Past the Outer Court

by Sonya Shafer

Here is the story of two girls. We will call them Jan and Emily. Both are about 9 years old. Jan is reading her social studies book and trying to answer the questions listed at the end of the paragraph as her mother sits nearby: “What were two money crops early in Virginia’s history?”

Jan dutifully searches the preceding sentences and offers, “Export?”

“Why did you pick export?” asks Mom.

“Because it is highlighted,” Jan replies.

Mom patiently points out another sentence in the paragraph, which will give the clues to the right answer, and Jan lists the correct words. Jan, however, doesn’t know what a money crop is—or even a crop, for that matter—but at least she has filled in the blanks correctly.

Meanwhile, in a house a few streets over, Emily has just finished reading the chapter titled “Grasshopper Eggs” in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek. Eagerly she finds Mom and begins to retell the story. She explains about the grasshoppers’ eating all the crops, leaving nothing that Pa could sell to pay for the house. She relates how Pa set out on foot, walking miles and miles, to search for a region that the grasshoppers had not destroyed, to try to find work there. And deep in Emily’s heart a seed has been planted that tells her how important it is to pay off your debts.

Now here is the question of the story of the two girls: Which one really knows about money crops? To really know something, it must penetrate past the outer court of the mind and gain access into the inner place, where it stirs the imagination, touches the feelings, and affects the person.

We all have an “outer court of the mind.” This outer court is where we keep facts that don’t seem to affect us personally. We may memorize them and spit them back out when required, but they don’t truly educate us. When something influences our lives, that’s when it has truly educated us. That’s when we truly know.

“Learning is convenient but knowledge is vital. Learning is merely acquired information to which the memory gives entertainment but does not influence the life.”1

Unfortunately, many schoolbooks—like Jan’s—are designed to present impersonal facts for learning. The memory may entertain those facts, but they stay in the outer courts of our children’s minds.

More than a hundred years ago, Charlotte Mason pointed out this problem in her book School Education: “Though they will plod on obediently over any of the hundreds of dry-as-dust volumes issued by the publishers under the heading of ‘School Books,’ or of ‘Education,’ they keep all such books in the outer court, and allow them no access to their minds.” 2

The Key to Getting Past the Outer Court

The key to getting past the outer court is readily available. This key can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but no matter its shape, this key will fit the lock and allow us access into our child’s mind. “A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader.”3

Living books are the key to getting past the outer court and entering the door to the inner place of a child’s mind. In the story of the two girls, Emily’s book, On the Banks of Plum Creek, was a living book. A living book makes the subject come alive. It is usually written by one author who has a passion for the subject, and it is often written in story form.

We all love stories. Think for a moment how many stories you can recall from your childhood. Stories have a way of penetrating the wall into the inner place of the mind and making themselves at home there to have a long-term influence on our thoughts. Jesus used many stories as He taught, for He knows how He created our minds. We can mull over a good story for days, examining it from different angles and poking around in its word pictures for truth that feeds our minds and influences our lives.

And the interesting thing is that once a living idea has taken up residence in the inner place of the mind, it will keep a lookout for any related facts and invite them in too. Just as we are happy to open our front door to kinfolk whom we meet, living ideas stand ready to welcome related facts. Now that Emily has read that chapter of On the Banks of Plum Creek, she will be able to relate the term money crop to the living idea that already resides in her mind, and money crop will be allowed access to join its related idea in the inner place.

More than that, Emily will have an abundance of ideas, all taken from that one chapter, happily living in the inner place and on the lookout to admit other related ideas or facts that she comes across. She will have living ideas about grasshoppers and how they lay their eggs, what a grasshopper plague is like, courage in the face of loss, life in Minnesota in the late 1800s, solid and pleasant family relationships, and determination in hard times. Good living books offer many good ideas.

A Peek Into the Inner Place

But how do we know which ideas have taken up residence in the inner place? We could ask questions, but direct questions on the content reveal only the ideas that we, the teachers, notice. They don’t tell us what ideas have been admitted to the child’s inner place. Our children are persons; they will form their own relations with what they read.

Narration is the peephole that gives us a peek into our child’s inner place and lets us see what has been admitted there. When a person narrates something, he tells it back in his own words with little touches of individual personality thrown in.

Let your child retell the story in his own words. As he tells, you will catch a glimpse of what ideas he has taken into the inner place and what facts he has related to those ideas. And besides that, the retelling will cement the story in his own mind; it will become a permanent resident, ready to recognize more relations and influence his life at opportune moments.

Living books and narration will require a change for the teacher who is used to stacks of papers with carefully prescribed facts written on them. But what good are stacks of papers with correct answers in the blanks if our children don’t truly know? If they have not been affected by living ideas, they have not been educated. You see, true education includes all that we do to influence our children’s lives—all that we use to help our children develop mentally, morally, physically, and spiritually. It entails our persuading our children to feel, believe, or act in a desired way. And a multitude of facts that hang around the outer court for a short time and then are dismissed can’t influence our children’s lives.

Only living ideas can access the inner place, and living ideas come from living books. “Let all the thought we offer our children be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do; given the vitalizing idea children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea. . . . Let their books be living books, the best that can be found in liberal supply and variety.”4

Give your child living books and watch the invigorating ideas rush past the outer court and make themselves at home in the inner place of his mind, there to invite more true knowledge. There to influence his life. There to educate.

How to Find Living Books

  • CM Bookfinder—A free database that contains thousands of living book suggestions that you can search by grade, subject, author, key words, history dates, and more at SimplyCharlotteMason.com.
  • Living Book Publishers—Some of our favorites are GreenLeaf Press, Beautiful Feet Books, and Yesterday’s Classics.
  • Living Book Lists—You’ll find lots of great books in All Through the Ages (from Nothing New Press) and in the TruthQuest history guides.
  • Friends—Ask homeschool friends who use a Charlotte Mason approach to recommend some of their favorite titles.
  • One-Page Test—Open the book and read a page. If it draws you in, helps you picture what is happening, and makes you want to keep reading, it’s likely a living book. To make sure, close the book and see if you can narrate what you read.

Biographical Information

Sonya Shafer is a popular homeschool speaker and writer, specializing in the Charlotte Mason method. She has been on a fifteen-year adventure studying, researching, practicing, and teaching Charlotte’s gentle and effective methods of education. Her passion for homeschooling her own four daughters grew into helping others and then into Simply Charlotte Mason, which publishes her many books and hosts the simplycharlottemason.com website—a place of practical encouragement to homeschoolers.


  1. Cholmondeley, Essex. The Story of Charlotte Mason (Petersfield. Hants: Child Light Ltd., 2000), page 253. Return to text.
  2. Mason, Charlotte. School Education (1907), page 228. Return to text.
  3. Ibid. Return to text.
  4. The Story of Charlotte Mason, page 51. Return to text.

Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Summer 2011.

Visit The Old Schoolhouse® at theoldschoolhouse.com to view a full-length sample copy of the magazine especially for homeschoolers. Click the graphic of the moving computer monitor on the left. Email the Publisher at Publisher@theoldschoolhouse.com.