Category Archives: Blog

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.

Connections with Coleridge #6—Meet the Philosophers

We’ve come to the point in this discussion where method and education are going to come together. Philosophy and education are inextricably linked. But how do we get there? Coleridge shares Charlotte Mason’s scorn—or perhaps she shares his—for mechanical systems.

True it is that the Ancients, as well as the Moderns, had their machinery for the extemporaneous coinage of intellect, by means of which the scholar was enabled to make a figure on any and all subjects, and any and all occasions. (p. 36)

Anyone who takes education seriously should take this warning to heart. Things that are old are not by definition good. Within even what we call “the classical tradition” there are those who have been more interested in having scholars who could “make a figure”—put on a good show—than in wisdom. Coleridge doesn’t leave us in much doubt about who they were, either (those Sophists!). But he doesn’t plan to waste much time on all the educational missteps that have occurred.

We shall not trouble our readers with a comparative view of many Systems, but we shall present to their admiration one mighty Ancient, and one illustrious Modern, [names redacted]. These two varieties will sufficiently exemplify the species. (p. 37)

I’ve left out the names just there on purpose, but I’ll tell you in a moment. I just want to remind you that in the beginning of this series, I created a link between you reading what I’ve written, while I write about Charlotte Mason, who made a point of sharing what Coleridge taught her, who in turn is going to focus on these two thinkers, one Ancient, and one Modern (in the philosophical, not chronological sense, meaning post-Enlightenment—he’s not going to seem modern to you!). This is a Great Conversation, and we are a part of it. When we look for unity in the diversity of all these things, we are pursuing Method and engaging in the science of relations.  We are finding connections.

Okay, our  “mighty Ancient” is Plato and our “illustrious Modern” is Francis Bacon. When I discovered that Coleridge’s Treatise on Method was actually a treatise on Plato and Bacon, a peculiar comment of Charlotte Mason’s suddenly made perfect sense to me:

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. (Philosophy of Education, p. 105)

I always knew why Coleridge was on the list, and I had a pretty good idea of why Plato was. Bacon just seemed stuck in there for no reason, but now I understand that all three were linked in Charlotte Mason’s mind because of this book. This is merely another indication of how broadly Coleridge’s work affected her thinking.

I do not know if any of my readers are deeply enough familiar with the philosophy of Bacon to know this (I certainly wasn’t), but Bacon considered himself to be opposed to Plato, as did those who came after him. But Coleridge is having none of it. Remember that his goal is to explore unity in diversity, and he asserts that Bacon’s scheme of Logic “is Platonic throughout!”

The work of Bacon that Coleridge has in mind is called Novum Organum, and Coleridge suggests that it was misunderstood:

Those who talk superficially about Bacon’s Philosophy, that is to say nineteen-twentieths of those who talk about it at all, know little more than his induction. (p. 40)

Now, whether Coleridge was right in this is beyond my ability to judge. Certainly, whether he is right or not, things have progressed far beyond the point Coleridge observed in his lifetime, but what he has to say about induction and hypotheses is something I have to regretfully set aside in this series so that we can focus on Method. The misunderstanding of Bacon, according to Coleridge, gave birth to a body of men “but too numerous”—what he calls “the Minute Philosophers”—among whom, I am sorry to say, he includes a giant in the annals of science, Robert Hooke. But he has a reason, and it is of significance to educators in general, and Charlotte Mason educators particularly.

Coleridge scoffs at Hooke’s understanding of Bacon’s induction method because he interprets it as a need to delve into the minutiae (hence “minute philosophers”) of potters, tobacco-pipe-makers, optic-glass blowers, colour-makers, music-masters, printers, stage-players, laundresses and cosmetics (to name only a few!) for the sake of “facilitating our inquiries into philosophy.” In other words, Hooke thought an abundance of detailed facts and information could be accumulated and would lead to wisdom (philosophy).

Coleridge is a bit horrified and sends us to Isaac Watts for some wiser perspective:

“Furnish yourselves with a rich variety of Ideas. Acquaint yourselves with things ancient and modern, things Natural, Civil, and Religious; things of your native land, and of foreign countries; things domestic and national; things present, past, and future; and above all, be well acquainted with God and yourselves, with animal nature, and the workings of your own spirits. Such a general acquaintance with things will be of very great advantage.” (p. 41)

What we have here is the strong argument in favor of ideas occupying the focus of our educational efforts, as well as a hint that education should be begun upon general knowledge and not specialization. Focusing on ideas is a point upon which Charlotte Mason is lucid and adamant.

In the early days of a child’s life it makes little apparent difference whether we educate with a notion of filling a receptacle, inscribing a tablet, moulding plastic matter, or nourishing a life, but as a child grows we shall perceive that only those ideas which have fed his life, are taken into his being; all the rest is cast away or is, like sawdust in the system, an impediment and an injury.

Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. (Philosophy of Education, p. 108-09)

We’ll go on from here in the next few installments of this series, and explore the connections Coleridge found between Plato and Bacon. I genuinely hope I haven’t lost all my readers. I know how eager we all are for practical application of ideas, but our practical applications are most effective when they are grounded on principles that we understand well. Charlotte Mason grappled with these ideas of Coleridge’s until she understood them well enough to propose practical applications in the education of young children (who are not especially Coleridge’s concern). She’d be proud of us for doing likewise, I’m sure.



Connections with Coleridge #5—In Pursuit of Method

The book Treatise on Method proposes a certain approach to knowledge that seems to have appealed to Charlotte Mason. I am not going to pretend that I completely comprehend Coleridge and can fully explain him to you (he is out of my league—although I understand him more as I read more–and I’m awed that Charlotte Mason not only understood but extracted and followed his principles); however,  I hope to give you at least a glimpse of his thinking. Because he was working on an Encyclopedia, he had in mind the entire scope of knowledge that man can apprehend:  everything from the contemplation of a circle to the observation of things like electricity—still not fully understood in his lifetime.

He postulates the necessity of discovering the Laws (capitalized like that) which are based upon Ideas, and which alone can lead to true Method. This is a very contemplative process, removed from the messy laboratory process of hypothesis and experiment that we associate with science, but there is a fundamental link which I think we could express as connection (or perhaps relation). Whatever methods the human mind pursues, the search is always for unity and connection even when diversity and difference appear on the surface.

By way of illustration, what do water and flame, the diamond, charcoal, and sparkling champagne have in common? According to Coleridge, this is the Law that a “Chemical Philosopher” would labor to discover. They are varieties of “one form”—carbon. They are very different things on the surface, but to the discerning mind, there is a unity.

And, he further postulates, the same philosophic principle that underlies the approach to chemistry applies to poetry. That is—that different things may be conceived of as varieties of “one form” within the mind of a poet. By way of example for that, he gives us Shakespeare: “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet” suggest each other to Theseus. This is what simile, metaphor, and analogy are all about—finding similarities between different things for the sake of poetic comprehension and connection.

I think this is just the concept that captured Charlotte Mason’s attention and informed her approach to education across decades of reading, teaching, experimenting, writing, philosophizing, but above all, living. Things are not separate. Everything is connected by an underlying, unifying Law, whether we have yet perceived it or not. Education, is, in fact, a process of apprehending and actualizing as many relations as possible. This is “method:”

Method, we have seen, demands a knowledge of the relations which things bear to each other, or to the observer, or to the state and apprehension of the hearers. (p. 26)

Where the habit of Method is present and effective, things the most remote and diverse in time, place, and outward circumstance, are brought into mental contiguity and succession, the more striking as the less expected. (p. 31)

In my own more limited understanding, this is what I was trying to express when I presented the concept of “synthetic thinking,” in Consider This. Coleridge tells us that a critic is quick to point out the surface differences or problems in a work of genius, but he shows us that this is little more than an illustration of the fact that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

A very slight knowledge of Music will enable anyone to detect discords in the exquisite harmonies of Haydn or Mozart; and Bentley has found more false grammar in the Paradise Lost than ever poor boy was whipped for through all the forms of Eton or Westminster; but to know why the minor note is introduced into the major key, or the nominative case left to seek for its verb, requires an acquaintance with some preliminary steps of the Methodical scale, at the top of which sits the author, and at the bottom, the critic. (p. 32)

In other words—perceiving essential unity is more important than minutia. The whole is greater than the sum of its (perhaps imperfect) parts. Coleridge uses Shakespeare (and by extension, all “Works of the higher imagination”) at length to illustrate his thesis, but then he shifts to his real point which is the ground where Charlotte Mason meets him:

To Philosophy properly belongs the Education of the Mind: and all that we have hitherto said may be regarded as an indication (we have room for no more) of the chief Laws and regulative Principles of that education. (p. 36)

When I remember that Charlotte Mason refers to this work of Coleridge’s in the first volume she published, and again—at even greater length—in the final volume she wrote about education, I cannot doubt that the ideas she found here were fundamentally integrated into all her work on the subject. Education is, indeed, a science of relations, and Coleridge intends to show us some of those relations. I hope you’ll stick with me as we explore those ideas further. I think you’re going to be surprised.

Connections with Coleridge #4—Dipping into Method

Coleridge says that his principles have been “drawn from the purest sources of Philosophy, ancient and modern.” It reminded me of Charlotte Mason herself, who didn’t mind so much whether a source was old or new so much as she cared that it was an example of “purest philosophy,” and she never hesitated to shape her life according to the philosophy and principles she believed in.

For example, Coleridge considered the way a methodical mind should approach time. Time is divided into days and hours, and regularity and punctuality and “everything like clockwork” strike us as virtues. But Coleridge tells us that the “man of Methodical industry” is not content merely to mark time:

He realizes its ideal divisions, and gives a character and individuality to its moments. If the idle are described as killing time, he may be justly said to call it into life and moral being, while he makes it the distinct object not only of the consciousness, but of the conscience. He organizes the hours, and gives them a soul: and to that, the very essence of which is to fleet, and to have been, he communicates an imperishable and a spiritual nature. (p. 13)

I find this passage remarkably similar to the descriptions I’ve read of the way that Charlotte Mason ordered her own time day by day, and the way she ordered the time of the college at Scale How  and encouraged families to order theirs. Time was a valuable resource, and every bit of it should be used profitably and gratefully. Methodically. And since method is primarily about relations, time should be used relationally.

But at Scale How time was to be respected, given to the thing or person claiming it rightfully. Then there would always be time, without over-pressure or distraction. This sense of time value was hard to achieve but it bore the test of experience during the two years’ training. What an effort of faith it all was to one so slow to read, to write and to think. It did not seem possible to find a moment for everything, yet if no time was wasted there was plenty of it and no hurry. (The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondeley, p. 150)

As I work through this series, I continue to receive pops of illumination that weren’t there before. The reason  this methodical and relational approach makes a difference is that it shows us meaning. That’s the “imperishable and spiritual nature” of something as fleeting as time. When the minutes are gone, their meaning remains. They meant something, and so their effect lives on.

While reading through Treatise on Method, I occasionally felt that I was reading Charlotte Mason herself. Sometimes that was because Coleridge’s key ideas echoed Charlotte Mason’s (or, more correctly, hers probably echoed his):

And is not he the truly virtuous and truly happy man, who seizing first and laying hold most firmly of the great first Truth, is guided by that divine light through all the meandring and stormy courses of his existence? To him every relation of life affords a prolific Idea of duty ; by pursuing which into all its practical consequences, he becomes a good servant or a good master, a good subject or a good sovereign, a good son or a good father ; a good friend, a good patriot, a good Christian, a good man! (p. 14)

And sometimes, it feels like Charlotte Mason simply because she quoted whole paragraphs from this book:

“We can recall no incident of human history that impresses the imagination more deeply than the moment when Columbus on an unknown ocean first perceived that baffling fact, the change of the magnetic needle. How many instances occur in history when the ideas of nature (presented to chosen minds by a Higher Power than Nature herself) suddenly unfold as it were in prophetic succession systematic views destined to produce the most important revolutions in the state of man! The clear spirit of Columbus was doubtless eminently methodical. He saw distinctly that great leading idea which authorised the poor pilot to become a ‘promiser of Kingdoms.’ ” (From Philosophy of Education, p. 106, but quoting from pages 14-15 of Treatise on Method.)

Are you getting a glimpse of the way that method/relations provide meaning? “Every relation of life affords a prolific Idea of duty.” When we perceive relations it awakens our sense of connection and responsibility. We are moved to act because we care (“it’s not how much does the youth know, but how much does care?”) Relations gives us reasons for behaving in certain ways. This is the process by which virtue is fostered in the human heart. Columbus was certainly motivated by the ideas and relations that he perceived!

Throughout this book we find evidence after evidence of the strong influence it had on Charlotte Mason’s thinking. The central theme of the book, of course, is the concept of method, by which is meant the clear progress of thought toward a definite end. It implies a series of relationships that are linked, one into another, as progress is made step-by-step. There is no sphere of human experience that remains untouched by these ideas. As Coleridge discusses the effect of method in the study of botany and chemistry, we see glimmers of the ideas that informed Charlotte Mason’s approach to every study. What Coleridge means by “method” is both so deep and so broad, it could take your breath away. It is nothing less than the living action of the human mind in accordance with principles and laws which the mind alone can perceive: relationship, on both a macro and a micro scale—relationship that will not allow a person to remain a passive learner, unmoved by what he sees. Charlotte Mason beheld these ideas and carried them with her throughout decades of educational endeavors.

I know this discussion gets weighty, which is one reason I’ve spent two years with this book before venturing into it, but I’m glad I finally started. It’s a further relationship to interact with other people over the ideas (even on a blog), and that further relationship breathes new life into the ideas I’ve been pondering. Thanks for being a part of it!

Connections with Coleridge #3.5—A Speculative Detour

So, I’ve written this whole series in advance and scheduled it to post weekly. I usually do that with these blog series so I don’t panic about deadlines. But then, I often tweak them before they go live, so there is an element of freshness, too. I was working on the most recent post, trying to include some examples of how specific subjects fit into Coleridge’s concept of Law and Theory being the two kinds of relationships, when I started to notice something.

The chapter is called “Principles of the Science of Method.”

Coleridge says

We discover, that there is a Science of Method; and that that Science, like all others, must necessarily have its Principles.

And as I quoted before:

The relations of things form the prime objects, or, so to speak, the materials of Method.

Under the heading of Law, Coleridge tells us we find the “Pure Sciences” which also form the groundwork of the “Mixed Sciences.” Under the heading of Theory, we find the “Scientific Arts” (like medicine). In fact, after a while, it hurts my eyes to read all the words with Capital Letters.

But then, I noticed something. In addition to equating Method with relations, Coleridge uses the word Science a lot. And a light bulb with a question mark appeared over my head. (I’m pretty sure.) I started to wonder…

Relations. Science. Science of Relations?

I have read every word of the CM series over and over again, and I have never found a place where Charlotte Mason explains why she uses the word science in her principle “education is the science of relations.” She explains relations at length, but science not at all. I gave up long ago, and figured that science was just a Victorian buzzword that she used to call attention to the importance of relations.

But perhaps not? Maybe Coleridge and his Capital Letters so impressed the idea of a Science on her mind while she was reading about the relations of Method that she associated the two words in her own mind, and so the expression “science of relations” might have its roots here in Treatise on Method. Surely it’s possible? The idea itself, certainly, originated here, and Charlotte Mason made that fairly clear with her quotes and references to this work. But the expression “science of relations?” Did that also originate here?

We’ll never be able to say so definitely, because she didn’t say so, and I don’t think I encountered the exact phrase “Science of Relations” in this book. But maybe. Maybe. It’s not a huge leap to change “science of method” to “science of relations” when you’ve already defined method as relations.  It was an interesting speculation, and I thought I’d share it with readers of this series as a sort of “thinking-out-loud” bonus post.

I hope this little detour won’t break the train of thought linking one post to the next, and I hope you’re enjoying Coleridge-the-philosopher, and that the next time you read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” you’ll remember him for more than just that poem. In the meantime, Coleridge, Coleridge everywhere.

Connections with Coleridge #3—Law and Order

Beginning with this post, we’re really going to dig into the book by Coleridge that Charlotte Mason quoted on so many occasions. The title is Treatise on Method, and in good rhetorical form, Coleridge jumps right into the topic by defining his term. This work was originally intended as the introduction to a new Encyclopedia (though it also appeared as a series of articles in his periodical, The Friend), so that context is considered as well:

As Method is thus avowed to be the principal aim and distinguishing feature of our publication, it becomes us at the commencement, clearly to explain in this Introduction what we mean by that word; to exhibit the Principles on which alone a correct Philosophical Method can be founded; to illustrate those principles by their application to distinct studies and to the History of the Human Mind; and lastly to apply them to the general concatenation of the several Arts and Sciences, and to the most perspicuous, elegant, and useful manner of developing each particular study. Such are the objects of this Essay, which we conceive must form a necessary Introduction to a Work, that is designated in its title from the place whence it originates, — Encyclopedia Metropolitana ; but claims from its mode of execution to be also called “a Methodical Compendium of Human Knowledge.”

(I include this lengthy quote in part to give you a taste for the flavor of this book. Consider yourself warned.)

Coleridge goes on to describe the Greek origin of the word “method,” which means a way or a path, which by extension includes the concept of progress or a transition from one step to the next step. This why Charlotte Mason asserted that “method implies a way toward an end.”

It’s tempting to quote Coleridge further, but you wouldn’t thank me, and even my self-proclaimed interested readers (more than three!) might decide they’d rather scroll through facebook than wade through Coleridge. So let me narrate.

Coleridge says that method implies a unity as well as a progression. The central working factor that actually supplies this unity is the human mind. Without method, there is chaos. The mind develops an orderly understanding out of the chaos by pursuing the relations that exist between things (does that sound familiar?).

Coleridge says:

We may, therefore, assert that the relations of things form the prime objects, or, so to speak, the materials of Method; and that the contemplation of those relations is the indispensable condition of thinking Methodically.

We are only up to page 3 of Treatise on Method, and here is already a startling thing. The idea that underpins Method is relations. As in,  “Education is the science of relations.” We’ve heard this before.

Coleridge goes on to say that the relations the mind will discover between things are of two kinds—one kind is Law, and the other is Theory, but Law = Truth (absolute Truth, with a capital T), and he is going to go on to say that Truth = Idea, in the purest sense of the word—Charlotte even quotes this bit:

“The idea may exist in a clear, distinct, definite form, as that of a circle in the mind of a geometrician.” (Parents and Children, p. 36)

So, a law is an absolute truth the mind perceives, and a theory is an idea that allows action to be taken upon the basis of the law, allowing for the relation of cause and effect.  Within these two kinds of relations—law and theory—all the different areas of knowledge can be placed. Things that are concerned with Law alone are “Pure Sciences”–morality, justice. “Mixed sciences” are founded upon Law, but include some Theory, and here you have things like Mechanics and Astronomy. Pure Theory includes studies that Coleridge calls “Scientific Arts,” among which we find things like Medicine and Chemistry, which are based on the cause and effect of certain actions taken with Law in mind. Coleridge explains at great length, with Shakespeare as Exhibit A, that the relations between Law and Theory include the Fine Arts, where we find things like the “law of taste.” I would be lying if I told you I understood it all, but I get glimmers. Reading through this section, I know that Charlotte Mason read and it understood it better than I do, because I keep bumping into familiar sentences that she has quoted. For example, “From the first, or initiative Idea, as from a seed, successive Ideas germinate.”

In the light of all this, Charlotte Mason’s principle that “education is the science of relations” is thrown into a new light—a wider, broader conception than is immediately evident.

Coleridge tells us that the “laws of mind” are analogous to the “laws of arithmetic and geometry.” That is precisely what Charlotte Mason thought.

The universe of mind, as the universe of matter, is governed by unwritten laws of God; that the child cannot blow soap bubbles or think his flitting thoughts otherwise than in obedience to divine laws. (Home Education, p. 39)

All of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy rests upon her premise that she is articulating laws that are inherent and perceivable within the universe, and developing methods with those laws as her starting point. This is why all of the principles work together as an integrated whole, and why I entitled my last book In Vital Harmony.

Charlotte Mason’s claim is that her work is based upon these laws that are Truth.

My endeavour in this and the following volumes of the series will be to sketch out roughly a method of education which, as resting upon a basis of natural law, may look, without presumption, to inherit the Divine blessing.  (Home Education, p. 41)

I do not think it is coincidental that Charlotte Mason urged “method” in her educational writing. She referred to this work of Coleridge at the beginning and the end of her long career, and I think we can safely say that this work had a strong influence on her thinking. It will be interesting to pursue some of the ideas that are contained in this treatise on “method,” so I hope you’ll stick with me through the rest of the series.