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There’s a big difference between exercising the mind and feeding the mind. In our core values series last time, we talked about “Education is a life” and how that mental life is sustained by ideas. If you haven’t read that post, you may want to go back and do that first, because Charlotte Mason believed that was a potentially life-changing concept. If we can truly grasp the importance of feeding the mind with ideas, it will shed new light on how we view education. She said:
“We know that food is to the body what fuel is to the steam-engine, the sole source of energy; once we realise that the mind too works only as it is fed education will appear to us in a new light” (A Philosophy of Education, pp. 104, 105).
Today we want to dig a little deeper into that concept and see how the idea of “feeding” the mind should affect our home schools and what education looks like.
First, let’s make sure we have the right mental picture. Your child’s mind is not a container that you fill; picture it more like an organism, a living entity, if you will, that has an appetite. Just as your body has an appetite for food, your mind has an appetite for knowledge. Here’s how Charlotte put it:
“We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs” (A Philosophy of Education, p. xxx).
Just as your body takes in food and digests it and assimilates it for nourishment, so the mind takes in ideas and digests and assimilates them for nourishment.
Now think for a moment what it would be like if you decided to get your body in shape and you started an exercise regimen, one that really burned off the calories. You were faithful to exercise every day—working up a sweat, putting in the effort. But you never ate anything. You didn’t feed your body. All exercise, no nourishment. What would happen? Your body would weaken and starve.
And it’s the same for the mind. Your mind and your child’s mind needs to be nourished, not just exercised. This is a key point in describing the differences in educational approaches. Many educational approaches focus on using the mind, exercising it; but the Charlotte Mason approach emphasizes feeding the mind, nourishing it.
What’s the difference? Well, let’s try a little example. Let’s walk through a few typical school exercises.
First, here are three words and three definitions. Match each word to its definition.
A. To employ as a means of accomplishing a purpose or achieving a result.
B. To supply with food.
C. The element of a person that enables him to be aware, to think, and to feel.
Next, answer these questions.
What is a two-letter preposition that is a homonym of two and too?
What is the meaning of the English idiom “by no means”?
Third, solve this puzzle:
List seven words that can be made from the letters in thing.
Now, how does your mind feel? I think you will agree that you were using it. It was working to output the correct answers. But was it being nourished by anything? Was it taking in any good, “healthful” ideas to replenish it, to give your mind something to chew on, and to help you grow as a person? No, you were simply exercising it.
Now let me give you an idea: “To use the mind is by no means the same thing as to feed it” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 288).
All of the words that you were dealing with in the activities can be found in that statement. They’re the same words, but they are presented as an idea not just an activity. “To use the mind is by no means the same thing as to feed it.” Reading that quote feeds the mind.
Do you see the difference? When your student is dealing with bare facts—whether studying them, memorizing them, practicing them, or recalling them—she is using her mind, exercising it. When she is dealing with ideas—living ideas that touch the emotions and fire the imagination—she is feeding her mind.
In a Charlotte Mason education—one that embraces Charlotte’s core values and uses her methods—the student is continually taking in nourishing ideas even as she works with the facts contained within them. It is a balanced and natural approach, much more so than just using the mind without feeding it.
The mind needs nourishment, not just exercise.
As I was chewing on this idea of nourishing the mind and walked through that little example we did earlier, I began to ponder which school-type activities use the mind and which feed the mind. So I started two lists. Here is what I have so far; see what you think.
These activities exercise the mind:
- memorizing facts;
- recalling facts in answer to direct questions;
- practicing a math formula;
- drilling math facts in a timed test;
- doing word-search puzzles;
- competing in spelling bees;
- changing punctuation on deliberately incorrect sentences;
- learning physical skills to perform for a trade;
- coloring, cutting, and pasting according to a predefined kit or sample;
- playing problem-solving video games;
- copying definitions for a list of words.
That list of activities that exercise the mind pretty much describes what my school experience was like growing up. How about you? I’m afraid it describes what school is like for many students today. They are kept busy using their brains, but rarely do they receive the nourishment that their minds need in order to grow and flourish.
Evidently, the same was true in Charlotte’s day. She wrote:
“Now that life, which we call education, receives only one kind of sustenance; it grows upon ideas. 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).
We don’t want our children to have a feeble, starved intelligence. We want to nourish their minds. So here is a list of school activities that I think feed the mind:
- reading books full of living ideas, not just dry facts;
- listening to good, noble, beautiful thoughts in poetry;
- spending time in God’s creation, carefully looking and listening;
- listening to good music with focused attention;
- looking closely at great works of art;
- applying math truths to relevant, everyday situations;
- discovering spelling and punctuation through great literature;
- memorizing and reciting Scripture, hymn lyrics, and great poetry;
- singing great songs and hymns;
- spending time with role models who demonstrate good habits and character;
- presenting and discussing timeless principles.
Do any of those activities sound familiar? I hope they do. Those are all methods included in a Charlotte Mason education. Those activities are how we present ideas that nourish our children’s minds.
“For 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).
1. Remember that exercise is not necessarily bad in and of itself.
There is a place for practicing math skills. There is a place for looking up word definitions or for memorizing how a word is spelled. The problem is when you get stuck in that first list, fill your school days with those types of mental-exercise activities, and that’s all your child is doing.
In a Charlotte Mason education, the nourishment comes first, the ideas come first; then out of those ideas naturally flow some exercise. We guide the student to discover the math idea first, then we help him work with it until he becomes fluent. But we don’t just drill and kill the math facts. We read an idea from a living book first, then we guide the student to look in that passage for any words he doesn’t know how to spell and to study those. But we don’t just give spelling lists to memorize. We give the ideas first.
So I’m not saying throw out all of the mental exercise; I’m saying focus on the ideas and let the exercise naturally flow out of them. That’s the Charlotte Mason way.
2. Give your child (and yourself) an abundance of mental nourishment. Don’t be afraid of overfeeding the mind.
“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).
Make sure you are providing a generous feast of ideas for your child to feed upon. Be careful when choosing curriculum. Choose curriculum that offers an abundance of nourishment for your student’s mind.
Charlotte warned us: “Look at any publisher’s list of school books and you shall find that the books recommended are carefully dessicated, drained of the least suspicion of an idea, reduced to the driest statements of fact. . . . the diet they afford may be meagre, meagre almost to starvation point . . .” (A Philosophy of Education, pp. 105, 106).
So go back and review that second list, the list of activities that feed and nourish the mind, and then compare it to the curriculum that you are using. Does it faithfully include those nourishing activities? Does it provide ample ideas to feed your child’s mind? That was Charlotte’s goal, and that’s our goal with the Simply Charlotte Mason curriculum.
“To use the mind is by no means the same thing as to feed it.” Nourishment, mental nourishment, is a core value of Charlotte Mason.