This article originally appeared in three parts in an email newsletter during 1999 and 2000. I share it here as a single, somewhat lengthy article.
In each volume of her six-volume series on education, Charlotte Mason prefaces her book with a list of her educational beliefs or principles. Some of these are practical, but many of them are philosophical. As we read them, it is easy to attempt to interpret them in light of our own 20th century ideas, but that will not give us a complete understanding. Miss Mason lived in a philosophical environment and society which were different from our own, and some of her principles can only be understood properly in light of that environment. From her own writings, we can get a picture of the society in which she lived.
Charlotte Mason grew and thought and worked and wrote during a time when sweeping changes were overturning long-held beliefs, and new ideas were enticing, simply because they were new, as well as because they were “scientific”–a relatively new concept in society. The new ideas were not confined to the realm of science, however, but spread their influence into many areas of life, philosophy, and education.
Before she elaborated on her own methods of education, Miss Mason found it necessary to clarify for her readers her beliefs on current topics of discussion regarding children and their needs. Because those ideas and topics are no longer current, her clarification is lost on us. Only when we make ourselves aware of the climate in which she lived can we ascertain why she felt it essential to begin her list of educational principles with the statements that she does.
The first of Miss Mason’s principles is “Children are born persons.” The emphasis is hers. At a glance, this seems to be such an obvious statement that it should be unnecessary to mention it at all. Modern students of her philosophy, as well as Charlotte Mason herself, have expounded on this statement, and it is fair to do so, but this expansion of the idea does not explain why she felt it necessary to begin her list of educational principles with such an item in the first place.
To understand that, it is necessary to look at the philosophical environment of Victorian England. One name that stands out from the rest as being undeniably significant is that of Charles Darwin. His work, which appeared in 1859, set forth a revolutionary principle which everyone else was forced to take into consideration, whether they agreed or disagreed with him.
Darwin proposed the theory that man (and other creatures) had evolved from simple organisms into those more complex. This basic idea took root in the realm of psychology and philosophy, and produced a breed of “evolutionary psychologists” who suggested that within the span of their lifetime, human beings played out in miniature the process of evolution. A child begins life as a single-celled organism and grows and develops into the form of a baby. According to the evolutionary psychologists, babies’ minds are inferior and incomplete. They do not possess the “faculties” of rational beings, but during childhood continue the process of their personal evolution, until they finally reach the stage of full-fledged humanity in adulthood.
Charlotte Mason describes their beliefs thus:
But then he is an evolutionist, and feels himself pledged to accommodate the child to the principles of evolution. Therefore the little person is supposed to go through a thousand stages of moral and intellectual development, leading him from the condition of the savage or ape to that of the intelligent and cultivated human being. (Parents and Children, p. 251)
Another popular comparison suggested that the baby was like an oyster, needing food and sleep but not genuinely cognizant. And thus, educational practices were based upon the idea that children possessed incomplete and incapable minds, which needed to be developed in some way. Charlotte Mason disagreed.
The notion that an infant is a huge oyster, who by slow degrees, and more and more, develops into that splendid intellectual and moral being, a full-grown man or woman, has been impressed upon us so much of late years that we believe intellectual spoon-meat to be the only food for what we are pleased to call ‘little minds.’ (School Education, p. 171)
Charlotte Mason did not accept the idea that children were intellectually incapable, and she also objected to educational methods which were designed to “develop” the mind that she believed was already there.
But is the baby more than a ‘huge oyster’? That is the problem before us and hitherto educators have been inclined to answer in the negative. Their notion is that by means of a pull here, a push there, a compression elsewhere a person is at last turned out according to the pattern the educator has in mind. (Philosophy of Education, p. 33-34)
It appears that these educators did not believe that a child was a person until he was made so, aided by the process of his education.
This, then, is the reason that Charlotte Mason felt it necessary to make the very first point of her educational philosophy the assertion that “Children are born persons.” She is refuting a popular idea within her society that children are something less than legitimate persons at birth. This is why she explicitly states that “children are born persons,” rather than simply “children are persons.” The inclusion of the word “born” shows that she is addressing this very issue–that children begin life in a state that is somehow less than fully human.
Miss Mason believed in evolution–physical evolution–and therefore confesses that her natural tendency is to agree with the ideas of the evolutionary psychologists.
“Now I have absolutely no theory to advance, and am, on scientific grounds, disposed to accept the theories of the evolutionary psychologists. But facts are too strong for me.” (Parents and Children, p. 252) The facts to which she refers are simply the children themselves. Her experience with children convinced her of their innate intelligence and ability. She marveled at the quantity of information a child of one or two years of age was able to acquire. She found children to be reasoning, intelligent, capable learners from the very first, and thus she rejected the idea that there was ever a time in a child’s life when he was not a genuine person.
Her belief in the personality of children caused her to view them with respect, rather than the lofty arrogance of a superior being.
We must reverence or despise children; and while we regard them as incomplete and undeveloped beings who will one day arrive at the completeness of man, rather than as weak and ignorant persons, whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own, we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly and even tenderly we commit the offence. (Philosophy of Education, p. 238)
This primary tenant of Miss Mason’s philosophy is the moving force behind some of the more practical applications of her method, such as the rejection of “twaddle” and her insistence upon the use of the finest quality material in literature and art. She recognized that children went through developmental stages in their mental growth, but rejected the idea that they were evolving from less intelligent to more intelligent creatures. “In a word, we are very tenacious of the dignity and individuality of our children. We recognise steady, regular growth with no transition stage.” (Parents and Children, p. 232)
Charlotte Mason was very aware of the philosophies that prevailed during her lifetime. She was well-read and well-informed. Yet, she did not blindly accept every theory that was presented, but attempted to evaluate information according to her own knowledge and experience. Thus, she said, “The physical evolution of man admits of no doubt; the psychical evolution, on the other hand, is not only not proven, but the whole weight of existing evidence appears to go into the opposite scale.” (Parents and Children, p. 257) She simply rejected the notion that children were not genuine persons in their own right. She did not, however, glorify children, as some of her contemporaries did. She tells us:
I am considering a child as he is, and am not tracing him, either with Wordsworth, to the heights above, or with the evolutionist, to the depths below; because a person is a mystery, that is, we cannot explain him or account for him, but must accept him as he is. (Philosophy of Education, p. 238-239)
Therefore, she begins her whole educational philosophy by assuring us that “Children are born persons,” and we can take up our responsibilities of educating them with that premise, and all that it implies, in mind.
The second point of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy resembles the first in its form: “They [children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil.”
This statement is likely to be misinterpreted if we try to analyze it only from our 20th century vantage point. Once again, it becomes necessary to look at the philosophical climate of Victorian England to understand why Miss Mason would include a statement like this in her educational principles. And once again, we have to look at some of the “new” science that was emerging at the time. Darwin was not the only influential figure. Other scientists were formulating ideas about evolution, and particularly about the part that heredity played in evolution and in shaping one’s life. This idea was picked up by the philosophers and applied to children in a disturbing way. If children are born with inherited traits of character, they reasoned, then nothing can be done to change them–just as we are unable to alter their inherited hair, eye, and skin color. They are as nature made them, and it is fruitless to attempt to make of them something that they are not. A child born “good” will grow up to be good, but a child born “bad” will be bad. Charlotte Mason discusses these ideas at great length.
This belief is called “hereditary determinism,” and it was so much a part of the general thought in Victorian England, that references to it may be found in not only scientific or educational writings, but in literature as well. Writers such as Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy allude to these ideas. Charlotte Mason does not use the term “hereditary determinism” herself, but there can be no doubt that it was an issue she chose to address.
If heredity means so much [in giving a child his character]–if, as would seem at the first glance, the child comes into the world with his character ready-made–what remains for the parents to do but to enable him to work out his own salvation without let or hindrance of their making, upon the lines of his individuality? (Parents and Children, p. 22-23)
If this theory were true, the efforts of parents or teachers to mold a child’s character and train him in right living would be useless or needless.
Because we live in an era in which scientific ideas seem always to have permeated society, it is difficult to imagine the impact that truly revolutionary scientific ideas made upon all areas of society and living. This new idea of heredity raised questions regarding child-training and education. Charlotte Mason asks:
How far does Heredity count?…. we talk about it and about it; call it heredity, and take it into count in our notions, at any rate, if not in our practice. Nobody writes a biography now without attempting to produce progenitors and early surroundings that shall account for his man or his woman. This fact of heredity is very much before the public, and by-and-by will have its bearing on the loose notions people hold about education….Now the practical educational question of our day is just this, Can he help it? or, Can his parents help it?, or, Must the child sit down for life with whatever twist he has inherited? (Parents and Children, p. 69-70)
Unfortunately, some parents and educators accepted the idea that a child’s nature was predetermined by heredity and could not be changed. They abdicated their proper role of training children to behave morally and develop good character. This trend alarmed Charlotte Mason. She speaks of “that conception of heredity which is quietly taking possession of the public mind, and causing many thoughtful parents to abstain from very active efforts to mould the character of their children.” (Parents and Children, p. 155) She argued vigorously against this tendency. The fact that Charlotte Mason includes the word “not” in her second educational statement is a hint that she is refuting something. If we remove that negative, the statement becomes “Children are born either good or bad.” In other words, their character is determined by heredity or “nature.” (Again, notice the inclusion of the word “born.”) This was the premise which parents were being encouraged to accept. Miss Mason rejected it.
We must face the facts. We are not meant to grow up in a state of nature. There is something simple, conclusive, even idyllic, in the statement that So-and-so is ‘natural.’ What more would you have? Jean Jacques Rousseau preached the doctrine of natural education, and no reformer has had a greater following. ‘It’s human nature,’ we say, when stormy Harry snatches his drum from Jack; when baby Marjorie, who is not two, screams for Susie’s doll. So it is, and for that very reason it must be dealt with early. (Parents and Children, p. 64-65)
And again: “The ways of nature are, there is no denying it, very attractive in all young creatures, and it is so delightful to see a child do as ‘’tis his nature to,’ that you forget that Nature, left to herself, produces a waste, be it never so lovely.” (Formation of Character, p. 24)
Charlotte Mason had no patience with those who would leave children alone to develop according to their natures. She describes the result of ignoring the negative tendencies a child possesses, and offers a solution.
A child has an odious custom, so constant, that it is his quality, will be his character if you let him alone; he is spiteful, he is sly, he is sullen. No one is to blame for it; it was born in him. What are you to do with such inveterate habit of nature? Just this; treat it as a bad habit, and set up the opposite good habit. (Parents and Children, p. 85)
All of the things that Miss Mason has to say about the development of habits and the formation of character swing upon this hinge. She believed that parents first, and educators second, were under obligation to impart good character to children. The idea that a child’s character was a foregone conclusion based on heredity was widely disseminated, and she called upon parents and teachers not to be deceived by these theories.
This is exactly the reason that her second educational principle is, “They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil.” She is warning parents that children may inherit tendencies–some good, some bad–but they are only “possibilities” and children must be trained, guided, and directed to develop the good ones and conquer the bad, because their ultimate character will be determined in this way, and not by nature alone. Even a potentially good trait will not necessarily develop fully unless it is nurtured. She says, “The duteous father and mother, on the contrary, who discern any lovely family trait in one of their children, set themselves to nourish and cherish it as a gardener the peaches he means to show.” (Parents and Children, p. 75-76)
Miss Mason knew how easy it would be for parents to accept these misguided ideas, and assume that God would look after their children according to their natures. She warns,
And indeed this is what too many Christian parents expect: they let a child grow free as the wild bramble, putting forth unchecked whatever is in him–thorn, coarse flower, insipid fruit,–trusting, they will tell you, that the grace of God will prune and dig and prop the wayward branches lying prone. And their trust is not always misplaced; but the poor man endures anguish, is torn asunder in the process of recovery which his parents might have spared him had they trained the early shoots which should develop by-and-by into the character of their child. (Home Education, p. 105)
This certainly calls to mind the Biblical injunction to “train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6 KJV)
There is not room here to discuss Charlotte Mason’s ideas about habit at length, but a short synopsis will be helpful. Miss Mason believed that the tendencies children inherited could be strengthened or overcome through habit. This was based on more scientific research of her day, which showed that actions and thoughts which occurred repeatedly made actual physical impressions in the brain. Thus, she believed that the development of good habits would suppress the bad tendencies a child might have inherited by actually changing the “shape” of his brain. This is why she reiterates that “habit is ten natures”–because she believed the natural tendencies could be strengthened or eliminated by the formation of habits. These habits would eventually lead to character, and the development of a good character was a primary educational goal for Charlotte Mason.
Disposition, intellect, genius, come pretty much by nature; but character is an achievement, the one practical achievement possible to us for ourselves and for our children; and all real advance in family or individual is along the lines of character. (Parents and Children, p. 72)
Part one of Formation of Character, the fifth volume in the educational series, is devoted to demonstrating how habits may be formed to overcome inherited or inherent faults of character. In this section, Charlotte Mason discusses her basic philosophy about inherited tendencies and the possibility of using habit to actually change the physical material of the brain to correct a faulty character. Using a number of stories to show how she meant these principles to be worked out in practice, these chapters make the meaning of her second educational principle quite plain.
We have discussed the first two educational principles of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. Both principles have been shown to relate to educational ideas about children which were prevalent during Miss Mason’s lifetime.
When Charlotte Mason wrote her second educational principle, “They [children] are not born, either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil,” how did she expect parents to understand that statement? Within the context of their particular society, it was easily understood to refer to the then-current idea that a child’s character was determined by heredity. Because this idea is not in the forefront of public thought in our society, we seek alternative interpretations. Reading The Original Homeschooling Series in full is the best way to determine how this principle was meant to be understood, and what bearing it has upon education.
When we read Charlotte Mason’s statement that children are not born “either good or bad”, it is easy to imagine that she is making a theological statement. But, in fact, she is not addressing the sin nature or spiritual condition of the child. She is addressing the subject of his character–his moral behavior and conduct–something which can, in fact, be affected by education and training. It is an unfortunate fact that a true Christian may yet have a poor character, and an unbeliever an excellent one, although their conduct will not determine their eternal destiny. It is also true that “tendencies” of character, such as a quick temper, seem to be passed on from parent to child.
Charlotte Mason possessed ideals which centered on the idea that the improved character of each individual would work to improve the evolution of the race, but she did not imagine that a good character was any substitute for a relationship with Christ. “Righteousness, in the only sense in which it is possible for men, means believing and trusting God.” (Parents and Children, p. 140) Notice her use of the word “righteousness.” This is a religious statement, while the second educational principle is an educational one.
Miss Mason did not believe that good character, which she felt was within the grasp of educational methods, would provide salvation for an individual. Rather, she believed that proper training of children would lay the foundation for a child’s hoped-for future relationship with God.
Thus it rests with parents to ease the way of their child by giving him habits of the god life in thought, feeling, and action, and even in spiritual things. We cannot make a child ‘good’; but, in this way, we can lay paths for the good life in the very substance of his brain. We cannot make him hear the voice of God; but, again, we can make paths where the Lord God may walk in the cool of the evening. (Formation of Character, p. 141-142)
In more than one volume of her series, Charlotte Mason speaks of children as sinners who are in need of a Savior.
Few grown up people, alas! have so keen and vivid a sense of sin as a little transgressor say of six or seven. Many a naughty, passionate, or sulky and generally hardened little offender is so, simply because he does not know, with any personal knowledge, that there is a Saviour of the world, who has for him instant forgiveness and waiting love. But here again, the thought of a child should be turned outward to Jesus, our Saviour, and not inward to his own thoughts and feelings towards our blessed Saviour. (School Education, p. 146)
Miss Mason encourages parents to be the ones who shape their child’s reverence for God by their own words and actions, and mentions the need to pray for them. She imagines that moment when a child is miserable because of his misdeeds, and his mother has the opportunity to tell him about the hope found only in Christ.
‘My poor little boy, you have been very naughty today! Could you not help it?’ ‘No, mother,’ with sobs. ‘No, I suppose not; but there is a way of help.’ And then the mother tells her child how the Lord Jesus is our Saviour, because He saves us from our sins. (Home Education, p. 351)
When we consider Charlotte Mason’s educational principles, it is important to place them within the context of her society, with all its peculiar ideas and mores. It is also important to consider the passages in which she expounds on her succinctly stated principles. When Charlotte Mason asserted “They [children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil,” she is actually issuing a warning to parents and educators not to neglect their responsibilities in forming a child’s character, and training him as he ought to be trained. This is the only interpretation which can be found in her educational series.
As a matter of fact, Charlotte Mason was aware that the idea about habit being the means of overcoming a fault could be mistaken for the idea that man could reform his own sin nature completely. She addresses such a possible argument in this dialogue from one of her stories:
‘I confess I don’t follow: this line of argument should make the work of redemption gratuitous. According to this theory, every parent can save his child, and every man can save himself.’
‘No, my dear; there you’re wrong. I agree with Evans [a doctor]. It is we who lose the efficacy of the great Redemption by failing to see what it has accomplished. That we have still to engage in a spiritual warfare, enabled by spiritual aids, Dr. Evans allows. His point is, as I understand it, why embarrass ourselves with these less material ills of the flesh which are open to treatment on the same lines, barring the drugs, as a broken limb or a disordered stomach. Don’t you see how it works? We fall, and fret, and repent, and fall again; and are so over-busy with our own internal affairs, that we have no time to get that knowledge of God which is the life of the living soul?’ (Formation of Character, p. 59-60)
Charlotte Mason believed that the development of good habits could only help an individual overcome the sort of recurring trouble that we sometimes call “besetting sins.” Before we dismiss her ideas as wrong or unbiblical, it might be well to consider the possibility that they have at least some merit. Many daily struggles are the fault of habit. Consider an individual who has allowed the use of foul language to become habitual. Ugly words rise to his lips, unbidden. It is a matter of habit, and he does not always think about what he says. If he wishes to change, a great effort must be made to unlearn the bad habit and replace the curses with other words. How much better if the habit had never been allowed to develop! Keeping bad habits from developing, while establishing the sort of habits that lay a moral foundation, was a responsibility Miss Mason did not want parents to neglect.
Charlotte Mason does not actually consider this information about habit new. She quotes Thomas a Kempis and other historical figures who noticed the means by which good habits could drive out bad. However, the scientific evidence which supported the already-known principle was new, and this is what excited her. The possibilities for developing good habits which would insure a good character seemed limitless, and she felt that this could only lead to a better Christian life.
There are good and evil tendencies in body and mind, heart and soul; and the hope set before us is that we can foster the good so as to attenuate the evil; that is, on condition that we put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion. (Philosophy of Education, p. 46)
There is no doubt that Miss Mason hoped her educational methods and philosophies would enhance religious growth in children, but she did not intend education to supersede religion in any way. She intended education to be the servant of religion. Her goal is one that is probably shared by many homeschoolers and Christian school educators today.
We have seen that when Charlotte Mason wrote her first two educational principles, “Children are born persons,” and, “They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil,” she was addressing ideas that were prevalent in her society. The substance of these ideas becomes clear as we read her books, and understand the forces of thought that were influencing the public during her lifetime. Miss Mason devoted her life to education, and is among the few individuals who have attempted to personally articulate a complete philosophy of education. As part of this process, she found it necessary to express her own beliefs about some of those influential ideas.
This article has not been an attempt to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. Whether or not we agree with her on every principle is less important than that we seek to have an honest understanding of those principles. Only then can we evaluate their effectiveness and validity for ourselves. Understanding the background of her first two educational principles will make The Original Home Schooling Series somewhat easier to comprehend, and it is only by reading Charlotte Mason’s own writings that we can fully appreciate the scope of her methods, and the possibility that her philosophy is still workable today.