On page 6 of A Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason lays out some ideas which, she says, “seem to me to differ from general theory and practice.” What she means by “general,” of course, is what was commonly being done in classrooms at the time, but if you look at the list, you will see that it is primarily concerned with methods rather than philosophy, and Charlotte Mason’s methods are very much her own. The philosophy that underpins them has a great deal of history behind it, as she knew, but she declared “I hope I have succeeded in methodising the whole and making education what it should be, a system of applied philosophy.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 18). The methods she employed were grounded in the principles she recognized, and that is why they open the door wide and make an ideal vision of education very doable.
Perceiving the range of knowledge to which children as persons are entitled the questions are, how shall they be induced to take that knowledge, and what can the children of the people learn in the short time they are at school? We have discovered a working answer to these two conundrums. I say discovered, and not invented, for there is only one way of learning, and the intelligent persons who can talk well on many subjects and the expert in one learn in the one way, that is, they read to know. What I have found out is, that this method is available for every child. (Philosophy of Education, p. 14, emphasis added)
This is what Charlotte Mason claims to have discovered for herself—that no child is shut out from partaking of a liberal education. “We have left behind the feudal notion that intellect is a class prerogative.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 12) A little later she speaks specifically about what she felt was the special discovery of the PNEU. She names the contribution that she felt the PNEU had made for the sake of education, and it is this:
The service that some of us (of the P.N.E.U.) believe we have done in the cause of education is to discover that all children, even backward children, are aware of their needs and pathetically eager for the food they require; that no preparation whatever is necessary for this sort of diet; that a limited vocabulary, sordid surroundings, the absence of a literary background to thought are not hindrances. (Philosophy of Education, p. 62, emphasis added)
In twenty-first century America, we may not appreciate how radical and revolutionary that assertion was. We take for granted that education is a universal right, not a privilege reserved for some. In class-bound Victorian and Edwardian England, they had no such concepts. Utilitarian knowledge of reading and arithmetic was enough for most, while the delights of books and ideas and scholarship were only for some. That is what they took for granted, and it is in the face of those assumptions that Miss Mason urged a revolution.
One of the teachers of an underprivileged school expressed great gratitude to Charlotte Mason for her efforts to provide a liberal education to the working class. She says:
Our school is situated in an urban industrial district: a large majority of the children are from homes where the father and mother, too, work in a boot factory when employment can be obtained at all. With one or two rare exceptions, our girls do not belong to the company of favoured children whose parents are able to take an intelligent interest in them. English, as it should be spoken, does not exist for them in their home life, and their vocabulary is sadly limited.” (In Memoriam, p. 177)
This headmistress, D.S. Golding, had a vision for broadening the horizons of her pupils, and had the joy of seeing it realized when the PNEU curriculum was introduced to her school.
This scheme offers the product of the original minds of noble thinkers. It gives children inspiring ideas which promote thought and enquiry; and the more a child thinks, the more he lives:—and this is the child’s right. (In Memoriam, p. 178)
She goes on to quote Miss Mason:
Some may be inclined to think that the PNEU curriculum is too wide. It may be if we labour at it in our way, expecting every child to remember everything that she has read. This is not Miss Mason’s idea. ‘My plea is,’ she writes in School Education, ‘that many doors shall be opened to boys and girls until they are at least 12 or 14, and always the doors of good houses…that the young people shall learn what History is, what Literature is, what life, is from the living books of those who know.’ Surely here will be the beginning of an appreciation of the wide reading which will broaden the child’s outlook. It will achieve something even more important, for it will give that balance of judgement which is so vitally necessary. (In Memoriam, p. 181)
This is equivalent to the very hope that Charlotte Mason had. She wanted a liberal education to liberate every child from the limitations of narrow, illiberal prejudice and opinion, and help them discover a more balanced way of judging and perceiving truth. She lived in troubled times. The Russian revolution and Marxism had created serious unrest among English workers, and there was a real threat to stability. That’s why Charlotte Mason felt that it was so important to educate everyone. She wrote:
I should like to quote a few sentences from Professor Eucken on the education of the people:
‘By education of the people it must not for a moment be supposed that we mean a special kind of education. We do not refer to a condensed preparation of our spiritual and intellectual possessions, suitable for the needs and interests of the great masses; we are not thinking of a diluted concoction of the real draught of education which we are so kind and condescending as to dispense to the majority. No! . . . . there is only one education common to us all.’
‘We can all unite in the construction of a spiritual world over against that of petty human routine. Thus there is, in truth, a possibility of a truly human education, and therefore of a true education of the people.’
The Jena Professor sees clearly enough the task before us all; but he sees, or sets forth, no possible way of accomplishing it, nor is there any other way than that which we have set forth that can afford this sort of liberal education….
…No other study is so remunerative as that of the ‘humanities.’ Let me draw the reader’s attention to one point. Instability, unrest, among our wage-earners is the serious danger threatening our social life.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 296-97)
Charlotte Mason believed that bringing a liberal education—a humanities-based education—to everyone was just the remedy to that threat. This is, again, where the old and the new are juxtaposed. She does not propose a radical new kind of education—far from it. It is a traditional liberal education that she values. Her radical new proposal is that the liberal education is for all, and she is confident that the methods she developed could provide it. She wanted to give Plato’s education for the elite to “Demos”—the people.
Demos is king to-day, and who may dispute his right? But let us all give him the chance to become that philosopher/king who according to an ancient dream [Plato’s Republic] was to be the fit ruler, or rulers, of the people. The hopeful sign is that Demos himself perceives his lack, and clamours for the humanistic education in which he sees his salvation.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 299, emphasis added)
One of Miss Mason’s close associates, H.W. Household, shared her vision and actively worked to bring her methods into scores of schools, including the one mentioned above. After her death, he praised her for her work in that cause.
But until Miss Mason taught us how to do it nobody ever dreamed of giving a liberal education—the first stage of a liberal education—to the workers’ children in the elementary school, of giving them just the same education, in the same way, and out of the same books, that we give our own children. (In Memoriam, p. 189, emphasis added)
This is the new hope for the world, as Charlotte Mason envisioned it—that the pursuit of virtue and wisdom through knowledge would not be confined to one class or group, but that all society would grow in wisdom and knowledge. As each individual person would be better, so would the nation be better. Let us give each one the opportunity. Let us give everyone, without exception, a liberal education.