All posts by Karen Glass

Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition

In a recent post, I addressed the question “Is Charlotte Mason classical?”—but only from the perspective of showing the reasons that people have different opinions about that question. I hope you observed that I did not tell you what you should think, and I won’t be doing that now, either, but I am going to share a little more of my reasons for answering that question as I do—yes, Charlotte Mason belongs to the long “classical” tradition of education.

Of course, some of my reasons are already in my book, Consider This, but the book has a narrow scope, and I’m going to cast the net a little wider. Please understand that I’m not trying to convince you if you don’t want to be convinced, and I don’t really consider this a matter worth arguing about, so I won’t argue. But the confusion that has arisen is prompting me to clarify. Many are confused because they haven’t yet had the opportunity to read all of Mason’s volumes or the classical authors for themselves.

I’m not actually going to start with my definition of classical education—those things that I think are vital and fundamental—because that’s what I did write about in Consider This. Instead, I’m going to start with Mason herself, and examine some of the clues she gives us that link her ideas about education to the ideas of the past. I’ve been asked, “If Charlotte Mason were classical, why didn’t she say so?” Perhaps we need to look a little more carefully at what she did say.

Mason and her contemporaries were heirs, in a sense, to the teachings of Pestalozzi, Froebel, Herbart, and also Rousseau, Spencer, and Locke. She mentions every one of these men in her volumes, and their thinking about education dominated Europe in the generation or two just before her lifetime. This is a blog article, not a 500-page educational treatise, so there is simply no space to elucidate their ideas.* The pertinent point is this: because their thoughts on education were the best known, in general, CM assumed a certain familiarity with their ideas, and when she mentions them, it is either to acknowledge their influence (for good or ill) or to draw a distinction between her ideas and theirs.

We labour under the mistake of supposing that there is no natural law or inherent principle according to which a child’s course of studies should be regulated; so we teach him those things which, according to Locke, it is becoming for a ‘gentleman’ to know…(Philosophy of Education, p. 156–read the full context to understand that she finds Locke’s idea inadequate.)

She did not disagree with them on all points by any means, but she never calls upon their authority to validate an idea of her own. Occasionally, she gives them a nod to acknowledge their contributions to educational thought; at other times, she goes to some length to explain a problem with their ideas; but she never says in any way, “My ideas are right because Pestalozzi or Froebel said this.” She does not use them to support her own ideas, and she is not afraid to disagree with these influential educators and assert those differences, small or great, between their ideas and her own.

If we take a step back further in history, we find writers such as Milton, Comenius, and Montaigne, who wrote on education. We find men like Thomas à Kempis and Augustine. We find Plutarch and Plato and Aristotle. These writers—some pagan, some Christian— contributed to the Great Conversation about education throughout history, and like the earlier list, Charlotte Mason mentions of all of these (and more) in her volumes. When she does, she never—not once—contrasts her ideas to theirs. She mentions their ideas because they represent examples of how she thinks things ought to be.

Milton’s ideal of a “complete and generous education” meets our occasions…(Philosophy of Education, p. 249)

The important thing to notice is that when Mason invokes the name of Montaigne or Milton or Plutarch or Plato, she invokes them as voices of authority—voices who spoke the truth, or some part of the truth—and she assumes her readers will appreciate that. They are classical authors who have stood the test of time and earned their right to be respected as thinkers, regardless of whether we agree with them on every point or not. She does not say, “this idea is right because Froebel said so,” but she does imply “we can trust this idea because Plato affirms it.” This is the way Mason treats of them, not once, but every single time they are mentioned. They are not her only educational authorities, but she does consider them authorities.

“Thou canst not prove the Nameless,
Nor canst thou prove the world thou movest in,
For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven.”––[The Myths of Plato, Professor Stewart.]
Plato has said the last word on this matter for our day as well as his own. (Ourselves, p. 82)

Plato recommends that children should have mimic tools given them, in order to amuse themselves with carpentering. (Formation of Character, p. 447)

The limitations of the real, with its one possible outcome, that man himself is a congeries of regulated atoms––that there is nothing in the universe but atoms and regulating laws––this doctrine is oppressive to the spirit of man, and there is a strong rebound towards the Platonic conception of the Idea. (Formation of Character, p. 450)

What is an idea? we ask, and find ourselves plunged beyond our depth. A live thing of the mind, seems to be the conclusion of our greatest thinkers from Plato to Bacon, from Bacon to Coleridge. (Philosophy of Education, p. 105)

If you have not yet had the opportunity to read all six volumes multiple times, you may not have observed this pattern. I’m pointing it out here, so that as you read, you can notice this trend for yourself. If I’ve missed something that doesn’t fit this pattern, I hope you’ll forgive me, as there are some 2000 pages of text in question. There may be exceptions, but this is the pattern.

It is possible to get a little hung up on the word “classical” itself. Charlotte Mason didn’t actually use that word to describe her own ideas during her lifetime. I think it’s a mistake to read too much into that. Although she doesn’t use the word in the way it is used today, as I’ve discussed before, it’s not a word that can be nailed down to mean just one thing. We need to look past the word to the substance of the matter.

There is another concrete way to inquire into Mason’s opinion of “classical” education. In the time and place in which she lived, “classical” education was associated with a certain kind of school—the “Public” schools of England, which had a long history and tradition of their own based upon learning the classical languages. She could not, under any circumstances, have used the world “classical” to mean anything else in England during her lifetime, but the term “classical education” has a different (though not entirely consistent) meaning/connotation in the US today. We can never say, categorically, whether or not she would have aligned herself with those pursuing the classical ideals today. Certainly, her principles and ideas resonate with 21st century “classical” American educators, particularly those who share her Christian beliefs, and the classical ideals of wisdom and virtue are embedded in the twenty principles (I’ll be pursuing that in a future article).

However, to give us further perspective on Charlotte Mason’s attitude toward classical education (by any other name…), we can take a look at what she had to say about the schools that were classical in the way that she understood the term to be used.

She considered that they were the backbone of England—the “achievement” of English education. They produced the men and citizens who had the best character—who were prepared to serve others and their country. She considered the curriculum—at least the literature of the ancient world—to be genuine food for the mind—the best thoughts of the best writers.

Here perhaps the Public Schools have a little pull over the rest of us–the diet they afford may be meagre…but it is not destitute of ideas; for, however sparsely, boys are nourished on the best thoughts of the best minds. (Philosophy of Education, p. 105-106)

Now it is said that nothing can act but where it is and the class which acts steadily where it is, at some outpost of empire, on a home estate, in Parliament, where you will, is the class educated at Public Schools, that is, men brought up on the ‘humanities.’ (Philosophy of Education, p. 297)

…Public Schools, with our old Universities in sequence, are our educational achievement. Other efforts are experimental, but this one thing we know––that men are turned out from this course who are practically unmatched for quality, culture, and power…(Philosophy of Education, p. 308)

So what were her complaints with these schools? They spent too much time on Latin, with too little progress to show for it, and because of that, they didn’t get a generous enough curriculum. She felt that they needed to teach more efficiently and widen the curriculum to include a generous amount of reading in English. And, of course, there is the simple matter of fact that these were elite schools for the privileged few. She didn’t want to do away with them, though—she just wanted to bring a liberal education—in English—to all.

She expresses no philosophical differences with these classical schools or their aims, and the great Victorian defender of classical learning, Matthew Arnold, is the source of much of her own understanding about education. She gives him credit for defining education as “an atmosphere, a discipline, a life”—three of her twenty principles. She defers to his division of knowledge under three heads—Knowledge of God, Knowledge of Man, and Knowledge of the World. Nowhere, in all her volumes, does Charlotte Mason suggest any kind of distance between her ideals and those of the British classical schools (such as they were). It was their practices that she felt wanted reform, and she was right.

So Charlotte Mason invokes the educators of the past as authorities, and she appreciates the accomplishments of the classical schools of her day. But that is far from all. She explicitly invites modern educators to look to the past and garner the collected wisdom of the ages as they work out their own ideas for today. I have been told that Charlotte Mason wanted to distance herself from the past, to find her own way, but I find this implausible. The evidence of her own testimony says otherwise. She did not want to be set adrift—she considered the educational thinking of the past a well of experience and wisdom to draw from. From the wisdom of earlier educators, she learned—not indiscriminately, but judiciously—many universal truths about education and children, and her message for us is : Pay attention. These writers have something to say and it behooves us to listen.

…we really have existing material in the philosophy of the ages and the science of the day to formulate an educational code…(Parents and Children, p. 119)

We cannot afford to discard the wisdom of the past and begin anew with the effort to collect and systematise, hoping to accomplish as much and more in our short span than the centuries have brought us. (Parents and Children, p. 205)

It is time we reverted to the teaching of Socrates. ‘Know thyself,’ exhorted the wise man, in season and out of season…(Parents and Children, p. 242)

It is our temptation to make too personal a matter of education, to lose sight of the fact that education is a world business, that the lessons of the ages have been duly set, and that each age is concerned, not only with its own particular page, but with every preceding page. For who feels that he has mastered a book if he is familiar with only the last page of it? (School Education, pg. 160)

Persons who wish to have just and liberal views of education, not limited by the last output of the last English writer on the subject, will do well to give this volume a careful and studious perusal. (Formation of Character, p. 437)

(The book in question is Vittorino da Feltre and other Humanist Educators, by W. H. Woodward, and her reason for recommending it is that “The radical fault of our English thought and opinion on the subject of education seems to be that we have somehow lost the sense of historical perspective.” (emphasis added) Mason says “This volume is something more than an interesting study in the by-ways of history. True, it treats of the schoolmasters––especially of perhaps the most famous of them, Vittorino himself––of that most fascinating period, the early days of the Renaissance, the revival of learning. But the real value of the work to us is that it shows on what liberal lines the humanist schoolmaster dealt with the questions which are debatable ground to-day”)

And these are not all! Mason makes a point, again and again, of linking her ideas to the ideas of the past, and she does this partly to underscore the timeless nature of the principles she is setting forth. She wants us to recognize that education is founded on what she calls “natural law”—and one way of validating that an idea is a natural law is to show that it has been observed and worked upon over and over again, and proven to be consistent with human nature and the world that we live in.

Mason even makes a point of telling us that natural laws can be discerned by pagan, unbelieving people, and that when they follow those natural laws, they receive the blessings that come from following them.

…it is possible to ascertain laws and keep laws without recognising the Lawgiver, and that those who do ascertain and keep any divine law inherit the blessing due to obedience, whatever be their attitude towards the Lawgiver…(Home Education, p. 39)

Why does Mason, as a modern educator who is excited about scientific research and who considers some of her ideas revolutionary, take us back many centuries to earlier thinkers about education? Why does she mention Milton at all? or Montaigne? Comenius? Why bring up Plato? or Plutarch? They did not have the same immediate influence on educational thinking in Great Britain during her lifetime as Rousseau or Spencer, for example. Why does she use their ideas to reinforce her own? I ask these questions because intellectual integrity demands that they be asked. If you cannot agree with my conclusions—that Mason considered them authorities on education whose opinions lent weight to her ideas when they were in agreement—how can they be explained? Not, I think, by asserting that she rejected classical education or its tradition.

Mason considered some things new in her philosophy, but she did not break with the past. Her own assessment of her educational principles and methods is that while some of it was new, much of it was old.

I have attempted to unfold (in various volumes) a system of educational theory which seems to me able to meet any rational demand, even that severest criterion set up by Plato; it is able to “run the gauntlet of objections, and is ready to disprove them, not by appeals to opinion, but to absolute truth.” Some of it is new, much of it is old. (Philosophy of Education, p. 27)

(I’ve been making a special study of which aspects of Charlotte Mason’s ideas were “new”—but that’s a topic for another post in the future, too.)

I have been told that Mason wanted to distance herself from the classical tradition. I have been told that she rejected all notions of a classical education. I have not been given any evidence from her own words to support these opinions, and in view of her own tendency to hearken back to earlier educators, I think real evidence is going to be hard to produce. Where has Charlotte Mason said that she wanted to break free from the ideas of the classical educators? I have been told why certain individuals reject classical education—and anyone is free to do that—but there is no evidence that Charlotte Mason joins them in that rejection.

We can take for granted that the Christian Charlotte Mason did not share the religious views of any pagan writers, but when it comes to education, she deems them to speak truths. For her, education and religion are not the same things—one is the servant of the other.

Do I incline with lingering fondness rather to the things of the past than to the eager stir of the present, the promise of the future? Not so…The outlook is very cheering: we begin to see that education is the elected handmaid of religion, and get stimulating glimpses of the stature of the perfect man, possible to redeemed humanity.

But the past offers us its accumulated treasures of wisdom and experience––

“And (we) could wish (our) days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.”

Few things could be more disastrous (as, alas, few are more imminent) than a sudden break with the traditions of the past; wherefore, let us gently knit the bonds that bind us to the generation all too rapidly dying out. … It is well that we gather up, with tender reverence, such fragments of their insight and experience as come in our way; for we would fain, each, be as an householder, bringing forth out of his treasures things new and old. (Formation of Character, p. 156-57)

I really don’t think it could be any clearer that Charlotte Mason appreciated the wisdom of the past, specifically in the realm of education, and that she considered an understanding of that past an important piece of the puzzle when it came to putting together an educational theory. She asserted “we really have existing material in the philosophy of the ages and the science of the day to formulate an educational code.”

Sometimes she was quite specific about where she found wisdom. “The Greeks had a more adequate view of education than ourselves” or “a great educational principle which was better understood by the mediæval Church than by ourselves.” “It is time we reverted to the teaching of Socrates.” She even used my preferred term: “The medieval Church preserved classical traditions. It endeavoured to answer the Socratic inquiry: “What ought we to do and what do we mean by the words ‘ought’ and ‘doing’ or ‘acting’?”

I don’t feel the need to belabor this further. I’m not trying to convince anyone else of what they should think or must think. I am simply sharing why I think what I do, supported by many passages from the writings of Charlotte Mason. Those who disagree may argue with her. I have been told that one of the most objectionable things I said in Consider This was that “[Charlotte Mason] went looking into the past and drew an older conception of education into the present.” The next few sentences clarify how it seems to me that she went about that: “Nevertheless, she did not look merely at ‘what they did’ as they taught and imitate it blindly. She delved into their philosophies and found the universal truths. She paid attention to those things they valued most highly, and developed a fresh presentation for some very old ideas.”

I believe that this is a well-supported opinion, and I have shared some of my reasons for thinking that here. Thank you for reading, and I welcome your comments.

*I can recommend two books if you have the desire to explore educational history more fully. Both of these were assigned by Charlotte Mason in the educational course she wrote for parents.
Essays on Educational Reformers, by Robert H. Quick
An Introduction to the History of Educational Theories, by Oscar Browning

Classical or not?

So, is Charlotte Mason classical, or isn’t she? I wouldn’t have thought the question was as hot as it appears to be, so I decided to explore some of the ideas that lie at the root of the confusion. Obviously, I think Charlotte Mason’s philosophy has a clear connection to the classical tradition, since I wrote a book to talk about those ideas. Just as obviously, there are those who disagree, vehemently. How could there possibly be such a wide variance of opinions in the face of such a simple question?

If a heated argument were going on between Educator Smith and Educator Jones on this topic, and Socrates walked into the room, it might look something like this:


Socrates: Whoa! What’s going on here?

ES:  Well, we are discussing whether or not Charlotte Mason had any links to classical education. I think it’s clear that she does.

EJ: Indeed! But I, Socrates, am of quite the opposite opinion. She wanted nothing to do with ancient pagan religions because she was a Christian, and clearly must have rejected their educational ideas as well.

Socrates (taking control of the conversation, as always): Ah, I am very confused. I think I do not quite know what you mean. Who is Charlotte Mason?

ES: Oh, Socrates, you are quite behind the times. You must know that Charlotte Mason was a British educator in the late 19th and early 20th century. She never married, and made education her life’s work. She taught children, and later she taught parents and teachers. She had quite a thorough understanding of the way that a child thinks and learns, and she developed an educational method which followed a set of of clear principles.

EJ: Exactly! She organized a union of parents and educators to explore and propagate her ideas, and she wrote many volumes to explain her thoughts. We have six large books which give quite a complete picture of her teaching, which is based upon twenty principles.

Socrates: Ah, then we can be quite certain of what Charlotte Mason thought about education?

ES and EJ: Most certain!

Socrates: It was very thoughtful of her to write everything down so thoroughly, so there can be no doubt. And classical education? What is that?

ES: It’s not easy to define, you know. Your own pupil Plato gave us some thoughts about education, as well as his pupil, Aristotle, although they did not entirely agree with each other. The Roman Quintilian, who was contemporary with the Apostle Paul, gave us quite a thorough treatise, and after Christ, we have centuries of Christian writers who contributed their ideas. Augustine is a primary one, but Cassiodorus, Aquinas, and à Kempis had some important ideas as well. Erasmus, Comenius, and Milton were Renaissance-era educators who developed further thoughts on education, and there were a few English educators with interesting ideas—Elyot and Ascham. Elyot was particularly fond of Cicero’s teaching on education. The French Montaigne had some very clear ideas, and he refers frequently to the Roman Seneca…

Socrates: Stop! Please, stop. I am trying to understand what classical education is. Did all of these educators say exactly the same thing about education?

ES: No, of course not. What would be the point of that? It’s a long conversation about education, among many thinkers.

Socrates: But did they all think the same thing?

ES: Not precisely, no. Do any two people think exactly the same thing?

Socrates: I suppose not, but perhaps they can define something the same way.

EJ: Well, that’s easy enough. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary defines “classical” for us!  “Of or relating to the ancient Greek and Roman world, especially to its literature, art, architecture, or ideals—also, having order, balance, restraint or other qualities felt to derive from or suggest those characteristic of the literature, art, architecture, or ideals of ancient Greece and Rome.”

Socrates: And does that give a full definition of classical education?

EJ: Clearly, classical education is “of or relating to the ancient Greek and Roman world,” which was pagan. Charlotte Mason was a Christian, and her educational ideas could not possibly relate to theirs.

Socrates: But education is not religion. Or is it?

ES: Charlotte Mason did not think so.

Socrates: No?

ES: She called education “the handmaid of religion.”

Socrates: Ah! The servant, then. Well, let us assume for the moment that she was correct. Could the same servant be utilized by pagans and Christians? Is that possible? I am trying to understand whether a Christian educator could share ideas with pagan educators. Perhaps we can consider one of the other classical categories. Classical architecture, perhaps. Could Christians make use of the architecture that relates to Greece and Rome?

EJ: I suppose they have. There are churches built in the classical style.

Socrates: So Christians could, in some cases, make use of something that “relates to the ancient Greek and Roman world?” The fact of being Christian is not the same thing as rejecting all things that are classical? Using their ideas, as servants, is possible? We can agree on that?

ES and EJ: I think we can agree. (Because in a Socratic dialogue, everyone always agrees with Socrates.)

Socrates: So, we cannot determine that Charlotte Mason has no connection to classical education simply because she was a Christian. But perhaps there are other reasons?

EJ: There certainly are! For the past 25 years, American educators have been developing classical schools and curricula around the ideas of Dorothy Sayers, who wrote “The Lost Tools of Learning.” She compared the three parts of the trivium (the classical liberal arts, you know) to three stages of child development, and her idea is that young children should memorize a great many facts, and little else. It bears no resemblance to Charlotte Mason’s ideas about education at all.

Socrates: And this is consistent with what all the other classical educators mentioned earlier have said?

ES: Not really. It was her own idea.

Socrates: I think we have wandered away from the topic at hand. We need a definition of classical education. We know what Charlotte Mason thought because of the six books she wrote, but how can we decide whether her ideas relate to classical ideas unless we can define them equally clearly?

ES and EJ: I suppose we can’t.

Socrates: So…let’s begin again. What is classical education?

(At the same time):

ES: Plato says…/EJ: The dictionary says…

Socrates: No, that won’t do. Perhaps we need to ask a different question. Charlotte Mason is the authority on her own educational philosophy, of course?

ES and EJ: Of course!

Socrates: And who is the educational authority able to define classical education for us?

ES and EJ:…(crickets)


And therein lies the crux of the question. My ideas about classical education represent one line of inquiry, and those who disagree have taken a different tack. The root of our different conclusions lies in our different understanding of classical education, not our appreciation of Charlotte Mason. And where is the authority who can give us one clear definition, similar to Charlotte Mason’s twenty principles, which will give us the essence or the complete picture, or at least an undeniable measuring stick for what is or is not classical?

I am happy to share all the connections I have found between Charlotte Mason and the classical tradition, but I am not even a little bit interested in trying to convince anyone that my definition of classical education is the one correct definition. In fact, in the absence of a single authority, I think that a plurality of classical educators, taken together and sifted for their points of commonality, is the closest we can get to what we mean by “classical” education. But others prefer to find their definitions elsewhere, and I cannot fault anyone’s right to do that. My way takes a very long time, and not everyone wants to read all the old classical writers when the necessary day to day business of educating children demands attention.

Not long ago, I was asked to do what my Socrates was trying to do—to define classical education—and I thought I’d share how I attempted to go about that.

I prefer the term “classical tradition” to “classical education” because it is the “big umbrella” term that make it clear we are talking more about fundamental principles than nitty-gritty practices. For me, the term “classical education” better refers to the actual practice of putting the ideas to work—how you go about implementing the big, universal principles. And this is why it feels like there is no clear definition—people do such very different things. Also, frankly, it is very common to say “classical education” when one really means “the classical tradition of education,” just because it’s shorter. It’s the conventional, common way the term is used, although many writers and thinkers of the last century or so use the term “liberal arts education” to express much the same thing.

Let’s get some perspective. How can we answer the question, “What is the definition of a Charlotte Mason Education?” We do have authority on that point. I could answer that a CM education is based upon Mason’s twenty principles. That’s not wrong, but it tells me nothing if I don’t know what they are. The twenty principles take up about three pages of text in a book, but most people could not read through the principles as Charlotte Mason has given them to us and grasp her ideas and methods. Those three pages of principles are the short version, and the reality is, if you want to know what a “CM” education is, you’re going to need a lot more input and explanation, hopefully with some helpful examples of what it all looks like in practice.

You can’t put the answer to “What is a Charlotte Mason education” into one or two concise sentences and really convey its full meaning. The question “What is the definition of Classical Education?” presents a similar problem. It can no more be condensed to a few sentences than a CM education, and even the “twenty principles” version is going to leave you unsatisfied and needing to know more before you understand what it’s all about.

But people do try to express the definition succinctly, and I’ll share a few of the short versions that I like.

  1. “Classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and of conscience through myth.” (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility, p. 18)

  2. “In essence, then, classical education is the logo-centric quest for the ideals of wisdom and virtue.” This is the highly condensed version from the CiRCE website—the longer version is only about a page, and gives a great summary if you want to explore the idea a bit more fully than I can here.

  3. “At the outset, the speaker observed that classical education did not merely imply the study of the Greek and Roman languages; it was education based upon all that was best and noblest in literature and language.” This rough definition was given in the PNEU “notes” when it was discussed at one of their local meetings. I include this one just because of its connection to Mason, although it’s probably the weakest of the three. And yet it shows the essence!

Now what is common between these three? Let’s agree from the start that none of them can convey the full definition, just as it would be impossible to define Charlotte Mason in three lines of text. But we’ll work with what we have and see if we can’t make a little progress, at least. I see a couple of common ideas here. First, we are not talking about academics. I see “development of conscience” and “pursuit of virtue” and “noble.” In short, I see that we are talking about education being focused on helping a person become the best that he can be—elevating him to think and act virtuously and nobly. Hicks talks about “developing the conscience,” and Charlotte Mason has devoted chapters and chapters to this idea. Charlotte Mason identified the formation of character (not the salvation of the soul) as the purpose of education—because education is only the handmaid of religion.

A second commonality I see involves “language,” “logocentric,” and “literature.” Traditional, classical education is always conducted around the use of words, language, and literature. Charlotte Mason’s 13th principle says “attention responds naturally to knowledge in literary form.”

In short, the essence of a classical education is consistent with Charlotte Mason’s twenty principles. At the same time, there is a whole host of conflicting practices and various ideas about how to implement the ideals of a classical education throughout history. Even in Consider This, I made it clear that there was not perfect agreement on all points, among all thinkers.

One book I’ve read this year is Essays on Educational Reformers by Robert Quick, which is a look at the history of education from the Renascence era (his spelling) up to 1890—just before the beginning of the PNEU. Charlotte Mason included this book as recommended reading in her course on education for parents.

In the course of reading it, I came across a most interesting perspective about educational traditions:

“In all occupations there is of necessity a tradition. In the higher callings the tradition may be of several kinds. First there may be a tradition of noble thoughts and high ideals, which will be conveyed in the words of the greatest men who have been engaged in that calling, or have thought out the theory of it. Next there will be the tradition of the very best workers in it. And lastly there is the tradition of the common man who learns and passes on just the ordinary views of his class and the ordinary expedients for getting through ordinary work.”

I was quite interested in this idea that there are different kinds of tradition, and especially that the highest tradition involves noble thought, high ideals, and the theory of the subject at hand. I was struck by this because it is only at this highest level of tradition that I think Charlotte Mason belongs to the classical tradition. It’s why, in Consider This, I swept aside discussion of “what” classical educators were doing in favor of looking at “why” they were doing it. That’s where the heart of a philosophy lies, as Charlotte Mason made clear.

Classical education cannot really be reduced to a dictionary definition, but it is not unknowable. Among the many voices that have contributed to the Great Conversation, common truths which are part of the great Truth can be found again and again. Charlotte Mason considered it a mark of authenticity when a truth was told by many voices.

“We reverence Froebel. Many of his great thoughts we share; we cannot say borrow, because some, like the child’s relations to the universe, are at least as old as Plato; others belong to universal practice and experience, and this shows their psychological rightness.” (Home Education, p. 185)

All this long article is apropos of one single idea: Your answer to the question “Is Charlotte Mason classical?” will be based upon the way you choose to define classical education. I’ve written about this before. My advice is not merely to “choose your sources carefully,” because it is very likely that there are nuggets of truth to be found everywhere. My advice, if you want it, is rather to consider your understanding of classical education pliable. As you read more and learn more, its shape may change. As long as there is no single authority who can give us a concrete definition for classical education, we are all learners, refining our ideas as we grow.

Nothing could be more faithful both to the classical ideal and to Charlotte Mason than this concept. True understanding comes one way, and one way only.

“But, alas, and alas, for the cravings of lazy human nature––we may not have an educational pope; we must think out for ourselves, as well as work out, those things that belong to the perfect bringing-up of our children.” (Home Education, p. 185)

Notice what Mason is actually saying there—not just that “we have not yet” had an educational pope. She says, “we may not have.” Charlotte Mason is the authority of her personal philosophy of education, but she is not “the” authority on education, for all time. She eschewed the very idea that any one thinker could be that. Expecting everything to be given to us ex cathedra, so that we have nothing to do except color within the lines, as it were, is no true education. If we would be teachers, we must first be learners, and think things out for ourselves.

Copyright 2017 Karen Glass

We’ve never had an extended conversation on my site, here, but I welcome your comments. What are you reading and learning about just now?

A celebration of the science of relations…

It is, of course, not just one of Charlotte Mason’s educational principles that education is the “science of relations,” but it is also true that those relationships are part of our everyday lives, interwoven into the things we do, and say, and read, and ponder. Sometimes we stumble across a relation that is truly delightful, and that happened for me not long ago, when someone shared Joy Shannon’s blog post about the science of relations.

I wrote about the same topic not long ago, and it was a delight find Joy’s thoughts resonating with mine. I wrote:

What is the science of relations? This principle is similar to Charlotte Mason’s first principle, “Children are born persons,” in that there are are layers of meaning and multiple applications. It’s a principle, not a rule, and it has broad implications, which grow more complex as the children themselves grow.

And Joy said:

Like many truly wonderful ideas, I have come to believe that the Science of Relations is incredibly simple while also infinitely complex and far-reaching.

The principle “education is the science of relations” is what lies at the heart of what I call “synthetic thinking” in Consider This. This relational understanding of knowledge is what motivates us to reach out, in sympathy and love, to those around us. It’s closely tied to what we call “virtue”—taking action upon our knowledge.

When we truly grasp that all knowledge is connected, comprising one great, wholeness of understanding that is forever beyond our complete comprehension, and remember that we may know, but we do not yet know all, we will retain that humility which is essential to further learning. It is only this synthetic, relational thinking that will motivate us to act and to make virtue of our knowledge. (From Consider This, ch. 12)

Only within the past few months have I seen that Charlotte Mason explicitly links this principle to wisdom as well, and Joy has perceived this as well.

I get a glimpse of how the seemingly confined principle number twelve actually intertwines among the other aspects of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. I begin to see how far-reaching and influential these relationships can be, how these relations weave together, and how they change the way we fit into the larger world. They leave their mark upon us, impacting and touching even the farthest corners of our lives, while also tinting the lives of those around us.

That’s all I have to say, but I hope you’ll read her post for yourself. And then I hope you’ll keep your eyes and your mind open for the relations that are waiting for you.

Some Practices are Principles—Part 5

The final practice which was added to the original 18 principles has several elements within it, and it is here that we find a few prohibitions—Don’t do these things!

15. A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarising, and the like.

We’ve already noted the connection between narration and attention, but Charlotte Mason includes a warning here about things that can hinder the attention we want to secure. A single reading is the point she insisted upon. If the children thought they’d have another chance to hear or read, they just wouldn’t give their full attention to that reading.

But re-reading is not the only way we can hinder a child’s power of attention, which will also hinder his ability to assimilate and make knowledge his own. Unfortunately, those things that are hindrances are standard educational practices, and it requires a deliberate effort on the part of a CM educator (who was probably brought up under those practices and finds it hard to let them go) to refrain from…

1) Questioning. It is so tempting. But any question aimed at eliciting a specific piece of information from a child is…well, Charlotte Mason gave us this graphic description: It’s like asking a child to show you his dinner before he has finished digesting it. Eew. Also, it prevents assimilation if a child has to spew out what he should be absorbing internally. I’m being graphic on purpose, because I find it the best way to develop the proper attitude toward what I call analytic questioning. It should disgust us a little bit, and our abhorrence will prevent us from doing it. There is an article in the Parents’ Review that really explains this well. If you want an idea of what kinds of questions are okay—questions that could be asked after narration has taken place, I suppose you want to think about open-ended questions. I’d call them synthetic questions, without a single “right” answer, but that require a child to think a little deeper, or further, or “outside the box.” (I could write a whole post about questions—let me know if you are interested.)

2) Summarising. It’s so tempting to do the talking ourselves—to wrap things all up for the children in tidy little packages. But the person who does the talking is doing the thinking—that is the person who has performed the act of learning and knowing. Charlotte Mason knew that if the teacher did it for him, the child would not do it, and she is adamant: The children must do the work for themselves.

3) “and the like.” Isn’t it just like Charlotte Mason to be that vague in a principle about practices? That’s because she wants us to think—to “mix it with brains” —and really understand what it is we are doing, to think about whether or not any particular thing is in line with the principles or not. The principle is: the child must be the one who is doing the mental labor, not the teacher. Keep a sharp eye on fads, and avoid them if they are going to interfere with any of the vital processes.

I’m going to add here the manner in which Charlotte Mason expressed these practices-that-are-principles in Philosophy of Education, when she wanted to present the ideas and work of the PNEU to the wider British public:

He requires that in most cases Knowledge be communicated to him in literary form; and reproduces such Knowledge touched by his own personality; thus his reproduction becomes original.

The natural provision for the appropriation and assimilation of Knowledge is adequate and no stimulus is required; but some moral control is necessary to secure the act of attention; a child receives this in the certainty that he will be required to recount what he has read. Children have a right to the best we possess; therefore their lesson books should be, as far as possible, our best books.

They weary of talk, and questions bore them, so that they should be allowed to use their books for themselves; they will ask for such help as they wish for.

They require a great variety of knowledge,––about religion, the humanities, science, art; therefore, they should have a wide curriculum, with a definite amount of reading set for each short period of study. (Philosophy of Education, p. 18-19)

Do you see how closely these align with the “new” principles in this final book—the practices that Charlotte Mason considered essential?

These are practices “that [Charlotte Mason] has indicated” must be followed exactly in order to obtain the benefits of her ideas. These are practices that have “methodised” the principles such as “children are born persons” and “education is the science of relations.”

I’ve added this quote here because it hints at one or two further practices that will give us optimum results. I’m thinking in particular about “a definite amount of reading set for each short period of study.” There is quite a bit implied there, but keeping the lessons short was part of the way that attention was maintained.

Every practice under consideration can be brought back to the principles, and that is the way to decide whether or not something is a good idea. This is what Charlotte Mason wanted teachers to know.

Once Miss Mason gave an instance of how a question of seemingly small importance should be answered. She put the question to the students and when they could give no suggestion for an answer she told them that before an answer could be found it was necessary to think back to first principles, then to think outward again to the question in their light. (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 152)

The principles always determine the shape of the practices. The principles represent universal truths, while the practices are the behavior that shapes itself around those truths, just as “fire burns” is a principle that determines our practices, but does not dictate explicitly what must be done.

The final part of principle 15 is a summation of these added “practical” principles:

Acting upon these and some other points in the behaviour of mind, we find that the educability of children is enormously greater than has hitherto been supposed, and is but little dependent on such circumstances as heredity and environment.

Nor is the accuracy of this statement limited to clever children or to children of the educated classes: thousands of children in Elementary Schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behaviour of mind.

These methods—these practices—are based upon “the behavior of mind.” The way the mind behaves is part of the human nature that is common to us all. Charlotte Mason had a vision for a “liberal education for all,” and when we take up her principles and these vital practices, we become a part of her vision. What are the vital practices again? I give them to you in the shortest form I can manage:

  1. Education is the science of relations.
  2. Children must form relationships with a wide variety of knowledge, generally divided into the knowledge of God, the knowledge of man, and the knowledge of the world.
  3. Children take in knowledge best through literary language.
  4. And they make it their own when they are required to narrate.
  5. The children must be the ones performing the mental effort of learning, so we must take care not to interfere with that process.

These are the practices that Charlotte Mason identified as principles–the ones that are truly vital to educating according to her method. If these are the practices that shape your homeschool or classroom, you are being faithful to the method and the ideals that lie behind it. Your children will be blessed.

"Early Spring" by Alfred Lord Tennyson Once more the Heavenly Power Makes all things new, And domes the red-plowed hills With loving blue; The blackbirds have their wills, The throstles too. . Opens a door in Heaven; From skies of glass A Jacob's ladder falls On greening grass, And o'er the mountain-walls Young angels pass. . Before them fleets the shower, And burst the buds, And shine the level lands, And flash the floods; The stars are from their hands Flung through the woods, . The woods with living airs How softly fanned, Light airs from where the deep, All down the sand, Is breathing in his sleep, Heard by the land. . O, follow, leaping blood, The season's lure! O heart, look down and up, Serene, secure, Warm as the crocus cup, Like snow-drops, pure! . Past, Future glimpse and fade Through some slight spell, A gleam from yonder vale, Some far blue fell; And sympathies, how frail, In sound and smell! . Till at thy chuckled note, Thou twinkling bird, The fairy fancies range, And, lightly stirred, Ring little bells of change From word to word. . For now the Heavenly Power Makes all things new, And thaws the cold, and fills The flower with dew; The blackbirds have their wills, The poets too. . (one of my favorite poems, conveniently memorized by Gianna last year so she can recite it on spring days like these ❤)

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(Pictures are used with permission and are found on Instagram in the community @charlottemasonirl [Charlotte Mason In Real Life]. I’m sure they’d love to have you join in.

Some Practices are Principles—Part 4

Yesterday, we looked at principle #13, which gave us some insight into how to choose or build a curriculum consistent with Charlotte Mason’s principles. Today, we’re going to look at the next practice that Charlotte Mason considered a vital principle. We can’t really neglect this practice in a faithful “CM education.”

14. As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.

“Tell back”—we’re talking about narration here. Narration is a practice, but it is also so essential to the successful implementation of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, that she made it a principle.

There are multiple reasons why this is so, and scattered throughout her books, Charlotte Mason has explained them to us.

Remember that education is the science of relations? Well, narration is a relationship-building exercise. That is its very reason for existence—to create an emotional tie between a learner and knowledge.

The citizen, in whose bringing-up P.N.E.U. has had a part, has had many of his innumerable emotions stirred by his “lovely books,” “glorious books,” and the emotion of the moment has translated the facts of history, travel, science, the themes of poetry or tragedy, into vital knowledge. That is the raison d’etre of narrating; the reader recovers as it were what he has read and looks at it, and in this looking his emotion becomes fired. (Charlotte Mason, In Memoriam, p. 11-12)

Another pragmatic, but infinitely valuable effect of using narration is that it demands and builds the habit of attention. Children who narrate regularly (consistency is vital in order for narration to do all that it might) develop the ability to focus and concentrate—a mental power which will serve them well in many things, for all their lives.

To return to our method of employing attention; it is not a casual matter, a convenient, almost miraculous way of covering the ground, of getting children to know certainly and lastingly a surprising amount; all this is to the good, but it is something more, a root principle vital to education.(Philosophy of Education, p. 74)

Narration is the foundation for requiring children to make use of all their mental powers. No need to invent contrived “thinking skills” activities. You don’t have to teach children to think; instead—narration requires them to do so. When children narrate, they are engaging in the “act of knowing.” Charlotte Mason compared narration to the act of digestion—the process by which a child assimilated knowledge and made it a part of himself.

‘In all labour there is profit,’ at any rate in some labour; and the labour of thought is what his book must induce in the child. He must generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the determination rests with him and not with his teacher….The simplest way of dealing with a paragraph or a chapter is to require the child to narrate its contents after a single attentive reading…(School Education, p. 179)

And that isn’t all, either! Narration is the foundation of teaching writing in Charlotte Mason’s methods. It builds a child’s vocabulary; it teaches him to order his thoughts; it accustoms him to writing on all manner of topics. You can find a bit more about how it works here. If you have had the privilege of watching a child grow from a half-articulate six-year-old narrator into a young adult who can express himself (or herself) fluently in writing, you have been blessed.

Among these is the art of composition, that art of ‘telling’ which culminates in a Scott or a Homer and begins with the toddling persons of two and three who talk a great deal to each other and are surely engaged in ‘telling’ though no grown-up, not even a mother, can understand.(Philosophy of Education, p. 190)

And we haven’t even discussed the fact that narration can take many forms. Simply “telling back” is fine, but there are a multitude of ways to add variety and interest to the practice.

The victory procession in Aristides, for instance, can be accounted for by a list of words naming the several persons and things in sequence. A rough sketch would do the same. In each case the boy has had to “turn-over” in his mind all details of the paragraphs read. Another useful exercise is to ask the children to write down six or more questions on the subject matter dealt with, the questions not to require simply “Yes” or “No” as answer….In Geography, sketch maps by the scholars of the bird’s-eye-view type are interesting and useful. Here too a boy has to sift very carefully what he has read, before expressing himself on paper.
(“Some Notes on Narration” by G.F. Husband)

It’s no wonder, is it, that Charlotte Mason decided narration was a practice valuable enough to become a principle? Whatever else you do or adapt while being faithful to Charlotte Mason’s methods, please don’t give up narration, and please give yourself the best chance of reaping a harvest by using it consistently. The regular use of narration—both oral and written—is one of the most powerful tools Charlotte Mason has given us.

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(Pictures are used with permission and are found on Instagram in the community @charlottemasonirl [Charlotte Mason In Real Life]. I’m sure they’d love to have you join in.)

Some Practices are Principles—Part 3

We’re looking at the practices that Charlotte Mason considered important enough to make into principles. Basically, these are the practices that define what is and what is not “a Charlotte Mason education.” If your educational efforts line up with these educational practices, you can feel confident that you are giving your students a “CM” education. (In my introductory post, I abbreviated the principles for the sake of space, but in the course of the rest of the discussion, we’ll be looking at them in full.)

Before we begin, remember #12—Education is the science of relations!

Today, we’re going to look at principle #13, which has three parts.

13. In devising a SYLLABUS for a normal child, of whatever social class, three points must be considered:

These are the guidelines for “devising a syllabus” which I think probably corresponds to “designing a curriculum.” You don’t have to design your own, of course, but these are the guidelines you can use to evaluate your curriculum choices if you want to follow a CM education. (I have used AmblesideOnline with all my children, and I can recommend it as an excellent CM curriculum, but it is not the only one that will meet these criteria.)

Okay, the first point:

(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.

Your curriculum needs to offer “much knowledge.” No stingy, starvation diet will do, because you are feeding a growing mind. Charlotte Mason elaborates on this principle when she divides knowledge into three categories—Knowledge of God, Knowledge of Man, and Knowledge of the World. She measured the “quantity” of knowledge by page counts, telling us that:

These read in a term from one thousand to between two and three thousand pages, according to age and class, in a large number of set books; the quantity set for each lesson allows of only a single reading. (Philosophy of Education, p. 241)

(There were three terms in each year, so multiply the numbers by three to see how many pages were read in a year.)

You don’t have to make your page counts match hers exactly, and I hope you realize that isn’t the point. These are a “plumb line” against which we can determine whether or not we are acting in accordance with the principles. A difference of 100 pages per term is probably of no great import, but doing half as much, or twice as much, is probably straying from the “best practices” of a CM education. Give your students sufficient food, but don’t overwhelm them so that they lose their appetites, and above all, don’t leave them hungry and unsatisfied.

The second point dovetails closely with the first:

(b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity)

I’ve already mentioned the three-fold division of knowledge. When you take it altogether, it makes a long list of “subjects” that get covered. This is the list from a sample programme (for a child of 12) in Appendix IV of School Education:

Bible, Recitation, French, German, Italian, Latin, English History, French History, Roman History, Geography, English Grammar, Singing, [Hand]Writing, Drill, Dictation, Drawing, Natural History, Botany, Physiology, Arithmetic, Euclid, Reading, Composition, Handiwork

For whatever reason, this one doesn’t even mention picture study, but it was included under “drawing,” and it is interesting to note that three options for picture study were given. This note is included, too: “Children who are beginners or have just been moved up from [a lower class], or who find the work difficult, may omit three subjects.” (emphasis added)

The principle/practice of a “wide and generous” curriculum is the standard, but do you see how flexible it could be? The needs of the child—because the first principle that “children are born persons” is always at work as well—allowed the practices to be flexible for them.

Maybe a child couldn’t handle all the foreign languages, so those would be reduced. Maybe he is struggling in math, so Euclid could be set aside this term. Ideally, you’d work it in later, when the child was ready to tackle it. Maybe a child reading below grade level would be given fewer books, or a child recovering from an injury would omit Drill (PE). Or maybe, the student would dive in with gusto and do it all, and the teacher would be on the lookout for an extra book or two to challenge him.

But what you wouldn’t do, if you were following this principle, is to cut out a whole realm of knowledge, or straighten the program to utilitarian subjects, or just the ones that a child liked. “Education is the Science of Relations” is at work here, too, so we labor to form relations in as many areas as we can.

The third part of our curriculum-building principle is extremely pertinent:

(c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.

Living books. Need I say more? It’s one of those things that lies at the heart of a CM education and permeates all our thinking on the subject. Whatever books we choose should be living and literary, so we won’t choose dry textbooks, or magazine-style books with lots of graphics and little text (no more than snippets of information). I’ll just tell you now that tomorrow’s principle is going to be about narration, and narration can only be done well from well-written books.

I don’t feel the need to belabor this point, because most of us—CM educators—are inveterate book collectors at the same time, and shelf space is always at a premium. Wherever you are, reading this, I’d be willing to bet you can glance up at a well-filled bookcase. Some principles are just so easy to comply with, aren’t they?

Yesterday I shared about how Charlotte Mason's vision for atmosphere has more to do with attitudes than aesthetics.  Even though that's the case, Miss Mason doesn't ignore aesthetics entirely.  We are both body and soul, after all, and we were created for beauty and order.  The spaces we spend our day in absolutely help to set the tone for our homeschooling. But thankfully, we don't need to have picture-perfect rooms to create an environment that inspires virtue, encourages joy, and speaks to what we believe about life and learning. Our home is nothing special decor-wise.  It is a place I am grateful for and it fits our style as a family.  There are also things I would love to change about it. 😉  But that doesn't keep it from helping to cultivate our family culture. What we display, how we order our rooms, where we do lessons — these all depend on family needs, priorities, and yes, limitations too. Here's a peek at how that combination has worked out in our home, where I hope that our ordinary spaces reflect our educational philosophy. (Swipe left to see them all!  I'll add a few notes in the comments about the individual snaps.) Check out @charlottemasonirl for more thoughts on atmosphere in the Charlotte Mason homeschool!

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(Pictures are used with permission and are found on Instagram in the community @charlottemasonirl [Charlotte Mason In Real Life]. I’m sure they’d love to have you join in.)

Some Practices are Principles—Part 2

I know I pointed out yesterday that principles 13-15 are the “practical” ones added to the original more abstract principles, but before we dive into those, we need to back up to number 12:

Education is the Science of Relations

There is an awful lot implied by this principle, as I wrote recently. It is also the foundation of the “practical” principles we are going to be talking about, because all of Charlotte Mason’s methods are relationship-building methods.

The full principle reads:

12. “Education is the Science of Relations”; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of––

“Those first-born affinities
“That fit our new existence to existing things.”

You can see some explicit suggestions there for things that should be included in a “CM education:” physical activity, nature, handicrafts. Those are enriching, real-life activities, things that get you away from the desk, include movement, and maybe some fresh air. But there are more academic relations to be developed as well: science, art, and of course—living books!

"How do we prepare a child, again, to use the aesthetic sense with which he appears to come provided? His #education should furnish him with whole galleries of mental pictures, pictures by great artists old and new…in fact, every child should leave school with at least a couple of hundred pictures by great masters hanging permanently in the halls of his imagination, to say nothing of great buildings, sculpture, #beauty of form and colour in things he sees. Perhaps we might secure at least a hundred lovely landscapes too,––sunsets, cloudscapes, starlight nights. At any rate he should go forth well furnished because imagination has the property of magical expansion, the more it holds the more it will hold." – Charlotte Mason . . #picturesstudyportfolios @simplycharlottemason #simplycharlottemason #charlottemason #charlottemasonirl #educationisanatmosphere #picturestudy #homeschool #atmosphere #truthbeautygoodness #charlottemasonliving #charlottemasoneducation #commonplacebook #digitalcommonplacebook #shelfie

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But our job isn’t to give our children a body of knowledge, to make sure there aren’t any gaps. No, CM included in this principle the idea that there probably are going to be gaps— “our business is not to teach him all about anything.” So, okay, they aren’t going to learn everything.

But what they are going to do is develop relationships with all the different areas of knowledge. If we are doing something—math is a frequent bugbear—in a way that is causing a child to dislike the material, we are interfering with this principle.

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? (School Education, p. 170-71)

Is your child getting stressed about something you are doing? This can happen in so many ways—we feel pressured to have them keeping up or making progress. Are they reading well? Are they “caught up” in math? Do they “perform” well enough to make you look like a successful homeschool mother? This kind of stress is counterproductive.

Because education is the science of relations, all the relationships in this relational method of education matter—the relationship between you and your children, and between your children as brothers and sisters, and between each child and the lovely enticing knowledge that is there for him to find in math, science, literature, art, music, and more. Bearing in mind each and every day, as a teacher, that “Education is the science of relations” will keep us mindful of what we are doing. We won’t make a child sit 45 minutes over a page of math problems. We won’t weary everyone by doubling up the lessons to make up for not getting everything done yesterday.

We will take a deep breath and make sure every day is a harmony of atmosphere, discipine, and life that creates an environment in which relationships can grow. Remember that when you know a principle well, you act upon it intuitively.

Of course, this isn’t actually an explicit “how do I do this?” principle. It’s just the principle that is the springboard for the rest of the practical ones. I’m confident of this, because rather than tacking them onto the end, Charlotte Mason chose to insert them exactly here. The new principles are 13 through 15, so number 12— “Education is the Science of Relations” will be fresh in our minds as we consider them and their role.

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(Pictures are used with permission and are found on Instagram in the community @charlottemasonirl [Charlotte Mason In Real Life]. I’m sure they’d love to have you join in.

Blog series this week!

In spite of genuine concern that I might actually be mistaken for a faithful blogger, I have written a whole series–five posts!–which is going up this week, one new post each day, beginning today. I’ve been writing about Charlotte Mason’s principles, but I am mindful that some practices in CM’s philosophy of education actually are principles. So that’s the series: “Some practices are principles.” If this topic interests you, I hope you’ll read along. The first post is here.

Enjoy your week!

Karen Glass

Some Practices are Principles—Part 1

I’ve written a bit about principles recently (here and here) because it’s so easy to get caught up in the “what” and the “how” of our day-to-day educational endeavors that we lose touch with that “why,” which is the living, life-giving touch that makes our busy-ness purposeful and meaningful.

I think most of us who have devoted years and years to educating children with Charlotte Mason’s methods know that just looking at the principles alone—laid out at the beginning of each of her volumes—isn’t going to give you any confidence or guidance about how to get started. It’s lovely that Charlotte Mason has, with the principles, identified the path— “this is the way”—but we are still in need of guidance to make it possible to “walk ye in it.”

Charlotte Mason knew that. I’m going to tell you something rather funny from the annals of modern “CM history,” but I hope you won’t laugh at us.

The CM series was republished (thanks to the Andreolas—we owe them much) in the pink volumes we all know so well in 1989. When I acquired my set in 1994, the internet was in its infancy. I found others who were interested in Charlotte Mason, and we plunged in and read the series together, but, as far as the community goes, no one I ever met had read more than one or two of the volumes. We read them together, and there was no one to tell us that volume 6, Philosophy of Education (such a daunting title compared to the friendlier, more accessible Home Education) was a good place to start, because no one had read that far! We observed that there were 18 principles listed at the beginning of each book. We talked about the “18 principles” and even worked systematically through a study of the “18 principles.”

I had been reading and studying about Charlotte Mason for some years before I got to Volume 6, and noticed the difference there—20 principles! There were two new ones? No, there were three new ones, because Charlotte Mason had combined two of the earlier principles into one. I got out my books, and compared them side by side.
The next generation of younger CM educators knows that there are 20 principles, and probably can’t imagine how we missed that for so long, but that’s how it was. Thank goodness we kept on learning and studying, and didn’t stop after Home Education.

Do you know which of the 20 principles are the “new ones,” that CM added later in her life, after many, many years of experience?

I’m giving them in shortened form for the sake of space, but you can find them in full here.

13. In devising a SYLLABUS (I think we might say “curriculum”) for a normal child, three points must be considered:—
(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food.
(b) The knowledge should be various.
(c) Knowledge should be conveyed in literary form.

14. As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part.

15. A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarising, and the like.

Thousands of children in Elementary Schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behaviour of mind.

If you look carefully at these added principles, you will realize, as I did, that they are not just abstract principles in the nature of “Children are born persons”—rather, they are explicit descriptions of the practices that are indispensable to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. These are the practices Charlotte Mason included in her appeal to the wider British public to adopt.

These vital practices are the ones that should shape our Charlotte Mason homeschools and classrooms. There are some important “dos” embedded in there, as well as a few prohibited “don’ts.”

I was interested to find in The Story of Charlotte Mason, by Essex Cholmondeley, a brief explanation of these additional principles:

Miss Mason added the following paragraphs for the use of teachers when the ‘liberal education for all’ movement was active. [emphasis added]

The other principles were expressed with parents in mind, parents who were bringing up their children, but not necessarily attending to their “school” education (although they are applicable in that setting). These additional practical principles are the ones that were given to those of us actively engaged in teaching. They bear a closer look, and that’s what we’ll do over the next few days (there are five parts in the series).

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(Pictures are used with permission and are found on Instagram in the community @charlottemasonirl [Charlotte Mason In Real Life]. I’m sure they’d love to have you join in.

The Quote and The Context

There’s a quote from Charlotte Mason that I like a lot. I’ve been aware of it for a long, long time, and it has underpinned my own homeschooling efforts. This is the quote:

The reader will say with truth–‘I knew all this before and have always acted more or less on these principles’; and I can only point to the unusual results we obtain through adhering not ‘more or less’ but strictly to the principles and practices I have indicated. I suppose the difficulties are of the sort that Lister had to contend with; every surgeon knew that his instruments and appurtenances should be kept clean, but the saving of millions of lives has resulted from the adoption of the great surgeon’s antiseptic treatment; that is from the substitution of exact principles scrupulously applied for the rather casual ‘more or less’ methods of earlier days. (Philosophy of Education, p. 19)

There was a time when I thought the “practices” mentioned included all the practices of the PUS (Parents’ Union Schools). I thought it meant we needed to adhere to things like strict page counts, and learning three modern languages plus Latin, and doing school in the morning so free time happened in the afternoon, and so on. I really can’t remember now when I realized that isn’t what this is about at all. Lately, I’ve seen this quote misunderstood in the same way I misunderstood it quite a few times, and not long ago, I shared with one Facebook group what I’m going to share here.

It begins with understanding the audience for the book, Philosophy of Education. Charlotte Mason’s first five books were written for the PNEU—the group of parents who adhered to her philosophy and were trying to implement it with their children. This final book was not written for them, but was addressed to the wider British public—to present CM’s philosophy and the work of the PNEU to people unfamiliar with it, in hopes of spreading their work even further. (It worked for a while, too.) Some of the chapters were even published earlier, as stand-alone pamphlets, and part of it appeared as a series of letters to a newspaper.

With that audience in mind, read the quote again, giving special attention to the part I have emphasized— “I have indicated.” What practices? Indicated where? Well, that’s where the context comes in—right there on the same pages. I urge you to read the full context for yourself.

The quote is self-limiting. It can refer to nothing but the principles and practices “indicated” right there, on those pages. I really do invite you to see for yourself what principles and practices Charlotte Mason considered vital—indispensable—in order to make her philosophy work. But I’ll give you a hint—there aren’t that many of them, and none of them are as specific as “have school in the morning” or “do this for history.” Not at all—as principles should be, they are broad and robust. As practices go, they are fairly flexible, involving putting a child in touch with a wide program of living books, and using narration to insure attention and assimilation. That’s the context that goes with that quote, and I hope my fellow Charlotte Mason educators will learn, sooner than I did, how truly freeing it is to apply a set of “exact principles” to your educational practices and watch them take root, germinate, branch out, and bear fruit.

Addendum: I’m editing this post to add some information that I think might be helpful. It has been suggested to me that I am incorrect about the audience for the book—that Charlotte Mason was not actually addressing herself to anyone beyond her colleagues in the PNEU. I just want to let you all know that this is not a fabrication on my part. Charlotte Mason says, herself, in the preface to the volume: “My object in offering this volume to the public is to urge upon all who are concerned with education a few salient principles…” (emphasis added).She addresses herself to “all who are concerned with education”—casting a wide net—rather than those already associated with her work. She assumes no prior knowledge of the PNEU and its work, and explains her principles from scratch, as it were.