Tag Archives: Comenius

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.

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #3—Mind and Body

Today’s topic is not something that Charlotte Mason and Comenius share exclusively, but is rather one of those things they hold in common with some of the most ancient educators. The physical health and well-being of a person play a role in preparing a person to think, learn, and behave well. The ancient Greeks gave gymnastics a prominent role in their educational process, to prepare their pupils in every way for future heroic deeds, should they be called for. Charlotte Mason appreciated the point, and folded that idea into her educational methods.

The object of athletics and gymnastics should be kept steadily to the front; enjoyment is good by the way, but is not the end; the end is the preparation of a body, available from crown to toe, for whatever behest ‘the gods’ may lay upon us. It is a curious thing that we, in the full light of Revelation, have a less idea of vocation and of preparation for that vocation than had nations of the Old World with their ‘few, faint and feeble’ rays of illumination as to the meaning and purpose of life. (School Education, p. 102)

Truly, for many years, the physical well-being of the learner was not much considered, but after the Renaissance, thoughtful educators made a point of including it in their ideas. Comenius, too:

This same body is not only intended to be the dwelling-place of the reasoning soul, but also to be its instrument, without which it could hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing, conduct no business, and could not even think. (The Great Didactic, p. 258)

Both proper food and exercise were not too mundane to be a part of his admonitions.

In order that good health may be preserved, it is necessary that nourishment be not only moderate in quantity, but also simply in quality.…Parents should therefore take care not to spoil their boys, particularly those who study or ought to study, by giving them dainties. (The Great Didactic, p. 259-60)

Charlotte Mason goes into even greater detail about the proper (and improper) diet for children.

Everybody knows that children should not eat pastry, or pork, or fried meats, or cheese, or rich, highly-flavoured food of any description; that pepper, mustard, and vinegar, sauces and spices, should be forbidden, with new bread, rich cakes and jams, like plum or gooseberry, in which the leathery coat of the fruit is preserved. (Home Education, p. 26)

One of the practical points that arises from considering the well-being of the body, even during the hours devoted to learning, is a balanced schedule. A teacher who is trying to make sure children have the best chance to learn will make sure that their bodies and brains are rested and exercised between lessons. It was Comenius’s recommendation:

It is…useful to intersperse the labours of the day with recreation, amusements, games, merriment, music, and such-like diversions, and thus to refresh the inner and the outer senses. (The Great Didactic, p. 260)

We see then that a large portion of the good organization of schools consists of the proper division of work and of rest, and depends on the disposition of studies, intervals to relieve the strain, and recreation. (The Great Didactic, p. 261)

Modern science as Charlotte Mason knew it confirmed these basic ideas, and gave her additional confidence to recommend much the same thing:

Just as important is it that the brain should have due rest; that is, should rest and work alternately. (Home Education, p. 22)

This much is certain, and is very important to the educator: the brain, or some portion of the brain, becomes exhausted when any given function has been exercised too long. The child has been doing sums for some time, and is getting unaccountably stupid: take away his slate and let him read history, and you find his wits fresh again. Imagination, which has had no part in the sums, is called into play by the history lesson, and the child brings a lively unexhausted power to his new work. School time-tables are usually drawn up with a view to give the brain of the child variety of work. (Home Education, p.24)

One of the interesting points for us today is that even the newest research confirms that learning is optimal only under certain physical conditions. At the AmblesideOnline conference earlier this year, Lynn Bruce spoke on this topic, among other things, and delighted us by showing us how many of the riches included in a Charlotte Mason education, such as art and composer studies and nature walks, reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels and restore a healthier physical condition for learning.

These educators of long ago might not have had access to all the latest research we do, but their own observations and experiences set them on the healthiest path just the same. It is interesting to see how the basic principle “a healthy body is the best tool for learning” resulted in similar practical applications at different times.

Add some physical activity to your day, and take care to alternate the type of lessons/activities you do, so that your students have a chance to refresh their minds and bodies. It seems more like common sense than a lofty educational ideal, but I think the smartest and most effective teachers remember that these little things add to the atmosphere of the learning environment and the well-being of their pupils, and that makes them important enough to include in educational discussions.

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.

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.

Charlotte Mason and Comenius #1–Introduction

I’m going to attempt an actual, planned series of blog posts, scheduled to be posted at regular intervals. If you’re wondering whether or not I’ll be able to follow through with that, well…so am I. But I’ve been thinking about this and planning it since the spring of this year, so we’ll hope for the best.

What is my series going to be about? I’m really not good at cute and clever names, so I have no cute and clever name for it. I’m going to be writing about Charlotte Mason and John Amos Comenius, so “Charlotte Mason and Comenius” it is. That’s the topic and the title. At least no one will be confused.

I read all or most of Comenius’ Great Didactic some years ago, from the web archive. I gleaned a great deal from that reading, but earlier this year, I was able to acquire a physical copy of the book. It was a pleasure to read it again, this time with pencil and sticky-notes to keep track of the interesting parts. Comenius was one of the great educators of Europe, in fact, in the 1600’s. I don’t want to waste space telling you the stuff that Wikipedia can tell you, so if you are interested in those things, please read about him there.

I am going to tell you something about him that Wikipedia doesn’t pay more than cursory attention to. It’s one of the reasons I think Charlotte Mason found him an inspiration, one of the reasons that she was, perhaps, more ready to hear his ideas about education than some others. Comenius was a very, very Christian educator, and his Christianity colored all of his ideas and approaches to education. Charlotte Mason probably found him a “kindred educator” because they shared a common faith, which formed a solid foundation for their thinking about educational philosophy.

In a very real sense, they both set out deliberately to achieve the same goal.

Charlotte Mason:

My attempt in the following volume is to suggest to parents and teachers a method of education resting upon a basis of natural law…(Home Education, Preface to the Fourth Edition)


Let us then commence to seek out, in God’s name, the principles on which, as on an immovable rock, the method of teaching and of learning can be grounded. If we wish to find a remedy for the defects of nature, it is in nature herself that we must look for it, since it is certain art can do nothing unless it imitate nature. (The Great Didactic, p. 250)

(If you read the Wikipedia article, Comenius’ lessons from nature are considered “crude analogies” by the author. I disagree with him, as would Charlotte Mason, who freely made use of similar analogies to articulate her principles.)

Okay, so both them were looking for universal, natural principles, because acting in accordance with such principles (or natural laws, if they can be well-defined and articulated) makes great things possible. It is not by breaking the laws of physics that airplanes weighing many tons are able to fly through the air, faster and higher than any bird, but rather by acting in strictest accordance with those laws and principles. In education, if we can discern principles and laws which are absolutely true, our educational efforts have the potential to produce amazing results.

But neither Comenius or Charlotte Mason thought such natural laws existed in a vacuum. Both brought a serious Christian perspective to the problem as well.

Charlotte Mason:

If we believe that knowledge is the principle thing, that knowledge is tri-partite, and that the fundamental knowledge is the knowledge of God, we shall bring up our children as students of Divinity and shall pursue our own life-long studies in the same school. (Philosophy of Education, p.338)


Reason itself dictates that such a perfect creature [man] is destined to a higher end than all other creatures, that of being united with God, the culmination of all perfection, glory, and happiness, and of enjoying with Him absolute glory and happiness forever. (The Great Didactic, p. 179)

Sharing, as they do, this common belief that natural law can be discerned regarding education, and viewing the world with a decidedly Christian worldview, it has been fascinating to me to note the many, many points upon which they agreed. Some of them are large and lofty ideals, and some of them are minute practical details. Does it mean that Charlotte Mason was copying Comenius and got all her ideas from him? Not necessarily. We do know she was familiar with his work and his principles, however, and just by way of appreciating how sound universal principles make themselves known to thoughtful educators in every age, it is interesting to compare their ideas. Hence, the blog series (in case it is also interesting to others).

I’ll be aiming to post one new post in this series each Monday for the next 6 or 8 weeks. If you have any questions about it, or want to discuss anything further, feel free to comment. I’m going to keep this series chatty and informal, rather than making it a formal article. I know very few people are going to choose to read The Great Didactic, and that’s fine. It will still be nice to know a few things about this fascinating educator with whom Charlotte Mason shared a desire that was rare in the history of education–a desire to provide “a liberal education for all.”

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.