Part III—Delight in knowledge

Part III of Formation of Character contains only two chapters, although they are quite long. One is entitled “Concerning the Schoolboy and Schoolgirl” and the other is “Concerning the Young Maidens at Home.” (Anne will be sharing about that second chapter on Wednesday.)

In the preface to this volume, Charlotte Mason explains, “In editing Home Education and Parents and Children for the ‘Home Education’ Series, the introduction of much new matter made it necessary to transfer a considerable part of the contents of those two members of the series to this volume, Some Studies in the Formation of Character.”

If you are familiar with the history of Home Education, you may recall that the book began as a series of lectures which Charlotte Mason gave in order to do some fund-raising for a church project. The lectures were well-attended and well-received, and there were eight of them. A quick look at the table of contents of a current copy of Home Education will reveal only six Roman-numeraled sections, corresponding to six of those lectures. But here, tucked into Formation of Character, we find the last two lectures, just as Miss Mason explained.

Apparently, in the process of rearranging the material, the decision was made to allow Home Education to focus on the education of younger children, under the age of nine. These two lectures deal with older children, and so they were moved into this volume. Whatever the situation at that time (around 1905), Formation of Character is the most neglected of all the volumes in the series today, and while much of the material isn’t vital to understanding the methods, it’s rather a shame that these two chapters, which can be so helpful to parents, don’t get more attention. If you never read any other part of Volume 5, I do recommend reading these chapters as your children grow older.

There are two applications of Charlotte Mason’s ideas, and Home Education, although it includes some ideas about lessons for little ones, is really more concerned with what we think of as child-rearing, rather than academic lessons (which is the focus of School Education). These two lectures in Part III belong to that first application—raising children.

Quite often, parents wonder if Charlotte Mason’s ideas can be implemented with children who are attending school rather than being homeschooled. Because these chapters were written before the implementation of the PNEU and the Parent’s Union School, Miss Mason assumes that the children will be attending school, but that the parents still have a large role to play in shaping their thinking and intellectual growth.

Schools, by their nature and because they focus on examinations, tend to emphasize concrete knowledge. “It is only upon matters of fact that it is possible to examine, and there, it is upon his power of receiving, retaining, classifying, and reproducing facts that the pupil’s success depends.” But Miss Mason wanted more for the children, and she urged parents to bend their efforts toward more poetic knowledge, and a deeper, more delight-filled relationship with knowledge. “Take the good the schools provide,” she suggests, but be sure that “culture or moral training” is to be had in the home.

In the chapter “Concerning the Schoolboy and the Schoolgirl,” Miss Mason considers the question: If a child is learning at school, what is the parent’s role in his or her education?

If you’ve ever wondered what Miss Mason’s idea of an ideal teacher (in a girls’ school at least) would be, she paints the picture for us in this “schoolboy and schoolgirl” chapter:

If she be a woman of clear and vigorous mind, high principles, and elevated character, it is astonishing how all that is lovely in the feminine character is drawn towards her as by a magnet, and the girls about her mould themselves, each according to her own nature, and yet each after the type of the mistress, the “sympathy of numbers” spurring them on towards virtue, and each––
“Emulously rapid in the race.”

Given, to adapt words used in describing Dr. Lant Carpenter as a schoolmaster, a woman with a power of “commanding the reverence and reconstituting the wills” of her pupils, of “great and varied intellectual power, with profound sense of right pervading the whole life and conversation, with the insight derived from a thorough and affectionate sympathy with (girl) nature,” and she will “daily achieve triumphs which most teachers would believe impossible”; above all, this will be true if she succeed in putting into the hands of her pupils the key to the spiritual life. Such a woman gets all that is beautiful in girl-nature on her side—its enthusiasm, humility, deference, devotion: love works wonders, and the parents see their daughter growing under their eyes into the perfect woman they long to see their child become.

And then she tells us what we have probably guessed already: “schoolmistresses, as schoolmasters, of this type are rare.” But whether your children attend school or are homeschooled, she has a word of encouragement for us: This is the parent’s job, anyway, and she has confidence that we are fit for the task.

One of the most important things to bring to the attention of our growing children is the matter of their duties—the obligations they have towards others. Children, like adults, are much more naturally attuned toward their own rights—the duties they know that others owe to them—than they are to their own obligations. In fact, it is the duty and privilege of a parent to open their eyes—to help them see that they have responsibilities toward their parents, their brothers and sisters, their friends, and ultimately, to God.
It need not be a momentous burden, because it begins in the little natural things that are happening at home. “No home can be happy if a single member of it allow himself in ugly tempers and bad behaviours.”

Well then. It is something for a thinking child of nine or ten or eleven years to realize that they have it in their power to destroy the happiness of their own home, and to realize that they, too, will be made unhappy as a result. The goal is to help them see what they owe to others, and Miss Mason tells us:

The attention is taken off self and its claims and fixed upon brother and sister, father and mother, servants and neighbours; so slight a thing as a friendly look can add to the happiness of every one of these.

The power to bestow happiness on others encourages affection and relationship, and if we manage to instill even a little of this power—and the desire to wield it—in our children they will be better students, better employees, better husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and better people all the days of their lives.

However, this comes, not from didactic school-teaching, but from a poetic, relational intuition that develops naturally under the proper conditions—and Miss Mason has some practical ideas to help develop this atmosphere in our homes. She talks about the importance of Sunday-keeping, with many ideas for making the day peaceful and pleasant, and above all, joyous.
The books that the family chooses to read together are an important source of developing this deeper relationship with knowledge, one that goes beyond superficial information and touches the heart. This had traditionally been the object of a classical education, but classical culture was commonly being supplanted by utilitarian objectives in schools, and Charlotte Mason knew that parents could step into the gap.

The contention of scholars is, that a classical education does more, turns out men with intellects cultivated and trained, who are awake to every refinement of thought, and yet ready for action. But the press and hurry of our times and the clamour for useful knowledge are driving classical culture out of the field; and parents will have to make up their minds, not only that they must supplement the moral training of the school, but must supply the intellectual culture, without which knowledge may be power, but is not pleasure, nor the means of pleasure.

“Knowledge as pleasure”—that’s one working definition of poetic knowledge. This is what Charlotte Mason wanted parents to give their children, even if their children were receiving their academic education at school rather than at home. This is an encouragement to us today, both for homeschooling parents, and for those whose children are attending school. We can help our children see that knowledge—intellectual culture—is a matter of enjoyment, not merely labor for examinations and grades.

Charlotte Mason possessed that delight in knowledge, and deeply wanted parents to be able to provide it for their children. I want very much for readers of this blog post to pick up Formation of Character, and read the two chapters that make up Part III, so I will not say much more. Here you will find Miss Mason’s practical advice about oral story-telling, selecting books and poetry for family read-alouds, making use of mealtimes for good conversation with growing children, developing aesthetic taste in art and music, and more. You really do not want to miss this section, which properly belongs to the original Home Education.

The fact is that many of us were denied this delight in knowledge in our own educations, and we need our eyes to be opened to all the possibilities. Charlotte Mason’s ideas have the power to bring delight to parents as well as children, and I have seen this happen again and again. Literature, poetry, music, art—these things are meant to enrich and delight us, but they serve a higher purpose as well. They open our hearts to the lessons of love and truth and goodness that will make a difference in our everyday lives, and in turn, the lives of those we touch. If you haven’t yet developed the vision of what is possible for parents in the education of their own children, Part III of Formation of Character should rise to the top of your “to be read” list.


Read all the posts in this series.

2 thoughts on “Part III—Delight in knowledge

  1. This is definitely my favorite section so far! Thank you for your thoughtful exposition, Karen.

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