Ideas: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

Ideas are like seeds that grow and bear fruit in your child’s life.

We’ve been discussing how ideas nourish your child’s mind, that his mind is built to digest ideas as his body digests food, and that it’s not your job to do all of the mental work for him. Your job is to present those ideas that are appropriate to him—abundantly and regularly.

Today we want to dig a little deeper into that topic of ideas and how they relate to facts. Remember, Charlotte compared a lesson focused on dry facts to giving your child a meal of sawdust. It’s not that we don’t present facts; it’s that the facts should never be presented without ideas surrounding them.

Charlotte Mason put it this way: 

“But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. xxx

Facts should not be presented without their informing ideas. We sometimes call them “living” ideas.

How would you define an idea? Well, listen to how Charlotte described it. In this passage she had just finished explaining that children learn, not just to know certain facts, but to grow as persons. That’s the goal of education. We’ve talked about that aspect in this series: children learn, to grow. Now Charlotte is going to give a second reason that children should learn. This reason expands on that goal of growth and focuses on living ideas.

Children learn, to get Ideas.—The child must learn, in the second place, in order that ideas may be freely sown in the fruitful soil of his mind. ‘Idea, the image or picture formed by the mind of anything external, whether sensible or spiritual.’—so, the dictionary; therefore, if the business of teaching be to furnish the child with ideas, any teaching which does not leave him possessed of a new mental image has, by so far, missed its mark. Now, just think of the listless way in which the children too often drag through reading and tables, geography and sums, and you will see that it is a rare thing for any part of any lesson to flash upon them with the vividness which leaves a mental picture behind.”

Home Education, p. 173

So we don’t just have the child memorize the multiplication tables. First we guide him to explore how multiplication is repeated addition. We walk through everyday scenarios that he can see in his mind’s eye. That mental image helps him comprehend the idea of multiplication. Now with that informing idea in place, he can turn to memorizing the facts.

In geography, we don’t just assign the child to learn the gross national products or the currency types of other countries. We offer him narratives and travelogues and pictures that let him get to know people who live in those countries and what their lives are like in that part of the world. We give him the living idea, and the facts come along with the idea. But we’re not giving him just the dry facts.

In science, the child is not just offered tidbits of facts about beavers’ teeth and tails. Instead he spends time observing beavers in their daily habitat and discovers their habits either through nature study first-hand, or through living books written by a naturalist who is narrating her experiences as she did the observing, or through both.

Those informing ideas, those living ideas, are so important to a child’s learning that Charlotte made this somewhat startling remark:

“It is not too much to say that a morning in which a child receives no new idea is a morning wasted, however closely the little student has been kept at his books.”

Home Education, p. 173

We don’t want wasted mornings. That’s why we use living books in a Charlotte Mason home school. Not all books convey living ideas. In fact, most school books don’t.

“Under the phrase, ‘Education is a life,’ I have tried to show how necessary it is to sustain the intellectual life upon ideas, and, as a corollary, that a school-book should be a medium for ideas and not merely a receptacle for facts.”

School Education, p. 216

Let me give you an example. I’m going to read two passages: one conveys just the facts, as you would probably read it in a science textbook; the other passage contains the same facts, but it wraps those facts in living ideas. 

First, the one that presents just the facts:

Even if you live in town, you can study nature in your own yard. Throughout the seasons you will see many different things among the trees, bushes, stones, flowers, and under the ground. This book will explain how.

How was that? Did it conjure up any mental images or fire your imagination? Now let’s read those same facts but wrapped in a passage that contains living ideas:

“A great many people seem to think that if you want to study Natural History you must go out into the fields and woods. But it is not really necessary to do anything of the kind. Even in the very midst of a large town, if only you know how to use your eyes, there is often a good deal to be seen. And if you live in a house which has a garden, with just a few trees, and a few bushes, and a flower bed or two, and perhaps a little slip of lawn, there will scarcely be a day in all the year on which you cannot see most interesting sights, or find most wonderful creatures.

So let us imagine that we are taking four rambles round the garden together, the first in spring, the second in summer, the third in autumn, and the last in winter. We will look up into the branches of the trees, and peer into the cracks and crevices of the trunks; we will poke about among the bushes; we will turn over stones and heaps of dead leaves; we will watch the bees and the butterflies among the flowers; we will even peep under the ground, and see what is going on beneath the surface. And I think I can promise you this, that long before we have finished the last of our rambles we shall find that the garden is a very busy place indeed, and that a most wonderful work is being carried on there by a very great number of active little workers” (from The Little Naturalist in the Garden by Rev. Theodore Wood).

Do you see the difference between those two passages? The facts are still there in the second passage. Living books do contain facts, but they are not bare facts; they are clothed in living ideas. That second passage is chock full of ideas to latch onto and mull over at your leisure. For example,

  1. Many people struggle with nature study in town.
  2. Knowing how to use your eyes is a key in nature study.
  3. Your yard does not have to be elaborate.
  4. Nature study can be done all year. Nature study is full of interesting sights and wonderful creatures.
  5. A nature walk is a relaxing ramble.
  6. Possible places to look: up into a tree’s branches and into its cracks and crevices; poke about in bushes; turn over stones and heaps of dead leaves; observe bees and butterflies among flowers; under the ground.
  7. Your yard is a very busy place.
  8. Your yard is the home of a most wonderful work.
  9. There are a very great number of active little workers in your yard.

The power of ideas is that they invite you to form your own personal relation with the material being presented. You almost can’t help it. Your emotions are touched. Your imagination lights up with mental pictures of what is being described. You are drawn into the passage.

That’s the power of an idea. But that’s not it’s only power. It also has the power to grow. Here’s how Charlotte described it:

“Ideas Grow and Produce after their Kind.—For the dictionary appears to me to fall short of the truth in its definition of the term ‘idea.’ An idea is more than an image or picture; it is, so to speak, a spiritual germ [or seed] 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 [or seed] 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.”

Home Education, p. 173

A vitalizing idea can spark your own further related ideas. An idea you latch onto almost takes on a life of its own, connecting with other ideas in your mind, growing in scope, exploring related possibilities, and even spawning other ideas. 

Charlotte said: “An idea fitly put is taken in without effort, and, once in, ideas behave like living creatures—they feed, grow, and multiply” (Parents and Children, p. 77).

Think back to the ideas that were presented in that second passage, the ideas about nature in your own yard. Those ideas could easily ignite personal relations and initiate more ideas. Here are ten, for example:

  1. I’m not the only one who struggles with nature study in town. I wonder if there are others in my area who are struggling? Maybe we could get together and encourage each other.
  2. There is hope. I will see nature here if I just learn how to use my eyes. I wonder how many things I’ve missed because I’m simply not noticing what is around me.
  3. My yard is not too small for nature study.
  4. So I can start right now, no matter what season it is.
  5. “Interesting” and “wonderful” aren’t the adjectives I use when I talk about nature study. Maybe I’ll learn to appreciate it as much as that author does. Oh, I wonder if my attitude is rubbing off on my kids.
  6. I don’t usually think of our nature study times as rambles; they’re more like Mom on a Mission. Maybe I should slow down and take more time. But I don’t know what I would do with more time out there. Hopefully this book will tell me.
  7. Wow, there are lots of places to look in my yard! I hadn’t thought of several of those.
  8. I never thought of my lawn as “a very busy place.” Maybe there is more going on than I realized.
  9. Really? A “most wonderful” work? Maybe my children will actually be filled with wonder when we start to discover what all the yard holds.
  10. It looks pretty deserted to me, but maybe there’s more to it than meets my eye. I’m curious what we’ll find out there.

Do you see how ideas work? Now the reader is thinking ahead, is looking around with a different vision, is pondering relationships, is watching and eager to learn more, is experiencing the first tiny step in a change of attitude. I daresay those responses were not bubbling over in your the mind and heart when I was reading the Just the Facts paragraph. That’s the power of an idea!

Now, most likely, a person will not make all of those connections from the one passage. He might; but he might grab onto only two or three of the ideas—or just one. That is still food for his mind! Just as we spread a feast and allow each dinner guest to choose what he wants to eat, so it is with nourishing ideas.

“We spread an abundant and delicate feast in the programmes and each small guest assimilates what he can” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 183).

“The duty of parents is to sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as they sustain his body with food. The child is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; therefore, in the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand, for thou knowest not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.”

Parents and Children, p. 39

It is not our job to dictate which ideas are received. It is our job to offer a multitude of good, noble, and appropriate ideas in the curriculum we spread for our children and to allow each child to internalize the ideas that strike him or her. It may be only one idea that nestles into a child’s heart and mind, but even a single idea is nourishing. Ideas feed growth as a person.

“Give your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information” (Home Education, p. 174).

That’s the power of an idea, and that’s a core value of Charlotte Mason.