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    Educational Philosophy

    Charlotte Mason and Suggestion

    April 6, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

    There are a few words that Miss Mason uses in her volumes that, when I read them, my instincts tell me are not being used in the same way we use them now. Among the words that have puzzled me has been “suggestion.” In her fourth principle of education, she writes:

    These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.

    Charlotte Mason and Suggestion

    Both suggestion as well as influence have I considered over these years of reading. Influence became more clear when I considered the writing of books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which first appeared in 1937, not even 15 years after the publication of Miss Mason’s final volume (in which this principle appeared). Moreover, I read that there was a belief around this time that people had the responsibility to influence those around them.

    In spite of this, my understanding remains rather limited and vague.

    And so it has been with suggestion. My thought upon my first reading was to question why it would be wrong to suggest something to someone, even to a child?

    Well, because perhaps the word doesn’t mean what I think it means.

    I was proofreading the Parents’ Review article Morals in the Home, when this jumped out at me:

    The analogy between suggestion and instinct he was probably the first to point out. Suggestion resembles instinct because it induces a consciousness of obligation, the feeling in the mind of the patient that he is compelled to do the act suggested. Suggestion in the hypnotic sleep is powerful because the mind is in a state of disaggregation. Education is powerful in the case of the young because the mind is rudimentary.”Suggestion is the transformation by which an organism more passive tends to bring itself into harmony with an organism more active; the latter dominates the former and eventually controls its external movements, its volitions, and its internal convictions.” It is the application of this notion to morality that makes this volume of unusual professional interest.

    Suggestion is an instrument by which the educator will be able to modify instinct of inherited habits.

    So first we see that suggestion here means — and very likely means in Miss Mason’s principle above — something like hypnotic suggestion rather than that noncommittal sort of suggestion we talk about today. And, like hypnotic suggestion, this sort of suggestion has a force of power far superior to our plain old suggestion in modern culture.

    It is interesting to me that the article here, which Miss Mason included in the Parents’ Review, seems to be in favor of suggestion, while we know from her principles that she rejected suggestion as an educational tool, way back in her very first volume. The prohibition against suggestion wasn’t something she added into her later volumes.

    Why would this sort of dissenting opinion be included? Well, I can only say that Miss Mason really did seem to learn from everyone and everything around her. While many would expect a magazine edited by Mason to be guided strictly by her philosophy, I have only read a small portion of the Parents Review article thus far, and yet have seen a much broader variety than I expected — articles in favor of classical schools teaching almost only Greek or Latin, or written by a disciple of Froebel, to name a couple.

    But I digress.

    In short, I think that we can consider Charlotte Mason’s prohibition of suggestion to be a prohibition of a subtle sort of manipulation.

    ‘Suggestion’ goes to work more subtly. The teacher has mastered the gamut of motives which play upon human nature and every suggestion is aimed at one or other of these. He may not use the nursery suggestions of lollipops or bogies but he does in reality employ these if expressed in more spiritual values, suggestions subtly applied to the idiosyncrasies of a given child. ‘Suggestion’ is too subtle to be illustrated with advantage: Dr. Stephen Paget holds that it should be used only as a surgeon uses an anesthetic; but it is an instrument easy to handle, and unconsidered suggestion plays on a child’s mind as the winds on a weathercock.

    Vol. 6, Chapter 5

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  • Reply NICOLE MARIE COX January 13, 2023 at 5:40 am

    We’re discussing this principle tonight with your guide, and I was also a bit perplexed as I read the passage in Vol. 6, so I was glad to find the link to this article in the guide.
    “Bribery” was the first thought that came to my mind, when she mentioned lollipops etc; the sort of thing that is distinct from reward because it contains that inexorable obligation to it, and thus, diminishes the will of the child. In the context of what Mason is discussing, about what tools we must not use to motivate learning, I think it starts to make more sense: if children are only learning to get the lollipop, the grade, the smile of approbation, the approval and human respect, then they aren’t seeking knowledge for its own sake. So it seems to be an extension of manipulation, much like bribery is, but this time a manipulation of the child’s thought perhaps more than emotions.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 16, 2023 at 9:31 am

      YES! All that she forbids boils down to forms of manipulation. You have it exactly! ♥

  • Reply Luci June 16, 2021 at 7:27 pm

    So glad to have found this article & its comments (after many years pining for the very examples she says are not useful! lol)

    As an aside… I’d query whether “the prohibition against suggestion wasn’t something she added into her later volumes” – it is definitely in Vol 6.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 18, 2021 at 4:25 pm

      I suppose I could have worded that better. What I meant was that it wasn’t an afterthought that came in later volumes, but had always been listed in her forbidden tools.

      • Reply Luci June 20, 2021 at 8:49 pm

        My mistake! (and it seems so Captain Obvious now.)

        • Reply Brandy Vencel June 21, 2021 at 8:53 am

          Ha! Well honestly, once you said something I realized how easily it could be read that way!

  • Reply Claire September 1, 2020 at 3:15 pm

    I think the chapter of Wind in the Willows where the Sea Rat tries to entice Ratty away from his River shows an example of this type of suggestion

  • Reply Katie November 12, 2019 at 3:33 am

    In this context (‘suggestion and influence’), I read ‘suggestion’ to mean something more like sleight of hand. The way that a phrase may be ‘suggestive’, which is much subtler than making a suggestion.

    The phrase ‘can I make a suggestion?’ can be very different to the phrase ‘may I _suggest_ you do x’ – this could be a British thing, we’re very good at politely insisting (it’s all in the tone of voice :)).

    So, an example of using ‘suggestion and influence’ would be saying things like ‘of course it’s totally up to you, but a good little girl would tidy up her things…’. It’s manipulation dressed up as choice.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 13, 2019 at 5:02 pm

      Ooh! “Manipulation dressed up as choice” is a great phrase. I’ve seen something similar using affection: “If you really loved Mommy you would …”

      I really wouldn’t have thought of the hypnosis connection had the Parents’ Review not brought it up. After that, I realized how into mind control the Victorians had been!

  • Reply Melissa D June 22, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    I think she’s using “suggestion” here as the antithesis of the “I can– I ought– I will”. In other words, by resorting to a sort of vague inexorability in the power of suggestion, we’d be hampering the moral growth of a child.

    And if you remember the widespread Victorian fascination with spiritualism and mesmerism, the phrase “power of suggestion” feels much more diabolical in their usage.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 22, 2015 at 3:23 pm

      Ooh! I like you thought about it being the antithesis of the “I can …” motto! That is brilliant!

  • Reply walking April 7, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    I have interpreted suggestion as being when the child has little choice in the matter (do or else) such as when taking advantage due to one’s power over the child. Bearing in mind the chapter on masterly inactivity and the rights of a child in Volume 3 also helps me make a distinction.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 8, 2013 at 3:53 pm

      I think you’re exactly right and now that I’m starting to understand I’m wondering why this word has tripped me up in her writings and the only conclusion I can come to was that my little world didn’t have a place in it for a “suggestion” that wasn’t truly a “suggestion”–meaning a sort of counsel that someone had the right to accept or reject as they wished.

  • Reply Dawn April 7, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Thank you for writing this, Brandy. This has often caused me to scratch my head a bit, too. The idea that the terminology means different things stimulated a lightbulb moment for me.

  • Reply Rebekah April 6, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    Brings to mind the movie Inception in which, “DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a thief who commits corporate espionage by infiltrating the subconscious of his targets. He is offered a chance to regain his old life as payment for a task considered to be impossible: “inception”, the implantation of another person’s idea into a target’s subconscious.[6]”

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 8, 2013 at 3:51 pm

      Now *that* is a great connection to make! I think I need to watch that movie again. 🙂

    • Reply Rebekah April 8, 2013 at 7:56 pm

      Now that I’ve read more on Common Core and this article on suggestion I’m even more inclined to apply the concept from the Inception movie to what Common Core is really about. Scary stuff.

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