This month our Charlotte Mason study group discussed her 20th principle of education, which states: “We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and “spiritual” life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties, and joys of life.”
To aid in our discussion we read Ch. 25 from her 2nd Volume, “Parents and Children.” In this chapter she describes a painting she saw in the Spanish Chapel in the Church of St. Maria Novella in Florence Italy. “The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas” to Charlotte Mason, embodied in pictorial form her final principle of education. In quick summary, at the apex of the fresco sits a dove descending down from heaven. Immediately below the dove we find the three Evangelical Virtues of Love, Faith and Hope. Below them are the Cardinal Virtues of Temperance, Prudence, Justice, and Fortitude. Farther down the painting we find a row of 14 figures representing the 7 Sacred Sciences (Civil Law, Canonical Law, Philosophy, Holy Scripture, Theology, Contemplation, and Preaching) and the 7 Liberal Arts (Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Music, Astronomy, Geometry and Arithmetic). You can find images of the fresco along with a basic description of it on Ambleside Online’s website.
At this point you might be asking yourself, “What does a medieval painting have to do with Charlotte Mason, or with educational philosophy?“ Excellent question! I will attempt to give my answer.
The dove at the apex of the fresco represents the Holy Spirit and its descent the idea that the Holy Spirit imparts virtue and knowledge to all people. In other words, knowledge and virtue cannot be self-produced, they are always the work of the Holy Spirit. The inclusion of ‘secular’ subjects on the same horizontal level as the ‘sacred’ subjects seems to indicate that the Holy Spirit not only instructs in the ‘sacred’ but also in the ‘secular’. Even more surprising, perhaps, is the inclusion of non-believing figure heads representing several of the liberal art subjects depicting the idea that God can and does work in the minds of unbelievers to make God’s truths known.
Many passages from Scripture support this fresco’s claim that God is often directly involved in the instruction of various subjects, both ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. Here are a few:
- God gave Noah instructions on how to build the ark (Genesis 6)
- God gave Moses instructions on how to build the tabernacle and its objects (Exodus)
- God gave Joseph the plan to save Egypt from famine (Genesis 41:38)
- God gave David the ability to write poetry and music later included in the Scriptures (Psalms)
- God gave instructions on proper farming techniques (Is. 28:24-29)
Therefore, the work of education, Charlotte Mason argues, must be done under the tutelage and in co-operation with the Holy Spirit, who is the “Imparter of Knowledge” in all areas of life, both ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. She said:
“Let this be the mother’s key to the whole of the education of each boy and each girl; not of her children; the Divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child. Because He is infinite, the whole world is not too great a school for this indefatigatble Teacher, and because He is infinite, He is able to give the whole of his infinite attention for the whole time to each one of his multitudinous pupils.” (Vol. 2 Ch. 25 pg. 273)
Wow! Did you hear that? That God, who knows all, who created all, who never grows weary, fully knows my children, and who knows their hearts and their abilities will work with them and in them every moment of every day to teach them all the things He wants them to learn! What more qualified teacher could we find for our children than the God of the universe! What hope, encouragement, and freedom that gives me to rest in Him and trust Him to teach my child!
Furthermore, since God’s working in our hearts is not limited solely to the realm of the ‘sacred’ we have freedom and permission to allow our children (and ourselves) to pursue a wide variety of subjects that we are interested in, talented in, or passionate about. In a sense, the “secular” becomes “sacred” as our studies magnify His glory as result in our increased worship through the knowledge or skills gained in the study of “secular” subjects. Charlotte Mason said:
“Once the intimate relation, the relation of Teacher and taught in all things of the mind and spirit, be fully recognized, our feet are set in a large room; there is space for free development in all directions, and this free and joyous development, whether of intellect or heart, is recognized as Godward movement.” Vol. 2 Ch. 25 pg. 276
So, what role do I have, as a mother, in this role of education? Thankfully Charlotte Mason had a few words to say on that topic as well. She said,
“Let the mother visualize the thought as an illuminated scroll about her newborn child, and let her never contemplate any kind of instruction for her child, except under the sense of the divine co-operation.” (Vol. 2 Ch. 25 pg. 274).
Thankfully Charlotte Mason didn’t just leave us parents to sit in this theory unequipped to implement these ideas. She gave us five practical ways to co-operate with the Holy Spirit in the education of our children.
- Present to our children “ideas” not “facts.” Within ideas there is life. Facts do not hold life. The Holy Spirit inhabits and labors in the mind of an individual, the same place where “ideas” ruminate and are ingested. Therefore, if we desire the Holy Spirit to work in our children, we must give them “ideas” over dry “facts.”
- “A first condition of this vitalizing 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 vitalizing idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea as a peg capable of sustaining all that is needful to retain.” (Vol. 2 Ch. 25 p. 277)
- Believe that “Children are born persons.” Charlotte Mason said it best when she said:
- “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.” Vol. 2 Ch. 25 pg. 277
- Find the fresh and living way to teach every subject. We must examine everything presented to our children to ensure that their attention is present during the lessons so they will engage their minds in the process of learning. If their attention is absent, the teacher must ask themselves if the material is being presented in a way that is stirring up the child’s mind to active learning. For example, perhaps a different book selection is necessary to better draw in the child’s attention and imagination.
- “Give him living thought… and you make possible the co-operation of the living Teacher.” (Vol. 2 Ch. 25 pg. 278)
- “No neat system is of any use; it is the very nature of a system to grow stale in the using.” (Vol. 2 Ch. 25 pg.279)
- Use Living Books
- “One more thing is of vital importance children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough.” (Vol. 2 Ch. 25 pg. 279)
- The teacher must be “intellectually alive” as well! Mothers, I beg you, care for your own mind as well by staying grounding in the Scriptures, rooted in the Gospel, and by expanding your own minds through the study of the same feast of ideas we present to your children! Read your own selection of books in various subjects, narrate them to yourself, your spouse, or your friends. Practice the art of nature study, music appreciation, art appreciation and much more. Keep a common place journal, keep a book of centuries, and write letters to people. Set the example before our children to be live long learners and thus have something additional to bring to your lesson narration times or dinner time conversations.
- “We need not say one word about the necessity for living thought in the teacher; it is only so far as he is intellectually alive that he can be effective in the wonderful process which we glibly call ‘education.’” (Vol. 2 Ch. 25 pg. 279)
Do these ideas excite you and bring you the same hope and freedom they bring me? We are not alone in this endeavor of educating our children, but are mere tools being used by the Holy Spirit to help spread this abundant feast before our children!