Life: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

“Education is a life.” Let’s talk about what that means. Any parent knows that an important part of your job of caring for your child is to feed her. A child’s physical body needs sustenance in order to grow and thrive.

We know that when we’re talking about a child’s body. Physical life is sustained and fueled by food. But what sustains and fuels a child’s mental life? What helps her mind to grow and thrive?

That’s the question that Charlotte Mason was addressing when she said that “education is a life.” She was encouraging us to think about what feeds and sustains our children’s mental lives. Here’s how she answered the question:

“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” (A Philosophy of Education, p. xvii).

Ideas are food for the mind. Just as physical life is sustained and fueled by food, mental life is sustained and fueled by ideas. 

Some of you may be thinking, “But what’s an idea?” Well, Charlotte just gave us one: “Education is a life, nourished upon ideas” (Parents and Children, p. 247).

That concept is just one in a feast of ideas that we’ve been chewing on in this Core Values series. Let’s take a look at the ideas we’ve been served so far:

  1. Your child is a person, not just a blank slate or a container to be filled.
  2. Your child has possibilities both for good and for evil.
  3. Authority and obedience are natural, necessary, and fundamental in your relationship with your child, but—
  4. You must respect your child as a person and not try to manipulate him.
  5. Therefore, you use a balance of three things to educate him:
  6. The atmosphere of the environment of your home and the first-hand experiences your child has with the people and things in it;
  7. The guide rails, or discipline, of good habits that you definitely and thoughtfully help your child to form;
  8. And the presentation of ideas that sustain and fuel your child’s mental life. (That’s the idea that we’re pondering today.)

There is a lot to think about in those concepts. You see, ideas give you something to chew on, to mull over. They provide sustenance to the mind, and ideas are vastly different from little facts to memorize.

The mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 105

Imagine giving your child a meal of sawdust. There’s nothing there that is nutritious. Sawdust can’t supply energy for the body or fuel physical growth. Bare facts are like sawdust to the mind; they cannot sustain or fuel mental life. Charlotte put it quite succinctly:

“It cannot be too often said that information is not education” (School Education, p. 169).

So how do we find these ideas and give them to our children? Charlotte explained that ideas are not material objects that you can touch and handle; ideas are immaterial, or spiritual, and they are usually conveyed from one person to another in various forms. She said:

Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 109

So in a Charlotte Mason education, we give our children a feast of ideas from a wide variety of subjects. We give them books (the written page) that convey living ideas, not just dry facts. We give them Scripture and music and art and poetry. And we don’t consider those things to be little extra frills that we can include once in a while if we happen to get around to it. No, those are the source of ideas; those are what feed the child’s mind and heart.

Charlotte explained:

All I have said is meant to enforce the fact that much and varied humane reading, as well as human thought expressed in the forms of art, is, not a luxury, a tit-bit, to be given to children now and then, but their very bread of life, which they must have in abundant portions and at regular periods. This and more is implied in the phrase, ‘The mind feeds on ideas and therefore children should have a generous curriculum’.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 111

Did you catch how Charlotte described our responsibility in presenting this feast of ideas? It is their “bread of life, which they must have in abundant portions and at regular periods.”

Let’s focus on those two aspects for our two applications today.


1. Give your child a generous curriculum.

“Abundant portions,” Charlotte said. Don’t be stingy with portion size when it comes to mental food. Spread the feast that comes from nature study and picture study and music study and hymn singing and Scripture memory and living books and handicrafts and poetry. Oh, so many delicious courses to this feast! 

Will your child have room to eat all of it? No. But that’s okay. It’s all healthful, life-giving mental food, so let your child take what she’s hungry for and it will sustain and nourish her mind and heart. 

We never know which ideas will “click” as we present them, and that’s okay. Our job is to offer generous portions and allow the child to take and learn and grow as an individual person. Charlotte said: 

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

She also said:

“Our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs. Urgency on our part annoys him. He resists forcible feeding and loathes predigested food” (A Philosophy of Education, p.109)

So don’t try to force-feed your child, and don’t chew her food for her. Give her direct access to the ideas; avoid watered-down retellings. Spread a feast of great ideas and allow your child to take what she is ready for. It’s all good.

2. Serve the feast regularly.

We all know that a child cannot grow very well physically if we feed her only once in a while. Physical bodies need regular sustenance in order to grow and thrive. And the same is true for the mind. Your child needs regular mental meals in order to grow and thrive.

So be faithful to spread that feast of ideas regularly. Does that mean you have to do all of those school subjects every day? No. Many of the subjects I have mentioned—picture study, music study, nature study, for example—are scheduled only once a week. But be faithful to include them every week. Be faithful to use living books regularly for history, geography, Bible, and science. 

Just tossing in one idea every once in a while isn’t going to sustain your child’s mental life. She needs those life-giving ideas regularly. 

“’Education is a life’; you may stunt and starve and kill, or you may cherish and sustain” (Parents and Children, p. 32).

Give your child’s mind a generous feast of ideas, served faithfully and regularly, and watch your child grow and thrive. Education is a life. And that’s a core value of Charlotte Mason.