The White Post #4A—A New Hope for the World

While I’ve been aware of Charlotte Mason’s connection to the past for a very long time, I had never pursued the details of her claims to something new until I began this project. Previously, I simply assumed she was referring to newer science, such as that associated with the formation of habits. As I read through the volumes more recently, I made notes of every mention of educational history and to every idea of something fresh and new. Apart from those references to modern science, I wasn’t sure what Charlotte Mason meant, precisely, by “some of it is new.” As I gathered the references, a pattern began to emerge and the final juxtaposition of old and new is exhilarating. I’ve titled this section “a new hope for the world” because those are the words Charlotte Mason used to explain the new thing she wanted to do.

Before I strike out on the lines of what is new, I want to touch again on what is not new in a Charlotte Mason education. A liberal education based on literary sources is not new. The essential aim of education—to instill character through the pursuit of wisdom and virtue is not new. The preeminence of ideas, the connection between knowing and doing, and the comprehensive vision of the unity of knowledge are not new. Charlotte Mason’s vision of exactly what education should be and what it should do are not new. That’s why her books are full of statements such as “it is time we reverted to the teaching of Socrates.” (Parents and Children, p. 242) Her vision of what education should be was shaped by the educators who came before her.

What is new is the scope of that education. As we look back through history, this kind of liberal education has been traditionally reserved for the privileged few. In Plato’s Republic, he prescribed the richest and best education for the elite group who would rule his city-state. Historically, education was expensive. Books were expensive. Only wealthy families could afford to educate their children beyond the mere rudiments necessary for everyday living.

Charlotte Mason grew up in a world where this division was the norm. Not only was education reserved for the well-to-do, but it was almost exclusively for men. Women were not allowed to study at Oxford and Cambridge before 1870, and the few who were admitted were not permitted to receive degrees until 1920. Since women generally did not go to University, there were few preparatory schools for them, either. Poorer families in the laboring class were entirely excluded from this system, and the most they could hope for was a smattering of the “3R’s.”

Charlotte Mason believed that the right kind of education for every child—a character-forming education—would change the shape of a whole nation, and lift it to a higher level. The thing that is truly new in her vision for education is that she knew a liberal education was not for a privileged few, but for all—and she know how to deliver it. Her pedagogy was so effective that she was confident in bringing it before the attention of the British public and declaring in essence, “this is how we can give a liberal education to every single person.”

In the introduction to Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason describes the universal hunger for this kind of knowledge:

The people themselves begin to understand and to clamour for an education which shall qualify their children for life rather than for earning a living.( PoE, p. 3)

At the time, this is the work she and her organization (PNEU) had been doing for several decades. Although their society began with upper-middle class parents who could afford education, it was always a part of their vision to make their ideas understood by “working class” parents as well. When the Parents’ Union School curriculum was developed, some visionary and enthusiastic PNEU members made it their business to carry the work into the schools of very underprivileged children, and it was the results of that experiment that bolstered Charlotte Mason’s conviction that her methods were the right ones for making a liberal education available to all. The children did so well that “the general conclusion is that these are the children of educated and cultivated parents.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 8) But they were not!

And thus, Charlotte Mason could boldly declare:

AT LAST there is hope that the offspring of working-class parents may be led into the wide pastures of a liberal education. (Philosophy of Education, p. 8, emphasis added)

That sentence, in nutshell, gives us the juxtaposition of what is new and what is old in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. She does not redefine a “liberal education”—that was generally understood to be a literary education based on the liberal arts. The “new hope” is that exactly that excellent kind of education can be given at last to the working class as well as the privileged classes.

Miss Mason introduces her final book by trying to place that vision before the eyes of her readers.

I have to tell of the awakening of a ‘general soul’ at the touch of knowledge. Eight years ago the ‘soul’ of a class of children in a mining village school awoke simultaneously at this magic touch and has remained awake. (Philosophy of Education, p. xxv)

You have to use your imagination to understand what “a mining village” would conjure up in the minds of her readers 100 years ago. These were uneducated, illiterate people who were almost outcasts from society. The response of these children to a liberal education is what inspired Charlotte Mason to declare:

To find that the children of a mining population were equally responsive seemed to open a new hope for the world.(Philosophy of Education, p. xxv, emphasis added)

The White Post #4—A New Hope for the World—will be continued tomorrow.