This particular nugget will be especially valuable to parents of older children. If you have been using Charlotte Mason’s methods for a good while, you have probably found that, at approximately age 12 or so, children can become rather bored of simply “telling back” all their reading by way of straightforward narration. This is still the “best means to adopt” up to that point, as these notes suggest, but—“with older children, other means of recapturing may be adopted.” Now that is very interesting! Here is the whole summary of the topic:
At a Criticism Lesson given this term, Miss Mason called attention to the importance of ascertaining by means of a summary whether the lesson has been assimilated by the children. With younger children narration of a whole or part of the lesson is the best means to adopt, because it is not only a training in accurate and coherent thought, and an exercise in correctness of expression, but also the very fact of narrating causes the children to make a vivid mental picture of what they describe. It is important not to interrupt the narration by questions; but if one child hesitate, to allow another to take up the thread of the story. With older children other means of recapturing may be adopted, and it is well to vary them as much as possible. One good way is to allow the children to write down two or three questions such as would contain the most important points of the lesson ; answers in this case are unnecessary. There are of course many other methods of summarizing, e.g., writing a short report on questions set previously by the teacher, and carefully chosen, so that the answers may not be vague or rambling. Another good way is to use a map if the subject permit, or to sum up by a few oral questions on a part or the whole of the lesson. If the children know a part, they will probably have grasped the whole equally well.
Now here are some interesting thoughts about narration for older children, and I suspect there are a few reasons for these alternative ideas. First, of course, is boredom with plain narration, as I mentioned earlier. But also, these older students were reading quite a bit more material, and time for all of them to narrate all of the material wasn’t available in the schedule. One key, I think, is permission to narrate only part of the material. But the idea of writing a short report as a written narration in response to a question, rather than writing out a narration of the whole, is a very interesting idea. To keep the question from provoking a “vague or rambling” response, it would have to be quite definite. For example:
What are some ways that seeds are dispersed? Use specific plants as examples.
What hardships did young Jane Eyre face at Lowood School? What helped her to deal with them?
What changes did the Industrial Revolution make in the cloth-making industry? Who benefited from the changes, and who was harmed?
“Many other methods” invites a teacher to be creative, and I think what I call “creative narration” belongs here as well. Children can write from the first-person perspective of a character or historical figure, or an animal! They can write in the form of poetry, a newspaper article, a screenplay, or even a graphic novel. They can summarize with a list of questions, in an imaginary letter, or in the “voice” of Shakespearean English.
I think it’s very helpful to know that Charlotte Mason’s primary method of narration can be expanded to include a wide variety of activities, and even that “it is well to vary them as much as possible.” If your narrators are getting a little tired of merely “telling back,” put some interest back into the process by trying something different.
In 2020, I posted a series of four “nuggets from the Armitt,” in which I shared fun tidbits that I gleaned from my visit to the Armitt museum in Ambleside, England, where all of Charlotte Mason’s and the PNEU’s artifacts are housed, including a complete collection of all the volumes of the Parents’ Review and L’Umile Pianta. I have much more than I was able to share then, and with the holidays coming up, I decided to make a gift of several more.
Beginning on December 1, and posting once a week up until Christmas, I’ve got four more “Nuggets from the Armitt” to share with you (which I’m numbering consecutively to the last four).
Keep an eye out for them—some of them are just for fun and interest, but there are a couple of really useful tidbits in there, too.
If you missed the last round, you can check them while you wait:
I began teaching online classes earlier this year. So far, I’ve taught several sessions of a book study on my own book, In Vital Harmony, which I’ll offer again in the future. I’ve received several suggestions for future classes, and I’ve been working on a few things.
I’ve got two new classes lined up for the new year. The first one is half book study/half seminar based upon Know and Tell. It will be a six-week seminar that starts in March, covering all the whys and hows of narration, with plenty of opportunity to ask questions and discuss the process. If you’re interested in that one, you can get the details and sign up here:
The next one is a longer course requiring an investment on several levels. I’ll be teaching through David Hicks’ seminal work on classical education, Norms and Nobility, which is 22% off on the day I’m publishing this! If you’ve already invested in the book but haven’t been able to get as much out of it as you want to, you might like to invest in this course. We’ll be taking it a little slower—meeting every two weeks—so you’ll have time to read. There will be a place for online discussion as well, so questions can be asked and we can explore some ideas more fully when there is interest. I hope you’ll consider joining me! This class will last from January to June, and will include study material for each chapter. You can get all the details for the class and sign up here:
Imagine the most wonderful breakfast you’ve ever had, or dreamed of having. Of course there will be multiple parts to it. Eggs, bacon, toast, biscuits, delicious jelly, perhaps pancakes or waffles with cream and berries. Naturally, it will be accompanied by the very best coffee or tea (or both), along with creamy milk and fresh-squeezed orange juice. This is a very good breakfast, and you would be happy to have it.
But imagine having to prepare that every day. We need breakfast, and it’s important. But what if all we have time for today is a piece of toast with peanut butter? What if our energy levels are low? A bowl of cornflakes will keep us going for a bit. Maybe we need to grab an apple or a granola bar and hurry out the door for a busy day.
The ideal breakfast is out there, and without a doubt, there will be the day when that breakfast is served. And we will be delighted. We will enjoy every bite and tuck it away in memory as that time when we got to savor the best of all possible breakfasts. But life doesn’t generally allow us that every day, and we can be content with toast, oatmeal, cornflakes, or a tub of yogurt most of the time, because those more modest breakfasts meet our needs and keep us going until lunch.
What does this have to do with narration?
If you practice narration in your home school and hang out with other moms who practice narration, you are going to hear about other kids’ narrations. Moms like to share. You’ll read about the great narration someone else’s six year old, or ten year old, or teenager did, and you might look side-wise at your own kids and worry that their narrations aren’t quite at that level.
But neither is every breakfast.
You’d take a picture of that fancy breakfast and post it on Instagram, but maybe not the peanut butter toast, and definitely not the pre-packaged yogurt or granola bar. It’s the same with the narrations we tend to share. We share the best of the best—the really good ones that we appreciated and savored because they were special.
But the daily round of breakfast—and narrations—isn’t always photo-worthy.
And that is one hundred percent okay.
Read that sentence again and make sure you really, really get it. It is okay—absolutely, positively fine—that breakfast and narrations are a little ordinary.
Because the raison d’être of breakfast is just to fuel you up until lunch, and the raison d’être of narration is simply to exercise the mind so that it digests what it has taken in. It isn’t a graded performance.
If your child’s narration lacks the bells and whistles of a fancy breakfast, just think about the basic substance. Did they understand the material enough to be able to narrate it at all? That’s enough—you can move on to the next thing. The need has been met, and there will be many opportunities in the future for the really lively, engaged narration with flourishes and connections to other things. That’s the one you’ll want to savor and share (like those other moms). But it doesn’t mean the more humdrum daily narrations don’t matter, or haven’t done their work in the marathon task that is a child’s education.
Just as we don’t have the time and money resources to make every breakfast a picture-perfect feast, our children don’t have the mental resources to make every narration a stand-out masterpiece you’ll want to share on the internet. But if they’ve shown up and made the effort to narrate at all, that’s what needed to happen, and like oatmeal for breakfast, everyone will be satisfied enough to keep going. For today, that’s what counts.
Hosted via the Beautiful Teaching website, I’m going to be offering another in-person online book study for In Vital Harmony. Over six weeks, we’ll meet once per week on Thursdays for live lecture and discussion. This time, there will also be some study notes available ahead of time and discussion space outside of class time to interact further with each other and the ideas we’ll be covering.
Class will run from September 22 to October 27 (with lectures available to view for one week if you have to miss a live class). I did a session of this a few months ago for the first time ever, and I’ve made several improvements. I got great feedback from the last group, and I’m hoping the experience will be better than ever this time around.
If you want to understand Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy in a comprehensive and cohesive way, this course will walk you through all the parts while keeping the larger picture in view. Join me! I look forward to seeing you there. (Space is limited for the sake of discussion, so register soon.)
The last couple of years have been difficult for everyone, and I am no exception, which is why it has taken over two years to bring this project to (near) completion. I am pleased to say, at last, that this study version of Home Education, titled A Thinking Love, is ready for purchase.
The first time I dove into Home Education (1994), I found it overwhelming. I wrestled my way through the dense paragraphs, gathering up valuable nuggets of wisdom, but also bewildered by much of the material. I read it several times before even the outlines of a big picture began to emerge, and I’d like to give busy homeschool mothers who want to read Charlotte Mason for themselves a head start. This is our work, and we want to do it well. Miss Mason told us:
That the mother may know what she is about, may come thoroughly furnished to her work, she should have something more than a hearsay acquaintance with the theory of education, and with those conditions of the child’s nature upon which such theory rests.
With this study version, I hope to help you achieve “more than a hearsay acquaintance” with the theory of education. I’ve divided the material into “readings” that can be finished within a busy mom’s schedule. Each reading is followed by study material that will help you digest and make the most of what you are reading. If I thought a little extra background would be useful, I’ve added that. I’ve kept a close eye on the principles, and refer you to them often, so you will see how integral they are from the very beginning. I’ve made a few practical suggestions to help you get started doing some of the things Charlotte Mason suggests.
But I don’t want to do your thinking for you, so most of my study questions are an invitation to ponder what Charlotte Mason has said and find your own conclusions. It is my sincere hope that A Thinking Love: Studies from Charlotte Mason’s Home Education, will become a valuable tool for a new generation of homeschool mothers who want to become students of Charlotte Mason.
Because few readers get as far as reading Formation of Character, I’ve always wanted a version of Home Education that includes all eight of the original lectures. Their inclusion in Home Education clarifies many things, and gives us a glimpse of what Charlotte Mason hoped education would effect in the lives and hearts of our older children.
I hope you’ll find a friend or two to read with you—that’s what I did—and that reading this study edition of Home Education will be just the beginning, so that you go on to read the original version and other volumes beyond that.
Unpleasant but necessary business information:
Kindle version: I’m working on it—it should be ready soon.
Canada: I’m working on that, too. I must convince the powers that be that Home Education is in the public domain in Canada. That should be possible, shouldn’t it? Prayers welcome!
I know my blog has been quiet for a good while, and my website definitely needs the cobwebs brushed out of the corners and freshened up a bit, but regardless of all that, it’s finally time to share a project I’ve been talking about (vaguely) for a couple of years.
Just after I wrote In Vital Harmony, I began to reread Charlotte Mason’s Home Education. I was deeply immersed in the principles, and keenly aware of every turn of phrase that made reference to them. As I read through Home Education, I could see the wonderful connections and related parts that I had just written about, and I thought—wouldn’t it be wonderful to read Home Education with a study guide that would ensure the principles were highlighted?
After I abridged A Philosophy of Education as Mind to Mind, I had kind of promised myself not to abridge another volume. But a different idea emerged as I pondered highlighting the principles in Home Education. What if there were a study version? What if the material was broken up into manageable readings followed by study questions that called attention to the principles? What if you kept a copy of the principles at hand as you read and referred to them often?
And so A Thinking Love: Studies from Charlotte Mason’s Home Education was conceived.
It’s taken a long time to get to delivery, but here we finally are!
And there’s more!
Home Education began as a series of eight lectures delivered to parents. Eight. If you open any contemporary publication of Home Education, you will find only six. But the other two lectures are still out there. In 1905, Home Education was updated with a lot of material related to teaching lessons. In order to make room for the new material, lectures seven and eight were moved to a new volume—Formation of Character. Yes, that strange, eclectic volume that not many Charlotte Mason enthusiasts find time to read in the year of our Lord 2022. (But if you want to explore it further, I collaborated on a good overview of it in the Take the Fifth blog series a few years ago.)
With the removal of those two lectures, Home Education became a book about the education of children up to age nine, but that’s not the spirit of the original eight lectures. Charlotte Mason presented her principles, and then discussed their implications from birth to young adulthood. Those last two lectures are a treasure not to be missed (even if you never read the rest of Formation of Character), and they belong with the other six.
So I put them back in.
Charlotte Mason took them out in the first place to make room for new material, and I made room for them by leaving out other things–beef tea, wool clothing, coal fires, and Victorian-era science about the brain—and full-time nannies, as much as I could. The things you really want from Charlotte Mason—her educational principles, her practical advice, her wisdom and encouragement—that is all still here, presented in short readings that can be finished in as little as ten or fifteen minutes. Each reading is followed by three points for discussion, further thinking, or practical activity to help you get the most out of the material. I think it will work well for those who want to read and discuss in community. (If you do that, let me know how it goes.)
I’m so excited to finally be sharing this project with the world, and I’ll be letting you know that the book is available (paperback and Kindle) very, very soon.
This is the first time I’ve posted in a long, long time. So much has happened in my personal life that there just hasn’t been time and energy for the educational philosophy side of things, but now that things are settling down a bit, that’s going to change. This post is just me, waving my hand, and saying “I’m still here.”
For 25 years, my family lived and served in Krakow, Poland. My children were ages 6, 3, and newborn when we moved there, and my youngest was born there in 2004. They grew up bi-lingual and bi-cultural, and after graduating from homeschool, moved on to other things that led them back to the United States. Now, it’s our turn. The year 2020 was as difficult for us in Poland as it was for everyone, everywhere, and while it was not the only reason we came to the decision to relocate back to the US, it was one among many factors. Mid-year 2021, we said goodbye to Poland (and just typing that makes tears rise to my eyes) and moved to Indiana. Since then, we’ve been settling in and adjusting to living in the US. For my youngest, age 17, this is the first time she has ever lived here.
Looking to the future, I’ll be more available for speaking engagements (I already have a couple lined up for 2022—more on those later), and I have a few book projects that have been simmering during this transition that are about to come to the boil (more on those pretty soon).
But apart from just quietly saying, “I’m still here,” this post is going to be a bit seasonal. As part of our trans-continental move, we had to downsize and declutter pretty strenuously. But you don’t leave 25 years of living behind altogether, and I want to share one of the special things that now has a new home in the United States.
Every year in Krakow, there is a folk-art fair on the main square in August. It was always one of my very favorite events of the year, and so many years I ago that I don’t remember when, I bought this little nativity. It was hand-crafted by a clay artisan, and I really liked the all-in-one little scene, sort of rustic and also reverent (which I think a nativity should be).
I visited the folk art fair every year, and the next year I began adding free-standing figures (just one or two each year) to stand around my little scene. The artist made wise men, and shepherds.
One of his specialties was incredibly cute little animals.He made all kinds of creatures–badgers, lizards, horses, turtles–but also some animals that fit my nativity. Over the years, I bought a donkey, and camels, and sheep.
Lots of sheep.
At some point, he switched from working with the red clay and began using white clay, and painting more detail on faces.
I added some angels to my collection.
And more sheep.
As my collection grew, so did his popularity, and it began to be a little harder to score the limited figures he made each year. One year, instead of a figure, I added a bread basket and a water jug. The little baby is also the bread of life and the living water, so I usually place them near the manger.
The very last year I was able to buy a piece—and I didn’t know it would be my last—I bought this little fence with the birds on it, happy to welcome the infant Jesus.
It’s an eclectic collection—one of a kind— accumulated over twenty years or more. Each of my pieces bears the stamp of the artist, and a few years ago, I took a picture in December of all the pieces I had collected across the years, and saved it until the following August to show the artist and his wife—they were really surprised about it. (And a little sad that they were sold out of the kings I was hoping to add that year.)
If I had no other Christmas—no decorations, no presents, no carols, no tree—but I had this, it would be all I would need to celebrate. Jesus was the best gift ever given, and this particular reminder of that gift encompasses a lifetime of living abroad, raising my kids (who used to argue over who would get this when I’m gone, but I’m not going anywhere just now), celebrating Christmas in lean times and in prosperous times, and always trying to keep our holiday focus on Him.
Last Christmas, which I knew would be my last in Poland, I had this out, and I wrapped every piece carefully for the long journey. As I unwrapped them this year for their first Christmas in the United States, I thought about the journey they had made, and I had made. The shepherds ran in from the field outside Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph had traveled from Nazareth. The wise men made a long, long journey, and the little one made the longest journey of all. We’re all travelers together, but here we are together. Welcome home.
Welcome, welcome Emmanuel.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
Merry Christmas, everyone. You’ll be hearing more from me soon!
I think Charlotte Mason hid an alternate version of one of her principles in Home Education—and it’s that tricky one!
Have you ever been taken aback by Charlotte Mason’s second principle? You know, the one that says, “Children are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil?” I have long lamented the unfortunate wording that distracts readers into thinking it is a theological declaration, because that is not what Charlotte Mason was talking about. As much as twenty years ago, I tried to explain that this principle is about formation of a child’s character, and the responsibility of a parent (and to a lesser extent, teachers) to labor actively in that cause.
When I wrote In Vital Harmony , I was able to go into even greater depth, and reworded the second principle as an addendum to the first principle in this way: “Children are born persons whose character must be nurtured.”
I’ve been doing a very close read of Home Education lately, and I ran across a sentence that I think really sheds some light on this principle. If the second principle has been problematic for you, I suggest penciling this in place of what is there in your own copy.
The child is born, doubtless, with the tendencies which should shape his future; but every tendency has its branch roads, its good or evil outcome; and to put the child on the right track for the fulfillment of the possibilities inherent in him, is the vocation of the parent.
You can see all the familiar words that appear in the principle—born, possibilities, good, evil—but in this sentence, Charlotte Mason has made her purpose for saying these things much plainer. Yes, the child is born with tendencies, and yes, even a “good” tendency may come to an evil conclusion. Every tendency has its branch roads! But the child need not be a slave to those tendencies if his parents recognize their “vocation”—Charlotte Mason means it is a duty inherent in parenthood—to “put the child on the right track.” You’ll even find, if you look at the context on page 109 in Home Education, that there is a direct reference to counteracting “heredity” (as I discussed in the article linked above).
From this picture we get that phrase “laying down the rails,” which refers to the formation of habits, both mental and moral, that shape a child’s inborn nature into character.
You see there is no reference here to sin, or to a child’s eternal state. These ideas about tendencies are mentioned in the principles to remind parents of their own duty and calling. That’s why the second principle is there in the first place. I suppose we all wish Charlotte Mason had worded it better, but if you write this sentence out on a sticky note and paste it into your principles, it will remind you.
And to end on a completely different note—
I have been reading and studying Charlotte Mason’s volumes for over twenty years. I never read a volume without discovering something new or making a new connection, as I did here. No matter how well you know this philosophy, it will repay you to pick up a volume you’ve read before—maybe even more than once—and read it again. I was in the middle of Parents and Children when I got distracted and went back to Home Education, so I guess I’ll be getting back to that next.
Do you know what a shibboleth is? Can you say the word?
There was a time and a place where it might have meant the difference between life and death. Every language does not contain every sound, and if you don’t learn to make some sounds as a child, it can be difficult to acquire them later. I know Americans who can’t roll their Rs, and where I live, there is no “th” sound. These differences can give you away. If there were a war, and you captured someone, but weren’t quite sure if they belonged to the enemy side or not, you could ask them to say a test word containing the tricky sound. There is a pretty good chance they wouldn’t get it out quite correctly, and then you’d know. Friend—or foe. Shibboleth was a matter of life or death, as you can read in Judges chapter 12:4-6:
Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.
And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;
Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan.
They spoke the same language, but the Ephraimites had an accent, and they just couldn’t get that “sh” sound out right. It gave them away every time. If you can’t quite get the sound of Shibboleth correct, you don’t have to worry. No one is going to slay you in the passages of Jordan today.
The word shibboleth entered the English language. No one literally has to pronounce “shibboleth,” but one may be expected to adhere to a custom or profess an opinion. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a shibboleth is “a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning.”
The way it works is not that different from what happened in Judges. The adherents of a party, sect, or belief use their shibboleth as a benchmark. It’s not that you have to speak a particular word, but you do have to toe the party line. It’s a test. Do you agree? If you do, they let you in to the gang. If you don’t proclaim the shibboleth properly, out you go. You won’t be killed, but you aren’t welcome.
You may be wondering, “What on earth does this have to do with education or Charlotte Mason?” I’m glad you asked.
Charlotte Mason was not a fan of shibboleths, and I am understating the case. Her associate, Elsie Kitching, used the word “dread” to describe her feelings about them. What was she so afraid of? The Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU) had come into being because of her educational ideas, expressed in a series of lectures that were published as Home Education. But Charlotte Mason considered that society a living, vital source of continued thought and growth. She also knew that the exact needs of parents in one place might not be the same as the exact needs of parents elsewhere. It was important to her that the various branches of the PNEU be allowed to meet and discuss topics that would foster thought and action based upon ideas. It was not a requirement that everyone agree about everything, and the various articles that appeared in The Parents’ Review made that clear. And it was fine with Charlotte Mason. When she knew there was a difference of opinion, as the editor, she would add a note to the end of an article, “Discussion is invited.” She was willing to hear various points of view, and to allow others to hear them as well.
The enthusiasm and vitality of the P.N.E.U. branches gave Charlotte the greatest encouragement. She valued their local independence and initiative. (The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondeley, p. 31)
We read that “each local branch was left free to organize itself” and “a broad unifying basis of thought supported the whole union.” (SOCM, p. 42)
We aren’t left in doubt about what that unifying basis was, either.
Charlotte Mason describes the basis of thought behind the union as a tentative effort in education “having more or less the characteristic of a philosophy; notably having a central idea, a body of thought with various members working in vital harmony.”(SOCM, p. 42) And yes, that’s why I borrowed the phrase as the title of my most recent book.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what Charlotte Mason’s attitude might be toward the various groups that have grown up over the last twenty-odd years that put her name to their work. I have been a part of such groups—for example, the curriculum project that is AmblesideOnline. If a group adheres to the central body of thought, do you think she’d mind if they add “Charlotte Mason” to their name?
One cannot say for sure, although she made a special effort to avoid having the work of the PNEU associated with any particular names (there were members who wanted to say, for example, that the PNEU was following the thought of Froebel or Pestalozzi). She didn’t refuse to have their names attached to the PNEU because she necessarily disagreed with them. Her concern was to avoid the hindrances associated with a name, because any single person’s teaching would limit their scope of endeavors. She resisted attaching any name to the PNEU, including her own, and she got her way. Charlotte Mason reiterated that at the very founding of the union:
…care was taken to avoid limitations which would hinder the advance of science; especially that most serious of all hindrances, the docketing [of] the union with any given name or names. (SOCM, p. 53)
And she went on to tell us why:
The moment [education] frames a stereotyped creed represented by any given name or names of the past or present, she becomes formal and mechanical rather than spontaneous and living. The effort to define or limit in matters too broad and deep to be expressed in a definition or represented by a name is the history of all division whether in religion or education. (SOCM, p. 54, emphasis added)
If you have read even a little of Charlotte Mason’s own writing, you have probably encountered the idea that formal, mechanical systems were to be abhorred. One of her principles is that “education is a life,” and life is hindered and cramped by systems. The use of her own name is no safeguard against allowing her ideas to be confined to something “formal and mechanical.” The very act of putting a given name to educational ideas limits it to a “stereotyped creed.” There is no room for growth, and the life of the ideas may be snuffed out by confinement.
If you consider how Charlotte Mason felt about systems, can you begin to comprehend why she might have dreaded shibboleths? She didn’t like the idea of limiting education too narrowly, and she didn’t like division into camps. The central body of thought was vital, but the implementation of it could take various forms. You have probably seen it yourself. Do you know Charlotte Mason homeschoolers who use a different curriculum than you, or who are following a different timetable, or who incorporate a different framework for history? Do you think those differences would have mattered to Charlotte Mason if the unifying principles were adhered to? Would she have wanted the point of difference to be a shibboleth that separated the sheep from the goats, as it were? What if there aren’t any sheep and goats? Children are born persons.
Charlotte Mason knew that the principles she expressed were so fundamentally true that they could accommodate themselves to any situation. When questions arose, “she always took any debated point back to the principle at issue, and made us decide whether or not a certain practice could bear the final test of the principle.” (From a Parent’s Review article by Elsie Kitching) She didn’t imagine for a moment that the precise way the PNEU did things would remain unaltered forever (and it didn’t). The PNEU was built upon the faith that “education is the science of relations,” and for that reason,
This faith can shed a searchlight beam on the educational needs and practices of a new age. It can inspire new efforts to meet changing conditions of society.” (SOCM, p. 199)
“New efforts” were okay with the PNEU. There has been an explosion of new curricula, new bloggers, new podcasts in the past few years, all professing to follow Charlotte Mason. This is no bad thing, and Charlotte Mason was more than happy for the various members of the PNEU to share their knowledge about nature, music, history, or anything that would contribute to the knowledge of everyone else in the movement. Provided the principles are kept in mind, various implementations of those principles can be illuminating for us all. If you’re not sure whether a particular practice is in line with the principles, it’s only by delving into the principles that you will be able to know. This safeguards us from faulty methods while still allowing plenty of room for variation.
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. (In Memoriam, PNEU publication)
But there is a pitfall out there that Charlotte Mason dreaded, and any student of Charlotte Mason’s runs the risk of falling in. The easiest way to avoid falling into a pit is for someone to tell you exactly where it is, so you can avoid it, and that is what I’m proposing to do here. The pitfall Charlotte Mason dreaded was that any individual part of the PNEU teaching and practice would become a shibboleth. In In Memoriam, her very close associate Elsie Kitching wrote:
Miss Mason always dreaded lest the P.N.E.U. should suffer by the repetition of the shibboleths. (In Memoriam, p. 122)
Charlotte Mason did not want some acid test of authenticity to be applied to the educational philosophy that she considered a living, growing, life-giving force. Her primary concern was for the principles, and she did not ask her colleagues to “say shibboleth” or be cast from favor. On the contrary, she urged her former students to keep the principles fresh in their minds in their educational endeavors.
Your definite and distinct code of educational principles must be kept fresh in your minds by reading and re-reading your books and pamphlets and reports. (from a letter reprinted in L’Umile Pianta)
It was the principles (especially their presentation of education as a whole), and not any particular practice that she wanted to protect.
Miss Kitching even warned explicitly,
It is well to consider the position she gives to Attention in mental training lest the method of narration should become a shibboleth whereas it is only the outward and audible sign of that inward and spiritual grace, the power of attention, by which the mind feeds upon the food convenient for it. (In Memoriam, p. 122)
Now, narration is such a fundamental part of a Charlotte Mason education—it is even included in the principles—that one cannot imagine a “Charlotte Mason” education without narration. I’m tempted to make a shibboleth of it, myself. And yet even something so foundational should not be allowed to become a shibboleth. Why? Well, Charlotte Mason never told us to give children a “Charlotte Mason” education (remember how she felt about names?) She said she wanted to offer children a “liberal education.” Narration is only the “outward and audible sign” of an “inward and spiritual grace.” Narration is an important and valuable tool, but it is the work going on in the mind and heart of the child that is what really matters, and if that is occurring, however it manifests itself, we should be satisfied. I’m not suggesting you give up narration, and neither is Miss Kitching, nor would have Miss Mason. What she is saying is—don’t make a shibboleth of it. Don’t make it a yardstick by which you measure how authentic someone’s practice of Charlotte Mason’s principles is. Above all—don’t adhere to the practices by rote but lose the more vital reasons that underpin them. “Narration” may take many forms.
And if we can’t make a shibboleth of narration, what of the rest of it? The timetables, the three terms, the precise number of pictures from an artist for picture study, the number of foreign languages a child learns, what history to begin with, how many minutes your lesson is, how many pages you read, how reading is taught, what media you use in your nature notebook, what handicraft you choose, or whether you include music with your Swedish Drill? How about tea time, sol-fa, or habit-training? Is it okay to make a shibboleth of any of those? What do you think? What do you think Charlotte Mason would have said? She actually told us, “we must not make a fetish of habit.” (Home Education, p. 192) If we can’t make shibboleths (or fetishes) of individual “Charlotte Mason” things, where should our focus be?
I’m not suggesting we toss out any part of what we think of as a “Charlotte Mason” education. I think you should try your hand at as many of the things she recommended as possible. I especially think you should implement narration to the fullest extent possible. But I also think that we should take a leaf from Miss Mason’s book, and dread making a shibboleth of any of these things, of casting out or castigating those who don’t do things precisely as we do them, or even precisely as Miss Mason set forth for the PNEU to do them. Sometimes her insistence on adherence to a given practice was for the sake of consistency within the school—she had to answer to parents and inspectors—not because a principle was at stake.
Charlotte Mason wrote,
We sometimes err, I think, in taking a part for the whole and part of a part for the whole of that part. (SOCM, p. 261)
When we make a shibboleth of anything, we are hyper-focusing on a part to the detriment of the greater whole. In the same way that Jesus distilled the entire Old Testament law into the all-encompassing principles that we should love God and love our neighbor, Charlotte Mason distilled her whole philosophy into a few essential principles. Her primary concern was the essential personhood of children, and the other principle she was passionate about was “education is the science of relations,” which she called a universal principle. She laid no personal claim on those principles and I suspect that is why she did not attach her name to them.
I have not made this body of educational thought any more than Columbus made America. But I think it has been given me…to recognize that education is the science of relations, to perceive certain working theories of the conduct of the will and of the reason, to exact due reverence for the personality of the child,…and some few other matters which go to make up a living, pulsing body of educational thought which I find to be a wonderful power in the lives of those who apprehend it. (SOCM, p 108, emphasis added)
It was at about the time she wrote this that she also wrote the synopsis of her thinking which we call her twenty principles. Although there are twenty, you see the two—relations and personhood—that summarize the rest (because of course the conduct of will and reason are an aspect of that personhood). These principles are living and exert a powerful influence on those who “apprehend it.” For Charlotte Mason, Education is the science of relations is the guiding principle that leads to the various practices.
Let it be our negative purpose to discourage in every way we can the educational faddist, that is, the person who accepts a one-sided notion in place of a universal idea as his educational guide. Our positive purpose is to present, in season and out of season, one such universal idea: that is, that education is the science of relations. (SOCM, p. 271)
You can’t really make a shibboleth out of a universal idea.
As Charlotte Mason prepared for an educational conference as early as 1898, she wrote that she wanted the new union (PNEU) to…
…grasp the view of education as a whole. . . . On this occasion I think we need not trouble ourselves about how to teach children this or that but rather get ourselves fired with the notion of the manifold intimacies with which we might enrich the lives of our children as occasion offers. (SOCM, p. 104-05)
Eventually, you will want to address “how to teach children this or that,” but first you must grasp education as a whole, through the consideration of a few—just a very few—fundamental principles. (That’s what In Vital Harmony is all about.) When you do that, the risk of setting up an idol or a shibboleth grows much, much smaller. Educational principles are a firmer foundation than the “repetition of the shibboleths.” When we understand them, we won’t feel free to randomly do anything we please, but can consider our options in light of sound natural laws of education. After Charlotte Mason’s death, Miss Kitching tried to carry things on in the same spirit, and she said, “we need to take a bird’s-eye view of the whole ground covered by any problem, lest we should not see the wood for the trees.” (From a Parent’s Review article ) “Education as a whole” is too important to miss, to be waylaid by shibboleths.
As you read and study Charlotte Mason’s own writings (and I hope you will), and as you learn and grow by using her educational methods, you will possibly encounter Charlotte Mason teachers who have fallen into this error. They may point at what you are doing and declare it invalid or “not CM” because it doesn’t line up with their chosen shibboleth. May I be forgiven, for I have been guilty, too. That’s how I know how easy it is fall into this error. The antidote is to read and read what Charlotte Mason actually said. Fear not. If what you are doing is consistent with the principles, that’s what really matters. Charlotte Mason herself said, “there is no last word to be said upon education,” (School Education, p. 46) and was open to new thinking, new ideas, new books. If Charlotte Mason didn’t need shibboleths, why do we?
Please don’t let any shibboleth deter you or discourage you. Charlotte Mason would not have laid that burden on you. She valued the original thinking of the various PNEU branches and of her student-teachers who went out into the world. She knew they would continue learning and thinking and growing, and her concern was that they would remember the principles and apply them “as occasion offers,” not that they would never do anything differently. Sometimes her students were perplexed by her refusal to give them hard and fast rules to follow.
If someone confronts you with a shibboleth, maneuver your way back to the principles. Have the courage of your convictions, but there is no need to feel obliged to sweep the scales from another educator’s eyes. Charlotte Mason may have dreaded the encroachment of shibboleths, but she was content to let ideas speak for themselves without contention.
Attack nothing. Be indignant at nothing. When people’s minds are put on the defensive, they have no room to receive new ideas. (SOCM, p. 106)
Don’t stumble at a shibboleth, but don’t worry about trying to slay it either. If you do, it may be like the many-headed hydra and just grow stronger. The shibboleths are always with us, but we can take a leaf from Charlotte Mason’s book and eschew them. One of her close colleagues said, “she never thought her way was the way but only a way” (In Memoriam). That kind of generous, open thinking will keep you from raising divisive shibboleths of your own as well as avoiding the pitfalls of anyone else’s. If Charlotte Mason wouldn’t ask us to “say shibboleth” by way of test, why would we do that, either? It is much more profitable to allow the unifying principles to bind us together as we seek to teach our children and to learn and grow ourselves.
Discussion is invited!
N.B. Some links are affiliate links.
N.B. The Story of Charlotte Mason is out of print and difficult to obtain for a reasonable price.