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Knowledge - A Diet of Ideas

Knowledge and the mind of man are to each other as are air and the lungs. The mind lives by knowledge; it stagnates, faints, perishes, if deprived of this necessary atmosphere.1


Charlotte Mason speaks about knowledge in a personal way. It is not mere information; nor is it to be confused with learning. It is conveyed by Spirit to minds prepared to receive it. It is mysterious, but it is the way one grows and becomes more of a person. Growth is what God intends for us. Yet, growth does not occur if mind does not encounter, and receive, knowledge.


A while ago, I was reading with fourth graders about description. Working through a paragraph by George Eliot, we came across the phrase happy irregularity, describing the growth of lichen on a brick wall. Eliot personified what she saw, and these young readers received knowledge of lichen, description, and the beauty (and proper use) of language.


This encounter conveyed meaning to the students and was added to their lives in the form of knowledge. What do they have to show for the time spent with this paragraph, for their mind’s encounter with knowledge? They give attention to words, to meaning, to lichen. They have become more of what it means to be a person; they have grown.


Feasting on intellectual food every day.

Just as the body needs physical nourishment, so the mind needs its nutriment. It is hungry not only on special “feast days,” but every day of our lives. Charlotte Mason exhorted us to “eat” ideas so we might live every day.


Many questions come to mind: What does my everyday living look like? What nutriment did I take in throughout the day? What was the nature of this food? Was it hearty and plentiful, or processed and meager?


A friend of mine noticed a change in her teenage daughter’s behavior. The daughter had not been “living every day.” She was passing time, irritable and distant. Upon reflection, the mother asked, “What have you been reading lately?”


The daughter first explained why and then answered vaguely she was reading “some books a friend gave” her. She brought the books out; they consisted of the usual tabloid books for young people — sensational plots and self-absorbed characters. After a healthy exchange of questions and discussion between mother and daughter, they decided that the classic literature, not just any book, would be her daily sustenance. It is no surprise to note that the vitality of the young woman changed in no time at all.


Are we what we eat, intellectually? Does it make a difference in the life of our minds if we spend the evening surfing the Internet, browsing Facebook, scanning tabloids of the famous and infamous, or sitting with a rich text on history or theology, reading on art or nature, or enjoying a well-written novel?


Are there any ideas in your children’s books?

When Charlotte Mason discussed the spiritual life in relationship to ideas, she identified spiritual life as the life of thought, of feeling, of the soul, of that which is not physical. This very human life needs food, and “this life is sustained upon only one manner of diet: the diet of ideas — the living progeny of living minds.”


She uses this framework — the spiritual life is sustained only by a diet of ideas — to answer the perennial question, “What manner of schoolbooks should our boys and girls use?”


In the early 21st century, students only infrequently mention books; they now focus on letter and number grades, AP and honors classes, and all their homework. The conversation has changed. They seldom encounter or discuss the ideas in history, mathematics, science, or literature because “order is of things to an end,” says Aquinas. And the end is no longer knowledge but information.


However, books written about the ideas present in history, mathematics, science, and literature reach a broad readership. Page after page, ideas stir readers’ hearts and minds with the beauty of language, the wonder of humanity, the description of laws and principles, the awe of God, and questions of humankind.


The reader of such books reads more and more. His mind and heart are satiated. Long after the class ends or the light grows dim, he thinks, dreams, wonders, believes. He lives.


Charlotte Mason spoke of a vast inheritance offered to all. We are offered the possibility of knowledge in all its varied dimensions; not knowing as mere information, but the knowing which implies relationship. Let us bring our students back to the wide room — read of the life cycle of the frog, observe the vibrant purple of the American Beauty, digest the nature of exponents, and wrestle to understand why a blind girl sees more than we.


Maryellen St. Cyr
Ambleside Founder and Director of Curriculum
Ambleside Magazine

1 Charlotte Mason, School Education, 94.