Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Education is a Life...Providing Pabulum for the Mind...

Principle 5c & 8

Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments (the third of which is) the presentation of living ideas...In saying that "education is a life," the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied.  The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.

Over the past couple of months, we've studied two of the three instruments of education, Education is an Atmosphere and Education is a Discipline.  In the opening paragraph of our assigned reading this month, Charlotte writes,
We have left until the last that instrument of education implied in the phrase 'Education is a life'; 'implied' because life is no more self-existing than it is self-supporting; it requires sustenance, regular, ordered, and fitting. 
Education is a life.  Not as in we should be schooling every moment of our day, but rather providing pabulum for the mind.  Pabulum, (păb′yə-ləm), a new word for me, meaning, a sustenance that gives nourishment; food. [1670–80; < Latin pābulum food, nourishment =pā(scere) to feed + -bulum n. suffix of instrument]

Therefore, education is a life, a life requiring sustenance.  A life cannot live without nourishment...once we realise that the mind too works only as it is fed education will appear to us in a new light.   I saw the light!!  I've been rolling "pabulum" around on my tongue every since. 

Charlotte further explains the best kind of nourishment.  For 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...What is an idea?...A live thing of the mind... 

Just as we cannot live on a diet of sawdust, our minds cannot thrive on twaddle.  Garbage in, garbage out.  Instead, we need to provide pabulum for the mind, as in living ideas.  I equate this to the best living books and stories.   Living books that are well written with beautiful language will inspire ideas. 

Regarding these ideas, on page 109, Charlotte writes,
Education is a life.  That life is sustained on ideas.  Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food.  Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest.  He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs.  Urgency on our part annoys him.  He resists forcible feeding and loathes predigested food.  What suits him best is pabulum presented in the indirect literary form which Our Lord adopts in those wonderful parables whose quality is that they cannot be forgotten though, while every detail of the story is remembered, its application may pass and leave no trace.  We too must take this risk.
Just as Jesus taught in parables, we too must teach with stories.  We must provide a buffet of the best pabulum and let the child take from it that which he can use.  Keeping in mind, that it may not be what we think is best, but what is regular, ordered and fitting for the child.

Further down the paragraph, Charlotte cautions us against twaddle,
One other caution, it seems to be necessary to present ideas with a great deal of padding, as they reach us in a novel or poem or history book written with literary power.  A child cannot in mind or body live upon tabloids however scientifically prepared; out of a whole big book he may not get more than half a dozen of those ideas upon which his spirit thrives; and they come in unexpected places and unrecognized forms, so that no grown person is capable of making such extracts from Scott or Dickens or Milton, as will certainly give him nourishment.  It is a case of, -" In the morning sow thy seed and in the evening withhold not thine hand for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that."
Charlotte also advises us to be careful in offering our opinions to children instead of ideas.  We believe that an opinion 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..  

She instructs us instead to give an idea clothed upon with fact, history and story, so that the mind may perform the acts of selection and inception from a mass of illustrative details.  It is not necessary to dumb down for the children's sake, but rather, Charlotte calls us to give them the facts.  Being born a person, whose mind is an instrument of his education, the child is able to digest what is honest, lovely, and of good report.

Now this is not a pouring in of facts for memorization.  It's offering a broad and generous curriculum, not in fits and starts, but at a steady pace so the child's mind can absorb and make use of these facts. 

Something else that really struck me about this reading was Charlotte's reference to composition.
We must disabuse our minds of the theory that the functions of education are in the main gymnastic, a continual drawing out without a corresponding act of putting in.  The modern emphasis upon 'self-expression' has given new currency to this idea; we who know how little there is in us that we have not received, that the most we can do is to give an original twist, a new application, to an idea that has been passed on to us; who recognise, humbly enough, that we are but torch-bearers, passing on our light to the next as we have received it from the last, even we invite children to 'express themselves' about a tank, a Norman castle, the Man in the Moon, not recognising that the quaint things children say on unfamiliar subjects are no more than a patchwork of notions picked up here and there.  One is not sure that so-called original composition is wholesome for children, because their consciences are alert and they are quite aware of the borrowings; it may be better that they should read on a theme before they write upon it, using then as much latitude as they like. 
Moms often ask about composition or the writing component of a Charlotte Mason education.  We know that Charlotte didn't advocate composition until around age 10 and then, beginning in the form of written narration only.  Original composition came much later.  However, brick and mortar schools begin this act of self-expression very early on, sometimes as young as kindergarten and first grade.  When being questioned, I was unsure how to articulate the importance of waiting.  Here again, after reading this passage, the light went on!

We cannot expect children to compose if they haven't been fed a steady diet of ideas.  Living books stimulate ideas.  In turn, ideas stimulate discussion, interest, and involvement.   In other words, we cannot pull out that of which has not been put in.

Sometimes, weeding through Charlotte's writing gets me in a tangled mess. However, I absolutely loved how she summarized the concluding paragraph of this chapter....
All roads lead to Rome, and all I have said is meant to enforce that fact that much and varied humane reading, as well as human thought expressed in the forms of art, is, not a luxury, a tit-bit, to be given to children  now and then, but their very bread of life, which they must have in abundant portions and at regular periods.  This and more is implied in the phrase, "The mind feeds on ideas and therefore children should have a generous curriculum."
The importance of living ideas fed in abundance is very clear to me.  It's a significant part of the paradigm shift I'm experiencing through reading Charlotte's actual writings.


  1. Your study group and mine are on the same timeline, so I just read these sections a few weeks ago too. :) What I have been struck by is how all CM's principles hold together and how the practices all make sense in light of them. It is such a cohesive philosophy. Your narration here is great and similar to what I have been trying to do in my study notebook. It really helps me to go through it like this before the meetings.

    1. I had not thought of it as a narration, but in actuality I guess it is. Sometimes, I write up these thoughts and then go back later and reflect, which I find very helpful in solidifying the knowledge.

      I too am struck by the cohesiveness of Charlotte's well as the common sense invoked :)

  2. Input before output. That's the way that my favorite language learning blog puts it. You have to listen to Japanese before you can speak it. You have to own and labor over books before you can expect to become literate. I've been reading all about that in the context of learning Japanese, and it makes so much sense, now that you point it out, that it should apply to other areas, too! Thank you.