Part IV—Sowing the Seeds

Welcome to the final week of this blog series:

“He possessed nothing as a man the seed of which had not been sown in the course of his education.”

This fragment, which appears in part IV of Formation of Character, might be considered the theme, not only of this section, but of volume 5 and of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy as a whole. She writes:

There is also a time for sowing the seed of this knowledge, an intellectual as well as a natural springtime; and it would be interesting to examine the question, how far it is possible to prosecute any branch of knowledge, the sowing and germination of which has not taken place in early youth.

You get a taste of this in School Education, where Charlotte Mason looks at the childhoods of Wordsworth and Ruskin, and considers how their early experiences and tastes affected them as grown men. In this section of Formation of Character, she applies that principle to fictional characters as well as real people.

In the Preface to this volume, she offered a half-apology for the material included in Section IV:

I am diffident about offering Part IV. of this volume, because, though the public is wonderfully patient with writers who ‘adorn the tale,’—half the books we read are about other books,—I am not sure of equal forbearance towards an attempt to ‘point the moral.’

This last section is a collection of “book studies,” although the books discussed are not covered thoroughly. Miss Mason has read them, and found within them literary examples of educational principles and ideas, and actually does “point the moral” for us so we can take advantage of her insight. In fact, she goes as far as to say that it is “stupid to disregard such a means of instruction.” Books—even novels—may be our teachers, particularly when it comes to character. The seeds that are sown in youth will bear fruit in kind later in life.

You will not find it necessary to have read the books for yourself in order to appreciate her thoughts. She gives us plenty of explanation to work with. I read an online summary of one of the books (The Egoist by George Meredith), and that summary didn’t even mention the character that Charlotte Mason focuses on in “Young Crossjay.” You can read and glean a great deal by simply reading these chapters as they stand.

There are some wonderful little gems of Charlotte Mason’s wisdom tucked into these book studies, and this section is the reason that Formation of Character is my favorite volume. Much of her educational writing is philosophical and general in nature, but because she is dealing with specific examples in these book studies, her insights take on a more personal and practical tone.

Because the seeds we sow in childhood do affect our lives, sometimes parents—especially young parents of still-small children—worry about the natural exposure of their children to the evil that is in the world. There is a temptation to shelter and protect them from any such exposure, but in “Two Peasant Boys” Miss Mason says:

Here is a matter which sometimes causes uneasiness to parents: they are appalled when they think of the casual circumstances and chance people that may have a lasting effect upon their children’s characters. But their part is, perhaps, to exercise ordinary prudence and not over-much direction. They have no means of knowing what will reach a child; whether the evil which blows his way may not incline him to good, or whether the too-insistent good may not predispose him to evil. Perhaps the forces of life as they come should be allowed to play upon the child, who is not, be it remembered, a product of educational care, but a person whose spiritual nurture is accomplished by that wind which bloweth whither it listeth.

In the same chapter, there is an urgent reminder about the kind of mental food our young people need while they are young, to ensure a taste for good books and reading later:

And, what is more, the boy who has not formed the habit of getting nourishment out of his books in school-days does not, afterwards, see the good of reading. He has not acquired, in an intellectual sense, the art of reading, so he cannot be said to have lost it; and he goes through life an imperfect person, with the best and most delightful of his powers latent or maimed. Why in the world should we not give children, while they are at school, the sort of books they can live upon; books alive with thought and feeling, and delight in knowledge, instead of the miserable cram-books on which they are starved?

In these chapters, you will find several places where Charlotte Mason grapples with typical or classical education. The books illustrate the frustrations of the characters with schools that had lost their vision:

“Innumerable dead vocables (no dead language, for they themselves knew no language) they crammed into us, and called it ‘fostering the growth of mind’; and he asks how can a mechanical gerund-grinder foster the growth of mind, which grows, not like a vegetable, by having ‘etymological composts’ laid upon it, but like a spirit, by contact of spirit, ‘thought kindling itself at the fire of living thought.’”

The kinds of books and material we use with our children make a real difference in the way they will feel about knowledge and learning. Miss Mason doesn’t hesitate to take a warning from these books about avoiding dry, deadening material in favor of living thought. It can take many forms—art, music, books of course, but also nature-lore or even play.

In “ A Genius at ‘School,’” she considers whether the puppet-shows of Goethe’s childhood kindled a love of theater that culminated in his own dramatic plays. But she is not simplistic, and there are insights here that bear deep thought and consideration:

It is well we should clear our thoughts on this subject, and recognise, once for all, that personal culture is hardly a legitimate aim. We are allowed to seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge, culture of body and mind for the sake of serviceableness; and, recognising this, we give our lives an impersonal aspect. We look at pictures and read books for the sake of the pictures and the books, and not at all for our sakes. Our children carry forward this larger view of life. They feel, think, and labour without sparing as occasion calls upon them; they live, that is, the common life, and are not stranded in an inlet of individual culture.

One of the most interesting topics that crops up, more then once, in these book studies, is the tendency to be a “know-it-all,” to which young people are extremely susceptible:

All young persons are cocksure, not at all because they are foolish and arrogant, but because they are unaware of the fact that equally reasonable and equally intelligent persons are capable of holding opposite views on any given question. In this, as in so many other ways, we feel the lack of what must be the rational basis of a sound education—that is, an ordered study of human nature.

This danger, too, may be offset by early exposure to the right ideas and in “Pendennis of Boniface” she offers an antidote. She quotes a long passage from Plutarch’s essay on education, in which he urges the study of “philosophy” on all students as a guide to life. Miss Mason urged a similar study of the “science of life” or “art of living” with a religious standard, which is a sort of advertisement for Ourselves.

As it is, the moral and philosophical training we give is random and scrappy to a pitiable degree. The very sincerity of our dependence upon God has resulted in a criminal ignorance about ourselves, our possibilities and our risks, and this in despite, as I have said, of the teaching of our Master. No one person should be launched upon life without an ordered knowledge of himself.

Another book study is concerned with Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, and in “Better-than-my-Neighbour,” Charlotte Mason uses that dialogue as a springboard to discuss the need for balance and justice in our thinking, which must begin in youth.

Children should have a wide and generous curriculum. We try to put them off with a parcel of ready-made opinions, principles, convictions, and are astonished that these do not stick to them; but such things each of us has to get by his own labour. It is only a person of liberal mind whose convictions are to be trusted, because they are the ripe fruit of his knowledge.

But, after all, the crank…is a person who errs by excess. It is not always that he does not know, but that he allows one aspect of a subject to fill his mind.

…every foolish little piety we accept as the whole duty of man makes us the less capable of just, liberal, and reverent thought.

Are you beginning to get a sense that there is no way to easily summarize the depth and breadth of the wisdom in this section of Volume 5? It is a little treasure trove of Charlotte Mason’s wisdom which will best serve those who have read at least one of her more general volumes and understand her ideas well. There are gems on nearly every page, more than you will find with a single reading. The nice thing about these chapters, as I have said before, is that each one is a stand-alone article. You do not need to read all of Volume 5 at once, or read it in order, in order to appreciate any particular chapter. Choose one, read it well, and carry away the polished stone which caught your eye to adorn your shelf of treasures.

What I mean is, read a chapter and glean what you can, because you are almost certain to gain an insight that will make a difference as you teach your own children. The things that they are exposed to in childhood will have an effect on them all their lives—seeds that are not sown certainly can never bear fruit. When you read these books studies, or even just one or two of them, you will take away some of Charlotte Mason’s wisdom about sowing those seeds, and a stronger conviction to be sure that they do not miss out on any of the riches of knowledge available to them.

And I will imitate Charlotte Mason, and include a bit of poetry, which I’ve snatched from Part II to include here:

Children, like tender osiers, take the bow,
And, as they first are fashion’d, always grow;
For what we learn in youth, to that alone
In age we are by second nature prone.

Anne will be taking a closer look at one of these book studies on Wednesday as our series nears its end.


Read all the posts in this series.

5 thoughts on “Part IV—Sowing the Seeds

  1. I’m not sure I’m understanding this section:

    It is well we should clear our thoughts on this subject, and recognise, once for all, that personal culture is hardly a legitimate aim. We are allowed to seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge, culture of body and mind for the sake of serviceableness; and, recognising this, we give our lives an impersonal aspect. We look at pictures and read books for the sake of the pictures and the books, and not at all for our sakes. Our children carry forward this larger view of life. They feel, think, and labour without sparing as occasion calls upon them; they live, that is, the common life, and are not stranded in an inlet of individual culture.

    Can you help?


    1. I wondered if that might not be a bit too obscure. Basically, Charlotte Mason does not think that we should make our *selves* the point in the things that we do. I will be more cultured, I will know more, I will understand history, I will master brush drawing, etc…—everything about “I, me, and myself.” Rather, she wants us to place ourselves in the posture of a learner, the humility of learner before a teacher: “These are very fine things and it’s a privilege to hear this, see this, read this.” I’m going to add another long comment with an extensive quote from Volume 4, along the same lines.

    2. vol 4 pg 153

      Self-Absorption.––I am not sure. The moral self-culture which is practised for its own sake is apt to give a curious apartness to the self-cultured person. There is a loss of spontaneity, a suggestion of a ‘higher plane,’ which stops the flow of simple, natural sympathy, the only gift we have for one another. Any sort of absorption has this effect; no one expects much of a lover, or a poet, or of a student cramming for an examination; but the lover’s case is, we know, only a phase, and so is the student’s; and as for the poet, in so far as there is anything in him, he is working for the world. But nothing comes of self-absorption beyond that personal culture which is its aim. The rest of us are not very willing to be benefited by persons who are evidently on another plane: even Christ reached us where we are, for was He not in all points tempted like as we are?

      I remember once meeting, amongst a large party, a lady who was rather a puzzle to me. She was striking-looking and very agreeable. She was a leader in whatever went on in the house––acting, reciting, games, talk––and excelled everyone else in whatever she did. She was very kind, too; wherever there was a little need or ailment, she was on the watch to give help. This lady was a puzzle to me, because, with so much that was charming, there was a certain aloofness about her that was repellent. I thought, perhaps she was a woman with a story; but, no, everybody knew all about her. At last her kind wish to help me disclosed the mystery. If I laid myself upon my bed in such and such a position, and said, ‘I am very happy, there is nothing the matter with me,’ etc., etc., for so long every day, the result would be perfect serenity of mind and health of body.

      vol 4 pg 154

      Then I saw what put this interesting woman out of touch with the people about her. She had a distinct personal cult, a cult of her own well-being, which, notwithstanding many kindnesses, proved like a wall topped with broken glass to the rest of us; we could not get at her, and though she practised every one of the behaviours at the head of this chapter, and more of the kind, I believe it was nothing to the rest of the party.

      A Better Way.––Self-restraint, the ordering of our appetites; self-control, the keeping back the expression of our passions and emotions; self-command, which keeps our temper from running away with us; self-denial, which causes us to do without things that we want––all these may be excellent; but there is a better way.

      When the Will aims at what is without self and more than self, the appetites are no longer ravenous, nor the emotions overpowering, nor the temper rebellious (except for a quick, impulsive instant, followed by regret and recovery). As for self-denial, it is impossible for love to go without what it wants, because it is not aware of personal wants. The mother who feeds her child with the last crust, covers it with her last rag, does not exercise self-denial, but love. Probably a great deal of harm to ourselves and others is done by what we call our self-denials. “I won’t have you saving yer dirty sowl upon me,” said an Irish woman to her district visitor; and it is just possible that she expressed a law of life,––that we are not allowed to be good to others, or even to be good in ourselves, just for the sake of being good. Love, and the service of love, are the only things that count.

      Give the Will an object outside itself, and it will

      vol 4 pg 155

      leap to service, even to that most difficult of all service, the control of the forces of Mansoul. It is not by one grand fiat, but by many ordered efforts of Will, that we overcome those failures in self-restraint, self-control, self-denial, which are the misery of our lives, and which we know to be sin by the wretchedness they bring upon ourselves and others, and the separateness from others which they set up in our hearts. It is not self-ordering, but an object outside of ourselves, leading to self-forgetfulness and a certain valiant rising of the will, to which we must look for a cure for the maladies that vex us.

      But, you will say, our Lord Himself has bidden us to deny ourselves. Yes, but He asks of us the self-denial of a disciple who follows his Master and denies himself in the sense that he has no self, for the love that constrains him.

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