July 27, 1904
My dear Margaret,
And what about the formation of intellectual habits?
That need not occupy us long. We know that the possession of some half-dozen such habits makes up what is well called ability. They make a person able to do that which he desires to do with his mental powers, and to labour at the cost of not a tenth part of the waste of tissue which the same work would exact of a person of undisciplined mental habits. We know, too, that the habits in question are acquired through training and are not bestowed as a gift. Genius itself, we have been told, is an infinite capacity for taking pains; we would rather say, is the habit of taking infinite pains, for every child is born with the capacity.
But how do we get ourselves—or our children—able to make full use of those mental habits? Teachers trust–perhaps a little blindly–to the training which certain subjects give in certain mental habits. The classics, we consider, cultivate in one direction, the mathematics, in another, science, in a third. So they do, undoubtedly, so far as each of these subjects is concerned; but possibly not in forming the general habits of intellectual life which we expect to result. Remove the mathematician from his own field and he is not more exact or more on the spot than other men; indeed he is rather given to make a big hole for the cat and a little hole for the kitten! The humanities—such as reading the Greek classics—do not always make a man humane, that is, liberal, tolerant, gentle, and candid, as regards the opinions and status of other men.
I think the fault does not lie in any one of these or in any other of the disciplinary subjects, but in our lazy habit of using each of them as a sort of mechanical contrivance for turning up the soil and sowing the seed. But there is no reprieve on this for parents! It rests with you, even more than with the schoolmaster and his curriculum, to form those mental habits which shall give intellectual distinction to your children throughout their lives. Are you up for the great task?
You will say, perhaps, that you have already given Philip and Beatrice a great deal of training in good habits. I know that to be true, my dear—you don’t need to argue your case in that matter! You have paid careful attention to their physical and also their moral habits; I am referring here, though to some intellectual habits which should be matters of careful training during the period of childhood. Here is a little list for you:
Attention, the power of turning the whole force of the mind upon the subject brought before it
Concentration, which differs from Attention in that the mind is actively engaged on some given problem rather than passively receptive
Thoroughness, the habit of dissatisfaction with a slipshod, imperfect grasp of a subject, and of mental uneasiness until a satisfying measure of knowledge is obtained
Intellectual Volition, the power, that is, of making ourselves think of a given subject at a given time (if the child is accustomed to take pleasure in the effort as effort, the man will find it easy to make himself think of what he will)
Accuracy, which is to be taught, not only through arithmetic, but through all the small statements, messages, and affairs of daily life:
Reflection, the ruminating power which is so strongly developed in children and is somehow lost with much besides of the precious cargo they bring with them into the world. There is nothing sadder than the way we allow intellectual impressions to pass over the surface of our minds, without any effort to retain or assimilate.
And I can mention only one other invaluable habit, that of Meditation. Now, don’t laugh at that, dear Margaret, as funny as it might sound to you to think of your children deep in meditation. Meditation is also a habit to be acquired, or rather preserved, for we believe that children are born to meditate, as they are to reflect; indeed, the two are closely allied. In reflecting we ruminate on what we have received. In meditating we are not content to go over the past, we allow our minds to follow out our subject to all its issues. It has long been known that progress in the Christian life depends much upon meditation; intellectual progress, too, depends, not on mere reading or the laborious “getting up” of a subject, which we call study; but on that active surrender of all the powers of the mind to the occupation of the subject in hand, which is intended here by the word meditation. And of course there might be a dozen more words we could use, and thinking of some of them might keep us profitably employed for a while. But here is the question we must ask now: on what do intellectual habits sustain themselves? I think you already know the answer: the intellectual life has but one food whereby it lives and grows—the sustenance of living ideas.
It is not possible to repeat this too often or too emphatically, for perhaps we err more in this respect than any other in bringing up children. We feed them upon the white ashes out of which the last spark of the fire of original thought has long since died. We give them second-rate story books, with stale phrases, stale situations, shreds of other people’s thoughts, stalest of stale sentiments. Well, we will have other opportunities to talk about what is in books, but let us also not forget their illustrations! We have so many opportunities to share good, meaningful art in our homes, but so many parents hang “cute” pictures in the children’s rooms, and their books are illustrated on a lower level still. In regard to book illustrations, we are improving a little, but still there is room for something much better.
And in that vein, I am enclosing two little books by Miss Beatrix Potter, who now lives quite near here, at Hill Top farm in Near Sawrey. I think Philip and Beatrice (almost a namesake!) already own The Tale of Peter Rabbit, do they not? These two are her newest titles: The Tale of Two Bad Mice and The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. Please read them to the dear children with a fond embrace from their great-aunt.
(And perhaps the next post will have something in it for yourself.)
In School Education, Charlotte Mason examined most of her educational principles: authority and obedience; the respect owed to personality; and the uses of environment, habit, and living ideas. She also compared the educational ideas of her Parents’ Union with other psychological thought and worldviews; explored the building of early affinities through literary examples; and provided specific application of those principles through samples of student work. This rich treasure chest of thought has now been re-imagined for a new era, using formats such as letters and conversations, while attempting to remain as faithful as possible to the original work. It is offered not with the intent of presenting “much teaching with little knowledge,” but rather to encourage the growth of lifelong affinities. Revitalized: a new rendering of Charlotte Mason’s School Education is now available on Amazon.