20. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but 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.Charlotte Mason, Volume 6, Preface
I know there are families out there who do what they call a secular version of Charlotte Mason. I have no doubt that their children are receiving a wonderful education. This post is not written to those folks, though I still recommend reading it because I’m talking about an experience that was very formative for Miss Mason.
As a Christian, it is important to me that my children’s education be comprehensively Christian. I don’t mean that we tack Bible study on to the beginning and end of our day and call it good, but that the whole thing, from beginning to end, comes under the authority of Christ.
The irony in all of this is that Miss Mason’s philosophy — though Miss Mason herself declared education to be nothing other than the handmaid of religion — is sometimes accused by Christians of being non-christian, or at least not Christian enough.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of the Christian critics who say this either (1) haven’t read Mason’s original works (a real possibility), or (2) have within themselves the exact separation between intellectual and spiritual life that Mason’s 20th Principle warns us against.
Abraham Kuyper once wrote:
There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’
This is the sort of view Miss Mason prescribes.
Charlotte Mason once experienced what she called a “great recognition” in this regard, and says in her second volume that this same recognition is required of parents. What sparked this great recognition? This moment of awakening? It was a fresco from the Spanish Chapel attached to the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
In chapter 25 of her second volume, Mason quotes John Ruskin’s explanation of the fresco from his book Mornings in Florence.
Beneath the pouring forth of the Holy Spirit in the point of the arch beneath are the three Evangelical Virtues. Without these, says Florence, you can have no science. Without Love, Faith, and Hope — no intelligence. Under these are the four Cardinal Virtues … Temperance, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude. Under these are the great Prophets and Apostles … Under the line of Prophets, as powers summoned by their voices, are the mythic figures of the seven theological or spiritual and the seven geological or natural sciences; and under the feet of each of them the figure of its Captain-teacher to the World.
Miss Mason then takes the pains to describe the figures of the Seven Liberal Arts (which Ruskin calls the “seven geological or natural sciences”) and their Captain-teachers (such as Euclid at the feet of Geometry) in detail. She then concludes:
[H]ere we have the breadth of minds so wide in the sweep of their intelligence, so profound in their insight, that we are almost startled by the perception that, pictured on these walls, we have indeed a true measure of the thoughts of God.Vol. 2, p. 270
In her time, Miss Mason saw an attempt to philosophically mutilate this beautiful Christian vision of learning. It was as our own day, in which a big black marker has drawn a thick dividing line between the level which holds Thomas Aquinas enthroned with the Law, Gospels, and Prophets on either side, and the level which holds the areas of study. These areas of study are all well and good, we say, but what have they to do with God, and what has God to do with them?
This is nothing less than a failure to understand who God is, and what He is like.
Do we really think we would find ourselves studying grammar and arithmetic if such things did not originate in the mind of God Himself? And do we really think we can know anything without His grace giving us the insights we so desperately desire?
Miss Mason goes on:
Many Christian people rise a little higher; they conceive that even grammar and arithmetic may in some not very clear way be used for God; but the great recognition, that God the Holy Spirit is Himself, personally, the Imparter of knowledge, the Instructor of youth, the Inspirer of genius, is a conception so far lost to us that we should think it distinctly irreverent to conceive of the divine teaching as co-operating with ours in a child’s arithmetic lesson, for example.Vol. 2, p. 270
Before we go on, allow me to tell a little story. I’ve been on the lookout for real, well-written science books (living books, not text-books) written by Christians that believe in a literal, physical act of creation on the part of God. You know what? I can’t find what I’m looking for. Now, I’ve had some people tell me that this is because no one could believe that and be a scientist because the science doesn’t hold up. Others have said that it is due to bias — that it’s hard to get a paper peer-reviewed when there is such discrimination against the dissenting view.
I’m going to hypothesize that it’s because we’ve had the dividing line between sacred and secular for too many generations. It is no longer really respectable for a Christian to love science. Christians are supposed to stick to “sacred” subjects like music and theology.
Am I right?
How many schools out there echo the thoughts of the great, God-fearing scientists of the past? Imagine what the world would be like if scientists could say with Johannes Kepler:
I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.
Oh, how far we have fallen from a thoroughly Christian vision of education and of study. We sit around in fear, worrying about the gods in mythology, or the magic in fairy tales, or the mere idea of pagans like Plato or Plutarch possessing any wisdom, because our vision of education is too small, and we fail to see that God has always and ever been upon the throne, and that every word of wisdom echoes His great thoughts, regardless of whether the person speaking them ever recognizes the fact or not.
People have feared that a Charlotte Mason education was not Christian because it did not feel obligated to pin a Bible verse on every single page, while failing to see that her vision of God’s sovereignty was so great that it actually encompassed the whole thing. She could say to her students, “Go. Study math because it is Good. It is Good because God made it and to learn to do math well is to be more like Him.”
“Go. Study grammar. Our great God, whose Son is the Word incarnate, makes sense, and therefore language makes sense. Insomuch as you study grammar, you study the things of God.”
Even grammar is His. There is no square inch that is not His, and the cry of the Christian teacher’s heart is to see Him made known in every inch of the classroom.
Thus was the cry of Miss Mason’s heart.
[T]he Florentine mind of the Middle Ages went further than this: it believed, not only that the seven Liberal Arts were fully under the direct outpouring 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. All of these seven figures are those of persons whom we should roughly class as pagans, and whom we might be lightly inclined to consider as outside the pale of the divine inspiration. It is truly difficult to grasp the amazing boldness of this scheme of the education of the world which Florence accepted in simple faith.Vol. 2, p. 271
But Miss Mason does not stop there (though admittedly this alone was enough for me). She goes on to say that the Holy Spirit can help a child in his study, that the Holy Spirit has a daily interest in the growth of the child, that His activity is not relegated to a few great preachers or missionaries or to some “spiritual” area of life, as if all of life were not lived in a united whole.
In the things of science, in the things of art, in the things of practical everyday life, his God doth instruct him and doth teach him, her God doth instruct her and doth teach her. Let this be the mother’s key to the whole of the education of each boy and each girl; not of her children; the Divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child …Parents and Children, p. 273
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.
This has great implications for the teacher. Not only is there no division among subjects, there is no division among teachers. There is One Teacher, at Whose feet we all must sit. This vision of teaching is so humble, and it tells us that the prayer of the teacher can be one of real faith in God’s real activity and interest in this child, right here — in this classroom, right here — in this subject, right here. We do not have to wait for Bible time for God to come down and teach us great things.
This is the most important lesson of all.
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