Imparting Living Ideas to Children

I must admit that the notion of "ideas" perplexes me still. How can we know that we are giving our children ideas and not just information and facts? That is where I start to get lost. What "ideas" should we being feeding our children? Is there a list of "ideas" or books that have these ideas? I would love to hear yours, or anyone else's thoughts about this.

I'm not sure that you need to be worrying so much about a list of ideas (although it's not hard to make one); if you're reading the right sort of books, the right ideas will be in there-truth, valor, courage, gentleness, courtesy, love. I'm reading a book right now called Norms and Nobility, by David Hicks (Karen Glass and some others recommended it), and he is concerned that most current-day educational efforts push out the whole idea of trying to teach something like valor (his example) because you can't quantify it, analyze it or dissect it; you can't make a wordsearch or a multiple choice test of it (although maybe you could make a poster of it...or a poem...or a story of it...which is what we're talking about).

This is where classical education (including Charlotte Mason), learning from great literature and historical example, gets its chance to shine. David Hicks says that classical education teaches you to ask the "normative questions" no matter what your trade or profession-questions about who you are, who God is, why you're here, what's important-and to search for answers. There's a passage in one of CM's volumes where she talks about the basis for a curriculum, and she basically lists those very questions. I am a human being, so I want to know about the history of my people and what they have written and said...I am created by God, so I want to know Him...I live in a world and universe, so I want to know how that works...and a couple of other things.

Charlotte Mason believed that our brains absorb information best when the lesson is "clothed in literary language"-in other words, through a story. I think you can know that you're not just delivering facts in a couple of ways. First, are the books you're using dry outlines, little tidbits?-or do they bring the subject "to life", bringing in the human element? (One of my favorite books that does this is Galileo and the Magic Numbers.) (CM did caution us not to automatically skip the "boring parts" in a book; she said that children would find the strangest parts interesting. Any opinions on this?) Second, how are the narrations going? Is your child able to give back the information with a fair amount of interest and accuracy? Third, do you see fruit of this in his life?-does he ever ask for more books on the subject, or at least complain when you stop reading? does he follow up on it in his own time (even if it's just playing Robinson Crusoe or something with a sibling? (This is one area that concerns me personally-I would like to see more ongoing interest in some of the areas that, for us, tend to get boxed in by "school time", and that don't cross the boundaries of the rest of our lives.)

Anne W.

What CM was getting at when she talked about ideas vs dry facts was, and is, perplexing to me, too.

I understand a little more than I did at first, but I still don't think I 'own' this concept as well as I would like. I think it's closely related to what she has to say about education being the science of relations. One can be able to recite the phrase '2=2=4' without it meaning anything at all, and this is not quite as useful as being able to recite 'twas brillig and the slithy toves.' One can also know that two plus two is four as a simple fact, or one can develop a relationship, an interest in, this concept and what it represents (order in our universe, for example). This is why it can be difficult to separate facts from ideas.

I think one can have a ream of facts at one's disposal, but no real ideas about them, however, I suspect that it's not so likely that one could have a broad mind full of ideas but no facts. So in a way, they do go together.

However, some in classical education seem to me to put the cart before the horse when they emphasize the memorizing of facts and assume that the concepts will naturally follow. It's not natural to memorize lots of nonsense for no reason. We tried, years ago, to do this by using Lyrical Life Science, a tape that has lots of science concepts set to music. It didn't work at all for us. Recently we happened to listen to one of the tapes again. The only child who got anything out of it was the one who had most recently covered those concepts in her biology. She said that the tapes made a whole lot more sense to her now that she knew something of what they were talking about. Before it was about as useful as learning a slew of incomprehensible Swahili sentences. What helped me the most to get some glimmering into what CM was getting at was an experience I had while reading to my child. I wrote about for an online e-zine, and I'll share it again here. Maybe that will help.

And on the science of relations- people were discussing a while back the web of knowledge that we weave, and I've been experiencing that very thing. Three or four years ago I ordered a new poetry book. This book had some poems in it by one Matthew Arnold. I liked his work, but didn't remember ever hearing his name before, so I read some more about him.

He was very involved in education in England in the 19th century. Then I began reading Charlotte's books, and she quotes extensively from his work- in fact attributes "education is a discipline, a life, an atmosphere" to him. I also noticed that she quotes quite often from John Ruskin's work. She says that a volume of art criticism he wrote is the book to approach picture study with, so I went online to try and find this volume. I couldn't find it in its entirety, but I did locate a site with some excerpts, so I hopped on over to see what he had to say. The excerpts were specifically from his writings on Turner's work, and I read them with interest. Then, in a totally unrelated (I thought) web search, I visited an online exhibit of Thomas Moran's work (my dear friend Pam on this list had invited my family to join hers in visiting the Moran exhibit and I wanted to do a little research before we went) which displayed some of his work and included biographical notes. I learned there that my (by now old) friend John Ruskin had been a major influence on his life and work, and that he was also strongly influenced by Turner (I believe Pam tells me Moran actually studied under Turner).

Isn't that neat?! I've also noticed that since my poetry splurge, Matthew Arnold's name has turned up in a couple of different contexts. For all I know, I've seen the name a hundred or more times in the past, but not having established any sort of relation with his writings or his history, it meant nothing to me. Now, however, it represents a whole new country of ideas which I never knew existed, and when I read, my reading has deeper meaning for me, causes more thought- and it seems many of my new thoughts lead to further little surprises of this nature!

Anyone the least bit familiar with Miss Mason's educational methods recognizes that she taught that "Education is the science of relations." I understand this to mean that at least one purpose, if not the purpose, of education is to assist the child in developing a relationship with as many ideas and topics as possible. Once provided with ideas, the child, indeed every person, will use his mind to feed on those ideas- other books, conversations with others will be taken in and used to help digest, or sort out the idea. Because life is interrelated, developing a relationship with one idea will help us develop relationships with others, and each new idea will strengthen the connections we have made with other ideas. The focus of all our educational efforts should be the providing of ideas, not mere information and facts. Ideas are more important than facts, because it is the ideas that act upon the imagination and act upon the character and influence the soul(Mr. Fisher, quoted on page 126). . "Our business is to give children the great ideas of science. . clothed upon facts as they occur."

How does this work? What are ideas? This requires some thought, or at least it did for me, before really understanding the power behind the idea. To help understand the concept, Miss Mason explains that idea comes first, then the demand to confirm and illustrate the idea with facts and information. We may recognize that we are in the presence of Ideas rather than mere information because ideas are received with appetite and some stir of interest. We can have a relationship to this idea, a connection.

WE begin to notice that our reading matter, our conversations, our radio programs "bring food to the newly entertained notion' or give us matter for further thought on the topic. How many times have you read or heard something, been struck by that idea, and then noticed that much of what you read or hear over the next few weeks contributes to your thought on that idea? The more ideas we provide the children, the better able they will be to understand other, newer, ideas.

Still sounds a little fuzzy? Miss Mason says that the idea we want our children to connect with may be concrete (a circle in the mind of a geometrician is one example she used) or abstract- those ideas that create what Miss Mason called an appetency toward something. The concept of a circle in the mind of a geometrician as an illustration of a vital idea really helped me refine my understanding of the concept, but not until I saw it in action in my own life. Permit me to digress with a little personal example. I am not a math wizard. I am not even a math literate. I took math in college because I had to, and I think I passed only because my tears melted my professors heart- or more probably made him want to be sure to get me out of his hair as soon as possible. He told me that in all his years of working with mathematics he had never seen so severe a case of math phobia, a dubious distinction of which I am perversely proud. Even those math tasks that I can do I don't really like, and I do as little of this sort of thing as possible.

Nevertheless, for years I have been able to speak with a semblance of knowledge about circles and circumferences and diameters. I could tell you Pi was 3.14, and I know that there was some sort of connection with circles. I didn't really understand with any depth what I was talking about. I suppose I used those words as protective coloring to disguise my true ignorance.

Nonetheless, in spite of my phobic and negative relationship with math, I suddenly felt the refreshing rush of real contact with all these bits of fact and information. I was struck by the ideas that connect all these dry facts and terms. How it all happened is as instructive as what happened. I was reading A Child's History of Geography aloud to my 9- and 10-year-old daughters. Perhaps because it was a geography book my usual defenses, which arise whenever I sniff a math discussion, didn't come up.

The author was discussing the distance through the center of the earth and how we know what it is even though nobody ever has really been through the center of the earth. He explained, " It's a funny thing, but every ball, whether it is a little ball or a medium-sized ball or a great big ball, is always just a little more than three times as big round as it is through. I have often wondered why this was so- why a ball shouldn't be exactly three times or four times or five times as big round as through, but it isn't. You can try it yourself if you don't believe it. Take an apple or an orange and measure it around and then cut it and measure it through It is twenty-five thousand miles round the World, because men have actually measured that. So we know that the distance through must be about eight thousand miles, as twenty-five is a little more than three times eight. This is not geography; it's arithmetic. If you want to use big words for "around" and " through," as they do in geographies, you must say "circumference" for "around" and "diameter" for 'through'"

Suddenly I realized, really realized, with my mind and not just my superficial memory, what Pi and circumference and diameter meant! Suddenly I was interested in and had a relationship with circles- all circles, big and small. I looked at circles, oranges, golf balls, bowling balls, the little rubber ball the girls use to play jacks and the big rubber ball my special needs child used to use for physical therapy, all in a new and interested light.

"Hello," I could comfortably think to myself, "I know you, you're a circle, and your diameter times pi will give me your circumference," and it was a pleasure to know this- to really know this. It was akin to the pleasure of meeting a familiar and friendly acquaintance on the street- perhaps we only exchange nods, but it's a pleasant, experience, uplifting in its small way. It is a relationship with an idea. It is a pleasure to know.

This is what we want for our children in their education. It is delightful to know, and it is delightful to see our children delight in the subjects put before them as they develop relationships of their own.

I admit, I still find the concept of ideas vs facts a bit fuzzy, but I am closer to understanding it than I was, say, three years ago. Does this help at all?


This discussion is tantalizing to me. I can't resist joining in, although so many great things have been said already.

First of all, what is an idea? It's not easy to define, but it's worth taking the time to think about it. A few good definitions have already been shared. Second, what is the relationship between information (facts) and ideas? This is absolutely crucial to understand, especially in the current homeschool climate.

The Well-Trained Mind is so popular right now, but the pattern/progression of knowledge suggested therein belongs originally to Dorothy Sayers, who wrote an essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning." She says some good things in that essay, but she was not an educator, and she missed some major points.

I'm reading another book right now, "The Aims of Education" by Alfred North Whitehead, and he postulates three stages or cycles of education that much more closely match the way our minds really work. He calls the first stage the "romance stage." This dove-tails perfectly with CM's "education is the science of relations." In the romance stage, a child is meeting many new things for the first time-historical figures and stories, wonders of nature, literary styles. At this point, he is excited and interested in nearly everything. He will naturally pick up a lot of information along the way-facts, if you will-but the primary emphasis should be on "romance" or "relationship" with many things. Following this romance stage, at about age 12 or 13, according to Whitehead, a child is aware of his ignorance about many things. He wants to know more about the things that (already) interest him. This is the "precision stage"-the most disciplined stage. This is when you learn the details (facts) about things. The relationships are already rooted, and the desire to know more will add impetus to the tedium of learning details. After the precision stage is the stage of generalization-the child has a relationship with his subject, knows the details that go with it, and can now take the principles and knowledge he has acquired and use them.

I hope that wasn't too brief to be useful. The reason I took the time to explain Whitehead's stages is because they exactly match those set forth by Charlotte Mason. She calls the first stage the "synthetic stage"-by which she means that a child should read widely and explore many subjects, setting his feet on the paths of relationships with as many areas of knowledge as possible. The second stage she calls the "analytic stage"-getting down to the nitty-gritty of of subjects. She even suggest that this is the stage during which the Victorian-era "grinding at grammar" might be useful. Then, the synthetic "relationship" stage and analytic "precision" stage merge into scholarship-those who take pleasure in reading to know, and are disciplined enough to do it effectively.

Can information alone stimulate ideas? I doubt it.

For example, you could make your child memorize such facts as:

Igneous rocks are formed from molten lava.

Sedimentary rocks are formed from small particles bonded together.

Metamorphic rocks are rocks that have been changed by heat and pressure.

You could make them memorize the names of rocks and their types. Granite is an igneous rock, etc....

Is there a child in the world who is going to form ideas from barren facts like these? Charlotte Mason would have us put rocks into the children's hands, and examine them closely. Compare them. Guess where they came from and how they were formed. Better yet, gather them yourself in the first place. Visit a cave, mountain, rock-cut, volcano site, or whatever is available. Read about people who have had to learn something about rocks or made discoveries that changed science. The relationship comes first (romance), and once that is formed, a child will be interested enough to care that rocks formed from molten lava are called igneous.

My personal feeling is that parents instinctively know that information does not spark ideas or interest their children. I used the geology example because it matched what Tuesday shared. But consider history. Would you rather have your young child memorize a list of the presidents or read a few interesting biographies about Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt? Suppose for the sake of argument that you only have time to do one or the other-which one would you do...and why? Would you rather your child could narrate intelligibly about Abraham Lincoln or rattle off a list of names like the child in the story rattled off the square roots?

It's a popular theory, no doubt about it. But information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not easy to define. As Anne (?) said, you can have information without ideas, but you cannot really convey ideas without including some information. Alfred North Whitehead calls plain information "inert knowledge." You can't really do anything with it...and we deceive ourselves if we imagine our children are going to hold on to all that information until the ideas arrive to bring it to life.

The opposite of inert knowledge, of course, is living ideas. Ideas reside in the spiritual part of man, and are passed from mind to mind. Whoever said that ideas inspire action is absolutely correct. Information alone, divorced from any ideas, is statistics. We don't change our behavior because of statistics. For example, take a man of about 40 who doesn't eat or exercise right. He knows, because the statistics are everywhere, that he is running the risk of heart disease or other health problems, what? Now, suddenly his best friend has a nearly fatal heart attack. This is no statistic-just one living person. But, he immediately alters his behavior-exercising regularly, and trying to eat more healthy foods.

Until we are touched by the ideas, we can hold information at arm's length. I'm seriously paraphrasing David Hicks here. :-) How many times did you cram information into your mind for the sake of a test, then forget it as soon as the test was over? Why do we think our children (capable memorizers though they may be) are going to be happy and satisfied with a diet of information? This isn't minutia-this is a serious different of educational philosophy.

Whether you understand exactly what ideas are, or not, isn't really the issue. There is no magic list. What matters is that you remember that you are educating a spiritual being, and only ideas will reach the spirit of your child.

~Karen Glass

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