The Well-Fed Mind
Soft morning light enters the picture window over the kitchen sink while I make breakfast. By noon the sun shines directly through the little attic windows of my office/sewing room where I am writing to you now. It filters through the leafless trees and brightens the parlor in late afternoon. As it begins to set lazily, it lends its light to the blown glass at the front door.
Coming down the stairs this light always catches my notice with its strange distorted rays in the front hall. For one fleeting half-hour it illuminates the picture hanging there (which changes at a whim).
This month it is a print by Tasha Tudor. A mother is feeding her children. She wears a smile. We see the quiet joy she has in satisfying the appetites of those she loves.
In chapter two of her Philosophy of Education Miss Charlotte Mason recognizes that mothers have an understanding of the baby.
“They know that his chief business is to grow and they feed him . . . They give free play to all the wrigglings and stretchings which give power to his feeble muscles. His parents know what he will come to, and feel that here is a new chance for the world. In the meantime, he needs food, sleep and shelter and a great deal of love.”
In her writings Charlotte Mason shows what parents and teachers owe to a child in his later years - “those years in which he is engaged in self-education, taking his lessons from everything he sees and hears, and strengthening his powers by everything he does.” She repeats herself when she says that, “mind must come into contact with mind through the medium of ideas.”
“Education, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen,” is a curious saying of hers.
Education involves intangibles. Therefore Miss Mason offers an analogy. As the body is meant to grow upon food, which is composed of individual living cells - in like manner the only fit sustenance for the mind is ideas. Like the cells of the body an idea goes through stages of development. We receive an idea with an appetite and some stir of interest. Then, by association, another facet of an idea is added and like my grandson’s snowball, it grows and grows, layer by layer.* The more a child learns the more associations he automatically makes. Teachers who trust in the well-fed mind need not depend on elaborate lesson plans where all subjects are made to correlate in as many ways as possible.
Mind Set in Motion
Ideas snowball in the mind of a child. They are not stationary, not stagnant. They come to children through various means; through observing nature, appreciating art, and melody; through the rhythmic movement of games, handicrafts, good conversation (not text-messaging), a Sunday sermon, etc. Most importantly they are found in living books. Through books of literary-quality a child gains knowledge mind-to-mind. Miss Mason recommends quality, variety and quantity.
A good remedy for boredom and inattention is a revitalizing presentation of ideas.
Intellectual vitality (something necessary for gaining knowledge “for keeps” – for making knowledge personal) is set in motion when ideas are present.
The Living Book Test
It is safe to say that a living book is authored by someone who takes an enthusiastic interest in his subject. If the book is for children the facts might be related in story form. But they are always clothed in literary language. The test of identifying a living book is like the test of good literature in general. It must be three things. It must bring truth, nobility, and beauty.
It is not dumbed-down but is somewhat intellectual and brings truth.
It is ethical so that we are well-nourished with noble ideas.
It is also artistic and makes its appeal through the emotions.
The Human Touch
Charlotte Mason reminds us that, “children are born persons.” As human beings the style of writing that appeals to them is that which includes the human touch. So we look for books with that touch of originality – books that warm up the imagination. This kind of writing will satisfy a child’s curiosity and foster a love of learning. For all its vivifying features a living book has the right to be called a schoolbook.
Lassie Come Home
One advantage of home teaching (and it is a big advantage) is that the parents are the ones who choose off the world’s menu of ideas. They pick the schoolbooks.
Eric Knight’s, Lassie Come Home is one example of a book that passes the living book test. If you’d like your child to have an understanding of devotion, courage, hope, brotherly kindness and perseverance this story is a touching example of it. Published in 1940, this is the original story that made Lassie a legend. We made it a read-aloud in our family.
In a certain Yorkshire village there is no finer dog than Lassie. She is a well-trained, well-loved purebred collie – a dog admired by the whole village for her beauty and obedience. When a coalmine closes Joe’s father is out-of-work. Down cast he sells Lassie to put food on the table. Young Joe takes it hard. What makes it harder is that after she is sold to a wealthy duke, Lassie escapes from her kennel three times. Joe and his father must return her.
The duke has Lassie moved to his other estate way up in the north of Scotland so she will never escape again. But Lassie’s instinct is strong – especially her time-sense. It was her habit to meet Joe at exactly four o’clock at the schoolhouse every day. Therefore, near four o’clock when Lassie is restless, she slips through the gate and heads south to Yorkshire - to Joe and his family - with unwavering purpose.
It is a long, long way to Yorkshire. Lassie climbs hills and crosses streams. It is only when she collapses in utter exhaustion and is fed by gentle, caring persons that she stays awhile. With strength regained and a steady determination she sets off again. Parts of the story are somewhat grueling which might make it unsuitable at bedtime for your youngest listeners. It has a happy ending (even if imperfectly so.)
The classic 1943 MGM film starring young Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowell closely follows the book and is the one I recommend. It will introduce you to the characters. This beautiful motion picture is one that brought a tear to my eye.
*My son-in-law continued to push the snowball until it became enormous - to his son’s amazement. We were standing in the driveway when the clip-clop of a neighbor’s horse and buggy stole our attention. William was mesmerized. I snapped a photograph in the nick of time.
May you leave your visit here today with a little seed of an idea slipped into your pocket.