When one begins to read Charlotte Mason’s writings, one quickly notices how important the concept of “ideas” is to her theory of education. In 1998, Karen Andreola gave us an early articulation of the centrality of ideas to Mason’s method:
“Aren’t life and growth miraculous? A plant grows from within. When the environment is right the plant flourishes because it is living. Christ’s parable of the sower gives us insight into the true spiritual life. The seed that falls on good soil hears the Word and understands it. This is the seed that grows. It produces many more times what was sown. We cannot do the growing, understanding, or learning for a child, but we can provide what he needs for growth: ideas.” (A Charlotte Mason Companion, p. 41)
Andreola’s reference to the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) echoes Mason’s own reference from more than a century before:
“The whole tendency of modern biological thought is to confirm the teaching of the Bible: the ideas which quicken come from above; the mind of the little child is an open field, surely, ‘good ground,’ where, morning by morning, the sower goes forth to sow, and the seed is the Word.” (PR2, p. 143, 1891)
Since, according to Mason, ideas are the food for growth, we must understand what Mason meant by “ideas” if we are to properly understand her theory of education. The place to begin, of course, is 1886, since Mason would later write that “the little manual called ‘Home Education’ … contains the whole in the germ” (i68p2cmc393). How did Mason introduce the concept of ideas in that “little manual?”
Mason presents her first definition, yet again with a reference to the parable of the sower:
“The child must learn, in the second place, in order that ideas may be freely sown in the fruitful soil of his mind. ‘Idea, the image or picture formed by the mind of anything external, whether sensible or spiritual,’ — so the dictionary: therefore, if the business of teaching be to furnish the child with ideas, any teaching which does not leave him possessed of a new mental image has, by so far, missed its mark.” (Home Education, 1886)
Sensibly, Mason begins with the dictionary. But in the next paragraph she reveals her sense that the dictionary definition is inadequate. Mason means something more by the notion of idea:
“For the dictionary appears to me to fall short of the truth in its definition of the term idea. An idea is more than an image or a picture; it is, so to speak, a spiritual germ endowed with vital force — with power, that is, to grow and to produce after its kind. It is the very nature of an idea to grow: as the vegetable germ secretes that it lives by, so, fairly implant an idea in the child’s mind, and it will secrete its own food, grow, and bear fruit in the form of a succession of kindred ideas.” (HE 1886)
Mason gives many examples of ideas in her Home Education volume:
- The ideas of distance and direction.
- Addition and subtraction.
- The contours, the productions, and the manners of the people, of great regions of the world.
- “Pathetic and heroic” events in history.
- The nominative and objective case in grammar.
- The idea an artist meant to convey by his or her painting.
- Moral ideas from the Bible.
- The virtues of kindness and duty.
- The idea of God.
One reason that ideas are so central to Mason is that they are active in both the spiritual and physical dimensions of the mind. Mason saw the importance of neurobiology in informing a theory of education. She drew heavily from the writings of William Carpenter. In Home Education, she quotes where Carpenter links ideas to brain physiology:
“in the words of Dr Carpenter, ‘… It scarcely, indeed, admits of a doubt, that every state of ideational consciousness which is either very strong or is habitually repeated, leaves an organic impression on the cerebrum, in virtue of which the same state may be reproduced at any future time in correspondence to a suggestion fitted to excite it.” (HE 1888)
Mason links Dr. Carpenter’s “ideational consciousness” to her concept of an idea as “a spiritual germ endowed with vital force — with power, that is, to grow and to produce after its kind.” When an idea “secretes” after its kind in the mind, it both (a) runs along existing neural pathways in the brain, and (b) causes the formation of new pathways — “an organic impression.”
However, in 1891 Mason begins to warn us that the physical brain’s system of neural pathways operates in a morally neutral fashion. It develops both “good” and “evil” ideas with equal efficiency and effectiveness. This warning was important enough that she inserted it into later editions of Home Education (page 108 and the top of page 109 of the current edition were not in the 1886 original). Mason first introduces this warning in February of 1891 as follows:
“The child has affinities with evil as well as with good; therefore hedge him about from any chance lodgment of evil suggestion. The initial idea begets subsequent ideas; therefore, take care that the children get right primary ideas… In a word, our much boasted ‘infallible reason’ — is it not the involuntary thought which follows the initial idea upon necessary, logical lines? Given, the starting idea, and the conclusion may be predicted almost to a certainty… There is structural adaptation in the brain tissue to the manner of thoughts we think…” (PR2 pp. 44-45)
Later in 1892, Mason would explicitly note that some ideas of spiritual origin are inherently evil:
“Are all ideas which have a purely spiritual origin ideas of good?
Unhappily, no; it is the sad experience of mankind that suggestions of evil also are spiritually conveyed.
What is the part of the man?
To choose the good and refuse the evil.” (PR3 p. 357)
Mason saw dire implications of her twin observations that (1) some ideas are inherently evil, and (2) brain physiology is equipped to develop those evil ideas. On the basis of these observations, she codified the 18th and 19th principles in her 1904 synopsis of her theory of education.
It is also in 1891 that Mason first quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Coleridge was a philosopher and poet, and is one of the initiators of the Romantic Movement in England. In 1817, Coleridge conceived of the production of The Encyclopædia Metropolitana, intended to be a vast compendium of human knowledge. Coleridge wrote the introduction, which was released in 1818. The introduction was entitled A Dissertation on the Science of Method.
In the opening pages of Coleridge’s Method, he defines the concept of idea, which is a recurring concept in his dissertation. He offers the following definition:
“Now the relations of things are not united in Human conception at random — humano capiti — cervicem equinam; but there is some rule, some mode of union, more or less, strictly necessary. Where it is absolutely necessary, we have called it a relation of Law; and as by Law we mean the laying down the rule, so the rule laid down we call, in the ancient and proper sense of the word, an Idea; and consequently the words Idea and Law are correlative terms, differing only as object and subject, as Being and Truth.” (Method, p. 17)
For Coleridge, then, a Law is a “necessary truth” (p. iii) or rule of relationship. An Idea (capitalized by Coleridge) is “the rule [Law] laid down, the mental object” (Method, p. iii). Idea is the “object… in us” and Law is the “subject… inferred”; they are twin view of the same thing, one is Being and other is Truth.
Coleridge contrasts Law with Theory. He writes:
“The second relation is that of Theory, in which the existing forms and qualities of objects, discovered by observation, suggest a given arrangement of them to the Mind, not merely for the purposes of more easy remembrance and communication; but for those of understanding, and sometimes of controlling them. The studies to which this class of relations is subservient, are more properly called Scientific Arts than Sciences. Medicine, Chemistry, and Physiology are examples of a Method founded on this second sort of relation, which, as well as the former, always supposes the necessary connection of cause and effect.” (Method, p. 16)
For Coleridge, Theory is less assured than Law. But since Ideas are linked to Laws, then for Coleridge, there are no “Ideas” in Medicine, Chemistry, and Physiology. As an illustration of this, Coleridge explains that the discovery of polarity of magnetics is not properly termed an Idea:
“In the XIIIth century, however, or perhaps earlier, the polarity of the magnet, and its communicability to iron, were discovered… But still it furnished no genuine Idea; it led to no Law, and, consequently, to no Method” (Method, p. 28-29)
Coleridge even proposes that “yet unknown” Ideas can be abstracted by a symbol:
“Hypothesis, be it observed, can never form the groundwork of a true scientific method, unless when the hypothesis is either a true Idea proposed in an hypothetical form, or at least the symbol of an Idea as yet unknown, of a Law as yet undiscovered.” (Coleridge, p. 29)
It is easy to see that Coleridge’s conception of Idea (with a capital i) is dramatically different from Mason’s definition. These differences may be illustrated in a table:
|Basic definition||“a live thing of the mind” (PR2:41)||the “mental object” of a “necessary truth”|
|Present in which fields of study||All – math, geography, history, literature, science, etc.||the “Pure Sciences” as opposed to the “Scientific Arts” (p. iii)|
|Always good?||No – “Are all ideas which have a purely spiritual origin ideas of good? Unhappily, no”||Yes – Ideas are contrasted with “suppositions,” “imaginations,” and “hypothesis,” which are inferior mental objects (Method, p. 28)|
The difference in these conceptions can be summarized by reference to Plato. Coleridge’s Idea (capital i) corresponds to Plato’s idea or form. By contrast, Mason’s idea (lower case i) corresponds to Plato’s image. At the end of her life, Mason explicitly provided this clarification:
“the mind, in fact, requires sustenance as does the body, in order that it increase and be strong; but because the mind is not to be measured or weighed but is spiritual, so its sustenance must be spiritual too, must, in fact, be ideas (in the Platonic sense of images).” (Towards A Philosophy of Education, 1923, p. 10)
What is the difference between a Platonic image and a Platonic idea? A Platonic image is a symbolic representation. As such, it may be true or false, helpful or unhelpful. It may represent the highest truth or the crudest error. It is real, but it is not the perfect form. (A full discussion of this distinction may be found in Sixten Ringbom’s Plato on Images.)
Why does Mason treat ideas as symbolic representations instead of absolute truths? Because of her rejection of Platonic philosophy. For Mason, the Platonic system does not address the fullness of reality as unveiled by the discoveries of science. In Parents and Children, she writes:
“M. Fouillée Neglects the Physiological Basis of Education — In a word, M. Fouillée returns boldly to the Platonic philosophy; the idea is to him all in all, in philosophy and education. But he returns empty-handed.” (p. 123)
But if Mason and Coleridge differ so much in their conception of Idea, why does Mason quote Coleridge so extensively? The answer is found in one of the key passages of the Method that Mason quotes. Here is the full passage from Coleridge’s Method:
“Let us once more take an example which must come ‘home to every man’s business and bosom.’ Is there not a Method in the discharge of all our relative duties? And is not he the truly virtuous and truly happy man, who seizing first and laying hold most firmly of the great first Truth, is guided by that divine light through all the meandering and stormy courses of his existence? To him every relation of life affords a prolific Idea of duty; by pursuing which into all its practical consequences, he becomes a good servant or a good master, a good subject or a good sovereign, a good son or a good father; a good friend, a good patriot, a good Christian, a good man! …
It cannot be deemed foreign from the purposes of our Disquisition, if we are anxious, before we leave this part of the subject, to attract the attention of our readers to the importance of speculative meditation (which never will be fruitful unless it be methodical) even to the worldly interests of mankind. We can recall no incident of human history that impresses the imagination more deeply than the moment, when Columbus, on an unknown ocean, first perceived that startling fact, the change of the magnetic needle! How many such instances occur in History, where the Ideas of Nature (presented to chosen minds by a Higher Power than Nature herself) suddenly unfold, as it were, in prophetic succession, systematic views destined to produce the most important revolutions in the state of Man! The clear spirit of Columbus was doubtless eminently methodical. He saw distinctly that great leading Idea, which authorized the poor pilot to become ‘a promiser of kingdoms:’ and he pursued the progressive development of the mighty truth with an unyielding firmness, which taught him to ‘rejoice in lofty labour.’” (p. 25)
In the first paragraph, Coleridge states that God presents Ideas to humans in the realm of spiritual thought. This concept is easily granted. But in the second paragraph, Coleridge makes the bolder statement that God also presents Ideas to humans in the realm of secular thought. Mason seized on this passage because of its obvious relevance to her Great Recognition – that “God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself the supreme Educator of mankind,” of both “spiritual” and “natural” matters.
Here in Coleridge, Mason found direct support for the notion she articulated in the Draft-Proof of 1888:
“Perhaps the perplexity arises from our habit of limiting the operations of the laws of God to the region of man’s spiritual nature.”
Mason quotes Coleridge’s Method for the first time in the February, 1891 issue of The Parents’ Review. She quotes from page 25, where Coleridge extends the activity of God to discoveries in the “natural realm.” Mason immediately follows her quotation of Coleridge with the following:
“… how well does it correspond with that key to the origin of ‘practical’ ideas which we find elsewhere:— ‘Doth the plowman plow continually to … open and break the clods of his ground? … For his God doth instruct him aright, and doth teach him… This also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts, which is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom.” (p. 42)
This is the first instance I have found in Mason’s writings where she quotes Isaiah 28:24-29. She returns to this passage again and again in later writings to justify her belief in the Great Recognition.
Mason had already intuited the concept of the Great Recognition in the Draft-Proof of 1888, and even in Home Education in 1886. But her discovery of Coleridge emboldened her. By June of 1892, she would coin the term the “Great Recognition” and exposit it in the form we have it today. The primary support she offers is in the form of Scripture, beginning with Isaiah 28, but including other passages as well. And as additional support, perhaps to defend against the accusation of innovation, she cites Coleridge’s Method.
Like the fresco in the Spanish Chapel, the Method of S. T. Coleridge is used by Mason as evidence to justify belief in the Great Recognition. Mason loved the way Coleridge extended the operation of God to the secular sphere. However, she did not go as far as to adopt his theory of Ideas with a capital i.