Comments 8

Paying Attention to Dead Books by Jack Kelly

The simple act of paying attention can take you a long way.” –Keanu Reaves

Despite being on the study of life itself, my college biology textbooks are anything but what one might consider living books. They are devoid of any kind of narrative: a joyless compendium of facts, figures and informational graphics. Fortunately, I haven’t been required to read many textbooks in college. The few that I have read provide some interesting thoughts on trying to make subjects or methods that appear incongruous with a typical Mason background become more palatable.

First of all, I think that a relational education based around Mason’s methods and using living books as the primary vehicle of instruction prepared me extremely well for studying “dead” books. While I did not find the method of presentation particularly appealing, I was able to quickly learn the material in one reading. I believe that this was due to the way a Mason education trains the student in the habit of attention and in the practice of absorbing material in a single pass. In addition, I think that I took the ideas-the foundational concepts and big picture-away from the course, rather than temporarily being able to recite the approximate dates of geological periods.

“First, we put the habit of Attention, because the highest intellectual gifts depend for their value upon the measure in which their owner has cultivated the habit of attention.”  –Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1 Pg. 38

This aspect of a Mason education is invaluable in a college environment, where hundreds of pages of reading per week are not uncommon. While perhaps textbooks were not the intended subjects for this habit, attention can still be applied to them. Through the attention developed elsewhere and by taking in the information as a question asked and answered within the mind, I could reap some of the benefits of the Mason method in an entirely different context. Instead of having to ceaselessly reread, memorize, work out flashcards, and make lists of facts before midterms and finals, I could read the textbook and have the information become my own.

The second valuable aspect I want to look at a little closer is the taking away of ideas rather than facts. While facts are certainly tested on and important to know for the class, I think we can agree that it is the ideas that prove worth remembering. A Mason education focuses on these ideas as the pegs on which facts are hung, rather than the reverse.

“For the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body; there are no organs for the assimilation of the one more than of the other. ” –Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6 Pg. 105

 The number of caribou required to sustain a given population of wolves is a fact. The dynamic relationship between predation, overgrazing, and disease in a closed population is an idea. One of these things can be found with a quick perusal of a textbook or even a Google search; the other requires digestion, understanding, and immersion. While the fact might be interesting or necessary, it has little meaning or use outside of the context of the idea.

A Mason education prepares the mind to look for the ideas behind a story, parable, or example and take it in as one’s own. The facts can then be hung on that idea to create a total picture. Memorizing the facts does not allow one to grasp the greater idea: you lose the forest for the trees. Memorizing the facts helps one pass the test; understanding the ideas allows one to actually own the concepts and apply the lessons found there.

“As a matter of fact, the difference between educated and uneducated people is that the former know and love books; the latter may have passed examinations.” –The Parent’s Review Vol. 12, no. 9, pg. 968

Can a Charlotte Mason education prepare someone for studying a subject not taught with living books, and is it a viable preparation for a typical, public, higher education? Can habits and principles learned through the art of narration be useful in a lecture-and-textbook context?

I was most excellently prepared for my studies of literature and culture by my high school experience in a Mason homeschool. I don’t think that a Mason education’s excellence in this area is a revelation to anybody. I was surprised at how well the method equipped me for the dead books and dry lectures, however. I didn’t need to pretend to narrate to somebody or read extra living books on the subject. The habits developed were enough on their own: Mason’s methods and techniques are not a gimmick or mnemonic that requires continual application in order to function. The methods used in higher education today might not the same and might not be as effective, but reading a textbook does not destroy the way a Mason-trained student takes in information and develops a relationship with the material.

© 2011 Jack Kelly

This entry was posted in: Philosophy


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Lani says

    Thank you so much for this blog post. I am pleased to hear how well prepared you are by a Mason education. As a homeschooling mom, always following CMason ways, it is reassuring to me to know this, as my oldest child is just embarking on his ‘7th grade’ school year. Best wishes for your continued studies.

  2. You clearly demonstrate both the beautiful and the practical results of a living books education in a textbook world. We need more postings like yours, Jack, to lift of our spirits. Thank you.

  3. blue j says

    Thank you for this bit of encouragement. It helps to hear this every now and again. 🙂

  4. Bobby Jo says

    I too think this was an encouraging read. I like how you mentioned that you posed the information as a question to yourself and were able to ingest it and make it your own. I believe many college students lose the forest for the trees. And yes, the habit of attention is where it all begins! Keep writing, Jack!

  5. Those dry textbooks costs alot too, don’t they!
    Some have to be dry: tax laws for my accountant son. He also
    has a bookshelf with books such as ” Small is Beautiful: Economics
    as if People Mattered.” Hope this semester has novels in some
    of your classes!

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