Charlotte Mason and Comenius #4—Synthetic Thinking

As you can imagine, it was difficult not to make this the first thing I wrote about, just because the topic is so interesting to me. But there were other foundational principles I thought should come first. Nevertheless, the use of synthetic thinking ranks high on my list of important educational practices.

If you have read Consider This, I have devoted quite a bit of time to explaining what synthetic thinking is, and why it is important. I don’t have the space to do that here, so I’m basically just going to address the fact that both Charlotte Mason and Comenius saw the importance clearly, and shared the view that synthetic thinking should come first in the educational process. Synthetic thinking is virtually absent from most modern pedagogy, but played a crucial role in the classical, liberal arts tradition. (I spoke about synthetic thinking at the AmblesideOnline conference, if you are interested in learning more.)

To put it in the simplest terms possible, synthetic thinking is “relational” thinking, which focuses on forming a personal relationship with knowledge, as well as exploring how any new knowledge is related to what the learner already knows and understands, and how one thing is related to another. Analytic thinking focuses on taking things apart, breaking them down into smaller, discrete parts, and thinking about them separately. One is not “good” and the other “bad”–both are natural and have their place. Ideally, “putting together” by synthetic thinking should take place before “taking apart” analysis is brought into play. Children, especially, should be encouraged to deal with knowledge in a synthetic way, and all of Charlotte Mason’s methods promote synthetic thinking (more about that in a future post).

Comenius tells us “synthesis first” in plain language:

We may therefore lay it down as a law…that in dealing with any subject the analytic method should never be used exclusively ; in fact, preponderance should rather be given to the synthetic method. (The Great Didactic, p. 302)

He also gives us a good explanation as to why this should be so. Once things are apprehended synthetically, they can be analyzed with relative ease by an experienced learner.

Does the builder teach his apprentice the art of building by pulling down a house? Oh no; it is during the process of building a house that he shows him how to select his materials, how to fit each stone into its proper place, how to prepare them, raise them, lay them and join them together. For he who understands how to build will not need to be shown how to pull down, and he who can sew a garment together will be able to unrip it without any instruction. But it is not by pulling down houses or by unripping garments that the arts of building or of tailoring can be learned. (The Great Didactic, p. 301)

Charlotte Mason, too, well understood the benefits of forming relationships and learning to care about things, before attempting to dismantle them.

This invective discovers a mistake in our educational methods. From the time a child is able to parse an English sentence till he can read Thucydides, his instruction is entirely critical and analytic.…We miss the general principle that critical studies are out of place until the mind is so ‘throughly furnished’ with ideas that, of its own accord, it compares and examines critically.

…we are not capable of examining that which we do not know; and knowledge is the result of a slow, involuntary process, impossible to a mind in the critical attitude. Let us who teach spend time in the endeavour to lay proper and abundant nutriment before the young, rather than in leading them to criticise and examine every morsel of knowledge that comes their way. Who could live if every mouthful of bodily food were held up on a fork for critical examination before it be eaten? (Formation of Character, p. 293-95)

One interesting thing I have noticed while reading through the writing of Charlotte Mason and others who wrote articles in the PNEU Parents’ Review, is that they tend to use the actual word “synthetic” in reference to thinking and knowledge, without explanation, as if they expect the readers to understand what it is all about, though too often contemporary readers do not. Charlotte Mason refers to Goethe as having a “synthetic mind,” being dissatisfied with fragmentary knowledge.

Her introduction to her representation of the gospels in verse, The Saviour of the World, offers some commentary on the results of overly-analytic thinking:

We are at present in a phase of religious thought, Christian and pseudo-Christian, when a synthetic study of the life and teaching of Christ may well be of use. We have analysed until the mind turns in weariness from the broken fragments; we have criticised until there remains no new standpoint for the critic; but if we could only get a whole conception of Christ’s life among men and of the philosophic method of His teaching, His own words should be fulfilled and the Son of Man lifted up, would draw all men unto Himself. (quoted in Philosophy of Education, p. 166)

Notice the contrast between the “wholeness” of a synthetic approach, and the “broken fragments” of analysis. Synthetic thinking promotes relationship and caring, while analytical thinking ends in weary distate. It is worth any amount of time and thought to restore in ourselves the ability to understand knowledge synthetically, wholly. Modern education pushes analysis first and last, so that many of us have reached adulthood without being aware that there is any other way to approach knowledge. Without it, it is nearly impossible to implement Charlotte Mason’s methods effectively, and of course, to place analysis before synthesis is to depart from the classical tradition.

Apart from using methods that promote synthetic thinking, there are a couple of practical outcomes that were common for Charlotte Mason and Comenius. First, both of them insisted that lessons should be consecutive, not random, so that there is a rational plan for adding new knowledge to old knowledge, and the gradual understanding of the whole can be achieved.

Second, they both abhorred the practice of doling out knowledge in bits and pieces.

For the knowledge that consists of the collected sayings and opinions of various authors resembles the tree which peasants erect when they make holiday, and which, though covered with branches, flowers, fruit, garlands, and crowns, cannot grow or even last, because its ornamentation does not spring from its roots, but is only hung on. Such a tree bears no fruit, and the branches that are attached to it wither and fall off.(The Great Didactic, p. 302)

In other words, such a way of offering knowledge is not living, even if it looks that way at first glance. It has been cut off from the root, and can only wither and die. Charlotte Mason called this kind of material “scrappy,” and she joins Comenius in deploring it.

Psalm, hymn, and catechism have departed; the Bible lesson is pared down to a shred; and, in our zeal, we do not see that we have deprived the people of the classics, the metaphysics, the ethics––as well as the religion––peculiarly their own. Instead, we have put into their hands–– “Readers”––scraps of science, of history, of geography––saw-dust, that cannot take root downwards and bear fruit upwards in human soil. (Formation of Character, p. 148)

“Education is the science of relations” is one of Charlotte Mason’s fundamental principles, and “ordo amoris”–ordering the affections by learning to care about things that ought to be cared about–is a classical hallmark. They are essentially the same, and cannot be achieved except through synthetic thinking. “…he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” (Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien)

This topic leaves me worrying whether I and other bloggers are not doing the very thing Charlotte Mason and Comenius warned against–offering up knowledge in bits and pieces. If so, I beg forgiveness, and I will say here that this blog series is no substitute for reading Charlotte Mason’s Home Education Series or Comenius’s Great Didactic for yourself. Please consider this series, not a substitute for reading on your own, but the enthusiastic out-pourings of a fellow lover of knowledge. I don’t want to give you pre-digested knowledge, but rather invite you to the feast for yourself. By describing the dishes at the feast, I just want to whet your appetite. If time constraints won’t allow you to partake right now, at least you know the table is out there, and this kind of feast does not spoil or grow stale. It will still be there when you are ready.

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.