The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
P.N.E.U. Philosophy

by The Editor [Charlotte Mason]
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 349-358

[This appears in Volume 2, Parents and Children, starting on page 233.]

As the philosophy which underlies any educational or social scheme is really the vital part of that scheme, it may be well to set forth, however meagerly, some fragments of P.N.E.U. Philosophy.

We believe--

That disposition, intellect, genius, come pretty much by nature.

That character is an achievement, the one practical achievement possible to us for ourselves and for our children.

That all real advance, in family or individual, is along the line of character.

That, therefore, to direct and assist the evolution of character is the chief office of education.

But perhaps we shall clear the ground better by throwing a little P.N.E.U. teaching into categorical form:

What is character?

The resultant or residuum of conduct.

That is to say, a man is what he has made himself by the thoughts in which he has allowed himself, the words he has spoken, the deeds he has done.

How does conduct itself originate?

Commonly, in our habitual modes of thought. We think we are accustomed to think, and, therefore, act as we are accustomed to act.

What, again, is the origin of these habits of thought and act?

Commonly, inherited disposition. The man who is generous, obstinate, hot-tempered, devout, is so, on the whole, because that strain of character runs in his family.

Are there any means of modifying inherited dispositions?

Yes; marriage, for the race; education, for the individual.

How may a bad habit which has its rise in an inherited disposition be corrected?

By the contrary good habit: as Thomas à Kempis has said, "One custom overcometh another."

Trace the genesis of a habit.

Every act proceeds from a thought. Every thought modifies somewhat the material structure of the brain. That is, the nerve substance of the brain forms itself, so to speak, to the manner of thoughts we think. The habit of act arises from the habit of thought. The person who thinks, "Oh, it will do"; "Oh, it doesn't matter," forms a habit of negligent and imperfect work.

How may such habit be corrected?

By introducing the contrary line of thought, which will lead to contrary action. "This must be done well, because ---."

Is it enough to think such thought once?

No; the stimulus of the new idea must be applied until it is, so to speak, at home in the brain, and arises involuntarily.

What do you mean by involuntary thought?

The brain is at work unceasingly, is always thinking, or rather is always being acted upon by thought, as the keys of an instrument by the fingers of a player.

Is the person aware of all the thoughts that the brain elaborates?

No; only of those which are new and "striking." The old familiar "way of thinking" beats in the brain without the consciousness of the thinker.

What name is given to this unconscious thought?

Unconscious cerebration.

Why is it important to the educator?

Because most of our action spring from thoughts of which we are not conscious.

Is there any means of altering the trend of unconscious cerebration? Yes; by diverting it into a new channel.

The "unconscious cerebration" of the greedy child runs upon cakes and sweetmeats: how may this be corrected?

By introducing a new idea--the pleasure of giving pleasure with these good things, for example.

Is the greedy child capable of receiving such new idea?

Most certainly; because benevolence, the desire of benefiting others, is one of those springs of action in every human being that need only be touched to make them act.

Give an example of this fact.

Mungo Park, dying of thirst, hunger, and weariness in an African desert, found himself in the vicinity of a cannibal tribe. He gave himself up for lost, but a woman of the tribe found him, took compassion on him, brought him milk, hid him, and nourished him until he was restored and could take care of himself.

Are there any other springs of action which may be touched with effect in every human being?

Yes, such as the desire of knowledge, of society, of distinction, of wealth; friendship, gratitude, and many more. Indeed, it is not possible to incite a human being to any sort of good and noble conduct but you touch a responsive spring.

How, then, can human beings do amiss?

Because the good feelings have their opposite bad feelings, springs which also await a touch. Malevolence is opposed to benevolence. It is easy to imagine that the unstable savage woman might have been amongst the first to devour the man she cherished, had one of her tribe given an impulse to the springs of hatred within her.

In view of these internal impulses, what is the duty of the educator?

To make himself acquainted with the springs of action in a, human being, and to touch them with such wisdom, tenderness and moderation that the child is insensibly led into the habits of the good life.

Name some of these habits.

Diligence, reverence, gentleness, truthfulness, promptness, neatness, orderliness; in fact, the virtues and graces which belong to persons who have been "well brought up."

Is it enough to stimulate a spring of action--say, curiosity, or the desire of knowledge, once in order to secure a habit?

No; the stimulus must be repeated, and action upon it secured over and over many times before a habit is formed.

What common error do people make about the formation of habits?

They allow lapses; they train a child to "shut the door after him" twenty times, and allow him to leave it open the twenty-first.

With what result?

That the work has to be done over again, because the growth of brain tissue to the new habit (the forming of cell-connections) has been disturbed. The result is much the same as when the flesh-forming process which knits up a wound is disturbed.

Then the educator should "time" himself in forming habits? How long may it take to cure a bad habit, and form the contrary good one?

Perhaps a month or six weeks of careful incessant treatment may be enough.

But such treatment requires an impossible amount of care and watchfulness on the part of the educator?

Yes; but not more than is given to the cure of any bodily disease--measles, or scarlet fever, for example.

Then the thoughts and actions of a human being may be regulated mechanically, so to speak, by setting up the right nerve currents in the brain?

This is true only so far as it is true to say that the keys of a piano produce music.

But the thoughts, which may be represented by the fingers of the player, do they not also run their course without the consciousness of the thinker?

They do; not merely vague, inconsequent musings, but thoughts which follow each other with more or less logical sequence, according to the previous training of the thinker.

Illustrate this.

Mathematicians have been known to think out abstruse problems in their sleep; the bard improvises, authors "reel off" without premeditation, without any deliberate intention to write such and such things. The thoughts follow each other according to the habit of thinking previously set up in the brain of the thinker.

Is it that the thoughts go round and round a subject like a horse in a mill?

No; the horse is rather drawing a carriage along the same high road, but into ever new developments of the landscape.

In this light, the important thing is how you begin to think on any subject?

Precisely so; the initial thought or suggestion touches, as it were, the spring which sets in motion a possibly endless succession or train of ideas; thoughts which are, so to speak, elaborated in the brain almost without the consciousness of the thinker.

Are these thoughts, or successive ideas, random, or do they make for any conclusion?

They make for the logical conclusion which should follow the initial idea.

Then the reasoning faculties may be set to work involuntarily?

Yes; the sole concern of these faculties is, apparently, to work out the rational conclusion from any idea presented to them.

But surely this power of arriving at logical radical conclusions almost unconsciously is the result of education, most likely of generations of culture?

It exists in greater or less degree according as it is disciplined and exercised; but it is by no means the result of education as the word is commonly understood: witness the following anecdote: [From Archbishop Thompson's "Laws of Thought."]

"When Captain Head was traveling across the Pampas of South America, his guide one day suddenly stopped him, and, pointing high into the air, cried out, 'A lion!' Surprised at such an exclamation, accompanied with such an act, he turned up his eyes, and with difficulty perceived, at an immeasurable height, a flight of condors soaring in circles in a particular spot. Beneath this spot, far out of sight of himself or guide, lay the carcass of a horse, and over this carcass stood, as the guide well knew, a lion, whom the condors were eying with envy from their airy height. The sight of the birds was to him what the sight of the lion alone would have been to the traveler, a full assurance of its existence. Here was an act of thought which cost the thinker no trouble, which was as easy to him as to cast his eyes upward, yet which from us, unaccustomed to the subject, would require many steps and some labour."

Then is what is called "the reason" innate in human beings?

Yes, it is innate, and is exercised without volition by all, but gains power and precision, according as it is cultivated.

If the reason, especially the trained reason, arrives at the right conclusion without any effort of volition on the part of the thinker, it is practically an infallible guide to conduct?

On the contrary, the reason is pledged to pursue a suggestion to its logical conclusion only. Much of the history of religious persecutions and of family and international feuds turns on the confusion which exists in most minds between that which is logically inevitable and that which is morally right.

But according to this doctrine, any theory whatever may be shown to be logically inevitable.

Exactly so; the initial idea once received, the difficulty is, not to prove that it is tenable, but to restrain the mind from proving that it is so.

Illustrate this point.

The child who lets himself be jealous of his brother is almost startled by the flood of convincing proofs, that he does well to be angry, which rush in upon him. Beginning with a mere flash of suspicion in the morning, the little Cain finds himself in the evening possessed of irrefragable proofs that his brother is unjustly preferred to him: and

      "All seems infected that the infected spy
      As all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye."

But supposing it is true that the child has cause for jealousy?

Given, the starting idea, and his reason is equally capable of proving a logical certainty, whether it is true or whether it is not true.

Is there any historical proof of this startling theory?

Perhaps every failure in conduct, in individuals, and in nations, is due to the confusion which exists as to that which is logically right, as established by the reason, and that which is morally right, as established by external law.

Is any such distinction recognized in the Bible?

Distinctly so; the transgressors of the Bible are those who do that which is right in their own eyes--that is, that which their reason approves of. Modern thought considers, on the contrary, that all men are justified in doing that which is right in their own eyes, acting "up to their lights," "obeying the dictates of their reason."

For example?

A mother who had murdered her child was morally exonerated the other day in a court of justice because she acted "from a mistaken sense of duty."

But is it not possible to err from a mistaken sense of duty?

Not only possible, but inevitable, if a man accept his "own reason" as his lawgiver and judge. Take a test case, the case of the superlative crime that has been done upon the earth. There can be no doubt that the persons who caused the death of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ acted under a mistaken sense of duty. "It is expedient that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not," said, most reasonably, those patriotic leaders of the Jews; and they relentlessly hunted to death this Man whose ascendancy over the common people and whose whispered claims to kingship were full of elements of danger to the subject race. "They know not what they do," He said, Who is the Truth.

All this may be of importance to the philosophers; but what has it to do with the bringing up of children?

It is time we reverted to the teaching of Socrates. "Know thyself," exhorted the wise man, in season and out of season; and it will be well with us when we understand that to acquaint a child with himself--what he is as a human being--is a great part of education.

It is difficult to see why; surely much harm comes of morbid introspection? Introspection is morbid or diseased when the person imagines that all which he finds within him is peculiar to him as an individual. To know what is common to all men is a sound cure for unhealthy self-contemplation.

But, Cui bono? ["Who benefits?"]

To recognize the limitations of the reason is a safeguard in all the duties and relations of life. The man who knows that loyalty is his first duty in every relation, and that if he admit doubting, grudging, unlovely thoughts, he cannot possibly be loyal, because such thoughts once admitted will prove themselves to be right and fill the whole field of thought, why, he is on his guard, and writes up "no admittance" to every manner of mistrustful fancy.

That rule of life should affect the Supreme relationship?

Truly, yes; if a man will admit no beginning of mistrustful surmise concerning his father and mother, his child and his wife, shall he do so of Him who is more than they, and more than all, the "Lord of his heart?" "Loyalty forbids" is the answer to every questioning of His truth that would intrude.

But when others, whom you must needs revere, question and tell you of their "honest doubt"?

You know the history of their doubt, and can take it for what it is worth--its origin in the suggestion, which, once admitted, must needs reach logical conclusion even to the "bitter end." "Take heed that ye enter not into temptation," He said, Who needed not that any should tell Him, for He knew what was in men.

If man is the creature of those habits he forms with care or allows in negligence, if his very thoughts are involuntary and his conclusions inevitable, he ceases to be a free agent. One might as well concede at once that "thought is a mode of motion," and cease to regard man as a spiritual being capable of self-regulation.

It is hardly possible to concede too wide a field to biological research, if we keep well to the front the fact, that man is a spiritual being whose material organs act in obedience to spiritual suggestion; that, for example, as the hand writes, so the brain thinks, in obedience to suggestions.

Is the suggestion self-originated?

Probably not; it would appear that, as the material life is sustained upon its appropriate food from without, so the immaterial life is sustained upon its food,--ideas or suggestions spiritually conveyed.

May the words "idea" and "suggestion" be used as synonymous terms?

Only in so far as that ideas convey suggestions to be effected in acts.

What part does the man himself play in the reception of this immaterial food?

It is as though one stood on the threshold to admit or refuse the workmen who should fashion the house.

Is this free-will in the reception or rejection of ideas the limit of man's responsibility in the conduct of his life?

Probably it is; for an idea once intercepted must run its course, unless it be connected with another idea, in the reception of which volition is again exercised.

How do ideas originate?

They appear to be spiritual emanations from spiritual beings; thus, one man conveys to another the idea which is a very part of himself.

Is the intervention of a bodily presence necessary for the transmission of an idea?

By no means, ideas may be conveyed through picture or printed page; absent friends would appear to communicate ideas without the intervention of means; natural objects convey ideas, but perhaps, the initial idea in this case may always be traced to another mind.

Then the spiritual sustenance of ideas is derived directly or indirectly from other human beings?

No; and here is the great recognition which the educator is called upon to make. God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself the supreme Educator of mankind.


He openeth man's ear morning by morning, to hear so much of the best as the man is able to bear.

Are the ideas suggested by the Holy Spirit confined to the sphere of the religious life?

No; Coleridge, speaking of Columbus and the discovery of America, ascribes the origin of great inventions and discoveries to the fact that "certain ideas of the natural world are presented to minds, already prepared to receive them, by a higher Power than Nature herself."

Is there any teaching in the Bible to support this view?

Yes; very much. Isaiah, for example, says that the ploughman knows how to carry on the successive operations of husbandry, "for his God doth instruct him and doth teach him."

Are all ideas which have a purely spiritual origin ideas of good?

Unhappily, no; it is the sad experience of mankind that suggestions of evil also are spiritually conveyed.

What is the part of the man?

To choose the good and refuse the evil.

Does this doctrine of ideas as the spiritual food needful to sustain the immaterial life throw any light on the doctrines of the Christian religion?

Yes; the Bread of Life, the Water of Life, the Word by which man lives, the "meat to eat which ye know not of," and much more, cease to be figurative expressions, except that we must use the same words to name the corporeal and the incorporeal sustenance of man. We understand, moreover, how suggestions emanating from our Lord and Saviour, which are of His essence, are the spiritual meat and drink of His believing people. We find it no longer a "hard saying," nor a dark saying, that we must sustain our spiritual selves upon Him, even as our bodies upon bread.

What practical bearing upon the educator has this doctrine of ideas?

He knows that it is his part to place before the child daily nourishment of ideas; that he may give the child the right initial idea in every study, and respecting each relation and duty of life; above all, he recognises the divine co-operation in the direction, teaching, and training of the child.

How would you summarise the functions of education?

Education is a discipline--that is, the discipline of the good habits in which the child is trained. Education is a life, nourished upon ideas; and education is an atmosphere *--that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives.

* (Matthew Arnold)

What part do lessons and the general work of the schoolroom play in education thus regarded?

They should afford opportunity for the discipline of many good habits, and should convey to the child such initial ideas of interest in his various studies as to make the pursuit of knowledge on those lines an object in life and a delight to him.

What duty lies upon parents and others who regard education thus seriously, as a lever by means of which character may be elevated, almost indefinitely?

Perhaps it is incumbent upon them to make conscientious endeavors to further all means used to spread the views they hold; believing that there is such "progress in character and virtue" possible to the redeemed human race as has not yet been realised, or even imagined. "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life." (Motto of the Parents' Review.)

Proofread by LNL, August, 2023