12 Jul 2011

Ideas alone matter in Education

Ideas alone matter in Education - The whole subject is profound, but as practical as it is profound. We must disabuse our minds of the theory that the functions of education are, in the main, gymnastic. In the early years of the child's life it makes, perhaps, little apparent difference whether his parents start with the notion that to educate is to fill a receptacle, inscribe a tablet, mould plastic matter, or nourish a life; but in the end we shall find that only those ideas which have fed his life are taken into the being of the child; all the rest is thrown away, or worse, is like sawdust in the system, an impediment and an injury to the vital processes.

Charlotte Mason Parents and Children p38
A friend of mine drew my attention to this section of Charlotte Mason's writing over the weekend, and I just couldn't wait to get home today to grab my Volume 2 off the shelf to read it in context. You see, I've always been privately convinced of the idea that regardless of the educational methods employed, the majority of what a child is taught in the tender years is mere scaffolding for what is to come.

By that I mean that the simple addition we teach now will lead to algebra which will lead to calculus; the alphabet lessons will lead to Shakespeare; introductory stories about great historical men will lead to a greater understanding of the pageant of history; the rich living books will lead to an extensive vocabulary, this is true. But it is equally evident that much of the actual content of what we teach in the early years is 'thrown away by the child'.

I am saddened when Jemimah forgets the content of wonderful living books she narrated so enthusiastically in AO1. How could she just forget the names of the Great Lakes that we spent so much time on as we followed Paddle on his journey to the Sea? Or no longer know the story of Benjamin Franklin's kite? I've always assumed, despite my sorrow that this was normal and inevitable. And I think it is. Miss Mason seems to think so, anyhow.

Until today I had wondered privately to a couple of AO mums whether this view of mine was possibly anti -CM. Silly me. I should have realised that something I notice in my control sample of one child would have been noticed by Miss Mason with her sample size of thousands.

After the quotation above, Charlotte goes on to explore the theory that it is the duty of parents to sustain a child's inner life with ideas that strike him, impress him, seize him, take possession of him and rule him, in the same was as they sustain his body with food. These initial ideas then beget subsequent ideas and so on in a predictable and logical line, and so inevitably, the destiny of life is shaped in the nursery.

This changes my mind set entirely. Instead of being concerned at how much Jemimah has forgotten, I am wondering afresh at how much she knows. I remember her incredible ability at maths in only a few short years. I see the books she reads and understands, the Shakespeare she adores, the music and poetry and opera and ballet that broaden her outlook, the kindred spirits that she has in the characters of her books. I think of the great historical lives she has to emulate, the citizenship that she is developing, the empathy that she feels for those of different creeds and colours, the depth of knowledge and understanding she has of Scripture and the faith that she displays and I feel content. I feel more than content.

When Jemimah sees Benjamin Franklin's name, the kite and the key are faintly remembered after all. The Great Lakes might no longer have names, but one is shaped like a wolf's head and the Isle Royale is its eye. Can I ask for more?

Jemimah is only in Grade Three (AO4). She has only just started on the journey that is her education. As of today I am going to renew my efforts to ensure that the predictable and logical line that it points to is the destiny I want for my daughter. Because that destiny began in Grade Prep and it is my responsibility to furnish her with the initiative ideas on which the successive ideas germinate, and to ensure that the ideas stay within the due limits of their course and don't become the sawdust that clogs the system. That is my duty as her teacher. And now after reading this quote I'm going to do it better.

What do you think?


  1. I think she's doing just great. Sounds like a totally normal girl. Look at it this way: Name one American kid who could name even ONE Australian lake--great or other wise.
    Use the nemonic "HOMES" Huron-Ontario-Michigan-Erie-Superior. That's how we learn them in school.
    Now I'm stuck trying to remember the Mnemonic for the Canadian provinces!

  2. Jeanne,
    What do I think? I think this is beautiful and very encouraging!! Thank you for these good words!

  3. You know what Star is going to study this term, don't you? Napoleon! lol Tosca is going to be very useful. ☺

    I know how much of what I learnt in school I've forgotten ~ but the framework is there & that is what I want for Star: a framework that gives her reference points for her future learning. We are all like icebergs. Most of what we know is buried & mostly forgotten but somehow still there if we need it.

  4. Far out Jeanne...I am still trying to swallow your words. I need to read this a few times! But one thing I am thinking right now is the whole beauty of homeschooling is we can see our childs desires, gifts and passions. We have the privledge of encouraging our children to follow there passions, no matter what the forget or remember. My children never forget something we have studied that they are passionate about and that is what spurs them on to the love of learning. xxx I will be back later to see other peoples comments and to read this post again..:D Actually I am going to read more of what Charlotte Mason was saying!

  5. This is GREAT Jeanne! In fact after our recent exams I had to console myself with a similar thought from Charlotte Mason - it's not how much one knows but how much one cares! It's so different to traditional schooling where we are trained to cram facts into our heads and then don't care much after we leave school, with no / not much of a love of learning in us. (at least that was my experience lol) This is what drew me to CM - that we don't need to fill up a child with facts but expose them to living books filled with great ideas like a grand feast. I think those living ideas in living books are what feeds the mind and stays with the child. I don't care if Rebekah can't remember all the details but I think she will remember Benjamin Franklin for who he was and what he did and consequently his life I hope will inspire her just like all the other great characters we are reading about in AO1:)

  6. Yes! And this is precisely why one cannot 'do' a CM education simply via a booklist. The CM philosophy must underpin any booklist for it to be truly effective. The philosophy goes hand in hand with the methods. Just trying to do a few of the CM methods here or there without knowledge of the underpinning philosophy is never going to be as beneficial as it could have been.

    Sure CM methods can work well by themselves or in isolation but, like most other methods and approaches,it is built upon a philosophy of education and works better when employed as such.

    Love your work Jeanne,

  7. Lol, Sarah! That's because they're Charlotte's words, not mine! She was far more of a wordsmith than I'll ever be!

  8. Wow! This is actually very encouraging for me. I am loosely using CM method and chose to use Sonlight books as my base.

    At times I am amazed at what my boys retain, but other times discouraged. But know I know that this is the scaffold stage to build upon.

  9. Lovely, Jeanne. I've often felt the same when the girls don't recall as much as I do (forgetting, of course, that I'm decades older than they and have more experience and knowledge). But your words are a reminder of one of CM's core philosophies -- at least it's core to my way of thinking. We are planting seeds in these early years. With loving care and patience, those seeds will germinate, grow, and blossom as our children do themselves.

  10. I loved reading this Jeanne! So encouraging! My kids forget things too, although there are other times when they seem to remember so much more than me!! :)
    I had a wonderful thing happen when we were climbing Kosciusko on our recent holiday. On the way back down the mountain the children met up with a group of older walkers and chose to walk most of the way with them. When we met up again at the chairlift this group of about 8 men and women, all in their 60's, 70's, and even one 84 year old, were full of praise for our kids and the conversations they'd been having with them. They told us they were amazed at all our children knew - mostly to do with nature, geography and history - and that they'd had a delightful time with them and learned so much!! I was blown away! It made me realise that a lot of what we teach, read about and talk about does go in. I still smile when I think about this!
    Mel x

  11. The image of sawdust clogging the system made me sit up straight as well. You both have a way with words.


I'd love you to leave me a message. Tell me what you like - and what you don't. Just remember that this is what we do in our family - it doesn't have to be what you do in yours...