First posted April 2010.
Mama Squirrel: Your philosophy of education seems to warn against both too much teaching and too much teacher.
Charlotte Mason: The Herbartian philosophy of education lays the stress of education––the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels, presented in due order––upon the teacher.
Mama Squirrel: Wikipedia says that Herbart advocated five formal steps in teaching: “Using this structure a teacher prepared a topic of interest to the children, presented that topic, and questioned them inductively, so that they reached new knowledge based on what they had already known, looked back, and deductively summed up the lesson’s achievements, then related them to moral precepts for daily living.” (E.J. Miller, 2003.)
Charlotte Mason: Children taught upon this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher's axiom is, 'What a child learns matters less than how he learns it.' It is not that teachers are not eminently capable, but because information does not become knowledge unless a child perform the ‘act of knowing’ without the intervention of another personality. We do not try to drop one isolated idea at a time into a child’s brain.
Mama Squirrel: So you are not putting down teachers themselves, but saying only that a teacher's teaching can get in the way.
Charlotte Mason: We are, perhaps, opposed to oral lessons or lectures except by way of occasional review or introduction. For actual education children must do their own work out of their own books under the sympathetic guidance of an intelligent teacher.
Mama Squirrel: But how can the teacher teach or guide intelligently without getting in the way? And how does your method of education make it possible for parents to teach their own children? Many of us are somewhat unsure of our own ability to pull out the ideas that our children should know, much less know how to guide just enough and not too much.
Charlotte Mason: We teachers are also modest and diffident and are not prepared to say that we are more capable of handling a subject than is a carefully chosen author who writes especially upon that subject.
Young and Able Teacher: Yes, but professional teachers know when to introduce the proper age-appropriate content and vocabulary. We know better how to reach the minds of children than does the most eloquent author speaking through the dull pages of a book.
Charlotte Mason: The mass of knowledge, evoking vivid imagination and sound judgment, acquired in a term from the proper books, is many times as great, many times more thoroughly visualised by the scholars, than had they waited upon the words of the most able and effective teacher. This is why we insist upon the use of books.
Principal: We tried using a great-books list at our school, but it didn’t work. Maybe we just need better teachers.
Charlotte Mason: No, the failure came because you ignored the principles and their faithful practice. I feel strongly that to attempt to work this method without a firm adherence to the few principles laid down would be not only idle but disastrous.
Deputy Headmistress: It could also be that you used excellent works of literature as mere delivery systems for things like vocabulary, critical thinking skills. If those books are merely delivery systems, then it no longer matters exactly what the children are reading- any book will do, after all, the children are at least reading, some will say, or others will insist it doesn't matter what they learn as long as we teach them how to learn.
Principal: Well, we didn’t get enough parent co-operation either. We asked parents to buy good books for their children but they said they couldn’t afford them.
Charlotte Mason: It is our part to see to it that books take root in the homes of our scholars and we must make parents understand that it is impossible to give a liberal education to children who have not a due provision of very various books.
Cindy: “And now for my LOST tie-in. This week we saw in Illana's tent the book Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky. “Leave us to ourselves, without our books, and at once we get into a muddle and lose our way–we don’t know whose side to be on or where to give our allegiance, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We even find it difficult to be human beings with real flesh and blood of our own…”
Charlotte Mason: We find, I may add, that once parents recognize how necessary a considerable supply of books is, they make no difficulty about getting those [that are] set in our programmes.
Mama Squirrel: You mentioned the error of ignoring the principles What were the principles that seemed to be missing, even if the books were good ones?
Charlotte Mason: First, the somewhat obvious fact that the child is a person; and the object of a person's education is to put him or her in living touch as much as may be of the life of Nature and of thought. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum, taking care, only, that the knowledge offered to him is vital—that is, the facts are not presented without their informing ideas.
Mama Squirrel: I have never totally understood what “without their informing ideas” means. But I think it means that the facts are not pulled apart from their original state, kind of like the nutrients issue that the Deputy Headmistress posted about, from the Michael Pollan food article. Food is often seen today only as a collection of particular nutrients so that it doesn’t matter exactly what food you’re eating, it is more important whether it’s low sodium or high fibre than whether it’s chicken or fish. You can also apply that to facts being presented in kind of a naked way, like the students in Dickens who were giving facts about horses without knowing anything about horses.
Charlotte Mason: I believe I have used that example myself. Yes, that is what “informing ideas” are. And once the habit of reading his lesson-book with delight is set up in a child, his education is--not completed, but--ensured; he will go on for himself.