All posts by Karen Glass

Would Charlotte ask us to “say Shibboleth?”


Read, or listen!


Do you know what a shibboleth is? Can you say the word?

There was a time and a place where it might have meant the difference between life and death. Every language does not contain every sound, and if you don’t learn to make some sounds as a child, it can be difficult to acquire them later. I know Americans who can’t roll their Rs, and where I live, there is no “th” sound. These differences can give you away. If there were a war, and you captured someone, but weren’t quite sure if they belonged to the enemy side or not, you could ask them to say a test word containing the tricky sound. There is a pretty good chance they wouldn’t get it out quite correctly, and then you’d know. Friend—or foe. Shibboleth was a matter of life or death, as you can read in Judges chapter 12:4-6:

Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan.

They spoke the same language, but the Ephraimites had an accent, and they just couldn’t get that “sh” sound out right. It gave them away every time. If you can’t quite get the sound of Shibboleth correct, you don’t have to worry. No one is going to slay you in the passages of Jordan today.


The word shibboleth entered the English language. No one literally has to pronounce “shibboleth,” but one may be expected to adhere to a custom or profess an opinion. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a shibboleth is “a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning.”

The way it works is not that different from what happened in Judges. The adherents of a party, sect, or belief use their shibboleth as a benchmark. It’s not that you have to speak a particular word, but you do have to toe the party line. It’s a test. Do you agree? If you do, they let you in to the gang. If you don’t proclaim the shibboleth properly, out you go. You won’t be killed, but you aren’t welcome.

You may be wondering, “What on earth does this have to do with education or Charlotte Mason?” I’m glad you asked.

Charlotte Mason was not a fan of shibboleths, and I am understating the case. Her associate, Elsie Kitching, used the word “dread” to describe her feelings about them. What was she so afraid of? The Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU) had come into being because of her educational ideas, expressed in a series of lectures that were published as Home Education. But Charlotte Mason considered that society a living, vital source of continued thought and growth. She also knew that the exact needs of parents in one place might not be the same as the exact needs of parents elsewhere. It was important to her that the various branches of the PNEU be allowed to meet and discuss topics that would foster thought and action based upon ideas. It was not a requirement that everyone agree about everything, and the various articles that appeared in The Parents’ Review made that clear. And it was fine with Charlotte Mason. When she knew there was a difference of opinion, as the editor, she would add a note to the end of an article, “Discussion is invited.” She was willing to hear various points of view, and to allow others to hear them as well.

The enthusiasm and vitality of the P.N.E.U. branches gave Charlotte the greatest encouragement. She valued their local independence and initiative. (The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondeley, p. 31)

We read that “each local branch was left free to organize itself” and “a broad unifying basis of thought supported the whole union.” (SOCM, p. 42)

We aren’t left in doubt about what that unifying basis was, either.

Charlotte Mason describes the basis of thought behind the union as a tentative effort in education “having more or less the characteristic of a philosophy; notably having a central idea, a body of thought with various members working in vital harmony.” (SOCM, p. 42) And yes, that’s why I borrowed the phrase as the title of my most recent book.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what Charlotte Mason’s attitude might be toward the various groups that have grown up over the last twenty-odd years that put her name to their work. I have been a part of such groups—for example, the curriculum project that is AmblesideOnline. If a group adheres to the central body of thought, do you think she’d mind if they add “Charlotte Mason” to their name?

One cannot say for sure, although she made a special effort to avoid having the work of the PNEU associated with any particular names (there were members who wanted to say, for example, that the PNEU was following the thought of Froebel or Pestalozzi). She didn’t refuse to have their names attached to the PNEU because she necessarily disagreed with them. Her concern was to avoid the hindrances associated with a name, because any single person’s teaching would limit their scope of endeavors. She resisted attaching any name to the PNEU, including her own, and she got her way. Charlotte Mason reiterated that at the very founding of the union:

…care was taken to avoid limitations which would hinder the advance of science; especially that most serious of all hindrances, the docketing [of] the union with any given name or names. (SOCM, p. 53)

And she went on to tell us why:

The moment [education] frames a stereotyped creed represented by any given name or names of the past or present, she becomes formal and mechanical rather than spontaneous and living. The effort to define or limit in matters too broad and deep to be expressed in a definition or represented by a name is the history of all division whether in religion or education. (SOCM, p. 54, emphasis added)

If you have read even a little of Charlotte Mason’s own writing, you have probably encountered the idea that formal, mechanical systems were to be abhorred. One of her principles is that “education is a life,” and life is hindered and cramped by systems. The use of her own name is no safeguard against allowing her ideas to be confined to something “formal and mechanical.” The very act of putting a given name to educational ideas limits it to a “stereotyped creed.” There is no room for growth, and the life of the ideas may be snuffed out by confinement.

If you consider how Charlotte Mason felt about systems, can you begin to comprehend why she might have dreaded shibboleths? She didn’t like the idea of limiting education too narrowly, and she didn’t like division into camps. The central body of thought was vital, but the implementation of it could take various forms. You have probably seen it yourself. Do you know Charlotte Mason homeschoolers who use a different curriculum than you, or who  are following a different timetable, or who incorporate a different framework for history? Do you think those differences would have mattered to Charlotte Mason if the unifying principles were adhered to? Would she have wanted the point of difference to be a shibboleth that separated the sheep from the goats, as it were? What if there aren’t any sheep and goats? Children are born persons.

Charlotte Mason knew that the principles she expressed were so fundamentally true that they could accommodate themselves to any situation. When questions arose, “she always took any debated point back to the principle at issue, and made us decide whether or not a certain practice could bear the final test of the principle.” (From a Parent’s Review article by Elsie Kitching) She didn’t imagine for a moment that the precise way the PNEU did things would remain unaltered forever (and it didn’t). The PNEU was built upon the faith that “education is the science of relations,” and for that reason,

This faith can shed a searchlight beam on the educational needs and practices of a new age. It can inspire new efforts to meet changing conditions of society.” (SOCM, p. 199)

“New efforts” were okay with the PNEU. There has been an explosion of new curricula, new bloggers, new podcasts in the past few years, all professing to follow Charlotte Mason. This is no bad thing, and Charlotte Mason was more than happy for the various members of the PNEU to share their knowledge about nature, music, history, or anything that would contribute to the knowledge of everyone else in the movement. Provided the principles are kept in mind, various implementations of those principles can be illuminating for us all. If you’re not sure whether a particular practice is in line with the principles, it’s only by delving into the principles that you will be able to know. This safeguards us from faulty methods while still allowing plenty of room for variation.

Every lesson needs a special giving and the method is based upon broad principles which leave the teacher all the exercise of her own ingenuity. (In Memoriam, PNEU publication)

But there is a pitfall out there that Charlotte Mason dreaded, and any student of Charlotte Mason’s runs the risk of falling in. The easiest way to avoid falling into a pit is for someone to tell you exactly where it is, so you can avoid it, and that is what I’m proposing to do here. The pitfall Charlotte Mason dreaded was that any individual part of the PNEU teaching and practice would become a shibboleth. In In Memoriam, her very close associate Elsie Kitching wrote:

Miss Mason always dreaded lest the P.N.E.U. should suffer by the repetition of the shibboleths. (In Memoriam, p. 122)

Charlotte Mason did not want some acid test of authenticity to be applied to the educational philosophy that she considered a living, growing, life-giving force. Her primary concern was for the principles, and she did not ask her colleagues to “say shibboleth” or be cast from favor. On the contrary, she urged her former students to keep the principles fresh in their minds in their educational endeavors.

Your definite and distinct code of educational principles must be kept fresh in your minds by reading and re-reading your books and pamphlets and reports. (from a letter reprinted in L’Umile Pianta)

It was the principles (especially their presentation of education as a whole), and not any particular practice that she wanted to protect.

Miss Kitching even warned explicitly,

It is well to consider the position she gives to Attention in mental training lest the method of narration should become a shibboleth whereas it is only the outward and audible sign of that inward and spiritual grace, the power of attention, by which the mind feeds upon the food convenient for it. (In Memoriam, p. 122)

Now, narration is such a fundamental part of a Charlotte Mason education—it is even included in the principles—that one cannot imagine a “Charlotte Mason” education without narration. I’m tempted to make a shibboleth of it, myself. And yet even something so foundational should not be allowed to become a shibboleth. Why? Well, Charlotte Mason never told us to give children a “Charlotte Mason” education (remember how she felt about names?) She said she wanted to offer children a “liberal education.” Narration is only the “outward and audible sign” of an “inward and spiritual grace.” Narration is an important and valuable tool, but it is the work going on in the mind and heart of the child that is what really matters, and if that is occurring, however it manifests itself, we should be satisfied. I’m not suggesting you give up narration, and neither is Miss Kitching, nor would have Miss Mason. What she is saying is—don’t make a shibboleth of it. Don’t make it a yardstick by which you measure how authentic someone’s practice of Charlotte Mason’s principles is. Above all—don’t adhere to the practices by rote but lose the more vital reasons that underpin them. “Narration” may take many forms.

And if we can’t make a shibboleth of narration, what of the rest of it? The timetables, the three terms, the precise number of pictures from an artist for picture study, the number of foreign languages a child learns, what history to begin with, how many minutes your lesson is, how many pages you read, how reading is taught, what media you use in your nature notebook, what handicraft you choose, or whether you include music with your Swedish Drill? How about tea time, sol-fa, or habit-training? Is it okay to make a shibboleth of any of those? What do you think? What do you think Charlotte Mason would have said? She actually told us, “we must not make a fetish of habit.” (Home Education, p. 192) If we can’t make shibboleths (or fetishes) of individual “Charlotte Mason” things, where should our focus be?

I’m not suggesting we toss out any part of what we think of as a “Charlotte Mason” education. I think you should try your hand at as many of the things she recommended as possible. I especially think you should implement narration to the fullest extent possible. But I also think that we should take a leaf from Miss Mason’s book, and dread making a shibboleth of any of these things, of casting out or castigating those who don’t do things precisely as we do them, or even precisely as Miss Mason set forth for the PNEU to do them. Sometimes her insistence on adherence to a given practice was for the sake of consistency within the school—she had to answer to parents and inspectors—not because a principle was at stake.

Charlotte Mason wrote,

We sometimes err, I think, in taking a part for the whole and part of a part for the whole of that part. (SOCM, p. 261)

When we make a shibboleth of anything, we are hyper-focusing on a part to the detriment of the greater whole. In the same way that Jesus distilled the entire Old Testament law into the all-encompassing principles that we should love God and love our neighbor, Charlotte Mason distilled her whole philosophy into a few essential principles. Her primary concern was the essential personhood of children, and the other principle she was passionate about was “education is the science of relations,” which she called a universal principle. She laid no personal claim on those principles and I suspect that is why she did not attach her name to them.

I have not made this body of educational thought any more than Columbus made America. But I think it has been given me…to recognize that education is the science of relations, to perceive certain working theories of the conduct of the will and of the reason, to exact due reverence for the personality of the child,…and some few other matters which go to make up a living, pulsing body of educational thought which I find to be a wonderful power in the lives of those who apprehend it. (SOCM, p 108, emphasis added)

It was at about the time she wrote this that she also wrote the synopsis of her thinking which we call her twenty principles. Although there are twenty, you see the two—relations and personhood—that summarize the rest (because of course the conduct of will and reason are an aspect of that personhood). These principles are living and exert a powerful influence on those who “apprehend it.” For Charlotte Mason, Education is the science of relations is the guiding principle that leads to the various practices.

Let it be our negative purpose to discourage in every way we can the educational faddist, that is, the person who accepts a one-sided notion in place of a universal idea as his educational guide. Our positive purpose is to present, in season and out of season, one such universal idea: that is, that education is the science of relations. (SOCM, p. 271)

You can’t really make a shibboleth out of a universal idea.

As Charlotte Mason prepared for an educational conference as early as 1898, she wrote that she wanted the new union (PNEU) to…

…grasp the view of education as a whole. . . . On this occasion I think we need not trouble ourselves about how to teach children this or that but rather get ourselves fired with the notion of the manifold intimacies with which we might enrich the lives of our children as occasion offers. (SOCM, p. 104-05)

Eventually, you will want to address “how to teach children this or that,” but first you must grasp education as a whole, through the consideration of a few—just a very few—fundamental principles. (That’s what In Vital Harmony is all about.) When you do that, the risk of setting up an idol or a shibboleth grows much, much smaller. Educational principles are a firmer foundation than the “repetition of the shibboleths.” When we understand them, we won’t feel free to randomly do anything we please, but can consider our options in light of sound natural laws of education. After Charlotte Mason’s death, Miss Kitching tried to carry things on in the same spirit, and she said, “we need to take a bird’s-eye view of the whole ground covered by any problem, lest we should not see the wood for the trees.” (From a Parent’s Review article ) “Education as a whole” is too important to miss, to be waylaid by shibboleths.

As you read and study Charlotte Mason’s own writings (and I hope you will), and as you learn and grow by using her educational methods, you will possibly encounter Charlotte Mason teachers who have fallen into this error. They may point at what you are doing and declare it invalid or “not CM” because it doesn’t line up with their chosen shibboleth.  May I be forgiven, for I have been guilty, too. That’s how I know how easy it is fall into this error. The antidote is to read and read what Charlotte Mason actually said. Fear not. If what you are doing is consistent with the principles, that’s what really matters. Charlotte Mason herself said, “there is no last word to be said upon education,” (School Education, p. 46) and was open to new thinking, new ideas, new books. If Charlotte Mason didn’t need shibboleths, why do we?

Please don’t let any shibboleth deter you or discourage you. Charlotte Mason would not have laid that burden on you. She valued the original thinking of the various PNEU branches and of her student-teachers who went out into the world. She knew they would continue learning and thinking and growing, and her concern was that they would remember the principles and apply them “as occasion offers,” not that they would never do anything differently. Sometimes her students were perplexed by her refusal to give them hard and fast rules to follow.

If someone confronts you with a shibboleth, maneuver your way back to the principles. Have the courage of your convictions, but there is no need to feel obliged to sweep the scales from another educator’s eyes. Charlotte Mason may have dreaded the encroachment of shibboleths, but she was content to let ideas speak for themselves without contention.

Attack nothing. Be indignant at nothing. When people’s minds are put on the defensive, they have no room to receive new ideas. (SOCM, p. 106)

Don’t stumble at a shibboleth, but don’t worry about trying to slay it either. If you do, it may be like the many-headed hydra and just grow stronger. The shibboleths are always with us, but we can take a leaf from Charlotte Mason’s book and eschew them. One of her close colleagues said, “she never thought her way was the way but only a way” (In Memoriam). That kind of generous, open thinking will keep you from raising divisive shibboleths of your own as well as avoiding the pitfalls of anyone else’s. If Charlotte Mason wouldn’t ask us to “say shibboleth” by way of test, why would we do that, either? It is much more profitable to allow the unifying principles to bind us together as we seek to teach our children and to learn and grow ourselves.

Discussion is invited!

N.B. Some links are affiliate links.

N.B. The Story of Charlotte Mason is out of print and difficult to obtain for a reasonable price.

N.B. But In Memoriam is online, and can be read freely as well as purchased at the link above.

I get to speak at a conference, and you’re invited!

This is kind of funny after I’ve been writing about the PNEU conference I learned about at the Armitt. I want to invite you to a conference I’ll be joining. I’ve had the privilege of speaking at a few different Charlotte Mason events—some larger, some smaller. I love the chance to connect with educators who are as interested in learning and exploring as I am, pretty much like those young ladies from a hundred years ago. I’ve had one speaking engagement cancelled in 2020 so far, and others may be in jeopardy. Maybe there’s a silver lining? I was invited to speak at an online event last year, but my summer was busy with ministry and preparing for camp and travel. I had to refuse because there just wasn’t room in my schedule. So, they invited me to speak again this year, and like everyone else, I have a pretty empty calendar, and I stay home most of the time, so yes! I can do that! And I’d love to see you there.

It’s the Charlotte Mason Inspired Online Homeschool Conference. This is an online conference to begin with, so they haven’t had to cancel or postpone! It’s five whole days of speakers on a wide range of Charlotte Mason topics. I don’t know all of them, but I am familiar with several, and it’s good company. I hope you’ll consider joining us. You can sign up here.  (Full disclosure—that’s an affiliate link.)

I’ll be speaking about “A Few Broad Essential Principles,” and if you’ve dipped into In Vital Harmony, you can probably guess the principles I have in mind. However, I’ll also be discussing the way that the core principles affect the various parts of a Charlotte Mason Education. If you’ve been a little glum because summer events, conventions, and conferences have been cancelled or postponed, this might be just the ticket to brighten things up a bit. It’s a lot of content for a great price, and attendees will receive a virtual swag bag of “cool stuff” and be eligible for all kinds of great giveaways. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you can join me.

Nuggets from the Armitt #4

When I started this little series, my only thought was to share some of the bits of things I encountered while fossicking in the beautiful Armitt Library. I didn’t intend to hone in on a single  conference, but as it happens, that how it turned out. Today’s post, once again, grew out of something that occurred at the 1909 (got the date!—notice the “Gibson Girl” silhouettes) conference at Ambleside. A few very specific details—like the number of attendees—are included here, but mostly it is one person’s impression. One of the attendees wrote this “narration” of the week in verse form, and it was published in the L’Umile Pianta for everyone to enjoy, along with the illustration. Definitely eye-catching! (Especially since most pages are blocks of solid text.)  First, I’ll share the poem, and then I’ll share my thoughts.

“At Ambleside in Westmorland, Scale How all tranquil lay,
When a murmur like a tidal wave came booming from far away,
Bright young students by the score, we have sighted fifty-four;
They are swarming up the drive, brains alert and minds alive.
Cram the class room full of chairs—some must sit upon the floor.

Then spake Miss Parish gently, “I know you will forgive me
If I say a word in season our exuberance to still.
We are not rowdy boys that we should make a noise—
To let no Amblesider have a reason to deride her
Is the student’s obvious duty, and she can, she ought, she will!”

A student then inquired if it was to be desired
That a pupil should be punished who objected to obey.
But all decided promptly that to punish was a weakness—
To keep a child from sinning you should have her from the beginning,
When others had not had a chance to spoil her well before.
—Here another spoke with meekness

“But I have from the beginning, tried to keep my child from sinning
And I cannot find a way to teach her to obey.”
Then spoke Miss Kitching (W.) “The child would never trouble you
Had you had her as a baby ere her mother had a chance,
But the lady interrupted with a most pathetic glance:
“But I am the infant’s mother. I have trained her, and no other!”
Here the students feelings carried them away.

And the days flew by, as they used to fly, in the dear old time of yore,
And never a moment the fervour waned, of the blissful fifty-four.
Day after day the whole week through, they came to discuss and to hear.
Day after day, the business done, they turned their thoughts to good cheer.

And some they walked, and some they talked until they could talk no more,
In all our annals was ever a conference like this in the world before?
And the days flew by, and the week was done, did ever week go so fast?
but the bountiful inspiration it brought is a thing that is going to last;
And far away now from dear Scale How, our hearts are rooted there still,
And we vow (if allowed) to return in a crowd—a vow which we mean to fulfil.” —L.M.G.

First of all, yes, I know it’s not great poetry. This was a generation brought up to immortalize things in verse, and so they did. It’s the spiritual equivalent of an Instagram post or a Tweet—a snapshot that shares one person’s thoughts for everyone to enjoy (including us, now!).

What got my attention the first time I read this was the discussion about teaching children to obey. Just think about it. All these young women (some of them now married with children of their own, but not all) had trained at Ambleside under the direct tutelage of a living Charlotte Mason. When the question of obedience came up, their answers were textbook—habit training from the beginning is the key. But this young mother had had the same teaching as the rest and found it difficult to implement with her own young child. The governesses and teachers could shake their heads and lament, “If only we could train the children from the beginning before their mothers spoil them!” But this honest young mother acknowledged that it was easier said than done! “But I am the infant’s mother! I have trained her, and no other.” My only point being—don’t be too hard on yourself. This young mother was Charlotte Mason trained before ever she had her first child, and she wasn’t able to achieve perfect results. They are likely beyond our reach, and we can only do the best we can. Notice how it caused an uproar, but no one seemed to have any practical advice to offer after that?

When I went back over this poem to prepare for this post, a different line caught my attention, and I think this one is my favorite. “They are swarming up the drive, brains alert and minds alive.” I have seen this with my own eyes, and it is a beautiful thing. It has been my privilege to attend and to speak at a number of difference Charlotte Mason conferences or gatherings, and “brains alert and minds alive” is exactly what I have met at every single one of them. “Was there ever a conference like this in the world before?” Not then, perhaps, but now there is an abundance and an embarrassment of riches. If you’ve ever had the privilege of attending a conference of any size (they numbered 54!), I think you will probably agree. It is a delight to meet and share with fellow Charlotte Mason educators. Notice how eager they were to repeat the experience!

“The bountiful inspiration it brought is a thing that is going to last.” It’s true! But the inspiration has to come day by day, just as we must breathe new air each day. Charlotte Mason herself found that she needed to read and reread and keep her thoughts focused on the big picture. From a letter she wrote to the students after one conference:

A man does not inspire once in a lifetime or once in a day. He keeps himself alive by regular acts of inspiration. You have come here now, no doubt, for a little of the old mountain air, for a revival of the old impressions and aspirations. But we must draw from our sources at all times. Your definite and distinct code of educational principles must be kept fresh in your minds by reading and re-reading your books and pamphlets and reports. It really is not an easy thing to keep the whole in mind. I often forget myself, and have to go through a laborious course of thought to find why it is best to do this rather than the other.

Did you catch that? Charlotte Mason said, “I often forget myself!” Small wonder that we do the same. I was fascinated to read Charlotte Mason’s declaration: “Your definite and distinct code of educational principles must be kept fresh in your minds.” It doesn’t do to read once and then go on. We really do need to keep those principles in mind, as a whole, as best we can. It’s one reason I went outside my comfort zone and created a visual for the principles that we can keep nearby for inspiration! Brains alert and minds alive—never stop learning.

While I could keep going with this series, this post marks fourteen weeks in a row in which I have posted something new to this blog, which is probably some kind of record (for me). I’m going to stop here and devote some time to other projects, including the newsletter I meant to start in January! I have future blog series planned, so I’ll be back when I’ve got something to share. If you haven’t already signed up for my newsletter, please do! You’ll get original content, early news of upcoming projects, and a free printable of the twenty principles in a short form, which makes a handy reference bookmark for In Vital Harmony or any other Charlotte Mason book you might be reading.

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As I prepared for this series,  I visited the Armitt website and discovered that the enforced closure is hurting them very much. They rely on visitor ticket sales to fund the museum, and during the closure, they have nothing except any donations they might receive. My goal with this series was merely to offer some light-hearted and interesting tidbits I gleaned during my visits, but I’m going to add here that if you enjoy this series and the virtual visit to the Armitt, please consider sending them a small donation—their link will explain how you can do that.

Nuggets from the Armitt #3

Have you ever disagreed with a fellow Charlotte Mason educator? Have you ever had a lively discussion on some point of contention? Have you held your own opinion about something while others proffered different opinions?

Welcome to the PNEU. During the same conference I mentioned in the last post, a group of at least seven (unmarried!) teachers got together and had a tussle over the best way for parents (!) to deal with questionable reading material for their children. I have seen this exact discussion reenacted (by actual parents) more times than I can remember in email groups, forums, and social media sites. For some reason, this particular discussion was immortalized by publication in one of the PNEU periodicals. Someone  was keeping the minutes in good old-fashioned form, and it was printed that way. I’ve reproduced it for you here (in black) and added a few imaginative touches (in blue) because these were real folks, and as I said, I’ve heard this discussion before. I’ve given it a title:

Miss Allen Disagreed

Discussion centred on Miss Pennethorne’s views with regard to books read by children.

[Miss Pennethorne apparently expressed the opinion that parents should not be too quick to confiscate a book from a child, even if the book might contain something “undesirable.”]

Miss Allen disagreed with Miss Pennethorne’s opinion that a child reading an undesirable book should not be disturbed, or the book taken away directly. Evil might be done in a few minutes. [Miss Allen was appalled! “If you don’t snatch the book away immediately, who knows what the kid might see? Better not to take chances.”]

Miss Hertzel said that the treatment should depend on the temperment of the child, as the very fact of calling attention to the evil might open their eyes to it. [Miss Hertzel—a little savvier than most—tried to diffuse the heat a bit by pointing out that all children are different. Some of them might not really notice anything amiss, but if the book were confiscated, it might create a sort of “Aha!” moment and they’d realize more was going on than they’d thought.]

Miss Wilkinson asked if the child could not be prevented from ever obtaining an undesirable book. [Miss Wilkinson pointed out, with a bit of self-righteous satisfaction, that careful parents could probably make sure that children never had a chance to even start reading an undesirable book. “Why would they have any books like that where children could get them, hmmm?”]

Miss Lawrence suggested that the children should always submit their books to the scrutiny of their parents before reading them. [“Mothers and Fathers should just have a rule. They must make it a rule that their children always have to ask them before they read anything.” That’ll fix it.]

Miss Drury raised the question, as parallel with this, of how to keep children from harm in newspaper reading. [“You know these kids have newspapers delivered to their houses every day, and their parents sit there reading them during breakfast. How is anyone supposed to keep children from reading suggestive headlines two inches tall?”]

Miss Allen then gave the idea of teaching children to respect their own minds, and of their own accord to stop reading anything that “soiled their minds.” [Miss Allen—so obviously a “Miss” and not a parent—thought children might be mature enough to just stop reading anything that would “soil their mind.” Although they don’t seem to mind soiling their hands, shoes, and clothes, she thought they could just police themselves and stop reading if they encountered anything that would cause a smudge on their pristine thoughts. Everyone in the room looked at her as if she were out of her mind.]

Miss R. Williams thought it a better plan for children to ask an elder whether a book would prove interesting, rather than raise the question of “may” or “may not.” [Miss Williams was a little worried that anything forbidden would just seem more desirable because of that, so she thought the whole question of getting permission to read something could just be circumvented by telling children they shouldn’t read anything without first getting an adult perspective on whether or not it would be interesting for them. She could see the danger of “forbidden fruit,” but it seems a bit naive to think that children are going to rely on adults to tell them what might be interesting. They’d rather find out for themselves.]

Resolution was moved by Miss Wilkinson and amended by Miss Allen [!] that:

“Parents or those in authority should, as far as possible, exercise supervision over the books allowed to fall into children’s hands, but there should be no restriction to their power of taking away at once an undesirable book.”

[Wasn’t that nice of these conscientious teachers? They aren’t going to place limitations on parents about how they should deal with a child who happens to be reading an undesirable book, although they can’t resist including a suggestion that parents should exercise a little gumption and supervise what “falls into” a child’s hands]

The amended resolution was seconded by Miss Lawrence, and carried unanimously.

[And I’m sure they all felt much better with that accomplished. But feelings were still running a bit high, so…]

Further discussion followed. [Somewhat loudly.]

Miss Lawrence objected to Miss Pennethorne’s proposal to supply books of horrors to children. Imaginary horrors in adventure stories she considered injurious to children; but if horrors are necessary, let them be of the sufferings of real people. [Miss Lawrence has a horror of horrors. Let’s face it, she’s squeamish, and because she is, she doesn’t want poor, innocent children to read about imaginary horrors like fire-breathing dragons who destroy villages or giants who threaten “fee fi fo fum” because then they won’t be able to sleep at night for fear of the monsters under the bed. It would be much better, she thinks, for them to read about the sufferings of real people. Like martyrs who were beheaded and burned at the stake, maybe?]

Miss Allen asked for advice how to treat historical horrors and the fascination they have for some children, but asked if the unpleasant details could not be avoided. [“Oh, that’s true. Real stories might be too graphic for children. What are we supposed to do about that?” She’s clueless, but give her a minute and she’ll have the solution.]

Miss Hertzel agreed that details were better avoided, as children were more apt to gloat over them than realize the pathos. [Miss Hertzel teaches a houseful of bloodthirsty little boys who get into daily fist fights, whack each other with sticks,  and hide garter snakes and spiders in her desk. She no longer has many illusions about “innocent” little children. She just wants to avoid books of horrors because she doesn’t want to give them any new ideas.]

Miss Drury reminded the students present that children, like nations, must pass through a stage when horrors are not so horrible to them as to more advanced minds. [This is a really interesting observation and might have been a more fruitful discussion than the minutia about how parents should deal with their children and reading material, but everyone is bored and getting hungry and they are ready to be done with this, so…]

[The intrepid] Miss Allen proposed the following resolution:

“Stories of hardships endured through devotion or patriotism are suitable for children, but books of horrors as such, whether historical or imaginary, should be avoided.” [You just knew she was going to come up with something.]

The motion was seconded by Miss Hertzel [who just wanted to go get a sandwich], and carried unanimously [because everyone was so tired of arguing].

[But Miss Allen couldn’t let everyone go without having the last word, so even though she’d started the whole thing by disagreeing with Miss Pennethorne in the first place…]

Miss Allen rose [casting a disdainful glance at squeamish Miss Lawrence] to defend Miss Pennethorne’s doctrine of horrors as a fight against “missishness.”

[Well, okay then.]

Well, I hope you enjoyed that. I could say, “wouldn’t you have loved to have been a fly on the wall and seen the actual discussion?” But, if you’ve spent any time on Facebook, you already have (probably many times over).

I told you they were all real people just like us. As I leafed through the book (I think it was the L’Umile Pianta), I ran across this discussion printed just like this (just the black words, remember), without heading, explanation, or embellishments. I read through it, photographed it, and forgot about it until I was looking at my Armitt research recently. I read it again and again, and the personalities began to emerge. One wonders if Miss Pennethorne was present at all—she contributes nothing to the discussion except her initial thoughts, which might have been in the form of a paper read to everyone. Or maybe she was the one playing secretary? Miss Allen clearly dominates the discussion, while timid Miss Williams only pipes up once. Miss Lawrence is a bit “missish.” Miss Hertzel is the most sensible of the bunch, but doesn’t have the energy to keep engaging with Miss Allen. Does anyone think real parents are going to take the advice of these unmarried governesses on how to deal with children and “horrors” in books? Does anyone think there is one right resolution that applies to all families in all circumstances, or is this one of those things where they might concede that parents can best decide how to manage with their own children? (Miss Allen probably wouldn’t think so.)

I have no wisdom to offer and find no great insight here. This was just for fun! And yet…I am mindful that this little discussion was a tiny part of the conference and the shared interests of these young women. They wrote glowing reports of their time together—it was refreshing and heavenly. They put this in in the magazine with the other info about the conference so non-attenders could feel as if they were there. Yeah, sure, they disagreed about some little things, but it did not shake their convictions about the principles they shared and their desire to keep on building each other up and encouraging each other in their common labor. But that’s not speculation on my part. This is what one of them wrote about it:

If I could make you feel the love that was there! If I could tell you of the joy of being in touch with power—the power we felt among us that that made it impossible to fail! If I could show you the simplicity that knows the few things that matter, then indeed you would know what such a week meant to those who lived it.

As I prepared for this series,  I visited the Armitt website and discovered that the enforced closure is hurting them very much. They rely on visitor ticket sales to fund the museum, and during the closure, they have nothing except any donations they might receive. My goal with this series was merely to offer some light-hearted and interesting tidbits I gleaned during my visits, but I’m going to add here that if you enjoy this series and the virtual visit to the Armitt, please consider sending them a small donation—their link will explain how you can do that.

Nuggets from the Armitt #2

Have you ever complained about your Charlotte Mason curriculum? “There’s too much reading.” “This is too hard for my student.” “We can’t get this done in the allotted time.”

If you’ve ever felt like that, join the club. Charlotte Mason teachers have been feeling that way from the beginning. During the conferences where the teachers met together, a great deal of discussion on all kinds of topics took place, and this was all reported in some detail in the PNEU publications, for the benefit of all. One year (and I apologize for my failure to document everything fully—this might have been 1905), one of the topics on the table was math. The teachers had a number of issues with certain books in certain classes, as well as complaints that they needed more time for math. They drafted their complaints as resolutions, and listed them carefully:








They had a delicious advantage that we can never have. They were able to share their concerns directly with Charlotte Mason and get some feedback, which is exactly what they did. Her responses were included a few pages later in the report from this conference, and you should really take a close look at how she responded, especially if you’ve had similar issues.

The first complaint was that too much work was being set for classes III and IV. Miss Mason’s response was that if they had used the assigned book in classes I and II, it wasn’t too much. If you find that response unhelpful, I confess that I do, too. Perhaps these students hadn’t used the PNEU for the earlier classes. For whatever reason, a number of students were having problems getting through the set work (or they wouldn’t have passed this resolution), and no suggestions are offered to them. Miss Mason had to think about the PNEU programmes as a whole, and assign the work appropriate for the greatest number of students. We know from information elsewhere that individual teachers were invited to adapt as needed, but Miss Mason wasn’t going to alter the program for them.

The second complaint was about the math book used in class III, and Miss Mason offered to consider making a change there. The third complaint was that, in both classes III and IV,  more time was needed for arithmetic lessons, and Miss Mason simply said no. She was not going to let arithmetic take away time the students needed to explore “many fields of knowledge.”

What can we glean from this? First—if something in your Charlotte Mason curriculum isn’t working perfectly, try to pinpoint the exact issue, as these teachers did. But here’s the good part! Charlotte Mason had to consider the program as a whole and make it suit the largest number of students possible. You don’t! You only have to consider your home, and your school, and your student. Don’t ignore the principle that guided Charlotte Mason’s answer to complaint #3—math is only a part of larger program. But if you need a little more time for individual math lessons, consider having longer math lessons three days per week instead of shorter ones every day. Obviously, if a given book isn’t right for you, find another one. Slow down if you need to.

I didn’t share the problems they were having with too much work in geography and natural history, but if you look past the answers to the math questions, you’ll see that Miss Mason “consented to lessen the amount of Geography set for a term’s work in Class II, and of Natural History in Class III.”

Nobody can get everything perfect every time. Adjust as needed—that’s what these teachers did—and Charlotte Mason as well—when they needed to. But it’s an interesting intellectual exercise. What principles guided Charlotte Mason’s answers to the teachers’ concerns? Would you give the exact same answers, and what principles would inform your suggestions?

As I prepared for this series,  I visited the Armitt website and discovered that the enforced closure is hurting them very much. They rely on visitor ticket sales to fund the museum, and during the closure, they have nothing except any donations they might receive. My goal with this series was merely to offer some light-hearted and interesting tidbits I gleaned during my visits, but I’m going to add here that if you enjoy this series and the virtual visit to the Armitt, please consider sending them a small donation—their link will explain how you can do that.

Nuggets from the Armitt #1

The Armitt Museum in Ambleside, England is very small in actual size. In fact, they describe themselves as “one of Britain’s rarest small museums.” The treasures within are all out of proportion to the humble little building they call home. Giants of intellect and art lived and worked nearby, and the Armitt faithfully preserves their relics and makes them available to visitors and researchers from all over the world. If you visit Ambleside, a visit to the Armitt is a must. I’ve been privileged to visit twice, and had a recent planned visit sidelined for the same reason everything else in the world from the Olympics to the Tour de France has been cancelled or postponed in the past few months.

But I have visited  and, partly as a consolation for the missed trip, I’ve been sifting through some of my take-aways from previous visits. A few of those tidbits are the subjects of this new, short series—Nuggets from the Armitt. We’re going to lighten up after our wrestling match with Coleridge, and for about a month of Mondays I’m going to share some little things—juicy little tidbits, if you will—that I bumped into while I was at the Armitt. I’m not going to give you anything earth-shattering, but I will be surprised if you don’t find a bit of new insight from these nuggets.

I got the idea for doing this after I shared a suggestive little paragraph from The Parents’ Review that indicates there might have been a PNEU meeting at Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey. I’m not going to repeat that one here, so if you haven’t seen it, you can check it out on my Facebook page or @karenglassreads on Instagram.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the L’Umile Pianta? It was a publication for the graduates of Charlotte Mason’s teaching school, so they could keep in touch with each other personally and also encourage and continue to equip each other professionally. They shared nature information, picture and composer study helps, suggestions for teaching various subjects, and so forth. One of the features of the magazine was the “Reading Page” or “Reading Club.” This page was dedicated to sharing reviews of books, along with a commonplace quote or two, that might be of interest to other readers. The editor of the magazine included this page in every issue, but sometimes, rather than book reviews or commonplace quotes, it was devoted to pleading for submissions. Even if there were a few suggestions, the editor was usually begging for more:

The smallest crumbs are gratefully received here and yet—this poor pauper starves.

The books they suggested ranged from poetry and novels to books about psychology or history. Pretty much anything that might be of use to a fellow former pupil in her task of feeding her own mind was fair game. In spite of the continual pleading, as I leafed through issue after issue, I found the poor editor almost at her wits’ end and shamelessly laying a guilt trip on everyone who wasn’t sending her a postcard!

Here you find her playing on their sympathy as she describes the condition of the “reading club.” It was “Starving. Empty. Forlorn. Pitiable.” And so she begs, “Oh all ye little students remember me, and drop me a post card crumb!”

You all know how much I admire Charlotte Mason. However, I think most of us will admit that her books can feel a bit daunting. She is strong-minded, and while she is always kind, she is also fairly relentless in presenting an ideal which she will not tarnish with wavering human nature. Reading L’Umile Pianta and The Parents’ Review is a different experience. There, we find a much more down-to-earth and humanizing presentation of the ideals as students and parents tried to live them out. They remind me of myself and all the homeschool moms and teachers I have known through the years. They were so much like us, and I’ll be showing you a bit more of that in the weeks to come.

That’s all I’ve got for today—as I said, these are just little nuggets of interest that I gleaned while delving into other serious topics. There is a lot of fun in these old publications, and one of my great regrets is that I will probably never get enough study hours in the Armitt to get through all the material available. But, we won’t let that deter us from enjoying what we can, right? If you were going to cave in to the editor’s pleading and send a postcard with a book suggestion, what would you suggest your fellow home teachers read?


As I prepared for this series,  I visited the Armitt website and discovered that the enforced closure is hurting them very much. They rely on visitor ticket sales to fund the museum, and during the closure, they have nothing except any donations they might receive. My goal with this series was merely to offer some light-hearted and interesting tidbits I gleaned during my visits, but I’m going to add here that if you enjoy this series and the virtual visit to the Armitt, please consider sending them a small donation—their link will explain how you can do that.

Connections with Coleridge #10—A Few Final Words

This is the tenth and final post in this series.  Even good things come to an end sometime! I hope it’s been more enjoyable than you might have anticipated!

(c) The Armitt Museum and Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Treatise on Method was not an easy-to-read book, and I read it three times across two years before writing this series, to ensure that I grasped the salient points. I used the internet to help me translate some of the foreign quotes, and a couple of times I enlisted the help of a savvy homechooled Latin student (not one of mine) to untangle something that confused me. I don’t think that everyone who enjoys Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education needs to rush out and buy this book, although it’s interesting as it provides a window into the mind of Charlotte Mason. I wish I could know exactly when she first read this book and how it shaped her thinking, because it was definitely formative. The most cogent ideas in her philosophy—the key points that she returns to again and again—are the central points of this book. At the same time, it gives us insight into how other thinkers—Plato and Bacon—were linked to Charlotte Mason in this short chain. The profound synthesis which illustrates the relationship of two thinkers from different eras, showing them to be united in their Method despite surface differences, offers a clue to the way Charlotte Mason herself approached other philosophers. If she had taken nothing away from Coleridge but his unifying concept of Method, it would have been enough.

However, it is also clear from his practical application of Method regarding knowledge that she gleaned some practical ideas as well. For example:

 Assuredly the great use of History is to acquaint us with the Nature of Man. This end is best answered by the most faithful portrait; but Biography is a collection of portraits. At the same time there must be some mode of grouping and connecting the individuals, who are themselves the great landmarks in the Map of Human Nature. It has therefore occurred to us, that the most effectual mode of attaining the chief objects of Historical knowledge will be occasionally to present History in the form of Biography, chronologically arranged.

. . . If in tracing thus the “eventful History” of Man, and particularly of our own Country, we should perceive, as we must necessarily do in all that is human, evils and imperfections, these will not be without their uses, in leading us back to the importance of intellectual Method as their grand and sovereign remedy. Hence shall we learn its proper national application, namely, the education of the Mind. (p. 65)

Doesn’t that remind you of Charlotte Mason and all she says about History? Coleridge wrote this Treatise as the introduction to an Encyclopedia, and so ultimately, it must be understood as intending to inform education very directly—what is the best way to arrange and convey knowledge? His answer, in Charlotte Mason’s terms, is that “education is the science of relations.” What he actually said was, “we have faintly sketched an outline of the great laws of Method, which bind together the various branches of Human Knowledge.” (p. 64) He says of his work that it

will present the circle of Knowledge in its harmony; will give that unity of design and of elucidation, the want of which we have most deeply felt in other Works of a similar kind, where the desired information is divided into innumerable fragments scattered over many volumes, like a mirror broken on the ground, presenting, instead of one, a thousand images, but none entire. (p. 66)

I’m not sure I can convey his meaning fully, but I will try. Coleridge intended this Encyclopaedia Metropolitana to be read consecutively, or, if out of order, with the arrangement in mind. It was not arranged purely alphabetically, but the subjects were presented according to the relational method he expounded—pure intellectual sciences first, and then mixed or practical ones. A grand scheme of education, indeed, the very idea of which inspired and informed Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education two generations later.

And therefore, though we scarcely had the slightest idea that this was so, it informs our own homeschools as well. Because education is, indeed, the science of relations, and all knowledge is connected, and you had a relationship with this book, through Charlotte Mason, before you even knew it existed. The realm of knowledge and ideas is ours to be explored. When we read and talk and write about the same ideas that have engaged the thinkers of many centuries, we become a part of the Great Conversation, even as we sip coffee and read to our children.

I hope you’ve enjoyed a peek into this obscure book with me.  Thanks for coming along for this blog series, Connections with Coleridge.




While the series will remain freely available on my blog, I have collected this material into an e-book for Kindle. It’s part of the Encore series, and like all the Encore books, it includes a bit of bonus material that did not appear in the blog series.



Connections with Coleridge #9—In Search of the Soul

We’ve concluded the discussion of the theory behind Method, as Coleridge gives it to us in Treatise on Method. There remains, of course, the application of the method. There are a few things here that could be very valuable to ponder, so I hope you’ll bear with me just a bit longer, though the series is nearly done.

Here’s a phrase to cast fear and doubt into the heart of every truth-seeking educator: “learned and systematic ignorance.” This is like a black pit that might open under your feet and swallow you before you even have a chance to escape it. Coleridge shares a little story to illustrate what he means.

He asks us to imagine an illiterate person who has gotten hold of an illuminated manuscript of the Bible. This man has a vague but definite impression that the manuscript matters—that his very fates and fortunes are somehow connected to it. So he goes to work and studies it with all his heart. He unearths patterns and similarities in the markings, and sorts them into their different kinds, although imperfectly, because he fails to see that slight variations in form are not truly different things. He knows a great deal about the work he has studied, but “the whole is without soul or substance.” His efforts have yielded “arrangement guided by the light of no leading Idea; mere orderliness without Method.” And therefore, without meaning.

But then, he is taught to read, and suddenly the book is open to him—he can relate to the spirit of the book, as with a living oracle. All the things he thought he knew before will be dust and ashes because the results of Method are life and truth.

We can be in that darkened state of affairs, in which we have mountains of neatly arranged data which is “mere orderliness” that lacks life.

The salient point of this story is that Science cannot be divorced from morality—from God. Bacon’s disciples did just that—believed that human intellect and reason and the physical world could define all reality. Like the illiterate man, they had a lot of nicely organized knowledge, but it held no meaning for them because they lacked the key. Coleridge spells it out:

We have shown that this Method consists in placing one or more particular things or notions, in subordination, either to a preconceived universal Idea, or to some lower form of the latter; some class, order, genus, or species, each of which derives its intellectual significancy, and scientific worth, from being an ascending step toward the universal; from being its representative, or temporary substitute. Without this master-thought, there can be no true method; and according as the general conception more or less clearly manifests itself throughout all the particulars, as their connective and bond of unity: according as the light of the Idea is freely diffused through, and completely illumines, the aggregate mass, the Method is more or less perfect. (p. 54)

That is Coleridge-speak for the simple idea that education is the science of relations. Just as Charlotte Mason places “education is the science of relations” at the head of her method, Coleridge says that the idea upon which his plan is predicated is “the moral origin and tendency of all true Science.” This is equivalent to the “Great Recognition”—that all knowledge has a single source, and that source is God.

From within this understanding, we can ponder the study of some of what Coleridge calls “the pure Sciences” (because they are perceived with the mind only, not the senses), and the first two things on the list are…grammar and logic!

I’ve written before about the nature of grammar, and it’s fascinating to have that confirmed by Coleridge, who refers to the “laws which are immutable in their very nature.” And he throws the word “relation” into the pot: “for the relation which a noun bore to a verb, or a substantive to an adjective, was the in earliest days [Greek words], in the first intelligible conversations of men, as it it is now, nor can it ever vary so long as the powers of Thought remain the same in the Human Mind.”

My first introduction to this perception of grammar (and I was an English major and I love grammar) came when I read De Magistro by Augustine. In that book, I grappled for the first time with the immutable laws of grammar (as opposed to its mere rules), and it has changed my perception of grammar. I’m not sure we’re doing any favors by teaching our children arbitrary-seeming rules without letting them get a glimpse of the laws that govern language—all language, apart from the specific grammar of the one you happen to speak. When you ponder the concept of “immutable laws” of grammar in conjunction with Coleridge’s assertion that these sciences have a moral origin, it seems a travesty to chop them up into unpalatable rules that bleed red ink all over anything a child tries to write. “Learned and systematic ignorance” has us by the throat. Most grammar studies are indeed “arrangement guided by the light of no leading Idea; mere orderliness without Method.”

To my way of thinking, the most practical application of Coleridge’s Method is to send us to our knees in repentance and pleading for wisdom to teach these things better. Come to think of it, never mind the teaching. Most of us, including me, still have a great deal to learn.

Connections with Coleridge #8—A short history of the education of mankind

Having established the importance of Method and Idea and Truth, and the need for human intellect to submit itself to something greater than itself, Coleridge launches into something like a “History of the Development of the Intellect.” It’s a curious thing, but before we look at it, I have to share a bit from Charlotte Mason.

A Medieval Conception of Education—This idea of all education springing from and resting upon our relation to Almighty God is one which we have ever laboured to enforce. We take a very distinct stand upon this point. We do not merely 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. (School Education, p. 95)

This idea—that the Holy Spirit is the educator of mankind, not just of individuals—is something Charlotte Mason mentions on different occasions, and none of them brief enough for me to reproduce as a single quote here. But, in the longer section of School Education which I quoted above, she says that “education is a world business, that the lessons of the ages have been duly set, and that each age is concerned, not only with its own particular page, but with every preceding page.” The idea is that from age to age, mankind as a whole is being progressively educated, and she truly believed “that the teaching of science is the new teaching which is being vouchsafed to mankind in our age.” At the same time, I am keenly aware that she was looking backwards (to that medieval concept of education) with a desire to retain something important.

It is interesting to read this history of the “education of mankind” (beginning with man before the flood), in light of Coleridge’s “boast” that his explanation of Method “solved the great problem of conciliating ancient and modern Philosophy.”  Like Charlotte Mason, he links the present to the past. Coleridge quotes Bacon: “The antiquity of time was the youth of the world and of knowledge.” (emphasis mine)

—Obedience of the will was the first lesson, and moral lessons dominated those who “walked with God,” although there was an opposite willful “Method” developed on purpose in which “every imagination of the thoughts of the heart was only evil continually.”

—After the Flood, such people abandoned cultivation in favor of civilization, built cities, and from the Idols/Opinions of their mind they made physical idols to worship.

Following the youth of knowledge came its later youth and approaching young manhood:

— “Providence, as it were, awakened men to the pursuit of an Idealized Method.” Coleridge suggests the Greek philosophers were informed either from “the inspired writings of the Hebrews” or by the graciousness of God who allowed a “dawning of Truth in their own breasts.”

—The Idealized Method matured and manifested itself in philosophy and in art. While they developed art to a high degree in literature, painting, architecture, sculpture, music, and more, they all but ignored the investigation of Physical laws and phenomena.

—Christianity was born in this era, introducing into the intellectual fabric of mankind the Idea of a person, and the value of a person over other things.

Next, according to Coleridge (who says he prefers to mostly skip Rome and the Middle Ages) comes a great epoch in the education of Mankind—the Reformation, and I find it interesting that he names the Reformation, and not the Renaissance, as the thing that produced “striking and durable effects.”

—This era produced a strong desire for a new approach to learning that did investigate the physical world, and Bacon was the “completely successful” conduit for a new Method. This was also the Enlightenment, and when reading Coleridge, I think we have to understand that he was not yet far enough removed from it to observe its full effects, as we can today, some 200 years later.

—Bacon’s new Method, Coleridge asserts, is the same Method used by Plato—Bacon applied an Ideal System (the belief in Truth and the ability to search it out) to external nature which Plato had previously applied to intellectual pursuits. In, this, I think he was correct, and I do not think it is Bacon’s fault that modern thinkers abandoned the pursuit of absolute Truth.

And Coleridge concludes:

It is only in the union of these two branches of one and the same Method that a complete and genuine Philosophy can be said to exist. (p. 51)

Without a doubt, Bacon produced thinkers who led us to our contemporary ideas about science, but Coleridge is adamant—they misunderstood him. They were misled into thinking that only knowledge derived from the senses was legitimate, and thus was born the materialism that Charlotte Mason so deplored.

That’s my little summary of “the history of the education of Mankind” as Coleridge suggests it. While Charlotte Mason is still more explicitly Christian, I think she mostly assents to this concept, especially because she repeatedly refers to Coleridge’s claim that ideas are given to minds prepared (by God) to receive them. She calls it “the magnificent idea that all knowledge (undebased) comes from above and is conveyed to minds which are, as Coleridge says, previously prepared to receive it.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 322)

I might as well say here that I am not entirely convinced of this “progression.” There is an underlying evolutionary bias (which Charlotte Mason shared with Coleridge) that things develop from simple to more complex. The idea that the men of Adam’s and Noah’s day—men who could live and learn for hundreds of years—had a lesser education or less knowledge than we do seems to me absurd on the face of it. Who could build an Ark today? Or a pyramid? How about that complicated Mayan calendar? No, the ancient world had knowledge we can scarcely comprehend, and we are the ignorant children who think we know more than we do. Our illusion is supported by the technology that both enlightens and blinds us, gives with one hand and takes with the other. And I’m as clueless as anyone about where all this will take us. That’s why I’m reading and trying to learn, and hoping we can help each other figure a few things out.


Connections with Coleridge #7—Laws, Ideas, and Truth

I have read through Treatise on Method completely three times, and parts of it more times than that. It was not an easy book to read, and I still don’t have all the Latin and Greek translated. One of the things that continues to excite me about the book is the way in which Coleridge synthesizes the thinking of two people who appeared on the surface to disagree.

Bacon and Plato are both concerned with the ability of the mind to comprehend and deal with knowledge. They both recognized that innate Ideas or absolute Truth—something transcendent—is the object toward which the mind strives. In fact, Coleridge says “the truths to be embraced are objective.” The biggest obstacle that stands between the mind of a thinker and the comprehension of those truths is, unfortunately, the human intellect itself, which is like a flawed mirror that cannot perfectly reflect the image before it. Bacon names the flaws “Idols” of the mind, which he calls “empty notions”—preconceived ideas, or prejudices, if you will. Plato calls the flaws “opinions” which he defines as “a medium between knowledge and ignorance.” In other words—we can be our own worst enemies and fail to perceive ideas unless we ruthlessly set aside our own cherished idols or opinions in service of Truth. Because, according to Coleridge, both Plato and Bacon did believe that the mind could be rectified in spite of its flaws.

But how do we do that? You might not be surprised that it involves a certain amount of humility. The unfortunate tendency of human intellect is to suppose that it is the yardstick to which truth—Natural and Divine—must submit to be measured. Coleridge calls that arrogance, and he is not wrong. The “corrector and purifier of all reasoning” is Truth—that is, the ability to perceive that Laws operate in the Cosmos to which we must only submit and can never alter or defy. Human reason must submit to Natural Law.

Look at the language they use:

It will not surprise us, that Plato so often denominates Ideas living Laws, in and by which the Mind has its whole true being and permanence; or that Bacon, vice versa, names the Laws of Nature,  Ideas. (p. 46)

Do the concepts of “ideas” and “laws of nature” sound familiar to you? If you have read Charlotte Mason carefully, they probably do. She founded her entire philosophy of education upon this premise. It is at this point in Coleridge’s book that he says:

A distinguishable power self-affirmed, and seen in its unity with the Eternal Essence, is, according to Plato, an Idea.

Charlotte Mason quoted that definition in Philosophy of Education, and I do not think it is a coincidence that  in the same section she complains:

One of our presumptuous sins in this connection is that we venture to offer opinions to children (and to older persons) instead of ideas. We believe that an opinion expresses thought and therefore embodies an idea. Even if it did so once the very act of crystallization into opinion destroys any vitality it may have had. (Philosophy of Education, p. 110)

Our object in education should always be the pursuit of Truth, not the propagation of our own opinions. Plato thought so. Bacon thought so. Presumably Coleridge thought so, and Charlotte Mason certainly did. Even though Bacon was primarily interested in science and Plato in philosophy, there is still that underlying unity in their method of approaching knowledge and seeking truth.

Far from differing in their great views of the education of the Mind, they both proceeded on the same principles of unity and progression; and consequently both cultivated alike the Science of Method, such as we have here described it. If we are correct in these statements, then may we boast to have solved the great problem of conciliating ancient and modern Philosophy. (p. 46-47)

That is a potent statement and a heady claim to be making. Small wonder Coleridge uses the word “boast” to describe it. And yet, I think it is clear that Charlotte Mason met him on this ground, and found in these ideas the confidence and certainty which her own experience illustrated as time went on. She urged these concepts in her earliest writings, and she waved them with a flourish in her final work. Whether they are ancient or modern is less important than that they are true. She called upon both ancient philosophers and her modern experience to testify to the laws she perceived.

I know this can feel like a lofty discussion that is beyond our grasp, but it is not. It boils down to the simple idea that there is truth, and we can know it. Everything else grows from there.