A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principle: 5c&8

Ideas Feed The Mind

Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments – [the third of which is] the presentation of living ideas…

In saying that “education is a life,” the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.

We come now to what Charlotte Mason identifies as the third instrument of education. Education is a life (for previous discussions of Mason’s principles, click here).  Mason explains that the life of the mind, both intellectually and morally, is sustained on ideas.

Consider for a moment the computer. A computer needs input entered to generate an output. It simply needs data—information. A computer does not think and it does not make moral judgments. Even though sophisticated software can give the illusion of thought and decision making, it is still programming that tells the computer how to respond. Put simply, input = output.  But the mind of a human is obviously much more than a computer program. It is a reflection of God. If we believe that children are born persons—that they are made in the image of God—then we must believe that their minds were created to know and think.  Therefore, as a reflection of a personal and loving creator God, the mind must require more than just information (facts) to sustain it. The mind needs ideas. It needs these ideas to think. It needs these ideas to interact with other ideas in the mind that grow a human being intellectually as well as morally.

What is an idea?

Mason referred to multiple definitions and sources, including philosophers from Plato to Coleridge, for clarity in defining an idea. The dictionary defines it as an “image or picture formed by the mind of anything external, whether sensible or spiritual.'”(vol1, 173) Mason was not satisfied with the dictionary definition and looked further to Plato and others, who described an idea as an ‘entity’, or something living.  She then concluded, “An idea is more than an image or picture; it is, so to speak, a spiritual germ endowed with vital force—with power, that is, to grow, and to produce after its kind. It is the very nature of an idea to grow: as the vegetable germ secretes that it lives by, so, fairly implant an idea in the child’s mind, and it will secrete its own food, grow, and bear fruit in the form of a succession of kindred ideas” (Vol 1, 173). Mason also says that an idea requires a connecting of mind with mind, or it will simply be a notion. It is that “aha” moment when something ‘strikes you.’ A thought that was not in the mind now is, and the mind begins its work on it, turning it over, ruminating on it, connecting it with ideas already present in the mind, replicating and adding to it, making new and vital connections, like a seed that germinates and grows and spawns new seeds for propagating new growth. On it goes—idea feeding idea, mind feeding mind—sustenance.

This all sounds very abstract and philosophical which may be fun to think about if you’re that kind of person (like me), I suppose, but why in the world does it matter? Because in the very sphere of our world where ideas should be central, we find them severely lacking—Education. Let us think for a moment. Presumably, if you are reading this post you homeschool, or you like the ideas of Charlotte Mason, or you are related to me. This last reason is funny, but it still serves to illustrate the point. Why would a family member, who is not teaching or in education, read my thoughts about a study in education philosophy that I am doing? It is because of an idea. The idea of familial love, loyalty, and affection for me, that they take the time to read it. Imagine applying this same principle of ideas to the teaching of history, science, and even math.  Where it is not simply inputting data as in a computer, drilling facts ad nauseam, but bringing before a young person particular people from history, inviting them to come along on a journey with this historic person through a wonderfully well-written biography and know what it was to be a Roman in the 1st Century BC. Or struggle along with Newton through his difficult childhood beginnings; experiencing his unrelenting desire to know and understand how the world worked, his failure as a farmer, his love for his family and God, the long hours and sleepless nights in the pursuit of knowledge, and the discovery of many scientific truths and laws we take for granted today. Oh, how the imagination is kindled to care about those laws because the young person has made a friend of Newton.  Or even in math, when your child cries out for the hundredth time, “why do I have to learn this?!”  the “captain idea” that mathematical concepts and equations and formulas all point to a great Creator that ordered the universe by them can capture the imagination of a child and give meaning beyond the scope of the page. This is the power of an idea. The facts will attach themselves to the idea in their place. Dates and laws will be presented in their due time, but it is the idea that captivates the imagination and lives in the mind, long past the end of class. We can never be certain which ideas will capture the imagination and take root in a person’s mind. This is why Mason emphasizes the importance of a wide and generous curriculum. It gives children access to ideas of all kinds.

What Is a Generous Curriculum?

“Four Tests which should be applied to Children’s Lessons.––We see, then, that the children’s lessons should provide material for their mental growth, should exercise the several powers of their minds, should furnish them with fruitful ideas, and should afford them knowledge, really valuable for its own sake, accurate, and interesting, of the kind that the child may recall as a man with profit and pleasure.”Vol 1, 177

A generous curriculum then is a curriculum that is full of fruitful ideas.  It provides, not simply facts or information, but knowledge that makes the child think.  Where do we find such a curriculum? In books! Not just any books, the very best books. “Children have a right to the best we possess; therefore their lesson books should be, as far as possible, our best books.” (Vol 6, p19). These books, written by persons who have a great love for their subject and, if at all possible, in narrative form, put the minds of the children in contact with the mind of the author himself, and it is this connecting of minds where ideas grow. Not only is a generous curriculum found in the best books, it is books on a wide variety of human knowledge: history, art, literature, religion, science, music, foreign languages, mathematics, poetry, and all manner of knowledge that will sustain and grow the mind of a child and stay with them throughout their life.

“In a word, it is not a question of neglecting or fostering “the imagination,” but of due education, a liberal education for every child of every class, whereby his mind shall be nourished year by year on such food for the imagination as is convenient for his age; thus illusions and superstitions shall fall and lie like last year’s leaves; but only illusions; never shall he part with any form of words beautiful and complete enough to embody a living truth. ” – The imagination in childhood., Charlotte Mason..

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