Charlotte Mason on “Ideas”


Excerpted and adapted from
Ideas and Books: The Means of Education


Book CoverThe Life of the Mind Grows Upon Ideas

Now that life, which we call education, receives only one kind of sustenance; it grows upon ideas. You may go through years of so-called ‘education’ without getting a single vital idea; and that is why many a well-fed body carries about a feeble, starved intelligence; and no society for the prevention of cruelty to children cries shame on the parents.

Some years ago I heard of a girl of fifteen who had spent two years at a school without taking part in a single lesson, and this by the express desire of her mother, who wished all her time and all her pains to be given to ‘fancy needlework.’ This, no doubt, is a survival (not of the fittest), but it is possible to pass even the Universities Local Examinations with credit, without ever having experienced that vital stir which marks the inception of an idea; and, if we have succeeded in escaping this disturbing influence, why, we have ‘finished our education’ when we leave school; we shut up our books and our minds, and remain pigmies in the dark forest of our own dim world of thought and feeling.

What is an Idea?

A live thing of the mind, according to the older philosophers, from Plato to Bacon, from Bacon to Coleridge. We say of an idea that it strikes us, impresses us, seizes us, takes possession of us, rules us; and our common speech is, as usual, truer to fact than the conscious thought which it expresses. We do not in the least exaggerate in ascribing this sort of action and power to an idea. We form an ideal––a, so to speak, embodied idea––and our ideal exercises the very strongest formative influence upon us. Why do you devote yourself to this pursuit, that cause? ‘Because twenty years ago such and such an idea struck me,’ is the sort of history which might be given of every purposeful life––every life devoted to the working out of an idea. Now is it not marvellous that, recognising as we do the potency of ideas, both the word and the conception it covers enter so little into our thought of education? Coleridge brings the conception of an ‘idea’ within the sphere of the scientific thought of today; not as that thought is expressed in Psychology––a term which he himself launched upon the world with an apology for it as an insolens verbum, but in that science of the correlation and interaction of mind and brain, which is at present rather clumsily expressed in such terms as ‘mental physiology’ and ‘psycho-physiology.’

In his Method Coleridge gives us the following illustration of the rise and progress of an idea:––

Rise and Progress of an Idea

“We can recall no incident of human history that impresses the imagination more deeply than the moment when Columbus, on an unknown ocean, first perceived that startling fact, the change of the magnetic needle. How many such instances occur in history when the ideas of Nature (presented to chosen minds by a Higher Power than Nature herself) suddenly unfold, it were, in prophetic succession, systematic views destined to produce the most important revolutions in the state of man! The clear spirit of Columbus was doubtless eminently methodical. He saw distinctly that great leading idea which authorised the poor pilot to become a ‘promiser of kingdoms.”‘

Genesis of an Idea

Notice the genesis of such ideas––’presented to chosen minds by a Higher Power than Nature’; notice how accurately this history of an idea fits in with what we know of the history of great inventions and discoveries, with that of the ideas which rule our own lives; and how well does it correspond with that key to the origin of ‘practical’ ideas which we find elsewhere:––

“Doth the plowman plow continually to . . . open and break the clods of his ground? When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad  the fitches, and scatter the cummin, and put in the wheat in rows, and the barley in the appointed place, and the spelt in the border thereof? For his God doth instruct him aright, and doth teach him . . .

“Bread corn is ground; for he will not ever be threshing it . . . This also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts, which is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom.”

An Idea May Exist as an ‘Appetency’ (an affinity)

Ideas may invest as an atmosphere, rather than strike as a weapon. ‘The idea may exist in a clear, distinct, definite form, as that of a circle in the mind of a geometrician; or it may be a mere instinct, a vague appetency towards something, . . . like the impulse which fills the young poet’s eyes with tears, he knows not why: To excite this ‘appetency towards something’––towards things lovely, honest, and or good report, is the earliest and most important ministry of the educator. How shall these indefinite ideas which manifest themselves in appetency be imparted? They are not to be given of set purpose, nor taken at set times. They are held in that thought-environment which surrounds the child as an atmosphere, which he breathes as his breath of life; and this atmosphere in which the child inspires his unconscious ideas of right living emanates from his parents. Every look of gentleness and tone of reverence, every word of kindness and act of help, passes into the thought-environment, the very atmosphere which the child breathes; he does not think of these things, may never think of them, but all his life long they excite that ‘vague appetency towards something’ out of which most of his actions spring. Oh, wonderful and dreadful presence of the little child in the midst!

A Child Draws Inspiration from the Casual Life Around Him

That he should take direction and inspiration from all the casual life about him, should make our poor words and ways the starting-point from which, and in the direction of which, he develops––this is a thought which makes the best of us hold our breath. There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs, as its atmosphere about a planet the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.

Order and Progress of Definite Ideas

Let us now hear Coleridge on the subject of those definite ideas which are not inhaled as air; but conveyed as meat to the mind:––

“From the first, or initiative idea, as from a seed, successive ideas germinate.”

“Events and images, the lively and spirit-stirring machinery of the external world, are like light and air and moisture to the seed of the mind, which would else rot and perish”

“The paths in which we may pursue a methodical course are manifold, and at the head of each stands its peculiar and guiding idea.”

“Those ideas are as regularly subordinate in dignity as the paths to which they point are various and eccentric in direction. The world has suffered much, in modern times, from a subversion of the natural and necessary order of Science . . . from summoning reason and faith to the bar of that limited physical experience to which, by the true laws or method, they owe no obedience.”

“Progress follows the path of the idea from which it sets out; requiring, however, a constant wakefulness of mind to keep it within the due limits of its course. Hence the orbits of thought, so to speak, must differ among themselves as the initiative ideas differ.”

Platonic Doctrine of Ideas

Have we not here the corollary to, and the explanation of that law of unconscious cerebration which results in our ‘ways of thinking,’ which shapes our character, rules our destiny? Thoughtful minds consider that the new light which biology is throwing upon the laws of mind is bringing to the front once more the Platonic doctrine, that “An idea is a distinguishable power, self-affirmed, and seen in its unity with the Eternal Essence.”

Ideas Alone Matter in Education

The whole subject is profound, but as practical as it is profound. We must disabuse our minds of the theory that the functions of education are, in the main, gymnastic. In the early years of the child’s life it makes, perhaps, little apparent difference whether his parents start with the notion that to educate is to fill a receptacle, inscribe a tablet, mould plastic matter, or nourish a life; but in the end we shall find that only those ideas which have fed his life are taken into the being of the child; all the rest is thrown away, or worse, is like sawdust in the system, an impediment and an injury to the vital processes.

How the Educational Formula Should Run

This is, perhaps, how the educational formula should run: Education is a life; that life is sustained on ideas; ideas are of spiritual origin; and,

     ‘God has made us so’

that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another. The duty of parents is to sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as they sustain his body with food. The child is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; therefore, in the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand, for thou knowest not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.

The child has affinities with evil as well as with good; therefore, hedge him about from any chance lodgment of evil ideas.

The initial idea begets subsequent ideas; therefore, take care that children get right primary ideas on the great relations and duties of life.

Every study, every line of thought, has its ‘guiding idea’; therefore, the study of a child makes for living education in proportion as it is quickened by the guiding idea ‘which stands at the head.’


Book CoverExcerpted from Ideas and Books: The Means of Educationby Charlotte Mason (Volume Three in the Charlotte Mason Topic Series).  For ordering information and further details, simply click on the book title or cover image.

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