Have you ever had someone ask you a question about your child, one that your present child was well-equipped to answer on their own? I see this happen a lot. To me, this is strong evidence that people do not view children as persons. But it also demonstrates the wrong idea that a child’s mind needs to be filled with information by adults. I am often asked questions on behalf of my children because they aren’t viewed as competent enough to answer. And to be fair, my two-year-old and six-month-old can’t often (or ever!) answer these questions for themselves. But my very eloquent five-year-old gets confused when people ask questions about her over her head. She often jumps in to answer before I can even start, knowing full-well that she is capable of communicating and sharing her mind.
Some educators today like to focus on process rather than products. They say that we should allow children to experience the process instead of focusing on the finished product. If only we could treat their minds in the same manner! We don’t need to fill children with knowledge and make connections for them so that they reach a predetermined answer. Teaching them how to learn and think, use their minds, is a process. Their minds are not some sort of blank slate, waiting to be written on, or, for a modern-day comparison, a computer, waiting to be programmed. Their minds only need us to present a feast that they can dig into.
Charlotte Mason’s 9th Principle
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.
The modern-day analogy replaces a blank slate or empty sac with a computer. The theory states that a brain is a computer because it receives input (knowledge), processes it (thinks), and then produces output (words or actions. But we do our children a disservice if we compare their minds to a machine. We completely miss the beautiful complexities of emotion, imagination, and problem solving. If we view knowledge as input that we must put into our children, then we can’t possibly give them a living education.
Mind and Brain
I love how Charlotte Mason takes pains to say “mind” so many times. When we instead say “brain,” we are ignoring the beauty and complexity of what makes us human. The brain is the physical gray matter in our heads. It sends messages throughout our nervous system that control our actions, voluntary and involuntary. The mind, on the other hand, is more than information passing through. It is shaped by our experiences, imaginations, aspirations, beliefs, feelings, and character. Charlotte Mason purposefully said “mind,” because the knowledge that we take in is shaped and molded by the very thing that make us individuals. Giving the “brain” knowledge does not shape the person.
Appetite for Ideas
If our minds are slates to be written on or computers to be programmed, then learning happens against our will. Knowledge is poured in, and we accept it. But this living, spiritual organism of the mind does not merely accept information; it thrives on knowledge and ideas. It is fed on the good, nourishing food of ideas. Ideas are planted as little seeds, and then they grow. We all have seen young children do this. They hear of something interesting, and then they want to know more about it. The seed has been planted, and it needs to be nourished. Children do this by experimenting, testing with their senses, asking 100 questions that begin with “why?” They are asking to be fed.
In Towards a Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason quoted A Paterson:
There is too much learning and too little work. The teacher ready to use the powers that his training and experience have given him works too hard while the boy’s share in the struggle is too light. It is possible to make education too easy for children and to rob learning of the mental discipline which often wearies but in the end produces concentration and the capacity to work alone.” quoting A. Paterson, Towards a Philosophy of Education, page 119
Children need to do the work of learning on their own. We can’t do that for them.
Replace the views you may have of knowledge formed from a less-than-living education in the past: dull text books, trivia questions, and fill-in-the-blank tests. One of the unfortunate memories I have as a public school teacher is giving students terribly boring text books, fact upon fact upon fact, and expecting them to pay attention and to learn. I never pointed to the good, the true, and the beautiful: the ideas that would stimulate their thought and encourage them to keep learning.
We may not take things casually as we have done. Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religious, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses. They experience all the things they hear and read of; these enter into them and are their life; and thus it is that ideas feed the mind in the most literal sense of the word ‘feed'” Towards a Philosophy of Education, page 40
When I was 16, I really wanted my own car. It didn’t need to be fancy. In fact, I had my sights set on a Honda Accord. This is not typically what a sixteen year old dreams of when they imagine their first car, is it? But for me, this car seemed reliable, okay-looking, and would safely tow my friends to and from our open-campus lunches. Suddenly, I noticed these cars everywhere I went. Three on the way to the grocery store, five coming home from swim practice!
While this is a silly example, I hope that it illustrates how an idea grows. I wanted that car (which, by the way, I to this day have never owned) and suddenly it seemed to appear everywhere.
When a student is inspired by a living idea, it seems to appear everywhere. They can connect this book to that book, this experience to that, and so on and so forth. Their minds; their competent, unique minds, work on that idea, connect emotionally with it, and examine it from different angles.
Recently, I saw a quick blurb from a TED talk that described what children will need for jobs in the future. The best job-security for them is to learn skills that a computer can’t do: skills that involve emotional intelligence, creativity, and interpersonal relationships. These things are not developed by cramming facts into a child’s mind. A living education nourishes all of the aspects of their complex minds.