Science Textbooks – Why Not?

I frequently use the following quote when pleading that people not subject their child to science instruction by way of a textbook:

“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.” (Towards A Philosophy Of Education, p. 218)

Sawdust. That should close the book on this question, right? But you might think your child can handle a bit of sawdust in their meal, as long as it comes with a side of real food. I hear this is the case with packaged grated cheese these days, after all. But Mason tells us not to bother because our kids’ minds will reject it:

“Again, we have made a rather strange discovery, that the mind refuses to know anything except what reaches it in more or less literary form.“ (Towards A Philosophy Of Education, p. 256)

I suspect it’s the same with the cheese. The manufacturers know it will just pass right on through us, and they assure us that it won’t hurt us, so how can it be a big deal? I suspect it’s a very big deal – both the wood coated cheese and the textbook.

Just in case you need convincing that Miss. Mason held this same opinion of science books, and not just the books in other subjects, she makes herself clear:

“Books dealing with science as with history, say, should be of a literary character, and we should probably be more scientific as a people if we scrapped all the text-books which swell publishers’ lists and nearly all the chalk expended so freely on our blackboards.” (Towards A Philosophy Of Education, p. 218)

Still, some people persist. Possibly because they cannot see how their students can gather all the facts needed to pass a test someday and secure their future if they only read living books. Mason eases these fears by confirming that our children will remember all the facts they need to:

“A first condition of this vitalising teaching is that all the thought we offer to our children shall be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do; given the vitalising idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea as upon a peg capable of sustaining all that it is needful to retain.” (Parents and Children, p. 277)

Charlotte Mason is so good at saying what she means to in so few words. In that single sentence, she tells us what we must do (only offer living thought,) what we must not do (offer dry summaries of facts,) and she settles our mind that the children will be able to gather the information they need. She gently appeals to us as loving and concerned parents. But in the next sentence she lays down the hammer:

“We begin by believing in the children as spiritual beings of unmeasured powers––intellectual, moral, spiritual––capable of receiving and constantly enjoying intuitions from the intimate converse of the Divine Spirit.” (Parents and Children, p. 277)

If you are like me, you needed to read that last sentence a few times. Our children, children of God, are capable of receiving intuitions from the Holy Spirit. Would we stand in the way of that? Charlotte Mason tells us that “to accept and invite the daily, hourly, incessant co-operation of the divine Spirit in…the schoolroom work of our children.” To do that we must recognize “that the Spirit is life; therefore, that which is dead, dry as dust, mere bare bones, can have no affinity with Him, can do no other than smother and deaden his vitalising influences.” (Parents and Children, p. 277)

If we cannot bring ourselves to quit the textbook because our children cannot mentally digest it, and will, in fact, refuse to digest it, and if we cannot quit just because Mason says so, maybe we can quit because the Holy Spirit, the Divine Educator of our children, is life. To stand in His way with that which is dead would be a terrible lack of cooperation on our part.

7 thoughts on “Science Textbooks – Why Not?

  1. Joanne Downing

    I wonder….would you class apologia science books, and Answers in Genesis “God’s design for ….” series, as dry text books? Or are they living? They are written by one author, they are conversational in style….My living book radar is still in it’s infancy….but I guess these books are not as @dry as dust’ like text books in Miss Masons day? Or am I wrong?
    Jo in the UK

    1. Michele

      Jo, it’s Michele Jahncke. I’m not trying to hijack this from Nicole but I want to say that, in my opinion, they are only a tad better than a dry textbook. So, sawdust with a little water. I can’t even stand seeing them on my shelf and cringe to let anyone know we have used them…

      1. Joanne Downing

        Hello Michele! So lovely to have you reply….i trust your judgement especially after all the wonderful advice on the cm math fb group (you are a blessing!) to clarify… is that both apologia AND answers in genesis? (I ask cause I have a full set of the answers in genesis here on my shelf – not used yet – but in the interests of a period of ‘forced frugality’ I was thinking to maybe try them as a kind of spine to add science biographies/living books alongside..) Blessings xx

  2. Claudia

    “…smother and deaden his vitalising influences” is exactly what happened today when we arrived at another science (Apologia Physical Science) test. Thank you, Nicole, for a clearly-articulated argument against textbooks! Where would you start if you were going to stop science textbooks with a 9th and 11th grade student student (this fall). Interestingly, just before we reviewed for the test my son told me how much he loves The Wild Muir and would love to read straight through without narrating. I’m convinced!

  3. Katrina

    I am wondering about the Apologia Exploring Creation series as well… We were using Madam How and Lady Why and Storybook of Science and it was a real struggle for my daughter to narrate. Someone had given us a couple Apologia books so I decided to try them. My daughter really enjoys them (chooses that subject first now) and we have had really interesting narrations and conversation. She has also made connections to other subjects with information we have read.
    I would be interested to hear your thoughts!

  4. Jennifer

    Thank you for continuing our education! I am wondering, what are your thoughts on combining students of different ages. I am considering how I might study science together with 4th, 6th, and 10th grades. If we choose curriculum for the oldest, might the younger ones glean what they can?


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