Education is the Science of Relations

Charlotte Mason’s 12th principle of education is “Education is the Science of Relations.”

You really have to think about it.

Science. Of Relations?

Relations don’t seem all that scientific, really–more organic and, well, relational. But let’s just roll with it, because in Charlotte Mason’s lifetime, “science” was a buzzword, and everything was a science. Housekeeping was a science. Hygiene was a science. There were mental science and moral science. So why not a science of relations? At least it makes you stop and think.

What is the science of relations? This principle is similar to Charlotte Mason’s first principle, “Children are born persons,” in that there are are layers of meaning and multiple applications. It’s a principle, not a rule, and it has broad implications, which grow more complex as the children themselves grow.

The first level, the initial application, for brand-new babies and for young children, is about literal first-hand acquaintance with knowledge. Little persons have to learn that things are hard, that things are soft, that things are edible (or not). They learn how things sound, and they learn that some sounds have meaning. They distinguish light from heavy and big from small. They are forming relationships with the world around them from the time they are born.

When they begin their more formal schooling, they begin the process of developing relationships with academic areas of knowledge–with numbers, with nature study, with music, and languages. A person can develop a relationship with robotics and computers, or with space and the cosmos, or with plants growing on a windowsill.

Charlotte Mason’s methods are designed to help children build these relationships. For example, with picture study, the students look at one picture for a couple of weeks. They form a relationship with the picture. They view half a dozen pictures from the same artist, and as well as forming a relationship with each picture, they form a relationship with the artist. After several terms of picture study and many artists, they begin to notice for themselves that some artists paint small details, and others suggest pictures with broad strokes of the brush. Some artists use bright, energetic colors, and some artists’ paintings are very dark. They are developing a relationship with the more abstract ideas of “art” and “style,” which they will later connect to periods of history and the philosophy behind the art. It’s all the science of relations.

At some point in the child’s education, he begins to make connections for himself between different things. I once heard a story about a girl, perhaps six years old, who connected the behavior of the fire ants in her yard to a story she had learned in history. No one could predict or anticipate that kind of relationship, or make it the goal of a lesson plan. It was her own observation, her own insight, that saw the relationship between the ants and the history.

A small English boy of nine living in Japan, remarked, “Isn’t it fun, Mother, learning all these things? Everything seems to fit into something else.” The boy had not found out the whole secret; everything fitted into something within himself. (Philosophy of Education, p. 156-57, emphasis added)

This, also, is the science of relations. Notice that Charlotte Mason did not say that he was wrong–he was correct!–only that there was a further truth to be discovered. He had discovered only part of that “secret”–that everything “seems to fit into something else.” All knowledge is connected. Education is the science of relations. As we form our personal relationships with different areas of knowledge, and those relationships grow, we won’t be able to help seeing how they intersect and work together.

The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him? (School Education, p. 170-171)

This serious business–of learning to care about all kinds of knowledge–is reminiscent of an older educator’s (Augustine’s) contention that the goal of education is ordo amoris–ordering the affections. That is, we should learn to love and care about everything worth loving, and also to despise those things that ought to be despised–baseness, falsehood, injustice. Even earlier, Plato wrote in his Laws:

There is one element you could isolate in any account you give, and this is the correct formation of our feelings of pleasure and pain, which makes us hate what we ought to hate from first to last, and love what we ought to love. Call this ‘education,’ and I, at any rate, think you would be giving it its proper name.

Education is the ordering of our affections. Education is the science of relations–the relations we form, and the relations we see. And ultimately, at its very end, the science of relations is the pursuit of wisdom. Even Jesus on earth, says Charlotte Mason, needed to grow in this kind of wisdom.

Wisdom, the Recognition of Relations––It is curious how the philosophy of the Bible is always well in advance of our latest thought. ‘He grew in wisdom and in stature,’ we are told. Now what is wisdom, philosophy? Is it not the recognition of relations? First, we have to understand relations of time and space and matter, the natural philosophy which made up so much of the wisdom of Solomon; then, by slow degrees, and more and more, we learn that moral philosophy which determines our relations of love and justice and duty to each other: later, perhaps, we investigate the profound and puzzling subject of the inter-relations of our own most composite being, mental philosophy. And in all these and beyond all these we apprehend, slowly and feebly, the highest relation of all, the relation to God, which we call religion. In this science of the relations of things consists what we call wisdom, and wisdom is not born in any man,––apparently not even in the Son of man Himself.

Wisdom increases; Intelligence does not––He grew in wisdom, in the sweet gradual apprehension of all the relations of life: but the power of apprehending, the strong, subtle, discerning spirit, whose function it is to grasp and understand, appropriate and use, all the relations which bind all things to all other things––this was not given to Him by measure; nor, we may reverently believe, is it so given to us. (Parents and Children, p. 258-59, emphasis added)

Like the incarnate Jesus himself, we may believe that we have been given, without stint, the power of developing a relationship with all knowledge. What begins with a baby shaking a rattle and listening to its noise–learning the relationship between his action and its result–should culminate in an understanding of the of the world which sees that all things are bound to all other things, and above them all is the Educator of mankind, God himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit.

The principle “Education is the Science of Relations” is not one-dimensional, but broad and vital. Charlotte Mason calls it the “captain idea” that should guide our thinking about education, and among other things, this principle directly influences the curriculum we should offer children. If it is their birthright as persons to form relationships with all kinds of knowledge, then we should not curtail that for them, by limiting ourselves to one branch or another–to the classical languages and literature, or to the STEM subjects. If we want the feet of our children to be set in a large room, we must enlarge it in every direction–with science and poetry and history and music and literature and art and geography and languages–with every kind of knowledge that will contribute to the growing understanding of the way that all knowledge is bound together, to ourselves, and to God himself.

Charlotte Mason looked back to a time when these relations were better understood.

It has been said that ‘man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’; and the augustness of the occasion on which the words were spoken has caused us to confine their meaning to what we call the life of the soul; when, indeed, they include a great educational principle which was better understood by the mediæval Church than by ourselves. (School Education, p. 153-53)

She goes on to describe the fresco on the walls of the Spanish Chapel in Florence, of which she was so fond.

At the highest point of the picture we see the Holy Ghost descending in the likeness of a dove; immediately below, in the upper chamber are the disciples who first received His inspiration;

…In the lower compartment of the great design are angelic figures of the cardinal virtues, which we all trace more or less to divine inspiration, floating above the seated figures of apostles and prophets, of whom we know that they ‘spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.’ So far, this mediæval scheme of philosophy reveals no new thought to persons instructed in the elements of Christian truth. But below the prophets and apostles are a series of pictured niches, those to the right being occupied by the captain figures, the ideal representations, of the seven Liberal Arts, figures of singular grace and beauty, representing such familiar matters as grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic, all of them under the outpouring of the Spirit of God. Still more liberal is the philosophy which places at the foot of each of these figures him who was then accepted as the leader and representative of each several science,––Priscian, Cicero, Aristotle, Tubal Cain, Zoroaster, Euclid, Pythagoras; men whom a narrower and later theology would have placed beyond the pale of the Christian religion, and therefore of the teaching of the Spirit of God. But here all are represented as under the same divine outpouring which illuminated the disciples in the upper chamber. (SE, p. 153-54, emphasis added)

This concept, of all knowledge (knowledge undebased–Charlotte Mason does make that caveat) being an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, no matter where it is articulated, gives a unity and fullness to our understanding of knowledge. Traced to its very source, the “science of relations” reveals to us that the Holy Spirit is the supreme Educator of mankind.

Our nature craves after unity. The travail of thought, which is going on to-day and has gone on as long as we have any record of men’s thoughts, has been with a view to establishing some principle for the unification of life. Here we have the scheme of a magnificent unity. (SE, p. 154)

Charlotte Mason saw that this vital, unified understanding, which she did not hesitate to call “wisdom,” has the potential to produce great ideas, great works, and great understanding. One critical point, from an educational perspective, is that there is no need to divide our ideas of knowledge into “sacred” and “secular.” When we recognize that the Holy Spirit is the source of all knowledge, and interests himself even in the truths of arithmetic, geometry, and grammar, our focus shifts. Knowledge is not an unpalatable medicine to be forced down by any educational gimmick we can contrive. Knowledge is a gift of God, and the question becomes therefore, what methods can we use which will invite His cooperation in the education of our pupils?

The ages which held this creed were ages of mighty production in every kind;

…Let us set ourselves to labour with purpose and passion to restore to the world, enriched by the additions of later knowledge, that great scheme of unity of life which produced great men and great work in the past. (SE, p. 155-56)

This was the work of Charlotte Mason and the PNEU, and it is our work, too. “Education is the Science of Relations” begins with allowing a child to explore and form relations with all kinds of knowledge, but it ends in a magnificent understanding of the unity of knowledge which Charlotte Mason called wisdom. When we take up the principle that education is the science of relations and make it the “captain idea” that guides our educational efforts, we are inclining our ears unto wisdom and our hearts to understanding. (Proverbs 2:2)