A Living Education
There are many definitions of education, and many subjects that can be included or discarded either in whole or in part from and education. Plato would have us discard poetry and literature in favor of physical education, music, astronomy, logic and a little math.
Others have proposed that the aim of education is the future vocation of the children. Some have said the main purpose is to instill character in the children. Others have said that education is the training up of the child in health, a capable cultivated mind, and a moral and spiritual strength.
This seems like a tall order and the parents in each case will have to decide exactly what they expect to accomplish. We, mothers are often the ones put most in charge of the raising and influencing of the children and this is a tall order. Modern psychology would have us believe that children are simply physical organisms that are programmed to do certain things and while the nurture they are given will influence them, this should mostly be left up to their peers and government institution. It is not the fault of the parents if the child does not turn out well and so the unsuccessful parent has a scapegoat, but the truth is parents can in large part help the child to be successful and develop health, a capable, cultivated mind and moral and spiritual strength, but it takes the best effort that parents have and often the results will not show up until the child is grown. But it can be done. But how?
We could sit down and write out objectives for each grade level and each week within that grade level, so that in the third week in second grade we may teach the concept of truthfulness and then check that off our list. But unfortunately if we have the child write I will be truthful 10,000 times we are only likely to bore the child and not make him one bit more truthful.
So how may we give to the child this enormous education, which we propose. I think a great deal of it can be accomplished by what Charlotte Mason calls a living education. A living education is an education based on ideas.
These living ideas come from thinking, cultivated minds. We want to put the children in direct contact with these ideas with as little interference as possible. The chief way to do this is through books. The books are carefully selected from the best that is written from a very broad group of subjects. The subjects themselves are much broader then what is typically found in educational curriculums, and the child is left to build the connections to the subjects himself. He is not told which are the important parts that must be remembered and regurgitated for a test. He is told which books to read, and then asked to tell what he got out of the book. In this way the answers will be very different and the child will be allowed his individuality while the parent is given a glimpse at his thought processes.
Sometimes a homeschool parent will feel bad or overwhelmed because she can’t explain a subject or the child starts to get ahead of her in knowledge. But we really don’t need predigested facts from the parent. The child needs the book by the enthusiastic expert even if the book is a bit hard, and so much the better if it is. The child should dig for the information and not be given it in simple language with simple ideas. When things are very simple they are rarely ever thought of again.
For instance, I am in a social psychology class and as I was reading about experiments done to show how people form opinions and beliefs, I was mulling over the material and thinking about how it could be applied in an educational setting and I was getting excited and thinking hard, trying to put my thoughts into words. I then went back to the text and found the next section dealt with how teachers use the ideas effectively and ineffectively in classrooms. Oh, I thought, they already put most of what I was thinking into words and then I promptly forgot the whole thing. If it had not all been spelled out and I was allowed to read between the lines I would have thought on it more and come away with more connections to the subject. This is a method of predigesting the material commonly found in text books, it does not leave room for original thought-without original thought there is a mere stuffing of facts, but it can hardly develop relationships to the subject being discussed.
The parents responsibility then is not to give predigested facts or to explain things, to the child. The parent can introduce a book with and enthusiastic word for it. The parent is also to train the child in attention to his work which is most often done by narration and short lessons. As the child gets older analytical essays and discussions can be used in place of some of the narrations. A parent may clear up an idea through discussions and careful questioning of the child. If every thought and word in a child’s narration is not perfectly correct the parent can take note of this a bring it around in another reading later.
This method lies so heavily on books, though not exclusively, that we must be very careful as to which books we give the children. The scriptures should be read and reread to the children, they should narrate the passages until they know them, and in this way much of their moral and spiritual training will be brought about. This does not need to be dull either. For instance, Monday the children and I were reading in Acts about how Paul was taken prisoner by the Jews, but when he said he was a Roman a Roman soldier took him to a Roman court where he was kept in prison for two years waiting for his accusers. During this time the judge Felix kept calling him in to talk and answer question about Christ and the gospel and then sending him away again. This so amused Aubrey that she wanted to act it out. So she was Paul and I was Felix and I would call her and ask her a question, like who was Christ? And when she answered I sent her away, she thought this was so funny that she kept laughing. Then I started asking her harder questions about heaven and hell to which she did not know the answer. I made the comment that maybe that was why missionaries had companions. Kamron jumped up, “oh, yes. Paul’s companion was James. I will be James and I will help, but Paul did most of the talking, so you will have to say most of the stuff.”
Do you see the connections the children are making to the subject? Do you see where the ideas are? Even in scripture we can turn reading into a boring exercise of memorization or we can give them the stories and let them show where they have connected to them.
The scriptures ought to be are basic educational book, but after that how do we select living books. Or do we select them? Some people would have children read whatever they want, but until the children have been carefully led to develop a discriminating taste in their reading, they should not be left to read whatever unless you want slipshod results. Each parents will have to decide for themselves the exact criteria they use, but I will give you some ideas. Almost all textbooks can be thrown out, for there is not many ideas left in them, they are often devoid of personality. One can’t imagine the author from the words often because there isn’t one. Committees made of sub-committees create compilations that rarely have an interesting snippet in them, and if they do these snippets aren’t enough to satisfy a child. It is much better to give a child a whole book. For instance, one can read two paragraphs about crabs or a book such as Pagoo that tells of the birth and life of an individual crab with details of his growth and search for shell.
But how will the child learn about everything if they read a whole book, can’t they get more things in from short snippets. The answer to this lies in the method. In the textbook method the same topics are covered again and again and very little of it is remembered by the child once he has finished his tests or left school. With living books, a book only needs to be read once and then narrated from and the child will remember and make his own connections to the material. But of course, there is still a limit to subjects that can be covered, as we cannot cover everything in twelve years, but as children are raised on good books, they are not likely to abandon them when they leave school and will be able to continue their studies through carefully selected books.
We want our children’s literature books to contain friends with character and varied interests. AA Milne, Kipling, Kingsley, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald and Hawthorne should all be household names that are woven into a families fabric. These types of books can be read and reread by children and parents alike. It has been suggested that no book ever be given to a child that an adult only reads with some pain. If you read ahead in your child’s book to see how it will end that is the first step in knowing that the story may be worthy of your child’s education.
I book should also be clothed in literary language, full of deep language and thinking ideas. There is a story one of the women told at the Ambleside conference about her daughter who was sick in bed, and wanted a story. Her mother grabbed Wind in the Willow, because it was near at hand. She realized that this author had not been schooled in the style of talking down to children and she closed it and said, “these are awfully big words, maybe we should just wait to read it until you are older.” The little girl said, “I don’t care about the words I just want to hear the story.” A child does not need to know every word and will often think longer on the book if he does not.
Of course books are not the only thing involved in a living education. Indeed a bookish child who sits all day and reads is not what we are after. Other subjects lend themselves to being given ideas from enthusiastic masters much better then books. To learn about flowers and birds, one should get out and study birds and flowers and really learn to look at them. Music is best learned through listening to carefully selected pieces of the best quality. In my opinion much of this modern art of colored circles and squares or else just splotches on paper should be avoided as much as the insipid modern stories written nowadays for children. Instead a child should learn to look and really see careful paintings done by the masters. He should learn several paintings by the same artists.
This sort of careful selection of the very best materials produced by masters in a very wide variety of subjects allowing the child to react and connect to each item in his own way is a living education. An education such as this will provide a great deal of knowledge for their own and other peoples enjoy, a wide vocabulary and ability of expression, a single-minded character will be formed with a broad outlook and a variety of interests in a variety of subjects.