Tuesday, August 1, 2017

School Education Chapter 14: A Master-Thought

This blog post is part of an on-going daily series this month as I read (very quickly) through School Education by Charlotte Mason. Join me! Pick up your book and read a chapter, or find it free online at Ambleside Online.

Note: I'm sorry this is post took me two days! It was a very challenging chapter for me to understand, let alone summarize. I read it three times: twice in the original, and once in the modern paraphrase at AO. I'm sure I didn't capture it, but I tried!


Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life. It is a challenge to live up to our motto. One of the most common problems is when people take "a part for the whole, and a part of the part for the whole of that part." (p. 149) 

If we focus only on education as an atmosphere, there will be a resulting lack of vigour in our children's curiosity, attention, and effort. If we focus only on education as a life (ideas), the result will be a lack of balance in understanding the relative importance of different ideas. If we focus on education as a discipline, we will expect a system of effort to produce a specific result, and that result will be rather narrow.

Having made sure we understand this balance, Charlotte Mason turns to consider "Education is a Life."

In the Spanish Chapel of the church of S. Maria Novella, there is a fresco which shows the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. Immediately below him are the disciples who were first inspired by Him. Under them is a diverse crowd of many nationalities who received the benefits of that outpouring. In the lower part of the fresco, there are the cardinal virtues floating above the apostles and prophets, who "spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." Interestingly, the seven liberal arts are also pictured as coming from the Holy Spirit: grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry and arithmetic, though the representatives of each were not Christians. 

In this fresco, Charlotte Mason sees a unifying principle, not only for education, but for all of life. "Our piety, our virtue, our intellectual activities, and, let us add, our physical perfections, are all fed from the same source, God Himself; are all inspired by the same Spirit, the Spirit of God." (p. 155)

But doesn't this principle contradict science, and particularly, evolution? Evolution was the "master-thought" of Charlotte Mason's own age, and she had no reason to distrust its truth. To her, evolution provided a key to the interpretation of science. However, Charlotte Mason does not believe that evolution explains everything and eliminates a basis for belief in God and the soul.

Charlotte Mason believes that all truth, however discovered, is God's truth. Ultimately, no truth will contradict another truth. Also, no single aspect of truth that is discovered will be found to explain everything and eliminate Personality. The knowledge of God gives us a broader view than even a knowledge of history affords. [I'm not sure exactly what she means, but I think she is saying that as a Person, God is in control of all of science and history, including what truths people discover when. He is working out his purposes in all of it. -np] Recognizing this, we can pass on to our children reverence for God, respect for science, and open-mindedness.

It is tempting to take the great ideas of our own time and make them the basis for our children's education. However, there are so many of them that we cannot possibly use them all. We pick and choose and end up with a one-sided education. We need a universal principle to evaluate all the ideas and put them in their proper place. Charlotte Mason proposes this one: Education is the science of relations.

A child should be put into relationship with the material world, with people and ideas from both the present and the past. This is such a broad aim, but it can be accomplished by the time a child is thirteen or fourteen because it does not depend on how much is learned, but how things are learned. They need to be given a broad curriculum, learning from first-hand sources. Teachers guide, but do not mediate the knowledge to their students. Subjects are not chosen or rejected on utilitarian grounds, because that would limit a child's exposure to ideas. An idea that truly captures a child will do more for his education than years of slogging.


"...a broad divergence in practice often arises from what appears to be a small difference in conception, in matters educational." (p. 151)

"We are apt to think that piety is one thing, that our intellectual and artistic yearnings are quite another matter, and that our moral virtues are pretty much matters of inheritance and environment, and have not much to do with our conscious religion. Hence, there come discords into our lives..." (p. 154)

"In truth, a nation or a man becomes great upon one diet only, the diet of great ideas communicated to those already prepared to receive them by a higher Power than Nature herself." (p. 156)

"Let us set ourselves to labour with purpose and passion to restore to the world, enriched by the additions of later knowledge, that great scheme of unity of life which produced great men and great work in the past." (p. 156)

"Many of us feel, and, I think, rightly, that the teaching of science is the new teaching which is being vouchsafed to mankind in our age. Some of us are triumphant, and believe that the elements of moral and religious struggle are about to be eliminated from life, which shall run henceforth, whether happy or disastrous, on the easy plane of the inevitable; others are bewildered and look in vain for a middle way, a place of reconciliation for science and religion; while others of us, again, take refuge in repudiating 'evolution' and all its works and nailing our colours ot religion, interpreted on our own narrow lines. Whichever of these lines we take, we probably err through want of faith." (p. 156)

"Let us first of all settle it with ourselves that science and religion cannot, to the believer in God, by any possibility be antagonistic." (p. 156)

"If parents take no heed of the great thoughts which move their age, they cannot expect to retain influence over the minds of their children. If they fear and distrust the revelations of science, they introduce an element of distrust and discord into their children's lives. If, with the mere neophyte of science, they rush to the conclusion that the last revelation is final, accounts for all that is in man, and, to say the least, makes God unnecessary and unknowable, or negligible, they may lower the level of their children's living to that struggle for existence--without aspiration, consecration, and sacrifice--of which we hear so much." (p. 159)

"If, lastly, parents recognise every great idea of nature as a new page in the progressive revelation made by God to men already prepared to receive such idea; if they realise that the new idea, however comprehensive, is not final nor all-inclusive, nor to be set in opposition with that personal knowledge of God which is the greatest knowledge, why, then, their children will grow up in that attitude of reverence for science, reverence for God, and openness of mind, which befits us for whom life is a probation and a continual education." (p. 159-160)

"two things are incumbent upon us,--to keep ourselves and our children in touch with the great thoughts by which the world has been educated in the past, and to keep ourselves and them in the right attitude towards the great ideas of the present." (p. 160)

"Give children a wide range of subjects, with the end in view of establishing in each case some one or more of the relations I have indicated. Let them learn from first-hand sources of information--really good books, the best going, on the subject they are engaged upon. Let them get at the books themselves, and do not let them be flooded with a warm diluent at the lips of their teacher. The teacher's business is to indicate, stimulate, direct and constrain to the acquirement of knowledge, but by no means to be the fountain-head and source of all knowledge in his or her own person." (p. 162)