I am always interested in reading what people write about Charlotte Mason. Much is said about Mason’s method, much is said about her life, and much is said about her writing. But I am especially interested when someone writes about Mason’s beliefs. That is why I was struck by this sentence in Issue #4 of the CiRCE Magazine:
In other words, classical teaching will show students that the universe is orderly and understandable, and that all knowledge is interconnected—what Mason calls “synthetic” thinking and stands in contrast to “analytical” thinking, which Mason believes should be delayed until after synthetic thinking has been well established. (Stanford, 2016, p. 13)
This assertion about what Mason believes gives me pause. Did Mason really believe that one type of thinking should be delayed until another type of thinking has been established? Given Mason’s oft-repeated rejection of the concept of faculties, it would seem unlikely. To explore this further, we turn to Mason’s own writings, and discover that the phrase “synthetic thinking” is nowhere to be found. In fact, she rarely uses the word “synthetic.” But perhaps this assertion regarding her beliefs is based on Mason’s reference to a “synthetic stage” of education:
Knowledge is information vitalised by ideas, assimilated by a thinking mind; and the fact that education has two stages—the synthetic and the analytic—should perhaps be borne in mind in preparing a curriculum. Until he is 14 or 15, the boy’s business is to collect those stores of knowledge which will give him material for analytic reflection hereafter. (Mason, 1906, pp. 507-508)
Do these two stages point to a program where synthetic thinking is developed before analytic thinking? Since there are so few occurrences of the word “synthesis” in Mason’s writings, I think it is helpful to turn to The Parents’ Review to get an idea of what the P.N.E.U. community wrote about analysis and synthesis.
The closest phrase I could find to “synthetic thinking” in The Parents’ Review is “synthetical mental processes,” which occurred in an article entitled “The Value of Scientific Training,” by J. Logan Lobley, published in 1901. The context is so fascinating that I will share more than one paragraph:
The boy or the girl with no eyes for the observation of natural objects, with scientific training rapidly acquires them, and when once possessed they are employed for the habitual observation of the every-day things of life. This in itself must be a great aid to general education as well as a source of increased interest and pleasure to the young life, altogether in addition to the interest and pleasure derived from games and sports, by which the boy or girl is raised on to a higher mental and, I will venture to say, a higher moral platform.
So wondrous, too, are the revelations of natural science in opening to the view illimitable fields of knowledge, that instead of generating conceit or hateful priggishness in the youthful student, they suffuse the spirit with awe and reverence for the majesty of the universe, and modesty and humbleness from the consciousness of the little that is known and the boundless extent of the unknown.
With the increase of the habit of observation comes an increase of the power of observation, that is, in fact, the power of accurate observation. More is seen, and the ability to discriminate between similar objects rapidly develops. Use of the power increases the power, even as the muscles of the body are developed by their frequent employment. Beyond this development of the observing and discriminating powers, which is most valuable in itself, thought, consideration, deduction, and analytical and synthetical mental processes, are begotten, encouraged, and developed, with the result that mental activity becomes usual and normal instead of being merely occasional and abnormal. Thus the mind is both fed and stimulated, developed, strengthened, and enlivened, its range of vision is vastly enlarged, and its activities largely increased. It is consequently less liable to be unduly influenced by those small considerations and allurements that in so many cases most injuriously and some times disastrously affect the life. (Lobley, 1901, p. 120)
Lobley asserts that the scientific training of young people stimulates both “analytical and synthetical mental processes.” In other words, analytic and synthetic thinking are developed in parallel in the young mind. There is no evidence of the concept of stages.
Lobley’s claim follows a similar claim made a few years earlier by another scientist writing in The Parents’ Review. In an article entitled “The Rise and Aims of Modern Botany,” Patrick Geddes writes:
But it is time to leave this part of the subject, if you grasp clearly that there are not only two but three results—(1) That when you can handle the literature of Biology intelligently you are in a position rapidly to master its main results, botanical and zoological, at will; (2) when you can apply the same principles upon which your authors worked to the actual phenomena they worked upon, you are henceforth practically independent of their books altogether, save for reference; while (3) you have become so far a scientific man, and may apply this scientific power (of systematised analysis and synthesis) in such fresh ways as you will. Not only Botany, but many cognate fields are open to you—you are so far educated; and henceforth you may carve out fresh kingdoms with the same intellectual sword. (Geddes, 1894, p. 898)
Again, Geddes asserts that scientific study involves the simultaneous use of analysis and synthesis, nowhere implying a sequential development.
Is this synergism of analysis and synthesis limited only to science? Not according to P.N.E.U. thinkers. Writing in 1922 about a recent national report on the “Teaching of English in England,” the Headmaster of a Charlotte Mason school wrote:
Written narration, following the single reading, is a great aid in securing a higher standard of written work. The diction, thought, and style of the author unconsciously influence the expression of the scholar. I have appended some examples which prove, by demonstration, this claim.
We teachers connected with the P.N.E.U. must express our gratitude to the authors of the “Report” for their condemnation of the attempts to make children write ‘Essays.’ When we reflect on the small number of authors in English who have successfully attempted the writing of the Essay, we may well ask why this form of writing should have been so universally adopted as a suitable exercise for children who are at the stage of acquiring language and learning its use. If it be argued that the “form” of the Essay is what is aimed at in requiring this kind of Composition from children, then the reply is that letter-writing, answers to suitable questions in Geography, History and other subjects in the syllabus, verse-making, descriptions of scenes and incidents in the plays and authors read, provide opportunities in abundance for the application of the Essay ‘form.’ That is to say, before expression (writing) there must be analysis and synthesis. Child or adult must take stock of his material, select from his stock, arrange, and then use. Each of these conditions must be observed in any piece of good writing. (Smith, 1922, pp. 164-165)
Smith begins this section with a strong defense of written narration as practiced in Charlotte Mason schools. He then shows why this is a better way to learn composition than direct instruction in essay-writing. In support of this, Smith asserts that written narration requires the student to perform analysis and synthesis. In other words, narration is not exclusively synthetic. For Smith, written narration inherently requires both analytic and synthetic processes of reasoning.
Indeed, a decade later, writers in The Parents’ Review would still be proclaiming the interdependence of analysis and synthesis in the study of language: “The contents and technique of History teaching provide all that we require to achieve the stated ends, i.e. COMMAND OF LANGUAGE, which implies the power of analysis and synthesis” (Johnston, 1933, p. 323). Again, the writer gives no hint of a successive or staged approach to the respective processes of thinking.
Mason famously stated that “Education is the Science of Relations” (Mason, 1925/1954, p. xxx). Since a relationship by definition involves two entities, one might think this is an activity where synthesis would be preeminent. After all, synthesis means “the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole” (Merriam-Webster, 2003). And yet in 1922, a writer in The Parents’ Review asserted that analysis is the foundation of “general relations”:
Analysis is the basis of the general relations by which we discover system and interconnection running through or, if we prefer to say so, underlying our experience. (Williams, 1922, p. 774)
If analysis is the basis of “general relations,” then how can we say that synthetic thinking precedes analytical thinking, rather than being concomitant with it?
Was Mason aware of what these writers were saying in The Parent’s Review? Of course – she was the editor. So how do we explain her comments about a synthetic stage preceding an analytic stage? The answer is simple: she is speaking of synthetic and analytic stages of curriculum, not modes of thinking. It is the curriculum that is synthetic or analytic. The “synthetic stage” is characterized by reading that is “wide and varied” (Mason, 1989/1905, p. 380). However, this reading is orderly, definite, and purposeful:
If we perceive that knowledge, like bread, is necessary food, we see also that it must be taken in set portions, fitly combined, duly served, and at due intervals, in order to induce the digestive processes without which, knowledge, like meat, gives us labour rather than strength. In other words, desultory reading affords entertainment, and perhaps an occasional stimulus to thought. Casual reading – that is, vague reading round a subject without the effort to know – is not in much better case: if we are to read and grow thereby, we must read to know, that is, our reading must be study – orderly, definite, purposeful. (Mason, 1989/1905, p. 382)
The “analytic stage” is characterized by technical activities such as Greek translation, mathematical drills, and exam preparation (Mason, 1989/1905, p. 381). However, in this stage, “the student is well nourished by the continued habit of wide reading” (p. 382). Mason concludes her discussion on the two stages by saying:
In this way, what I have called the two stages of education, synthetic and analytic, coalesce; the wide reading tends to discipline, and in the disciplinary or analytic stage the mind of the student is well nourished by the continued habit of wide reading. (Mason, 1989/1905, p. 382)
The stages coalesce because of Mason’s insistence on wholeness. Children are persons with minds. The minds of persons according to Mason are not split up into faculties. There is unity and there is mystery. Interestingly, in 1894, one writer in The Parent’s Review did claim that analysis and synthesis were faculties, albeit interdependent and interactive:
This forms a good preparation for understanding that doctrine, which is at once the basis of Mathematical Philosophy and its crowning glory; viz: the doctrine that man is related by his analytic faculties to the monkeys who investigate by breaking things in pieces, and, by his synthetic faculty, to that Unity in Whom are reunited all that has been separated; that the normal use of man’s thinking organ consists in perfect cyclic alternation of Analysis and Synthesis; that the dominant revealing point is the point of completed synthesis; that man falls into error when he vitiates the cycle; but while he keeps faithful to it his mind is constantly inspired with Truth. (Boole, 1894, p. 654)
But Mason utterly rejects this idea of faculties:
I think we should have a great educational revolution once we ceased to regard ourselves as assortments of so-called faculties and realised ourselves as persons whose great business it is to get in touch with other persons of all sorts and conditions, of all countries and climes, of all times, past and present. (Mason, 1905, pp. 82-83)
Mason did not believe in separating analytic thinking from synthetic thinking. She believed in leaving the mind to do its own work. The mind analyzes when analysis is necessary. Parents and teachers don’t need to manage, meddle, or control. Children as persons can break down and build up as needed, as naturally as they can break down food and build up tissue:
Here we get the mind forces which must act continuously in education,— attention, assimilation, narration, retention, reproduction. But what of reason, judgment, imagination, discrimination, all the corps of ‘faculties’ in whose behoof the teacher has hitherto laboured? These take care of themselves and play as naturally and. involuntarily upon the knowledge we receive with attention and fix by narration as do the digestive organs upon duly masticated food-stuff for the body. (Mason, 1954/1925, p. 259)
We can debate about methods and classifications and precedents. But let us allow Mason to tell us what she believed. She did not believe that analytical thinking “should be delayed until after synthetic thinking has been well established.” She believed that both types of thinking are given to all persons created in the image of God, and that all persons of all ages have the right to use them freely.
Boole , M. (1894). Home arithmetic. In The Parents’ Review, volume 4 (pp. 649-654). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Geddes, P. (1894). The rise and aims of modern botany. In The Parents’ Review, volume 4 (pp. 897-903). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Johnston, W. (1933). The curriculum of preparatory schools. In The Parents’ Review, volume 44 (pp. 318-324). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Lobley, J. (1901). The value of scientific training. In The Parents’ Review, volume 12 (pp. 118-126). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Mason, C. (1905). School education. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.
Mason, C. (1906). Conference at the house of education. In The Parents’ Review, volume 17 (pp. 481-560). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Mason, C. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education. London: Lowe & Brydone. (Original work published 1925)
Mason, C. M. (1989). Formation of character: Shaping the child’s personality. Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1905)
Merriam-Webster. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.
Smith, G. (1922). The teaching of English. In The Parents’ Review, volume 33 (pp. 159-171), London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Stanford, A. (2016). Words of wisdom: book reviews. In CiRCE Magazine, issue #4 (p. 12). Concord, NC: The CiRCE Institute.
Williams, S. (1922). Science, philosophy and religion. In The Parents’ Review, volume 33 (pp. 769-776), London: Parents’ National Educational Union.