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Learning from the Inside Out

By Karen Andreola
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #20, 1997.

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Karen Andreola


Misconceptions are floating around about Charlotte Mason's philosophy and method. Perhaps it's because her method of education relies less on textbooks and workbooks and more on a variety of real books and narration. I've been hearing that Charlotte Mason's philosophy reflects a style of education so loosely structured that activities or subjects are entirely directed by a child's or a mother's whim. Those who are interested in this style of education will not find it promoted in Charlotte Mason's writings. What is found there is a wonderful balance. The balance is between what Charlotte termed "masterly inactivity" and direct teaching.

"Masterly inactivity" gives a child space to independently explore, ruminate and reflect in his educational life. The authority of the parent is felt within the atmosphere of the home. This is balanced with definite times of structured learning when a child follows assignments or interacts with the teacher directly.

How is this balance accomplished? Charlotte uses a child's curiosity and trains him to develop good habits. She sets before the child the kinds of activities and books he will readily "take to," the kinds of things he needs to grow in character and intellect. And then she guides him to work like a busy beaver to acquire knowledge from these things and make it his personal procession. What she does promote is self-education.

Ideas for a Living Education

Aren't life and growth miraculous? When the environment is right, a plant flourishes because it is living. Charlotte wrote, "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 mold his character are decorative and not vital."

According to Charlotte, the more we do for a child the less he will do for himself. If we give him watered-down material, many explanations, much questioning; if we over-moralize, depend on the workbook to work the mind, what thinking is left for the child to do? How is his mind to grow from within if what we are doing is only superficial, like applying lotion to the skin rather than eating a wholesome diet that would provide the entire body as well as our skin with the proper nutrients?

Children are "Idea Picker-Uppers"

"The life of the mind is sustained upon ideas," said Charlotte. "There is no intellectual vitality in the mind to which ideas are not presented several times, say, every day . . . Every child gets many of these ideas by word of mouth, by way of family traditions; in fact, by what we might call a kind of oral literature."

Numbers were the first "schoolish" thing my son, Nigel, cared about. He picked up the idea of a numeral representing dots in a particular formation on a cube as a result of playing a simple board game with his sister Yolanda when he was quite young. I discovered this one afternoon when, having spent the afternoon cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom (and I must have been in there for a long while), I escaped into the living room to find him reading a die with deep concentration. He barely knew I was standing there watching as he read one face of the die after another. "When did he learn this?" I asked Yolanda in delighted surprise.

"Today," was the answer of his not-much-older sister.

Although children will pick up ideas, they will also run out of them unless they are given a regular supply. Charlotte said that most schools graduate many clever young persons who are lacking initiative, the power of recollection, and the sort of moral imagination that would enable them to put themselves in another's place. These qualities can only flourish with a proper diet. And sadly, this diet is not well provided by the ordinary school book, or in sufficient quantity by the ordinary lesson.

Hungry for Food for Thought

Charlotte realized that a child's mind feeds on ideas. We give him food for thought and expect him to do the thinking. She provided children opportunities to establish relationships with real books, books written primarily by single authors on a variety of topics. She called these "living books" because they enlivened the child's mind. In this way knowledge was passed from mind to mind, from person to person. It was knowledge with a human touch.

Writing about knowledge, she says, "We feed upon the thoughts of other minds, and thought applied to thought generates more thoughtfulness. No one need invite us to reason, compare, imagine. Like the body, the mind digests its proper food; it must have the labor of digestion or it ceases to function."

What Charlotte terms narration, in which a child tells back what he has learned from the passage just read, gives a child the opportunity to digest this "mind food." Reading the right book, and using the method of narration, he will develop a taste for knowledge and will come to enjoy satisfying that very personal thing: curiosity. He becomes a thinker. He grows from within. His concern need not be for "keeping up with his classmates," because his narration (the measure of what he knows of a passage), though it be presented somewhat differently than another's, is just as valid.

God Made Us His "People"

Children are persons, Charlotte reminded us. They are human beings. A true intellectual life is not achieved by exercising children's minds as if they were nothing but memory machines. This is where Charlotte's method is in disagreement with Dorothy Sayers' strong emphasis, on memory work in the early grades. Unlike Dorothy Sayers, Charlotte spent all her grown life with children, observing them and teaching them, always refining and reforming education for the children's sake. She writes, "'Education,' said Lord Haldane, some time ago, 'is a matter of the spirit.' No wiser word has been said on the subject, and yet we persist in applying education from without."

She began to see the truth of this while working closely with children. "No one knoweth the things of man except the spirit of man which is in him; therefore, there is no education but self-education, and as soon as a young child begins his education, he does so as a student. Our business is to give him mind stuff. Both quantity and quality are essential."

Naturally, we mothers who have embarked upon this career of teaching our own children "everything" have only a limited knowledge of "everything" up our sleeves. But we know where to procure it, for the best thought of the best minds the world possesses is stored in books. All we have to do is open real books - the best books - to children, our only concern being that of "abundant provision and orderly serving." This is not teaching by whim but with a definite plan toward self-education.

Education is a Way of Life

Self-education by means of real books, narration, first-hand experience, and observation is such a very satisfying and rewarding process that it naturally continues throughout life. Self-education is not dependent on a system of artificial rewards, prizes, grade scores, etc., because it is not bound to a system of education, but a method of learning. A system and a method are two different things. A system depends on a cycle of tedium: read the textbook chapter, find the facts and record them as answers to the chapter's list of questions, take the test, get the grade, and get it over with. A system makes the process more important than either the information or the learner. On the other hand, a method denotes a means towards a goal. If the goal is an educated child, a variety of means will best achieve it.

The Key of Self-Education

Charlotte discovered a key that opens the door behind which lies what every well-educated child should possess. This key was self-education. Self-education in Charlotte's schools was best achieved by a regular and steady diet of the best books, combined with the use of narration to develop retention and understanding of what was read. This approach maintained students' interest and helped them develop the habit of attention, as well as a literary style, a readiness in speaking, a wide vocabulary, and a love of books. This is self-education, because ultimately it is the child who is doing the work. And though self-education may begin in the classroom, a child carries it with him throughout life.

An Invitation with Warm Wishes

I invite you to give Charlotte's approach a try. If you are already using a full curriculum course that you are relatively happy with, you can still add your own choice of real books. There is a bountiful selection of historical fiction and biography that will work well with any curriculum program. In so many schools, real books are nowhere to be found.

Incorporate narration into what your students are reading. This will be more easily accomplished with books of real literary vitality, but having a child simply tell about or write about what he has learned from a chapter in a science book can be a nice change for both teacher and student from just following a list of questions or filling in the blanks.

Every year I scan the catalogs I receive, and over the years I have purchased a lot of good books through them. Once I came across a description of a study guide to a book I particularly liked. The catalog said that the guide provided lots and lots of good fill-in-the-blanks for digging into the text. But I knew that with narration my child does his own digging, so no sale was made. (Though I am not against using workbooks or textbooks for the mathematics and language skills, for the more literary subjects, real books are not a luxury but a necessity.)

A few "how or why" questions can be asked by the teacher, but while narrating, the child's mind poses questions that he answers for himself. Not every detail will be brought forth. We cannot expect any narration to be "word-for-word perfect," and we don't want it to be. We want a child's own mind to act on the text so that he knows it - it becomes his own possession. The child who dutifully studies his lessons over and over again, artificially motivated by grades or prizes, might do well on the test, but does he know? Is he knowledgeable?

And what is knowledge? Charlotte had no pat, neatly framed answer to give. But I learned from her that "this only can we assert: knowledge is that which we know, and the learner knows only by a definite act of knowing which he performs by himself."

A Relief to the Teacher

Charlotte concludes her chapter on self-education in her book, Philosophy of Education, in this way: "In urging a method of self-education in lieu of the vicarious education which prevails, I should like to dwell on the enormous relief to teachers, a self-sacrificing and greatly overburdened class; the difference is just that between driving a horse that is light and a horse that is heavy in hand; the former covers the ground of his own happy will and the driver goes merrily. The teacher who allows his scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere instrument of forcible intellectual feeding."

Wherever my husband Dean and I have spoken on Charlotte's principles, there always seems to be some overburdened mother or father who comes up to us afterwards and says, "Can I really do the things that you have talked about?" It was her heart's desire all along but she was hesitant to let go of old notions of what school is supposed to be - school that is based on a system, not a method. Such parents sigh a sigh of great relief after deciding to rest on the truths of Charlotte's philosophy. They have new-found courage and are ready to take the plunge from the dreaded textbook/workbook grind to real books and narration - even though it may feel like diving into cool water on a warm day.

One father from New York, a pastor, admitted that he and his wife had a very difficult year. They had lost hope at times; and after they resorted to placing one of their daughters back in school, they felt this was even less workable for their family. "Thank you for coming," he said. "I liked what you said at the very end of your talk so much that I wrote it down."

"What was it we said that gave you so much hope?" I asked.

"Here it is," he answered as he leafed through a notebook. "When you said that homeschooling is really all about living the educational life with our children. Now I understand!" he smiled.

Strange, it was something we hadn't written on our note cards, and I only thought of adding it at the last minute in conclusion. I'm so glad I did!


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