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    The DtK Book Club: In Defense of Ideas a la Charlotte Mason

    January 14, 2014 by Brandy Vencel

    I think, before this club goes any farther, a fair hashing out of education’s relationship to ideas is in order. Why? Well, because while our man Smith is saying things like:

    [E]ducational strategies that traffic only in ideas often fail to actually educate; that is, they fail to form people. Given this link between formation and embodiment, we might say that education is a “meatier” task than we often assume. {p. 40}

    And, in reference to the Cartesian blunder into man-as-thinking-thing, thus describes the resulting educational pedagogy:

    As such, what nourishes or fuels the “I” is a steady diet of ideas, fed somewhat intravenously into the mind through the lines of propositions and information. {p. 42}

    While our dear friend Charlotte, in her eighth principle says:

    The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.

    I admit that, on the surface, Smith and Mason seem to be in direct tension.

    What would you say if I told you that I think they are in agreement? Oh, perhaps not complete agreement, but more in agreement than not?

    If that makes sense.

    What Smith Means by Ideas

    Smith is spending much more time defining the person, rather than ideas, whereas with Miss Mason, it’s somewhat the other way around. She starts with “children are born persons” and expects you to know exactly what she means. But with ideas she takes some pains.

    Smith does give us some hints as to what he’s talking about when he uses the word “ideas.” First, he says that, whatever they are, they fail to form. That is clue number one. Second, he says that they are “fed into the mind through the lines of propositions and information.”

    The irony is that Miss Mason began to pursue her philosophy of education because she found that education in her country was not properly forming. We see this throughout her sixth and final volume. This is why she says things like:

    The shallow child guesses the riddle and scores; and it is by the use of tests of this king that we turn out young people sharp as needles but with no power of reflection, no intelligent interests, nothing but the aptness of the city gamin. {Vol. 6, p. 55}

    Miss Mason believed that her philosophy resulted in an education that was forming. Formation was its goal. And a major aspect of this was to feed the mind ideas. Many good, true, and beautiful ideas.

    But ideas in Charlotte Mason’s economy have very little to do with propositions and information — those things are somewhat incidental. This is why, in her eleventh principle, she makes a distinction between facts and ideas:

    [A]ll knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas…

    Also here:

    The mind is restricted to pabulum of one kind: it is nourished upon ideas and absorbs facts only as these are connected with the living ideas upon which they hang. {Vol. 6, p. 20}

    In a PNEU classroom, ideas were not presented through propositions. Her students did not mindlessly rattle off memorized facts, though their grasp of facts was often quite astounding. Ideas were delivered through story:

    What suits him best is pabulum presented in the indirect literary form which Our Lord adopts in those wonderful parables whose quality is that they cannot be forgotten though, while every detail of the story is remembered, its application may pass and leave no trace. We, too, must take this risk. {Vol. 6, p. 109}

    Ideas presented in story form — literary form, she calls it over and over — feed the imagination {and did you know that Mason used the phrase moral imagination before Kirk?}:

    Supply a boy with abundant mental pabulum, not in the way of desultory reading, {that is a sort of idleness which leads to mischief}, but in the way of matter to be definitely known, give him much and sound food for his imagination, speculation, aspiration, and you have a wholesome-minded youth to whom work is a joy and games not a strain but a healthy relaxation and pleasure. {Vol. 6, p 189}

    How Miss Mason Defines Ideas

    The problem we’re now going to run into is that, though I think that Smith and Mason are aiming at the same goal, they do…well…they do actually have the same definition of ideas in a sense. I know, I know. I just finished trying to convince you that this was not so, but in the interest of full disclosure I must give you this.

    First, Smith:

    We might call this a broadly “rationalist” or “intellectualist” picture of the human person, and it has both a long pedigree {back to Plato}…

    And now, Mason:

    [T]he 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}. {Vol. 6, p. 10}

    Here’s is where two seem to part company, I agree. We can’t get around this one, I don’t think. So what now?

    Well, I’m going to contend that Smith is spreading his tent too wide here. In the world of education, there are those who focus on facts, and there are those who trade in ideas, and only rarely the twain shall meet. Drill and kill learning has a long and deadening history — read more Dickens if you doubt me. And then remember that Dickens chronicled the issues of the era Mason lived, and to which she was responding.

    This is why Mason wrote:

    What is an idea? we ask, and find ourselves plunged beyond our depth. A live thing of the mind, seems to be the conclusion of our greatest thinkers from Plato to Bacon, from Bacon to Coleridge. We all know how an idea ‘strikes,’ ‘seizes,’ ‘catches hold of,’ ‘impresses’ us and at last, if it be big enough, ‘possesses’ us; in a word, behaves like an entity.

    …There is but one sphere in which the word idea never occurs, in which the conception of an idea is curiously absent, and that sphere is education! Look at any publisher’s list of school books and you shall find that the books recommended are carefully dessicated, drained of the least suspicion of an idea, reduced to the driest statements of fact. {Vol. 6, p. 105}

    But then also remember that Mason was not truly inventing her own philosophy of education, but rather compiling — reaching further back into a tradition that formed the person by forming the imagination via the affections. This is the key to understanding why she gets so caught up in the desire for knowledge and the dangers of corrupting this desire — this first-born affinity — through grades and tests and other such nonsense:

    I inferred that one of these, the Desire of Knowledge {Curiosity} was the chief instrument of education; that this desire might be paralysed or made powerless like an unused limb by encouraging other desires to intervene between a child and the knowledge proper for him; the desire for place,––emulation; for prizes,––avarice; for power,––ambition; for praise,––vanity, might each be a stumbling block to him. It seemed to me that we teachers had unconsciously elaborated a system which should secure the discipline of the schools and the eagerness of the scholars,––by means of marks, prizes, and the like,––and yet eliminate that knowledge-hunger, itself the quite sufficient incentive to education. {Vol. 6, p. 11}

    What I’m trying to say here is that I think that Smith has put ideas side by side with facts and then thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

    And yet, in spirit, at least, I contend that Smith and Mason have more agreement than disagreement, which is why I was never once tempted to throw this book across the room at any point during the reading of this section.

    One Last Thing

    At the risk of making a long post longer, I want to tie Smith and Mason together a bit more. If you recall, Mason did not say that education was feeding the mind with ideas, period, end of story. Rather, what she said was:

    [W]e are limited to three educational instruments––the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. The P.N.E.U. Motto is: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”

    By atmosphere, she meant the value of the home, of everyday life, to fit the child for adulthood. Atmosphere is formative. By discipline of habit, she meant the power of habit to produce character, even to the point of counteracting nature. Habit is formative. By life, she meant the life-giving nature of ideas. Ideas are formative. All of these together — founded upon love of God, man, and creation, and of coming to understand — compose a Mason education. I think that is {1} formative and {2} something that wouldn’t be rejected by Smith at the outset.

    Especially since, as we go on, he’s going to tie liturgy…to habit.

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  • Reply Brandy Vencel January 16, 2014 at 4:28 am

    I really think Lisa said it best in her comment on last week’s post when she concluded that we end up realizing over and over how *worth it* it is to read Charlotte because she already pondered the best thoughts many times over! I am so thankful to God for that woman!

  • Reply Dawn January 15, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    I concur with Lisa on this one, Brandy. Once again you were able to reconcile these notions that appear to be conflicting on the surface. I couldn’t wrap my mind about how best to describe it — and now I don’t have to because you’ve done it for me:).

  • Reply Lisa A January 14, 2014 at 8:59 pm

    You always have a way of putting into words what I intuitively, but haven’t verbalize. 🙂

    The thing that’s been running through my head while reading this book has been that Miss Mason spoke of ideas as if they were living and it seems to me that what makes an idea alive is precisely the fact that it can be embodied and come to life, whether in the imagination or in the physical world. And that’s what Smith seems to be taking about when he gets into the idea of the social imaginary and all that.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 15, 2014 at 6:23 pm


      This: “what makes an idea alive is precisely the fact that it can be embodied and come to life, whether in the imagination or in the physical world” was BRILLIANT! Well put!

  • Reply Jen January 14, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    Yes. This. I haven’t gotten around to writing my post yet (we had Sick Kids all weekend, and a deadline looming for some ministry-related business) – but I sort of noticed this tension too and was wondering how to resolve it, or if it would naturally get resolved as I kept reading. I kind of had a feeling it would all come out in the wash….but hadn’t gotten far enough yet into the book to know if that was the case. 🙂

  • Reply Mystie January 14, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    Right! At first it looks like they disagree, but Smith is saying education isn’t *only* ideas (I think he’s countering a Reformed-trend overemphasis on “worldview” which boils everything down to an idea to analyze and debunk), and Mason says ideas is 1/3 of education and her other 2/3 are what Smith is trying to bring back into the picture as well: atmosphere (embodiment) and habit (liturgy).

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