A Charlotte Mason Education, Narration, Paradigm Shift, Philosophy, Science of Relations
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Narration – The Act of Knowing by Carroll Smith

In this blog I want to define narration and some of its effects on the minds of those who narrate.  Before I define narration, let’s consider why it fell into such disfavor which I believe will help us understand its meaning and value.

Mason gives us a hint.  She (1925/1954) believes that, “We are paying in our education of today for the wave of materialism that spread over the country a hundred years ago.  People do not take the trouble to be definitely materialistic now, but our educational thought has received a trend which carries us whither we would not” (p. 260).  Books (textbooks), of course, as most of you know continue to be written in this very matterialistic (see note below) style.  They are loaded with facts written in an outline form directed towards preparing children to memorise facts. They do not “warm the imagination.”  All the “livingness” needed to make books interesting (that is books clothed in the language of the novel, the literary style) has been sucked out of them leaving children as empty as the language the books are written in.  Thus, as I have written sometime back, children are left with “textbook fatigue.”  Jerome Bruner (1990) reminds us of this change in his book Acts of Meaning when he says that because of the “computer” age, there has been a subtle shift in language from the idea that humans make meaning of text and language to the idea that humans “process information” (p. 4).  The point is (and frequently people have asked me why Mason’s work fell from favour) as matterialism has consumed our souls to the point that we can no longer even recognise it, the education of children has shifted from “living” books to books with information in them to be learned for either the teacher’s test or the state’s test.    As Mason points out, “People do not take the trouble to be definitely materialistic now.”  We are so far removed from the educational paradigm of Mason that it is hard for us to recognise this shift.  We don’t take the time to think to be matterialistic.  It is who we are.  It not only makes an impact on the choice of books and the writing of books, but redefines our very understandings of what education is so that we don’t even question some of our basic assumptions.  We need only think of high school students:  is the value on living or getting the high SAT scores?  Or what does it mean to know:  is it a deep relational knowing or a storing of information?

Mason believes that children need to process “living books” for themselves because she believes they are living beings that must “know.”  As “living” beings they must know for themselves, thus the quote she (1925/1954) uses over and over, “the mind can know nothing except what it can express in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself” (p. 16).  This means of education requires the work of the mind of the scholar not the teacher.  This is the crucial reason for narration.  Narration is a means for children to “know” not just “process information.”  Children process information in a matterialistic system because education in that system is a commodity and something to be caught for the purpose of tests.  As Mason says that children can “memorise a string of facts or words, and the new possession serves its purpose for a time, but it is not assimilated; its purpose being served, we know it no more” (p. 16).

Another reason for narrating that I believe is crucial to this discussion is that narration is about the building of relationships.  Narration, then, is about the knower and the known that Anna and I wrote about in a recent blog on observation.  Mason believes we are to provide a feast for children (and this topic deserves a whole blog) and they process that feast through various forms of narration.  We must always keep in mind the bigger picture–that is that we are educating children for “life” and not a test score.  Said another way we are educating children for wisdom, understanding, character, for caring.  This requires a deep and abiding relationship with the people and things that we “know.”

Narration has fallen out of favour because the matterialistic world view has removed meaning making from the picture because the mind (a spiritual entity) no longer exists so we are left with “information processing” done by the brain or the “sac” that Mason refers to.  The way we think about mind and brain makes a huge impact on the way we teach.  Losing our sense of “mind” and replacing it only with “brain” leaves us with a less desirable means by which to educate children.  Let’s return now to defining narration.

Narration is the telling back of what we have heard or seen.  Orally telling seems to be the most natural means of retelling although there are a number of other ways (which I will address in another blog soon.)  This, it seems to me, is related to our use of oral language throughout history (see the earlier blogs).  It is natural to us and has been identified in children as young as two and three. This naturalness of narration fits with the literary style like a hand in a glove.  I see people use textbooks rather than living books and then require children to narrate them.  It doesn’t work, especially with younger children and I would suggest it doesn’t work well with young people up to age 14 or 15.  Therefore, for children to “know” they must narrate the literary form.

Let’s look at what happens when we narrate.  I believe Mason (1925/1954) does a good job of telling us: “He will find that in the act of narrating every power of his mind comes into play, that points and bearings which he had not observed are brought out; that the whole is visualised and brought into relief in an extraordinary way; in fact, that scene or argument has become a part of his personal experience;  he knows he has assimilated what he has read” (p. 16).  First, notice the next to last phrase, “that scene or argument has become a part of his personal experience.”  Again, we see the issue of relationship.  It isn’t enough to know the “fact” but it must become part of our own personal experience.  The scene or story are intimately interconnected with us.  It has changed us physically (literally it has changed the brain) and emotionally (spiritually).  We are now different because of this new knowledge that is now “assimilated.”  But for this relationship building to occur, the child must do the labour of the mind themselves.  They visualise, they observe, and as they narrate what they have internally visualised and observed, the new learning becomes “personal” knowledge.  Husband lends some understanding about narration.

As I have mentioned in a previous blog, he (1924) says children who narrate, “condense, classify, generalise, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour with their minds in one way or another (p. 616).  In other words the mind automatically does the processes that it needs to do in order to “know.”  Mason frequently compares this process to our stomachs processing food.  It does what it is supposed to do.  (It is important to note here that sometimes the stomach doesn’t process as it should and there are problems just as there are learning problems when the mind/brain doesn’t process learning as it should.)  Again, it is important to note here that narration has this effect when used with the literary style.

Narration then is the telling back in some form what we hear, read (for ourselves or by someone else) and see.  Narration is a process of  mind not just the brain.  We know that as physical and spiritual beings both are involved.  When life is perceived only as physical then learning is about “processing” information for our uses rather than about the relationships that we build.  Narration is organic and natural.  If we narrate properly, then the mind does the work it is meant to do.  Next week I will write about some ways to narrate.


 Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Husband, G. F. (1924). Some notes on narration. Parents’ Review, 35 (9), 610-617.

Mason, C. M. (1925/1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education:  A liberal education for all. London:  J. M. Dent & Sons, LTD.

© 2013 by Carroll Smith


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. I like this statement you made about education:

    “Said another way we are educating children for wisdom, understanding, character, for caring. This requires a deep and abiding relationship with the people and things that we “know.”

    I have been pondering on education this week and this post about the act of knowing turns light bulbs on for me as I can now see how easy it could be to do narration and still have the wrong goal of possessing the facts, and being a consumer and acquiring information like we acquire other things and then completely missing the relationship which is the power of knowing.

    Thank you.

  2. Kathy S. says

    Thank -you for this series on narration .You’ve opened my mind to a deeper understanding of what Charlotte Mason was getting at.I’m going to have to search for some books that focus on ideas and life ,rather than the fact orientated books that are so prevalent today. I didn’t equate materialism with a facts based education .I hate to think how much more materialistic our society is than in Mason’s time.

  3. Caralee says

    When you use the word ‘materialism,’ I believe you are referring to an ideology of her time or one from before her, and you mention that the effects of this ideology has been what has continued to influence people in this regard up to recent years, including shaping education.

    I think I am understanding what you are saying, but what did ‘materialism’ mean then? And it is the same as it is understood today?

    When I think of materialism, I think of what it means today: the value of having lots of things that are of a certain brand name, quality, and /or amount (ie: a house and 2 cars, a summer cottage by the lake) which makes people think or feel a certain feeling or status… Is this the same as it was then?

    • Caralee,

      I meant to define materialism as I was using it. I generally spell the word matterialism–meaning that all of life is only matter. Materialism as we know it now is a symptom of matterialism. Matterialism is a belief that only matter exists and that consciousness is a result of matter not a spiritual entity. Does this help?

      • Caralee says

        Oh, this explains it well. I appreciate you explaining this as I am not knowledgeable about the various ideaologies that have arisen.

        Also, I was reading this too quickly while caring for my children, and so I did not pay attention enough to see the different spelling between the two words that look the same but are different. A good lesson for me.

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