Living Ideas

As teachers at an Ambleside school, we are all familiar with the phrase “living ideas.” We know that real learning occurs when the learner wonders, asking why and how. The joy is in discovery. I imagine God rejoices with us in our discovering. He didn’t pre-program us like robots. He made us able to grow through memorable and “living” ideas. God doesn’t place pearls along the seashore, washed up where we can easily find them. He creates each unique one within the sacred shell of an oyster, deep at the bottom of the ocean. Diamonds also are hidden deep within the depths of great mountains, where miners must labor and dig to find them. One can only conclude that His joy in our discovering must be abundant. In this same way, we must search out these living ideas that come from God through His Holy Spirit.

What are these “living ideas” that Charlotte Mason tells us about? She begins by describing what living ideas are not. They are not lectures for hours on end of pre-digested information or lists of facts to memorize. If I begin to observe glassy-eyed stares in the faces of my students as they look back at me, I know I’ve gotten off track and away from what the author has to say. I’m talking too much, and the students are tuning out because of information (idea-lacking) overload. Rather, they delight in the work of thinking. When my students connect with living ideas and do the work of narrating or telling back what they know, they are engaged with the author and these living ideas that come through the text. They leave class with knowledge and are satisfied by this work of their mind. Their mind has been fed and nourished with stimulating thoughts and notions.

Charlotte Mason says that living ideas are ideas derived from living minds. I discovered that C.S. Lewis agreed with Charlotte Mason that living ideas are not just mere facts. Lewis explained that, while reason is the natural organ of truth, imagination is the organ of meaning. In other words, we do not really grasp the meaning of any words or concept until we have a clear image in our mind that we can connect with. This is part of the work of narration and digesting ideas. The students paint a picture in their mind from the words in the text.

Some barriers to living ideas, says Mason, are that children are born ignorant of the world and how to manifest the infinite possibilities with which they are born. Lewis adds that human nature gets in the way. God is the great hedonist, providing things for us to do all day long. However, we may neglect the important things, such as working and worshipping and instead, do other things, such as playing. He concludes, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink, sex, and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

So, how do we get the children to leave their mud pies? We give them meaningful ideas to digest. Charlotte Mason says there are two ways to share living ideas. The first is a “vital spark” flashed from teacher to pupil, but this only occurs when the subject is one to which the teacher has given original thought. For example, my children love our pastor. When I asked them why, they said that she explains a concept with a story to help them understand. Since we can’t hire a dozen teachers for each subject, such as an art historian to teach about Degas or other masters, we must provide books for our students, which are rich in living ideas. Last semester, my students read Carry on Mr. Bowditch, which tells the story about Nathaniel Bowditch, the father of Maritime Navigation. By way of the vivid text full of living ideas, they went sailing with Nathaniel Bowditch, and came to know and formed a relationship with the father of Maritime Navigation.

Lewis loved reading stories as much as writing them. He said, “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others . . . in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do."

I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen,

not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything.

With these simple thoughts, let us illuminate our students’ minds with living ideas through which they will come to see everything else.