Charlotte Mason on Learning Facts

Dear Reader,

One of the lines I highlighted as I read through Miss Mason’s first volume, Home Education, is:

“Much of what we have learned and experienced in childhood, and later, we cannot reproduce, and yet it has formed the groundwork of after knowledge; later notions and opinions have grown out of what we once learned and knew.”  (pp.107-108)

Now maybe this just appeals to me because I don’t have  a great memory for  a lot of things. If you ask me about movies I have seen or books I have read, I can usually tell you if I liked them and how they made me feel, but I remember little of the actual plots. The emotions stick with me, not the details. (Probably I would have done better if in my education I had been asked to narrate things I read.)

One big reason our family homeschools is because my husband and I both felt that our school educations just wasted a lot of time. We were both bored most of our school careers. And when I think of all the time and stress I put into memorizing and studying spelling words and history dates and so many other things, well, I just think that time could probably have been spent a lot better. I remember in 11th grade American history the teacher insisted we had to outline a chapter of the book every week (it might even have been more often) and it took hours. And I don’t think even at the time that I learned anything from it. Much less did those facts stick with me.

That is why Charlotte Mason’s approach feeds even the youngest children on ideas, not facts. Facts are boring. And they mostly end up in our short-term memory. When we stop reviewing them, we usually stop remembering them.  But ideas settle into us. They form that “groundwork” that the above quote speaks of.

There are some facts, of course, that we need to know. Math facts seem the most obvious to me. And I want my children to be able to spell well. But I am not sure weekly spelling tests really ensure that.

But most other facts should really just be servants to larger goals. In the long run, I don’t care if my child can say what a noun or a verb is or diagram a sentence or find all the prepositional phrases. I just want him to be able to communicate clearly in writing. If learning grammar helps him write better, that is all fine and good. But I don’t see that a lot of the grammar kids are doing actually leads to good, clear writing.

And I would a lot rather have my child be able to talk about the heroism or even the treachery of some historical figure than to know his exact dates.  I can’t think of a single time in my adult life when I have needed to know a historical date. Yes, it is good to have a sense of the scope of history and to have a rough idea of how long ago things were and what came earlier and what came later. But I have never had anyone say, “You can have this job if you can tell me when the American Civil War was.”

So to get back to the quote, if we are laying a groundwork, hadn’t we better make it not of dry facts which are hard for anyone to retain for long, but of living, vital material, ideas about integrity and authority and order in nature and  . . . the list could go on for quite a while.  As a bonus, ideas are a lot more fun for the teacher too. If you are bored to tears teaching spelling rules, how do you think your student feels?

Facts seem to be the backbone of a lot of our American educations. But they are  a sandy surface. They do not make a good foundation for what comes after because they have no real substance and they so easily slip away from us. But ideas are like a living rock. They are solid but they also expand to take in more material. They make a good foundation for whatever will come later.


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