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The perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum

Yeah, I thought that title would grab your attention. Everyone wants the perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum, don’t they? Because if you had that, you’d have exactly what you need to give your children a perfect Charlotte Mason education, and who doesn’t want that?

What if the perfect curriculum was so authentic and perfect, that it came directly from the Parents’ National Educational Union, the organization Charlotte Mason founded herself? You couldn’t really go wrong, then. Could you?

Let me tell you about some teachers who did.

The schools in Gloucestershire, England introduced the PNEU curriculum into five schools in 1917. They liked what they saw, and by 1925, there were 196 schools using the perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum, straight from the PNEU presses. That’s right: one-hundred-and-ninety-six!!

If you know anything at all about the teacher training at Ambleside, simple math will reveal that the schools were not supplied with Ambleside-trained teachers. They were just regular teachers—like you and me—who were lucky enough to have the perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum.

But all was not as rosy as we might imagine. Some schools thrived. The children were narrating and learning, and they loved their books. The teachers were excited about what was happening in their classrooms, and loved the PNEU materials. But there were other schools, and they were struggling. The children didn’t like the books. They didn’t narrate the way the teachers thought they should. They couldn’t handle the material at all. Can you guess what went wrong?

It’s really quite simple. The teachers didn’t really understand the principles that lay behind the methods they were trying to use. They made errors in implementing the methods because of their lack of understanding, and the results were correspondingly disappointing. If the children didn’t like a book, it was often because the teacher didn’t like the book, or didn’t see a reason for it. That distaste was passed on to students. In some schools, the students were promoted too quickly through the Forms and were trying to read and work from books they weren’t ready for, so of course that was a failure. Some teachers expected “narration” to be a word-for-word parroting back of the material read, so they read tiny chunks which the children could hold in their short-term memories just long enough to do that.

They had a lovely curriculum, but without a solid understanding of the principles, they weren’t able to make the most of it. This is why, from its inception, AmblesideOnline has stressed that curriculum is not enough:

Before getting to the nuts and bolts, we’d like to emphasize that our confidence in Charlotte Mason’s method and the philosophy behind it is what prompted us to put this curriculum online. But this curriculum is only one tool and was never intended to replace your understanding of the principles behind a CM education, what its goals are, how it works. Without the understanding of Charlotte Mason’s vision, even a curriculum like AmblesideOnline won’t give your children a CM education. It will just be another booklist, a collection of texts and subjects to mark off a checklist. We designed this curriculum so that, instead of spending your time trying to figure out the best CM-quality living books to use, your children can jump into their schooling right away and you will be freed from the burden of trying to create your own CM curriculum, so you can spend your time familiarizing yourself with Charlotte’s Mason’s vision for raising broad-minded, thinking children who are as concerned about their duty to others, as they are their own rights.

Now we come to the actual point of this post. There was a remedy for these difficulties, and I suspect you can guess what it is. Since they lacked understanding of the principles, they needed to read Charlotte Mason’s own writing for themselves—to let her teach them the philosophy that governs the methods. The suggestion was given to them to read a volume, and then to read that same volume again and again. That’s A—just one—volume. Either Home Education or School Education are suggested (because these were schools, not parents). This advice was given early in 1925, and A Philosophy of Education was published later that year, so I’m going to add my opinion that it would serve the same purpose.

But what I want to underscore is the suggestion that reading just one volume is enough to give you the background philosophy so that you can implement the methods well. If you’ve read Charlotte Mason, you aren’t going to be asking children to narrate by parroting verbatim. You’ll know why Plutarch is a worthwhile addition to the program. You won’t neglect outdoor time for the children to make their own nature observations. If one carefully-selected volume is enough to prepare a teacher to teach a classroom full of students using PNEU/CM methods, then it is enough for us.

From the Pamphlet “Notes for the Conference of July 18th, 1925 on P.N.E.U. Methods”:

Here, of course, we go to the very root of the matter, and here it is most necessary for teachers to have a firm hold upon Miss Mason’s own teaching, for the tradition of elementary school and training college is all the other way.

It should be said at once that no teacher can hope to get out of the programmes and the method all that can be got, unless he reads and re-reads what Miss Mason herself has said about them. As I have said before, a copy of School Education or Home Education should be in every school, and should be in constant use.

(emphasis added)

There has been an increase of interest in Charlotte Mason and her methods, and that is a very good thing. I’ve been thinking about the best way for new practitioners to really apprehend the methods. Blog posts or podcasts are too short or too difficult to re-access to really give you a comprehensive understanding of the principles. Everyone suggests “reading the volumes”—and I’m going to suggest that, too! But if you are a busy homeschool mom with several children, those six volumes are seriously daunting. As soon as you plunge into the first one, you’re going to realize that this is not light reading, and the idea of making it through all six volumes is going to seem like an insurmountable hill of difficulty.

So, let’s hit pause. What if you don’t really need to read all of the volumes to understand the philosophy? That’s a lovely ideal—you can probably do that eventually—but I suggest taking a step back and thinking hard about which matters most—reading all the volumes, or understanding the philosophy well so that you can implement it in the education of your own children? I actually know someone who read all six volumes from cover to cover in a two-month period, but I cannot recommend that as a good plan for genuine understanding. She suffered from many, many false ideas about Charlotte Mason because she had read so quickly. Suppose you take a different approach—the one recommended to the teachers in Gloucestershire—and pick one relevant volume—Home Education, School Education, or A Philosophy of Education—and make yourself a student of that volume. Read it once—narrate it to yourself. Then read it again. Then go back and read the parts you especially like or the parts that still puzzle you. Mark that book up and make it your own.  Read it with a friend or two, or read it with an online study group (there are always on-going studies happening over at AmblesideOnline). Don’t be in a hurry to read another book until you really know the first one well.

I have a feeling that this is going to pay dividends in ways you can’t even imagine. You will know Charlotte Mason’s principles. You’ll be able to spot right away whether or not a particular practice or book or idea is compatible or not. You’ll gain the confidence that comes with knowledge. You won’t need anyone else to tell you whether something is “CM” or not, because you’ll know. Suddenly, the perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum will be the one you get up in the morning and use to teach your children, because you are well-versed in her methods and philosophy.

For many years, it wasn’t really possible to purchase individual volumes—you had to buy the whole set of six. They can be a bit intimidating. But that has changed very recently, and you are spoiled for choice. You can purchase a large-format facsimile version with  lots of white space for notes from Simply Charlotte Mason, or an easier-to-hold version, and you can purchase the volume you want to read.  If funds are very tight, you can read them for free on the AmblesideOnline website, and you’ll find instruction there for how to download them to your Kindle.

Edited to add: Sometimes we talk about “scaffolding” our children into CM practices like narration. As an adult, you might feel the need for a bit of scaffolding as well, to make reading Charlotte Mason a bit more approachable when you begin. Someone commented that Brandy Vencel’s bootcamp was a good introduction to the principles, and I decided to add a few more possibilities here. Leslie Laurio has re-written the entire CM Series in modern English, and if that would make it easier for you to read, you might want to try that. If A Philosophy of Education is your choice, I have created a shorter version which leaves out much of the non-essential material and includes short chapter introductions and subheadings that make the material easier to comprehend—Mind to Mind.

Which volume should you choose? It depends on your needs. There is no perfect, magic order in which to read the volumes, but for a first choice, Home Education, School Education, or A Philosophy of Education will narrow the field. If you’re interested in a post with a bit more information about each volume to help you choose (I’ve read all six more times than I can remember), let me know. But please do choose one and digest it well. If one was enough to equip the school teachers of Gloucestershire, one will serve for us as well, and be a solid foundation. You’ll be able to make your chosen Charlotte Mason curriculum the perfect curriculum in your home, even if it doesn’t arrive from the PNEU.

New school year, new narrator?

I started to write this out as a response to a comment on Facebook, to yet another mom of a new narrator who is discouraged that her child isn’t narrating with fluency and ease after a few weeks. Then I decided that it might be some encouragement to others in this season as well, so I’m parking it here for easier access and sharing. It’s off the cuff, but I hope it helps.

Narration is a long game, and it’s founded on a basic human activity—telling. Mature or natural narrators “tell back” with ease, but sometimes you need to scaffold your children into it. With a new narrator, you shouldn’t have more than two or three narrations per day, probably. There are lots of strategies for bridging the gap to just plain narration. Try a few, use the ones that work for your child, and remember that you really have three to four years to build oral narration fluency before beginning written narrations.

  1. Make sure you’ve modeled narration. Your younger children will be used to hearing narration and will find it smoother later, but your first narrator has to pave the way. So you model it—you narrate. After once or twice, narrate the beginning, and ask them if they can pick it up and narrate the rest.
  2. If you are getting one sentence—accept that sentence. If you want to, you can say, “Let me think if I can add something to that,”—and narrate a bit more. I would caution you not to narrate so thoroughly and in so much detail that your child views it as an overwhelming task.
  3. Ask for narration of just a part of the material, or let your request for a narration include a hint about what you expect to hear: “Can you tell me what happened when Ben Franklin went to work in his brother’s shop?” That brings the request to narrate into focus. Or ask for part by prompting, “which part did you find most interesting?”
  4. Bridge your way to oral narration with props. For young children, this can be very helpful. Use blocks, clay, crayons and paper, dolls, stuffed animals, or whatever interests your child. Let your child illustrate something from the reading and then (this is important) tell you about it. Let the action be illustrated with dolls or stuffed animals as props (I have seen a crew of stuffed friends tagged with the roles of Shakespeare characters).
  5. Persevere and have your child narrate in some way. Pause and reflect on how things are coming along only every 2-3 months. Remember—this is so important—that no individual narration is of any great consequence. It’s a foundational mental process that taps into a whole host of good intellectual skills and it will develop with use and practice. If your child has an off day and can’t narrate or gives you a poor narration, ignore it and keep going. On the day your child gives you a beautiful, thorough narration—and I promise that will happen if you don’t give up—make sure you say, “that was a very good narration,” because that gives them the key to what you are looking for, and lets them know that they can, in fact, narrate.

And I say one more time—narration is a long game. Keep your eyes on the goal, and don’t worry about the wobbles along the way. Don’t give up on narration–no matter how much your kids dislike it (mine did, too)—because it will repay your efforts and theirs in a hundred ways. And when I tell you it is a long game, it’s because I know it first-hand.

Not long ago, I asked my son—27 years old, Bible college grad, US Marine, husband—to write something for me about narration. This is part of what he said:

Growing up homeschooled I always hated all forms of narration. Written narrations were frustrating because I always felt like I was simply trying to rewrite the book that I just read, but shorter and in my own words. It seemed stupid to me. Oral narrations were just as awkward, and similarly I felt like I was just parroting back what I had read. I honestly didn’t see what I could be learning from it, and I probably expressed as much to my mother at one point in time or another. But regardless of my feelings I had to do them, and so I did. Its only recently, years later, that I have realized how important those narrations might actually have been to my development. I didn’t realize that I was actually learning and practicing important life skills by doing these seemingly meaningless narrations.

Don’t get discouraged. Don’t give up. Your kids might not thank you now, or anytime during the process, but they are going to appreciate it when find that their ability to synthesize material and restate it clearly gives them an advantage in many ways.  Make them narrate—help them as much as you need to at the beginning. It is worth the effort.

In Memoriam #6–Idealism and Scholé

One thing I wouldn’t really have expected to find in In Memoriam, but did, is an appreciation for classical thinkers.

In Parents and Children, Mason presents an interesting argument, contrasting naturalism with idealism. She asks outright “Is our system of education to be the issue of naturalism or of idealism, or is there a media via?” (p. 120)

Her argument is convoluted, but a few pages later, she answers her earlier question: “There is no Middle Way Open.” (page 126). We have to choose between naturalism (nothing but the material world exists) and idealism (acknowledging that there is a spiritual world, which has an impact on the material one). Miss Mason does not reject either one, recognizing that both philosophies are right, but not wholly right.

… we made some attempt to show that the two schemes of philosophy, which have hitherto divided the world, have done so because both are right, and neither is exclusively right.

This is such a position of wisdom–of recognizing the inherent truths in seemingly contradictory ideas, and being able to take advantage of the truths found in both. In fact, Charlotte Mason favored the position of the idealist (without rejecting the truths of the naturalist) because she knew that thought and ideas and religion are all spiritual in nature. Her colleagues knew where she stood.

Miss Mason was an idealist; unperceiving persons might even call her a “mere visionary.” All of us who try to follow in her steps are idealists too, and yet on every hand we hear that what the world wants is a sound, practical, useful education; it has “no use” for the idealist. But, looking back through history, it is inspiring and immensely cheering to notice who it is who have most greatly influenced the world. Is it not always the idealist? The man who attempts the impossible? What practical man of affairs or politics or war or commerce can stand alongside Plato, Socrates, Dante?

For Spirit is stronger than matter and we who know even but a little of Miss Mason’s teaching, know that it rests on eternal truth.

One of those “eternal truths” is the essential unity and wholeness of knowledge (education is the science of relations). This understanding is one of the hallmarks of those who understand classical education. One of Miss Mason’s co-workers compared her thinking and teaching to that of Plato:

She taught the teacher to love teaching and the child to love learning. Her students learnt too that education is not, as in some Universities, a departmental subject; rather, that all life is education, and all education that deserves the name is life. Plato taught, in the Republic, that the theory of education is the theory of life (Philosophy) and its message the message of life (Religion). So likewise taught the wise and noble teacher whose life-work we commemorate, in reverence and thankfulness, to-day.

One reason for pursuing education in this way—with an understanding that all knowledge is connected, or that education is the science of relations—is that it gives us a balanced perspective. We keep in mind that each truth we encounter is always going to be a part of a larger truth. We do not myopically mistake parts for wholes.

And that’s a very easy mistake to make. Miss Mason warns us against it: “we sometimes err, I think, in taking a part for the whole, and a part of a part for the whole of that part.” (School Education, p. 148-49) The antidote is to take a step back and try to see a larger picture.

I have heard philosophy defined as the quest of man for Truth. A study of the great philosophers of all ages (who each discovered part of the truth, he himself thinking he had discovered all,) shows us that the right outlook on life needs the points of view of all of them. Truth must be followed along every line, with all the faculties which we possess; and the sanity of the conclusions we reach will depend proportionately on the number of avenues leading up to the conclusions.

Our conclusions are more certain and secure when we understand that they can be reached from different angles or avenues. This is how universal truths can be recognized! Miss Mason’s colleagues and friends admired her never-ending search for further understanding. She was reading and learning right up to the end of her life, and she understood that classical principle of scholé, which allows time for processing and thinking and the integration of all those things we are learning.

Miss Mason considered leisure to be as important as work, for it is during leisure that ideas are sifted and grow; moreover “leisure out of doors, with all the wild things of Nature, is soothing and restful to the tired mind; it gives a time when ideas can grow.”

Reading In Memoriam makes me a little sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to know Charlotte Mason personally, but I’d rather live in my time than in hers (I wouldn’t be sharing my thoughts with you in this medium if I didn’t!), and I suspect she’d feel the same, so I’ll just be thankful that I have the privilege of “knowing” her at second-hand, through her writings. Let’s follow her example—let’s read and gather the ideas and ideals that will enrich our lives, and let’s give ourselves leisure to think and process, so that the ideas have an opportunity to germinate and bear fruit in our educational endeavors. I hope you have found time, during these summer months, for a little bit of that leisure-and-reflection time that will refresh you before the start of the next school year. If you’re reading something interesting, I’d love to hear about it. My to-be-read list always has room for another excellent book.

This is the last in my “Insights from In Memoriam” series, but I have done no more than skim the surface of all the insight you can find there. If you haven’t already purchased the book, I hope you’ve at least made plans to read it sometime in the future, when time and opportunity allow. I hope you’ll find time in the busy new school year for some of that scholé which will allow you time to process and continue growing and learning yourself. It will make you a better teacher in every way.

 


If you are interested in reading In Memoriam for yourself—and I hope you are!—you can read the text for free. (That’s where I read it.)

I’m also excited to share that Brandy at Afterthoughts has made a clean, good-quality physical copy available, and included some additional material that will make it more useful for study. I’ll be adding this one to my library! If you want a copy of In Memoriam: A Tribute to Charlotte Mason in your hands, this is the one.

 

 

(aff. links)

In Memoriam #5–Education is the Science of Relations

I’ve written about this before. It’s quite likely I’ll have more to say about it in the future. I think that Education is the Science of Relations is one of the key principles among the twenty, around which the rest shape themselves.

In Consider This, I summarized this brief principle in this way: all knowledge is connected. Reading In Memoriam, I found that those who labored with Charlotte Mason were keenly aware of this idea, and that it formed a pivotal role in their understanding.

“The new student” says one of them, “is at first amazed to find how little we specialize, perhaps she does not wish to teach mathematics and does not see why she should study them; perhaps she loves history and considers that the study of history alone is a life-work. She does not yet understand that all subjects are so interwoven that one cannot fully be studied and understood apart from the rest and that is why so many subjects are taught at Scale How.”

I find this observation of particular interest because the students at Scale How were adults—young adults, for the most part—and they had yet to comprehend this understanding of knowledge. But they learned! Their two years of training under Charlotte Mason and her methods gave them the deeper understanding that enabled them to form their own relationships and equipped them to teach others.

I find this of particular interest because I think it gives us hope—we, the adult learners trying to understand Charlotte Mason and her methods, can develop deeper insight. It’s okay if we do “not yet understand that all subjects are so interwoven that one cannot fully be studied and understood apart from the rest.” Because we can learn. And we can help our children reach that understanding sooner than ourselves. This perception is not beyond the reach of children.

And in some wonderful way, P.U. School children do realize that knowledge is a balanced whole; that scripture, history, geography, botany and all the others are actually different facets of the same thing. Indeed it may be that herein lies the chief characteristic of a P.N.E.U. School; for it is merely another way of saying that the children have a wide curriculum and that they get at knowledge for themselves and for its own sake.

A child who is forming personal relationships with knowledge and growing in understanding of the wholeness of knowledge will become an adult with a more balanced and solid foundation upon which to judge, and upon which to form valid, worthwhile opinions.

This great unifying principle, that Education is the Science of Relations, should be firmly held and acted upon as the only way to the attainment of that “true knowledge” whereby a child may be put “into touch with the great thoughts of the past,” and be “kept in a right attitude to the thoughts of the present, so “that he may be prepared to meet new ideas” and come upon fresh avenues of thought in the future with an open mind, and be able to form his own opinions which will be the outcome of all the wide knowledge he has collected.

From a teacher’s perspective, this conception of education—“Education is the Science of Relations”—is a guiding principle that has an effect on every decision that has to made. Which foreign language will we learn? Will we read this biography or that one? Which math curriculum should I choose? Should we join a co-op? Education is the science of relations can keep our steps on the right path, and make even seemingly small choices a matter of principle, which will give us increased confidence as go along. The better we understand these principles, the more natural it becomes to act upon them.

“Education is the Science of Relations” is a phrase familiar to all those who have studied the works and principles of our Founder, Charlotte M. Mason, and it has a peculiar significance and vitalizing force, as presented by her, which inspires the teacher and lifts the work to that high plane where truly it belongs.

This particular principle is elevating. It “lifts the work” beyond the drudgery of day to day lessons, to a place of eternal truth, of labor in a greater cause. May it continue to inspire us as it inspired those who worked alongside Charlotte Mason during her lifetime.

 


If you are interested in reading In Memoriam for yourself—and I hope you are!—you can read the text for free. (That’s where I read it.)

I’m also excited to share that Brandy at Afterthoughts has made a clean, good-quality physical copy available, and included some additional material that will make it more useful for study. I’ll be adding this one to my library! If you want a copy of In Memoriam: A Tribute to Charlotte Mason in your hands, this is the one.

 

 

(aff. links)

In Memoriam #4–“Education is not creative.”

I just want to look at one quote today. Of course, it’s from In Memoriam, but it is also part of the “Draft Proof”—the material drawn up at the founding of the PNEU. Charlotte Mason and her colleagues were very thorough and thoughtful. They were aware of the dangers that lay in certain misunderstandings and fallacies, and they took care to be very, very clear about a few of them.

One of the things that is easy for  students of Charlotte Mason to misunderstand concerns the relationship between education and religion. Education is a topic of its own, and educational principles are not necessarily theological principles, as their sphere is confined to another realm. Charlotte Mason was a Christian, and fully intends her Christianity to inform her ideas about education, but she drew a clear distinction between religion and education. Education can support spiritual development (education is still the science of relations!), but it is not a sure path to a spiritual life.

Education is not creative, it acts upon that which is. For the life of the spirit it does no more than offer two or three helpful suggestions. For instance, reasoning from analogy the science of education teaches that if the spiritual life is to be vigorous it must be daily and duly nourished and daily and duly exercised, but it knows nothing of the “living bread” which is the sustenance of the spirit; nor yet of the spirit’s functions of praise, prayer and adoration. Again, it is by revelation and not by education that man may know God; again, education hardly touches the sad mysteries of sin and temptation, nor the mystery of God manifest in the flesh–of the Birth of Bethlehem, the Sacrifice of Calvary. These things are spiritually discerned. Education can only water and dig about the garden of the soul and sow the seeds of the higher life.

This makes the point clear: “it is by revelation and not by education that man may know God.” That statement strikes me as being particularly relevant, because it seems as if it were designed to be a counterpoint to the opposite teaching, somewhere in the air. I don’t know exactly what that might have been or where it might have been coming from. However, I do know that the clear point Mason and her fellow founders wanted to make was that “education can only water and dig about the garden of the soul”—education is a matter of mind and body, and cannot give spiritual life.

That’s what the first sentence means: “Education is not creative.” It does not create something that is not already there. This is consistent with the principles that were later articulated more completely. “Children are born persons” is the first principle, and part of what Mason wants us to understand is that they have minds already—alive and active and ready to learn. Education “acts upon that which is.” That’s why she says “his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 36) It can’t do that, because it is not “creative.”

This is why Mason gives education a subordinate role when she describes the relationship between education and religion: education is the “handmaid of religion.” It is a servant, and can perform a servant’s role, but it is not the same thing as “religion,” and educational principles are not theological statements.

Of course, one of the reasons for recognizing  what education can’t do is that it makes the role of what it can do clearer and more definite. And that’s what the PNEU was really all about.

I think the material from the “Draft Proof” is one of the little gems in In Memoriam that make it well worth reading!


If you are interested in reading In Memoriam for yourself—and I hope you are!—you can read the text for free. (That’s where I read it.)

I’m also excited to share that Brandy at Afterthoughts has made a clean, good-quality physical copy available, and included some additional material that will make it more useful for study. I’ll be adding this one to my library! If you want a copy of In Memoriam: A Tribute to Charlotte Mason in your hands, this is the one.

 

 

(aff. links)


In Memoriam #3–Let’s do things Charlotte Mason’s way

In Memoriam includes many testimonials from people who knew Charlotte Mason personally, but also from people who were associated with her  professionally—whose contact with her touched upon the subject that was her life’s work: education.

I wrote earlier this year about how the principles Mason gave us are meant to be flexible, and it was wonderful to read how her colleagues spoke warmly, with one voice, to attest to this very thing.

She gave her teachers a firm foundation in the principles, but she expected them to keep on learning and growing when they went away from Scale How. She wasn’t giving them a strict list of guidelines, but a solid foundation of principles that would guide their work as they learned more.

Miss Mason ever looked ahead. One of the striking characteristics of teachers trained by her is that they too move forward on their own in after life; realising that they must teach from a flowing stream, not from a stagnant pool.

She knew that even a lovely method could degenerate into a mechanical system, and that was something she abhorred.

Miss Mason’s life was one long struggle against mechanism. She distrusted organisation and standardisation.

The younger teachers in training were much like us. They wanted clear-cut guidelines for everything, but “standardisation” was antithetical to Mason’s innate principles.

One of Miss Mason’s principles is that method rather than system should be our way to our end, accordingly there was a great elasticity about the conduct of the college, and all the fortunes and misfortunes of daily life were woven in as so many opportunities.

There is probably no more valuable skill than the ability to adapt a set of principles to any given situation. As a teacher of teachers, Mason tried to impart this to her pupils.

Perhaps this principle was specially evident during Criticism lessons on Thursday mornings when Miss Mason would criticize a student for doing what was, apparently, precisely the thing another student has been criticized for not doing the previous Thursday, thus reducing us to despair. For what were we to do? And when we asked for the precise recipe we were told to “mix it with brains.” Every lesson needs a special giving and the method is based upon broad principles which leave the teacher all the exercise of her own ingenuity.

It is all too easy to want a simple list of things to check off, to long for the comfort of knowing that doing this or that thing is a guarantee that something will work. But people have different needs, and being able to count on solid principles while adjusting practices for our specific needs is the way to get the best of both worlds–unchanging principles and flexible practices.

Finally some valuable remarks sent by Miss Clough are quoted,–“The work should be done locally as much as possible. Different localities have to be approached in different ways. The smaller the area, the more quietly and effectually the work can be done.”

CM founded a national group, but she she knew that the best work would be done on a smaller scale—within families, or small local groups, or a lively school, each one intimately acquainted with  the needs of the children and families in their own sphere. She gave the pupils of the PUS a common curriculum, and she trained her teachers in her methods, but part of her method was the ability to adapt each lesson as needed, and not to approach things as matters of rigidity.

Yet she was no bureaucrat; her practice was as various and elastic as her principles were constant; there was the method and even the letter, but above all the spirit.

I really don’t have much more to say about this, except that I was struck, again and again as I read, that this was understood by those who knew her to be a part of Charlotte Mason’s character. She had thought and read a great deal about education. She had taught children herself, and observed how effective her methods could be. But she did not assume that everyone had to do things exactly the same way in order for the methods to work. They were “various and elastic” and she allowed others the same liberty to think, read, observe, and adapt.

Henrietta Franklin was a close friend and associate of Mason’s through all the years of the PNEU. Her son grew up knowing  Charlotte Mason and her work as one would know a dear aunt. This is his admonition:

And as she was humble, let us be humble–for she never thought her way was the way but only a way–as she was strong and upright, so let us be strong and upright and let us remember her as a teacher, a philosopher and a friend.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take Michael Franklin’s suggestion to heart? As she was humble, let us be humble. Our way of implementing Mason’s principles is a way, but not the way (even if we are doing exactly what she did to the last jot and tittle). We cannot claim with Michael Franklin that Charlotte Mason was our friend, but if we can learn this from her, we can join him in remembering her as a teacher and philosopher who taught us how to teach, and how to live.


If you are interested in reading In Memoriam for yourself—and I hope you are!—you can read the text for free. (That’s where I read it.)

I’m also excited to share that Brandy at Afterthoughts has made a clean, good-quality physical copy available, and included some additional material that will make it more useful for study. I’ll be adding this one to my library! If you want a copy of In Memoriam: A Tribute to Charlotte Mason in your hands, this is the one.

 

 

(aff. links)


In Memoriam #2–Fellowship and Common Ground

One of the many interesting things included in In Memoriam is material from the “Draft Proof” that was drawn up when the PNEU was founded. The principles hadn’t been fully articulated at that time, although you can see the seeds of them in an earlier form.

However, the thing that caught my attention from the Draft Proof—which I assume was largely authored by Charlotte Mason—was her focus on the importance of community, and common labor under common interests, as a means of enriching all.

The PNEU was not a group of parents just following Charlotte Mason’s philosophy without the opportunity to grow and explore in their own directions. One of the things they appreciated about her was having the space for everyone to apply the philosophy and methods under their own judgment, in their own circumstances.

Her practice was as various and elastic as her principles were constant; there was the method and even the letter, but above all the spirit.(Clifford Allbutt, Regius Professer of Physics, Cambridge)

I’ll be addressing this idea in more detail next week, but I think it’s valuable to include this perspective here, because it makes so clear the fact that everyone didn’t have to be doing things exactly the same way in order to be faithful to the principles. The common effort and common interests were focused on the principles, not the practices. In fact, while she was alive, Miss Mason knew that practices were in danger of becoming “shibboleths” (a mere distinguishing custom) and she hated the idea.

Miss Mason always dreaded lest the P.N.E.U. should suffer by the repetition of the shibboleths and it is well to consider the position she gives to Attention in mental training lest the method of narration should become a shibboleth. (Elsie Kitching)

But those common principles were solid—founded upon universal truths—and the value of a community to deepen mutual understanding of those principles, and to explore ways of realizing them in practice was part of the reason the PNEU was founded.

Individual parents could and did learn and grow, but collectively, they could share their wisdom and perhaps inspire each other to do better and better. That was Miss Mason’s hope.

The strength of our position lies in the word body. The good and great amongst us show what great things individual parents have done and are doing. But the duty of even the best parents does not end with their own children; there are certain duties of fellowship of calling, recognized, perhaps, in every vocation but that of the parent. (From the Draft Proof)

The tendency for each family to keep to itself and muddle along as best they could was understandable, but the attitude that “I have nothing to give and nothing to get” did not sit well with Mason. She saw that collective effort among other groups—doctors, clergyman, the military—equipped each to do their job better, and she wanted that for parents.

We are waking up to the fact that, by his exclusion and seclusion we sustain a great national and personal loss; we lose much of the enthusiasm which kindles with the consciousness that many are striving together in a great cause. (From the Draft Proof)

I’ve enjoyed this kind of fellowship with other CM-enthusiasts for all the twenty years and more that I’ve been reading and learning about education. It has enriched my homeschool, encouraged me to persevere through difficulties, and reinforced the truth of the principles I am implementing. That is what I would wish for every homeschool mom. I care about school teachers and their needs as well, but homeschooling—parenting—is a long marathon of a task. If you have only one child, it’s a commitment to 12 or 13 years, and that’s the minimum. If you have a number of children who span 8 or 10 or more years, that minimum quickly becomes 15 or 20. This fall marks the beginning of my 23rd year of homeschooling, and my last remaining student is in 7th grade, so I still have a long way to go. With a task of that magnitude, good fellowship may make the difference between keeping on or giving up.

When I blogged at the CMI website earlier this year, I wrote:  “I would encourage us to look for our common ground—it’s not that hard to find—and stand there together.…enjoy the common ground you share, and talk about nature notebooks, or narration, or picture study. Watch your children forming relationships with knowledge. Share the books you are reading and the things you are learning. Encourage each other in this venture, and build each other up. Wouldn’t you consider that the best tribute to Charlotte Mason that we could offer?” I maintain that encouraging each other in our work is exactly what she would want us to do. Fellowship over our common principles is something that Miss Mason urged us to be a part of.

The PNEU was a national organization (that’s what the “N” stands for), but there were local branches all over England, and they had their own meetings, arranged for their own speakers, and then shared their thoughts with the national group through the Parents’ Review magazine. Everyone who participated in the community in a great or small way benefited from it. We don’t have one national organization like the PNEU, but that doesn’t matter. We can still function in much the same way by being a part of our local and online CM communities and find the same reward that they did.

It is no arbitrary reward which is attached to the assembling of two or three together; we warm ourselves at each others’ fires, and glow with the heat we get. Let but the heads of two or three families meet together to talk over the bringing up of their children, and the best and wisest parents will go home with new insight, renewed purpose, and warmer zeal.

That’s how Charlotte Mason described the fellowship we ought to have. May it ever be so.


If you are interested in reading In Memoriam for yourself—and I hope you are!—you can read the text for free. (That’s where I read it.)

I’m also excited to share that Brandy at Afterthoughts has made a clean, good-quality physical copy available, and included some additional material that will make it more useful for study. I’ll be adding this one to my library! If you want a copy of In Memoriam: A Tribute to Charlotte Mason in your hands, this is the one.

 

 

(aff. links)


In Memoriam #1–Thinking and Acting Rightly

I read In Memoriam once, long ago, but so long ago that I didn’t remember much of it. I decided to reread it earlier this year, and I’m so glad I did. It was just full of wonderful things—bits and pieces of history, appreciation for Charlotte Mason, and insights into the thought and work of the PNEU.

For the next several weeks, I’m going to run a blog series and share some of the things I encountered as I read, and the insights that I had while reading. Whether you have time to read it or not right now, I hope these nuggets will whet your appetite and encourage you to put In Memoriam on your “to read” list so that you’ll get the chance to read it someday.

One of the underlying premises of classical education, which I described in Consider This, is that right thinking leads to right acting. Charlotte Mason mentions this herself in her own books, of course. She says that we can “work and love and pray and live righteously,” and that these things are “the outcome of the manner of thoughts” that we think. (School Education, p. 114)

Miss Mason not only thought that right thinking should lead to right acting, she embodied that ideal in her own life, according to her close associate, Elsie Kitching:

It is surely a rare thing that a philosopher should translate his philosophy into practical life as Miss Mason did. Many philosophers are content with the supreme joy of intellectual effort, others are content with making experiments as well, but Miss Mason had put each dictum of her philosophy to the test of daily life and its needs. It lay behind all her actions, for she ever said that right thinking was the most important act in a man’s life. If he thought right he would act right.

Of course, Miss Mason did not assume “right thinking” could be achieved by merely memorizing a code of conduct or a list of rules to follow. She knew that right thinking was the result of a gradual, relational approach to understanding ourselves and our right relations to God, others, and the world. The Bible, robust conscience-building literature, and an outward focus on our duties rather than our rights were some of things she used to develop right thinking in her students.

D.S. Golding, the Headmistress of a girls’ school which used the PNEU programmes (curriculum) and followed the PNEU methods, recollected the way in which the methods—based on principles—created an atmosphere in which children not only learned to do right, but to do it because they loved what was right.

Our Founder never thought, as some think and do not hesitate to say, that “spirit” matters not. One of our aims must be to get the children to work because they love to work; to do right, not because of any reward or punishment which may follow the doing or not doing, but [because] they want to do the right thing; and the principles which underlie the P.N.E.U. methods help us to attain this goal.

How do the principles help with that? I suspect one of the primary principles is “Education is the science of relations.” As Miss Mason told us, our goal is not young people who merely “know,” but people who “care.” Those who care act upon that relationship, and that is how “right thinking” becomes “right acting”—because it is motivated by love. This is ordo amoris—ordering the affections—in action

There’s lots more to come in this series, and I hope you’ll find time to drop in and read more insights from In Memoriam!


If you are interested in reading In Memoriam for yourself—and I hope you are!—you can read the text for free. (That’s where I read it.)

I’m also excited to share that Brandy at Afterthoughts has made a clean, good-quality physical copy available, and included some additional material that will make it more useful for study. I’ll be adding this one to my library! If you want a copy of In Memoriam: A Tribute to Charlotte Mason in your hands, this is the one.

 

 

(aff. links)

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 word “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?