Charlotte Mason wrote that the fresco in the Spanish Chapel “forms the ‘educational creed’ of the House of Education” (Parents’ Review, volume 14, p. 961). She goes on to write, “It represents the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, on the Day of Pentecost, not only upon prophets, apostles and holy men and women, but upon the Captain Figures of the Seven Liberal Arts :— Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Music, Astronomy, Geometry, Arithmetic.”
According to Webster, a creed is a “a set of fundamental beliefs [or] a guiding principle.” Given that the House of Education was Mason’s school for training teachers in her method, it would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of this fresco. Mason strongly associated this fresco with what she termed the Great Recognition, “that God the Holy Spirit is Himself, personally, the Imparter of knowledge, the Instructor of youth” (Parents and Children, pp. 270-271). The implication is that educators should “conceive of the divine teaching as co-operating with ours in a child’s arithmetic lesson.”
Given that the fresco illustrates this “guiding principle,” what is the implication of the fact that in Mason’s brief description of the fresco, she specifically calls out “the Seven Liberal Arts”? Could it be that the classical conception of the Seven Liberal Arts is a guiding principle for Mason? Is Mason explicitly connecting her theory of education to that of Aristotle?
In A History of the Western Educational Experience, Gerald Gutek describes Aristotle’s conception of the Liberal Arts as follows:
Following the conventional Greek distinction between “free people” and “servile people,” Aristotle designated the liberal arts as those studies that liberate people by enlarging and expanding their choices. Other occupational and vocational pursuits, such as trade, commerce, and farming, he claimed, distort the body and reduce the time available for leisurely cultivating intellectual excellence. (p. 51)
Interestingly, Mason cites the fundamental source of the Great Recognition as the Hebrew teaching of Isaiah 28:24-29. In this passage, the prophet states that God teaches the farmer the principles of farming. So whereas Aristotle excludes farming from the Liberal Arts, Mason includes farming within her Great Recognition. But is farming the only exception? Does Mason otherwise exclude “occupational and vocation pursuits” from the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit?
Not at all! In Parents and Children, Mason writes:
And what subjects are under the direction of this Divine Teacher? The child’s faith and hope and charity — that we already knew; his temperance, justice, prudence and fortitude —that we might have guessed; his grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic —this we might have forgotten, if these Florentine teachers had not reminded us; his practical skill in the use of tools and instruments, from a knife and fork to a microscope, and in the sensible management of all the affairs of life —these also come from the Lord, which is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working. His God doth instruct him and doth teach him. (p. 273)
Note the progression of Mason’s thought. Everyone knows that the Holy Spirit teaches love and fortitude. The Florentines remind us that the Holy Spirit teaches the Seven Liberal Arts. But then who reminds us that the Holy Spirit also teaches practical skills, the occupational and vocational pursuits that Aristotle deemed to be degrading? Charlotte Mason! (On the authority of the prophet Isaiah.)
In fact, Mason speculated that the Florentines themselves derived the philosophy depicted in the fresco not from Aristotle but from the Bible: “The scholastic mediaeval mind, probably working on the scattered hints which the Scriptures offer, worked out a sublime Filosofica della Religione Cattolica, pictured, for example, in the great fresco” (Parents’ Review volume 25, p. 271). Mason reveals the wonderful implication on the next page: “knowledge, in this light, is no longer sacred and secular, great and trivial, practical and theoretical.”
Not only does Mason eliminate the dualism of sacred and secular (as the Florentines), but she also eliminates the dualism of practical and theoretical (as Isaiah — and unlike Aristotle). Mason’s Great Recognition is that the Holy Spirit is the teacher of all knowledge, great and trivial, vocational and liberal, ethereal and earthy.
Mason lived out her conviction as she developed her own theory of education. She developed a method that is not only theoretical, but also immensely practical. Her theory is not only drawn from the great truths of the Bible; it is also drawn from her nitty gritty observations of real children in the classroom. Elsie Kitching wrote:
It is surely a rare thing that a philosopher should translate his philosophy into practical life as Miss Mason did. Many philosophers are content with the supreme joy of intellectual effort, others are content with making experiments as well, but Miss Mason had put each dictum of her philosophy to the test of daily life and its needs. (In Memoriam, p. 71)
In fact, it has been suggested that Mason’s rejection of this dualism is a key reason for the lack of recognition for her method today. Dr. Stephanie Spencer (University of Winchester), in her paper “Knowledge as the Necessary Food of the Mind,” writes the following:
The mind–body split has resulted in a hierarchy wherein academic or intellectual subjects (usually associated with the male) have assumed a higher status than practical subjects, usually associated with the female. Thinking, as a “male” activity, by default achieves a higher status than “doing”— a “female” activity. Charlotte Mason’s current reputation is based on the practical application of her methods and, as this increasingly overshadows the philosophy which underpinned her pedagogy, so her status as an educationist has declined.
Mason’s theory of education is a gift to Christian educators. Let us not dismiss her philosophy because she made it practical. And let us not misinterpret her philosophy because of an important fresco.