Category Archives: Blog

In Vital Harmony book study

Hosted via the Beautiful Teaching website, I’m going to be offering another in-person online book study for In Vital Harmony. Over six weeks, we’ll meet once per week on Thursdays for live lecture and discussion. This time, there will also be some study notes available ahead of time and discussion space outside of class time to interact further with each other and the ideas we’ll be covering.

Class will run from September 22 to October 27 (with lectures available to view for one week if you have to miss a live class). I did a session of this a few months ago for the first time ever, and I’ve made several improvements. I got great feedback from the last group, and I’m hoping the experience will be better than ever this time around.

If you want to understand Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy in a comprehensive and cohesive way, this course will walk you through all the parts while keeping the larger picture in view. Join me! I look forward to seeing you there. (Space is limited for the sake of discussion, so register soon.)

Welcome to a new way to read Home Education

The last couple of years have been difficult for everyone, and I am no exception, which is why it has taken over two years to bring this project to (near) completion. I am pleased to say, at last, that this study version of Home Education, titled  A Thinking Love, is ready for purchase.

The first time I dove into Home Education (1994), I found it overwhelming. I wrestled my way through the dense paragraphs, gathering up valuable nuggets of wisdom, but also bewildered by much of the material. I read it several times before even the outlines of a big picture began to emerge, and I’d like to give busy homeschool mothers who want to read Charlotte Mason for themselves a head start. This is our work, and we want to do it well. Miss Mason told us:

That the mother may know what she is about, may come thoroughly furnished to her work, she should have something more than a hearsay acquaintance with the theory of education, and with those conditions of the child’s nature upon which such theory rests.

With this study version, I hope to help you achieve “more than a hearsay acquaintance” with the theory of education. I’ve divided the material into “readings” that can be finished within a busy mom’s schedule. Each reading is followed by study material that will help you digest and make the most of what you are reading. If I thought a little extra background would be useful, I’ve added that. I’ve kept a close eye on the principles, and refer you to them often, so you will see how integral they are from the very beginning. I’ve made a few practical suggestions to help you get started doing some of the things Charlotte Mason suggests.

But I don’t want to do your thinking for you, so most of my study questions are an invitation to ponder what Charlotte Mason has said and find your own conclusions. It is my sincere hope that   A Thinking Love: Studies from Charlotte Mason’s Home Education, will become a valuable tool for a new generation of homeschool mothers who want to become students of Charlotte Mason.

Because few readers get as far as reading Formation of Character, I’ve always wanted a version of Home Education that includes all eight of the original lectures. Their inclusion in Home Education clarifies many things, and gives us a glimpse of what Charlotte Mason hoped education would effect in the lives and hearts of our older children.

I hope you’ll find a friend or two to read with you—that’s what I did—and that reading this study edition of Home Education will be just the beginning, so that you go on to read the original version and other volumes beyond that.


Unpleasant but necessary business information:

  • Kindle version:  I’m working on it—it should be ready soon.
  • Canada:  I’m working on that, too. I must convince the powers that be that Home Education is in the public domain in Canada. That should be possible, shouldn’t it? Prayers welcome!
  • Links are Amazon affiliate links.


A sneak peak at a new book–coming very soon!

I know my blog has been quiet for a good while, and my website definitely needs the cobwebs brushed out of the corners and freshened up a bit, but regardless of all that, it’s finally time to share a project I’ve been talking about (vaguely) for a couple of years.

Just after I wrote In Vital Harmony, I began to reread Charlotte Mason’s Home Education. I was deeply immersed in the principles, and keenly aware of every turn of phrase that made reference to them. As I read through Home Education, I could see the wonderful connections and related parts that I had just written about, and I thought—wouldn’t it be wonderful to read Home Education with a study guide that would ensure the principles were highlighted?

MindToMindCoverFrontShadow After I abridged A Philosophy of Education as Mind to Mind, I had kind of promised myself not to abridge another volume. But a different idea emerged as I pondered highlighting the principles in Home Education. What if there were a study version? What if the material was broken up into manageable readings followed by study questions that called attention to the principles? What if you kept a copy of the principles at hand as you read and referred to them often?

And so A Thinking Love: Studies from Charlotte Mason’s Home Education was conceived.

It’s taken a long time to get to delivery, but here we finally are!

And there’s more!

Home Education began as a series of eight lectures delivered to parents. Eight. If you open any contemporary publication of Home Education, you will find only six. But the other two lectures are still out there. In 1905, Home Education was updated with a lot of material related to teaching lessons. In order to make room for the new material, lectures seven and eight were moved to a new volume—Formation of Character. Yes, that strange, eclectic volume that not many Charlotte Mason enthusiasts find time to read in the year of our Lord 2022. (But if you want to explore it further, I collaborated on a good overview of it in the Take the Fifth blog series a few years ago.)

With the removal of those two lectures, Home Education became a book about the education of children up to age nine, but that’s not the spirit of the original eight lectures. Charlotte Mason presented her principles, and then discussed their implications from birth to young adulthood. Those last two lectures are a treasure not to be missed (even if you never read the rest of Formation of Character), and they belong with the other six.

So I put them back in.

Charlotte Mason took them out in the first place to make room for new material, and I made room for them by leaving out other things–beef tea, wool clothing, coal fires, and Victorian-era science about the brain—and full-time nannies, as much as I could. The things you really want from Charlotte Mason—her educational principles, her practical advice, her wisdom and encouragement—that is all still here, presented in short readings that can be finished in as little as ten or fifteen minutes. Each reading is followed by three points for discussion, further thinking, or practical activity to help you get the most out of the material. I think it will work well for those who want to read and discuss in community. (If you do that, let me know how it goes.)

I’m so excited to finally be sharing this project with the world, and I’ll be letting you know that the book is available (paperback and Kindle) very, very soon.

A new season for me!

This is the first time I’ve posted in a long, long time. So much has happened in  my personal life that there just hasn’t been time and energy for the educational philosophy side of things, but now that things are settling down a bit, that’s going to change. This post is just me, waving my hand, and saying “I’m still here.”

For 25 years, my family lived and served in Krakow, Poland. My children were ages 6, 3, and newborn when we moved there, and my youngest was born there in 2004. They grew up bi-lingual and bi-cultural, and after graduating from homeschool, moved on to other things that led them back to the United States. Now, it’s our turn. The year 2020 was as difficult for us in Poland as it was for everyone, everywhere, and while it was not the only reason we came to the decision to relocate back to the US, it was one among many factors. Mid-year 2021, we said goodbye to Poland (and just typing that makes tears rise to my eyes) and moved to Indiana. Since then, we’ve been settling in and adjusting to living in the US. For my youngest, age 17, this is the first time she has ever lived here.

Looking to the future, I’ll be more available for speaking engagements (I already have a couple lined up for 2022—more on those later), and I have a few book projects that have been simmering during this transition that are about to come to the boil (more on those pretty soon).

But apart from just quietly saying, “I’m still here,” this post is going to be a bit seasonal. As part of our trans-continental move, we had to downsize and declutter pretty strenuously. But you don’t leave 25 years of living behind altogether, and I want to share one of the special things that now has a new home in the United States.

Every year in Krakow, there is a folk-art fair on the main square in August. It was always one of my very favorite events of the year, and so many years I ago that I don’t remember when, I bought this little nativity. It was hand-crafted by a clay artisan, and I really liked the all-in-one little scene, sort of rustic and also reverent (which I think a nativity should be).

I visited the folk art fair every year, and the next year I began adding free-standing figures (just one or two each year) to stand around my little scene. The artist made wise men, and shepherds.

One of his specialties was incredibly cute little animals.He made all kinds of creatures–badgers, lizards, horses, turtles–but also some animals that fit my nativity. Over the years, I bought a donkey, and camels, and sheep.

Lots of sheep.





At some point, he switched from working with the red clay and began using white clay, and painting more detail on faces.



I added some  angels to my collection.

And more sheep.






As my collection grew, so did his popularity, and it began to be a little harder to score the limited figures he made each year. One year, instead of a figure, I added a bread basket and a water jug. The little baby is also the bread of life and the living water, so I usually place them near the manger.

The very last year I was able to buy a piece—and I didn’t know it would be my last—I bought this little fence with the birds on it, happy to welcome the infant Jesus.

It’s an eclectic collection—one of a kind— accumulated over twenty years or more. Each of my pieces bears the stamp of the artist, and a few years ago, I took a picture in December of all the pieces I had collected across the years, and saved it until the following August to show the artist and his wife—they were really surprised about it. (And a little sad that they were sold out of the kings I was hoping to add that year.)

If I had no other Christmas—no decorations, no presents, no carols, no tree—but I had this, it would be all I would need to celebrate. Jesus was the best gift ever given, and this particular reminder of that gift encompasses a lifetime of living abroad, raising my kids (who used to argue over who would get this when I’m gone, but I’m not going anywhere just now), celebrating Christmas in lean times and in prosperous times, and always trying to keep our holiday focus on Him.

Last Christmas, which I knew would be my last in Poland, I had this out, and I wrapped every piece carefully for the long journey. As I unwrapped them this year for their first Christmas in the United States, I thought about the journey they had made, and I had made. The shepherds ran in from the field outside Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph had traveled from Nazareth. The wise men made a long, long journey, and the little one made the longest journey of all. We’re all travelers together, but here we are together. Welcome home.

Welcome, welcome Emmanuel.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.


Merry Christmas, everyone. You’ll be hearing more from me soon!

A Muddy Principle Made Clearer

I think Charlotte Mason hid an alternate version of one of her principles in Home Education—and it’s that tricky one!

Have you ever been taken aback by Charlotte Mason’s second principle? You know, the one that says, “Children are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil?” I have long lamented the unfortunate wording that distracts readers into thinking it is a theological declaration, because that is not what Charlotte Mason was talking about. As much as twenty years ago, I tried to explain that this principle is about formation of a child’s character, and the responsibility of a parent (and to a lesser extent, teachers) to labor actively in that cause.

When I wrote In Vital Harmony , I was able to go into even greater depth, and reworded the second principle as an addendum to the first principle in this way: “Children are born persons whose character must be nurtured.”

I’ve been doing a very close read of Home Education lately, and I ran across a sentence that I think really sheds some light on this principle. If the second principle has been problematic for you, I suggest penciling this in place of what is there in your own copy.

The child is born, doubtless, with the tendencies which should shape his future; but every tendency has its branch roads, its good or evil outcome; and to put the child on the right track for the fulfillment of the possibilities inherent in him, is the vocation of the parent.

You can see all the familiar words that appear in the principle—born, possibilities, good, evil—but in this sentence, Charlotte Mason has made her purpose for saying these things much plainer. Yes, the child is born with tendencies, and yes, even a “good” tendency may come to an evil conclusion. Every tendency has its branch roads!  But the child need not be a slave to those tendencies if his parents recognize their “vocation”—Charlotte Mason means it is a duty inherent in parenthood—to “put the child on the right track.” You’ll even find, if you look at the context on page 109 in Home Education, that there is a direct reference to counteracting “heredity” (as I discussed in the article linked above).

From this picture we get that phrase “laying down the rails,” which refers to the formation of habits, both mental and moral, that shape a child’s inborn nature into character.

You see there is no reference here to sin, or to a child’s eternal state. These ideas about tendencies are mentioned in the principles to remind parents of their own duty and calling. That’s why the second principle is there in the first place. I suppose we all wish Charlotte Mason had worded it better, but if you write this sentence out on a sticky note and paste it into your principles, it will remind you.

And to end on a completely different note—

I have been reading and studying Charlotte Mason’s volumes for over twenty years. I never read a volume without discovering something new or making a new connection, as I did here. No matter how well you know this philosophy, it will repay you to pick up a volume you’ve read before—maybe even more than once—and read it again. I was in the middle of Parents and Children when I got distracted and went back to Home Education, so I guess I’ll be getting back to that next.


Would Charlotte ask us to “say Shibboleth?”


Read, or listen!


Do you know what a shibboleth is? Can you say the word?

YouTube player

There was a time and a place where it might have meant the difference between life and death. Every language does not contain every sound, and if you don’t learn to make some sounds as a child, it can be difficult to acquire them later. I know Americans who can’t roll their Rs, and where I live, there is no “th” sound. These differences can give you away. If there were a war, and you captured someone, but weren’t quite sure if they belonged to the enemy side or not, you could ask them to say a test word containing the tricky sound. There is a pretty good chance they wouldn’t get it out quite correctly, and then you’d know. Friend—or foe. Shibboleth was a matter of life or death, as you can read in Judges chapter 12:4-6:

Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan.

They spoke the same language, but the Ephraimites had an accent, and they just couldn’t get that “sh” sound out right. It gave them away every time. If you can’t quite get the sound of Shibboleth correct, you don’t have to worry. No one is going to slay you in the passages of Jordan today.


The word shibboleth entered the English language. No one literally has to pronounce “shibboleth,” but one may be expected to adhere to a custom or profess an opinion. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a shibboleth is “a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning.”

The way it works is not that different from what happened in Judges. The adherents of a party, sect, or belief use their shibboleth as a benchmark. It’s not that you have to speak a particular word, but you do have to toe the party line. It’s a test. Do you agree? If you do, they let you in to the gang. If you don’t proclaim the shibboleth properly, out you go. You won’t be killed, but you aren’t welcome.

You may be wondering, “What on earth does this have to do with education or Charlotte Mason?” I’m glad you asked.

Charlotte Mason was not a fan of shibboleths, and I am understating the case. Her associate, Elsie Kitching, used the word “dread” to describe her feelings about them. What was she so afraid of? The Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU) had come into being because of her educational ideas, expressed in a series of lectures that were published as Home Education. But Charlotte Mason considered that society a living, vital source of continued thought and growth. She also knew that the exact needs of parents in one place might not be the same as the exact needs of parents elsewhere. It was important to her that the various branches of the PNEU be allowed to meet and discuss topics that would foster thought and action based upon ideas. It was not a requirement that everyone agree about everything, and the various articles that appeared in The Parents’ Review made that clear. And it was fine with Charlotte Mason. When she knew there was a difference of opinion, as the editor, she would add a note to the end of an article, “Discussion is invited.” She was willing to hear various points of view, and to allow others to hear them as well.

The enthusiasm and vitality of the P.N.E.U. branches gave Charlotte the greatest encouragement. She valued their local independence and initiative. (The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondeley, p. 31)

We read that “each local branch was left free to organize itself” and “a broad unifying basis of thought supported the whole union.” (SOCM, p. 42)

We aren’t left in doubt about what that unifying basis was, either.

Charlotte Mason describes the basis of thought behind the union as a tentative effort in education “having more or less the characteristic of a philosophy; notably having a central idea, a body of thought with various members working in vital harmony.” (SOCM, p. 42) And yes, that’s why I borrowed the phrase as the title of my most recent book.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what Charlotte Mason’s attitude might be toward the various groups that have grown up over the last twenty-odd years that put her name to their work. I have been a part of such groups—for example, the curriculum project that is AmblesideOnline. If a group adheres to the central body of thought, do you think she’d mind if they add “Charlotte Mason” to their name?

One cannot say for sure, although she made a special effort to avoid having the work of the PNEU associated with any particular names (there were members who wanted to say, for example, that the PNEU was following the thought of Froebel or Pestalozzi). She didn’t refuse to have their names attached to the PNEU because she necessarily disagreed with them. Her concern was to avoid the hindrances associated with a name, because any single person’s teaching would limit their scope of endeavors. She resisted attaching any name to the PNEU, including her own, and she got her way. Charlotte Mason reiterated that at the very founding of the union:

…care was taken to avoid limitations which would hinder the advance of science; especially that most serious of all hindrances, the docketing [of] the union with any given name or names. (SOCM, p. 53)

And she went on to tell us why:

The moment [education] frames a stereotyped creed represented by any given name or names of the past or present, she becomes formal and mechanical rather than spontaneous and living. The effort to define or limit in matters too broad and deep to be expressed in a definition or represented by a name is the history of all division whether in religion or education. (SOCM, p. 54, emphasis added)

If you have read even a little of Charlotte Mason’s own writing, you have probably encountered the idea that formal, mechanical systems were to be abhorred. One of her principles is that “education is a life,” and life is hindered and cramped by systems. The use of her own name is no safeguard against allowing her ideas to be confined to something “formal and mechanical.” The very act of putting a given name to educational ideas limits it to a “stereotyped creed.” There is no room for growth, and the life of the ideas may be snuffed out by confinement.

If you consider how Charlotte Mason felt about systems, can you begin to comprehend why she might have dreaded shibboleths? She didn’t like the idea of limiting education too narrowly, and she didn’t like division into camps. The central body of thought was vital, but the implementation of it could take various forms. You have probably seen it yourself. Do you know Charlotte Mason homeschoolers who use a different curriculum than you, or who  are following a different timetable, or who incorporate a different framework for history? Do you think those differences would have mattered to Charlotte Mason if the unifying principles were adhered to? Would she have wanted the point of difference to be a shibboleth that separated the sheep from the goats, as it were? What if there aren’t any sheep and goats? Children are born persons.

Charlotte Mason knew that the principles she expressed were so fundamentally true that they could accommodate themselves to any situation. When questions arose, “she always took any debated point back to the principle at issue, and made us decide whether or not a certain practice could bear the final test of the principle.” (From a Parent’s Review article by Elsie Kitching) She didn’t imagine for a moment that the precise way the PNEU did things would remain unaltered forever (and it didn’t). The PNEU was built upon the faith that “education is the science of relations,” and for that reason,

This faith can shed a searchlight beam on the educational needs and practices of a new age. It can inspire new efforts to meet changing conditions of society.” (SOCM, p. 199)

“New efforts” were okay with the PNEU. There has been an explosion of new curricula, new bloggers, new podcasts in the past few years, all professing to follow Charlotte Mason. This is no bad thing, and Charlotte Mason was more than happy for the various members of the PNEU to share their knowledge about nature, music, history, or anything that would contribute to the knowledge of everyone else in the movement. Provided the principles are kept in mind, various implementations of those principles can be illuminating for us all. If you’re not sure whether a particular practice is in line with the principles, it’s only by delving into the principles that you will be able to know. This safeguards us from faulty methods while still allowing plenty of room for variation.

Every lesson needs a special giving and the method is based upon broad principles which leave the teacher all the exercise of her own ingenuity. (In Memoriam, PNEU publication)

But there is a pitfall out there that Charlotte Mason dreaded, and any student of Charlotte Mason’s runs the risk of falling in. The easiest way to avoid falling into a pit is for someone to tell you exactly where it is, so you can avoid it, and that is what I’m proposing to do here. The pitfall Charlotte Mason dreaded was that any individual part of the PNEU teaching and practice would become a shibboleth. In In Memoriam, her very close associate Elsie Kitching wrote:

Miss Mason always dreaded lest the P.N.E.U. should suffer by the repetition of the shibboleths. (In Memoriam, p. 122)

Charlotte Mason did not want some acid test of authenticity to be applied to the educational philosophy that she considered a living, growing, life-giving force. Her primary concern was for the principles, and she did not ask her colleagues to “say shibboleth” or be cast from favor. On the contrary, she urged her former students to keep the principles fresh in their minds in their educational endeavors.

Your definite and distinct code of educational principles must be kept fresh in your minds by reading and re-reading your books and pamphlets and reports. (from a letter reprinted in L’Umile Pianta)

It was the principles (especially their presentation of education as a whole), and not any particular practice that she wanted to protect.

Miss Kitching even warned explicitly,

It is well to consider the position she gives to Attention in mental training lest the method of narration should become a shibboleth whereas it is only the outward and audible sign of that inward and spiritual grace, the power of attention, by which the mind feeds upon the food convenient for it. (In Memoriam, p. 122)

Now, narration is such a fundamental part of a Charlotte Mason education—it is even included in the principles—that one cannot imagine a “Charlotte Mason” education without narration. I’m tempted to make a shibboleth of it, myself. And yet even something so foundational should not be allowed to become a shibboleth. Why? Well, Charlotte Mason never told us to give children a “Charlotte Mason” education (remember how she felt about names?) She said she wanted to offer children a “liberal education.” Narration is only the “outward and audible sign” of an “inward and spiritual grace.” Narration is an important and valuable tool, but it is the work going on in the mind and heart of the child that is what really matters, and if that is occurring, however it manifests itself, we should be satisfied. I’m not suggesting you give up narration, and neither is Miss Kitching, nor would have Miss Mason. What she is saying is—don’t make a shibboleth of it. Don’t make it a yardstick by which you measure how authentic someone’s practice of Charlotte Mason’s principles is. Above all—don’t adhere to the practices by rote but lose the more vital reasons that underpin them. “Narration” may take many forms.

And if we can’t make a shibboleth of narration, what of the rest of it? The timetables, the three terms, the precise number of pictures from an artist for picture study, the number of foreign languages a child learns, what history to begin with, how many minutes your lesson is, how many pages you read, how reading is taught, what media you use in your nature notebook, what handicraft you choose, or whether you include music with your Swedish Drill? How about tea time, sol-fa, or habit-training? Is it okay to make a shibboleth of any of those? What do you think? What do you think Charlotte Mason would have said? She actually told us, “we must not make a fetish of habit.” (Home Education, p. 192) If we can’t make shibboleths (or fetishes) of individual “Charlotte Mason” things, where should our focus be?

I’m not suggesting we toss out any part of what we think of as a “Charlotte Mason” education. I think you should try your hand at as many of the things she recommended as possible. I especially think you should implement narration to the fullest extent possible. But I also think that we should take a leaf from Miss Mason’s book, and dread making a shibboleth of any of these things, of casting out or castigating those who don’t do things precisely as we do them, or even precisely as Miss Mason set forth for the PNEU to do them. Sometimes her insistence on adherence to a given practice was for the sake of consistency within the school—she had to answer to parents and inspectors—not because a principle was at stake.

Charlotte Mason wrote,

We sometimes err, I think, in taking a part for the whole and part of a part for the whole of that part. (SOCM, p. 261)

When we make a shibboleth of anything, we are hyper-focusing on a part to the detriment of the greater whole. In the same way that Jesus distilled the entire Old Testament law into the all-encompassing principles that we should love God and love our neighbor, Charlotte Mason distilled her whole philosophy into a few essential principles. Her primary concern was the essential personhood of children, and the other principle she was passionate about was “education is the science of relations,” which she called a universal principle. She laid no personal claim on those principles and I suspect that is why she did not attach her name to them.

I have not made this body of educational thought any more than Columbus made America. But I think it has been given me…to recognize that education is the science of relations, to perceive certain working theories of the conduct of the will and of the reason, to exact due reverence for the personality of the child,…and some few other matters which go to make up a living, pulsing body of educational thought which I find to be a wonderful power in the lives of those who apprehend it. (SOCM, p 108, emphasis added)

It was at about the time she wrote this that she also wrote the synopsis of her thinking which we call her twenty principles. Although there are twenty, you see the two—relations and personhood—that summarize the rest (because of course the conduct of will and reason are an aspect of that personhood). These principles are living and exert a powerful influence on those who “apprehend it.” For Charlotte Mason, Education is the science of relations is the guiding principle that leads to the various practices.

Let it be our negative purpose to discourage in every way we can the educational faddist, that is, the person who accepts a one-sided notion in place of a universal idea as his educational guide. Our positive purpose is to present, in season and out of season, one such universal idea: that is, that education is the science of relations. (SOCM, p. 271)

You can’t really make a shibboleth out of a universal idea.

As Charlotte Mason prepared for an educational conference as early as 1898, she wrote that she wanted the new union (PNEU) to…

…grasp the view of education as a whole. . . . On this occasion I think we need not trouble ourselves about how to teach children this or that but rather get ourselves fired with the notion of the manifold intimacies with which we might enrich the lives of our children as occasion offers. (SOCM, p. 104-05)

Eventually, you will want to address “how to teach children this or that,” but first you must grasp education as a whole, through the consideration of a few—just a very few—fundamental principles. (That’s what In Vital Harmony is all about.) When you do that, the risk of setting up an idol or a shibboleth grows much, much smaller. Educational principles are a firmer foundation than the “repetition of the shibboleths.” When we understand them, we won’t feel free to randomly do anything we please, but can consider our options in light of sound natural laws of education. After Charlotte Mason’s death, Miss Kitching tried to carry things on in the same spirit, and she said, “we need to take a bird’s-eye view of the whole ground covered by any problem, lest we should not see the wood for the trees.” (From a Parent’s Review article ) “Education as a whole” is too important to miss, to be waylaid by shibboleths.

As you read and study Charlotte Mason’s own writings (and I hope you will), and as you learn and grow by using her educational methods, you will possibly encounter Charlotte Mason teachers who have fallen into this error. They may point at what you are doing and declare it invalid or “not CM” because it doesn’t line up with their chosen shibboleth.  May I be forgiven, for I have been guilty, too. That’s how I know how easy it is fall into this error. The antidote is to read and read what Charlotte Mason actually said. Fear not. If what you are doing is consistent with the principles, that’s what really matters. Charlotte Mason herself said, “there is no last word to be said upon education,” (School Education, p. 46) and was open to new thinking, new ideas, new books. If Charlotte Mason didn’t need shibboleths, why do we?

Please don’t let any shibboleth deter you or discourage you. Charlotte Mason would not have laid that burden on you. She valued the original thinking of the various PNEU branches and of her student-teachers who went out into the world. She knew they would continue learning and thinking and growing, and her concern was that they would remember the principles and apply them “as occasion offers,” not that they would never do anything differently. Sometimes her students were perplexed by her refusal to give them hard and fast rules to follow.

If someone confronts you with a shibboleth, maneuver your way back to the principles. Have the courage of your convictions, but there is no need to feel obliged to sweep the scales from another educator’s eyes. Charlotte Mason may have dreaded the encroachment of shibboleths, but she was content to let ideas speak for themselves without contention.

Attack nothing. Be indignant at nothing. When people’s minds are put on the defensive, they have no room to receive new ideas. (SOCM, p. 106)

Don’t stumble at a shibboleth, but don’t worry about trying to slay it either. If you do, it may be like the many-headed hydra and just grow stronger. The shibboleths are always with us, but we can take a leaf from Charlotte Mason’s book and eschew them. One of her close colleagues said, “she never thought her way was the way but only a way” (In Memoriam). That kind of generous, open thinking will keep you from raising divisive shibboleths of your own as well as avoiding the pitfalls of anyone else’s. If Charlotte Mason wouldn’t ask us to “say shibboleth” by way of test, why would we do that, either? It is much more profitable to allow the unifying principles to bind us together as we seek to teach our children and to learn and grow ourselves.

Discussion is invited!

N.B. Some links are affiliate links.

N.B. The Story of Charlotte Mason is out of print and difficult to obtain for a reasonable price.

N.B. But In Memoriam is online, and can be read freely as well as purchased at the link above.

I get to speak at a conference, and you’re invited!

This is kind of funny after I’ve been writing about the PNEU conference I learned about at the Armitt. I want to invite you to a conference I’ll be joining. I’ve had the privilege of speaking at a few different Charlotte Mason events—some larger, some smaller. I love the chance to connect with educators who are as interested in learning and exploring as I am, pretty much like those young ladies from a hundred years ago. I’ve had one speaking engagement cancelled in 2020 so far, and others may be in jeopardy. Maybe there’s a silver lining? I was invited to speak at an online event last year, but my summer was busy with ministry and preparing for camp and travel. I had to refuse because there just wasn’t room in my schedule. So, they invited me to speak again this year, and like everyone else, I have a pretty empty calendar, and I stay home most of the time, so yes! I can do that! And I’d love to see you there.

It’s the Charlotte Mason Inspired Online Homeschool Conference. This is an online conference to begin with, so they haven’t had to cancel or postpone! It’s five whole days of speakers on a wide range of Charlotte Mason topics. I don’t know all of them, but I am familiar with several, and it’s good company. I hope you’ll consider joining us. You can sign up here.  (Full disclosure—that’s an affiliate link.)

I’ll be speaking about “A Few Broad Essential Principles,” and if you’ve dipped into In Vital Harmony, you can probably guess the principles I have in mind. However, I’ll also be discussing the way that the core principles affect the various parts of a Charlotte Mason Education. If you’ve been a little glum because summer events, conventions, and conferences have been cancelled or postponed, this might be just the ticket to brighten things up a bit. It’s a lot of content for a great price, and attendees will receive a virtual swag bag of “cool stuff” and be eligible for all kinds of great giveaways. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you can join me.

Nuggets from the Armitt #4

When I started this little series, my only thought was to share some of the bits of things I encountered while fossicking in the beautiful Armitt Library. I didn’t intend to hone in on a single  conference, but as it happens, that how it turned out. Today’s post, once again, grew out of something that occurred at the 1909 (got the date!—notice the “Gibson Girl” silhouettes) conference at Ambleside. A few very specific details—like the number of attendees—are included here, but mostly it is one person’s impression. One of the attendees wrote this “narration” of the week in verse form, and it was published in the L’Umile Pianta for everyone to enjoy, along with the illustration. Definitely eye-catching! (Especially since most pages are blocks of solid text.)  First, I’ll share the poem, and then I’ll share my thoughts.

“At Ambleside in Westmorland, Scale How all tranquil lay,
When a murmur like a tidal wave came booming from far away,
Bright young students by the score, we have sighted fifty-four;
They are swarming up the drive, brains alert and minds alive.
Cram the class room full of chairs—some must sit upon the floor.

Then spake Miss Parish gently, “I know you will forgive me
If I say a word in season our exuberance to still.
We are not rowdy boys that we should make a noise—
To let no Amblesider have a reason to deride her
Is the student’s obvious duty, and she can, she ought, she will!”

A student then inquired if it was to be desired
That a pupil should be punished who objected to obey.
But all decided promptly that to punish was a weakness—
To keep a child from sinning you should have her from the beginning,
When others had not had a chance to spoil her well before.
—Here another spoke with meekness

“But I have from the beginning, tried to keep my child from sinning
And I cannot find a way to teach her to obey.”
Then spoke Miss Kitching (W.) “The child would never trouble you
Had you had her as a baby ere her mother had a chance,
But the lady interrupted with a most pathetic glance:
“But I am the infant’s mother. I have trained her, and no other!”
Here the students feelings carried them away.

And the days flew by, as they used to fly, in the dear old time of yore,
And never a moment the fervour waned, of the blissful fifty-four.
Day after day the whole week through, they came to discuss and to hear.
Day after day, the business done, they turned their thoughts to good cheer.

And some they walked, and some they talked until they could talk no more,
In all our annals was ever a conference like this in the world before?
And the days flew by, and the week was done, did ever week go so fast?
but the bountiful inspiration it brought is a thing that is going to last;
And far away now from dear Scale How, our hearts are rooted there still,
And we vow (if allowed) to return in a crowd—a vow which we mean to fulfil.” —L.M.G.

First of all, yes, I know it’s not great poetry. This was a generation brought up to immortalize things in verse, and so they did. It’s the spiritual equivalent of an Instagram post or a Tweet—a snapshot that shares one person’s thoughts for everyone to enjoy (including us, now!).

What got my attention the first time I read this was the discussion about teaching children to obey. Just think about it. All these young women (some of them now married with children of their own, but not all) had trained at Ambleside under the direct tutelage of a living Charlotte Mason. When the question of obedience came up, their answers were textbook—habit training from the beginning is the key. But this young mother had had the same teaching as the rest and found it difficult to implement with her own young child. The governesses and teachers could shake their heads and lament, “If only we could train the children from the beginning before their mothers spoil them!” But this honest young mother acknowledged that it was easier said than done! “But I am the infant’s mother! I have trained her, and no other.” My only point being—don’t be too hard on yourself. This young mother was Charlotte Mason trained before ever she had her first child, and she wasn’t able to achieve perfect results. They are likely beyond our reach, and we can only do the best we can. Notice how it caused an uproar, but no one seemed to have any practical advice to offer after that?

When I went back over this poem to prepare for this post, a different line caught my attention, and I think this one is my favorite. “They are swarming up the drive, brains alert and minds alive.” I have seen this with my own eyes, and it is a beautiful thing. It has been my privilege to attend and to speak at a number of difference Charlotte Mason conferences or gatherings, and “brains alert and minds alive” is exactly what I have met at every single one of them. “Was there ever a conference like this in the world before?” Not then, perhaps, but now there is an abundance and an embarrassment of riches. If you’ve ever had the privilege of attending a conference of any size (they numbered 54!), I think you will probably agree. It is a delight to meet and share with fellow Charlotte Mason educators. Notice how eager they were to repeat the experience!

“The bountiful inspiration it brought is a thing that is going to last.” It’s true! But the inspiration has to come day by day, just as we must breathe new air each day. Charlotte Mason herself found that she needed to read and reread and keep her thoughts focused on the big picture. From a letter she wrote to the students after one conference:

A man does not inspire once in a lifetime or once in a day. He keeps himself alive by regular acts of inspiration. You have come here now, no doubt, for a little of the old mountain air, for a revival of the old impressions and aspirations. But we must draw from our sources at all times. Your definite and distinct code of educational principles must be kept fresh in your minds by reading and re-reading your books and pamphlets and reports. It really is not an easy thing to keep the whole in mind. I often forget myself, and have to go through a laborious course of thought to find why it is best to do this rather than the other.

Did you catch that? Charlotte Mason said, “I often forget myself!” Small wonder that we do the same. I was fascinated to read Charlotte Mason’s declaration: “Your definite and distinct code of educational principles must be kept fresh in your minds.” It doesn’t do to read once and then go on. We really do need to keep those principles in mind, as a whole, as best we can. It’s one reason I went outside my comfort zone and created a visual for the principles that we can keep nearby for inspiration! Brains alert and minds alive—never stop learning.

While I could keep going with this series, this post marks fourteen weeks in a row in which I have posted something new to this blog, which is probably some kind of record (for me). I’m going to stop here and devote some time to other projects, including the newsletter I meant to start in January! I have future blog series planned, so I’ll be back when I’ve got something to share. If you haven’t already signed up for my newsletter, please do! You’ll get original content, early news of upcoming projects, and a free printable of the twenty principles in a short form, which makes a handy reference bookmark for In Vital Harmony or any other Charlotte Mason book you might be reading.

(Please click “email” to give me permission to send you the newsletter, in compliance with GDPR.)


* indicates required


Please select all the ways you would like to hear from Author:

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please visit our website.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp’s privacy practices here.


As I prepared for this series,  I visited the Armitt website and discovered that the enforced closure is hurting them very much. They rely on visitor ticket sales to fund the museum, and during the closure, they have nothing except any donations they might receive. My goal with this series was merely to offer some light-hearted and interesting tidbits I gleaned during my visits, but I’m going to add here that if you enjoy this series and the virtual visit to the Armitt, please consider sending them a small donation—their link will explain how you can do that.

Nuggets from the Armitt #3

Have you ever disagreed with a fellow Charlotte Mason educator? Have you ever had a lively discussion on some point of contention? Have you held your own opinion about something while others proffered different opinions?

Welcome to the PNEU. During the same conference I mentioned in the last post, a group of at least seven (unmarried!) teachers got together and had a tussle over the best way for parents (!) to deal with questionable reading material for their children. I have seen this exact discussion reenacted (by actual parents) more times than I can remember in email groups, forums, and social media sites. For some reason, this particular discussion was immortalized by publication in one of the PNEU periodicals. Someone  was keeping the minutes in good old-fashioned form, and it was printed that way. I’ve reproduced it for you here (in black) and added a few imaginative touches (in blue) because these were real folks, and as I said, I’ve heard this discussion before. I’ve given it a title:

Miss Allen Disagreed

Discussion centred on Miss Pennethorne’s views with regard to books read by children.

[Miss Pennethorne apparently expressed the opinion that parents should not be too quick to confiscate a book from a child, even if the book might contain something “undesirable.”]

Miss Allen disagreed with Miss Pennethorne’s opinion that a child reading an undesirable book should not be disturbed, or the book taken away directly. Evil might be done in a few minutes. [Miss Allen was appalled! “If you don’t snatch the book away immediately, who knows what the kid might see? Better not to take chances.”]

Miss Hertzel said that the treatment should depend on the temperment of the child, as the very fact of calling attention to the evil might open their eyes to it. [Miss Hertzel—a little savvier than most—tried to diffuse the heat a bit by pointing out that all children are different. Some of them might not really notice anything amiss, but if the book were confiscated, it might create a sort of “Aha!” moment and they’d realize more was going on than they’d thought.]

Miss Wilkinson asked if the child could not be prevented from ever obtaining an undesirable book. [Miss Wilkinson pointed out, with a bit of self-righteous satisfaction, that careful parents could probably make sure that children never had a chance to even start reading an undesirable book. “Why would they have any books like that where children could get them, hmmm?”]

Miss Lawrence suggested that the children should always submit their books to the scrutiny of their parents before reading them. [“Mothers and Fathers should just have a rule. They must make it a rule that their children always have to ask them before they read anything.” That’ll fix it.]

Miss Drury raised the question, as parallel with this, of how to keep children from harm in newspaper reading. [“You know these kids have newspapers delivered to their houses every day, and their parents sit there reading them during breakfast. How is anyone supposed to keep children from reading suggestive headlines two inches tall?”]

Miss Allen then gave the idea of teaching children to respect their own minds, and of their own accord to stop reading anything that “soiled their minds.” [Miss Allen—so obviously a “Miss” and not a parent—thought children might be mature enough to just stop reading anything that would “soil their mind.” Although they don’t seem to mind soiling their hands, shoes, and clothes, she thought they could just police themselves and stop reading if they encountered anything that would cause a smudge on their pristine thoughts. Everyone in the room looked at her as if she were out of her mind.]

Miss R. Williams thought it a better plan for children to ask an elder whether a book would prove interesting, rather than raise the question of “may” or “may not.” [Miss Williams was a little worried that anything forbidden would just seem more desirable because of that, so she thought the whole question of getting permission to read something could just be circumvented by telling children they shouldn’t read anything without first getting an adult perspective on whether or not it would be interesting for them. She could see the danger of “forbidden fruit,” but it seems a bit naive to think that children are going to rely on adults to tell them what might be interesting. They’d rather find out for themselves.]

Resolution was moved by Miss Wilkinson and amended by Miss Allen [!] that:

“Parents or those in authority should, as far as possible, exercise supervision over the books allowed to fall into children’s hands, but there should be no restriction to their power of taking away at once an undesirable book.”

[Wasn’t that nice of these conscientious teachers? They aren’t going to place limitations on parents about how they should deal with a child who happens to be reading an undesirable book, although they can’t resist including a suggestion that parents should exercise a little gumption and supervise what “falls into” a child’s hands]

The amended resolution was seconded by Miss Lawrence, and carried unanimously.

[And I’m sure they all felt much better with that accomplished. But feelings were still running a bit high, so…]

Further discussion followed. [Somewhat loudly.]

Miss Lawrence objected to Miss Pennethorne’s proposal to supply books of horrors to children. Imaginary horrors in adventure stories she considered injurious to children; but if horrors are necessary, let them be of the sufferings of real people. [Miss Lawrence has a horror of horrors. Let’s face it, she’s squeamish, and because she is, she doesn’t want poor, innocent children to read about imaginary horrors like fire-breathing dragons who destroy villages or giants who threaten “fee fi fo fum” because then they won’t be able to sleep at night for fear of the monsters under the bed. It would be much better, she thinks, for them to read about the sufferings of real people. Like martyrs who were beheaded and burned at the stake, maybe?]

Miss Allen asked for advice how to treat historical horrors and the fascination they have for some children, but asked if the unpleasant details could not be avoided. [“Oh, that’s true. Real stories might be too graphic for children. What are we supposed to do about that?” She’s clueless, but give her a minute and she’ll have the solution.]

Miss Hertzel agreed that details were better avoided, as children were more apt to gloat over them than realize the pathos. [Miss Hertzel teaches a houseful of bloodthirsty little boys who get into daily fist fights, whack each other with sticks,  and hide garter snakes and spiders in her desk. She no longer has many illusions about “innocent” little children. She just wants to avoid books of horrors because she doesn’t want to give them any new ideas.]

Miss Drury reminded the students present that children, like nations, must pass through a stage when horrors are not so horrible to them as to more advanced minds. [This is a really interesting observation and might have been a more fruitful discussion than the minutia about how parents should deal with their children and reading material, but everyone is bored and getting hungry and they are ready to be done with this, so…]

[The intrepid] Miss Allen proposed the following resolution:

“Stories of hardships endured through devotion or patriotism are suitable for children, but books of horrors as such, whether historical or imaginary, should be avoided.” [You just knew she was going to come up with something.]

The motion was seconded by Miss Hertzel [who just wanted to go get a sandwich], and carried unanimously [because everyone was so tired of arguing].

[But Miss Allen couldn’t let everyone go without having the last word, so even though she’d started the whole thing by disagreeing with Miss Pennethorne in the first place…]

Miss Allen rose [casting a disdainful glance at squeamish Miss Lawrence] to defend Miss Pennethorne’s doctrine of horrors as a fight against “missishness.”

[Well, okay then.]

Well, I hope you enjoyed that. I could say, “wouldn’t you have loved to have been a fly on the wall and seen the actual discussion?” But, if you’ve spent any time on Facebook, you already have (probably many times over).

I told you they were all real people just like us. As I leafed through the book (I think it was the L’Umile Pianta), I ran across this discussion printed just like this (just the black words, remember), without heading, explanation, or embellishments. I read through it, photographed it, and forgot about it until I was looking at my Armitt research recently. I read it again and again, and the personalities began to emerge. One wonders if Miss Pennethorne was present at all—she contributes nothing to the discussion except her initial thoughts, which might have been in the form of a paper read to everyone. Or maybe she was the one playing secretary? Miss Allen clearly dominates the discussion, while timid Miss Williams only pipes up once. Miss Lawrence is a bit “missish.” Miss Hertzel is the most sensible of the bunch, but doesn’t have the energy to keep engaging with Miss Allen. Does anyone think real parents are going to take the advice of these unmarried governesses on how to deal with children and “horrors” in books? Does anyone think there is one right resolution that applies to all families in all circumstances, or is this one of those things where they might concede that parents can best decide how to manage with their own children? (Miss Allen probably wouldn’t think so.)

I have no wisdom to offer and find no great insight here. This was just for fun! And yet…I am mindful that this little discussion was a tiny part of the conference and the shared interests of these young women. They wrote glowing reports of their time together—it was refreshing and heavenly. They put this in in the magazine with the other info about the conference so non-attenders could feel as if they were there. Yeah, sure, they disagreed about some little things, but it did not shake their convictions about the principles they shared and their desire to keep on building each other up and encouraging each other in their common labor. But that’s not speculation on my part. This is what one of them wrote about it:

If I could make you feel the love that was there! If I could tell you of the joy of being in touch with power—the power we felt among us that that made it impossible to fail! If I could show you the simplicity that knows the few things that matter, then indeed you would know what such a week meant to those who lived it.

As I prepared for this series,  I visited the Armitt website and discovered that the enforced closure is hurting them very much. They rely on visitor ticket sales to fund the museum, and during the closure, they have nothing except any donations they might receive. My goal with this series was merely to offer some light-hearted and interesting tidbits I gleaned during my visits, but I’m going to add here that if you enjoy this series and the virtual visit to the Armitt, please consider sending them a small donation—their link will explain how you can do that.

Nuggets from the Armitt #2

Have you ever complained about your Charlotte Mason curriculum? “There’s too much reading.” “This is too hard for my student.” “We can’t get this done in the allotted time.”

If you’ve ever felt like that, join the club. Charlotte Mason teachers have been feeling that way from the beginning. During the conferences where the teachers met together, a great deal of discussion on all kinds of topics took place, and this was all reported in some detail in the PNEU publications, for the benefit of all. One year (and I apologize for my failure to document everything fully—this might have been 1905), one of the topics on the table was math. The teachers had a number of issues with certain books in certain classes, as well as complaints that they needed more time for math. They drafted their complaints as resolutions, and listed them carefully:








They had a delicious advantage that we can never have. They were able to share their concerns directly with Charlotte Mason and get some feedback, which is exactly what they did. Her responses were included a few pages later in the report from this conference, and you should really take a close look at how she responded, especially if you’ve had similar issues.

The first complaint was that too much work was being set for classes III and IV. Miss Mason’s response was that if they had used the assigned book in classes I and II, it wasn’t too much. If you find that response unhelpful, I confess that I do, too. Perhaps these students hadn’t used the PNEU for the earlier classes. For whatever reason, a number of students were having problems getting through the set work (or they wouldn’t have passed this resolution), and no suggestions are offered to them. Miss Mason had to think about the PNEU programmes as a whole, and assign the work appropriate for the greatest number of students. We know from information elsewhere that individual teachers were invited to adapt as needed, but Miss Mason wasn’t going to alter the program for them.

The second complaint was about the math book used in class III, and Miss Mason offered to consider making a change there. The third complaint was that, in both classes III and IV,  more time was needed for arithmetic lessons, and Miss Mason simply said no. She was not going to let arithmetic take away time the students needed to explore “many fields of knowledge.”

What can we glean from this? First—if something in your Charlotte Mason curriculum isn’t working perfectly, try to pinpoint the exact issue, as these teachers did. But here’s the good part! Charlotte Mason had to consider the program as a whole and make it suit the largest number of students possible. You don’t! You only have to consider your home, and your school, and your student. Don’t ignore the principle that guided Charlotte Mason’s answer to complaint #3—math is only a part of larger program. But if you need a little more time for individual math lessons, consider having longer math lessons three days per week instead of shorter ones every day. Obviously, if a given book isn’t right for you, find another one. Slow down if you need to.

I didn’t share the problems they were having with too much work in geography and natural history, but if you look past the answers to the math questions, you’ll see that Miss Mason “consented to lessen the amount of Geography set for a term’s work in Class II, and of Natural History in Class III.”

Nobody can get everything perfect every time. Adjust as needed—that’s what these teachers did—and Charlotte Mason as well—when they needed to. But it’s an interesting intellectual exercise. What principles guided Charlotte Mason’s answers to the teachers’ concerns? Would you give the exact same answers, and what principles would inform your suggestions?

As I prepared for this series,  I visited the Armitt website and discovered that the enforced closure is hurting them very much. They rely on visitor ticket sales to fund the museum, and during the closure, they have nothing except any donations they might receive. My goal with this series was merely to offer some light-hearted and interesting tidbits I gleaned during my visits, but I’m going to add here that if you enjoy this series and the virtual visit to the Armitt, please consider sending them a small donation—their link will explain how you can do that.