The goal of classical education is virtue. To gain this Charlotte Mason believed we should rely on “Living Books” to educate the whole child. However, it is not enough to read the right books, books must also be read the right way.

There are two different ways one can approach a book: analytically or synthetically. Analysis takes things apart. It breaks them down into smaller and smaller and more discrete pieces and examines them separately. Synthesis combines things into a whole. It considers each new piece of knowledge as one piece of a larger puzzle and seeks to find its place within that ever more complete “big picture”.

On paper it seems like both approaches can help us to understand a book. But the differences between approaches are like the differences between eating a vitamin and a meal—meals taste good and create an appetite for more. Given mere information without context, we choke on it. But given knowledge in context it is more easily understood and we assimilate it joyfully. We connect with it and it ultimately becomes a part of us.

According to Charlotte Mason, one of the best ways to develop connections between what we learn and ourselves is to write narrations. Narration is the retelling in one’s own words of what one has learned. As the student progresses in this, he will begin to add his own impressions and opinions to his narrations. This connects him directly to the things that he is reading. It also promotes active learning, which helps the student to retain and to be formed by the things learned.

In our exams and essays, especially as students get older, our hope is to foster a synthetic understanding. We don’t want our students to know disconnected facts, we want them to have a view of the connected whole and their place in that whole. As you can imagine this is a difficult task! But by going through repeated historical and literature cycles (ancient, medieval, modern) and by keeping Christ at the center of all we learn and do we ground our students in a bigger picture, in the greater whole.