Is it Biblical?: “Education is . . . a Life”

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in which I look at Charlotte Mason’s principles and ask how they line up with the Bible. You can find links to the earlier posts here and my most recent post on “Education is an atmosphere . . . ” here.

What Charlotte says

In my last post in this series, I began to look at Charlotte Mason’s fifth principle:

“Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments–the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. The P.N.E.U. Motto is: ‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.'”

That post focused specifically on “Education is an atmosphere . . .” I would like to leap-frog over ” . . .a discipline . . .” for now and focus on ” . . .and a life.” (Do not fear — I will return to “discipline” in my next post.)

This idea, that education is a life, is expanded in the 8th principle:

“In saying that ‘education is a life,’ the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.”

We could even include in this discussion the 9th through 11th principles which further expand upon this notion and specifically reject some of the counter-views of Charlotte’s own day:

“9. We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.

“10. Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on 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.’

“11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas.”

I have to say I am somewhat relieved to cover this particular principle; it seems fairly straightforward compared to some of the other ideas we have discussed. Children need intellectual and moral sustenance, and intellectual sustenance consists of ideas; they are the food of the mind:

“. . . the mind, like the body, digests its proper food, and it must have the labour of digestion or it ceases to function.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

“The life of the mind is sustained upon ideas . . .” (Ibid., p. 25)

This feeding of the mind is a spiritual exercise. Indeed the food itself, the ideas, are a spiritual thing:

“‘Education,’ said Lord Haldane, some time ago, ‘is a matter of the spirit,’––no wiser word has been said on the subject, . . .” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

“. . . .the mind, in fact, requires sustenance––as does the body, in order that it increase and be strong; but because the mind is not to be measured or weighed but is spiritual, so its sustenance must be spiritual too, must, in fact, be ideas (in the Platonic sense of images). I soon perceived that children were well equipped to deal with ideas . . .” (Ibid., p. 10)

Ideas are contrasted with information, that is, facts to be memorized:

“But the children ask for bread and we give them a stone; we give information about objects and events which mind does not attempt to digest but casts out bodily (upon an examination paper?).” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

Notice the comparison between information and a stone; a stone is not a living thing; it is inert and cannot be consumed. But an idea is “[a] live thing of the mind” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 105). It is not, of course, that our children will not learn facts, but that these facts must come in the form of ideas:

“Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 40)

It is as if we were to say, “my child needs potassium to live” and so we give him the mineral potassium to ingest. Modern science (conveniently for the purposes my of analogy) has shown that our bodies to not absorb vitamins and minerals so well in pill form. But if that potassium comes clothed as a banana, the body can take it in and gets a lot more pleasure in doing so.

But we cannot take this analogy too far. Ideas are more than an attractive way to get our children to ingest facts. Ideas themselves are what move us. Ideas have consequences. Charlotte tells us that “[a]ll action comes out of the ideas we hold . . .”(Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 80).

Ideas, these spiritual things of the mind, come from God Himself. Charlotte references Isaiah 28:24-26 (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 106-7) :

Does he who plows for sowing plow continually? Does he continually open and harrow his ground? When he has leveled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cumin, and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and emmer as the border? For he is rightly instructed; his God teaches him.” (All biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.)

Note that the ideas here are not high-falutin, philosophical things. The idea that comes from God in this case is when the farmer should plough and harvest and how he should arrange his crops.

This passage, I think, sums up  most of what we have seen already and adds a new concept as well:

“Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. ”  (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 109)

Note how these spiritual ideas, which originate with God, are transferred — they go from person to person, from mind to mind, through the media of speech, writing, music and art.

The main points, for our purposes seem to be:

  • Children are spiritual beings with minds as well as bodies.
  • As such, they need spiritual food for their minds.
  • Ideas are this mind food. They are contrasted with dry facts which provide no nourishment.
  • Children are well-equipped to deal with, to digest if you will, these ideas.
  • Ideas are spiritual, living things.
  • Ideas have consequences; they inform what we do.
  • Therefore it is important what ideas we convey to our children.
  • Ideas come from God.
  • Ideas are communicated from person to person through speech, the written word, and other media such as music and art.

What the Bible says

As we turn to the biblical evidence, we can’t expect it to use the same language which Charlotte does. But I do think we can look at these points and see if they have any counterpart in the Scriptures. If you have read my earlier posts, you will know that we need not find every principle Charlotte poses expressly delineated in the biblical text; it is not primarily a manual on education. Our goal is only to see if her ideas are “founded on and agreeable to” the Scriptures.

I am going to take the points above mostly in order (with one exception)–

  • Children are spiritual beings with minds as well as bodies.

We have discussed what the Bible has to say about children before (see this post). Suffice it to say that children are viewed as full people. And people, we are told in both the Old and New Testaments, are made up of various parts, of which mind is one (Deut. 6:5; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27).

  • As such, they need spiritual food for their minds.
  • Ideas are this mind food. They are contrasted with dry facts which provide no nourishment.
  • Children are well-equipped to deal with, to digest if you will, these ideas.

Not all these points are addressed directly. But note the passage known as the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 (shema means “hear” in Hebrew):

 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deut. 6:4-7)

In Hebrew thought, the heart was the seat of thought (the liver was actually the seat of emotion). So after referring to this seat of thought (which they call the heart and we call the mind), God says to keep His words on your heart (read: mind) and to teach it diligently to your children. If children can handle the Word of God, the ultimate living book, then surely they can handle other spiritual matter.

  • Ideas have consequences; they inform what we do.

The Bible tells us that it is what is within us that influences our behavior:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Lk 6:45)

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Mt 15:19)

  • Therefore it is important what ideas we convey to our children.

We have already seen in Deuteronomy that parents are instructed to teach their children the things they have learned from God. We find this again in the Psalms:

“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
    incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,

things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
    but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
    and the wonders that he has done.” (Ps 78:1-4)

And a verse I quote a lot in this series, tells us it is important what we put in our minds:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

  • Ideas come from God.

Charlotte herself quotes Isaiah 28 to support this claim. Remember that in that passage, the knowledge spoken of had to do with the particulars of how the farmer does his work. Elsewhere we are told that artistic knowledge and skill come from God (Exod. 35:1-5).

Proverbs and James both tell us that knowledge comes from God:

“For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Prov. 2:6)

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. ” (Jam. 1:5)

  • Ideas are communicated from person to person through speech, the written word, and other media such as music and art.

This idea is again not expressed directly in the Scriptures. But, as we have already seen, parents are to communicate ideas to their children. And when it comes to the Word of God, at least, we are told how knowledge is passed from person to person:

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? . . . For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:14-17)

We see this again and again in the book of Acts — that people hear and then believe (Acts 4:4, 13:48, 21:20).

  • Ideas are spiritual, living things.

This is the one point I wanted to save for last. Up until this point, I hope we have established that children, as spiritual beings, are capable of receiving and should be given, the Word of God; that what we put in our minds is important and that it affects what we do; and that all wisdom and knowledge come from God though they may do so through the mediation of other people.

The Bible does not tell us, that I can see, that all ideas are living, spiritual things. But there is one body of knowledge which the Bible calls living — the Word of God itself:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebr. 4:12)

God Himself is living (Deut. 5:26, among many others), and something that is spoken of as living, in the Bible, comes from Him and is living in the sense that it gives spiritual life(cf. John 4:10-11 in which Jesus speaks of the living waters). Here we see that the Word of God too is living.

Conclusions

What then can we say? I don’t think every aspect of what Charlotte means when she says “education is a life” can be fully substantiated by the Scriptures. But I do think she is firmly in the realm of biblical thought. God is Spirit. We, originally created in His image, are spiritual beings. Wisdom and knowledge come from God. The Word of God, the ultimate body of ideas, comes from Him and is said to be spiritual and living. And it is communicated from mind to mind through human speech and through His written word, just as Charlotte describes. I don’t think that we can get quite to where Charlotte is from this; we have not shown that all ideas are spiritual, but I think we get very close.

I’d like to close with a verse Charlotte quotes from the gospel of Matthew. Note that Charlotte is not the first to speak of ideas as a kind of spiritual food:

“But [Jesus] answered, “It is written,‘Man shall not live by breadalone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’””  (Mt 4:4)

Next time: Discipline!

Nebby

One response to this post.

  1. […] then jumped to “Education is . . . a life” in this post. Again we saw that not everything Charlotte says can be substantiated directly by the Scriptures. I […]

    Reply

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