Now that you mention it, there does seem to be a bit of a book fetish that goes along with this method, and for some reason – the older the better? But what if you are not particularly giddy about books? What if you just want to educate your kids without joining some old-book cult? Is a method of education that has generated its own genre of book (Living Books) a good fit for “regular” people.
At first glance it may seem that “books” are the cornerstone of Charlotte Mason’s approach to – but upon closer inspection you will see that it is actually “ideas” that are the pivot. “The power of the vitalizing idea”. Vitalizing ideas come in many ways: books - yes, but also, conversations, experiences, observations, even lectures by the right people. Her conception of a living education was not one of kids sitting around with their noses in books all day – but rather a vibrant life fed by ideas from many sources.
The interest in books lies hand in hand with the broadness a good education should give. While an experience and a conversation can teem with living ideas – how many opportunities, day in and day out, are you capable of providing? Honestly. A teacher must not limit her students’ education to her own areas of expertise. Neither is it feasible to expect every teacher to be an enthusiastic master of every subject. This is where books come in. The best ideas of the greatest minds have been written down. While a conversation with Newton would be ideal! The next best conveyance of his ideas is to read his own words. What would come through is, not only the facts he gleaned but also the passion and personality. Ideas are passed mind to mind, and idea gives birth to idea. We have all felt it in memorable conversations – if you think about it, you have also felt it in memorable books. Something of the vitality of an idea comes through the medium of ink and pages when a person who is knowledgeable and passionate about their subject takes time to convey their thoughts to another mind. In this model we are no longer limited in space to a particular teacher and a single understanding, but we are also loosed from the confines of time itself. I can’t sit down with Newton, or Washington, or Hawking – but I can sit down with their books. My mind can converse with their ideas that still sizzle with the vitality of the day they wrote them. And so, we begin to see that books are immensely practical. Once upon a time education centered on finding a teacher to follow and be mentored by (think Socrates or Jesus), but books expanded it to anyone who could read… and afford the books. Which brings up a good point, books were expensive!
When people began to be aware that it was beneficial to educate all classes of people, not just a select few, it became apparent that these types of books, these “Living Books”, were impractical due to cost and availability. For a time the lecture was used in the classroom as a coping mechanism for the impracticality of putting a Living Book in the hand of each student. But again – what teacher could possibly be enough on every subject for every student? Hence our association of the word -lecture- with the word -boring-.
Compulsory public education gave rise to public funding, and this gave birth, not to a resurgent of whole and complete, “Living” books, but rather to “the textbook”. Suddenly there was a lot of money to be made in these consolidated tidbits and facts put together by a committee. The living and coherent ideas were snipped from the books they were originally written in and were compressed and compiled and sanitized to be efficient fodder for education.
One compromise led to another and soon we came round to each student having a book in hand – but it was something so bland and dry that no one wanted to read it. Quizzes and tests were added to make sure the content was covered, and it didn’t take long before education was a long way from its ancient and exciting roots. Far from conveying the ideas that compelled people to follow and ponder, this form of education gave rise to mandates and truancy.
Enter Charlotte Mason. Grasping the same classical ideal, she wanted to put mind into direct contact with mind. She wanted education to be compelled not by force but by desire, to be - not something we do - but live. She wanted to bring back the vitalizing ideas that birthed the great thoughts. She brought back the “Living Books”. This was a huge relief to overburdened teachers and a boon for burned out students. No longer did every teacher need to master every subject in order to lecture, or act as an enforcer with bribes and punishments – but rather, merely learn the art of facilitating connection with living ideas.
What does all of this mean for parents today? It means you can educate your children at home! You don’t have to be “qualified”. The greatest ideas in the would have been written down with their vitality and vigor preserved in original words and phrasings – our job is simply to equip and facilitate. Ms. Mason has handed us the same gift that she handed teachers 100 years ago; she has handed us our heritage of thought and given us permission to hand it in turn to our children.
So, what is the big deal about books? They are practical. That is just it. Charlotte Mason educators get excited about books because they make our job easier. We get excited about books – because we see students get excited about them – look forward to them. Why the older ones? Why specific authors? Because all books are not created equal. The same reason you don’t want to be in conversation with certain people is the same reason we don’t want to be in conversation with certain books - you get nothing from them. But there is also a great big, exciting conversation that has been going on since the dawn of time – and if we can get in that flow, if we can get our students into that conversation… education is self-sustaining.
Is Charlotte Mason a good fit for “regular”, non-bookish people? I would say it is the regular people who need the books the most. As a former “non-bookish” person I would say, the books are less of a hobby than a tool. If education is about the conveyance of ideas - do you feel fit to the task alone? Do you feel capable of possessing all knowledge and communicating it to your children? It is here that books become practical. We have a goal in mind, a lofty and ambitious goal and books become our tools to accomplish it. Might a craftsman learn to love and cherish the tools of his trade that he uses day in and day out? Might you become a little “bookish” in the end? It’s likely! But heading into this thing know that this broad and living education is not for a specific type or a temperament – it is for all, via books.
Welcome to the “old-book” cult!
P.S. Ah! You might be thinking. But there is another avenue open to us today other than the Mentor, lecture, textbook OR Living Book! Were she alive today, Ms. Mason would have faced the question of computers/screens/internet as means of education. While this subject needs more time then I will give it here, here are some quick thoughts. 1) I believe Ms. Mason would have been very concerned, as should we, about the fact that the glow and pixelated color of screens scatters attention and harms retention. She said that the habit of attention was the mark of an educated mind and so any medium that sacrificed that aspect of our capabilities would not be worth the meager gain. 2) Screens induce a passivity of reception that I don’t think she would have been satisfied with, and neither should we. To put it simply, the interaction and activity of the mind upon the content is anesthetized by the medium. 3) Screens in many ways by-pass will and consciousness and so manipulate key aspects of what it means to be human. Mrs. Mason writes about teachers not being permitted to manipulate children, may screens? May technology? May we let them and call it education? While screens are a part of our lives and cannot be avoided and may be used judicially at times– to rely on that medium as a source for education is counterproductive to the goals of education. 4) Many books and studies show worrying effects of screen use upon minds, mood, attention, and personality. “The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains” & “Glow Kids” are two approachable reads that should be part of the “screens and education” conversation.