is, indeed, how much the youth knows. But George MacDonald reminds us that there is a form of knowing that kills the soul.
The questions is: what form of knowing is that? MacDonald doesn’t really tell us the answer in his short story, save for explaining that it’s a very narrow life of the mind, and it has no room for history nor poetry, contenting itself with the here-and-now of politics, travels, and recent scientific discovery.
MacDonald is giving us an example, but not an explanation. He hints at it. Greatorex has experienced disappointments and, when coupled with his vanity, his reading becomes dangerous:
He was on the path which naturally ends in blindness and unbelief.
It is this limiting of the curriculum which interests me today. His interest in poetry is dulled, followed by his interest in history. Charlotte Mason says something similar about Darwin:
We know how Darwin lost himself in science until he could not read poetry, find pleasure in pictures, think upon things divine; he was unable to turn his mind out of the course in which it had run for most of his life.Vol. 6, p. 24
It is not science that is the danger, I don’t think, but the act of limiting the curriculum, of keeping our lines of thought so narrow that we become incapable of fully human thought.
This is probably the best argument for Charlotte Mason’s “broad and generous” curriculum. She acknowledges that all children will not take to all subjects, but nevertheless we have no right to limit the curriculum:
I know you may bring a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. What I complain of is that we do not bring our horse to the water. We give him miserable little text-books, mere compendiums of facts, which he is to learn off and say and produce at an examination; or we give him various knowledge in the form of warm diluents, prepared by his teacher with perhaps some grains of living thought to the gallon.Vol. 3, p. 171
In fact, the child has the right to a broad curriculum:
[T]he field of a child’s knowledge may not be artificially restricted, that he has a right to and necessity for as much and as varied knowledge as he is able to receive; and that the limitations in his curriculum should depend only upon the age at which he must leave school… Vol. 6, p. 12
In other words, we cannot allow any one subject to dominate the curriculum:
Mathematics are a necessary part of every man’s education; they must be taught by those who know; but they may not engross the time and attention of the scholar in such wise as to shut out any of the score of ‘subjects,’ a knowledge of which is his natural right.Vol. 6, p. 233
And we always present facts in their context (so that they aren’t merely “learning them off and producing them at examinations” — context is more likely to produce care, which is Miss Mason’s highest concern):
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
It’s a tricky thing, balancing all these subjects and all the different possible uses of our time. This time of year, we tend to focus on simplifying, and while that has a place, let us not reduce the curriculum to the point where Charlotte Mason would not recognize it. Let us remember that the goal of our education is to develop the child’s care and he cannot care about things with which he is wholly unfamiliar. Along the lines of Miss Mason’s words, our job is to bring the horse to water.
Get the (almost) weekly digest!
Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.