Charlotte Mason and Poetic Knowledge

James Taylor’s book Poetic Knowledge isn’t the easiest book to read, but it is such a powerful presentation of some vital truths that it is worth the effort. His first task, of course, is to help us understand what he means by “poetic” knowledge. If you are well-versed in Charlotte Mason, it’s going to sound rather familiar. All these quotes are from the first chapter:

First of all, poetic knowledge is not necessarily a knowledge of poetry but rather a poetic (a sensory-emotional) experience of reality…

Take note of that reference to “sensory-emotional.” Does it hint at “relations?”

Poetic knowledge is…a spontaneous act of the external and internal senses with the intellect, integrated and whole rather than an act associated with the powers of analytic reasoning…

Again…both the internal and external senses are engaged in poetic knowledge.

The kind of knowledge that derives from the love of a thing, a person, or a place…

We see it again—the affections are stirred in poetic knowledge. We get to know things well and we learn to love them.

This is precisely the kind of knowledge that Charlotte Mason wanted her pupils to develop. The quote that we are all most familiar with comes from School Education, p. 170:

We should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. We cannot give the children these interests; we prefer that they should never say they have learned botany or conchology, geology or astronomy. The question is not,—how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education—but how much does he care?

I can give you no more than the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding poetic knowledge. It takes time and thought and experience, and the occasional flash of insight to develop, but there is no doubt in my mind that Charlotte Mason understood and desired this for all children. This is the kind of sweet, life-giving knowledge that enriches and blesses us.

While reading School Education not long ago, I ran across an expression that Charlotte Mason used which means much the same as “poetic” knowledge—“appreciative” knowledge. If you’ve read Poetic Knowledge, you know that Dr. Taylor considers poetic knowledge to be a kind of deep, relational knowledge and he contrasts it with scientific knowledge, which is more factual—based on external things that can be quantified rather than emotion.

In a very similar way, Charlotte Mason contrasts her “appreciative” knowledge with “exact” knowledge. Look what she says about it:

Appreciative Knowledge and Exact Knowledge.––All the time [the child] is storing up associations of delight which will come back for his refreshment when he is an old man. With this sort of appreciative knowledge of things to begin with, the superstructure of exact knowledge, living science, no mere affair of text-books and examinations, is easily raised, because a natural desire is implanted. (School Education, p. 77-78, emphasis added.)

Let’s take just a few moments to unpack that. “Appreciative” knowledge stirs the emotions—it’s a matter of delight. It comes first in the educational process, and once it is established as the foundation, the superstructure of “exact” knowledge has something upon which to rest.

We find the same basic idea in Formation of Character, where Mason writes:

It follows that the first [15 years] belong to what we may call the synthetic stage of education, during which his reading should be wide and varied enough to allow the young scholar to get into living touch with earth-knowledge, history, literature, and much besides. These things are necessary for his intellectual life, and are especially necessary to give him material for the second stage of his education, the analytic, which, indeed, continues with us to the end. (p. 380-81)

If this is true, then the bulk of educational efforts for homeschoolers belong to this synthetic stage, where poetic or appreciative knowledge is our primary goal, not the accumulation of mere facts. We want to put our pupils in “living touch” with all kinds of knowledge. We want them to care. If you’ve read Consider This, you know that I use these terms—synthetic thinking and analytic thinking—to describe the ways we interact with knowledge. Synthetic, relational thinking allows knowledge to be much more than information.

But what then is knowledge? That is a question which as yet nobody has been able to answer. Our approach to a solution is to adapt Matthew Arnold’s rather inadequate definition of religion.  Knowledge is information touched with emotion: feeling must be stirred, imagination must picture, reason must consider, nay, conscience must pronounce on the information we offer before it becomes mind-stuff. (In Memoriam, p. 4, emphasis added)

And here is a curious thing, which will not seem strange to anyone who has been using Charlotte Mason’s methods for a period of time that is long enough to build fluent narrators.

One of the paths that will lead us toward appreciative or poetic knowledge is…narration!

…the custom of narration lends itself surprisingly to this sort of poetic insight. (Philosophy of Education, p. 166)

The unfortunate reality for most of us, as adults, is that we were educated in a way which deprived us of the opportunity to form and develop poetic knowledge—to have relationships with all the many wonders that the world holds. We were dragged through a monotonous course of highly-forgettable material, which we dutifully regurgitated on test day and promptly forgot. Experience quickly taught us we weren’t likely to need those particular snippets of information again, and rarely did our studies inspire mild interest, let alone a life-long love of knowledge.

Dr. Taylor uses the word “aesthetic” as a rough synonym for “poetic” knowledge. I want to share just a short portion of what Charlotte Mason writes on the topic of the “Beauty Sense”:

Our Beauty Sense.––There is another region open to Intellect, of very great beauty and delight. He must needs have Imagination with him to travel there, but still more must he have that companion of the nice ear and eye, who enabled him to recognise music and beauty in words and their arrangement. The æsthetic Sense, in truth, holds the key of this palace of delights. There are few joys in life greater and more constant than our joy in Beauty, though it is almost impossible to put into words what Beauty consists in; colour, form, proportion, harmony––these are some of its elements. Words give some idea of these things, and therefore some idea of Beauty, and that is why it is only through our Beauty Sense that we can take full pleasure in Literature. (Ourselves, Book 1, p. 41)

This, too, is a way of understanding and talking about poetic knowledge—taking delight in the way that things look, sound, and simply are. Charlotte Mason has a warning for us—we must not be deceived by imitations, nor be so taken up with small matters that we miss the greater.

Many persons allow themselves to be deceived in this matter and go through life without ever entering the Palace of Art, and perceiving but little of the Beauty of Nature. We all have need to be trained to see, and to have our eyes opened before we can take in the joy that is meant for us in this beautiful life.

Second only to “Children are born persons,” let us take Charlotte Mason’s guiding principle that “Education is the science of relations” to heart. This is the key to aesthetic, appreciative, poetic, synthetic, relational knowledge. Don’t get tangled up in which words are being used. Learn to see to the heart and meaning of all them, to find that kernel of truth, which is the same, no matter how it is presented. Education is the science of relations. And narration is a relationship-building exercise. Think about that. Not for a minute, or even ten. Think about it often. Look for it in action in your educational endeavors. Call it anything you like, but for the children’s sake and for your own, I hope you will not miss it.