Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education is a very full and comprehensive one. She did two separate things very well. First, she articulated a foundation of solid principles upon which to base education. Second, she developed extremely effective practical methods based upon those principles. There are many similarities between her ideas and the ideas of other educators, both ancient and modern. The reason for that is simply that her principles are universal principles—they represent truths about human nature and education that others have observed as well as herself.
But Charlotte Mason was not simply recycling old ideas without anything new to add to them. She brought original thought and insight to the question of education, although not without some initial trepidation. She did have some concerns about whether or not her contributions were entirely adequate. However, as her ideas were taken up by home and school teachers and implemented with many children, she had the pleasure of seeing how very well her ideas worked out in practice. After many decades, she had more confidence that the ideas she had shared were in fact of real importance, and she had no hesitation then in urging her work to be taken up by others.
Because she was a prolific writer, we have a valuable archive of her ideas in the six volumes of the Home Education series. Within the nearly 2000 pages of those volumes, you can find some commentary that appears contradictory on the surface of it.
We have chanced to light on unknown tracts in the region of educational thought. (Philosophy of Education, p. 8)
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)
An EDUCATIONAL REVOLUTION is before us to which every one of us is bound to put his hand. (School Education, p. 247)
In the same volume, Charlotte Mason writes about “certain fundamental ideas, long the property of the world, which we have embraced in our scheme of thought.” (School Education, p. 100, emphasis added)
What does this mean? How can Charlotte Mason’s ideas about education be “unknown tracts” if they are also “the wisdom of the past”, and how can they be a “revolution” if they are “long the property of the world?” Looking at these statements alone, we can only conclude that either Charlotte Mason was confused about whether her methods were old or new or else she was talking about different things when she made these seemingly opposite claims for her ideas. I suspect the latter is true, and while we may be confused by the apparent contradiction, Miss Mason knew exactly what she was saying.
Toward the end of her life, when Charlotte Mason was full of confidence about her methods and was urging the British public to consider adopting not only the methods but even the curriculum used in the schools run by the Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU), she presented her philosophy with the clear statement that “Some of it is new, much of it is old.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 27) In light of that assessment, it is easy to suppose that she had a clear understanding of which parts were new and which were old, and how much there was of each. However, she did not see a reason to share that specific information with the world. As she articulates her philosophy, she is not often explicit about which parts are new, and which parts are old, but there are hints. Sometimes she identifies old and new quite clearly:
We really have existing material in the philosophy of the ages and the science of the day to formulate an educational code whereby we may order the lives of our children and regulate our own. (Parents and Children, p. 119, emphasis added)
This statement makes it clear that her works contains a mixture of old and new. One might legitimately ask whether these questions matter at all, and while I was once content to accept her statements of “old” and “new” at face value, it is better to understand the relationship between them. So, for the past two years, as I’ve read through the volumes in the Home Education Series (for the umpteenth time), I’ve kept an eye on these ideas. If Charlotte Mason said that something was new, what was she talking about? If she referred to something as old (“long the property of the world”), what was she referring to?
Gradually, I began to see a pattern and came to understand what Miss Mason thought was new, and what she thought was part of the long tradition of educational thinking—that “philosophy of the ages” that is enough upon which to build an educational theory, especially when bolstered by “the science of the day.”
That’s what this five-part series is going to be about. We’ll take a look at the old, and at the new. If you’ve ever thought Charlotte Mason was “all new” or “all old,” I hope this discussion will provide a clearer understanding of the tradition that gives a framework to her ideas about education, as well as why she believed she was doing something revolutionary.