The Spiritual Octopus

A study of Principle 11 of Charlotte Mason's 20 Principles

by Lynn Bruce

11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that,-

This principle is composed of three consecutive ideas that flow together beyond that little dash at the end, into Principle 12. Let's take this principle one idea at a time!

" . . . the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him . . . "

Slow down now; this is juicy. Breathe in, and take a moment to consider the profound implications of this idea. To him that hath an ear, Charlotte here sets forth what amounts to nothing less than a profound doctrinal declaration; in effect, she unfurls a whole worldview from a small phrase. To wit, our minds are designed with an affinity for the knowledge available to us . . . and the knowledge available to us is proper for . . . designed for . . . our minds.

This is no accidental oyster. Charlotte moves onward here, and is catching fresh wind; clearly, we have now sailed beyond the realm of Johann Herbart.

In a world where everything arises by chance through a random series of events, there would be no reason to assume that the accidental human has an inborn affinity for connection to anything . . . for everything else in his environment would be likewise the result of random accident. Connectedness cannot enter the land of Chaos without a Divine escort.

But when we oust the pretender Chance from the throne of First Causes, and recognize the rightful reign of the holy Creator, we are presented with a different scenario entirely. Here we see ourselves as designed with purpose, and further, designed to live in a world fashioned specifically for our use, pleasure, dominion and stewardship. For this scenario to work, it seems probable that an omniscient and benevolent Creator would naturally grace humans with an intellectual affinity for all other elements of their created world -- like the central piece in a grand puzzle, from which all the pieces, as cut by the same hand, interlock perfectly into an organic, synergistic whole.

Scientists now call such a concept "Intelligent Design." Charlotte seems to hint at this idea here, in her assertions that we come with certain powers of mind, that there exists knowledge proper to our minds, and that we are designed capable of forming connections to that knowledge.

But when Christians encounter sweeping statements that touch upon the nature of God, we should always consult the Word to see if these things be so. I begin, then, by questioning Charlotte's claim: Does scripture support that we have the powers of mind needed to approach the vast body of knowledge in a full and generous curriculum?

I immediately think of Ecclesiastes 3:11, a verse that has perplexed Bible scholars for centuries

"He hath made every thing beautiful in his time
also He hath set the world in their heart,
so that no man can find out the work that God maketh
from the beginning to the end."

Bible authorities assert that Solomon is expressing here that God has infused into the very nature of humans a desire to learn about the created world. A cosmic curiosity, I suppose you could say. Matthew Henry quotes a Mr. Pemble: "God has not left himself without witness of his righteous, equal, and beautiful ordering of things, but has set it forth, to be observed in the book of the world, and this he has set in men's hearts, given man a large desire, and a power, in good measure, to comprehend and understand the history of nature, with the course of human affairs, so that, if men did but give themselves to the exact observation of things, they might in most of them perceive an admirable order and contrivance."

That 'He has made everything beautiful in his time' seems to express that He has left the imprint of His order and beauty on the things He has created, which serves to magnetize and sustain our curiosity and wonderment. The rest of the verse is a qualifier made necessary by the Fall, that although man will search the beginning to the end, he will never discover the deep mysteries of God.

The Bible says Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, and he was probably author of the first book written for use in teaching children. Both Ecclesiastes and Proverbs reveal his teaching method: to lay a generous feast of ideas before us. He draws examples from countless areas of human knowledge -- the ways of nature, animals, insects, birds, agrarian skills, music, poetry, human nature, and so on. Solomon employs "a full and generous curriculum" to teach us the wisdom of life, because a wise man is one who has mental dominion over many, many things.

In Job, which is perhaps the oldest existing book ever written, we are given a rare glimpse of God speaking to man about knowledge (Job chs. 38-41). The Bible contains other conversations between God and men, but this one is unique in many ways. First, it is quite lengthy -- God speaks throughout four chapters here.  Secondly, it offers the only existing eye-witness account (that is, God's own account) of Creation events, the greatest mystery of all time. Thirdly, whereas most other scriptural episodes of God speaking directly to man show us God giving commands and callings, this conversation shows us God the omniscient Teacher giving a masterful lesson. And it is the most literarily beautiful lesson I've ever studied.

And so God speaks with man for the first and longest such conversation to be recorded in written history, and what does He choose to address?

We could individually enumerate the many topics He touches on in His discourse -- and in doing so we would compile a list encompassing countless fields of academia connected to His Creation. There is a greater lesson to be gleaned from this passage, of course, but a simplistic summary of what God expresses to Job . . . and therefore every Bible reader through the end of time, is:

"Consider all there is to know in My world that you don't know!"

He tours Job through the vast body of knowledge that He has created. The subjects are broad and various, yet one of the fundamental truths that emerges from the whole of the journey brings us back to the principle at hand -- that Job has a world of knowledge before him, that there is yet much there for him to know, and that he shares a connection with all these things, through a common Creator.

But in Adam we find perhaps the best proof of all. God obviously knew what sort of innate intelligence, or as Charlotte put it, what "powers of mind" He had fitted into Adam. And He had so much respect for Adam's mental powers that He asked Adam to name all the animals He created. This reveals that God knew Adam inherently possessed the mental powers to fit him for advanced intellectual tasks.

Now this brings up an interesting rabbit trail, but one which is very relevant to our present study:

Why did God bother with having Adam name all those animals?

It must have taken a considerable amount of time, and besides, God knew all along what Adam would name each and every one. Wouldn't it have been far more efficient and less tedious for God to have named them Himself, and then informed Adam what their names were? It would seem so. But I suspect God had a purpose in making Adam go through the mental effort and process of naming those beasts -- a purpose which would not have been met in doing it Himself. Adam needed to name those beasts himself, for his own sake. God had ordained that he should take dominion over them, and subdue the earth. To do so, Adam would need to form a memorable familiarity with each beast -- and in order to name them appropriately, he had to consider their individual attributes. God, who created the mind, apparently recognized the need to let Adam make his own connections.

Another salient point is buried in this one -- in God's commandment to Adam to take dominion over the earth. This alone could support Charlotte's principle, because God would not give Adam the burden of taking dominion over anything without also giving him the ability to carry it out. Among my favorite adages is "The will of God will never take you where the grace of God cannot keep you." Or, to use Charlotte's words in this principle, He fitted him with powers of mind to deal with all things proper to him.

In all these examples we see a common strain: our minds were created with an affinity for knowledge of all those things created by God for our welfare, stewardship, edification and pleasure. Thus, we arrive at Charlotte's motto, the one so dear to her that it is carved into her headstone: A Liberal Education For All.

* * * * *

Scripture tells us why, and now science gives glimpses of the how . . .

It is not possible for scientific truth to bring shame to its own Maker. True scientific discovery can only magnify the glory of God. There are many ways in which science (falsely so-called) has wrought evil upon truth. But in the present era, advancing technologies are opening heretofore veiled windows, and through these we are privileged to witness God using small things to confound the mighty. As technologies sharpen our view into the most infinitesimal, microbial levels of existence, the more science becomes an inevitable evangelist for a sovereign, omniscient Designer. One-celled organisms, thought to have evolved from ooze into the simplest building blocks of life, turn out to be irreducibly complex, making their advent through evolution impossible. The most confounding shibboleth facing scientists today is a pesky, inevitable conclusion: intelligent design is everywhere present and nowhere absent.

All that to say, that science now comes along and begins to unveil how the wiring was set up to begin with, and in this we can see why Charlotte's methods prove out in practice. Very interesting to live in this era, no?

Jane Healy offers a clear explanation of how the mind accumulates knowledge and memory in Endangered Minds (which I referred to in last week's study):

"All brains consist of two types of cells: nerve cells, called neurons, and glial cells. The neurons, numbering in the billions, arrive in the world ready and waiting to connect themselves together in flexible networks to fire messages within and between parts of the brain. No new cerebral cortical neurons will be added after birth, but since each of these nerve cells is capable of communicating with thousands of other neurons, the potential for neural networking is virtually incomprehensible . . . If you hold your hand out in front of you with fingers extended, you can get a rough idea of the shape of the average neuron. Your palm represents the cell body, with its central nucleus, and your outreaching fingers are dendrites. These microscopic projections extend in treelike formations to act as intake systems, picking up messages from other neurons and relaying them to the cell body. After reaching your palm, a message would travel down your arm, which represents the axon, or output system. When it reaches the end of the axon, it must jump across a small gap called a synapse before being picked up by dendrites from a neighboring neuron. [This leap] is repeated untold billions of times as this vast array of potential goes about the business of daily mental activity. The strength and efficiency of synaptic connections determine the speed and power with which your brain functions . . . The most important news about synapses is that they are formed, strengthened and maintained by interaction with experience."

I suspect Charlotte would turn somersaults if she could read such a thing! Because it supports her belief that habit (which is essentially the "interaction with experience" that builds synaptic brain power) leaves direct impression on the matter of the brain. But there is more here to validate her claims, is there not? Here is proof that a babe is born with all the powers of mind -- in the form of neurons -- that he will ever need. His experiences will cause those neurons to reach out and form connections to other neurons, and thus his mind grows into a kingdom of interconnected roads. Increased dendritic branching means those nerve cells can communicate better with each other, and as the child continues to think and to learn, his neurons spread out continually, creating new road systems between the ones that are already there.

I find this very exciting -- for here is a microscopic view of the child forming his own connections. The power of his mind increases as thoughts leap over synaptic gaps, connecting one idea to another, and with each leap his mind gathers speed in navigating the connections it has formed. Next time your child narrates, imagine the synapses flashing with electricity, the dendrites branching like lightning bolts as his mind works on the material!

So we see that the Creator designed in our matter the makings of mind. A mind of strength and agility -- essentially a spiritual being -- is anchored in the material realm in a tangled mass of dendritic branches which have proven visible to the scientist. God amazes.

All very interesting, but where does it lead us? Now that we see that the mind is indeed fitted for all knowledge proper to it, what do we do about it? Let us move on to the next phrase in this principle . . .


" . . . [we] give him
a full and generous curriculum . . . "


Charlotte's goal is to provide that ready, powerful mind with the best fuel for a rich, multifaceted life. The curriculum is "full and generous" because God is a God of infinite variety, which reflects His nature. We pursue knowledge of a great many things because it leads us to understanding of a God who has conceived a great many things for our pleasure and delight. The oceans team with His countless fishes, many yet unknown; the night sky (in the country at least!) is choked with stars we cannot count, yet God knows all their names; bookmakers strive in vain to exhaust the kingdoms of flora and fauna -- but God's infinite imagination ever defies full documentation. We will never taste every variety of food on the earth -- there is always some as yet untried variety of vegetable, some strange fruit from lands far removed . . . and built into each seed is the hybrid capacity for infinite combinations, which God has already imagined and waits for the gardeners to discover.

God enjoys variety, for His mind is too vast for limits, His imagination too boundless for boredom at His own hand. In all of this and more to come, we are beckoned to partake that we might commune with Him, as His power and divinity are revealed in the wonders of Creation. The goal of all this variety, like the goal of a full and generous curriculum, is to equip us for a full life, rich in variety and interest.

The Mediaeval philosophy of education (which we shall explore next week, as it directly influenced Charlotte's views on curriculum) held that all knowledge was a "direct outpouring of the Holy Ghost [and] that every fruitful idea, every original conception, be it in geometry, or grammar or music, was directly derived from a Divine source." (Vol. 6, p. 323) This philosophy left a deep imprint on the character and scope of education for several centuries. Letters and journals reveal that throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and into the early 20th century, children were commonly provided a surprisingly liberal (meaning full and generous) classical education, often at home. Even many poor, rural children left record of being taught geography, classical languages, literature and more. Some entered universities such as Harvard (which at the time required command of classical languages for entrance) as young as fourteen, often arriving directly from home schoolrooms. It's well known that many such children became Presidents, Generals, great inventors, and the like.

When the stock market crash of 1929 brought on the Great Depression, however, the focus of education quickly changed. My own Grandmother tells of leaving school at fourteen to work to support her parents and siblings. Her father's job had vanished in the aftershocks of the crash, and she was able to get a job at a time when he could not. I asked if she was distressed or embarrassed at having to quit school, and she replied, "Oh, no. Everything changed overnight. So many children left school to work that it was never questioned nor scorned. We were helping our families, keeping children alive. It was the honorable thing to do."

The urgency of dire circumstances dictated that having skills to work was a higher priority than acquiring the liberal classical education that had stood the test of centuries. Although this utilitarian view of education (now commonly called school-to-work) has its roots in earlier times and places, it was the Great Depression that firmly embedded it into Western culture. When the Depression era youth became parents, they urged their children to get a professional sort of education rather than the by now out-of-favor liberal education, to ensure a good living. Parents did not want their children to suffer and struggle financially the way they had during those hard times.

Thus utilitarian, vocational education, which demands that curriculum focus on future success in the workforce, became the idol of an era which has yet to end. Charlotte died six years before the U.S. stock market crash that brought on the Depression, but she could see the ill effects of utilitarian education in Europe well before the crash hastened its bloom in the States.

Likewise, we can now judge the consequences of these conflicting educational ideas in the States, taking advantage of hindsight.  The first two centuries of US history were propelled by liberal education, homely though it often may have been. That era has now been followed by almost a century of costly, institutional, progressively utilitarian education. And from whence has come the ripest fruit?

All ages produce their own inventors and discoverers, so on this score we cannot make the call. But it seems to me that across our history, our most versatile, visionary and honorable statesmen and citizens have been those who received the more liberal education. Conversely, we now see, from boardrooms and municipalities all the way to Congress, the intellectual anemia and moral malaise of minds expensively but fraudulently groomed for the broad demands of citizenship and life.

There is progressively more information at hand, and yet less vital knowledge. Facts accumulate exponentially, but we perish for lack of informing ideas.

What was overlooked in the post-depression push for school-to-work education? That a person finds the defining demands of his life beyond the microcosm of vocation -- in the fitness he brings to the voting booth, the wisdom and compassion he brings to both the deacon's table and the family dinner hour, the perspective and honor that keep him ready for the unpredictable but sure demands of patriotism in times of both peace and violence. School-to-work objectives are unfit for preparing a person for these defining demands of life. But these demands are insistent and unavoidable, and so, when we finds ourselves unfit to meet them, we are forced to concede to authority those responsibilities that are our birthright, duty and privilege. Unarmed peasants are borne of limited curriculum.

What modern education reformers miss is that if we aim for the full and generous curriculum, as Charlotte urged, the utilitarian concerns will largely take care of themselves. A utilitarian education cannot match a liberal education for preparing the mind for the demands of life and citizenship. (In Volume 6, in the various sections on "The Knowledge of Man," Charlotte discusses at length how a literary education leads to statesmanship.) A child who has personally befriended a broad spectrum of vital knowledge will come to life with a magnetic web of wisdom and experience -- both vicarious and direct -- at his ready disposal, and will continue to greet knowledge with personal enthusiasm through life. Thus, he will bring a mind eclectic, quick and agile to any future pursuit he desires.

This full and generous curricular spectrum is the key, because the mind is a ravenous spirit that starves without its full, proper diet.

"The mind is a spiritual octopus, reaching out limbs in every direction to draw in enormous rations of that which under the actions of the mind itself becomes knowledge. Nothing can stale its infinite variety; the heavens and the earth, the past, the present, and future, things great and things minute, nations and men, the universe, all are within the scope of the human intelligence." (Mason, Vol. 6, p. 330)

We move on to the final phrase of this principle:


" . . . taking care only that all knowledge
offered him is vital, that is, that facts are
not presented without their informing ideas."


First, what is vital knowledge?

I like to think of it as knowledge that draws you to care.

It is the difference between memorizing facts about human events, and understanding the ideas that motivate human events.

It's the difference between learning simply that Noah built a boat and all the animals got on two by two, and then it rained . . . and learning that the wickedness of man became great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually, and the Lord, grieving, determined to destroy man whom He had created . . . but Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, and was spared together with his household . . .

Next, what is meant by "facts presented without their informing ideas"?

Here's an example of facts presented without, and then with, their informing ideas . . . and the difference it makes:

"In the public school system I tried to ensure that my students were
taught a correct understanding of science and how to think logically.
However, when first teaching creation in the public schools, my approach
was different. I would show the students the problems with evolution and
how evidence supported the creationist view. However, when the students
went to another class where the teacher was an evolutionist, the teacher
would just reinterpret the evidence for them. I had been using what can
be called an "evidentialist" approach -- trying to use the evidence to
convince students that it showed evolution wrong and creation true.
I then changed methods and taught students the true nature of science
what science can and cannot do. We looked in detail at the limitations
that scientists have in relation to the past. They were told that all
scientist have "presuppositions" (beliefs) which they use in
interpreting the evidence. I shared with them my beliefs from the Bible
concerning Creation, the Fall, Noah's Flood and other topics, and how
one may build scientific models upon this framework. It was demonstrated
how the evidence consistently fitted with the creation framework and not
within that of the evolutionists. I had begun teaching from what could
be called a "presuppositionalist" approach. The difference was
astounding. When students went to the other classes and their teachers
tried to reinterpret the evidence, the students were able to identify
for the teachers the assumptions behind what the teachers were saying.
The students recognized that it was a teacher's belief system that
determined the way in which he looked at the evidence. The question of
origins was outside of direct scientific proof."

-- from Evolution: The Lie, by Ken Ham

It is harder to reason away a true idea than a set of facts that can be endlessly 'spun' and reinterpreted -- yet another support for teaching through living ideas!

Remember the Pharisees who feverishly kept the letter of the law, but knew not the spirit of the law? Their whole existence was defined by their errant devotion to facts without their informing ideas. And what was the result? They were consumed with the hollow glory of self-perfection, and had no spirit of caring for the welfare of others, nor of caring whether their perfection wrought good toward their fellow man and their culture. And this is the whole point -- vital knowledge is living knowledge, and draws a living response . . . it hearkens to the spirit of the mind and makes us care. Just as faith without works is dead, so a man without vital knowledge is largely educated in vain, if he does not care enough to use his knowledge for the good of others. To paraphrase, he may have the letter of education, but not the spirit of it.

We've all no doubt observed the apathetic countenance common among youth in our culture. They have largely been robbed of the spiritual impulse to care. The postmodern worldview pervades practically everything they contact -- their textbooks, teachers, television programs, movies, popular music. This worldview is rooted in nihilism (literally "nothing-ism"), the philosophy that all existence is meaningless, that there are no absolutes and thus no objective basis for truth, which is thus relative and changeable; that any given value system is as valid as another; that we came from nothing and ultimately return to nothingness. This belief system is the natural product of a culture that embraces evolutionary thought . . . we are accidents sprung from nothingness, and have no spiritual relevance, therefore nothing really matters. Why should a student pursue a full and generous curriculum if nothing is relevant to him? Of course, his survival always matters, so bring on the vocational education so he can take care of himself.

Children brought up in such an environment respond to people and ideas very differently from the sort of children we hope to raise. The bottom line, if I may repeat myself -- they have been robbed of the vitality, the Divine source, the livingness of knowledge . . . and so, too, the spiritual impulse to care.

Vital means "alive, essential to life."

Living knowledge, living ideas, living books -- these mark the education that glorifies a living God. And this, my friends, is why we burn our lives up in pursuit of a full and generous living education for our children. The torch of truth is a living flame carried by those who care enough to hold it aloft.

Perhaps I have not used enough quotes from the series in this study, but to tell the truth, there were just too many to choose from. The idea of a full and generous curriculum runs throughout Charlotte's writings. But I will try to right my shortcomings somewhat by ending with a final quote, from Volume 3, p. 170:

"Our aim in Education is to give a Full Life. --

We begin to see what we want. Children make large demands upon us. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. ';Thou hast set my feet in a large room,'* should be the glad cry of every intelligent soul. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking -- the strain would be too great -- but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. We cannot give the children these interests; we prefer that they should never say that they have 'learned' botany or conchology, geology or astronomy. The question is not, -- how much does the youth know? -- when he has finished his education -- but how much does he care? And about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? And therefore, how full is the life he has before him?"

*Charlotte took this phrase from Psalm 31:6-8.

Copyright 2002-2009 Lynn Bruce, Dallas, TX; mumsadah at gmail dot com
All rights reserved; used by permission

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