The Great Recognition
"God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself the supreme Educator of mankind." This, according to Charlotte Mason, is the great recognition. It is a bold claim, meaning we as parents and teachers find ourselves in divine co-operation with the Holy Spirit "in the direction, teaching, and training of the child." When practiced, "our feet are set in a large room; there is space for free development in all directions, and this free and joyous development, whether of intellect or heart, is recognized as a Godward movement" (Mason, Parents and Children, 275). This is A Sacred Education.
According to Miss Mason, "we do not merely give a religious education because that would seem to imply the possibility of some other education, a secular education, for example. But we hold that all education is divine, that every good gift of knowledge and insight comes from above... that the culmination of all education is that personal knowledge of and intimacy with God in which our being finds its fullest perfection" (Mason, School Education, 95).
In her book, Parents and Children, Charlotte Mason symbolizes this great recognition through Andrea da Firenze's fresco The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1368). Displayed in the Spanish Chapel attached to the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, this masterpiece represents the teaching power of the Spirit of God and the saving power of Christ in the world.
The painting is narrated as follows:
The descent of the Holy Ghost is on the left hand (of the roof) as you enter. The Madonna and Disciples are gathered in the upper chamber: underneath are the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc., who hear them speak in their own tongues. Three dogs are in the foreground--their mythic purpose, to mark the share of the lower animals in the gentleness given by the outpouring of the Spirit of Christ...We will take the side of intellect first. Beneath the pouring forth of the Holy Spirit in the point of the arch beneath are the there Evangelical Virtues. Without these, says Florence, you can have no science. Without Love, Faith, and Hope--no intelligence. Under these are the four Cardinal Virtues...Temperance, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude. Under these are the great Prophets and Apostles...Under the line of Prophets, as powers summoned by their voices, are the mythic figures of the seven theological or spiritual and the seven geological or natural sciences ; and under the feet of each of them the figure of its Captain-teacher to the world (Mason, Parents and Children, 268-269).
The fresco captures the Medieval Florentine worldview, which believed that every fruitful and original idea of education (the liberal arts, sciences and mathematics) was from a direct outpouring by the Holy Spirit. In other words, all knowledge that is true is from the Holy Spirit regardless of whether or not the inspired person recognizes this divine inspiration. Miss Mason reflects on this by quoting Isaiah saying, "his God doth instruct him and doth teach him" (Isaiah 28:26).
As educators making this recognition and allowing ourselves to be led by the Spirit we come to the understanding of the nature of children. Charlotte Mason upheld the belief that children, as all human beings, are created in the image of God. They are image-bearers of the Creator who are capable of reflecting His attributes including stewarding the created order, being relational, rational, creative, moral and expressing mercy and love (Beckman, When Children Love to Learn, 58). Thus, Miss Mason birthed the first principle of her educational philosophy: "Children are born persons." She believed children are born complete with all their potentiality within their possession. Among this their natural, God-given desire for knowing, more specifically, knowing God. But we live in a fallen world and so are in a great struggle within ourselves and the world around us. This is made evident in Miss Mason's principle that children "are not born either good or bad, but with the possibilities for good and evil." Charlotte Mason educator Art Middlekauf writes, "Mason wrote her second principle because she wanted to advance an educational system that was based on the natural goodness in children." A goodness that persists despite our sin nature. She taught that because of the grace of Christ this goodness endures. The fully human, fully divine Christ through his redemptive grace invites us to become fully human by reaching for the divine. As Cistercian Monk Michael Casey writes, 'everything the Word was by nature, we become by grace" (Casey, Fully Human, Fully Divine, 8). Miss Mason believed this should inform us on how we teach our children:
But we live in a redeemed word, and one of the meanings which that unfathomable phrase bears is, that it is the duty of those who have the care of childhood to eradicate each vulgar and hateful trait, to plant and foster the fruits of that kingdom in the children who have been delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace; that is to say, all children born into this redeemed world (Mason, Parents and Children, 65).
Educators working in divine co-operation will foster and atmosphere where the great recognition is realized by the children themselves. Mason's twentieth principle states, "We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and spiritual life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life."
How then does this take place?
Ideas are of spiritual origin and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another (Mason, A Philosophy of Education, 109).
The nature of knowing (learning) begins with ideas, the live things of the mind, that strike, impress, seize, and catch hold of one. Ideas are the initiators of habits of thought and habits of action. These ideas are conveyed through the natural world, heroic poetry, painted pictures, books of literary tradition, proverbial philosophy, musical symphonies, and the lives of persons and nations. Ideas are the living concepts that undergird, give meaning to, and connect one thought to another (St. Cyr, When Children Love to Learn, 101).
The knowledge of God is the sin qua non of Mason's curriculum, followed by the knowledge of man and the knowledge of the universe. For Miss Mason, the purpose of education is to develop an understanding of God and His created reality and to use that understanding in exercising a creative-redemptive dominion over the creation in which we live (Beckman, When Children Love to Learn, 118).
But this isn't just any kind of curriculum. It is a living curriculum. Miss Mason states:
We are told that the Spirit is life; therefore, that which is dead, dry as dust, mere bare bones, can have no affinity with Him, can do no other than smother and deaden his vitalizing influences, A first condition of this vitalizing teaching is that all the thought we offer to our children shall be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do; given the vitalizing idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the ideas upon a peg capable of sustaining all that it is needful to retain. We begin by believing in the children as spiritual beings of unmeasured powers--intellectual, moral, spiritual--capable of receiving and constantly enjoying intuitions from the intimate converse of the Divine Spirit (Mason, Parents and Children, 277).
The child is not passive in his education; he experiences, understands, and acts upon that understanding in ways that show the image of God in him--creating, exploring, making choices, building relationships (Beckman, When Children Love to Learn, 118). Teaching, according to Mason, must have a fresh and living approach which is accomplished mainly by the use of living books for children and teachers:
Children must have books, living books; the best is not good enough for them; anything less than the best is not good enough; and if it is needful to exercise economy, let go everything that belongs to soft and luxurious living before letting go the duty of supplying the books, and the frequent changes of books, which are necessary for the constant stimulation of the child's intellectual life. We need not say one word about the necessity for living thought in the teacher; it is only so far as he is intellectually alive that he can be effective in the wonderful process which we glibly call 'education' (Mason, Parents and Children, 279).
A Sacred Education thus is an authentic Charlotte Mason education that places God as the supreme educator and educators as divine co-operators in pointing children to becoming fully human, created in the image of God as revealed in the Scriptures. A Sacred Education is a living, formative education that provides the rich soil for bearing the fruit of the kingdom of Heaven.