The Spirit and the Letter of a Charlotte Mason Education

Parents are persons. That’s not one of Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles of education, but it is implied in the first principle, because if children are born persons, and they grow up to be parents, they are presumably persons still. What does that mean for parents as educators? (And all parents are educators of their own children, whether they homeschool or not.)

Just as Miss Mason reminds us that personality in children is not something to be encroached upon by undue influence and pressure from without, so personhood in parents has a role to play, and should not be artificially burdened by excessive rules, lists of “dos” and “don’ts.” What we need is a principled approach to education, to bringing up children. A few solid principles upon which to frame our practices will be far sturdier than a slippery ladder of rules.

In the preface to the third edition of Parents and Children, Miss Mason writes

Believing that the individuality of parents is a great possession for their children, and knowing that when an idea possesses the mind, ways of applying it suggest themselves, I have tried not to weight these pages with many directions, practical suggestions, and other such crutches, likely to interfere with the free relations of parent and child.

What is she talking about? Just this — parents are persons; and the unique characteristics of mom and dad, the things that make your family special, different, and individual, are a gift to your children. Your family is your family, and the way that you do things isn’t going to match any other family in every particular. And not only is that okay, it’s really a good thing. You are uniquely equipped to be the parents of your children.

Does that mean you can or should do anything you want? Anything goes? Not remotely! There are principles of authority and right in the world higher than parents, and we have a duty to bring up our children along certain lines only. It doesn’t violate any principle of moral right and wrong if you eat hot dogs for breakfast or wear brightly colored socks, but we aren’t free to raise our children as accomplished little thieves or bullies. We aren’t even free to let them sit in front of TV or computer games all day. When we wake up to this fundamental idea, our needs come into focus. Anne White writes, “With minds more awake, we are searching not for bare facts, but for principles. Examples of wisdom, or maybe of mistakes we don’t want to repeat.” (Minds More Awake by Anne White, p. 111)

What we are given in this life are principles–broad, transcendent principles that give us a framework for ordering our conduct, our child-rearing, and our educational efforts. Miss Mason tells us that there are a few—just a few—transcendent principles that, if we adhere to them, will shape our educational efforts and tend toward healthy results.

As I wrote in Consider This, the surest foundation for what we do is a solid understanding of “why to” rather than a bewildering heap of “how to.” This is nothing to fear, because it is natural. Miss Mason compares these fundamental principles—universal truths—to simple real-world truths such as “fire burns” or “water flows.”

…the fact is, that a few broad essential principles cover the whole field, and these once fully laid hold of, it is as easy and natural to act upon them as it is to act upon our knowledge of such facts as that fire burns and water flows. (Home Education, p. 10)

Imagine for a moment that you lived in the Victorian era, when actual fire for heat and cooking was more the norm than it is today. If you have a fundamental understanding of the principle “fire burns,” you can make use of that principle in a variety of ways. You can hang your wet clothes in front of it to dry, or build a fire in your fireplace when it’s cold outside, or use it to heat water for washing or cooking. You can heat your food, sit near the fire to warm yourself, and even create very small, controlled fires at the end of a tiny stick, for the sake of lighting your pipe.

Knowing that fire burns would also involve certain kinds of precautions! You wouldn’t put more wood on the fire than you needed, to create a blaze that might get out of control inside your house, or make a room too warm. You would make use of screens to keep the heat reflected where you want it most, and chimneys to draw the smoke away. You would teach children not to get near the fire, and keep a respectful distance yourself. You would have tools at hand that would allow you to handle the fire safely, and to dampen it if needed.

Your knowledge of fire, and your experience dealing with it, would guide dozens of positive and negative behaviors, without a single rule being necessary. You don’t need a list of rules about how close to a fire you can stand or how big your fire should be. When you know the principle, you know the benefits and dangers, and your behavior and actions shape themselves naturally upon that knowledge.

Miss Mason suggests that the same is true of educational principles! If you know them well, and even more so when you have experience using them, they naturally reflect themselves in your actions without reference to any kinds of rules. A list of specific rules to follow becomes a crutch if we rely on that list to tell us what to do instead of making sure we understand the principles behind the suggested practices. This is what Miss Mason is talking about in the preface to Parents and Children—if parents know the principles, they can make them work in the most effective and natural way in their own families. “When an idea possesses the mind, ways of applying it suggest themselves.” That is as it should be.

…the practices of each home are sacred, matter between each family and Him who maketh men to be of one mind in a house.” (The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondley, p. 23)

That’s a pretty strong statement–that the practices of each home are sacred. But, says Miss Mason, the principles are another matter. Those principles are really natural laws given to us from a higher authority than ourselves. We need to understand what those are!

There is a feeling abroad that it does not do to bring up children casually; that there are certain natural laws–better named Divine laws–which must be worked out in order to produce human begins at their best, in body, mind, moral nature and spiritual power. (ibid.)

Think of the fire again—if you have a family of ten to feed and a very large house, you need big fires in many rooms, and lots of fuel. If your family is very small, perhaps only one small child, and you live in a tiny flat with two rooms, your need for fire is different. How fire is used in a warm climate or a cold one, or at different seasons of the year, and what kind of fuel is burned, and so forth, are differences in practice that arise naturally without disturbing the essential principle that fire burns.

Once we are quite sure we understand them, the way that educational principles are practiced can be different as well, without departing from the universal truths that they are based upon. For example, Charlotte Mason’s first principle is “Children are born persons.” That principle will help you choose a curriculum that recognizes personhood over one that expects your child to perform like a machine. A few broad principles, well-understood, will guide our practices just as naturally as our fundamental understanding of “fire burns” regulates our use of flames.

If Miss Mason thought the principles of child-rearing allowed freedom for individual families, tasked with the supremely important work of bringing up children to be responsible adults, how much more are we at liberty to lay hold of those educational principles and shape our “classroom” (whether it be home or school room) according to our needs? Teaching our children to be thoughtful, responsible adults is of more weight and consequence than teaching them reading, math, and science. Miss Mason offered us principles of education which, if they guide our practices, will make “school lessons” a matter of joyful delight that feeds children’s minds and contributes to their character as well. If parenting is flexible, schoolroom practices certainly are as well.

That’s why it is so important to grasp the principles that lie behind a Charlotte Mason education. Focusing too exclusively on the practices of reading living books, narration, short lessons, and nature study without a solid understanding of the principles is much like being handed a bag of ingredients for dinner without a plan to follow. The bag is full of good things—chicken, broccoli, onions—but what are we meant to do with them? Is this going to be a stir-fry or a roast chicken? Do we need to stew the chicken to create a broth? Good ingredients, like living books and nature walks, are lovely and nutritious, but without the solid knowledge of the method and the object of the principles, it is possible to miss the mark of a Charlotte Mason education. Method, says Miss Mason, implies a way toward a desired end. You have to know where are you going.

On the other hand, if you know that what is intended is a stir-fry, you can use that knowledge to adapt for your circumstances. You have a few eggs that will make a nice protein addition to the meal, and those two ripe bananas need to be left for some other purpose. When you understand the principles well, they ground all your educational decisions. Everything is brought back to the principles, and they will be your sieve. What can we use; what must we not use?

According to her associate, Elsie Kitching, that was exactly how Miss Mason herself considered various ideas.

“…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 “Concerning ‘Repeated Narration’” by Elsie Kitching, Parents’ Review, Volume 39, no. 1, January 1928.)

Miss Mason was exceptionally brilliant at discerning the philosophy that lay behind various practices, and she never mistook practices for principles. She did not hesitate to point out that this practice encroached upon a child’s personality and that practice relied on the wrong motivation. Probably the surest way to gain a similar, intuitive understanding is to implement Miss Mason’s own practices to the closest extent possible. Her practices without the principles might leave us floundering, but using her practices to illuminate the principles, to give you a “hands on” idea of how the principles drive the practices, is a valid reason for giving them a try. There is no need to feel compelled to follow them exactly. Only take care—when we adjust a practice, it ought to be done according to principle, and not arbitrary whim. Sometimes following Charlotte Mason’s specific advice really drives the principle home and makes it clearer.

For example, I grew up as a voracious devourer of books. When my children also turned out to be voracious devourers of books, I was neither surprised nor dismayed. I had not the faintest inkling that there was anything amiss with this practice. Until Miss Mason told me so; and even then, I was skeptical.

So, I tried it her way. My oldest was ten years old at the time, and I gave him two books of similar length and difficulty. One book was read at the rate of a chapter per day, and the other at the rate of a chapter per week. He narrated from both books. It took about 12 weeks to read the second book, and when it was finished, I asked my son to tell me about both books. The book which had taken 12 weeks to read was fresh in his mind. He was able to tell me the whole story, including the beginning material from 12 weeks before. And the other book? He could barely remember reading it! Even with narration, he had not retained the material–hardly even the memory!—of the book read rapidly. Because I had tried the practice, I had seen the principle in action. Children need to spend time with a book, to digest it slowly. When you read only one chapter per week, you have a lot more time to think about the book.

Charlotte Mason called what she had to offer us a method, and she issued a strong warning not to let that method be reduced to a system. A system is a mechanical process, with predetermined steps, boxes to check off, which promises to produce a predetermined result. A method, on the other hand, is a principle-driven way to operate which allows a living being to grow in the most optimal way.

There is always the danger that a method, a bona fide method, should degenerate into a mere system.…

A System easier than a Method—A ‘system of education’ is an alluring fancy; more so, on some counts, than a method, because it is pledged to more definite calculable results. By means of a system certain developments may be brought about through the observance of given rules.…

System—the observing of rules until the habit of doing certain things, of behaving in certain ways, is confirmed, and, therefore, the art is acquired—is so successful in achieving precise results, that it is no wonder there should be endless attempts to straiten the whole field of education to the limits of a system.

If a human being were a machine, education could do more for him than to set him in action in prescribed ways, and the work of the educator would be simply to adopt a good working system or set of systems.

But the educator has to deal with a self-acting, self-developing being, and his business is to guide, and assist in, the production of the latent good in that being, the dissipation of the latent evil, the preparation of the child to take his place in the world at his best, with every capacity for good that is in him developed into a power.

Though system is highly useful as an instrument of education, a ‘system of education’ is mischievous, as producing only mechanical action instead of the vital growth and movement of a living being. (excerpted from Home Education, p. 8-10)

I titled this article “the letter and the spirit” of a Charlotte Mason education, because that’s really what this is all about, in the end. The “letter” of a Charlotte Mason education looks at precisely what Miss Mason was doing in the PNEU schools, and says “we must do this, too.” The spirit of the thing might or might not survive the attempt. Systems loom around every corner.

One of her colleagues wrote, after her death:

…her practice was as various and elastic as her principles were constant; there was the method and even the letter, but above all the spirit. (emphasis mine, from In Memoriam)

The spirit, or heart, or living vital method of a Charlotte Mason education is not to be found by looking at her time-tables or discovering exactly what books she used for history or grammar. She wrote the time-table and selected the books according to the principles—and she had confidence that others could do the same, or could adapt them for their own particular needs. Families were doing that, even in her own lifetime, and it was accepted as a matter of course. Why wouldn’t they?

Overseas there were many children working with their parents, following the programmes, mothers teaching some subjects, father tackling others at unconventional times of day. (The Story of Charlotte Mason, Cholmondley, p.93)

For us, her exact implementations give us a plumb line, a bit of guidance. Once we understand why the principles work, as I learned about slow reading, we can adjust our practices if needed, but we won’t neglect the vital ideas that govern what we are doing. Fire burns. Children need time to digest their books. Education is the science of relations.

And parents are persons. Teachers are persons. Each of our homeschools or our classrooms is unique, and the way things are this year might not be the way things are next year. So we adapt, according to the principles we know. If the weather takes on a deeper chill, we build up that burning fire to keep the room warm. If a child is struggling in math, or we’re adding another first-grader to our homeschool this year, or we have a chance to visit a foreign country, or…fill in the blank with your own special need…well, we have some solid principles to guide our decisions about curriculum, and language study, and schedules.

Miss Mason’s incredibly effective methods of education are adaptable, because they are based upon living ideas. Even during her lifetime, the teachers she trained in her own school found that when they were working in a specific situation, with specific children, who had specific needs, they needed to make adjustments. It’s hardly surprising if we find the same thing true for us today. But principles are universal, and principles do not change. If you have a fundamental understanding of Charlotte Mason’s principles, adjusting a practice will be as natural as turning down the gas flame on your stove, so the pot will simmer instead of boiling over.

Copyright Karen Glass 2017

Some resources to develop an understanding of the principles:

AmblesideOnline hosted a 20 principles study not long ago. All the discussion is there to read.

Brandy Vencel offers a study guide, intended for group study, for the 20 principles which involves reading For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaffer Macaulay

If you want to read a book, there are a few that deliberately take you through the principles. For the Children’s Sake is one of them. Also, Book I of Charlotte Mason’s last book, A Philosophy of Education takes you through the principles. If you want a shorter version with some additional study helps, Mind to Mind does the same. Consider This also covers all 20 principles, but less directly. If you’re just beginning to learn the principles, use one of the other sources. If you already know them well, Consider This will give you some additional perspective about how universal Charlotte Mason’s principles are.

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9 thoughts on “The Spirit and the Letter of a Charlotte Mason Education

  1. Thank you for writing this! I have been feeling this weight and your thoughts are so helpful. Very much appreciate your wisdom and experience!

  2. I loved reading about your experiment with your son. I came to CM a voracious reader, too!
    Thank you for writing this… it’s a breath of fresh, peaceful air.

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