You know you are a Charlotte Mason educator if your bookshelves are overflowing and spilling onto your floor, into baskets, and every other corner of your home. Mason understood the power of books to instruct and inspire children, and therefore well-written books were the foundation of her curriculum. Perhaps it seems too simple. How can students learn without textbooks, unit studies, mini-lectures, teacher guides, constant reviewing and taking tests? The answer that Mason (1925/2015) gave was that “the mind has a natural preference for literary form; given a more or less literary presentation, the curiosity of the mind is enormous and embraces a vast variety of subjects . . . . Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form” (p. 13 and p. 148).
What may seem like a simple or relaxed approach to learning is actually more engaging, more challenging and therefore more effective than the typical approach to learning that focuses on rote facts, question-and-answer formats, and textbooks written by committees. What is it about the literary form that is so powerful?
A child’s mind is already furnished with what he needs to deal with knowledge. These God-given capabilities include curiosity, attention, imagination, reflection, judgment and the power to retain and communicate knowledge. Education is not about developing the faculties of the mind but giving the mind the food it needs. And when we don’t give the mind the food it needs, those abilities just mentioned above begin to weaken. So the question educators must ask themselves is how can we continue to strengthen those natural abilities and teach in a way that is respectful to the child as a person?
Through the literary form, children’s imaginations are engaged and strengthened. Imagination can be defined as “the act or power of forming mental images of what is not actually present, “ or “the act or power of creating mental images of what has never been actually experienced.” Kieran Egan, a contemporary educational philosopher, argues that current educational principles are based on an understanding of a child as a prosaic (lacking in imagination) thinker who only has the capacity to handle concrete, hands-on experiences. Therefore a child’s imagination, which is a powerful and energetic learning tool, has been neglected in schools. Egan says that if you observe children, you will see that they love stories and have an intuitive understanding of the story form and abstract concepts represented in stories such as good/evil, fear/hope, honor/selfishness. Egan states, “They do not learn those concepts; they already have them when they arrive at school. They use those concepts to learn about the world and experience” (1986, p. 14).
In a Parents’ Review article, E.A. Parish wrote, “Without imagination, no subject can be rightly followed. It is by the aid of imagination that a child comes to love people who do not belong to his own country, and as he learns the history of their great deeds and noble efforts, he is eager to learn something of the country in which they lived, of its shape and size, of its mountains, woods and rivers, of the causes that made the people what they are.”
Since a child’s mind prefers to deal with knowledge in a literary form, the texts he can handle can pleasantly surprise us as parents and educators. A steady diet of well-chosen literary texts has prepared the child in surprising ways to handle authors that adults may struggle with such as Bunyan, Shakespeare and Plutarch. Every vocabulary word doesn’t need to be defined and every concept doesn’t need to be explained because every child will take what he needs from the feast of ideas presented. Mental exertion will take place without extra exercises to find the main idea or state the connections because just as we can’t stop the body from digesting food, we can’t stop the mind from engaging in the processes of imagination, reflection, judgment, and retention, if given the right mind food.
The literary form is powerful because it is subtle and indirect. An important factor to Mason is that children have the responsibility for their learning and engage in the process of self-education instead of simply regurgitating information that is told to them. Stories allow the students to make the connections, search for the meaning and widen their understanding of the world and human nature. There is something to chew on that will last beyond the next test.
The literary form is also subtle and indirect when it comes to building a child’s moral imagination. Vigen Guroian, the plenary speaker from this year’s CMI conference echoes these sentiments. “Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the preservation is heavily exhortative, and the pupil’s will is coerced. Instead a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination” (1998, p. 3).
Although we want our children to be well-read people who have engaged with the ideas of authors both past and present, our goal as Mason educators is not to create a generation of bookish young people who spend half their lives with their nose in books. The wide reading of literary texts should inspire the next generation to use their imaginations to find solutions, bring hope and declare truth to a world in need.
Egan, K. (1986). Teaching as storytelling. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Guroian, V. (1998). Tending the heart of virtue: How classic stories awaken a child’s moral imagination. NYC: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Mason, C. M. (2015). An essay towards a philosophy of education. Pennsylvania: Riverbend Press. (Original work published in 1925).
Parish, E. A. (1914). Imagination as a powerful factor in a well-balanced mind. Parents’ Review, 25, 379-390.