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Generous, Variety, Literary: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

Today we’re looking at three hallmarks of a good curriculum. Often when we think of homeschooling, we picture the books and papers and pencils and all that happens during set lesson time. But as we’ve discovered in this series on core values of Charlotte Mason, there is much more to educating our children than just structured lessons. We are shaping who our children are becoming as persons.

So far we have talked about how

All of those concepts are the foundation upon which we build a curriculum for the structured lessons. Think about all of those core values and what we’ve discussed about them. If you’ve missed any of those posts, check the links above. Once you have that foundation solidly in place, then you can turn your thoughts to homeschool curriculum; and even in this aspect, there are some core values to keep in mind. 

In devising a curriculum for any child, Charlotte said, “three points must be considered:—

  1. He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.
  2. The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity).
  3. Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form” (A Philosophy of Education, p. xxx).

So let’s take each of those three points in turn.

Generous

First, he requires much knowledge. Your child needs a generous curriculum. His mind needs sufficient food to nourish it and to fuel its growth. We’ve talked about the need for a generous curriculum already, so let me just remind you of the main concepts by sharing these quotes from Charlotte Mason:

  • “A healthy mind is as hungry as a healthy body” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 175).
  • “The mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 105).
  • “You may go through years of so-called ‘education’ without getting a single vital idea; and that is why many a well-fed body carries about a feeble, starved intelligence” (Parents and Children, p. 33).
  • “Our fault, our exceeding great fault, is that we keep our own minds and the minds of our children shamefully underfed” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 330).

A Charlotte Mason education is not stingy; it offers living ideas in generous servings.

Variety

The second point to remember when planning your curriculum is Variety: “the knowledge should be various.”

Again, we can compare food for the body and food for the mind. “The mind too hates ‘everlasting tapioca’ and must have a very various diet” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 175).

Tapioca was hugely popular in Charlotte’s day. Mothers gave it especially to children, because it was deemed “suitable for delicate stomachs.” You can find all kinds of Victorian recipes for plain tapioca, tapioca cream, tapioca pudding, apple tapioca, French tapioca custard, cream tapioca pudding, peach tapioca, caramel tapioca—as well as variations on each of those. But imagine having tapioca to eat every day. What would such a diet do to your body? What would it do to your appetite?

It’s the same with your homeschool curriculum: “sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity).” Doing the same-old same-old every day will not feed your child’s natural curiosity to learn. Your child will grow better with a “various diet.”

Variety is a key to a well-balanced diet—whether for a child’s body or for his mind—but not variety selected at random. Let’s finish that quote we started earlier: Charlotte stipulated, “The mind too hates ‘everlasting tapioca’ and must have a very various diet, selected not at random, but according to its natural requirements” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 175).

What are the child’s natural requirements for knowledge? Well, they can be summarized in four categories: the child needs to gain knowledge of God, knowledge of mankind, knowledge of the universe, and knowledge of himself.

So a good homeschool curriculum includes a wide range of subjects that all fit under those categories.

1. Knowledge of God. That includes the subject of Bible. Charlotte put this one first because she believed that “the knowledge of God ranks first in importance, is indispensable, and most happy-making” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 158).

2. Knowledge of Man. This category includes history, literature, morals and economics, citizenship, composition, languages, and art. All of those subjects help your child learn about other people.

3. Knowledge of the Universe. The subjects of science, math, physical development, and handicrafts are included in this category. 

4. Knowledge of Self is an important part of educating your child as a person. This category includes learning about the way of the will and the way of reason. We will discuss both of those at length in future posts, but just keep in mind that helping your child learn about himself is an important part of shaping who he is becoming.

Knowledge of God, knowledge of mankind, knowledge of the universe, and knowledge of himself. When you include all of those areas of learning, it’s easy to keep variety in your curriculum. Just remember, “His syllabus must needs be wide, well proportioned, well balanced” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 175).

Literary

But there is one more point that Charlotte mentioned in her core values when planning a curriculum: make sure it includes a generous portion of ideas that will feed your child’s mind, make sure it includes plenty of variety in those categories that a child needs knowledge in as a person, and make sure it includes literary-style books.

Many people know that the Charlotte Mason approach uses literary books, but not many know why. We mentioned one reason last time: Living books offer an experience that encourages a personal relation, and personal relations are where true education happens. But there is another reason Charlotte encouraged us to use literary-style books:

“Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form” (A Philosophy of Education, p. xxx).

Through all of her years of teaching children, Charlotte discovered that children naturally respond to well-written, literary-style books. The textbooks full of dry facts don’t stimulate their curiosity, don’t create mental pictures that stick with them like a story does. The textbooks don’t engage their imaginations nor offer the joy of forming personal relations the way literary books do. And the language used in dry textbooks or in twaddly, dumbed-down books doesn’t nestle in their hearts and expand their vocabulary the way well-chosen language in a literary book does. 

In fact, Charlotte discovered that literary-style books naturally encourage the mind to work in many ways on its own:  

“The ideas required for the sustenance of children are to be found mainly in books of literary quality; given these the mind does for itself the sorting, arranging, selecting, rejecting, classifying . . .” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 117).

She also discovered that children respond more readily to life lessons and ideas when they are tucked inside a literary-style book, rather than when they are preached directly at the child. And aren’t we the same way? Most of us tend to shy away from lists of rules and direct confrontations, but we’re more receptive to those same ideas when they are presented in the context of a story that happens to someone else. Charlotte said, 

“It seems to be necessary to present ideas with a great deal of padding, as they reach us in a novel or poem or history book written with literary power” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 109)

So as we educate our children, let’s tap into the power of those literary-style books. Charlotte described them as “really good books, the best going, on the subject they are engaged upon” and “books teeming with ideas fresh from the minds of thinkers upon every subject to which we can wish to introduce children” (School Education, pp. 162, 171).

Check your curriculum. Does it measure up to those three standards? 

Generous portions of ideas—not just dry facts.

Opportunities to learn about a wide variety of subjects in all four areas—knowledge of God, of mankind, of the universe, and of yourself. 

And literary-style books that engage the imagination and offer great ideas in well-chosen language.

Those are hallmarks of a good curriculum. Those are core values of Charlotte Mason.

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