All posts by Karen Glass

It’s a sale!

If you’ve been thinking about listening to the new Principles at the Helm Seminar, in which Donna-Jean Breckenridge and I discuss the nature of principles —how they operate in our lives and in our educational practices—now is the perfect time to get it. Use the code “givethanks” for 25% off from today (“black” Friday) through Monday, November 26.

Click here to purchase.

The White Post #5—Old or New?

I wonder if the peculiar title of this series has raised a question. Why is it called “The White Post?”

I hope you’ve wondered, because we’re going to talk about that in this final post of the series. I’ve had the whole concept of “old” and “new” on my mind over the past few years in relation to Charlotte Mason, and I was reading something else that struck me powerfully as an illustration of how confusion arises.

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton addresses the apparently opposite positions of conservative and progressive—another version of “old” and “new.” He articulates the way in which the true conservative must be progressive, using an illustration regarding a white post. I picture a signpost along a path, giving direction and guidance to passers-by. Imagine the post has been set up and painted white. One might think that the conservative position would be to leave that post well alone—make no changes. There it is, and there it will continue to do its job. But that is only true if one supposes that there is no degradation—that a white post will stay white. But it will not. Weather will fade the lettering. Paint will chip and fall away. Wind and rain will deposit dirt. Birds will perch on the post and leave their waste. Insects and spiders will crawl up and down it and leave debris.

If you take the “conservative” position of leaving that post exactly as it was, it will not remain a fresh white post able to do a good job of directing travelers. It will deteriorate. If the white post is important—if it matters that the post remain white—then action must taken. Someone is going to have to come along every so often and apply a fresh coat of paint. Chesterton doesn’t hesitate to call that refreshment a “revolution.”

All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post, you must have a new white post. (Orthodoxy, p. 122)

Over time, those new coats of paint could be very different. New science and new materials might develop reflective or luminescent paint. Maybe the paint could be anti-fungal or dirt-resistant. Maybe it could be longer-lasting or a brighter shade of white. Never mind. The post will be renewed—revolutionized!—with a fresh coat of the latest advance in paint. And yet, it will still be a white post in the same place with the same purpose that it had before.

Chesterton is discussing religious conservatism and progressivism, but it struck me that this illustration exactly describes the relationship between the old and the new in Charlotte Mason’s educational paradigm. Looking into the past, she saw the white post of useful educational traditions that had done a good job of “marking the way” for generations of travelers (learners). But she found that post degraded. Never mind how or why—she saw the post and she appreciated what it could offer. But she was pretty sure she had a really exciting new kind of paint to freshen it up and make it white and bright and again—her carefully-crafted educational methods which made it possible for everyone to follow the path.

In fact, Charlotte Mason made an observation very similar to Chesterton’s:

The growing soul cannot thrive upon husks—therefore must the truth be divested of the husks of the past, and clothed upon with living thought of the present. (Formation of Character, p. 171-172)

The truth doesn’t change. The truths about education—or spiritual things—are constant and unmovable. But the way we practice them may look different because the “living thought” of the present—our present—makes it possible to engage with those truths. It’s very easy to conflate the “husks” with the truths they once clothed admirably. But a garment, like the white paint, grows shabby with wear, and something fresh allows the truth to attract the attention it deserves. That’s why we write new books as well as read old ones—the Great Conversation is never finished. Each generation needs its new voices, as Thomas Rooper implied about Miss Mason:

Sound principles that are old may easily be laid on the shelf and forgotten, unless in each successive generation a few industrious people can be found who will take the trouble to draw them forth from the storehouses. (from Educational Studies and Addresses, dedicated to Charlotte Mason)

I found Chesterton’s thoughts about conservatism and progressivism very interesting. So often we imagine that a revolution—and we know that Charlotte Mason speaks of a “revolution” in education—is going to bring us something entirely new and previously unseen. But that is not always the case. It is a revolution to approach something in a state of dilapidation and make it fresh and usable again, so it can continue doing what it was meant to do. The American “Revolutionary War” overthrew a monarchy, only to apply a fresh coat of paint to a republic—another ancient, serviceable form of government. In fact, the word revolution has the same root as the word revolve, and contains within it the idea of turning around. A revolution does not imply something previously unknown, but rather of repentance, returning, going back. Chesterton says “a revolution is a restoration.” (Orthodoxy, p. 117)

So if the question is asked—“Are Charlotte Mason’s ideas new or old?”—the answer is, “yes.” She makes both claims for herself—“Some of it is new; much of it is old.” A perfect example is her approach to habit, as we discussed earlier. The idea of instilling habits in learners goes back as far in history as we can go. Charlotte Mason wrote, “how familiar to the mind of both Roman and Greek was this doctrine of habit.” (Formation of Character, p. 169) But that white post had gotten dingy and knocked a bit awry when Charlotte Mason came along and said:

But now, they have something more than a notion; they have scientific certainty. (Formation of Character, p. 170)

That is what she believed, so she encouraged her colleagues to grab a brush and apply some fresh white paint to their educational approach to habit training.

Charlotte Mason was not confused when she said “new” and at the same time, “old”. Her deep understanding of education and its history made it clear to her what was old, and what was new. As onlookers, we bring our own perspectives to her work. One person might come along and exclaim, “Look at that fresh white post!” and a companion might object, “That’s been there forever!” They are both correct, if only in part. The paint may indeed be new, while the post and its purpose are not. The salient point to appreciate is that the sign will remain clear to read: This is the way to wisdom: learn to love the good, and the true, and the beautiful.

The White Post #4B—A New Hope for the World

On page 6 of A Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason lays out some ideas which, she says, “seem to me to differ from general theory and practice.” What she means by “general,” of course, is what was commonly being done in classrooms at the time, but if you look at the list, you will see that it is primarily concerned with methods rather than philosophy, and Charlotte Mason’s methods are very much her own. The philosophy that underpins them has a great deal of history behind it, as she knew, but she declared “I hope I have succeeded in methodising the whole and making education what it should be, a system of applied philosophy.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 18). The methods she employed were grounded in the principles she recognized, and that is why they open the door wide and make an ideal vision of education very doable.

Perceiving the range of knowledge to which children as persons are entitled the questions are, how shall they be induced to take that knowledge, and what can the children of the people learn in the short time they are at school? We have discovered a working answer to these two conundrums. I say discovered, and not invented, for there is only one way of learning, and the intelligent persons who can talk well on many subjects and the expert in one learn in the one way, that is, they read to know. What I have found out is, that this method is available for every child. (Philosophy of Education, p. 14, emphasis added)

This is what Charlotte Mason claims to have discovered for herself—that no child is shut out from partaking of a liberal education. “We have left behind the feudal notion that intellect is a class prerogative.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 12) A little later she speaks specifically about what she felt was the special discovery of the PNEU. She names the contribution that she felt the PNEU had made for the sake of education, and it is this:

The service that some of us (of the P.N.E.U.) believe we have done in the cause of education is to discover that all children, even backward children, are aware of their needs and pathetically eager for the food they require; that no preparation whatever is necessary for this sort of diet; that a limited vocabulary, sordid surroundings, the absence of a literary background to thought are not hindrances. (Philosophy of Education, p. 62, emphasis added)

In twenty-first century America, we may not appreciate how radical and revolutionary that assertion was. We take for granted that education is a universal right, not a privilege reserved for some. In class-bound Victorian and Edwardian England, they had no such concepts. Utilitarian knowledge of reading and arithmetic was enough for most, while the delights of books and ideas and scholarship were only for some. That is what they took for granted, and it is in the face of those assumptions that Miss Mason urged a revolution.

One of the teachers of an underprivileged school expressed great gratitude to Charlotte Mason for her efforts to provide a liberal education to the working class. She says:

Our school is situated in an urban industrial district: a large majority of the children are from homes where the father and mother, too, work in a boot factory when employment can be obtained at all. With one or two rare exceptions, our girls do not belong to the company of favoured children whose parents are able to take an intelligent interest in them. English, as it should be spoken, does not exist for them in their home life, and their vocabulary is sadly limited.” (In Memoriam, p. 177)

This headmistress, D.S. Golding, had a vision for broadening the horizons of her pupils, and had the joy of seeing it realized when the PNEU curriculum was introduced to her school.

This scheme offers the product of the original minds of noble thinkers. It gives children inspiring ideas which promote thought and enquiry; and the more a child thinks, the more he lives:—and this is the child’s right. (In Memoriam, p. 178)

She goes on to quote Miss Mason:

Some may be inclined to think that the PNEU curriculum is too wide. It may be if we labour at it in our way, expecting every child to remember everything that she has read. This is not Miss Mason’s idea. ‘My plea is,’ she writes in School Education, ‘that many doors shall be opened to boys and girls until they are at least 12 or 14, and always the doors of good houses…that the young people shall learn what History is, what Literature is, what life, is from the living books of those who know.’ Surely here will be the beginning of an appreciation of the wide reading which will broaden the child’s outlook. It will achieve something even more important, for it will give that balance of judgement which is so vitally necessary. (In Memoriam, p. 181)

This is equivalent to the very hope that Charlotte Mason had. She wanted a liberal education to liberate every child from the limitations of narrow, illiberal prejudice and opinion, and help them discover a more balanced way of judging and perceiving truth. She lived in troubled times. The Russian revolution and Marxism had created serious unrest among English workers, and there was a real threat to stability. That’s why Charlotte Mason felt that it was so important to educate everyone. She wrote:

I should like to quote a few sentences from Professor Eucken on the education of the people:

‘By education of the people it must not for a moment be supposed that we mean a special kind of education. We do not refer to a condensed preparation of our spiritual and intellectual possessions, suitable for the needs and interests of the great masses; we are not thinking of a diluted concoction of the real draught of education which we are so kind and condescending as to dispense to the majority. No! . . . . there is only one education common to us all.’

‘We can all unite in the construction of a spiritual world over against that of petty human routine. Thus there is, in truth, a possibility of a truly human education, and therefore of a true education of the people.’

The Jena Professor sees clearly enough the task before us all; but he sees, or sets forth, no possible way of accomplishing it, nor is there any other way than that which we have set forth that can afford this sort of liberal education….
…No other study is so remunerative as that of the ‘humanities.’ Let me draw the reader’s attention to one point. Instability, unrest, among our wage-earners is the serious danger threatening our social life.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 296-97)

Charlotte Mason believed that bringing a liberal education—a humanities-based education—to everyone was just the remedy to that threat. This is, again, where the old and the new are juxtaposed. She does not propose a radical new kind of education—far from it. It is a traditional liberal education that she values. Her radical new proposal is that the liberal education is for all, and she is confident that the methods she developed could provide it. She wanted to give Plato’s education for the elite to “Demos”—the people.

Demos is king to-day, and who may dispute his right? But let us all give him the chance to become that philosopher/king who according to an ancient dream [Plato’s Republic] was to be the fit ruler, or rulers, of the people. The hopeful sign is that Demos himself perceives his lack, and clamours for the humanistic education in which he sees his salvation.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 299, emphasis added)

One of  Miss Mason’s close associates, H.W. Household, shared her vision and actively worked to bring her methods into scores of schools, including the one mentioned above. After her death, he praised her for her work in that cause.

But until Miss Mason taught us how to do it nobody ever dreamed of giving a liberal education—the first stage of a liberal education—to the workers’ children in the elementary school, of giving them just the same education, in the same way, and out of the same books, that we give our own children. (In Memoriam, p. 189, emphasis added)

This is the new hope for the world, as Charlotte Mason envisioned it—that the pursuit of virtue and wisdom through knowledge would not be confined to one class or group, but that all society would grow in wisdom and knowledge. As each individual person would be better, so would the nation be better. Let us give each one the opportunity. Let us give everyone, without exception, a liberal education.

The White Post #4A—A New Hope for the World

While I’ve been aware of Charlotte Mason’s connection to the past for a very long time, I had never pursued the details of her claims to something new until I began this project. Previously, I simply assumed she was referring to newer science, such as that associated with the formation of habits. As I read through the volumes more recently, I made notes of every mention of educational history and to every idea of something fresh and new. Apart from those references to modern science, I wasn’t sure what Charlotte Mason meant, precisely, by “some of it is new.” As I gathered the references, a pattern began to emerge and the final juxtaposition of old and new is exhilarating. I’ve titled this section “a new hope for the world” because those are the words Charlotte Mason used to explain the new thing she wanted to do.

Before I strike out on the lines of what is new, I want to touch again on what is not new in a Charlotte Mason education. A liberal education based on literary sources is not new. The essential aim of education—to instill character through the pursuit of wisdom and virtue is not new. The preeminence of ideas, the connection between knowing and doing, and the comprehensive vision of the unity of knowledge are not new. Charlotte Mason’s vision of exactly what education should be and what it should do are not new. That’s why her books are full of statements such as “it is time we reverted to the teaching of Socrates.” (Parents and Children, p. 242) Her vision of what education should be was shaped by the educators who came before her.

What is new is the scope of that education. As we look back through history, this kind of liberal education has been traditionally reserved for the privileged few. In Plato’s Republic, he prescribed the richest and best education for the elite group who would rule his city-state. Historically, education was expensive. Books were expensive. Only wealthy families could afford to educate their children beyond the mere rudiments necessary for everyday living.

Charlotte Mason grew up in a world where this division was the norm. Not only was education reserved for the well-to-do, but it was almost exclusively for men. Women were not allowed to study at Oxford and Cambridge before 1870, and the few who were admitted were not permitted to receive degrees until 1920. Since women generally did not go to University, there were few preparatory schools for them, either. Poorer families in the laboring class were entirely excluded from this system, and the most they could hope for was a smattering of the “3R’s.”

Charlotte Mason believed that the right kind of education for every child—a character-forming education—would change the shape of a whole nation, and lift it to a higher level. The thing that is truly new in her vision for education is that she knew a liberal education was not for a privileged few, but for all—and she know how to deliver it. Her pedagogy was so effective that she was confident in bringing it before the attention of the British public and declaring in essence, “this is how we can give a liberal education to every single person.”

In the introduction to Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason describes the universal hunger for this kind of knowledge:

The people themselves begin to understand and to clamour for an education which shall qualify their children for life rather than for earning a living.( PoE, p. 3)

At the time, this is the work she and her organization (PNEU) had been doing for several decades. Although their society began with upper-middle class parents who could afford education, it was always a part of their vision to make their ideas understood by “working class” parents as well. When the Parents’ Union School curriculum was developed, some visionary and enthusiastic PNEU members made it their business to carry the work into the schools of very underprivileged children, and it was the results of that experiment that bolstered Charlotte Mason’s conviction that her methods were the right ones for making a liberal education available to all. The children did so well that “the general conclusion is that these are the children of educated and cultivated parents.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 8) But they were not!

And thus, Charlotte Mason could boldly declare:

AT LAST there is hope that the offspring of working-class parents may be led into the wide pastures of a liberal education. (Philosophy of Education, p. 8, emphasis added)

That sentence, in nutshell, gives us the juxtaposition of what is new and what is old in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. She does not redefine a “liberal education”—that was generally understood to be a literary education based on the liberal arts. The “new hope” is that exactly that excellent kind of education can be given at last to the working class as well as the privileged classes.

Miss Mason introduces her final book by trying to place that vision before the eyes of her readers.

I have to tell of the awakening of a ‘general soul’ at the touch of knowledge. Eight years ago the ‘soul’ of a class of children in a mining village school awoke simultaneously at this magic touch and has remained awake. (Philosophy of Education, p. xxv)

You have to use your imagination to understand what “a mining village” would conjure up in the minds of her readers 100 years ago. These were uneducated, illiterate people who were almost outcasts from society. The response of these children to a liberal education is what inspired Charlotte Mason to declare:

To find that the children of a mining population were equally responsive seemed to open a new hope for the world.(Philosophy of Education, p. xxv, emphasis added)

The White Post #4—A New Hope for the World—will be continued tomorrow.

The White Post #3B—The Wisdom of the Past

The first “traditional” aspect of a Charlotte Mason education is that it is a “liberal” education conducted primarily through literature. Her method includes many things which are not directly literary, but it is to this literary tradition, long the foundation of classical education, that Charlotte Mason urges educators.

The modern notion of education, with its shibboleth of “things not words,” is intrinsically demoralizing. The human intelligence demands letters, literature, with a more than bread-hunger. (Philosophy of Education, p. 331)

She also makes a point of reminding us that the Greek educators had the same priority.

Letters, if not (as I said before) the main content of knowledge, constitute anyway the container—the wrought salver, the exquisite vase, even the alabaster box to hold the ointment.
If a man cannot think without words, if he who thinks with words will certainly express his thoughts, what of the monosyllabic habit that is falling upon men of all classes? The chatter of many women and some men does not count, for thought is the last thing it is meant to express. The Greeks believed that a training in the use and power of words was the chief part of education, recognising that if the thought fathers the word, so does the word in turn father the thought. They concerned themselves with no language, ancient or modern, save their own, but of that they acquired a consummate appreciation. With the words came the great thoughts, expressed in whatever way the emergencies of the State called for—in wise laws, victorious battles, glorious temples, sculpture, drama. For great thoughts anticipate great works; and these come only to a people conversant with the great thoughts that have been written and said. (Philosophy of Education, p. 315-16, emphasis added)

Charlotte Mason calls attention to several historical eras in education to highlight the ideas that she thought were worth emulating. One of those of course is Greek education. She declared, “In some ways the Greeks had a more adequate view of education than ourselves.” (Formation of Character, p. 383) She notes that to the foundation of music and gymnastic, the Greeks considered philosophy the proper study for everyone, specifically because of the foundation it laid for right thinking and right acting (a hallmark of classical education). She quotes Plutarch at length, and urges us to realize that Christians have a more certain foundation than the Greeks had, because Christianity not only teaches us what is right, as philosophy does, but also enables us to carry out that teaching.

Elsewhere in her writing, apart from words, Charlotte Mason calls attention to the physical training (gymnastic) that was important to the Greeks—not for personal health or well being, but for the sake of being in the best form to carry out whatever tasks we might be called upon to do.

It is questionable whether we are making heroes; and this was the object of physical culture among the early Greeks, anyway. Men must be heroes, or how could they fulfil the heavy tasks laid upon them by the gods? (School Education, p. 101)

She also highlights certain aspects of medieval thinking, in part because they continued some important classical traditions.

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’?” (School Education, p. 132)

Miss Mason was also particularly interested in the medieval view of knowledge, which was comprehensive and universal. She speaks of “a great educational principle which was better understood by the medieval Church than by ourselves.” (School Education, p. 153). The principle is illustrated by the fresco she liked so much, and concerns both the origin and the unity of knowledge—“the relations which bind all things to all other things.” (Parents and Children, p. 259) In fact, she declares quite plainly that the PNEU holds the same view as these educators of the past and wants to “restore to the world” something that had been obscured.

We hold, in fact, that great conception of education held by the medieval Church (School Education, p. 95)

Let us set ourselves to labour with purpose and passion to restore to the world, enriched by the additions of later knowledge, that great scheme of unity of life which produced great men and great work in the past. (School Education, p. 156)

The fresco is a visual representation of  the principle that “education is the science of relations.” Miss Mason equates “relations” (and philosophy) with “wisdom”—that object of the classical tradition of education. According to her,  all the kinds of knowledge and relations are a part of the process of developing wisdom.

Now what is wisdom, philosophy? Is it not the recognition of relations? First, we have to understand relations of time and space and matter, the natural philosophy which made up so much of the wisdom of Solomon; then, by slow degrees, and more and more, we learn that moral philosophy which determines our relations of love and justice and duty to each other: later, perhaps, we investigate the profound and puzzling subject of the inter-relations of our own most composite being, mental philosophy. And in all these and beyond all these we apprehend, slowly and feebly, the highest relation of all, the relation to God, which we call religion. (Parents and Children, p. 258-59)

Again, none of these things are new or original with Charlotte Mason—these are the things that she acknowledges as belonging to the “wisdom of the ages” that need to be preserved and cultivated. She asserts that the educators of the PNEU were “experiencing anew the joy of the Renaissance” (Philosophy of Education, p. 9) And what was that joy that the Renaissance brought? It was a return to classical learning, the literature of the ancient world, and the love of knowledge. Miss Mason rejoiced that this new resurgence had better and stronger foundations that she hoped would yield better fruit than the first Renaissance, which was followed by the Enlightenment.

When you look at the material of a Charlotte Mason education, it is clear that she considers her work to be linked to vital educational ideas that form part of the great tradition of education from the Greeks, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to more contemporary educators such as Matthew Arnold. She valued the content and the purpose of education that were “long the property of the world”—the ideas that had produced great works in the past—and wanted to secure them for her generation.

The White Post #3A—The Wisdom of the Past

Because Charlotte Mason described her principles using the words “some of it is new, much of it is old,” we will examine first the greater part—the “much,” which makes no claims for being new, but acknowledges that within the principles and philosophy there are ideas which have been around for a long time.

We know that Charlotte Mason read widely, not to say voraciously, on the subject of education. We have every reason to be assured that she kept abreast of all the educational thinking that was current during her lifetime. She was familiar not only with the educational trends in her own country, but also those in Germany, Scandinavia, and the United States, and probably others. However, she did not limit herself to modern thinkers. She would probably have considered that absurd. Rather, she reminded us 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, p. 160)

Only a partial list of the educational thinkers to whom Charlotte Mason refers becomes quite lengthy, and she was in the habit of reading even novels with an eye to the educational philosophy contained within. The list of authors she read is long, from Plato to Rousseau and from Comenius to Ruskin. Few of us can expect to get through as many books in our lifetime as she did.

Miss Mason links her ideas to educators of the past—over and over she points out similarities between her ideas and the ideas of Plato or Comenius or Milton. Her volumes are full of prima facia references, such as “Milton’s ideal of a ‘complete and generous education’ meets our occasions” (Philosophy of Education, p. 249) or:

I have in this volume attempted to show the principles and methods upon which education of this sort is being successfully carried out, and have added chapters which illustrate the history of a movement the aim of which is, in the phrase of Comenius,—‘All knowledge for all men.’ (Philosophy of Education, p. 20)

It is obvious that Miss Mason made a choice to share how her ideas were similar to the ideas of much older philosophers. So the question becomes, what parts of her ideas are traditional?

To begin with, Charlotte Mason considered the education she wanted to provide to children a “liberal education.” This is distinguished from vocational training or a merely utilitarian education. Education should provide children with more than just a working familiarity with the knowledge that they need for work or everyday life.

A human being does not fill his place in the universe without putting out tendrils of attachment in the directions proper to him. We must get rid of the notion that to learn the ‘three R’s’ or the Latin grammar well, a child should learn these and nothing else. (School Education, p. 209)

A liberal education is the education traditionally given to those with leisure for intellectual study. (For the full scope, you might want to read The Liberal Arts Tradition, and my discussion of it, which includes how similar Charlotte Masons ideas are.) It involves literature—books—as well as exposure to ideas in the realms of mathematics, the seven liberal arts, and the sciences. During Charlotte Mason’s lifetime there was a great deal of tension between the claims of a literary, liberal education (traditionally based on the classical languages) and a more “scientific” education, by which was meant a more technical, analytical approach to science. Charlotte Mason herself skipped past this dichotomy and embraced science as a liberal study, founded upon wonder.

But there is a region of apparent sterility in our intellectual life. Science says of literature, “I’ll none of it,” and science is the preoccupation of our age. Whatever we study must be divested to the bone, and the principle of life goes with the flesh we strip away: history expires in the process, poetry cannot come to birth, religion faints; we sit down to the dry bones of science and say, Here is knowledge, all the knowledge there is to know. “I think that is very wonderful,” a little girl wrote in an examination paper after trying to explain why a leaf is green. That little girl had found the principle—admiration, wonder—which makes science vital, and without wonder her highest value is, not spiritual, but utilitarian.
…But the fault is not in science—that mode of revelation which is granted to our generation, may we reverently say?—but in our presentation of it by means of facts and figures and demonstrations that mean no more to the general audience than the point demonstrated, never showing the wonder and magnificent reach of the law unfolded. (Philosophy of Education, p. 317-18)

So the first “traditional” aspect of a Charlotte Mason education is that it is a “liberal” education conducted primarily through literature. Her method includes many things which are not directly literary, but it is to this literary tradition, long the foundation of classical education, that Charlotte Mason urges educators. She did not want the excitement or usefulness of scientific pursuits to replace the literary tradition that made character formation its object.

The White Post #3—The Wisdom of the Past—will be continued tomorrow.

 

The White Post #2—Sow an Act, Reap a Habit

This post is a slight interlude from the main point, because I want to use one clear example from Charlotte Mason about the way that something can be both old and new at the same time. Miss Mason illustrates this idea for us well in her discussion about habit.

Habit-formation figures largely in a Mason education. One of Miss Mason’s key principles is that “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life,” and the one-third that is “discipline” is centered upon habits.

At one level, Charlotte Mason was quite excited about (then) current research based upon the work of William Benjamin Carpenter (author of Principles of Mental Physiology). Carpenter described the way repeated actions created actual physical changes in the brain—“ruts,” as they were called. This idea—that the brain could be reshaped by the creation of habits—seemed to offer a firm foothold to educational methods. If you could deliberately set out to create certain kinds of “ruts” and oversee them to fruition, your educational efforts would create an indelible impression in the very brains of your pupils, and their habits would establish their behavior in the short term, and in the long term, their very character. Such were the ideas of Carpenter, and Charlotte Mason was an enthusiastic propagator of those ideas. She wrote: “I beg to acknowledge my indebtedness to Dr. Carpenter’s Mental Physiology for valuable teaching on the subject of habits contained in some two or three chapters of that work.” (Home Education, p. 11)

Later in her life, Charlotte Mason became somewhat disillusioned and disappointed in the science that excited her when she was younger. (You can see the difference in her perspective across the span of her writing.) Looking back, she actually declared in a letter to Henrietta Franklin that “Science has done nothing to confirm the ‘rut’ theory in all these years, and Brother Body seems to me much the inferior partner. I think all that I have written is still true but I would emphasize habit and so on less.” (emphasis added). However, although our understanding of the mechanism of habit today is different from the science that was understood in Charlotte Mason’s day, it does not undermine the essential rightness of her ideas nor her emphasis on habit.

And that is because, long before science began examining the physiological mechanism of habit formation in the brain, the role of habit in education had been observed, remarked upon, and incorporated into serious schemes of educational philosophy. One of the earliest observers on record was Aristotle, and many discussions of habit in education begin with Nicomachean Ethics. Charlotte Mason quotes a saying that is sometimes attributed to him: “Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” (Parents and Children, p. 29) When I wrote about Comenius and Charlotte Mason, I discussed their similar views of the role of habit: Habit formation in youth lays a foundation for virtuous living.

While Miss Mason was enthusiastic about the science of habit, she was under no illusion that habit as a part of education was something new. She mentions Thomas à Kempis a number of times to illustrate the long tradition of habit in education—which she considered the recognition of a natural law of education.

To put it in an old form of words—the words of Thomas à Kempis—what seems to me the fundamental law of education is no more than this: ‘Habit is driven out by habit.’ People have always known that ‘Use is second nature,’ but the reason why, and the scope of the saying, these are discoveries of recent days. (Parents and Children, p. 85, emphasis added)

And also:

If science limits our range of work as regards the development of so-called faculties, it extends it in equal measure with regard to habit. Here we have no new doctrine to proclaim. ‘One custom overcometh another,’ said Thomas a’ Kempis, and that is all we have to say; only, physiologists have made clear to us the rationale of this law of habit (Parents and Children, p. 228, emphasis added)

It is evident that Miss Mason was aware of the long tradition of emphasizing habit in education, but the science excited her. She believed it should lend additional confidence and care to the deliberate creation of habits in young children. Her enthusiasm is strong in Home Education, Parents and Children, and Formation of Character. Although she tempered that enthusiasm later in her life, the essential role of habit is not changed. The science is simply somewhat different from what was thought at the time.

When Charlotte Mason added “the science of the day” to “the philosophy of the ages” and declared they were together enough to form a code of education, it was to this physiological aspect of habit training that she referred. Habit-formation had been a part of educational philosophy from antiquity. It was old, but there was something new to think about it. A thing can be both old and new at the same time, as is illustrated here. It is certainly possible for Charlotte Mason’s comprehensive philosophy of education to belong to the long “classical” tradition of education and yet have something new to offer at the same time, as we shall see.

The White Post #1—Introduction

Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education is a very full and comprehensive one. She did two separate things very well. First, she articulated a foundation of solid principles upon which to base education. Second, she developed extremely effective practical methods based upon those principles. There are many similarities between her ideas and the ideas of other educators, both ancient and modern. The reason for that is simply that her principles are universal principles—they represent truths about human nature and education that others have observed as well as herself.

But Charlotte Mason was not simply recycling old ideas without anything new to add to them. She brought original thought and insight to the question of education, although not without some initial trepidation. She did have some concerns about whether or not her contributions were entirely adequate. However, as her ideas were taken up by home and school teachers and implemented with many children, she had the pleasure of seeing how very well her ideas worked out in practice. After many decades, she had more confidence that the ideas she had shared were in fact of real importance, and she had no hesitation then in urging her work to be taken up by others.

Because she was a prolific writer, we have a valuable archive of her ideas in the six volumes of the Home Education series. Within the nearly 2000 pages of those volumes, you can find some commentary that appears contradictory on the surface of it.

We have chanced to light on unknown tracts in the region of educational thought. (Philosophy of Education, p. 8)

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)

An EDUCATIONAL REVOLUTION is before us to which every one of us is bound to put his hand. (School Education, p. 247)

In the same volume, Charlotte Mason writes about “certain fundamental ideas, long the property of the world, which we have embraced in our scheme of thought.” (School Education, p. 100, emphasis added)

What does this mean? How can Charlotte Mason’s ideas about education be “unknown tracts” if they are also “the wisdom of the past”, and how can they be a “revolution” if they are “long the property of the world?” Looking at these statements alone, we can only conclude that either Charlotte Mason was confused about whether her methods were old or new or else she was talking about different things when she made these seemingly opposite claims for her ideas. I suspect the latter is true, and while we may be confused by the apparent contradiction, Miss Mason knew exactly what she was saying.

Toward the end of her life, when Charlotte Mason was full of confidence about her methods and was urging the British public to consider adopting not only the methods but even the curriculum used in the schools run by the Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU), she presented her philosophy with the clear statement that “Some of it is new, much of it is old.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 27) In light of that assessment, it is easy to suppose that she had a clear understanding of which parts were new and which were old, and how much there was of each. However, she did not see a reason to share that specific information with the world. As she articulates her philosophy, she is not often explicit about which parts are new, and which parts are old, but there are hints. Sometimes she identifies old and new quite clearly:

We really have existing material in the philosophy of the ages and the science of the day to formulate an educational code whereby we may order the lives of our children and regulate our own. (Parents and Children, p. 119, emphasis added)

This statement makes it clear that her works contains a mixture of old and new. One might legitimately ask whether these questions matter at all, and while I was once content to accept her statements of “old” and “new” at face value, it is better to understand the relationship between them. So, for the past two years, as I’ve read through the volumes in the Home Education Series (for the umpteenth time), I’ve kept an eye on these ideas. If Charlotte Mason said that something was new, what was she talking about? If she referred to something as old (“long the property of the world”), what was she referring to?

Gradually, I began to see a pattern and came to understand what Miss Mason thought was new, and what she thought was part of the long tradition of educational thinking—that “philosophy of the ages” that is enough upon which to build an educational theory, especially when bolstered by “the science of the day.”

That’s what this five-part series is going to be about. We’ll take a look at the old, and at the new. If you’ve ever thought Charlotte Mason was “all new” or “all old,” I hope this discussion will provide a clearer understanding of the tradition that gives a framework to her ideas about education, as well as why she believed she was doing something revolutionary.

New Audio Seminar!

I’m very excited to share a new project that I’ve been working on. One of the things that makes Charlotte Mason’s methods so effective is the fact that they are based on principles—absolute truths about a person and the way that a person’s mind works. This audio seminar is a discussion about the way that principles operate in our lives, and an introduction into the key principles that stand at the helm, guiding our educational decisions.

Donna-Jean Breckenridge is my host and joined me to talk over the way that we’ve seen these principles work in our own home schools for the past two decades.  We hope that this three-part 90 minute seminar, which includes a handout with references to the passages discussed in Charlotte Mason’s Home Education series, will help those new to the methods to appreciate the way that the principles drive the practices in a Charlotte Mason education, and why that matters. As long-time practitioners of Miss Mason’s method, we found ourselves encouraged by this discussion of the fundamental principles, and I hope it will encourage other veterans as well.

The cost of the seminar is $10, and I hope it will be a great investment in your understanding of Charlotte Mason’s principles and why they matter.

We would love your feedback on this project, so please leave a comment here to let us know what you think!


Purchase Principles at the Helm Seminar

A Few More Considerations (repost)

This post originally appeared on the Charlotte Mason Institute blog, in response to a lengthy critique of Consider This. As it is no longer available there, but the critique itself can be read elsewhere, I decided to publish my response here. If you haven’t read the critique (which is much longer than my response), you don’t need to read this (which is still pretty long). This post is just a bit of housekeeping. Mr. Middlekauff responded to this critique, but not as he originally suggested, by correcting his errors. Rather, he argued that my concerns with his critique dwelt upon matters he deemed less important than others.  My response deals largely with pointing out only a few of the ways in which I was unjustly misrepresented, making the rest of the critique essentially a straw-man argument, as it addressed itself to things I did not say. However, my conclusion here remains steadfast—it does not make a great deal of difference in the implementation of Charlotte Mason’s methods if you understand the classical nature her philosophy or if you do not. The final determination rests in the definition you choose to use for classical education. Meanwhile, we have learning to do, books to read, children to educate, and a wide, wide world to inspire our wonder. I would prefer that we do that as friends.


Continue reading A Few More Considerations (repost)