There’s a quote from Charlotte Mason that I like a lot. I’ve been aware of it for a long, long time, and it has underpinned my own homeschooling efforts. This is the quote:
The reader will say with truth–‘I knew all this before and have always acted more or less on these principles’; and I can only point to the unusual results we obtain through adhering not ‘more or less’ but strictly to the principles and practices I have indicated. I suppose the difficulties are of the sort that Lister had to contend with; every surgeon knew that his instruments and appurtenances should be kept clean, but the saving of millions of lives has resulted from the adoption of the great surgeon’s antiseptic treatment; that is from the substitution of exact principles scrupulously applied for the rather casual ‘more or less’ methods of earlier days. (Philosophy of Education, p. 19)
There was a time when I thought the “practices” mentioned included all the practices of the PUS (Parents’ Union Schools). I thought it meant we needed to adhere to things like strict page counts, and learning three modern languages plus Latin, and doing school in the morning so free time happened in the afternoon, and so on. I really can’t remember now when I realized that isn’t what this is about at all. Lately, I’ve seen this quote misunderstood in the same way I misunderstood it quite a few times, and not long ago, I shared with one Facebook group what I’m going to share here.
It begins with understanding the audience for the book, Philosophy of Education. Charlotte Mason’s first five books were written for the PNEU—the group of parents who adhered to her philosophy and were trying to implement it with their children. This final book was not written for them, but was addressed to the wider British public—to present CM’s philosophy and the work of the PNEU to people unfamiliar with it, in hopes of spreading their work even further. (It worked for a while, too.) Some of the chapters were even published earlier, as stand-alone pamphlets, and part of it appeared as a series of letters to a newspaper.
With that audience in mind, read the quote again, giving special attention to the part I have emphasized— “I have indicated.” What practices? Indicated where? Well, that’s where the context comes in—right there on the same pages. I urge you to read the full context for yourself.
The quote is self-limiting. It can refer to nothing but the principles and practices “indicated” right there, on those pages. I really do invite you to see for yourself what principles and practices Charlotte Mason considered vital—indispensable—in order to make her philosophy work. But I’ll give you a hint—there aren’t that many of them, and none of them are as specific as “have school in the morning” or “do this for history.” Not at all—as principles should be, they are broad and robust. As practices go, they are fairly flexible, involving putting a child in touch with a wide program of living books, and using narration to insure attention and assimilation. That’s the context that goes with that quote, and I hope my fellow Charlotte Mason educators will learn, sooner than I did, how truly freeing it is to apply a set of “exact principles” to your educational practices and watch them take root, germinate, branch out, and bear fruit.
Addendum: I’m editing this post to add some information that I think might be helpful. It has been suggested to me that I am incorrect about the audience for the book—that Charlotte Mason was not actually addressing herself to anyone beyond her colleagues in the PNEU. I just want to let you all know that this is not a fabrication on my part. Charlotte Mason says, herself, in the preface to the volume: “My object in offering this volume to the public is to urge upon all who are concerned with education a few salient principles…” (emphasis added).She addresses herself to “all who are concerned with education”—casting a wide net—rather than those already associated with her work. She assumes no prior knowledge of the PNEU and its work, and explains her principles from scratch, as it were.