At the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, I was reading through A Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason for the umpteenth time. It was the first read-through since 2015, when I read it eight to ten times while creating Mind to Mind.
However, Charlotte Mason is just so broad, so deep, so far-reaching in her thinking that I learn something new each time I read a volume, and this time was no exception.
Several of the chapters in Book II of A Philosophy of Education were published earlier as stand-alone pamphlets. The chapter “The Scope of Continuation Schools” is one of these. It was written not long after the end of the Great War (WWI), when labor unrest began to be a serious problem in Great Britain. It is with the potential hope to alleviate that situation (through education) that Charlotte Mason writes.
Our upper and middle classes, professional and other, are singularly stable folk, and they are so, not because of their material but of their intellectual well-being; in this sense only they are most of them the ‘Haves’ as compared with the ‘Have-nots.’
The lower class—the laboring class—had been shut out from a humanities-based liberal education, and Miss Mason thought that made them vulnerable to bad ideas and bad logic.
The full mind passes on, but that which is empty seizes on any new notion with avidity, and is hardly to be blamed for doing so; a hungry mind takes what it can get.…I do not hesitate to say that the constantly recurring misery of our age, ‘Labour Unrest,’ is to be laid at the door, not of the working man, but of the nation which has not troubled itself to consider the natural hunger of mind and the manner of meat such hunger demands.
Looking at those eight hours per week that working young people could use for education, Miss Mason wanted to urge on the British public the right kind of education. Plenty of voices were in favor of a vocational kind of education—training that would help them in their work. Miss Mason had other ideas:
This particular gift of time must be dedicated to things of the mind if we believe that mind too requires its rations and that to use the mind is by no means the same thing as to feed it.
She goes on to describe the full education she has in mind, and if you are familiar with Miss Mason’s educational methods, there is nothing new in them: knowledge of God, man, and the universe so that the feet of each pupil might be set in a large room. She deplores the conclusion that was reached by some educators, that “all is not for all” or that the best education is “only for the elite.” Her experience had deepened her conviction that a liberal education should be for all, and she brings all her examples to bear. “Dull” children and “slum” children have been eagerly learning from books “with great success and very great delight,” and Miss Mason hoped that the programmes of the PNEU might become the foundation for the continuation schools—a liberal, literary education, rather than a utilitarian, vocational one.
Her plea is for the benefit of the young people, but for the nation as well:
Instability, unrest, among our wage-earners is the serious danger threatening our social life.
And it definitely was. Strikes and demonstrations often ended in violence. The Russian revolution which deposed the Tzar had just happened in 1917, and the threat in Britain was real. Miss Mason believed a liberal education (in English) for the working class was an antidote to this.
A careful analysis will bring us to the conclusion that not Latin and Greek, Games, Athletics, or environment, but the ‘humanities’ in English alone will bring forth the stability and efficiency which we desire to see in all classes of society.
All of this I had read and apprehended in previous readings. So far, nothing in this chapter was “new” for me. But then I came to the closing paragraph, which caught my attention in a way which it never had before:
Demos is king to-day, and who may dispute his right?
Demos, of course, is the Greek word for “the people”—the root of the word “democracy,” in fact. Up until the Great War, Britain had been ruled by the elite upper class, but that was in the process of changing. Power—and awful responsibility—was being grasped by a group of people who had never wielded it, and were perhaps ill-prepared to do so. Miss Mason had a solution that may be a bit startling:
But let us all give him [Demos, the people] the chance to become that philosopher-king who according to an ancient dream was to be the fit ruler, or rulers, of the people.
That is the sentence that arrested me. I will admit that I am more attuned to Plato than I used to be, and that is probably why I caught this reference as if I had never seen it before. Because this is a direct reference to Plato’s Republic. He imagined a society in which a special class would be educated to be philosophers, and with that education, they would be fit to be rulers—the “philosopher-kings” who wielded benevolent power from a position of knowledge and wisdom.
And that—Plato’s finest education for the ruling philosophers—is the kind of education Charlotte Mason wanted for everyone—for the working class, for the poor, for girls. It’s not about following his exact curriculum or method, but about following the principles. Rulers must have wisdom and virtue. Education that is worthy of the name is deeply moral and produces at least the possibility of noble conduct, the ability for self-control that might extend to ruling others.
Humanistic education, whether in English or Latin, affects conduct powerfully.
Demos is king today. This is probably as true today as when Charlotte Mason wrote it, though our unrest is of a different nature. If all knowledge is to be for all, it will take a mighty effort and many willing hands to see it done. I hope you’ll be a part of it. Read a book and talk about it. Teach your children while you can. Teach other children if you’re given the opportunity. In a culture which de-humanizes human beings on many levels, we need all the humanistic education we can get.
[All the quotes in this post are from A Philosophy of Education, Book II, Chapter 3, “The Scope of Continuation Schools.” It’s a stand-alone chapter which you can read in full here.]
Copyright Karen Glass 2018