Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One thought on “Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition

  1. Thank you for articulating and demonstrating your position so clearly in this post, Karen. It is particularly well done, and, I believe, irrefutable for anyone honestly delving into Charlotte Mason’s works for themselves and approaching them with humility. As someone who became interested in learning more about the classical tradition while immersing myself in the works of C. Mason, I am continuously stunned by those who do not see what, to me, is an obvious connection.

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