The White Post #3A—The Wisdom of the Past

Because Charlotte Mason described her principles using the words “some of it is new, much of it is old,” we will examine first the greater part—the “much,” which makes no claims for being new, but acknowledges that within the principles and philosophy there are ideas which have been around for a long time.

We know that Charlotte Mason read widely, not to say voraciously, on the subject of education. We have every reason to be assured that she kept abreast of all the educational thinking that was current during her lifetime. She was familiar not only with the educational trends in her own country, but also those in Germany, Scandinavia, and the United States, and probably others. However, she did not limit herself to modern thinkers. She would probably have considered that absurd. Rather, she reminded us 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, p. 160)

Only a partial list of the educational thinkers to whom Charlotte Mason refers becomes quite lengthy, and she was in the habit of reading even novels with an eye to the educational philosophy contained within. The list of authors she read is long, from Plato to Rousseau and from Comenius to Ruskin. Few of us can expect to get through as many books in our lifetime as she did.

Miss Mason links her ideas to educators of the past—over and over she points out similarities between her ideas and the ideas of Plato or Comenius or Milton. Her volumes are full of prima facia references, such as “Milton’s ideal of a ‘complete and generous education’ meets our occasions” (Philosophy of Education, p. 249) or:

I have in this volume attempted to show the principles and methods upon which education of this sort is being successfully carried out, and have added chapters which illustrate the history of a movement the aim of which is, in the phrase of Comenius,—‘All knowledge for all men.’ (Philosophy of Education, p. 20)

It is obvious that Miss Mason made a choice to share how her ideas were similar to the ideas of much older philosophers. So the question becomes, what parts of her ideas are traditional?

To begin with, Charlotte Mason considered the education she wanted to provide to children a “liberal education.” This is distinguished from vocational training or a merely utilitarian education. Education should provide children with more than just a working familiarity with the knowledge that they need for work or everyday life.

A human being does not fill his place in the universe without putting out tendrils of attachment in the directions proper to him. We must get rid of the notion that to learn the ‘three R’s’ or the Latin grammar well, a child should learn these and nothing else. (School Education, p. 209)

A liberal education is the education traditionally given to those with leisure for intellectual study. (For the full scope, you might want to read The Liberal Arts Tradition, and my discussion of it, which includes how similar Charlotte Masons ideas are.) It involves literature—books—as well as exposure to ideas in the realms of mathematics, the seven liberal arts, and the sciences. During Charlotte Mason’s lifetime there was a great deal of tension between the claims of a literary, liberal education (traditionally based on the classical languages) and a more “scientific” education, by which was meant a more technical, analytical approach to science. Charlotte Mason herself skipped past this dichotomy and embraced science as a liberal study, founded upon wonder.

But there is a region of apparent sterility in our intellectual life. Science says of literature, “I’ll none of it,” and science is the preoccupation of our age. Whatever we study must be divested to the bone, and the principle of life goes with the flesh we strip away: history expires in the process, poetry cannot come to birth, religion faints; we sit down to the dry bones of science and say, Here is knowledge, all the knowledge there is to know. “I think that is very wonderful,” a little girl wrote in an examination paper after trying to explain why a leaf is green. That little girl had found the principle—admiration, wonder—which makes science vital, and without wonder her highest value is, not spiritual, but utilitarian.
…But the fault is not in science—that mode of revelation which is granted to our generation, may we reverently say?—but in our presentation of it by means of facts and figures and demonstrations that mean no more to the general audience than the point demonstrated, never showing the wonder and magnificent reach of the law unfolded. (Philosophy of Education, p. 317-18)

So the first “traditional” aspect of a Charlotte Mason education is that it is a “liberal” education conducted primarily through literature. Her method includes many things which are not directly literary, but it is to this literary tradition, long the foundation of classical education, that Charlotte Mason urges educators. She did not want the excitement or usefulness of scientific pursuits to replace the literary tradition that made character formation its object.

The White Post #3—The Wisdom of the Past—will be continued tomorrow.


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