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For the Love of Knowing

I have to tell of the awakening of a ‘general soul’ at the touch of knowledge. Eight years ago, the “soul” of a class of children in a mining village school awoke simultaneously at this magic touch and has remained awake [1]

Here is an astounding possibility, if we would believe it, the awakening not just of one soul but of an entire class, not a class of the gifted (socially, financially, intellectually) but rather a class of those who lacked the usual “advantages.” Unfortunately, we find it difficult to believe. Too many of our students are asleep, and we do not know how to awaken them. Perhaps we do not even recognize that their minds are but asleep. We have come to see slumber as the normal state of things. So, we endeavor to prod or cajole, all in a well-intentioned effort to get the students to perform as they ought. Yet too many students resist. They are like the boy who, not wanting to get out of bed, rolls over hoping his parent’s nagging voice will simply go away and let him sleep. “Knowing” has been separated from “loving,” much to the child’s impoverishment. 


What does it mean for the mind to be awake? A mind is awake when it is doing that which it is made to do, when it is pursuing knowledge. Having legs, toddlers desire to run. Possessing sight, they desire to see. Possessing hearing, they desire to hear. Possessing speech, they desire to speak. Possessing touch, they desire to touch and be touched. Possessing mind, they desire to know. Each capacity seeks its own satisfaction, and the satisfaction of mind is to know. It is the desire for knowledge of persons and things that is the one all sufficient motivator of children to engage in the work/pleasure of learning. The student who hungers to know the ways of past peoples and cultures will learn her history. The student who longs for an author’s insight into the human condition will learn his literature. The student who craves understanding of the dynamics of number will learn her math. The student who eagerly awaits the revelation of some new mystery of creation will learn his science. As Charlotte Mason puts it, “The desire for knowledge is the chief instrument of education.” [2]


If Charlotte Mason is correct, then the most important variable in education is the desire of the student to know. The desire to know is far more critical than the aptitude to know. Many students have a greater aptitude than we give them credit for. The dangers we face are twofold: 


  1. If we neglect to feed the mind, malnourished its desire to know will become anemic. 
  2. It is possible to paralyze the desire to know by exciting competing desires.

First, all too often, children’s minds are underfed. Malnourished, they become indifferent. 


We neglect mind. We need not consider the brain. A duly nourished and duly exercised mind takes care of its physical organ if the organ also receives its proper material nourishment. But our fault, our exceeding great fault, is that we keep our own minds and the minds of our children shamefully underfed. The mind is a spiritual octopus, reaching out limbs in every direction to draw in enormous rations of that which under the action of the mind itself becomes knowledge. Nothing can stale its infinite variety; the heavens and the earth, the past, the present, and future, things great and things minute, nations and men, the universe, all are within the scope of the human intelligence. But there would appear to be, as we have seen, an unsuspected unwritten law concerning the nature of the “material” which is converted into knowledge during the act of apprehension. The idea of the Logos did not come by chance to the later Greeks; “The Word” is not a meaningless title applied to the second Person of the Trinity; it is not without significance that every utterance which fell from Him is marked by exquisite literary fitness.  Only as he has been and is nourished upon books is a man able to “live his life. [3]


Cannot people get on with little knowledge? Is it really necessary after all? My child-friends supplied the answer: their insatiable curiosity showed me that the wide world and its history were barely enough to satisfy a child who had not been made apathetic by spiritual malnutrition. What, then, is knowledge? was the next question that occurred; a question which the intellectual labor of ages has not settled. But perhaps this is enough to go on with; “the material” only becomes knowledge to a person when he has assimilated it, which his mind has acted upon. 


Children’s aptitude for knowledge and their eagerness for it made for the conclusion that the field of a child’s knowledge may not be artificially restricted, that he has a right to and necessity for as much and as varied knowledge as he is able to receive; and that the limitations in his curriculum should depend only upon the age at which he must leave school; in a word, a common curriculum appears to be due to all children. [4]


When minds are not engaged in the life-giving endeavor of a shared feeding upon ideas, it becomes malnourished and lethargic, at times bordering on the comatose. Students must be given the free opportunity to engage the best ideas of the best minds, gained chiefly through “living books.” Teachers must provide not only a suitable diet, but also a suitable atmosphere. 


This desire might be paralyzed or made powerless like an unused limb by encouraging other desires to intervene between a child and the knowledge proper for him; the desire for place,––emulation; for prizes,––avarice; for power,––ambition; for praise,––vanity, might each be a stumbling block to him. It seemed to me that we teachers had unconsciously elaborated a system which should secure the discipline of the schools and the eagerness of the scholars,––by means of marks, prizes, and the like,––and yet eliminate that knowledge-hunger, itself the quite sufficient incentive to education. [5]


It is a worthwhile endeavor for all teachers to consider the well-intended activities which squelch the “desire to know.”  Most are brought on by the false belief that the teacher/parent must do something to get the students to learn. In fact, this way of thinking at the least interferes with the students’ coming to know and at worst shuts down their minds completely. We must cultivate a practice where “Teachers shall teach less, and scholars shall learn more.” 


It is not easy to sum up in a few short sentences those principles upon which the mind naturally acts and which I have tried to bring to bear upon a school curriculum. The fundamental idea is that children are persons and are therefore moved by the same springs of conduct as their elders. Among these is the Desire of Knowledge, knowledge-hunger being natural to everyone. 


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.’ 


In the nature of things, then, the unspoken demand of children is for a wide and varied curriculum. It is necessary that they should have some knowledge of the wide range of interests proper to them as human beings, and for no reasons of convenience or time limitations may we curtail their proper curriculum. 


Perceiving the range of knowledge to which children as persons are entitled, the questions are, how shall they be induced to take that knowledge, and what can the children of the people learn in the short time they are at school? We have discovered a working answer to these two conundrums. I say discovered, and not invented, for there is only one way of learning, and the intelligent persons who can talk well on many subjects and the expert in one learn in the one way, that is, they read to know. What I have found out is that this method is available for every child, whether in the dilatory and desultory home schoolroom or in the large classes of Elementary Schools. 


Children no more come into the world without provision for dealing with knowledge than without provision for dealing with food. They bring with them not only that intellectual appetite, the desire of knowledge, but also an enormous, an unlimited power of attention to which the power of retention (memory) seems to be attached, as one digestive process succeeds another, until the final assimilation. “Yes,” it will be said, “they are capable of much curiosity and consequent attention but they can only occasionally be beguiled into attending to their lessons.” Is not that the fault of the lessons, and must not these be regulated as carefully with regard to the behavior of mind as the children’s meals are with regard to physical considerations? Let us consider this behavior in a few aspects. The mind concerns itself only with thoughts, imaginations, reasoned arguments; it declines to assimilate the facts unless in combination with its proper pabulum; it, being active, is wearied in the passive attitude of a listener, it is as much bored in the case of a child by the discursive twaddle of the talking teacher as in that of a grown-up by conversational twaddle; 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. [6]


Spend a few minutes considering those teacher behaviors which support student desire to know and those behaviors which hinder it. 

[1] Mason, Charlotte, A Philosophy of Education,  xxv.
[2] Mason, A Philosophy of Education, 11
[3] Ibid. 330.
[4] Ibid. 11-12.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid. 13-15

Image: Winslow Homer, Boys in a Dory, Watercolor and gouache over graphite on paper, The Met Museum, Public Domain