Editor’s Note: a shortened form of this article first appeared on Art Middlekauff’s blog.
At the 2016 Charlotte Mason Institute Eastern Conference, I attended an excellent workshop by Camille Malucci entitled “Charlotte Mason’s Great Recognition.” The workshop explored in detail the famous fresco in the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella, described in many places in Mason’s collected writings.
To be sure, I already knew that the phrase “Great Recognition” was not meant to describe an “a-ha” moment experienced by Mason herself. Mason entitled the 25th chapter of Parents and Children, “The Great Recognition Required Of Parents.” So she saw this as a Great Recognition that parents must make in order to be effective educators, not an “a-ha” moment that she herself received when she stood gazing at the fresco in Florence. But what did happen in Mason’s mind when she first studied that fresco?
During the workshop, Malucci noted that Mason first visited Florence in 1893. This raised a question in my mind about the timeline:
1886 – Mason publishes Home Education.
1893 – Mason visits Florence.
1904 – Mason writes that “the little manual called ‘Home Education’ … contains the whole in the germ” of her theory of education.
Since the Florence visit occurred in 1893, I wondered whether the idea known as the Great Recognition was actually a later addition to Mason’s theory that was not contained in the 1886 germ. I decided to investigate.
First I confirmed the date of 1893 for the visit to Florence. Essex Cholmondeley begins chronicling the events of 1893 on page 46 of The Story of Charlotte Mason. On page 47, she mentions September of 1893. Then she notes that in the winter of 1893, Mason departed for Florence (p. 48). Margaret Coombs places the Florence trip after the death of Emily Brandreth on November 18, 1893 (Charlotte Mason: Hidden Heritage and Educational Influence, Kindle Locations 4367-4368). A date of late 1893 is assured.
Second, I looked for references in Mason’s writings to the fresco. The first reference I could find was in the January 1895 edition of The Parents’ Review (volume 5, p. 926). Interestingly, in this article she does not use the phrase “Great Recognition.” However, I did find an article entitled “The Great Recognition” in the February 1896 edition of The Parents’ Review (volume 7, pp. 52-59). (Chapter 25 of Parents and Children closely follows this article.) Some key points in this article include:
Interestingly, however, Mason differentiates the Great Recognition from the fresco itself. After defining the Great Recognition, she writes, “But the Florentine mind of the middle ages went further than this…” (pp. 53-54). That gave me pause. If the Great Recognition was synonymous with the teaching of the fresco, then how could it be said that the Florentine mind went beyond it?
Then I stumbled across an exciting discovery. In the June 1892 edition of The Parents’ Review, Mason published an article entitled “P.N.E.U. Philosophy.” (According to the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection, the date for The Parents’ Review, Vol.3, No. 5 is June, 1892). Chapter 22 of Parents and Children closely follows this early article. This 1892 article includes the following section:
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 [Isaiah 50:4], to hear so much of the best as the man is able to bear [John 16:12].
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.” [Isaiah 28:26]
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.
Notice the timeline:
1886 – Mason publishes Home Education.
June, 1892 – Mason describes “the great recognition” in The Parents’ Review.
December, 1893 – Mason visits Florence.
January, 1895 – Mason first mentions the Spanish Chapel fresco in The Parents’ Review.
February, 1896 – Mason uses the phrase “Great Recognition” in conjunction with the Spanish Chapel fresco.
1904 – Mason writes, “the little manual called ‘Home Education’ … contains the whole in the germ” of her theory of education.
So the Great Recognition precedes the visit to Florence! Notice the striking parallels between the 1892 and the 1896 articles:
Title for the Holy Spirit
Preview of the Twentieth Principle
“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 recognises the divine co-operation in the direction, teaching, and training of the child.”
“the Holy Spirit, is … 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.”
“Isaiah  … says that the ploughman knows how to carry on the successive operations of husbandry, ‘for his God doth instruct him and doth teach him.’”
“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.
“the Great Recognition, that God the Holy Spirit is himself, personally, the Imparter of knowledge, the Instructor of youth, the Inspirer of genius”
“a conception … that we … conceive of the divine teaching as co-operating with ours in a child’s arithmetic lesson”
“Such a recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit as the educator of mankind in things intellectual as well as in things moral and spiritual”
“we shall be able to realise how incessant is the commerce between the divine Spirit and our human spirit”
“‘Doth the plowman plow all day to sow? … For his God doth instruct him to discretion and doth teach him…’ — Is[ahah] xxviii”
“A first condition of this vitalising teaching is that all the thought we offer to our children shall be living thought, no mere dry summaries of facts will do; given, the vitalising idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea as upon a peg capable of sustaining all that it is needful to retain.”
The unavoidable conclusion is that Mason’s own writings were ringing in her ears when she traveled to Florence. She had already defined, described, and expounded the Great Recognition more than a year before she left for Italy. What Mason saw in the Spanish Chapel was an illustration of an idea she had already articulated. When she wrote about the fresco in 1896, she reused much of the language from her 1892 article. Furthermore, because Mason had already defined the Great Recognition, she was able to compare the idea of the fresco to her own idea, noting that “the Florentine mind of the middle ages went further.”
But if Mason had already defined the Great Recognition by June of 1892, then where did the idea originate? In Mason’s 1896 description of the fresco, she quotes John Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence. In that book, Ruskin interprets the fresco as illustrating “the teaching power of the Spirit of God.” Could Mason have read Ruskin’s book before June of 1892 and drawn her inspiration from there? I don’t think so, for the following reasons:
If Mason did not derive the Great Recognition from Ruskin, it would seem at least plausible that she derived the idea from her own reading of Isaiah 28, Isaiah 50, and John 16. Indeed, in the 1914 article, Mason suggested that the Florentines themselves derived their idea directly from the Holy Scriptures: “The scholastic mediaeval mind, probably working on the scattered hints which the Scriptures offer…” (p. 271). She goes on, “Whether we receive it or not, and the Scriptures abundantly support such a theory regarding the occurrence of knowledge, we cannot fail to perceive that here we have a harmonious and ennobling scheme of education and philosophy” (p. 272).
But even allowing for the possibility that Mason could herself draw a truth directly from Scripture, in fact her 1892 text did not appear out of nowhere. I am grateful to Dr. Benjamin Bernier who drew my attention to an 1888 document entitled “The Draft-Proof.” In this document, we find the Great Recognition in embryonic form:
It may be well to face at the outset the imperfectly understood attitude of education towards religion. Are we not claiming too much for education when we say that it can turn out a human being with every part and every function in vigorous play and in just proportion? Are we not trending on the transforming work of the Holy Spirit? This is a difficulty which confronts many earnest Christian parents. Perhaps the perplexity arises from our habit of limiting the operations of the laws of God to the region of man’s spiritual nature. But we cannot drop a pebble nor draw a breath save in conformity with certain divine laws, so every development and activity of body, soul and spirit is fenced about with its own laws. What the laws are, along the lines of which the child develops in every part of his most complex nature — that, it is the business of the parent to know that he may obey. There are few more intricate studies, but there are few so interesting in progress, so blessed in result, for these physical and metaphysical laws also are the laws of God in the keeping of which there is great reward. With deep reverence be it said that the Holy Spirit Himself, the Lord and Giver of Life, when he undertakes the education of a human being, operates according to law, works out those very principles of education which are proposed to parents, in fact, plays the part of parent to the willing and obedient soul.
This important passage showcases Mason’s complete rejection of dualism and her assertion that the physical and spiritual aspects of education are both equally subject to the direct governance of Almighty God. She notes that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of Life,” a direct quote from the Nicene Creed. Then she says that the Holy Spirit “undertakes the education of a human being.” There is no hint of Ruskin here — but surely a preview of the Great Recognition.
But besides the Nicene Creed and the passages in Isaiah, where did Mason get this idea that the Holy Spirit could undertake “the education of a human being,” and even play “the part of a parent”? It turns out that we can in fact find the germ in 1886, just as Mason said we could. The first edition of Home Education opens with this paragraph:
Let me add, that, in venturing to speak on the subject of Home Education, I do so with the sincerest deference to mothers, believing that, in the words of a wise teacher of men, “the woman receives from the Spirit of God Himself the intuitions into the child’s character, the capacity of appreciating its strength and its weakness, the faculty of calling forth the one and sustaining the other, in which lies the mystery of education, apart from which all its rules and measures are utterly vain and ineffectual.”
I highlight this clause: “the woman receives from the Spirit of God Himself the intuitions…” Here we find language that looks more like the 1892 article. Ideas (intuitions) are derived (received) from the Holy Spirit “Himself.” Who is the “wise teacher of men” who wrote this? It is Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872), Anglican priest and theologian. Mason cites Maurice in other places in her volumes as well.
Mason was obviously familiar with Maurice, and may have read this passage from his Series of Sermons on the Epiphany (1859):
It is to the spirit within that God makes any of His discoveries. Only with this spirit can a man seize any truth, or enter into communion with it. Newton might have seen a thousand apples fall from the trees on which they hung; there was one which led him to perceive the law of the universe. The object that was presented to his outward eye became the instrument through which an idea was presented to the man himself. A universal truth shone through that special instance. His devout and humble mind would have acknowledged at once that God had led him to the one through the other.
But even if Mason was familiar with this concept from Maurice, it is important to note that she did not cite him as an authority for the Great Recognition. While she did cite Coleridge, it is evident that she rested her case finally on the authority of the Holy Scriptures. And whatever her sources, in the end, it was her pen alone that articulated the Great Recognition. “Certain ideas of the natural world are presented to minds, already prepared to receive them, by a higher Power than Nature herself.” In this case, the higher Power chose Charlotte Mason. By 1892, the Great Recognition was fully defined, described, and defended. Mason brought it with her to Florence. Mason’s wonderful discovery in the Spanish Chapel was not a new idea, but a new illustration.