I do remember the excitement of the first day of school, opening the new book for each academic class, and being eager to find out new things. Though I was an excellent student, got top marks and wanted to learn, I acknowledge with chagrin that not only do I recall little of what I read in any of those books, but to this day can’t name the title of a single textbook I carried to and from class and home to study. The sheer sum of the hours spent passing through those pages only to satisfy the expectations of parents and teachers, with little concern for knowledge of the subject or forming any deep connection with it makes me shudder. What a waste of time, of life! Thank goodness for the library, with its unending supply of books.
Coincidentally yesterday, a friend told me she had just finished reading Jane Eyre for the first time. I had met Ms. Eyre in seventh grade, along with Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Francine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I’m sure there were dozens of others, but those three novels alone took me to Victorian England, the slums of Brooklyn, and the sleepy southern Alabama town where I learned an immense amount about social class, injustice, politics, morality, and human motivation, along with an enormous amount of incidental information about geography, architecture, and history. Those living books are where I got my seventh grade education. I don’t think any of the hours in those pages was wasted.
My son, on the other hand, thanks to the wisdom of my instructor in educating my children, Charlotte Mason, studies in 25-30 subject areas and reads in at least a couple dozen books a week, and in about half the time I spent within the walls of my junior high school weekly. Mason’s concern was the nutrition of the mind, which like an octopus is reaching out limbs in all directions, seeking food for itself:
“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 to him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that:–– "Education is the Science of Relations'; that is, a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of––My teachers were all well-trained and I am thankful for the hours they invested for my sake. My credentials for teaching my own children do not compare. But, in a Mason education, my qualifications are not crucial to the education my children receive. Instead, it is the inherent desire for knowledge my children were born with and my certainty in the power of persons to self-educate that assures me of the quality of their education. My responsibility is to provide the feast for their minds to feed on, to ensure their lessons are short and various, and trust to the Holy Spirit, their Divine Teacher, to lead them to truth, beauty, goodness and the knowledge of God, man, and the universe they were made for.
"Those first-born affinities That fit our new existence to existing things." In devising a syllabus for a normal child, of whatever social class, three points must be considered:––
(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.
(b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity).
(c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form…” (An Essay Toward a Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason, p. 154)
When I think back to my own seventh grade education, I am Thankful for my passion for reading and the wealth of literature I found to feed my imagination, or I surely would have starved intellectually. Those living books educated me to life and led me to eventually embrace a different philosophy of educating children—a philosophy that makes all the difference.
For the joy of reading,