Atmosphere: To Love and To Know Breathed In

Pervasiveness of Dominant Ideas.––Again, we are with the philosopher in his recognition of the force of an idea, and especially of those ideas which are, as we phrase it, in the air at any given moment. "Both the circle of the family and that of social intercourse are subjected to forces that are active in the entire social body, and that penetrate the entire atmosphere of human life in invisible channels. No one knows whence these currents, these ideas arise; but they are there. They influence the moods, the aspirations, and the inclinations of humanity, and no one, however powerful, can withdraw himself from their effects; no sovereign's command makes its way into their depths…

"Whether the power of these dominant ideas is greater in the individual, or in the body of individuals as a whole, is a matter of indifference here. Be that as it may, it cannot be denied that their effect upon the one is manifested in a reciprocal action upon the other, and that their influence upon the younger generation is indisputable."[1]

In the above quote, Charlotte Mason challenges the understanding most of us have about the ideas we hold. 

  • First, most of us tend to think in terms of the primacy of individual choice in selecting the ideas which are held and those which are rejected. In fact, the dominant ideas which have the greatest impact upon us are caught not taughtThey are “in the air” and breathed in, either from the society at large or particularly significant individuals.
  • Second, most of us tend to think of ideas in terms of propositions – groups of words constituting a statement that affirms or denies something and is either true or false. While “propositional truth” statements and logical argument conducted using propositional statements constitute an essential process for discriminating between true and false ideas, Charlotte Mason considered ideas to be a much more global concept than propositions.

Following Coleridge, she saw the possibilities of an idea existing in the human mind in a “definite form” (propositional truth being one such form) or as “a vague appetency” (a desire, craving, propensity towards a thing). Further, she held that the ideas most foundational were breathed in.

Let us hear Coleridge further on the subject of those ideas which may invest us as an atmosphere rather than strike as a weapon:

"The idea may exist in a clear and definite form as that of a circle in that of the mind of a geometrician or it may be a mere instinct, a vague appetency towards something . . . like the impulse which fills a young poet's eyes with tears."

These indefinite ideas which express themselves in an 'appetency' towards something and which should draw a child towards things honest, lovely and of good report, are not to be offered of set purpose or at set times: they are held in that thought-atmosphere which surrounds him, breathed as his breath of life.

It is distressing to think that our poor words and ways should be thus inspired [breathed in] by children; but to recognize the fact will make us careful not to admit sordid or unworthy thoughts and motives into our dealings with them.[2]

Consider the student who walks into classroom and states, “Good, it’s time for math.” In making this statement, the student points to a rather definite idea about himself, math, and the relation between the two. It is important to note, that, prior to this idea ever being formed in “his head”, there was a much more indefinite idea, an appetency towards math which had taken shape. In terms of modern neuroscience, the definite idea took shape in the left, pre-frontal cortex of the student’s brain, but the “appetency” was both neurologically prior and formed by a much more global interaction of the nervous system within itself and with others. To put it metaphorically, the definite idea in the student’s “head” was determined by a prior indefinite idea which had taken shape in his “heart”. Simply put:

We live by our hearts not by our heads.

Further, our hearts are shaped by:

  1. The “atmosphere” we inhale, those “indefinite ideas” communicated to us by the community in which we live.
  2. The more “definite ideas” which seize not only our heads but our hearts as we engage in an internal, contemplative dialog with our selves and an external, social dialog with others.

Thus, our head does have an essential role in clarifying the meaning and purpose of life, the nature of what is good and what is bad, critiquing the state of our heart, pointing us in the direction of a new heart, and maintaining the dialog with self and others that helps shape our heart. But, we live by our heart, and if we are to live well our hearts must be shaped to love well. Consider the words of Augustine:

 And now regarding love, which the apostle says is greater than the other two--that is, faith and hope--for the more richly it dwells in a man, the better the man in whom it dwells. For when we ask whether someone is a good man, we are not asking what he believes, or hopes, but what he loves. Now, beyond all doubt, he who loves aright believes and hopes rightly. Likewise, he who does not love believes in vain, even if what he believes is true; he hopes in vain, even if what he hopes for is generally agreed to pertain to true happiness, unless he believes and hopes for this: that he may through prayer obtain the gift of love.[3]

These principles are profoundly important for anyone involved in cultivating the hearts and minds of children. The greater the extent to which a teacher owns them, the more effective he/she will be.

The importance of these principles is demonstrated by the power of “indefinite” ideas to shape all that happens in a classroom.  For example, let us consider a set of particularly dominant ideas which a teacher will surely communicate (by verbal and non-verbal cues) and thus establish one of two very different atmospheres. 

Atmosphere of Joy

Atmosphere of Anxiety

It is good to be me here with you.

It is not good to be me here with you.

It is good to be learning math, science, literature, history, etc.

It is not good to be learning math, science, literature, history, etc.

Personal Exercise:

  • Spend some time considering together how these very powerful ideas (It is good to be with you/to be learning… and it is not good to be with you/to be learning…) are communicated to students.
  • We cannot fake it.  When it is “not good to be me”, everyone knows consciously or unconsciously. What impact does this have on the students – the formation of their hearts and their long-term relation with a subject of study? How does it impact their love of knowing?
  • When as a teacher is it “not good to be” you or “not good to be learning”?
  • What can a teacher do when it is “not good” on the inside?

[1] Charlotte Mason, School Education, 93-94

[2] Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, 107.

[3] St. Augustine, Enchiridion, chapter 31.