Knowledge: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

Last time we talked about core values, we looked at three characteristics of a good curriculum. According to Charlotte Mason, we should give our children much knowledge, various knowledge, and it needs to be communicated in well-chosen, literary-style language.

Today we want to take a closer look at that word “knowledge.” Charlotte used that term a lot, and I want to make sure we all understand what she meant. Knowledge is different from information. Let that sink in. Information is not the same thing as knowledge.

“The distinction between knowledge and information is, I think, fundamental. Information is the record of facts, experiences, appearances, etc., whether in books or in the verbal memory of the individual; knowledge, it seems to me, implies the result of the voluntary and delightful action of the mind upon the material presented to it.”

School Education, p. 224

Information or ideas can become knowledge if you intentionally engage your mind on the material in a way that is personal and delightful. It is not held at arm’s length, kept in the outer recesses of the mind until the test is over and then dismissed. Rather, it is invited into the inner court where judgment and imagination live, so they can interact with it, and then it is incorporated or assimilated as a part of your own thought-life. In a way, it becomes a part of you.

Just like food. Charlotte often compared feeding the mind to feeding the body, and that applies to this assimilation of knowledge too. She said:

“Again, as our various organs labour without our consciousness in the assimilation of food, so judgment, imagination, and what not, deal of their own accord with knowledge, that it may be incorporated, which is not the same thing as ‘remembered.’”

School Education, p. 225

We often get hung up on whether our children remember certain facts, don’t we? But a Charlotte Mason education is focused on much more than just remembering. We don’t want our children to just parrot back memorized bits of information. We want them to have a personal experience with ideas, to take those ideas into the inner courts of their minds and hearts, to ponder them and allow those ideas to guide their thinking and their habits, to shape how they view the world. That’s true knowledge.

The question is: How can we encourage our children to get that kind of knowledge—the kind that has been assimilated into their hearts and minds? Well, here’s what Charlotte proposed:

“As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. xxx

That “telling back” is called narration. Narration is how we can assess whether knowledge has nestled deep and become assimilated, whether our children have performed what Charlotte called “The Act of Knowing.”

“What is knowledge? some one will say, and there is no pat, neatly-framed answer to be given; only this we can assert,—Knowledge is that which we know; and the learner knows only by a definite act of knowing which he performs for himself.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. 254

Did you notice that phrase “which he performs for himself”? We’ve talked about self-education as a core value, and this is a perfect example of it. The act of knowing is something that the student “performs for himself” in his mind. Narration simply offers an opportunity for him to demonstrate what he has discovered as he performed the act of knowing. Requiring a narration also encourages him to put forth that effort to self-educate every time.

What’s interesting is that narration is a natural process, especially with children but really with all of us. If our attention has been captured by something, we usually find it easy to tell somebody all about it. We’ll tell our spouses, or our children will come tell us in detail all about what they saw or heard. That’s narration. We all do it. Charlotte simply used that natural skill for educational purposes, to reveal what has been assimilated by the act of knowing and to help cement it in the mind.

“Now this art of telling back is Education and is very enriching. We all practise it, we go over in our minds the points of a conversation, a lecture, a sermon, an article, and we are so made that only those ideas and arguments which we go over are we able to retain. Desultory reading or hearing is entertaining and refreshing, but is only educative here and there as our attention is strongly arrested. Further, we not only retain but realise, understand, what we thus go over. Each incident stands out, every phrase acquires new force, each link in the argument is riveted, in fact we have performed The Act of Knowing, and that which we have read, or heard, becomes a part of ourselves, it is assimilated after the due rejection of waste matter.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. 292

As I mentioned before, part of that act of knowing is bringing judgment to bear on what was read or heard. Any ideas not worthy of assimilating are rejected. Lots of mental work takes place in that inner court of our minds. Charlotte mentioned,

“All the acts of generalization, analysis, comparison, judgment, and so on, the mind performs for itself in the act of knowing. If we doubt this, we have only to try the effect of putting ourselves to sleep by relating silently and carefully, say, a chapter of Jane Austen or a chapter of the Bible, read once before going to bed. The degree of insight, the visualization, that comes with this sort of mental exercise is surprising.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. 304

Try it for yourself tonight. Read a chapter of a novel or a chapter of the Bible before bed. You may read it only once, so focus your attention. Then close the book, lie down, and try to relate silently and carefully what you just read. You will find out how well you performed the act of knowing, how well you have assimilated knowledge and made it your own possession. You may be surprised at how much your imagination and other mental capabilities get involved in this seemingly simple exercise of “telling back.”   

And the same is true for your students. In fact, as you listen to a student’s narration, you will be able to tell whether your child has performed the act of knowing and assimilated knowledge or if he has just picked up a little information that he will soon let go of. How? Here’s the test: 

“Perhaps the chief function of a teacher is to distinguish information from knowledge in the acquisitions of his pupils. Because knowledge is power, the child who has got knowledge will certainly show power in dealing with it. He will recast, condense, illustrate or narrate with vividness and with freedom in the arrangement of his words. The child who has got only information will write and speak in the stereotyped phrases of his text-book, or will mangle in his notes the words of his teacher.”

School Education, p. 225

Does your student narrate with vividness, recasting in his own words, sometimes condensing and sometimes illustrating what he read or heard? If so, he has gained personal knowledge. If, on the other hand, he simply repeats phrases from the book or even uses the terms from the book in a mixed-up fashion, you can be pretty sure he hasn’t performed the act of knowing. He is simply holding some information at arm’s length, keeping it entertained in the outer circles of his mind until the test is over and he can dismiss it. 

Knowledge. It’s a personal, powerful, life-shaping thing. 

We can’t force our children to gain knowledge, but we can certainly encourage them to. How? By offering many opportunities to learn about a wide variety of subjects, using literary-style books, and requiring narrations.  

Those are core values of Charlotte Mason.

If you would like to learn more about narration and how to use that natural yet powerful tool with your student, check out the book Your Questions Answered: Narration. It’s full of practical help and encouragement that you can use with students of all ages.

You may also be interested in an article I wrote called “Past the Outer Court” that will talk a little more about holding information out at arm’s length temporarily versus inviting it in, assimilating it, to shape your thoughts and attitudes.