Classical or not?

So, is Charlotte Mason classical, or isn’t she? I wouldn’t have thought the question was as hot as it appears to be, so I decided to explore some of the ideas that lie at the root of the confusion. Obviously, I think Charlotte Mason’s philosophy has a clear connection to the classical tradition, since I wrote a book to talk about those ideas. Just as obviously, there are those who disagree, vehemently. How could there possibly be such a wide variance of opinions in the face of such a simple question?

If a heated argument were going on between Educator Smith and Educator Jones on this topic, and Socrates walked into the room, it might look something like this:


Socrates: Whoa! What’s going on here?

ES:  Well, we are discussing whether or not Charlotte Mason had any links to classical education. I think it’s clear that she does.

EJ: Indeed! But I, Socrates, am of quite the opposite opinion. She wanted nothing to do with ancient pagan religions because she was a Christian, and clearly must have rejected their educational ideas as well.

Socrates (taking control of the conversation, as always): Ah, I am very confused. I think I do not quite know what you mean. Who is Charlotte Mason?

ES: Oh, Socrates, you are quite behind the times. You must know that Charlotte Mason was a British educator in the late 19th and early 20th century. She never married, and made education her life’s work. She taught children, and later she taught parents and teachers. She had quite a thorough understanding of the way that a child thinks and learns, and she developed an educational method which followed a set of of clear principles.

EJ: Exactly! She organized a union of parents and educators to explore and propagate her ideas, and she wrote many volumes to explain her thoughts. We have six large books which give quite a complete picture of her teaching, which is based upon twenty principles.

Socrates: Ah, then we can be quite certain of what Charlotte Mason thought about education?

ES and EJ: Most certain!

Socrates: It was very thoughtful of her to write everything down so thoroughly, so there can be no doubt. And classical education? What is that?

ES: It’s not easy to define, you know. Your own pupil Plato gave us some thoughts about education, as well as his pupil, Aristotle, although they did not entirely agree with each other. The Roman Quintilian, who was contemporary with the Apostle Paul, gave us quite a thorough treatise, and after Christ, we have centuries of Christian writers who contributed their ideas. Augustine is a primary one, but Cassiodorus, Aquinas, and à Kempis had some important ideas as well. Erasmus, Comenius, and Milton were Renaissance-era educators who developed further thoughts on education, and there were a few English educators with interesting ideas—Elyot and Ascham. Elyot was particularly fond of Cicero’s teaching on education. The French Montaigne had some very clear ideas, and he refers frequently to the Roman Seneca…

Socrates: Stop! Please, stop. I am trying to understand what classical education is. Did all of these educators say exactly the same thing about education?

ES: No, of course not. What would be the point of that? It’s a long conversation about education, among many thinkers.

Socrates: But did they all think the same thing?

ES: Not precisely, no. Do any two people think exactly the same thing?

Socrates: I suppose not, but perhaps they can define something the same way.

EJ: Well, that’s easy enough. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary defines “classical” for us!  “Of or relating to the ancient Greek and Roman world, especially to its literature, art, architecture, or ideals—also, having order, balance, restraint or other qualities felt to derive from or suggest those characteristic of the literature, art, architecture, or ideals of ancient Greece and Rome.”

Socrates: And does that give a full definition of classical education?

EJ: Clearly, classical education is “of or relating to the ancient Greek and Roman world,” which was pagan. Charlotte Mason was a Christian, and her educational ideas could not possibly relate to theirs.

Socrates: But education is not religion. Or is it?

ES: Charlotte Mason did not think so.

Socrates: No?

ES: She called education “the handmaid of religion.”

Socrates: Ah! The servant, then. Well, let us assume for the moment that she was correct. Could the same servant be utilized by pagans and Christians? Is that possible? I am trying to understand whether a Christian educator could share ideas with pagan educators. Perhaps we can consider one of the other classical categories. Classical architecture, perhaps. Could Christians make use of the architecture that relates to Greece and Rome?

EJ: I suppose they have. There are churches built in the classical style.

Socrates: So Christians could, in some cases, make use of something that “relates to the ancient Greek and Roman world?” The fact of being Christian is not the same thing as rejecting all things that are classical? Using their ideas, as servants, is possible? We can agree on that?

ES and EJ: I think we can agree. (Because in a Socratic dialogue, everyone always agrees with Socrates.)

Socrates: So, we cannot determine that Charlotte Mason has no connection to classical education simply because she was a Christian. But perhaps there are other reasons?

EJ: There certainly are! For the past 25 years, American educators have been developing classical schools and curricula around the ideas of Dorothy Sayers, who wrote “The Lost Tools of Learning.” She compared the three parts of the trivium (the classical liberal arts, you know) to three stages of child development, and her idea is that young children should memorize a great many facts, and little else. It bears no resemblance to Charlotte Mason’s ideas about education at all.

Socrates: And this is consistent with what all the other classical educators mentioned earlier have said?

ES: Not really. It was her own idea.

Socrates: I think we have wandered away from the topic at hand. We need a definition of classical education. We know what Charlotte Mason thought because of the six books she wrote, but how can we decide whether her ideas relate to classical ideas unless we can define them equally clearly?

ES and EJ: I suppose we can’t.

Socrates: So…let’s begin again. What is classical education?

(At the same time):

ES: Plato says…/EJ: The dictionary says…

Socrates: No, that won’t do. Perhaps we need to ask a different question. Charlotte Mason is the authority on her own educational philosophy, of course?

ES and EJ: Of course!

Socrates: And who is the educational authority able to define classical education for us?

ES and EJ:…(crickets)


And therein lies the crux of the question. My ideas about classical education represent one line of inquiry, and those who disagree have taken a different tack. The root of our different conclusions lies in our different understanding of classical education, not our appreciation of Charlotte Mason. And where is the authority who can give us one clear definition, similar to Charlotte Mason’s twenty principles, which will give us the essence or the complete picture, or at least an undeniable measuring stick for what is or is not classical?

I am happy to share all the connections I have found between Charlotte Mason and the classical tradition, but I am not even a little bit interested in trying to convince anyone that my definition of classical education is the one correct definition. In fact, in the absence of a single authority, I think that a plurality of classical educators, taken together and sifted for their points of commonality, is the closest we can get to what we mean by “classical” education. But others prefer to find their definitions elsewhere, and I cannot fault anyone’s right to do that. My way takes a very long time, and not everyone wants to read all the old classical writers when the necessary day to day business of educating children demands attention.

Not long ago, I was asked to do what my Socrates was trying to do—to define classical education—and I thought I’d share how I attempted to go about that.

I prefer the term “classical tradition” to “classical education” because it is the “big umbrella” term that make it clear we are talking more about fundamental principles than nitty-gritty practices. For me, the term “classical education” better refers to the actual practice of putting the ideas to work—how you go about implementing the big, universal principles. And this is why it feels like there is no clear definition—people do such very different things. Also, frankly, it is very common to say “classical education” when one really means “the classical tradition of education,” just because it’s shorter. It’s the conventional, common way the term is used, although many writers and thinkers of the last century or so use the term “liberal arts education” to express much the same thing.

Let’s get some perspective. How can we answer the question, “What is the definition of a Charlotte Mason Education?” We do have authority on that point. I could answer that a CM education is based upon Mason’s twenty principles. That’s not wrong, but it tells me nothing if I don’t know what they are. The twenty principles take up about three pages of text in a book, but most people could not read through the principles as Charlotte Mason has given them to us and grasp her ideas and methods. Those three pages of principles are the short version, and the reality is, if you want to know what a “CM” education is, you’re going to need a lot more input and explanation, hopefully with some helpful examples of what it all looks like in practice.

You can’t put the answer to “What is a Charlotte Mason education” into one or two concise sentences and really convey its full meaning. The question “What is the definition of Classical Education?” presents a similar problem. It can no more be condensed to a few sentences than a CM education, and even the “twenty principles” version is going to leave you unsatisfied and needing to know more before you understand what it’s all about.

But people do try to express the definition succinctly, and I’ll share a few of the short versions that I like.

  1. “Classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and of conscience through myth.” (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility, p. 18)

  2. “In essence, then, classical education is the logo-centric quest for the ideals of wisdom and virtue.” This is the highly condensed version from the CiRCE website—the longer version is only about a page, and gives a great summary if you want to explore the idea a bit more fully than I can here.

  3. “At the outset, the speaker observed that classical education did not merely imply the study of the Greek and Roman languages; it was education based upon all that was best and noblest in literature and language.” This rough definition was given in the PNEU “notes” when it was discussed at one of their local meetings. I include this one just because of its connection to Mason, although it’s probably the weakest of the three. And yet it shows the essence!

Now what is common between these three? Let’s agree from the start that none of them can convey the full definition, just as it would be impossible to define Charlotte Mason in three lines of text. But we’ll work with what we have and see if we can’t make a little progress, at least. I see a couple of common ideas here. First, we are not talking about academics. I see “development of conscience” and “pursuit of virtue” and “noble.” In short, I see that we are talking about education being focused on helping a person become the best that he can be—elevating him to think and act virtuously and nobly. Hicks talks about “developing the conscience,” and Charlotte Mason has devoted chapters and chapters to this idea. Charlotte Mason identified the formation of character (not the salvation of the soul) as the purpose of education—because education is only the handmaid of religion.

A second commonality I see involves “language,” “logocentric,” and “literature.” Traditional, classical education is always conducted around the use of words, language, and literature. Charlotte Mason’s 13th principle says “attention responds naturally to knowledge in literary form.”

In short, the essence of a classical education is consistent with Charlotte Mason’s twenty principles. At the same time, there is a whole host of conflicting practices and various ideas about how to implement the ideals of a classical education throughout history. Even in Consider This, I made it clear that there was not perfect agreement on all points, among all thinkers.

One book I’ve read this year is Essays on Educational Reformers by Robert Quick, which is a look at the history of education from the Renascence era (his spelling) up to 1890—just before the beginning of the PNEU. Charlotte Mason included this book as recommended reading in her course on education for parents.

In the course of reading it, I came across a most interesting perspective about educational traditions:

“In all occupations there is of necessity a tradition. In the higher callings the tradition may be of several kinds. First there may be a tradition of noble thoughts and high ideals, which will be conveyed in the words of the greatest men who have been engaged in that calling, or have thought out the theory of it. Next there will be the tradition of the very best workers in it. And lastly there is the tradition of the common man who learns and passes on just the ordinary views of his class and the ordinary expedients for getting through ordinary work.”

I was quite interested in this idea that there are different kinds of tradition, and especially that the highest tradition involves noble thought, high ideals, and the theory of the subject at hand. I was struck by this because it is only at this highest level of tradition that I think Charlotte Mason belongs to the classical tradition. It’s why, in Consider This, I swept aside discussion of “what” classical educators were doing in favor of looking at “why” they were doing it. That’s where the heart of a philosophy lies, as Charlotte Mason made clear.

Classical education cannot really be reduced to a dictionary definition, but it is not unknowable. Among the many voices that have contributed to the Great Conversation, common truths which are part of the great Truth can be found again and again. Charlotte Mason considered it a mark of authenticity when a truth was told by many voices.

“We reverence Froebel. Many of his great thoughts we share; we cannot say borrow, because some, like the child’s relations to the universe, are at least as old as Plato; others belong to universal practice and experience, and this shows their psychological rightness.” (Home Education, p. 185)

All this long article is apropos of one single idea: Your answer to the question “Is Charlotte Mason classical?” will be based upon the way you choose to define classical education. I’ve written about this before. My advice is not merely to “choose your sources carefully,” because it is very likely that there are nuggets of truth to be found everywhere. My advice, if you want it, is rather to consider your understanding of classical education pliable. As you read more and learn more, its shape may change. As long as there is no single authority who can give us a concrete definition for classical education, we are all learners, refining our ideas as we grow.

Nothing could be more faithful both to the classical ideal and to Charlotte Mason than this concept. True understanding comes one way, and one way only.

“But, alas, and alas, for the cravings of lazy human nature––we may not have an educational pope; we must think out for ourselves, as well as work out, those things that belong to the perfect bringing-up of our children.” (Home Education, p. 185)

Notice what Mason is actually saying there—not just that “we have not yet” had an educational pope. She says, “we may not have.” Charlotte Mason is the authority of her personal philosophy of education, but she is not “the” authority on education, for all time. She eschewed the very idea that any one thinker could be that. Expecting everything to be given to us ex cathedra, so that we have nothing to do except color within the lines, as it were, is no true education. If we would be teachers, we must first be learners, and think things out for ourselves.

Copyright 2017 Karen Glass

We’ve never had an extended conversation on my site, here, but I welcome your comments. What are you reading and learning about just now?

6 thoughts on “Classical or not?

  1. So much food for thought here. Thank you for this well-written piece. The thing that struck me most is the idea that CM and Classical tradition are similar “only at the highest level of tradition”. I think this rings so true. Saying that the CM is a part of the larger picture doesn’t mean she shares all the practices and ideas that modern, medieval, or ancient classical schools did. She can be rather unique and interesting while remaining connected to the larger ideal of the “best and noblest”.

  2. I have seen this debate flare up on various forums, but I have never been able to get to the bottom of why people think CM is not classical as their arguments seem circular.

    But you have suggested one reason above: that Christians don’t want to be associated with “pagan” education. Do you think another reason is that some people are simply terrified of classical education? Daunted by Great Books? Yet like the sound of Charlotte Mason because, on a superficial level, it sounds softer and more like “natural learning” with nature study and sewing? Could it be that people still can’t shake off the John Dewey idea of education, and superimpose this onto CM? Anything else?

    1. I probably wouldn’t speculate about the fear. The number of reasons someone might dislike the idea of classical education is probably equal to the number of people who don’t, plus one. I can’t know. The arguments I articulated here are the ones I have seen recently.What I was trying to get at here is that you cannot state authoritatively that Charlotte Mason is (or is not) classical because an absolutely authoritative definition is impossible to articulate. What I have found is that this–this inexactness–is troublesome to some people, and causes them to veer away from all classical association. Charlotte Mason feels safe because her ideas are so well-developed they don’t really need to be refined. Or do they? She wasn’t comfortable with the idea of just doing things the same old way–“what works today will not work fifty years hence”–so that I fear we are in danger of allowing CM’s living work to become a dead thing. I have heard people speak enthusiastically about how separate CM’s ideas are–how unique and unconnected to other things. They want to put her teaching in a box and protect it from contamination, but I think that box is a coffin, and rottenness sets in from within. We need to teach “from a moving stream, not a stagnant pool.”

  3. Thank you for this! I have found myself in this conversation with other homeschoolers because my understanding of classical education does encompass a long tradition of educators and thinkers, which Charlotte Mason fits into for me. I love your last point, that we may have no pope of education, that we must be learner ourselves, and not just try to mimick or color in the lines. Very good thoughts!

  4. I really appreciate the thoughts expressed here. Until this week I was oblivious to this debate, and was caught off guard at the intensity of the conflict while attending a conference. For me the most telling element is the willingness for open civil dialogue vs. a hostile atmosphere which I ignorantly walked into but immediately felt. I look forward to re-reading Consider This as I continually to seek to better understand both classical education and Charlotte Mason.

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