Thomas Aquinas and the Great Recognition

Thomas Aquinas and the Great Recognition

“They have believed that when He described the Comforter whom He would send from the Father, as the Spirit of Truth, He was not speaking of a relation, or of a property of their conceptions, but of a living and personal Teacher and Guide.”[1] (F.D. Maurice)

Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella

The tourist who visits the city of Florence will likely arrive by train at the Firenze Santa Maria Novella station. A short walk across the Piazza della Stazione leads the traveler to the impressive basilica after which the train station was named. Construction of the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella was completed in the fourteenth century, along with its adjoining cloister. On the north side of the cloister, the visitor of today may still enter the former chapter house of the monastery, also completed in the fourteenth century. Today this structure is known as the Spanish Chapel due to certain meetings held there in later centuries. But originally it was not so named.

Originally it was a funerary chapel – the funerary chapel of the leading Dominican church in all of Florence. The Dominican focus is manifested in the extraordinary frescos that cover the chapel walls and which may still be seen and admired today. Thought to be executed by Andrea di Bonaiuto in the fourteenth century, these frescos unabashedly delight in the great achievements of the Domincan order.

When the visitor enters the chapel and looks to the right, he sees the massive fresco entitled Allegory of the Active and Triumphant Church and of the Dominican Order. The visitor is irresistibly drawn to trace each individual figure in the fresco in an attempt to decipher its living story, noting that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Rather than focusing on one particular saint, this fresco shows anonymous teaching friars from the Order of Preachers spreading their message and doing good deeds in the world.

The visitor turns right again and looks at the wall around the door through which he entered. Here he sees a second massive fresco entitled Stories of St. Peter Martyr. It tells the story of Peter of Verona, who entered the Dominican Order in 1221. The fresco includes separate scenes from his life, including his reception of the Dominican Habit, his preaching, and a miracle associated with him. And most dramatically, the fresco depicts his martyrdom at the hands of those who opposed his message.

The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas

Turning right again, the visitor sees a third massive fresco, this one celebrating perhaps the most famous Dominican of all time: St. Thomas Aquinas. The fresco is entitled The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and even a casual glance confirms that the fresco is aptly named. In the center we find a figure twice as large as all the other figures in the fresco. Massive and glorious, the figure is the great Catholic theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas. He sits triumphant above three heretics, the book of wisdom in his hand, calmly portrayed as the triumphant Doctor of the Church.

Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas

This third fresco was cherished by Charlotte Mason. However, she did not refer to it by its modern name. In her writings, she calls it Filosofica della Religione Cattolica[2] which may be translated, Philosophy of the Catholic Religion. Mason wrote extensively about this fresco. Indeed, a copy of the it was kept at the House of Education and was said by Mason to form the house’s “educational creed.”[3]

And yet in the House of Education this visual creed is given a name which does not recognize its central figure. One may search all of Mason’s writings on education, on the Gospels, in books or journals, and never find the name Aquinas. The same Charlotte Mason, who quoted and cited countless writers from many eons, never once in print wrote that name.

How could that be? How could a fresco entitled The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas become the “educational creed” of a school and theory of education developed by a woman who never once in her copious published writings included even once the name Aquinas? To answer this question, we must enter upon a fascinating journey through history – a journey that centers around three words: The Great Recognition.

What is the Great Recognition?

Mason first coined the term “Great Recognition” in an article in the June 1892 Parents’ Review. This first reference to the Great Recognition is clear and consistent with all of Mason’s later uses of the term. She writes:

… here is the great recognition which the educator is called upon to make. God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself the supreme Educator of mankind.[4]

In the paragraphs which follow, Mason develops what she sees as the two primary implications of this Great Recognition:

  • The teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit encompasses all learning, both sacred and secular:

Are the ideas suggested by the Holy Spirit confined to the sphere of the religious life? No… ‘certain ideas of the natural world are presented to minds, already prepared to receive them, by a higher Power than Nature herself.’[5]

  • The teacher must recognize that his or her role is to cooperate with the Holy Spirit:

What practical bearing upon the educator has this doctrine of ideas?

… above all, he recognises the divine co-operation in the direction, teaching, and training of the child.[6]

If we were to condense the Great Recognition into a single sentence that includes the three main components, that sentence could be:

(1) God the Holy Spirit is Himself the supreme Educator of mankind[7] (2) in things Natural and Spiritual,[8] and (3) therefore the educator must recognize the divine cooperation in the direction, teaching, and training of the child.[9]

Other P.N.E.U. thinkers also understood the Great Recognition in terms of these three components. For example, in an 1899 issue of The Parents’ Review, P. H. Bagenal writes:

Grammar, for example, may be taught in such a way as to invite and obtain the co-operation of the Divine Teacher, or in such a way as to exclude His illuminating presence from the schoolroom. This great recognition resolves that discord in our lives of which most of us are more or less aware. We must think, we must know, we must rejoice in and create the beautiful, and if all the burning thoughts that stir in the minds of men, all the beautiful conceptions they give birth to, are things apart from God, then we too must have a separate life, a life apart from God, a division of ourselves into secular and religious—discord and unrest.[10]

Noice how Bagenal references the teaching power of the Holy Spirit in all learning, sacred and secular, and how this mandates that the educator cooperate with the Holy Spirit.

Bagenal’s reference is also interesting in that she does not call it “Mason’s Great Recognition,” as if it were a great insight, discovery, or eureka moment of Mason. Indeed, Mason does not call it her Great Recognition. Instead, it is “The Great Recognition Required of Parents.”[11] It is a recognition that Mason longs for parents and educators to embrace so that they can teach and educate more effectively.

How does the teacher cooperate with the Holy Spirit? Mason explains in Parents and Children:

Supposing we are willing to make this great recognition, to engage ourselves to accept and invite the daily, hourly, incessant co-operation of the divine Spirit, in, to put it definitely and plainly, the schoolroom work of our children, how must we shape our own conduct to make this co-operation active, or even possible? We are told that the Spirit is life; therefore, that which is dead, dry as dust, mere bare bones, can have no affinity with Him, can do no other than smother and deaden his vitalising influences. A first condition of this vitalising 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 vitalising idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea as upon a peg capable of sustaining all that it is needful to retain.[12]

In the Nicene Creed, which Mason recited every Sunday morning in the Anglican liturgy, we are told that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and giver of Life.”[13] For Mason, to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in education means to cooperate with life. Ideas must be living, books must be living, education must be living.

Where did Mason get the Great Recognition?

There is no doubt that the Great Recognition is foundational to Mason’s theory of education. Indeed, many of her characteristic ideas are tied directly to it. For example, Mason’s doctrine of living books is direct based on the importance of cooperating with the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit.[14] Indeed, after studying chapter 25 of Parents and Children, my friend Aaron Amstutz wrote:

I’m starting to see why Mason had a religious-like zeal for Living Books – for her it was a religious matter. If the Holy Spirit has revealed the truth (in whatever discipline) to a human author, and that author has distilled the idea to the written page with the same level of passion and insight as befitting the revelation; it is through the student’s exposure to that writing that they too can become partakers in the illumination by the same Holy Spirit. Conversely, the obscuring of truth through aimless ramblings could prevent the student from being a partaker in the illuminating ideas in the subject matter.

This also forms the basis for the position that the teacher needs to get out of the way between the literature and the student. The goal was to have a truly spiritual connection between the original revelation of an idea and the acquiring of the idea in the mind of the reader – all mediated by the Holy Spirit.[15]

Mason claimed that all the core ideas of her theory of education were present (in embryonic form at least) in her original 1886 edition of Home Education. In a private letter of February, 1904, she wrote:

But this statement is no new thing. The Society originated in the little manual called “Home Education” which contains the whole in the germ and every succeeding expansion and elucidation has appeared in the Parents review and has for the most part been read at the Annual Conferences of the Union.[16]

So we should expect to find the germ of the Great Recognition in the first edition of Home Education, Mason’s first published volume about her theory of education.

F.D. Maurice
F.D. Maurice

We don’t have to look far. On the very first page – in the Introduction, beginning on page v, Mason quotes Anglican theologian F.D. Maurice. Interestingly, she omits part of the original text in her quotation. Here is the full text. The portions Mason omitted are in blue:

The woman receives, not from her husband, not from her physician, not from her spiritual adviser, not from the books which she consults, — all these may help somewhat, if they do not hinder, — but from the Spirit of God Himself, the intuitions into [the][17] child’s character, the capacity for appreciating its strength and its weakness, the faculty of calling forth the one and sustaining the other, in which lies the mystery of education, apart from which all its rules and measures are utterly vain and ineffectual.[18]

Note that all the elements of the Great Recognition are here. The Holy Spirit is a teacher providing insight into both the sacred and secular matters of education. The mother (the teacher) profits by cooperating with the Spirit. (Note that the opposite of cooperate is hinder – and Maurice points out that some assistance can actually hinder. We will see Mason expand on this topic too.)

So where did Maurice get this idea? Maurice was an extremely prolific writer. In 1859, he published his What is Revelation? Series of Sermons on the Epiphany. Did Mason read this particular book? I don’t know. But she did quote Maurice’s other work, and refer to him as “a wise teacher of men.”[19] What is Revelation? Series of Sermons on the Epiphany contains a deep exploration into divine revelation, which Maurice took to be personal:

They have believed that when He described the Comforter whom He would send from the Father, as the Spirit of Truth, He was not speaking of a relation, or of a property of their conceptions, but of a living and personal Teacher and Guide.[20]

In this passage, Maurice references the Gospel of St. John, a sacred book that was a special favorite among Victorian Anglicans. Maurice believed that divine revelation extended beyond the sacred sphere and into the secular. For example, he writes:

It is to the spirit within that God makes any of His discoveries. Only with this spirit can a man seize any truth, or enter into communion with it. Newton might have seen a thousand apples fall from the trees on which they hung; there was one which led him to perceive the law of the universe. The object that was presented to his outward eye became the instrument through which an idea was presented to the man himself. A universal truth shone through that special instance. His devout and humble mind would have acknowledged at once that God had led him to the one through the other.[21]

Notice how Maurice insists that God revealed a law of the universe (a secular truth) to Newton’s spirit (mind). Note also that Maurice refers to it as an “idea,” a term which Mason uses to describe one of the three instruments of education (“the presentation of living ideas”).

Mason also uses the term “living idea” in her 1886 Home Education:

Parents do not always consider how far a word of interest from them goes to convert the dead words of a lesson into a living idea, never to be lost; and there is no excuse left for getting rusty in these days of many books.[22]

In order for education to cooperate with the Lord and giver of life, according to Mason, the ideas must be alive. It is the Great Recognition.


Buoyed by the overwhelming success of Home Education, Mason capitalized on the interest to form the Parents’ Educational Union, the forerunner of the P.N.E.U. Mason drew up a “Draft-proof” which defined her vision for the organization in the form of a “syllabus.” Elsie Kitching wrote of this syllabus:

The central principles and the objects are there almost intact and the syllabus contains in germ almost every detail of the work as now carried on.[23]

We should expect to find the germ of the Great Recognition in this document as well – and we do:

With deep reverence be it said that the Holy Spirit Himself, the Lord and Giver of Life, when he undertakes the education of a human being, operates according to law, works out those very principles of education which are proposed to parents, in fact, plays the part of parent to the willing and obedient soul.[24]

In this sentence authored by Mason, she refers to the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit – He “undertakes the education of a human being.” And He does so in accord with His nature as “the Lord and Giver of Life,” a direct but unreferenced quote from the Nicene Creed. And yet where is the sense of cooperation? How does the educator cooperate with the Holy Spirit? The answer for Mason begins to emerge more clearly within two years.


Archdeacon Blunt
Archdeacon Blunt

The December, 1890 edition of The Parents’ Review includes an extremely important article by Richard Frederick Lefevre Blunt. In this article by an Archdeacon of the Anglican Church, a respected theologian exposits step-by-step the “code of education” found by Mason in the Holy Gospels. Following Mason’s lead from the 1886 Home Education, he revisits Christ’s commands, “Take heed that ye OFFEND not—DESPISE not—HINDER not—one of these little ones.”[25] But Blunt carries one implication of this code slightly father than Mason. He says that educators must cooperate with the Holy Spirit:

What suggestions may be offered respecting that training which best may co-operate with the Holy Spirit within them?

Reason, affections, conscience, will, must each be trained, with the conviction that God is Himself engaged in the same education and that God bids us work with Him, bids us love His children as He loves them.[26]

By the next page, Blunt points out that the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit includes the intellect as well as the spirit:

This training of the mental faculties will be carried on patiently and wisely with the deep conviction that the reason is the sphere of the Holy Spirit’s work, as well as the spirit.[27]

Blunt here prefigures the Great Recognition, and even Mason’s twentieth principle (“We should allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children; but should 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.”)

Also in 1890, Mason first references Coleridge’s The Science of Method. She quotes him in an article about architecture:

But subordination necessarily arises among the different branches of knowledge, according to the difference of those ideas by which they are initiated and directed.[28]

She will return to Coleridge’s The Science of Method the following year.


S.T. Coleridge

In February of 1891, Mason begins to lay out a Scriptural basis for her belief in the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. She quoted Maurice in 1886 and made a statement in the Draft-Proof. But why should anyone believe that the Holy Spirit really “undertakes the education of a human being”? She now attempts to establish this claim on the basis of Scripture, with her first reference to Isaiah 28:24-26. And she links this passage to Coleridge’s The Science of Method: [29]

[Coleridge] gives us an illustration of the rise and progress of an idea: — ‘… How many such instances occur in history, when 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!’

… and 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…[30]

Firmly supported now by Isaiah and Coleridge, Mason the following month explores the aspect of cooperation. If the Holy Spirit is the educator, as Isaiah preaches, then how do educators cooperate with Him? Going beyond Blunt’s article of the previous year, Mason writes:

The whole tendency of modern biological thought is to confirm the teaching of the Bible: the ideas which quicken come from above… All our teaching of children should be given reverently, with the humble sense that we are invited in this matter to co-operate with the Holy Spirit; but it should be given dutifully and diligently, with the awful sense that our co-operation would appear to be made a condition of the divine action; that the Saviour of the world pleads with us to ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me,’ as if we had the power to hinder, as we know that we have.[31]

Mason echoes the “code of education in the Gospels.” Jesus said, “HINDER not.” That is why the Great Recognition is so important to Mason: the teacher either cooperates … or hinders.


In 1892, Mason ties all the threads together and gives it a brand new name: the Great Recognition. Here we have the all the elements: sacred and secular, cooperation, Coleridge, and Isaiah:

… here is the great recognition which the educator is called upon to make. God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself the supreme Educator of mankind

Are the ideas suggested by the Holy Spirit confined to the sphere of the religious life?

No; Coleridge, speaking of Columbus and the discovery of America, ascribes the origin of great inventions and discoveries to the fact that ‘certain ideas of the natural world are presented to minds, already prepared to receive them, by a higher Power than Nature herself.’

Is there any teaching in the Bible to support this view?

Yes; very much. Isaiah, for example, says that the ploughman knows how to carry on the successive operations of husbandry, ‘for his God doth instruct him and doth teach him.’ …

What practical bearing upon the educator has this doctrine of ideas?

… above all, he recognises the divine co-operation in the direction, teaching, and training of the child.[32]

Once articulated in 1892, the Great Recognition itself remains the same in Mason’s later writings.


John Ruskin
John Ruskin

In the spring of 1894, Mason made an extended visit to “Italy with Mrs. Firth and her daughter.”[33] Her travels in Italy took her to Florence. Perhaps she took the train to the Santa Maria Novella station. If she did, then it was a short walk for her to the Santa Maria Novella church complex, and to the Spanish Chapel within. And there, with John Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence in hand, she saw The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas for the very first time. She saw the towering figure of St. Thomas Aquinas in the center. And she read Ruskin’s words:

Under these are the great prophets and apostles; on the left, David, St. Paul, St. Mark, St. John; on the right, St. Matthew, St. Luke, Moses, Isaiah, Solomon. In the midst of the Evangelists, St. Thomas Aquinas, seated on a Gothic throne.

Something must have stirred in Mason’s mind as she observed the fresco and read Ruskin’s words. She must have seen a connection to her prior work on the Holy Spirit and the theology of learning. But Thomas Aquinas apparently did not leave an impression – as she would never, ever mention his name in her writings.


More than a year after her trip to Florence, Mason first published an article about the fresco. She did not use the term Great Recognition. Why not? Had she not yet seen the link between the concept of the fresco and her 1892 article? Here is the entirety of what she wrote in late 1895:

This idea of all education springing from and resting upon our relation to Almighty God is one which we of the P.N.E.U. have ever laboured to enforce. We take a very distinct stand upon this point. We do not give a religious education, because that would seem to imply the possibility of some other education, a secular education, for example. But we hold that all education is divine, that every good gift of knowledge and insight comes from above, that the Lord the Holy Spirit is the supreme educator of mankind, and that the culmination of all education (which may, at the same time, be reached by a little child) is that personal knowledge of and intimacy with the Supreme, in which our being finds its fullest perfection. We hold, in fact, that noble conception of education held by the mediaeval church, as pictured upon the walls of the Spanish chapel in Florence. Here we have represented the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Twelve, and directly under them, fully under the illuminating rays, are the noble figures of the seven liberal arts, Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Music, Astronomy, Geometry, Arithmetic, and under these again the men who received and expressed, so far as we know, the initial idea in each of these subjects; such men as Pythagoras, Zoroaster, Euclid, whom we might call pagans, but whom the earlier church recognised as divinely taught and illuminated.[34]

The passage mentions two of the three elements of the Great Recognition: (1) the Holy Spirit as teacher (2) of all subjects, sacred and secular. But she does not mention cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that is why she did not use the term Great Recognition.


But that would change in 1896. In March issue of the Parents’ Review, Mason published an article and actually entitled it “The Great Recognition.” This article would later appear as Chapter 25 of Parents and Children. The structure of this article is as follows:

Paragraph 1 Introduces Ruskin as a commentator on frescoes in the Spanish Chapel in Florence.
Paragraphs 2-4 Extended narration of Ruskin, along with quotations from his Mornings in Florence. In these paragraphs, Mason lists no fewer than thirty figures in the fresco by name or by category, but astonishingly does not name the largest figure of all. For some reason she does not quote Ruskin, who does mention Aquinas by name.
Paragraph 5 Compares three views of education:

1.     The prevailing view of Mason’s day, where education was divided between secular and religious.

2.     The Great Recognition view, in which we can “conceive of the divine teaching as co-operating with ours in a child’s arithmetic lesson.”[35]

3.     The “Florentine” view, which “went further than this.”

Paragraph 6 Precedents noted for the Florentine view:

·      Plato

·      Ancient Egypt

·      Scripture: 1 Chronicles 28:11-12, Isaiah 28:26-29

Paragraph 7 Strong statements about cooperating with (or hindering) the Holy Spirit:

·      The mother’s key: “the divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child.”[36]

·      “Let the mother wrap the thought as an illuminated scroll round her new-born child, and let her never contemplate any kind of instruction for her child, except under the sense of the divine co-operation.”[37]

·      “… grammar, for example, may be taught in such a way as to invite and obtain the co-operation of the Divine Teacher, or in such a way as to exclude His illuminating presence from the schoolroom.”[38]

·      “Such teaching as enwraps a child’s mind in folds of many words, which his thought is unable to penetrate, which gives him rules, and definitions, and tables in lieu of ideas – this is teaching which excludes and renders impossible the divine co-operation.”

Paragraphs 8-9 Insights into dualism:

·      The terrible consequences of dualism which result from separating the secular from the sacred.

·      The importance of understanding the body-spirit unity in secular as well as sacred contexts.

Paragraphs 10-11 The theological basis for a living education. Mason extends the implications to:

·      Living thoughts instead of facts (no rote memorization of facts!)

·      Living books for geography

·      Living books for history

·      Music instruction without drudgery

·      “… every subject, every division of a subject, every lesson, in fact, must be brought up for examination before it is offered to the child as to whether it is living, vital, of a nature to invite the living Intellect of the universe.”[39]

The important thing to understand is that the content of paragraphs 7-11 are not drawn from the fresco. There is nothing in the fresco about the mother’s key, living ideas, or living books. Mason only attributed the following to the Florentines:

But the Florentine mind of the middle ages went further than this: it believed not only that the seven Liberal Arts were fully under the direct out-pouring of the Holy Ghost, but that every fruitful idea, every original conception, whether in Euclid, or grammar, or music, was a direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit, without any thought at all as to whether the person so inspired named himself by the name of God, or recognised whence his inspiration came.[40]

She does not attribute to the Florentines the emphasis on cooperation with the Holy Spirit, or the idea that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life. Why not? Because she had already conceived of a living education and had articulated the Great Recognition by 1892. In short, she used the fresco as a visual illustration of two aspects of the Great Recognition – the Holy Spirit is the supreme educator in matters natural and spiritual – but she developed the mother’s key on her own.


Mason continues to mention the fresco from time to time in her later writings. One important example is in the April, 1914 issue of The Parents’ Review. This article is interesting because she conjectures as to the source of the Florentine concept of the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. She writes:

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 painted by Simoni Memmi and Taddeo Gaddi (which Ruskin has taught us to know), and implied in “The Adoration of the Lamb” painted by the two Van Eycks.[41]

Mason theorizes that the Florentines derived this idea from the Scriptures (such as the prophet Isaiah), rather than from the classical Greeks. And still, twenty years after her trip to Florence, there is no mention of Aquinas.

The Striking Omission

Now that we have surveyed the history of the Great Recognition, we can return to our question. The “educational creed” of the House of Education is a fresco entitled The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas in which the largest figure is Thomas Aquinas himself. Why, then, does Mason never mention Aquinas in her writings?

Dr. Benjamin Bernier
Dr. Benjamin Bernier

Dr. Benjamin Bernier, the leading interpreter of Mason’s philosophy and theology, offers an answer:

It should be noted that one aspect of the picture which neither Ruskin nor Mason cares to pay much attention to is the prominent position and size of the figure of St. Thomas placed at the centre, which when factored into the whole explains why this picture is referred today as ‘The Triumph of St. Thomas’ and not as the ‘Descent of the Holy Spirit’ or the ‘Great Recognition’. The centred position, the relative size and the quotation in St. Thomas’ hand, can be read to express the Dominican perspective concerning the authority of Thomism. It would then portray the triumph of the whole Roman Catholic medieval system of dogmatic theology sitting under divine inspiration, in triumph over every other source of knowledge. Then submission to the authoritative teaching of the Church would become the vehicle for its interpretation harmonizing the whole by the unique wisdom of God given through the dogmatic teaching of St. Thomas as Doctor of the Roman Church. From this point of view the picture would present a quite different system of education from Ruskin’s interpretation which Mason so willingly embraced, reading into it the ideal of a liberal education providing grounds for freedom of enquiry, while the other would provide grounds for the regulation of this principle in submission to the dogmatic teaching authority of the Church.

Nevertheless, regardless of this anachronism, Mason promoted Ruskin’s liberal interpretation of this picture as a revelation which provided her general scheme for a universal and liberal education, a means of reconciliation of its inner personal evangelical spiritual roots with its outer universal scope, harmonizing the demands of a personal commitment to dogmatic truth with the freedom of conscience to investigate all knowledge upon the basis of faith in the sacredness and universality of all knowledge and truth.

In other words, Mason’s use of the fresco is highly selective. She is not buying into the whole system. She is merely using it as a vehicle to explain a particular element of her distinctive and evangelical theory of education. The historical record I have outlined above strongly supports Bernier’s interpretation.

Two Narratives

Two narratives exist which explain the relevance of the fresco to those interested in Charlotte Mason’s theory of education today. One narrative says that Mason conceived of a living education which requires a Great Recognition from parents. She later chose the Florentine fresco as an illustration of one key element of the Great Recognition: the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit in things natural and spiritual.

The other narrative says that Mason found in the fresco itself a complete system of education, and she wished to restore that classical model of education in her contemporary context. This narrative would suggest that a study of Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy of education would provide insight into Mason’s theory of education. The problem with the second narrative, according to Bernier, is that when applied consistently, it ends quite literally with the triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas – a position which leaves little room for believers who do not embrace the full system of Thomistic metaphysics, philosophy, and theology.

An Example

But the second narrative also leads to errors of interpretation. In the interest of space, I will list only one. Suppose a Charlotte Mason educator studies Thomas Aquinas in an attempt to better understand Mason’s ideas. Suppose this educator discovers Aquinas’ teaching about faculty theology.[42] The educator assumes that Mason adopted this idea since she loved the fresco and the fresco portrays Aquinas and his system. The educator might further note that Aquinas’ faculty psychology was alive and well in Mason’s day:

In the nineteenth-century, many educators subscribed to the view that certain subject matters were valuable in disciplining the mind. These advocates of “faculty psychology” asserted that such subjects as mathematics, Latin, Greek, and logic were potent instruments for exercising and developing certain mental powers, or faculties, such as memory or reasoning.[43]

The educator would see the resemblance between this concept and contemporary Christian Classical Education (CCE) theory. For example, David Hicks writes:

The study of mathematics, the ancients believed, reinforces the mind’s powers of concentration, memory, and logical process.[44]

The educator would then feel on solid ground indeed. Here is a truly classical idea, found in the ancients, in Aquinas, in nineteenth century educators, and then (surely?) Mason as well.

The problem is that Mason taught just the opposite:

Specialists, on the other hand, are apt to attach too much importance to the several exercise of the mental ‘faculties.’ We come across books on teaching, with lessons elaborately drawn up, in which certain work is assigned to the perceptive faculties, certain work to the imagination, to the judgment, and so on. Now this doctrine of the faculties, which rests on a false analogy between the mind and the body, is on its way to the limbo where the phrenologist’s ‘bumps’ now rest in peace. The mind would appear to be one and indivisible, and endowed with manifold powers; and this sort of doctoring of the material of knowledge is unnecessary for the healthy child, whose mind is capable of self-direction, and of applying itself to its proper work upon the parcel of knowledge delivered to it. Almost any subject which common sense points out as suitable for the instruction of children will afford exercise for all their powers, if properly presented.[45]

For Mason, we don’t train the intellect. Rather, we feed the child. In 1940, Elsie Kitching wrote:

[Mason’s] conception [of education] is derived from ‘educāre’, meaning to feed, to nourish, not from ‘educēre,’ meaning to draw out, and upon this she has set forth her educational philosophy, and it concerns each of us in so far as we retain the inheritance of our childhood.[46]

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying not to read Thomas Aquinas. I am not saying not to study the Dominican fresco. I am not even saying that Mason is wiser or smarter than Thomas Aquinas or anyone else. All I am saying is that if you want to understand Mason’s theory of education, read Mason. If you want to understand classical education, read Aquinas. Strive to understand deeply the differences between their two respective systems of education. And then make your own choice between educāre and educēre. For what it’s worth, I’ve made mine.


[1] Maurice, F.D., What is Revelation? A Series of Sermons on the Epiphany, p. 348

[2] Parents’ Review, volume 25, p. 271

[3] Parents’ Review, volume 14 p. 961

[4] Parents’ Review, volume 3, p. 357

[5] Parents’ Review, volume 3, p. 357

[6] Parents’ Review, volume 3, p. 358

[7] Parents’ Review, volume 3, p. 357

[8] Parents and Children, p. 245

[9] Parents’ Review, volume 3, p. 357

[10] Parents’ Review, volume 10, p. 358

[11] Parents and Children, p. 268

[12] Parents and Children, p. 277

[13] Book of Common Prayer, 1662

[14] See Parents and Children, chapter 25.

[15] Facebook

[16] i68p2cmc393

[17] Maurice has “her,” but Mason changes it to “the”

[18] Maurice, F.D., Lectures to Ladies on Practical Subjects, p. 8 (1855), quoted in Home Education, pp. v-vi (1886)

[19] Home Education, p. v (1886)

[20] Maurice, F.D., What is Revelation? A Series of Sermons on the Epiphany, p. 348

[21] Maurice, F.D., What is Revelation? Series of Sermons on the Epiphany, p. 2

[22] Home Education, p. 217 (1886)

[23] Parents’ Review, vol. 34, p. 391

[24] Draft-Proof, quoted in Parents’ Review, vol. 34, p. 399

[25] Home Education, p. 9 (1886)

[26] Parents’ Review, vol. 1, p. 726

[27] Parents’ Review, vol. 1, p. 727

[28] Parents’ Review, vol. 1, p. 60

[29] Coleridge himself does not mention the Isaiah passage.

[30] Parents’ Review, vol. 2, pp. 41-42

[31] Parents’ Review, vol. 2, pp. 143-144

[32] The Parents’ Review, 357-358

[33] Cholmondeley, Essex, The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 49

[34] Parents’ Review, vol. 5, pp. 925-926

[35] Parents’ Review, vol. 7, p. 53

[36] Parents’ Review, vol. 7, p. 55

[37] Parents’ Review, vol. 7, p. 56

[38] Parents’ Review, vol. 7, p. 56

[39] Parents’ Review, vol. 7, p. 59

[40] Parents’ Review, vol. 7, p. 54

[41] Parents’ Review, vol. 25, p. 271


[43] Gutek, Gerald L, A History of the Western Educational Experience (Page 309).

[44] Hicks, David. Norms & Nobility, p. 143

[45] Home Education, pp. 127-128 (1886)

[46] Parents’ Review, vol. 51, p. 180

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