An Imaginary Conversation with a Great Mind
by Tammy Glaser
"In saying that 'education is a life,' the need of intellectual and moral as well of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum." -- Charlotte Mason
Imagine the thrill of transporting Charlotte Mason through time and space to our 21st-century society. (Personally, I am often in sore need of an encouraging word from this grande dame of education.) Frustrated teachers, parents and politicians grappling with the failing school system could benefit enormously from her views. Perhaps, she could reveal to them why children are failing to become life-long drinkers from the trough of knowledge. Before embarking on such an incredible journey, Charlotte would kindly protest for, if we have learned anything from her, it is that books are "the storehouse of thought wherein we may find all the great ideas that have moved the world." Vol. 2, pg. 231 We need only to turn the pages of her legacy to learn her thoughts on living ideas and view our current educational crisis through her great mind.
If we were able to convince Charlotte to spend one day in the shoes of typical young scholars, she would be mentally famished by the starvation diet foisted on them. Their minds slowly turn to mush through television, music and video games, chock full of insipidness and devoid of nourishment. Modernizing one of her passages, she might mournfully reflect "a glance at couch potatoes watching television (you may substitute the phrase 'ravers enraptured by rhythm' or 'gamers gunning their joysticks') makes us wonder what sort of mind-food those young people are sustained on, whether they are not suffering from depletion, inanition, not withstanding big and burly bodies." Vol. 6, pg. 104 While their minds gorge on the empty calories of popular culture, so too, their "big and burly bodies" consume massive quantities of junk food, leaving them mentally and physically malnourished.
The Lamp of the Body Matthew 6:22-23
While I could show Charlotte some advantages to witnessing exotic lands, historical events, and scientific exploration through the eyes of a motion-picture camera, she might notice the disadvantages as well. To acquaint her with modern cinema, I show her filmed versions of literary classics. We would be distressed to miss beloved characters, favorite scenes and rabbit trails deleted in the transformation from book to film. I confide to Charlotte my disappointment in losing Stuart Little's invisible car and feathered friend Margalo and the mermaid's Christ-like-sacrifice in The Little Mermaid. The substitution of a sugar-coated sap for the naughty puppet in Pinocchio makes his induction into the humanity club anti-climactic. The live-action version of Collodi's classic retained some of the puppet's wickedness, but the noble message of obedience and sacrifice was replaced by Hollywood's faddish devotion to the theme "love conquers all." Just like creating outlines and textbooks, turning books into screenplays requires abridgment and deadening changes, robbing a story of some of its vital essence. Even in Lord of the Rings, a movie in which the director tried to remain true to the epic, the characters of hobbits Merry and Pippin were shallowly developed and Glorfindel's role was blended with Arwen's.
In 26 Fairmont Avenue, Tomie DePaola captures the disappointment of avid readers when seeing a living book breathed into cinematic life. Born before the dawn of television, this budding artist was lovingly fed living books by his mother. Little Tomie had already been introduced to Grimm's Snow Drop and looked forward to seeing her dance onscreen. Glued to his seat in the darkened theater, he eagerly absorbed Snow White's adventure until the Evil Queen prepared to peddle the poisoned apple. Things about this version of story started to nag him. Disney had skipped the step-mother's earlier attempts to kill Snow White, so little Tomie shouted in dismay, "Where are the laces? Where is the comb?" His keen mind noticed that Disney had confused Snow White's resuscitation with that of Sleeping Beauty. When "The End" flashed on the screen, an outraged Tomie erupted, "The story's not over yet. Where's the red-hot iron shoes that they put on the Evil Queen so she dances herself to death?" Like Tomie, the child in me protests when forced on a detour around delightful rabbit trails:
I never did understand it, and when I went to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs again, with Carol Crane, I warned Carol that Mr. Walt Disney hadn't read the true story. I didn't yell at the movie screen. But I still wished I could have seen the Evil Queen dancing to death in those red-hot iron shoes.
observing the higher quality movies of our time and the few hours
children spend reading living books, Charlotte might conclude, "The
education of the day, it is said, does not produce reading
people. We are determined that the children shall love books therefore
we do not interpose movies between the book and the child."
Vol. 2, pg. 23 "We are in such haste to be instructed by documentaries or titillated by movies that we have no leisure to linger over the mere putting of a thought. But this is our error, for words are mighty both to delight and inspire." Vol. 2, pg. 263 She might encourage us to pry the eyes of our children off movies and glue them onto books. "The best thought the world possesses is stored in books; we must open books to children, the best books; our own concern is abundant provision and orderly serving."
Vol. 2, pg. 26 If only the powers in control of our educational system would heed these words and start feeding the minds and bodies of malnourished children!
The Wise in their Craftiness 1 Corinthians 3:18-20
beloved educator might knit her eyebrows with concern to witness these
starving souls being shoveled sawdust in the hallowed halls of school.
I peer curiously at Charlotte, wondering whether or not she would see
beneath the shiny veneer of the cutesy anecdotes, glossy illustrations,
skeletal stories, and busywork of today's typical text books. Of
course, she would notice they are merely dressier forms of pre-digested
food. She might even sadly shake her head and observe "a child cannot
in mind or body live upon tabloids however scientifically prepared." Vol.
6, pg. 109
Always one to seek scientific answers, she might liken textbooks to a
diet of emerald shakes brimming with nutrients--healthy, but not
satisfying for the soul. Scientists can manufacture fractionated
vitamins in a lab, but this pap in a pill misses the vitality of whole
food: trace ingredients, enzymes, amino acids, essential fatty acids,
properly proportioned minerals, etc. Comparing infant formula to breast
milk, she might note that textbooks may contain the minimum daily
recommended requirements of facts, but cannot match the complex,
perfectly balanced ingredients necessary for a developing brain.
Opinions continuously spewed at children all day would surely catch Charlotte's attention. Her keen ears would be deluged with gallons of opinions, lurking behind the hidden agendas of curriculum committees and in the minds of talkative teachers. Her brain would be numbed by these lifeless crystals grown from ideas. She might gravely state "the very act of crystallization into opinions destroys the vitality it may have had." Vol. 6, pg. 110 Her eyes might glaze over at the sight of teachers eagerly engaging children in sing-songy voices with the sheer force of their magnetic personalities. They spend the majority of time in the faces of children, executing perfectly-planned lessons. Charlotte might sigh at these stumbling blocks placed on paths that connect children to great minds: "No other personality out of book, picture or song, no, not even Nature herself can get at the children without the mediation of teacher. No room is left for spontaneity or personal initiation on their part." Vol. 1, pg. 188
Charlotte's mind would reel as she witnessed starved minds ambushed by the burden of extracting knowledge from the downpour of twaddle found in most classrooms. She might compare it to the cost of extracting gold from rock, petroleum products from crude oil, or salt from sea water. "Professional teachers whether the writers of books or the givers of lessons, are too apt to present a single grain of pure knowledge in a whole gallon of talk, imposing upon the child the labour of discerning the grain and of extracting from the worthless flood." Vol. 1, pg. 175 Alas! If teachers only knew how much easier their jobs would be if they stopped orchestrating every moment of learning and foisting their overbearing personalities on their students. Perhaps they would feel guilty about collecting a paycheck since the only exertion required is to introduce children to the great minds of the ages and let their brains absorb those ideas which they find fit and nourishing. Hesitating to contribute my lowly thoughts, I quietly confess to Charlotte, "My heart soared with joy when I realized I did not have to rely on my meager talents. There is no need for me to create ingenious songs, stories, poems, and pictures or spend my precious time drafting cutting-edge lesson plans. I thank the Lord every day for your revolutionary ideas!"
Empty Words Ephesians 5:3-10
her writings, Charlotte advocated making classrooms twaddle-free zones:
"We do not say that children should never read well-intentioned
second-rate books, but certainly they should not read these in school
hours by way of lessons." Vol.
6, pg. 191
She might be disappointed with my local school's lauded reading
programs. Children are required to read books, most of which fall in
the category of twaddle, and pass computerized tests to earn points.
Upon exceeding goals, the avarice of children is awarded with
certificates and prizes. Every year a select group of books becomes
part of a competition in which students are encouraged to memorize
answers to lists of questions. Recovering her composure after finding
highly-touted literacy programs that reflect the anti-thesis of her
magnum opus, Charlotte might browse the reading lists in search of living books. She would thoughtfully ask why her search turned up dismal results and the librarian anxiously replies, "The children never read those. They don't care for the classics."
As we stroll down the aisles of the school library, plain dusty books wait patiently for young eager hands to retrieve them from the shelves. Charlotte might be disappointed to find well-worn Disney-fried versions of Peter Pan and Pinocchio, instead of their heartier inspirations. Andrew Lang's contributions are virtually unrecognizable in the bland forms found in modern literature. Tanglewood Tales, Just So Stories, Parables from Nature, and Pilgrim's Progress, staples of Ambleside, have evaporated from the shelves. A smile brightens Charlotte's face when she encounters old friends like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and William Shakespeare. Her fingers enthusiastically leaf through the pages of Great Expectations, but a shadow crosses her face when she counts how little the book has been checked out in the past 15 years. "Only six times?" she mouths. Then she might turn to the librarian with pursed lips to ask for the most popular books among young people. Needless to say, she would not be impressed with the likes of R. L. Stine!
Seeds Sown on Good Soil Mark 4:1-20
We turn into the computer lab, where junior high students are downloading history articles from the Internet to be used as sources for written compositions. One or two shining stars busily pound the keyboard in lucid language. Several students nervously glance over their shoulders trying to avoid being caught plagiarizing through the modern miracle of cut and paste keystrokes. One flustered student stares at a blank screen. To ease him into written narration, Charlotte might gently ask him to read the Internet article silently and tell her what he remembers. After several minutes of silence, he stammers, "Hitler was a bad dude. He killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide." Out of the student's earshot, Charlotte would whisper, "It is as we have seen disastrous when a child or man learns to think in a groove, and shivers like an unaccustomed bather on the steps of a new notion. This danger is perhaps averted by giving children as their daily diet the wise thoughts of great minds, and of many great minds." Vol. 6, pg. 104
Later, I fill Charlotte with hope for the current crop of children by letting her read my nine-year-old son's oral narration, dutifully recorded in his book of centuries:
Romans had the most dangerous sports, like chariot racing, and the most tragic sports, like gladiator fights. Sometimes the chariots broke and people fell. It reminds me of NASCAR, which is as dangerous because of the fiery car crashes. The gladiator fights were evil because men had to fight men or animals. The loser had to die if people put their thumbs down. Today we have boxing and wrestling, which started in Greece.
The sparkle might return to her eyes as I repeat a question he posed recently "Who do you think was more evil, Nero or Hitler?" and our ensuing conversation. She would even glow when I describe his play one afternoon with a friend: they floated on a navy blanket and built fleets of triremes out of Lego blocks to reenact the Persian wars. Charlotte might fondly summarize similar experiences with other well-fed children, "Children have a natural appetite for knowledge which is informed with thought. They bring imagination, judgment and the various so-called 'faculties,' to bear upon a new idea pretty much as the gastric juices act upon a food ration." Vol. 6, pg. 11
A Model of Inspired History Luke 1:1-4
Pleased with the fruits of our labours, Charlotte might be curious about the history books which have inspired my son. I rattle off the names of authors unknown to her (Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire and V. M. Hillyer) as well as familiar ones (H. E. Marshall). She might query, "He seems inclined toward history. Has he read any Plutarch yet?" I lower my gaze and sheepishly reply, "I have yet to read Plutarch myself, but we plan to read his work in a couple of years." She would encourage me with warm words, "Chin-up! A child of seven is fully able to comprehend Plutarch, in Plutarch's own words (translated), without any diluting and with little explanation. Give him living thought in this kind, and you make possible the cooperation of the living Teacher." Vol. 2, pg. 178
This dear valued mentor might ask about the source of ancient history which has so captivated my son's imagination. Dreading her reaction to the "T" word, I slowly retrieve Hillyer's textbook, A Child's History of the World. She could read aloud the following excerpt on page 150:
When Xerxes found his way blocked by this ridiculously small band of soldiers, he sent his messengers ordering them to surrender, to give themselves up. What do you suppose Leonidas replied? It was what we should expect a Spartan to answer, brief and to the point; that is, Laconic. He said simply: "Come and take us."
She might compare it to the authors of older history books who "know little of the 'dignity of history'; they purl along pleasantly as a forest brook, tell you 'all about it,' slip your heart with the story of a great event, amuse you with pageants and shows, make you intimate with the great people, and friendly with the lowly." Vol. 1, pg. 282
Stumbling Blocks, not Building Blocks Matthew 18:7-11
missing a few pieces of the educational puzzle, Charlotte might ask
about how a child's progress is measured beyond those computerized
tests full of impertinent questions. I explain that typical students
are expected to write original compositions as early as first grade,
complete worksheets and tests containing more impertinent questions,
and occasionally discuss a book. She would inquire, "How often are
young children expected to narrate a reading?" I truthfully tell her
that I never narrated in school. My teachers usually monopolized most
classroom discussions and, of course, kept us on track with impertinent
questions followed by the right answers. Rather than retell, children
are encouraged to express their feelings, opinions and moral beliefs
from relative angles. She might respond, "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 received it from the last, even we invite children to
Vol. 6, pg. 108
This fount of educational wisdom might beg my indulgence with one more question on how the Bible is taught in school today, from the original source or watered-down versions. I take a deep breathe and relate to her the misunderstood doctrine of separation between church and state. She would quietly lower her eyes to the folded hands in her lap. I briefly outline court precedence that bans school prayer, allows Christianity only to be taught during studies of world religions and forbids the use of the Bible as part of the curriculum. Charlotte might reflect, "We should not present Bible stories as carrying only the same moral sanction as the myths of ancient Greece; neither should we defer their introduction until the child has gone through a moral course of fairy tales and a moral course of fables." Vol. 2, pg. 108 I nod in agreement and point out that children are sometimes allowed religious self-expression through writing, slogans on T-shirts and class discussions. Christian teachers sow seeds of faith through these spontaneous opportunities.
describe how some atheists have tried to bar the little children from
knowing God. A principal and superintendent in Pennsylvania
unsuccessfully attempted to block a high school senior in Pennsylvania
from including references to Jesus Christ in her graduation speech.
Three students in Iowa are suing their school district because they
were restricted from giving away Bibles after school. A federal
ruled that a high school choir in that same state could not sing "The
Lord's Prayer" at a graduation ceremony. Even though the U.S. Supreme
Court sided with a Bible club wanting access to public schools, a
school district in California still bans the Good News Club although
their policy allows non-Christian groups to meet after school to
discuss educational, political, economic, cultural, artistic, and moral
interests of their community. Charlotte might comfort me with words
from our beloved Lord, "Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is
your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were
The Spirit of Wisdom Ephesians 1:15-17
This pioneer of the Ambleside schoolhouse might finally express the true nature of our educational dilemma, "Here is the great recognition which the educator is called upon to make. God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself the supreme Educator of mankind. How? He openeth man's ear morning by morning to hear so much of the best as the man is able to hear." Vol. 2, pg. 108 Understanding slowly dawns in my brain, prompting me to say, "I see. The ears of many teachers are blocked from the wisdom of the supreme Educator. Even if they replaced textbooks with living books, opinions with ideas, and questions with narration, teachers would still be lost without the guidance of the Holy Spirit." A smile might spread over her face, "We seek and assuredly find the cooperation of the Divine Spirit, whom we recognise, in a sense rather new to modern thought, as the supreme Educator of mankind in things that have been called secular, fully as much as in these that have been called sacred." Vol. 2, pg. 254 With quiet reverence, she might begin to recite in confidently rendered Shakespearean English,
Doth the plowman plow all day to sow? Doth he open and break the clods of his ground? When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the fitches and scatter the cummin, and cast in the principal wheat and the appointed barley and rye in their place? For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him. For the fitches are not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cast wheel turned about upon the cummin; but the fitches are beaten with a staff and the cummin with a rod. Bread corn is bruised; because he will not ever be threshing it, nor break it with the wheel of his cart, nor bruise it with his horsemen. This also cometh forth from the Lord of Hosts, which is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working. Isaiah 28:24-29
Individual Members of Christ's Body 1 Corinthians 12:12-31
Our time together draws to an end, so I press Charlotte for her thoughts on two matters dear to my heart. I explain how I found a worthy example of the genesis of ideas and how it change a person's life. The biography of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman (who would have been called a backward child in Charlotte's day), describes how a simple idea struck her mind with such a force that she produced important revolutions in two seemingly unrelated industries: cattle management and therapies for autistic children. I began to unfold important events in Temple's life.
While repairing a cattle chute at her aunt's ranch as a teen, Temple observed how wild-eyed nervous cows relaxed once squeezed gently by the sides of the chute. She wondered whether or not the chute could produce a similar effect on her own highly excitable nervous system. Trying out the equipment, she felt the same comfort as cows. Many adults in Temple's life--her teachers, her psychologist and even her parents--tried to steer her from this rather bizarre theory. Her sole supporter was her high school science teacher, Mr. Carlock, who encouraged her to investigate her ideas scientifically: build a human-sized model, experiment on other people, create a mechanism to enable the person to control its operation, and read research studies documenting the effects of tactile stimulation on humans and animals. In college, Temple worked hard to overcome her deplorable math skills, but was unable to major in engineering. However, due to her uncanny ability to design equipment visually, she bypassed the need for complicated physics and created a niche in the cattle industry. She applied her doctorate degree in animal behavior to predict the effects of her designs on cows and made innovative cattle chutes. Today, one-third of all cattle chutes used in the United States sprung from Temple's mind and autistic children all over the world are calmed by her "squeeze machine."
The wheels of Charlotte's keen began to turn. She could call Temple a modern-day Helen Keller and Mr. Carlock Temple's Annie Sullivan, who was "a person of fine sanity and wholesomeness, trusting to her personal initiative, and aware from the first that her work was to liberate the personality of her little pupil and by no means to superimpose her own." Vol. 1, pg. 195 Temple's experience at the cattle chute is much like Helen's experience at the water pump. The gentle pressure of a cattle chute, like the cool water trickling across the mute girl's palm, "was the key which opened the doors of the child's mind . . . and it is not too much to say that this imprisoned and desolate child entered upon such a large inheritance of thought and knowledge, of gladness and vision, as few of us of the neurologically typical world attain to." Vol. 1, pg. 195
Bear Fruit Well Matthew 7:15-20
I thank Charlotte for her insight and beg to impose upon her one more time before she returns to her life in Ambleside. While reading the biography of a beloved author, I was thrilled to noticed that his early education in childhood resembled a P.N.E.U. education. He grew up in the English countryside during the decade in which Ambleside thrived. I am eager to learn whether it was possible his teacher, that is his mother, inspired her son to literary greatness with a generous curriculum. Before I let the name J. R. R. Tolkien trickle off my tongue, our wise educator stopped me to avoid affecting the thought-atmosphere of his life in case she knew him. But Charlotte was curious to learn why I suspected an Ambleside method. I pointed out how his mother taught him to read at a tender age and introduced him to Latin. The lad seemed intrigued by the sounds and shapes of words, so she taught him French. He mastered several languages by himself and read The Iliad, The Aneid and even Danish sagas in their original tongues. He spent a great deal of time outdoors, sketching and learning botany through direct observation. The boy devoured many books considered standard at Ambleside: Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, and Andrew Lang's fairy tale collections. Even though his fertile mind rejected certain literary works (namely, Pilgrim's Progress and Shakespeare's plays), they lived in his curriculum. This Oxford scholar later relates that the times spent with his mother were the longest and most formative part of his life.
Charlotte might recall Matthew Arnold's quote "Think clear, feel deep, bear fruit well" and ask me what were this man's fruits. I summarize his legacy. He became an Oxford professor who taught Old and Middle English. His recitations of Beowulf were so striking students fondly remember them years later. He translated ancient works into modern English, including his beloved Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Through his knowledge of philology, he contributed to the Oxford dictionary. The achievement that endears him the most to literary minds is his creation of a mythical world in his books. He invented languages, described the fauna and flora, juxtaposed good against evil, and brightened his stories with poetry. This author breathed life into heroic characters who struggled with temptation, faced the consequences of spiritual weakness, enjoy the rewards of obedience, and put others before self. Most important of all, through his fellowship, another Oxford professor converted to Christianity and then wrote many apologetic books and Christian allegories still cherished today.
Wisely turning to her supreme Educator, Charlotte quotes, "According to the grace of God, which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is." 1 Corinthians 3: 10-13
Before bidding adieu, she would then pause and encourage me to build upon the foundation on which she placed a few humble blocks, just as this mother had done for her son. After she disapeared from my sight, her words echoed in my ears and renewed my courage as a homeschooling parent, "Just remember, the mind feeds on ideas and therefore children should have a generous curriculum." Vol. 6. pg. 111
The Original Homeschool Series (six volumes) by Charlotte Mason Vol. 6, pg. 104-111; Vol. 1, pg. 171-178; Vol. 2, pg. 29-40.
1. Name and explain how some books or textbooks you use contain living ideas.
2. Illustrate the genesis of ideas using examples from your life or the life of others.
3. Illustrate how your children draw inspiration from casual life and thought-atmosphere.
4. Describe how to let your your children meet great minds.
5. Describe how to flower ideas that follow their own path in the minds of your children.
Copyright Tammy Glaser 2002, Used with permission.
Tammy created a page to show how CM's 20 Principles work in her homeschool; you can see that here.