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    The Great Recognition

    Charlotte Mason believed that God is the divine educator, and that parents and teachers should not get in the way.

    By Leah Boden

    May 9, 2023
    • Julie

      In the not so wholesome tv series Shameless , Frank Gallagher is quoted saying “ Neglect fosters self reliance .” Obviously supposed to be shown as a neglectful father , but with a hint of Charlotte Mason ? Also the great Aslan quote in a Horse and His Boy. “Child,' said the Lion, 'I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”

    • Deani Van Pelt

      Brilliant introduction and invitation into Charlotte Mason’s Great Recognition and her ideas on masterly inactivity of educators. Thank you for sharing this!

    • John Wilson, Jr.

      Ruskin in his book The Stones of Venice also talked about the importance of work that preserves our humanity. He compares Renaissance architecture to Gothic architecture. It speaks of work in much the same way that Charlotte Mason speaks of education. Renaissance architecture required the mastery of a skill without allowing the imagination of the worker to interfere. Ruskin writes: The third kind of ornament, the Renaissance, is that in which the inferior detail becomes principal, the executor of every minor portion being required to exhibit skill and possess knowledge as great as that which is possessed by the master of the design; and in the endeavour to endow him with this skill and knowledge, his own original power is overwhelmed, and the whole building becomes a wearisome exhibition of well-educated imbecility. We must fully inquire into the nature of this form of error, when we arrive at the examination of the Renaissance schools. BUT in the mediaeval, or especially Christian, system of ornament, this slavery is done away with altogether; Christianity having recognized, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul. But it not only recognizes its value; it confesses its imperfection, in only bestowing dignity upon the acknowledgment of unworthiness. That admission of lost power and fallen nature, which the Greek or Ninevite felt to be intensely painful, and, as far as might be, altogether refused, the Christian makes daily and hourly, contemplating the fact of it without fear, as tending, in the end, to God's greater glory. Therefore, to every spirit which Christianity summons to her service, her exhortation is: Do what you can, & confess frankly what you are unable to do ; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, nor your confession silenced for fear of shame. And it is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they thus receive the results of the labour of inferior minds ; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole. And later: Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool. AND observe, you are put to stern choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, & make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs & compasses of themselves. All their attention and strength must go to the accomplishment of the mean act. The eye of the soul must be bent upon the finger point and the soul’s force must fill all the invisible nerves that guide it, ten hours a day, that it may not err from its steely precision, and so soul and sight be worn away, and the whole human being be lost at last; a heap of sawdust, so far as its intellectual work in this world is concerned; saved only by its Heart, which cannot go into the form of cogs & compasses, but expands, after the ten hours are over, into fireside humanity. On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause; but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only when we see the clouds settling upon him. And, whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them. To see what this is in practice look at the Cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame and compare them to St. Peter’s Basilica, which may be the only Renaissance Cathedral that is as universally known. St. Peter’s has its beauty, but it does not compare to the beauty of the Gothic Cathedral.

    I have an 1875 copy of John Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence. There’s nothing quite like inhaling that old-book smell of faint vanilla; the lignin scent as you open the pages is intoxicating. I like to imagine it is the same copy that British educator Charlotte Mason took with her to Florence in the spring of 1893. One day during that trip, Mason stood in front of The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas, a fresco in the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella. She found herself transfixed. She felt that the magnificent image confirmed her intuitions about the human mind working in collaboration with the Holy Spirit. This thought became foundational to her distinctive educational philosophy, which in turn has formed my own.

    Mason writes about this idea in Parents and Children (1897), calling it the Great Recognition: a conviction that all knowledge comes from God, the divine teacher. The fresco evokes this idea, expressing, in Mason’s words, “the teaching power of the spirit of God and the saving power of the Christ of God in the world.” The artist, Lippo Memmi, depicts Saint Thomas Aquinas holding the Book of Wisdom showing the Latin script “Optavi, et datus est mihi sensus: et invocavi, et venit in me Spiritus sapientiae, et preposui illam regnis et sedibus.” (And so I prayed, and understanding was given me; I entreated, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me. I esteemed her more than scepters and thrones; compared with her, I held riches as nothing.) Flying over a throne are the Seven Virtues. The four cardinal virtues are below, and the three theological virtues are flying high, over everything else.

    Andrea di Bonaiuto, Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, fresco, 1366-67.

    Andrea di Bonaiuto, Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, fresco, 1366–67.

    I imagine Mason wanting to linger in front of the fresco, to soak in the layers and lines and the people’s faces, to search out its meaning. I wonder if she stood staring with a craned neck, as I have in galleries many times, like there was no one else in the room – just her, the paint, and the story the picture was forming in her mind. Maybe she flicked through the pages of Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence to his notes on the fresco, which he calls “The Vaulted Book.” 

    All good and perfect things come from above

    Mason’s biographer, Essex Cholmondeley, notes that the name The House of the Holy Spirit would have suited the House of Education that Mason founded in her house on a hill in Ambleside, though it would have required some explanation. The atmosphere Mason created there, her exemplary way of life, and the legacy she left behind reflected a house that was indeed led by the Holy Spirit. Mason’s whole life mission was to communicate to whomever would listen that God is the divine educator, that educators ought to use books and resources that don’t get in the way of that natural and divine process, and that adults need to step well out of the way to let children glean their ideas from God, not from us.

    When a child comes into the world, he or she is born as a whole person: full of life, personality, and the capacity and capability to engage with the world.

    Mason intentionally integrated the Great Recognition into the lives of her students, who referred to it as “the creed.” This creed created ripples throughout Mason’s schools, programs, books, and philosophy, which is adhered to by tens of thousands of parents and educators around the world today.

    God as teacher is not a new idea to Christians. The Gospel of John teaches that “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything” (John 14:26). The apostle Paul writes, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives …” (Col. 1:9). But the scripture Mason found most helpful in understanding the Great Recognition was from the book of Isaiah:

    When a farmer plows for planting, does he plow continually? Does he keep on breaking up and working the soil? When he has leveled the surface, does he not sow caraway and scatter cumin? Does he not plant wheat in its place, barley in its plot, and spelt in its field? His God instructs him and teaches him the right way. (Isa. 28:24–26)

    In science, art, and literature, as well as the practicalities of life, God instructs and teaches us. Mason stresses that God teaches each child uniquely: “The divine spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child.” In her books she often reiterates that good ideas come from God, and that ideas are what the intellect grows upon. There is no subject exempt from this; if “God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself, personally, the Imparter of knowledge, the Instructor of youth, the Inspirer of genius,” we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit in all manner of lessons.

    This raises a question for those of us thinking about the best education for our children today. In an institutionalized society of expert-driven curriculums, heavily scheduled school days, and parental delegation of responsibility to others, how do twenty-first-century families allow room for God to teach their children?

    We come to the table

    Charlotte Mason used the phrase “masterly inactivity” to help us understand the cooperation of the parent’s leading and guiding of children, which appropriately preserves the space for God to inspire and bestow knowledge on the learning child. Mason encouraged parents to stand back, allowing the process of the divine to do its natural work amid education without unnecessary interruptions and overwork on the part of the parent. Masterly inactivity allows for intentional thought, planning, and guidance on the part of the parent, as long as it doesn’t obstruct children’s freedom to learn and explore for themselves.

    Portrait of Charlotte Mason by Frederic Yates

    Frederic Yates, Charlotte Mason, oil on canvas, 1902.

    Parents have a habit of getting in the way; we think we know best what a child should learn and understand. Day to day this can look like finishing our children’s sentences, over-explaining concepts, answering questions meant for them, and having low expectations of their knowledge and understanding. Mason’s first principle of education, that “children are born persons,” challenges this stunting approach to parenting, reminding us that children are born ready to connect with the world around them. This transforming principle states that each child is born with a unique character, innate personality, and set of gifts and raw abilities. As parents and educators, we must learn to be curious about who each child is, to help them become who they are destined to be. The essence of the born person concept is that when a child comes into the world, he or she is not a project, a raw piece of wood to be whittled, or a lump of clay to be molded. They are instead born as whole people: full of life, personality, and the capacity and capability to engage with the world.

    This born person meets the divine teacher in books and lessons. As long as we adults give room (by not lecturing, using dry textbooks, perpetually quizzing and testing them), children will make their own connections and knowledge will form their hearts and minds. Imagine gathering your children around a table of delicious food, and then proceeding to spoon-feed them each dish while explaining how each bite will taste and how it will make them feel. This is what happens when we spoon-feed our children our own thoughts, opinions, and ideas as if they should accept them with no room for growth or change.

    Instead, we ought to gather our children around a table of delicious food, sit back, and say, “Tuck in, and tell me what you think!” Mason’s revelation of giving children room to be taught by the Holy Spirit may have been a subtle distinction from the traditional approach to education, but that change makes all the difference. One dictates, the other delivers, then waits. For this Holy Spirit–inspired education to take root in children’s lives, they must be left to ruminate, reflect on, and retell all they have learned.

    This teaching role is quite countercultural to the usual lecturer-expert style of teaching and takes intentional action. Charlotte Mason believed that practicing masterly inactivity gives agency to the child and shows grace and confidence in the parent. Perhaps above all else, it is an exercise in trust. As she write in Home Education, we should let our children “go their own way and grow, having first secured that they will go the right way, and grow to fruitful purpose.”

    Contributed By LeahBoden Leah Boden

    Leah Boden is a mother to four and a longtime home educator. She and her family live in the West Midlands, England.

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