The White Post #2—Sow an Act, Reap a Habit

This post is a slight interlude from the main point, because I want to use one clear example from Charlotte Mason about the way that something can be both old and new at the same time. Miss Mason illustrates this idea for us well in her discussion about habit.

Habit-formation figures largely in a Mason education. One of Miss Mason’s key principles is that “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life,” and the one-third that is “discipline” is centered upon habits.

At one level, Charlotte Mason was quite excited about (then) current research based upon the work of William Benjamin Carpenter (author of Principles of Mental Physiology). Carpenter described the way repeated actions created actual physical changes in the brain—“ruts,” as they were called. This idea—that the brain could be reshaped by the creation of habits—seemed to offer a firm foothold to educational methods. If you could deliberately set out to create certain kinds of “ruts” and oversee them to fruition, your educational efforts would create an indelible impression in the very brains of your pupils, and their habits would establish their behavior in the short term, and in the long term, their very character. Such were the ideas of Carpenter, and Charlotte Mason was an enthusiastic propagator of those ideas. She wrote: “I beg to acknowledge my indebtedness to Dr. Carpenter’s Mental Physiology for valuable teaching on the subject of habits contained in some two or three chapters of that work.” (Home Education, p. 11)

Later in her life, Charlotte Mason became somewhat disillusioned and disappointed in the science that excited her when she was younger. (You can see the difference in her perspective across the span of her writing.) Looking back, she actually declared in a letter to Henrietta Franklin that “Science has done nothing to confirm the ‘rut’ theory in all these years, and Brother Body seems to me much the inferior partner. I think all that I have written is still true but I would emphasize habit and so on less.” (emphasis added). However, although our understanding of the mechanism of habit today is different from the science that was understood in Charlotte Mason’s day, it does not undermine the essential rightness of her ideas nor her emphasis on habit.

And that is because, long before science began examining the physiological mechanism of habit formation in the brain, the role of habit in education had been observed, remarked upon, and incorporated into serious schemes of educational philosophy. One of the earliest observers on record was Aristotle, and many discussions of habit in education begin with Nicomachean Ethics. Charlotte Mason quotes a saying that is sometimes attributed to him: “Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” (Parents and Children, p. 29) When I wrote about Comenius and Charlotte Mason, I discussed their similar views of the role of habit: Habit formation in youth lays a foundation for virtuous living.

While Miss Mason was enthusiastic about the science of habit, she was under no illusion that habit as a part of education was something new. She mentions Thomas à Kempis a number of times to illustrate the long tradition of habit in education—which she considered the recognition of a natural law of education.

To put it in an old form of words—the words of Thomas à Kempis—what seems to me the fundamental law of education is no more than this: ‘Habit is driven out by habit.’ People have always known that ‘Use is second nature,’ but the reason why, and the scope of the saying, these are discoveries of recent days. (Parents and Children, p. 85, emphasis added)

And also:

If science limits our range of work as regards the development of so-called faculties, it extends it in equal measure with regard to habit. Here we have no new doctrine to proclaim. ‘One custom overcometh another,’ said Thomas a’ Kempis, and that is all we have to say; only, physiologists have made clear to us the rationale of this law of habit (Parents and Children, p. 228, emphasis added)

It is evident that Miss Mason was aware of the long tradition of emphasizing habit in education, but the science excited her. She believed it should lend additional confidence and care to the deliberate creation of habits in young children. Her enthusiasm is strong in Home Education, Parents and Children, and Formation of Character. Although she tempered that enthusiasm later in her life, the essential role of habit is not changed. The science is simply somewhat different from what was thought at the time.

When Charlotte Mason added “the science of the day” to “the philosophy of the ages” and declared they were together enough to form a code of education, it was to this physiological aspect of habit training that she referred. Habit-formation had been a part of educational philosophy from antiquity. It was old, but there was something new to think about it. A thing can be both old and new at the same time, as is illustrated here. It is certainly possible for Charlotte Mason’s comprehensive philosophy of education to belong to the long “classical” tradition of education and yet have something new to offer at the same time, as we shall see.