Who would have guessed that as it turns out, the way to man’s , or HU-man’s, heart is truly through the stomach? We have forgotten that those who have gone before us have often pointed out that the chief aim of education is to stimulate the appetite and shape affections.
It is with great delight that I bring to your attention two thinkers who explore the matter of literal food and real-life feasting—their social, economic and political aspects as well as their nutritional and relational components. In reading both Wendell Berry’s and Anna Migeon’s works, I have been renewed in my first love of Charlotte Mason’s dictum “Education is a Life” and have moved more deeply into the profundity of her analogy of the human mind as a digestive organ, feeding upon a generous feast of ideas.
Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer dedicated to stewardship of his land, his time, his community and life on this earth. He is also a writer, and has enjoyed the publication of numerous essays, works of fiction, and chapbooks of poetry. Reading his work, one feels the relief of permission to return to and delight in the original work of The Garden, and sees at last that our part in the work of Redemption begins around our own tables. His 1989 essay “The Pleasures of Eating”, Berry states that when we take pleasure in eating—responsible pleasure, not pleasure based on ignorance—“we experience and celebrate our dependence and gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend. He observes that eating has the potential to be “the profoundest enactment of our connection in this world”. If learning is analogous to eating, we can say that when we learn with responsible-not-ignorant pleasure, we “celebrate our dependence and gratitude” as well. When we learn out of interest and curiosity rather than desire for marks and status, we “acknowledge the mystery” in which we live. In truly pleasurable learning, we “enact our connection to this world” most profoundly.
Anna Migeon is a free-lance writer who lives in San Antonio, Texas and writes regularly on shaping children’s appetites on her blog entitled French Kids Don’t Get Fat . Anna and her family have a long relationship with Charlotte Mason. Both children attended ChildLight and Ambleside schools for their elementary and middle school years. Anna and her husband, Gerard, taught in, wrote for, and directed aspects of the Ambleside Schools program in nearby Fredericksburg. Her Feb 15, 2009 post “Dinner Table Pharisees and Born Again Vegetable Lovers” makes explicit the link between “appetite” for nutritious food and “appetite” for knowledge. She warns against “tricking” children into doing what is good for them in the classroom or at the table. Cajoling, rewarding, shaming, and praising children–any kind of manipulation of children–ignores the matter of motive. “When we teach children that their motives generally don’t matter, when we train them to detach their actions from their hearts, to conform outwardly while their inclinations lead otherwise, we lead them to be like Pharisees,” she explains. Anna believes that the inborn appetite for Real Food can be restored by providing positive experiences around it and relationships with it.
The concepts of “responsible pleasure” from Wendell Berry and “motive” and “heart” from Anna Migeon bring us to irreducible features of personhood. When our “pleasure” in anything is irresponsible and ignorant, we appear to be at best mere animals acting only according to instinct, but at worst, unchecked, indulgent pleasure can turn us to the Dark Side, transforming us into monsters. In his 1947 book The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis called those without heart motives “men without chests”, certainly something less than human. “Without the aid of trained emotions, the intellect is powerless against the animal organism,” he asserts. In the first chapter of this work, Lewis writes:
The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to
irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate
just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them
easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For a famished nature will be
and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.
Anna’s and Wendell’s writing about “motive” and “pleasure” remind us all that the way to “the chest” is through appropriately oriented desires. This is the most important principle we can have in feeding our own and others’ minds and bodies. I hope that through these two writers you will discover a renewed appreciation for not only “Education is a Life”, but all of Charlotte Mason’s insights. As for me, I’m off to irrigate deserts, spread feasts, delight in Real Food, and reclaim a Garden . . .