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Taking the Fifth a little further…

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This week we “Take the Fifth” with a peek into Part II of Formation of Character. Anne is up first with “Education is the Maker of Character”:

Thinking This Way Could Start a Movement

After Part One, which dealt almost exclusively with matters of character, the beginning chapters of Part Two (“What a Salvage!” and “Where Shall We Go This Year?”) seem to take a shift in subject. The first conversation begins at a dinner party, in about 1890, with the confession by a father that his lack of knowledge on subjects like astronomy is embarrassing. Others agree that they don’t know enough natural history to answer their children’s questions. It is suggested that, as a remedy, families could take extended holidays and discover the counties of England, one by one; that they could research their trips a bit beforehand; and that they could really get to know and appreciate each region of their country, including geology, plants, castles, and so on.

One of the mothers, “Mrs. Henderson,” says, “All this is an inspiring glimpse of the possible; but surely, gentlemen, you do not suppose that a family party, the children, say, from fifteen downwards, can get in touch with such wide interests in the course of a six weeks’ holiday?” (Wouldn’t many employees today–or even in 1890–envy such generous vacation time? But perhaps six weeks of “holiday” was not such a treat for mothers.) “Mrs. Henderson” points out that parents might not be well-versed enough in history and nature lore to make such attempts practical. Both then and now, adults could graduate from school without knowing any more astronomy than the Big Dipper, or without recognizing any leaf beyond a maple and an oak, or any butterfly other than a monarch. Continue reading…

Words of Wisdom, from Formation of Character, Part I

Each Friday, Anne I will be posting an excerpt from the section we’ve been discussing. We just want to whet your appetite for reading this volume. As I mentioned on Wednesday, my selection is a peek at the natural desires that are shared by everyone, and which can be used—or misused—in character training. Next week, we’ll leave the discussion of habits behind. As we continue with Part II, you’ll see that there is a lot more than habits to this volume.

Our natural desires, and our duty to manage them well:

From pages 70-71:

It is worth while to look to the springs of conduct in human nature for the source of this common cause of the mismanagement of children. There must be some unsuspected reason for the fact that persons of weak and of strong nature should err in the same direction.

In every human being there are implanted, as we know, certain so-called primary or natural desires, which are among the springs or principles out of which his action or conduct flows. These desires are neither virtuous nor vicious in themselves: they are quite involuntary: they have place equally in the savage and the savant: he who makes his appeal to any one of those primary desires is certain of a hearing.

Thus, every man has an innate desire for companionship: every man wants to know, however little worthy the objects of his curiosity: we all want to stand well with our neighbours, however fatuously we lay ourselves out for esteem: we would, each of us, fain be the best at some one thing, if it be only a game of chance which excites our emulation; and we would all have rule, have authority, even if our ambition has no greater scope than the rule of a dog or a child affords.

These desires being primary or natural, the absence of any one of them in a human being makes that person, so far, unnatural. The man who hates society is a misanthrope; he who has no curiosity is a clod.

But, seeing that a man may make shipwreck of his character and his destiny by the excessive indulgence of any one of these desires, the regulating, balancing, and due ordering of these springs of action is an important part of that wise self-government which is the duty of every man. —Charlotte Mason


Read all the posts in this series.

Part I—Forming habits with older children

I hope you enjoyed Anne’s first post with a glimpse into Part I of Formation of Character!

By 1904, the Parents’ National Educational Union, with its publication, The Parents’ Review, had been operating for quite a few years. Charlotte Mason had been contributing material for over a decade. Many of the articles she wrote for the Review were collected into the volume which became Formation of Character.

There are four distinct sections in the book, each very different. As a book, it need not be read consecutively, from front to back. Each article was originally offered as a stand-alone article, so a reader today can choose any chapter which sparks interest and read it profitably, without fear of missing a context. I led a book study of this volume on the AmblesideOnline Forum in 2015, and our non-linear reading plan is available for anyone interested in reading this way.

Part I is a collection of stories that illustrate Mason’s understanding of the way that habits are formed. She addressed a variety of specific habits, not so much to give us specific suggestions for those habits as to illustrate the general principles upon which she thought parents should be working.

For the most part, the stories are arranged in a chronological way. The first stories begin with very young children, with whom parents may work on habit formation without their full knowledge and participation in the process. The stories continue with older children, teenagers, and even consider what habit formation might entail for adults. Sometimes parents who have older children come to Charlotte Mason’s methods later in their educational endeavors and assume they can address habit formation with them using the methods recommended for younger children, particularly those found in Volume I, Home Education. Reading through the stories in this section makes it clear that by age eight or so, and probably earlier, habit formation cannot be conducted in children’s lives unless they are informed and willing participants in the process. So how do we address habit formation with these older children?

In “Under a Cloud,” a concerned mother and father are trying to deal with a sulky temper in their daughter, which appears to be rooted in jealousy and perceived injury. (Her sulkiness begins because her brother gets a larger apple, or she perceives some other little injury.) The parents makes some attempts at developing a better habit, but their progress is unsatisfactory. The child’s father lays out the problem:

We must strike out a new line. In a general way, I do believe it’s best to deal with a child’s faults without making him aware that he has them….But in this case, I think we shall have to strike home and deal with the cause at least as much as with the effects, and that, chiefly because we have not the effects entirely under our control.

And so they work out a strategy. They would rather not point out to little Agnes how wrong she is to take offense at nothing, but simply trying to avoid having her get sulky in the first place hasn’t worked. They lay their plan:

I think we shall have to show her to herself in this matter, to rake up the ugly feeling, however involuntary, and let her see how hateful it is.

And so they do. More gently than any exasperated parent could imagine doing, her mother makes Agnes see how repulsive selfishness is, and how wrong it is to be offended when we don’t get our own way. As it happens, the child is so sensitive to evil, and wants to be good so ardently, that a mere look when she begins to take offense is enough to bring her up short in “gentleness and penitence.” More than just a sense of “good” or “bad” is invoked, however. Her mother reminds her that her behavior affects everyone else in the family—casts a cloud over the whole day if she is sulky—and so her desire to be better is rooted in love and concern for others. This is the prerequisite to using the will, as Miss Mason says elsewhere: will operates in the interest of someone or something outside of self. “Self” is well-supplied with appetites which drive self-interest, but will requires an object. Overcoming bad habits and developing better ones requires the effort of will, in the end, which is why creating habits without their knowledge or will can only work for very small children.

A few chapters later, in “Ability,” there is a frank discussion of the need to invoke a child’s will in the effort to overcome a fault by creating a better habit. Fred is the eldest of nine children, probably a young teen, and is so careless and forgetful that his parents are beginning to despair. His mother has a heart-to-heart talk with the family friend who is also their doctor about it. He lays out the problem this way:

Either it’s a case of chronic disease, open only to medical treatment, if to any; or it is just a case of defective education, a piece of mischief bred of allowance which his parents cannot too soon set themselves to cure.

Fred’s mother, as irked by the implication as any parent would be, is then reminded of a principle about habits and behavior that is repeated in this section several times: a weakness or fault (of mind or body), left to itself, can do nothing but grow stronger. Therefore, the remedy is to strengthen the opposite behavior or habit. In this case, Fred’s forgetfulness will have to be overcome by strengthening his habit of attention.

The doctor points out:

Fred never forgets his cricket or other pleasure engagement? No? And why not? Because his interest is excited; therefore his whole attention is fixed on the fact to be remembered.

You can increase the habit of attention in a tiny child by your own efforts. Charlotte Mason describes the quite easy and natural method of returning a child’s attention to a toy, or flower, or vista, when their short attention span has moved on—to encourage them to look just a moment longer, or notice just a little more. But what might have worked then will not work with a young person. He will have to make himself pay attention.

Fred’s mother sees the principle, but, like most of us, she wants a suggestion or two to make it practicable as well. They’ve established the idea that attention is necessary, and that we pay attention to what interests us, but there is no way to interest a young person naturally in tedious things that have to be remembered, and so the key is this: “you must put the interest into it from without.” And that advice is followed by “try one [thing], and when that is used up, turn to another.”

There is so much implied in these few short paragraphs, but this is the crux of the matter if you want to help your school-age children develop better habits and stronger character. They must engage their own wills in the process, and there must be some motivation to encourage them to do so. There is no ready-to-hand, all-purpose answer. “Try one thing, and then turn to another.” It sounds a little discouraging at first—we would all like a perfect system that simply worked when you took it out of the box and plugged it in—but if we dig a little deeper, we will see that this is actually more hopeful. Persons are not machines. Each of us has things that motivate us, and a parent is free to adapt motives and encouragement to the particular needs and characteristics of a child. If you have a sensitive child, like Agnes, who responds to a mere look, then a mere look may be used for motivation. If you have a child who would be oblivious to a look, it would be fine to make a game that appeals to the competitive spirit to tackle a new habit. Natural rewards or consequences might motivate some children. The whole realm of natural desires is at our disposal to help us engage a child’s will on behalf of a good habit (Friday’s excerpt will give a peek at those), and if one idea doesn’t work, it can be dispensed with in favor of another.

In the chapter “Consequences,” Miss Mason addresses some of the specific natural desires that we have. For example, everyone desires esteem, and Fred might respond to a small loss of esteem through gentle raillery when he forgets, along with being reminded that throughout his life, his forgetfulness will make him frustrating to his companions and associates. We all desire distinction, to be the best, and, as the doctor in the story suggested, Fred might engage in a contest with himself, to remember more often than he forgets, and to do better this week than last week. Any of the natural desires we possess may be called into service, only taking care not to allow any single desire to dominate or grow unnaturally strong.

Because it is truly for their own good, Miss Mason warns against being too lenient when forming habits:

He must endure hardness if you would make a man of him. Blame as well as praise, tears as well as smiles, are of human nature’s daily food; pungent speech is a tool of the tongue not to be altogether eschewed in the building of character.

Yes, that is Charlotte Mason telling us it’s okay (sometimes) to be a little sharp. When it comes right down to it, helping children form good habits is just ordinary parenting, with no magic formula or precise recipe to follow. However, the more alert we are to various possibilities and the better we understand the principles that govern them, the better our chances—and our children’s—of success.


Read all the posts in this series.

Formation of Character—here we go!

Anne is taking off with our first post in this new series:

Last fall I took an education course on instructional design. Here’s something I learned: when curriculum professionals are hired to create a course, perhaps to improve employee performance in a workplace, one of their first questions is, “Is this actually an instructional problem?” In other words, can the situation be improved by teaching, or are there other factors such as (for example) outdated equipment?

The premise of Charlotte Mason’s fifth volume is that the formation of character is indeed an instructional problem. We cannot blame chronic moral under-performance on faulty equipment, or on corrupt management. We might prefer to avoid the training required in new “best practices”:  it’s not going to be an easy course. However, the reward offered for completion is huge.

The Casebook of Charlotte Mason

The first section of Formation of Character is a catalogue of case studies and “interventions,” told from multiple points of view….Continue reading.

Blog series—Take the Fifth!

First thing on the agenda for 2019 is a new blog series! I’m excited about this one because it’s about my favorite of Charlotte Mason’s six volumes and because it’s a joint venture with my friend and colleague (at AmblesideOnline), Anne White (author of Minds More Awake and The Plutarch Project volumes).

I did an informal poll in the AmblesideOnline Facebook group last year, asking people which volumes in the six-volume Charlotte Mason series they had read. I wasn’t surprised that volume five, Formation of Character, came in dead last in that poll. It’s never going to be the first or most important book to read, but there’s really excellent material—some of it a bit surprising—in there. We want you to have a taste of it, so get ready for our “Take the Fifth” series!

The four-week series will begin Monday, January 21. We’ll be posting three times a week—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—so it’s going to be full of good things. Anne will posting on her blog, Anne Writes; I’ll be posting here; and the Friday posts will be interesting excerpts to whet your appetite for further reading. We’ll be cross-reference everything, and I’ll add links to this post each week so you won’t miss anything. Even if you don’t have time to read Formation of Character yourself in 2019, you’ll end up with a good idea of what to expect when you do get a chance.

We’re really hoping that this glimpse between the covers of volume five will give you a desire to pick it up and read it.

Join us as we…

All posts in this series:

  1. Why we do what we do (The Formation of Character)
  2. Part I—Forming habits with older children
  3. Quote: Wisdom from Volume 5: No Shortage of Love
  4. Quote: Words of Wisdom from Formation of Character, Part I
  5. Volume 5, Part II: “Education is the Maker of Character”
  6. Part II–So many things to think about!
  7. Quote: Wisdom from Volume 5: Too Many Cooks, Not Enough Facts.
  8. Quote: Words of Wisdom from Formation of Character, part II
  9. Part III—Delight in Knowledge
  10. Volume 5, Part 3: “Young Maidens at Home”
  11. Quote: Words of Wisdom from Formation of Character, part III
  12. Quote: Wisdom from Volume 5: A Place for Home-Bred Daughters
  13. Part IV—Sowing the Seeds
  14. Volume 5 Part IV: All About Pendennis
  15. Quote: Words of Wisdom from Formation of Character, Part IV
  16. Quote: Wisdom from Part IV: A generous zeal for education.
  17. Anne’s closing post for the series
  18. Last chat about Formation of Character (with audio recording!)

Books and Reading 2018

I wrote a post like this in December of 2017, about a year ago, and lamented that I had read only 29 books that year. I have done better this year, and while I haven’t hit that target of 52 books (averaging one per week) in 2018, I am not dissatisfied.

I have read 42 books in full, and parts of several more. That’s too many to discuss in detail, but here’s the breakdown by category:

Elizabeth George

She gets a category all to herself this year. Technically, her books belong in the crime genre, and certainly there is always a crime in each book, and the main characters are police or involved with helping the police. However, George is a category unto herself. The closest comparison I could make is to Dorothy Sayers’ crime novels. Her characters have a depth that bears no resemblance to a stereotyped Hercule Poirot or Nancy Drew. They grow and change across the books, and it’s fascinating to be inside the head of one character in this book, and a different character in the next book. There is also wise commentary on the human condition with spiritual overtones. I really can’t explain it well, but they are well done—a bit gritty, but nothing gratuitous, and best read in order. All were rereads, except the most recent title as noted, and they’ve formed quite a chunk of my fiction reading (eight titles!) this year.

Payment in Blood
Well-Schooled in Murder
A Suitable Vengeance
The Punishment She Deserves (new in 2018)
Missing Joseph
Playing for the Ashes
Deception on His Mind
In the Presence of the Enemy

If I have a favorite from this list, it’s the new one—just because it’s new, and moves the story forward.

Classic or Literary Fiction

I could subtitle this category “books worth reading.” I managed to read thirteen of these, so approximately one per month. Grisham may or may not deserve to be in this category instead of the next one, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt because Sycamore Row was a sequel to A Time to Kill.

The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good by Jan Karon
An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle (reread)
War in Heaven by Charles Williams
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (reread)
Silence by Shusako Endo
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe
Sycamore Row by John Grisham
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban (reread)
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (audio book)
Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin

My favorite from this category was probably Lila. Some of these were really heavy, dark reading, and when I finished Silence, for example, or The Sorrows of Young Werther,  or War in Heaven, I was almost desperate for something lighter, not to say frothy and insubstantial.



Elbow-chair Fiction

An elbow chair is simply a chair with arms, to contrast with the straight-backed, armless, hard chairs favored by disciplined Victorian ladies. Charlotte Mason said that sometimes “the mind is in need of an elbow-chair.” The implication is that an elbow-chair is a place to relax from the discipline of sitting ramrod-straight without a place to rest your elbows. I can only imagine how she might have viewed over-stuffed recliners. These books are mostly over-stuffed recliner reading. I read ten of them. If I have a goal for 2019 in this category, it would probably be to read fewer books in this category.

These are books I read to pass the time, take a break from heavier reading, or give a new author a try. I didn’t love any of these, so there is no favorite.

Split Infinity by Piers Anthony (reread—wanted to revisit my 1980’s teen reading)
The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne
The Unexpecteds by Katharine Judson
Endure by Craig Martelle
Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
Working Fire by Emily Bleeker
Ready Player One by Earnest Cline
Vanished by Irene Hannon
Finding Lucy by Diane Finley
The Foundling by Georgette Heyer


Much of my nonfiction reading is related to education. My only regret on that score is that I don’t read more of it, but the days are full and the eyes are not getting younger. All the Charlotte Mason titles are rereads. I read eleven books in this category—again, averaging one per month, although I read parts of quite a few more.

Bright Line Eating by Susan Peirce Thompson
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis (or does this count as fiction? I’m not sure.)

A Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason
Bandersnatch by Diana Pavlac Glyer
Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton





The Liberal Arts Tradition by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain
Home Education by Charlotte Mason
Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour
Formation of Character by Charlotte Mason
Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness & Beauty (Classical Education Guide)by Stephen R. Turley
John Milton: Classical Learning and the Progress of Virtue by Grant Horner

My favorite from this category was definitely The Liberal Arts Tradition, although I also enjoyed The Great Divorce very much.

The only embarrassing thing about this list is this post. I set myself the goal of reading at least nine nonfiction books, and I posted my plans there. I read 8/9 of the fiction titles, but only 2/9 of the nonfiction ones, although I did read parts of at least three more.

We can be sure of one thing, anyway—I read for myself—to learn, to think, to grow, to enjoy, sometimes just to escape. I certainly don’t read to make myself look good in these year-end reading posts.

I write this kind of post, however,  because I really enjoy reading them. If you’ve posted about your reading in 2018 or your plans for 2019 reading, let me know. I’d love to look at your lists (and probably add a few more titles to my ever-growing to-be-read stack).

WordPress has updated. Oh, dear.

This is just a test post. There have been significant changes to WordPress, which I use for this website. I am not especially savvy about these things. I learn to do things slowly, and all the things I learned to do on this blog are now obsolete. If you don’t hear from me for a while (I hope that won’t be the case!), it’s because I’m trying to learn new things, and you know what they say about old dogs and new tricks…
This would be funny if it were someone else.

It’s a sale!

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

Click here to purchase.

The White Post #5—Old or New?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She goes on to quote Miss Mason:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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