What is Knowledge?

Part I
Part II

Mason says the sole concern of education proper, the main idea, the whole point of education, is knowledge. Knowledge, she says, comes from books. It does not come from training, games, gimmicks, or lists of facts. She is not making light of physical education or vocational training- she says those are also necessary. But we need to recognize they are distinct from education or else we get the balance wrong. This knowledge is transmitted only by reaching children’s minds and hearts, not merely helping them memorize lists of facts. The *knowledge* we want is not merely utilitarian or materialistic, but spiritual.

You are probably still wondering what on earth she means, but I am going to take a brief tangent before attempting to show more specifically what she means by knowledge. This is an area where Mason’s approach veers sharply from modern educational philosophy, at least in America.

We often hear that it doesn’t matter so much what the children learn, what matters is teaching them *how* to learn. This is nonsense. Children know *how* to learn. Mainly what people really mean by this statement is that we need to teach children how to use reference materials, to show them where to find stuff out. But that’s a technical skill- and while it’s important, it isn’t very hard or time consuming to teach or to learn. It certainly should not occupy 12 years of a student’s life. It’s not knowledge. It does matter, very much, *what* the children learn.

A twin statement, and by twin I mean equally foolish and short sighted, and coming from the same DNA, is the idea that it doesn’t matter what they read, so long as they are reading.

Mason often compared knowledge and the mind to food and the body. She said it made about as much sense to say that it doesn’t matter what the children are eating so long as they learn how to use their utensils. Think about how idiotic that is! Of course we want children to learn to use their spoons, forks, knives, and chopsticks properly. But the utensils are mere delivery systems (there’s a caveat here which I address further below). They can learn the proper use of their delivery systems in a relatively short time with very little fuss and bother. The content carried by those delivery systems matters for a lifetime.

We have missed that in our current education system.
““Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge.”” (University of Virginia professor and reading expert Daniel Willingham, in a NYT article, as quoted here by Annie HOlmequest in an Intellectual Take-Out article)

It really does matter what they read.

It really is important for young children to have a content rich, a vocabulary rich, a knowledge rich environment- the balance in school should not be weighted in favor of literacy skills over literature, not even in the earliest years. It matters what they learn.

So, if what matters most is *what* they learn, what does she mean by knowledge?
It helps to look at how she categorizes knowledge. She groups knowledge into three categories- knowledge of God, of mankind, and of the world. So knowledge in those three areas would be the proper concern of education.

Here are some areas of knowledge appropriate for school children: “History, Geography, the thoughts of other people, roughly, the humanities, are proper for us all, and are the objects of the natural desire of knowledge. So too, are Science, for we all live in the world; and Art, for we all require beauty, and are eager to know how to discriminate; social science, Ethics, for we are aware of the need to learn about the conduct of life; and Religion, for, like those men we heard of at the Front, we all ‘want God.’

It’s a huge, open field.  Mason called it a wide and generous education, and she referenced a biblical passage, “Thou has set my feet..

She also spent over 100 pages ‘summarizing’ the course of knowledge proper to children in her sixth volume.  Just a look at the table of contents gives you some idea of what she means by education.  Reading those 130 some odd pages will help more.  I know you don’t have time.   I know it’s hard.  but maybe, just maybe, you could print out ten pages and leave them, stapled together in your bathroom and read a paragraph or 3 at a time, mulling over the reading as you stir the soup, diaper the baby, buckle kids into carseats, catch kids coming down the slide at the park, or whenever you can.  Set yourself a required amount of reading to complete daily, and you can’t give yourself a treat until you finish it. It helps.

Here’s the TOC just for the curriculum portion:

Chapter 10 The Curriculum . . . pg. 154
Section I: The Knowledge Of God . . . pg. 158
Section II: The Knowledge Of Man; History . . . pg. 169
II: The Knowledge Of Man; Literature . . . pg. 180
II: The Knowledge Of Man; Morals and Economics . . . pg. 185
II: The Knowledge Of Man; Composition . . . pg. 190
II: The Knowledge Of Man; Languages . . . pg. 209
II: The Knowledge Of Man; Art . . . pg. 213
Section III: The Knowledge Of The Universe; Science and Geography . . . pg. 218
III: The Knowledge Of The Universe; Mathematics . . . pg. 230
III: The Knowledge Of The Universe; Physical Development and Handicrafts . . . pg. 233

You can read them for free by clicking on the links, or by sending them to your kindle device using push to kindle at fivefilters.org.


Now, about that caveat- utensils are delivery systems, not education proper. But utensils and their proper use are still important.  We don’t want our kids eating with their fingers or pushing their faces into their bowls all their lives.  And we don’t want to use delivery systems which work for emergency needs for every day life.  I have a grandson who came home from the hospital on a feeding tube and that’s how he ate for a full year. Some kids need a feeding tube all their lives.  For kids who need them, feeding tubes are a win, a clear life-saver, and absolutely appropriate.  For most kids, however, a feeding tube would be a detriment, not a help.

The proper delivery system for food for the mind for the majority of normal, healthy, school-aged children, is books, but not just any books (because it does matter what they read!)

Mason said the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books. She also says that the books are the curriculum ( particularly when it comes to topics like composition or language arts).
For example- in the CM method you don’t administer vocabulary tests and lists of vocabulary to memorize. Most of the time, students pick those up from context. But Mason also says it does not matter much whether he understands this word or that, but that it matters a great deal that he should learn to deal directly with books.
As it turns out, this is supported by research. This is how we learn words, we hear them used, in context but in a variety of settings. Reading well written literature exposes us to more advanced vocabulary. 
It’s supported by my own experience as well, and others.
My friend Brandy once said,
“I, too, had my doubts when we first started reading The Wind in the Willows aloud. I was amazed to find my children (then 4 and 2) were more enchanted with Grahame’s work than any book we had read thus far! This experience taught me that I had done my children a disservice by thinking that they were unable to appreciate beautifully precise language. ”
Why literature based? Because knowledge is our goal. and the best knowledge comes from the best minds. With books we can communicate with the best from the past as well as today, from minds around the world.
we owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; and the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books. The mind readily deals with: thoughts, imaginations, reasoned arguments; but it requires tricks and gimmicks to memorize facts without the context of ideas. it has a natural preference for literary form; given a more or less literary presentation, the curiosity of the mind is enormous and embraces a vast variety of subjects.

One of our girls was adopted from a language poor environment when she was nearly four. She tested below her 2 year old sister.who struggled in a deeply discouraging way (for both of us) with school, who, at one point, seemed as though she would never read anything more complicated than “I Can Read” books, and who get about half the details from those books wrong.

And one day, after a night in prayer and tears, I thought, if I go on like this, she will never, ever, experience the wider world of delightful stories she reads for herself. She is already frustrated, and it can hardly frustrate her more to fail at something challenging, complex, difficult, and also interesting than it does to fail at something easy, insipid, and vapid.

So I pulled out King Midas and the Golden Touch (retold by Nathaniel Hawthorne). She was enchanted, wanted more, listened intently, wanted to know what happened next. She _cared_ about that story, that literary tale. She worked at it. It’s not as humiliating to miss a word with three syllables as it is to miss a word with three letters. It’s not embarrassing mispronounce Bacchus, whereas mispronouncing ‘bag’ is obviously humiliating.

When she was ten, we read through one of Plutarch’s lives, translated by North. This is college level stuff. Was it always easy? No. She cried at the start of that year, but I held her hand through it all and took it in easy paces and by the end of the year it was her favorite schoolbook.  ‘Academics’ is not her strong point, but she has a billion and one other strong points, and she can READ, and more importantly, she does read complex material on her own. She reads Great Expectations and War and Peace for fun, and doesn’t know it’s supposed to be too hard for her, even though she probably couldn’t pass a college entrance exam. She can read and understand more than she ever would have if I’d continued to be afraid to try this stuff that anybody could have seen was too hard for her. She can actually read and understand more than a goodly number of peers who were never challenged by the hard stuff because the adults around them figured it was too hard to understand. She may not be ‘college’ material, but that’s because ‘college material’ is narrow and limited and requires a sort of facile maneuvering with tests, not because she’s not smart. She’s smart, and she is able to handle knowledge.

I had very good reasons for thinking this stuff was too hard for her. And every one of my sympathetic, concerned, and loving reasons was just another way of underestimating what she was capable of doing, of keeping her trapped in the same ghetto of the mind she’d come from. For most people ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ is just a cheap slogan. For me, it’s the very real way I nearly failed and cheated my child.

“I am jealous for the children,” wrote Charlotte Mason a hundred years or so ago. She went on to lament, “every modern educational movement tends to belittle them intellectually…” This is still true, but we need not play this game.

Do not underestimate them, or yourself. Do not dismiss things on their behalf because they are ‘too hard.’ Let them try. Help them try, push them to try just a bit. Let them stretch themselves. What you assume is ‘too hard’ may not be the standard you think it is.

Books.  Children need their minds fed with knowledge, and school aged children’s minds are best fed through books.  It was important enough that  CM mentions books 90 times in the first section of volume 6,  where she summarizes about her principles of education.

If we understand that knowledge is the goal of education proper, then that also answers another question- who is the actor, the doer, the main agent in education?

The actor, the main actor, is the student, the student should be doing most of the work.  Mason says that one of the key points differentiating her approach from the others is that the children are the responsible parties, not the teacher. The children do the work by self-effort. We don’t have to pull out the salient points, or decide what they need to pull from their reading, because the mind of a child takes or rejects according to its needs. We do the same thing- two of us can read the same book and one of us takes away a magnificent lesson on charity, and another a stern warning on selfishness- both from the same story.

The student needs to be the one making connections. This goes along with her very first principle which is that children are *born* persons, just like you or me. They lack knowledge and experience but they don’t need us to teach them how to learn.

The teachers give sympathy and occasionally elucidate, sum up or enlarge, but the actual work is done by the scholars. The one doing the work is the one doing the learning. Make sure that is your children, not you.
Exception: The success of the scholars in what may be called disciplinary subjects, such as Mathematics and Grammar, depends largely on the power of the teacher, though the pupils’ habit of attention is of use in these too. She also says that Socratic questioning is acceptable for bring home a moral lesson- it’s important to keep in mind we are talking about school education here, the domain of lessons. As a family, as the parent, there are other times when you might take a different approach. It’s not that parents can never ask kids a leading question. It’s that when we have them read their *worthy* school books, we want them to do the work of and not ourselves.


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