? re: a CM quote and concept

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  • MamaWebb

    Hello All!  I am coming back to a more CM method next year.  So, I have been doing some reading that I had not previously done.  I read A Charlotte Mason Education by Catherine Levison and I am currently reading The Living Page and Charlotte Mason Study Guide.

    In Gardner’s CM Study Guide, in the chapter on Ideas, I read a Mason quote that stopped me in my tracks.  It says the following:

    “One of our presumptuous sins in this connection is that we venture to offer opinions to children (and older persons) instead of ideas. We believe that an opinions expresses thought and therefore embodies an idea. Even if it did so, once the very act of crystallization into opinion destroys any vitality it may have had (109-110).”  [I’m not sure which volume it is from, but the paragraph that proceeds it talks of ideas being spiritual things, and that it is our job to provide a variety for the children to pick up as they choose, and that a grown person ought not choose extracts for the child, as he will take what he needs because he “is eclectic.”]

    Can someone help me understand the difference between helping my kids get to an idea without giving them my opinion?  I’m feeling uncertain now of the difference between an opinion and an idea.  And I suspect that I have been telling my kids my opinions.  What does it look like to help kids get to their own opinions?  I see this struggle with my kids when we narrate.  The older ones can do a great job with facts and retelling, yet they do not move into their own opinions or analysis.  Could this be related?  How do I help them get there? How do I help them think and discuss without interjecting my own opinion?

    The kids I am still schooling are: DS age 14 moving into 9th grade, DD age 11.5 moving into 6th grade, DS age 9, moving into 4th grade, and DS age 7.5 moving into 2nd grade.

    Thanks for any insight you can provide!



    Sonya Shafer

    This sounds like a great opportunity for all of us to wrap our minds more fully around the differences between ideas, opinions, and principles. Here are a few thoughts to get things started. I’m eager to hear other related ideas too, as I’m still pondering these concepts myself. I’m including principles in the discussion because Charlotte draws a definite line between opinions and principles, encouraging us to give our students principles rather than only our personal opinions about things.

    Maybe some examples would be a helpful place to start.

    Principle: We should dress modestly.
    Opinion: Modest clothing looks like this . . . (insert hem lengths, types of sleeves, color, etc.)
    Idea: What is considered modest in one culture might not be considered modest in another culture.

    or maybe

    Principle: A nation should not hastily enter into war.
    Opinion: This side in the war was right and that side was wrong, because . . .
    Idea: Wars are usually caused by many factors and cause many griefs.

    What do you think of those examples? Are we close to differentiating between the three concepts? If those examples look close, we might then be able to draw some generalizations to help us define the three terms. Maybe? What do you think?



    Your examples are helpful and interesting. So, then how do we help kids move toward their own ideas, to drawing their own conclusions, to their own analysis?

    Is it ok for a parent to present a principle?

    It would seem that an opinion includes judgement, while a principle seems to be morality based?  Am I off on that?  And an idea is almost a conclusion, a thought based on examining evidence?

    This kind of makes my brain hurt, hahaha!

    Who else can chime in?


    The quote is from chapter 6, section 3 of volume 6. The section title is “education is a life” and it is about ideas as the food of the mind. In context cm is saying that we must present children with whole, living ideas “without padding.” The padding is our commentary. I think if we give our kids access to the minds of others through books, music etc without our added comments then we are doing what she says here– giving ideas and not (our) opinions.

    My kids are high school age and I do give some opinions at this point but they are old enough that we can discuss things and they know they don’t have to agree with me.

    Elsewhere (wish I could find it but I can’t seem to right now, pretty sure it’s vol 6 too) cm says that they way to give kids the courage of their convictions  is to expose them to great thinkers. In other words to again have them read, read, read good books.

    Sonya Shafer

    In looking at the examples from different angles, I’m moving toward this kind of differentiation. See what you think.

    Principle: A moral guideline for living.
    Opinion: A personal position sometimes based on a principle and sometimes not.
    Idea: An observation about life. (not sure this is adequate yet, but this simple definition helps me differentiate between the three listed at this point)

    Yes, we should certainly give our children principles. Or more accurately, we should discuss the principles found in the living books, including the Bible.

    “Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.” (Point #19 in Charlotte Mason’s short synopsis of education)

    “Now no man sets himself up for a following of disciples who does not wish to indoctrinate these with certain principles, or at the least, maxims, rules of life. So should the parent have at heart notions of life and duty which he labours without pause to instill into his children” (Vol. 2, p. 67).

    A few more random thoughts on the topic.
    Principles are timeless and unchanging.
    Opinions can change over time and in different situations.

    I have been impressed lately with how much the wording of the Ten Commandments, even, lean toward principles rather than opinions.
    First Commandment
    Principle version: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
    Opinion version: “Do not worship (name of false god) or (name of false god) or (name of false god).” — See how this could easily become outdated and change in different time periods?


    Fifth Commandment
    Principle version: “Honor your mother and father.”
    Opinion version: “Call your parents ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir'”? That could be a cultural or geographic application.

    So much of Scripture is principle-based!


    I understand the desire to clarify the differences here and to give precise definitions but as Charlotte herself doesn’t, I think we also need to be wary of making things too solid. In one of her books (the 5th maybe?) CM speaks of an idea which changed a man’s life which was no more than s love for Scotland he got from a story read as a boy. This is not a profound idea but she calls it an idea. Ideas also cannot always be put into words. They can be impressions. I am reading a book “The Liberated Imaginaton”which makes just this point. If we could always boil down an idea to a simple proposition, what would be the need of the piece of art or music or literature which embodies it?

    Sonya Shafer

    Great point, nebby. It is so hard to use material words to define something that is non-material/non-physical/spiritual! An idea is much more than the puny summation I posted above.


    This has been a great discussion.  Thank you, both!



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