Great Thoughts are for Sharing…Again and Again


I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the link between Charlotte Mason and “classical” traditions of education over the years, and went so far as to write a book about it. However, even in that book, I have never suggested that the only thing Charlotte Mason was interested in was an education that belonged to the past. Far from it! In the very introduction to Consider This, I wrote, “She looked back, as we will see, but she looked forward as well, and the world she lived in was more like our own than we often suppose.”

And then again, at the end of Chapter Eleven, I wrote:

It has not been my purpose to explain every one of Charlotte Mason’s practices, but merely to show the link that exists between her educational methods and those of the classical tradition. What she learned from the educators of the past, she implemented only when those practices served the higher purposes of education. She borrowed freely from the ideas she read about from the past, but she did not reject a practice merely for being new—she weighed its value according to the educational principles she understood well, and so either incorporated it into her plan, or left it out if she found it incompatible.

I also made a point of including Charlotte Mason’s own reminder that we don’t go chasing after something just because it is new and shiny, but remain grounded in clear principles which have given evidence of taking us where we actually want to go.

It is exciting to become a pioneer; but, for the children’s sake, it may be well to constrain ourselves to follow those roads only by which we know that persons have arrived, or those newer roads which offer evident and assured means of progress towards a desired end. (School Education, p. 245)

Charlotte Mason acknowledged the influence of past thinkers on her philosophy of education; but, despite her clear participation in the “Great Conversation” concerning education, she also felt that she had something exciting and new to offer the educational community–something that was, indeed, different from what others had said before her. If she hadn’t, she probably wouldn’t have bothered writing any books at all, let alone six of them. Nothing could be clearer than her own modesty about her contribution.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread; and the hope that there may be many tentative efforts towards a philosophy of education, and that all of them will bring us nearer to the magnum opus, encourages me to launch one such attempt. (From the Preface to all volumes of the Home Education Series)

I have done a great deal of reading about educational philosophy and methods in the past twenty years, but I do not believe I have ever read a book whose fundamental message was “this is what everyone is doing in education, and we’re satisfied with it, and we think we should just keep on doing it in perpetuity.” I don’t recall ever reading a book with that message, and if there is one somewhere, I think I’d rather not.

One doesn’t write a book or a treatise or a proposal about education that says, “Just keep doing the same thing.” Not at all. An educator takes the trouble to write about education because he (or she!) is dissatisfied with general practices and thinks he has something better to propose–something new, something progressive, something more effective or more efficient, something bigger or finer or faster or deeper, but in some way different, and naturally, better than whatever the current practice is. There wouldn’t be much point to anything else. It is a process that should never stop, but continue in each succeeding generation, as each generation of teachers grapples with the way to best educate in his or her own time, taking the best of the existing thought and modifying as necessary for the present time, place, and situation.

What worked even fifty years ago will not work to-day, and what fulfils our needs to-day will not serve fifty years hence; there is no last word to be said upon education; it evolves with the evolution of the race. (School Education, p. 46, emphasis mine)

Yet this is nothing new. It has always been true throughout history in the discussion of education. Educators with great ideas have always tended to propose something new and different because they find the general practices unsatisfactory, and it is virtually only the writings of such teachers which have been preserved for us. But the general practices? Those tend to return, over and over again, to certain ineffective methods. It is astonishing, and a little sad, when one considers that the victims of the ineffective methods are usually children.

One recurring “motif” I encountered as I read through historical treatises was the oft-repeated sentiment, not to put too fine a point on it, that beating students was counterproductive and did not succeed in making the afflicted pupils actually learn anything. Quintilian said it in the first century A.D., and he was the gold standard for education for a long time. Nevertheless, his admonition must have gone largely unheeded, or Montaigne, Comenius, and others would not have had to repeat it 1500 years later. Even in Mason’s lifetime, in Victorian England, it was still all too commonly practiced, and the writers of the era have given us many testimonies. What does this mean, except that the wisdom of thoughtful educators was largely ignored? The ideas and ideals they proposed were seldom widely adopted, while ignorance of the natural principles of sound education made many a classroom or school a place of torment for young would-be learners.

However, whether in reference to corporal discipline or cautions against mindless memorization without understanding, it was the wide-spread lack of sound principles in education that compelled thoughtful educators to offer something better in their contributions. They wanted to make changes. They were looking for reform, if not revolution, and new practices or principles that would allow the process of educating children to be both easier to accomplish and more pleasant in the meanwhile.

If we view the so-called “classical” educators of the ages as some sort of hide-bound traditionalists who were uninterested in new ideas and better methods of education, we mistake the matter entirely. They were nothing of the sort. Most of them were genuine scholars with minds awake to the love of knowledge, and the earnest desire to guide others to delight in the same things they delighted in. They abhorred the practices that dulled and hindered learning. They urged universal principles and understood truths about man, and the way he thinks and learns, modified always by their own experience, audience, time, place, and customs. We might smile at some of the customs and practices they suggest at times, but it is the universal truths that we are after. And when we find them, again and again, in the writings of many authors, we have confirmed to us that they are, in fact, universal truths.

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)

I had the privilege, not long ago, of listening to a wise man speak about education. I was engrossed in his talk, and kept jotting into my notes things like “Quintilian!” or “Augustine!” next to some of his statements. I told him later that his ideas had reminded me of those ancient educators, and he declared that he had not read them. Which didn’t matter. He had clearly tapped into the same, universal truths they professed, which are always there to be understood, and he was presenting them freshly to a roomful of educators who could probably receive those ideas from him far more readily than they could have from Augustine, especially since he delivered the whole thing with panache and humor.

Perhaps it is the reputation of antiquity clinging to what we call “classical” education that needs re-vamped. The ideals of the classical tradition are not dry and dusty, and they certainly are not the exclusive province of a few Greeks and Romans. Rather, they are fresh and living and virtually impossible to reduce into a few lucid sentences or a list of bullet points. In Norms and Nobility, David Hicks reminds us that these truths are not the property of ancient civilizations. They represent “an ancient ideal expressed as ‘classical education.’” (Norms and Nobility, p. vi). They are full of energy and possibility, tiny seeds of ideas just waiting to fall into an eager new mind and burst again into bloom–new and old at the same time. New, because each new learner (and I speak of educators, not their pupils) is a first-time explorer, and old because yes, the ground has been covered before. “There is no new thing under the sun,” said a wise man, some millennia ago (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

David Hicks reminds us:

These ideas are “found,” as it were, not manufactured, and it is the independent discovery of these ideas by men and women that has led to “the great conversation” of which [Norms and Nobility] aspires to be a small part. (Norms and Nobility, p. v-vi)

Charlotte Mason appreciated this “new and old” phenomenon:

“Suppose,” says Leigh Hunt, “suppose flowers themselves were new! Suppose they had just come into the world, a sweet reward for some new goodness… Imagine what we should feel when we saw the first lateral stem bearing off from the main one, and putting forth a leaf. How we should watch the leaf gradually unfolding its little graceful hand; then another, then another; then the main stalk rising and producing more; then one of them giving indications of the astonishing novelty––a bud! then this mysterious bud gradually unfolding like the leaf, amazing us, enchanting us, almost alarming us with delight, as if we knew not what enchantment were to ensue, till at length, in all its fairy beauty, and odorous voluptuousness, and the mysterious elaboration of tender and living sculpture, shines forth the blushing flower.” The flowers, it is true, are not new; but the children are; and it is the fault of their elders if every new flower they come upon is not to them a Picciola, a mystery of beauty to be watched from day to day with unspeakable awe and delight.
…All this is stale knowledge to older people, but one of the secrets of the educator is to present nothing as stale knowledge, but to put himself in the position of the child, and wonder and admire with him; for every common miracle which the child sees with his own eyes makes of him for the moment another Newton. (Home Education, p. 53-54)

This is true for the children–nothing is old and stale because they see it with fresh eyes. The same is true for the universal principles of education which have been presented to the world again and again in various guises. We are not merely treading over old ground when we pursue the idea of a “classical” education, we are delighting anew in the recognition of profound truth and beauty.

So what, exactly, is my point? Just this: that “classical” and “progressive,” far from being mutually exclusive terms, in fact go hand in hand. Those worthwhile authors on education, throughout history, among whom we number with honor Charlotte Mason, were progressive reformers. Mason herself knew that there had been only a handful of such vital educational thinkers in the whole history of the world, and she bravely numbered herself among them, and in my opinion, rightly so. She did exactly as they did–laid hold of the universal truths and expressed them anew, combined with the wisdom, knowledge, and customs of her own time and place. One of her most brilliant achievements, very meaningful for contemporary teachers, was to express the relationship which science holds in a liberal education, and to pave the way for the soundest possible foundation in scientific understanding which is not divorced from the richness and wisdom of an education in the humanities.

With the wisdom and insight that characterize most of her observations about education, Charlotte Mason also gave us a picture of what “progress” ought rightly to be.

Is there not some confusion of ideas about this fetish of progress? Do we not confound progress with movement, action, assuming that where these are there is necessarily advance? Whereas much of our activity is like the waves of the sea, going always and arriving never. What we desire is the still progress of growth that comes of root striking downwards and fruit urging upwards. And this progress in character and conduct is not attained through conditions of environment or influence but only through the growth of ideas, received with conscious intellectual effort. (Philosophy of Education, p. 297)

This is what we hope to see when those living, universal ideas find a fresh mind in which to germinate. “Root striking downward” suggests that real progress is not unconnected with what has been established before, and “fruit urging upwards” is the promise of something new and delightful. And such progress is not a matter of frenzied efforts, or hurried activity, but it is “the still progress of growth.” The picture brings a calming effect to our educational endeavors. You do not measure your children’s feet from one week to the next and urge them to produce visible growth on a pre-determined timetable. Yet, most assuredly, you will have to buy new shoes within the year, because they will have grown, naturally and steadily.

So in education, we need not fretfully evaluate from one week to the next. Can the child spell new words, do harder sums, answer more questions? No matter. The progress will be evident in time, like fruit in its season, and cannot truly be hurried, and the appreciation of this truth is one of the things that separates universal principles from faddish schemes that promise lavish results.

In some ways, Charlotte Mason’s methods are themselves the visible fruit of the sound principles in which they are rooted. Such wisdom as she found from past educators, viewed through the lens of her Christian worldview, and combined with a more modern appreciation of how the brain works have given us some of the most effective pedagogical methods ever used. Those classical educators of history wanted the same things that Charlotte Mason wanted for pupils–in short, a liberal education. But too frequently, their means and methods did not achieve what they hoped they would achieve, certainly not on a wide-spread scale. Mason’s methods make a liberal education possible…for anyone.

“When there have not been a dozen original thinkers upon education in the world; when England has hardly had 3 or 4 — how can the P.N.E.U. believe that one of these has fallen to its share? Indeed I can hardly believe it myself and am continually comparing and enquiring to see if I am after all offering anything worth while. The answer always seems to be ‘yes’ but I am truly willing to leave the question to the ‘modesty of time.’ At the same time, it will be a joyful and delightful thing to see the P.N.E.U. such an educational society as the world has never known; and there really is, I think, something to be said in favor of a person of even average intelligence who has given about 40 years of incessant consecutive, progressive, thought to the one subject of Education and who has tested every point laid down by many experiments and much investigation of principles.”

I would give a good deal to have a list of those dozen other educators Charlotte Mason had in mind, although I can make a good guess at a few. To whom was she likening herself? Since she elected not to tell us, we will have to be content with knowing that she recognized the wisdom of the educators of the past, and was proud to consider herself just such another reformer, seeking to make educational methods better and better than they had been before.

It is just as valid to hang the label “progressive” on Charlotte Mason’s methods as it is to associate her with the “classical” tradition, if we must have labels, but it is even more enlightening to understand the relationship between those two concepts. Rather than being mutually exclusive, they really operate together, creating the need in each successive generation to continue thinking, learning, and growing, rather than allowing a healthy method to disintegrate into a monotonous system. This happened to classical education in the not-so-distant past (the remnants of it in England were remarked by Mason), and it is possible for it to happen to Charlotte Mason’s own philosophy if we allow it to become nothing but list of prescribed guidelines and “how to’s.” Does this mean that all “progressive” educators are “classical”, or that all “classical” educators are “progressive”? Not at all, and part of the problem, of course, lies in the difficulty of nailing down a definition of what we mean by classical, as I have discussed elsewhere. I have also said, “There is nothing quaint, nostalgic or old-fashioned about a desire to educate in the classical tradition. It is a radical thing to do.” (Consider This, p. 115) One must look beyond labels, and understand substance. Boxes and labels are stultifying and limiting, and far removed from the bursting-with-potential ideals that have inspired educators for centuries.

Charlotte Mason was a brave and clear-thinking teacher-philosopher. She was not afraid to declare herself progressive, although she had her own ideas about what progress ought to look like, and she rejected the ideas of many others also labeled “progressive”. She was not afraid to admire and borrow–or share!–wisdom from the past. In the appendix of Formation of Character, she recommends a number of books for parents and teachers to read, and it is interesting to note how many of them hearken back to the classical world and its successors. She understood the need to be grounded in universally understood truths before proposing new ideas about anything.

…two things are incumbent upon us,––to keep ourselves and our children in touch with the great thoughts by which the world has been educated in the past, and to keep ourselves and them in the right attitude towards the great ideas of the present. It is our temptation …to lose sight of the fact that education is a world business, 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)

May we follow Charlotte Mason’s lead and make ourselves familiar, not only with her own generous contribution to educational thought, but the best thought of the best writers in every age. Recommending a book on the history of classical education to her contemporaries, she urged, “Persons who wish to have just and liberal views of education, not limited by the last output of the last English writer on the subject, will do well to give this volume a careful and studious perusal.” (Formation of Character, p. 437). I think it remains sound advice for educators today. We will only form just and liberal views of education if we do not limit ourselves to labels or to reading about the education of one time and one place–in particular our own–but by gleaning from the experience and wisdom of the many wise teachers who have gone before us. And having done that, let us take those “classical” ideals and make some progress in realizing them for ourselves and our students. Charlotte Mason has given us such practical methods that we are left with no room for excuses to do any less.

Copyright Karen Glass, 2016

Brandy Vencel at Afterthoughts is beginning (October 2016) to blog through the very book Charlotte Mason recommended, as noted above. You might be interested in following that discussion.