The Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason ~ The Introduction

The Brain vs the Mind

                Charlotte Mason uses the Introduction to address some broader concepts of education and define her purpose and goal with this volume.  She begins with the role of the brain in education.  Is thought just a function of the brain?  How do we define the brain versus the mind?  What part does the brain play in education?  And as education goes, what are our goals?  Do we want an education that “qualifies for life or earning a living”?  Won’t the first make a better person and a better service for society?

In an attempt to define the brain and the mind, she looks at the role of Darwinism in the utilitarian schools of Germany that had become so popular prior to World War I.  She points to their attempts at removing the mind and training only the brain, using natural selection and survival of the fittest to accomplish Germany’s goal of a “super state”.  She concluded when we derive our code of ethics from the laws of science instead of spiritual laws, we get the manifestation of brutality and an emancipation from moral restraint.

Science would define the brain as a mass by which electric pulses travel, emitting chemical ergo chemical reactions to create a series of thoughts, memories and emotions.  But what of the mind?  Could it be, if we dare to consider, that we are made of more than matter but spirit as well?

Charlotte Mason and the PNEU arrived at a working theory of education based on her last 35 years of practice, five previous volumes she wrote, and her experience and observations of thousands of children in her schools.  This theory differs from current practice of the time in a few ways.

For one, the children are responsible persons and do their work by self-effort.  The teachers are available and offer guidance but are not responsible for the actual work.  Thousands of pages are read, according to age, skill and maturity, from a broad variety of well written books on many subjects.  Done well, each child is able, after only one reading, to narrate or write on the passage.  These children delight in their books and desire to learn without need for prizes or punishments, bribes or blame and with a well-developed habit of attention.  These methods work well for all children, clever or dull.  It takes less time than ordinary schoolwork without homework and leaves time for vocational work, interests or hobbies.

A Child’s Mind

                In CM observations, the child’s mind rejects abstract concepts.  It takes in only what it needs as a means to feed the growing curiosity they are cultivating.  Children are well equipped to process ideas with their appetite for knowledge, imagination and judgement, without the need of explanation, questions and summaries.  These practices actually inhibit the mind’s processing of these ideas.  “In fact, the Desire of Knowledge (curiosity) is the chief instrument of education and the use of prizes develops self-emulation (rivalry), avarice (a hoarding greed), ambition and vanity (excessive pride).”

How badly do we really need knowledge?  CM’s observations found the curiosity of a child is so insatiable that the whole world and all its history are barely enough to satisfy it.

What is knowledge?  “That only becomes knowledge to a person which he has assimilated, which his mind has acted upon.”  Consider this now.  All the information in the world can be put before me, but I will only take in what I notice and consider interesting.  At that point, my brain has acted upon it and I have made it mine.  If this be the case, is there anything within moral value that a child should be restricted from?  I would say no!  To withhold knowledge would starve the appetite for it!  Our responsibility is only to ensure the right portions so as to avoid a choking reflex.

“Mind appeals to mind and thought begets thought and that is how we become educated.”  Education is not achieved by what we see or do but by the connection of our spirit.  To put the spirit in touch with great minds is to beget great thoughts, we, the educators, open the doors to a vast array of worthy books for them to delight in.

Now, how do we secure attention from our students.  Charlotte Mason did not find the responsibility to rest in the teacher’s charisma or subject matter.  She goes back to the idea that children are persons like ourselves, with the same motives.  The desire for knowledge is a strong craving, natural to everyone and can be duly stoked to grow with the right encouragement or lack of discouragement present.  Again, we see the need for a wide and varied curriculum through reading… reading to know which is more than reading to complete.  It’s more than listening or even listening to tell back.  Reading to know requires assimilation of ideas which are expressed in a good narration, requiring the brain to work various places and parts.  If they are consistently expected, the habit of paying attention will quickly be established.

Children are perfectly equipped to process knowledge.  They have an intellectual appetite, a desire of knowledge, an unlimited power of attention and power of retention.  Therefore, if a lesson isn’t holding their attention, maybe the fault is in the lesson.  We must restrain ourselves from questioning throughout the lesson for it interrupts the processing of the brain.  We can question in the beginning for review and at the end for emphasis, but let us leave the center of the lesson for the child to listen and reflect on the great thoughts we are presenting.

Method Summarized

  • A child is a person with the spiritual requirements and capabilities of an adult.
  • Knowledge nourishes the mind like food nourishes the body
  • A child requires knowledge as much as he requires food
  • He is equipped with a desire for knowledge (Curiosity)
    • To grasp knowledge (Attention)
    • Powers to process knowledge without help from the outside using Imagination, Reflection and Judgement
    • Interest in all knowledge
    • And power to retain and communicate knowledge; all that is necessary to him.
  • He requires knowledge to be communicated to him, in most cases, in literary (book) form and reproduces the knowledge acquired, only that which touched his personality.
  • The child is naturally equipped to assimilate knowledge but moral control is necessary to secure attention.
    • This habit is developed when narrations are consistently and regularly required for each reading.
  • Children have the right to the best knowledge we possess, so the best books should be made available.
  • Lecture and questions are distracting. Allow the child to own their learning and seek your help if necessary.
  • They require a wide range of knowledge so a wide curriculum should be made available.
  • The teacher offers direction and support in the studies but does not necessarily lead the child in an educational conquest. The responsibility of learning remains with the child.
  • Pursued under these conditions “studies serve as a delight”

                 These ideas must be applied with consistency to expect positive results.  She uses the example of the knowledge of bacteria.  To know of the presence of bacteria or to understand the use of antiseptic is not enough.  Antiseptic treatment to the surgeon’s tools has to be complete and consistent to be effective.

Coming Full Circle

                Charlotte Mason concludes, education occurs in the mind.  It is in the mind, indelibly linked with the spirit, that craves knowledge and is able to receive or assimilate it with its powers of attention and reflection.  A child will learn only the facts it can hang on nourishing ideas.  The results of these methods seem to develop capacity, character, countenance, initiative and responsibility available to all, in varying capacities.

“The stability of mind and magnanimity of character which are the proper outcome and unfailing test of a liberal education” should be available to all men in all classes.



Mason and the Older Child

In August, I attended the Charlotte Mason Institute Western Retreat in Los Angeles, at the American Jewish University overlooking the Getty Center.

Let me start by saying that these retreats are really unlike anything a home schooler has experienced.  I have gone to conferences and conventions aplenty!  They are great experiences and I generally come home wiped out from trying to drink from the fire hose of ideas and suggestions they provide.

I noticed a marked difference in myself when I left my first CM retreat.  To begin with, I wasn’t frazzled or belabored.  As I packed my things to leave, my mind was FULL of new concepts and ideas that I had been taught, better equipping me for the tasks that lay ahead.  I was mentally busy considering new ways to approach challenges and offer inspiration in our learning experiences but it wasn’t overwhelming.  I had experienced a rich banquet laid before me in a peaceful and thoughtful setting and I was returning home refreshed, energized on every level and ready to be a better educator for my family.

I attended a Preconference Immersion class for the first day on Teaching the Older Child by Kerri and Kathryn Forney.  This presentation was a very good overview of some of the basic CM concepts and then how to apply them to older child.  Here were the ideas I was inspired by:

  • Systems vs Methods: A system is a set of plans which, if used as directed, should produce a desired result.  A method is a “the result of principles, living organisms, which have powers of growth, expansion and adaptability.”  I found significance in the idea that our children deserve respect enough to be the individuals that God created them to be.  No system will serve all because of their individuality and therefore, they are worthy of nothing less than a method with built-in flexibility to accommodate.
  • It’s all or nothing… we either apply the methods as a whole or don’t use them at all.  We can’t encourage a child to flourish in the joys of a book for one subject and then mine for facts in the textbook of the next subject.
  • “The function of education is not to give technical skill but to develop a person; the more of a person, the better the work of whatever kind.” CM v6p136  Life is bigger than the hoops we jump through.  Are we aiming for the hoops or the goal on the other side of the hoops?
  • We seek to develop the whole child.  Transformation is the end goal of education, not completion of a workbook.  They have a natural craving for knowledge and if offered a rich feast, they will happily partake in it.  Oh, and I loved this idea; Knowledge is not what he knows but who he is.  It is the consumption of an idea and the application of it.
  • Education is not information.  It is a relationship or an experience; it is a full life.
  • The role of educator is guide. It is the teachers responsibility to open many doors in different directions, staying in the background with enough direction to enable the student to explore with success.  Promote self-education and not forced intellectual feeding.
  • Information does not become knowledge unless the child decides to “know” it themselves.  Guide toward self-education.
  • Narrations:  We read- we narrate- we know.  What we do not narrate, we do not know.  But narrations are not a regurgitation of what was heard.  It requires the narrator to process the information again, from auditory to verbal skills and share the connections that were made.  What they get, they get.  Be okay with what they don’t get for the time.
    • Some ideas for varying narration:
      • Write in the style of the author
      • Make illustrations of the reading
      • Write 5 questions about the reading
      • Do you agree or disagree with the character’s decisions in your reading?  Why or why not?
  • Scheduling: Consider completing all book work in the morning while all our mind’s are fresh.  Try to keep the subjects no longer than 30-40 minutes (for older children), a total of no more than four hours.

Each one of these points are worthy of their own conversation but that will have to be for another time.  These were the nuggets I took away from the class and I continue to work on implementing them.  I think my biggest challenge is stepping back as an educator and developing self-education in my children.  How about you?  Where is your biggest challenge with the ideas mentioned?