As we prepare for another year of homeschooling, many of us are asking a lot of questions: What can I buy with the money available? How detailed should my plans be? Am I leaving something out? How can I keep my preschooler occupied? Where will I put all this stuff?

Asking questions is a good exercise, but Charlotte Mason encouraged us as home educators to take a step back and make sure we are asking the most important questions first. What we purchase, where we store it, and what our days look like are all based on three foundational questions. These are the questions we must answer first, because once we answer these three questions, everything else falls into place.

What are the three questions we need to answer first? Why? What? and How? Here is how Charlotte explained the importance of those questions for the home-educating mother (and father, as well):

She must ask herself seriously, Why must the children learn at all? What should they learn? And, How should they learn it? If she take the trouble to find a definite and thoughtful answer to each of these three queries, she will be in a position to direct her children’s studies.

Home Education, p. 171

So let’s take those three questions and find a “definite and thoughtful answer” to each one. Today, let’s look at Why? Why must the children learn? In other words, what is your goal for educating your children? Why are you doing this? Why are you investing all of this time and money and energy? What is it you’re trying to accomplish?

Most answers to the Why? question fall into one of two camps, and those two camps are worlds apart. Some people will answer that Children learn in order to know. It’s all about the facts that are stuffed into the children’s heads and regurgitated on the tests.

Most likely our own school experiences taught us that this is the answer to the Why question. Why do we go to school? So we can know things. That was the understood reason we were learning, and it was demonstrated in our classes. Charlotte summarized that experience in Home Education, page 172, as “the parrot-like saying of lessons”—You know the drill: memorize this list of facts and recite it. Just parrot it back whether you understand it or not.

“the cramming of ill-digested facts for examinations”—Do you remember those late nights that we stayed up cramming bits of information into our heads to prepare for the test the next day? We didn’t have any kind of personal relation with the information. Charlotte called them “ill-digested facts.” We hadn’t taken them into our hearts and minds and ruminated on them and mulled them over to see what we could gain from them. No, we just memorized and crammed. In other words, we experienced “all the ways of taking in knowledge which the mind does not assimilate.” We didn’t retain much of what we crammed in there. Those facts just stayed on the fringes of our memories, long enough for us to retrieve them for the test, and then we dismissed them. Our minds did not assimilate that information and make it a part of who we are as persons.

And there is the key—the assimilating; the making it part of who we are. You see, Charlotte believed that just as our bodies need food, so do our minds. And just as our bodies digest food and take from it what they need to grow, so our minds digest and assimilate mind-food and take from it what they need to grow. The thing is, mere facts or information is not the food that our minds grow on. 

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

Those who believe our children should learn in order to know emphasize information. But Charlotte was not among those who think the answer to why the children must learn is “in order to know.” Rather, Charlotte enthusiastically believed that “Children learn, to Grow” (Home Education, p. 171). The real answer to Why? is that we educate our children so they may grow as persons, in all aspects of their personhood. 

Growth, physical, intellectual, moral, spiritual, is the sole end of education.

The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 231

And as we just saw, the mind grows on ideas. Ideas are the food that our minds crave, not just information or facts to memorize. Ideas are so much more. 

An idea plants a powerful seed, as it were, that captivates your thoughts, that motivates deep pondering, and that produces true, lasting learning. Charlotte said that an idea has the power 

to grow, and to produce after its kind.

Home Education, p. 173

We’ve all experienced that. Let’s say, for instance, that your stove quits working. You quickly get the idea “I need a new stove.” And your mind latches onto that idea and gets busy thinking through possible options: What kind should I get? Where should I get it? How much might it cost? Could we find a used one? What about a scratch and dent model? 

And those options lead to other possibilities and questions to ponder: Do we have a scratch and dent store nearby? But we probably want a warranty; do they have a warranty? What about a convection oven instead? How soon do I need it? Oh, maybe with a new oven I wouldn’t have to worry about that back corner that overheats and tends to burn my sheet cakes. Maybe I could start baking that favorite recipe again. I might be able to make it for that special party later this month! 

And pretty soon it seems as if anything you look at or read has something to do with this idea of a new stove: You look at the calendar and realize you have company coming for dinner next week. We need to have this stove selected, delivered, in place, and working by Tuesday. You go to co-op and start asking your friends what kind of stoves they have and whether they like them and where they got them. You start looking for that sheet cake recipe that has been laid aside for years.

All of that is the idea growing and reaching out for more ideas. And that’s just one example. The same thing can happen with any number of ideas.

We know from our own experience that, let our attention be forcibly drawn to some public character, some startling theory, and for days after we are continually hearing or reading matter which bears on this one subject, just as if all the world were thinking about what occupies our thoughts: the fact being, that the new idea we have received is in the act of growth, and is reaching out after its appropriate food.

Home Education, pp. 173, 174

And it’s the same for our children. Give them a fact to memorize, and their minds will politely retain it as long as necessary, but it doesn’t grow, it doesn’t stimulate other ideas that involve their creativity and imagination and emotions and encourage other mental connections. Only ideas have the power to do that.

Only ideas feed our children’s minds and encourage them to grow. The emphasis in our home schools is not on what our children know but on how much our children grow—physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually. That’s why our children should learn. So they can grow as persons in all aspects of personhood.

Does this mean our children won’t know anything? That’s hardly the case. In fact, ideas stimulate a desire for knowledge. As with the stove example, your mind was ready and eager to research different kinds of stoves and compare them. Your mind was primed to look for related information and ideas because that initial idea was looking for it, was hungry for it. And that kind of mental appetite is what produces lasting knowledge. It becomes personal, experiential, relational. You don’t just know about something, you know it for yourself.

That superior kind of real knowledge grows out of ideas. So a Charlotte Mason approach to education focuses on giving our children ideas that will help them grow as persons. And that leads us to the other two questions that need to be answered: What should the children learn? And how do we do that? 

We’ll jump into that discussion next time.

In the meantime, you can take a look at some posts that will walk you through some examples of ideas vs. mere facts, just so you can dig into that a little deeper if you want to. Sometimes it’s difficult to wrap your brain around the difference, simply because that’s not how most of us were taught. But I think those posts will help you grasp that idea and grow.

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