Charlotte Mason and Comenius #2—Eternal things

One of the hardest things to decide about this series is the order in which to present topics. I’m still not sure, but I think I will continue in this post to look at a few broad principles that Charlotte Mason and John Amos Comenius shared, and which informed the way that they shaped their educational practices.

Our purpose in life should be focused on things of eternal value.

There may be educational methods that give lip service to this idea without actually implementing it, but I think most modern systems of education gloss right over it. The bulk of our educational endeavors tend to focus on measurable results (test scores), “success” which is defined as the gain of material advantages, or the child’s personal feelings of self-worth. The idea that there is more to life than this life on earth, or even that our earthly life can be enhanced by focusing on eternal things does not enter in. Our two educational philosophers knew what was important.

Comenius expresses this idea by saying that there are three pursuits only which are worthy of our position as the rational creatures God created us to be: Erudition (which he uses interchangeably with “learning”, Virtue, and Religion (or “piety”).

Under Erudition we comprehend the knowledge of all things, art, and tongues; under Virtue, not only external decorum, but the whole disposition of our movements, internal and external; while by Religion we understand that inner veneration by which the mind of man attaches and binds itself to the supreme Godhead.

In these three things is situated the whole excellence of man, for they alone are the foundation of the present and of the future life. All other thing (health, strength, beauty, riches, honour, friendship, good-fortune, long life) are as nothing, if God grant them to any, but extrinsic ornaments of life, and if a man greedily gape after them, engross himself in their pursuit, occupy and overwhelm himself with them to the neglect of those more important matters, then they become superfluous vanities and harmful obstructions. (The Great Didactic, p. 190)

I have not been able to find one place where Charlotte Mason was as succinct as Comenius about the whole thing, but she, too considered that education should be more than just preparation for making a living. If you have read Charlotte Mason’s volumes, you will have encountered, again and again, the emphasis she places on these higher things.

This, too, belongs to the disrespect in which we, as a nation, hold knowledge. To know is not synonymous with with to do; but we should not leave our young people to stumble on right action without any guiding philosophy of life; the risks are too great. We who bear the name of Christ do not always give ourselves the trouble to realise how His daily labour was to make the Jews know; how ‘ye will not understand’ was the reproach He cast upon them.” (Formation of Character, p. 383)

And like Comenius, she holds the pursuit of lesser things unworthy of our full potential. For example:

If the worlds you conquer be those of academic distinction, why, there is no spirit in you for further labours, unless as more such worlds present themselves. (Ibid.)

And again:

We live in times critical for everybody but eminently critical for teachers because it rests with them to decide whether personal or general good should be aimed at, whether education shall be merely a means of getting on or a means of general progress towards high thinking and plain living and therefore an instrument of the greatest national good. (Philosophy of Education, p. 180)

The desire for these higher things–the desire to know, the desire to do good, the desire to know God–are innate and natural in every person.

This has very definite implications when it comes to education, and you will find both Comenius and Mason making sure the point is clear.

It is not necessary, therefore, that anything be brought to a man from without, but only that that which he possesses rolled up with himself be unfolded and disclosed. (The Great Didactic, p. 194)

Which does not imply that no educational direction is needed! Comenius makes sure we understand that:

The seeds of knowledge, of virtue, and of piety are, as we have seen, naturally implanted in us; but the actual knowledge, virtue, and piety are not so given. These must be acquired by prayer, by education, and by action. (Ibid., p. 204)

I think this view–that children come to us with natural powers of mind and a natural appetite for knowledge–is a crucial point when it comes to education; because if you don’t recognize this truth explicitly, a great deal of educational labor can be expended–wasted, even–in trying to “teach children to learn” as if they did not know how, or in trying to “make things interesting” as if knowledge were an unpalatable medicine we have to disguise with a bit of jam.

Basically, the better you understand the exact nature of the person you must educate, the more likely you are to strike upon effective methods.

A child requires knowledge as much as he requires food.

He is furnished with the desire for Knowledge, i.e., Curiosity; with the power to apprehend Knowledge, that is, attention; with powers of mind to deal with Knowledge without aid from without––such as imagination, reflection, judgment; with innate interest in all Knowledge that he needs as a human being; with power to retain and communicate such Knowledge; and to assimilate all that is necessary to him.

…The natural provision for the appropriation and assimilation of Knowledge is adequate and no stimulus is required; but some moral control is necessary to secure the act of attention; (Philosophy of Education, p.18)

Like Comenius, Charlotte Mason recognized that the natural desire to be virtuous is present in children.

Children are born Law-abiding.––’Naughty baby!’ says the mother; and the child’s eyes droop, and a flush rises over neck and brow. …But what does it mean, this display of feeling, conscience, in the child, before any human teaching can have reached him? No less than this, that he is born a law abiding being, with a sense of may, and must not, of right and wrong. (Home Education, p. 13-14)

And Charlotte Mason, too, recognized the inborn hunger to know God and have a relationship with the Infinite.

Crowned kings have thrown up dominion because they want that which is greater than kingdoms; profound scholars fret under limitations which keep them playing upon the margin of the unsounded ocean of knowledge; no great love can satisfy itself with loving; there is no satisfaction save one for the soul of a man, because the things about him are finite, measurable, incomplete and his reach is beyond his grasp. He has an urgent, incessant, irrepressible need of the infinite. “I want, am made for, and must have a God;”––not a mere serviceable religion,––because we have in us an infinite capacity for love, loyalty and service which we cannot expend upon any other. (Philosophy of Education, p. 54)

It’s quite a starting point for an educational philosophy, isn’t it? Nothing about test scores or making a living, although it isnt suggested that those things are of NO value–simply that they are unworthy of primary consideration. Both Mason and Comenius took Eternity into account at the beginning of their educational thinking, and recognized that the seeds of the eternal things were there in the children they wanted to teach. Their job was to help the children realize the possibilities within them.

We’ll be looking at what that looks like in practice over the next few weeks!

This blog series is now available as a short digital book in the “Encore” series. The original material from the series, plus bonus content, is collected in one place where you can easily refer to it. Read the Kindle version of Charlotte Mason and Comenius or purchase an epub version to read on a platform of your choice.