An infant is naturally curious. He has a built-in God-given appetite for knowledge. He is naturally observant. He explores with his eyes, first by gazing into the faces of his mother and father. He tastes; he finds nourishment at his mother's breast; he smells; and he feels. He grasps a rattle in his tiny fist; he feels the satin edge of his blanket or the fuzzy fur of his stuffed bear. He hears when the family rises for breakfast. He looks, and laughs when something he is shown is hidden momentarily and then reappears. He watches the dog run outdoors and kicks and wiggles his legs in the stroller. He is growing and becoming knowledgeable through his senses.
All the while these experiences are marked by words. Thus he learns language. He listens to a bedtime lullaby and learns that words can accompany soothing gestures such as rocking and cuddling. He is read nursery rhymes over and again and likes to hear that words sound similar. He takes pleasure in his power to anticipate the end of a rhymed phrase.
Picture books are presented to him and he is read to while occupying the best seat in the house - his mother's or father's lap. He enjoys hearing the same little stories read aloud again and again. As he grows, it becomes common to gain knowledge from books as well as knowledge from his experiences of the world around him.
A Dormant Craving
Sadly a young child's craving for knowledge (knowledge through his senses and by books) can go into hibernation when he begins school lessons. If lessons are long and used entirely for acquiring skill in "the three Rs" and for memorizing information, then Charlotte Mason said time is being wasted. She discovered "children can cover a large and various field [of knowledge] with delight and intelligence in the time that is usually wasted over the three Rs." Charlotte kept the necessary, daily lessons of drills and skills routinely short. Children were given consistent practice in the three Rs, but she would not let curiosity be "schooled out" of her young students. She said, "Perhaps the chief function of the teacher is to distinguish information from knowledge in the acquisitions of his pupils."
Knowledge vs. Information
Information is the record of facts, is acquired here and there, and is of practical value. "Knowledge," on the other hand," says Charlotte, "is the product of the vital action of the mind on the material presented to it, and is power; as it implies an increase of intellectual aptitude in new directions . . ."
Knowledge is understanding the facts you already know. The child who has knowledge will show his power by narrating, that is, putting the thoughts in his own words.
A child who is expected to narrate from a good book will show his knowledge by describing events. He will condense or illustrate with vividness and with freedom in word arrangement.
The child who has only information is a child who has been expected to "fill in the blank." He will parrot the stereotyped phrases of his textbook, or jot down muddled notes from a teacher's lecture, or memorize (cram) bits and pieces of information that will most likely be the same bits and pieces on the test.
What Robs a Child of His Appetite for Knowledge?
Charlotte believed that an education which appeals to the desire for wealth (money for straight As, prizes, scholarships, etc.) or the desire to be at the top of the class, or any other of the natural desire except that for knowledge, "destroys the balance of character; and, what is even more fatal, destroys by [lack of use] that desire for the delight in knowledge which is meant for our joy and enrichment through the whole of life." A child who loves getting straight A's, and who feels compelled to get perfect scores on every test, may not be the same child who likes school because he delights in knowledge.
These Aren't the Pioneer Days
Charlotte believed that a school is not worthy of the term "education" if this school has not made children at home in the world of books.
Today, there are more books written for children than ever before. There are wonderful books written by writers who enthusiastically share what they have learned, observed, experience, and researched, be it in the form of non-fiction or fiction.
Children a little over one hundred years ago, who lived out on the prairie and/or attended a one-room schoolhouse, did not have near the array of books children have today. Their education was mostly gotten from a set of "readers." The excerpts in these readers gave children a selection of some of the best writing, provided information for memorization, etc. and were economically suited for villages of children whose parents had little to no home library to speak of. There were very few public libraries.
But we are no longer living in the pioneer days of America. With the great availability of books on all subjects, our schools no longer need to be confined to the kind of lessons that Laura Ingalls Wilder described, where children are limited to the reader or a textbook on a subject. Children today can much more easily delve into what Charlotte called "living books." These books are alive with ideas and are touched with human emotion by their authors as the writers pass along a passion for their subject. They make their appeal to the senses as well, through the imagination. Living books are not just pages of information, they are not only short selections, they are whole books, the kind of books with a literary language that facilitate putting the reading "in one's own words." Books alive with ideas give children something to think about. Living books satisfy a child's inborn appetite for knowledge.
Knowledge is the Goal, Not Just Passing a Test
"The getting of knowledge and the getting of delight in knowledge are the ends of a child's education," Charlotte tells us. During a time when most children were schooled through a set of readers or textbooks and little else, she pleaded for many more doors to be opened to boys and girls. She set about to give her students a wide curriculum in which no subject would be presented to them through readers or mainly through textbooks that were mere compendiums, abstracts and short selections. For example, Charlotte's students were not kept on a restrictive diet of Bible stories or catechisms but very soon were hearing the very Book itself read. Her young students were "to learn what history is through reading books of history, what literature is, what life is, from the living books of those who know." She had this ideal and saw it realized on a considerable scale in her classrooms and correspondence schools. This habit of using living books and narration whenever possible in the curriculum is what she called the "Magna Carta of children's intellectual liberty." Her concern was for England's children. Did she ever imagine that this dream of intellectual liberty would be enjoyed overseas in America (the land of the free) one hundred years hence by thousands of homeschooled children? Perhaps not. Yet the seeds of an idea will sprout in good soil.
Sow seeds in the lives of your children. When they gain knowledge of God, man, and the universe at your hand, they receive an inheritance from you. It is an inheritance of knowledge, of noble thoughts and beautiful ideas, and unlike money, no one will be able to take it away from them. This gift of knowledge blended with moral insight and discipline will be their strength in difficult days to come. It's the best investment for their future.
School Education by Charlotte Mason, first published in 1907, pages 224, 225, 226, 242, 247.