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Do you know what a shibboleth is? Can you say the word?
There was a time and a place where it might have meant the difference between life and death. Every language does not contain every sound, and if you don’t learn to make some sounds as a child, it can be difficult to acquire them later. I know Americans who can’t roll their Rs, and where I live, there is no “th” sound. These differences can give you away. If there were a war, and you captured someone, but weren’t quite sure if they belonged to the enemy side or not, you could ask them to say a test word containing the tricky sound. There is a pretty good chance they wouldn’t get it out quite correctly, and then you’d know. Friend—or foe. Shibboleth was a matter of life or death, as you can read in Judges chapter 12:4-6:
Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.
And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;
Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan.
They spoke the same language, but the Ephraimites had an accent, and they just couldn’t get that “sh” sound out right. It gave them away every time. If you can’t quite get the sound of Shibboleth correct, you don’t have to worry. No one is going to slay you in the passages of Jordan today.
The word shibboleth entered the English language. No one literally has to pronounce “shibboleth,” but one may be expected to adhere to a custom or profess an opinion. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a shibboleth is “a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning.”
The way it works is not that different from what happened in Judges. The adherents of a party, sect, or belief use their shibboleth as a benchmark. It’s not that you have to speak a particular word, but you do have to toe the party line. It’s a test. Do you agree? If you do, they let you in to the gang. If you don’t proclaim the shibboleth properly, out you go. You won’t be killed, but you aren’t welcome.
You may be wondering, “What on earth does this have to do with education or Charlotte Mason?” I’m glad you asked.
Charlotte Mason was not a fan of shibboleths, and I am understating the case. Her associate, Elsie Kitching, used the word “dread” to describe her feelings about them. What was she so afraid of? The Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU) had come into being because of her educational ideas, expressed in a series of lectures that were published as Home Education. But Charlotte Mason considered that society a living, vital source of continued thought and growth. She also knew that the exact needs of parents in one place might not be the same as the exact needs of parents elsewhere. It was important to her that the various branches of the PNEU be allowed to meet and discuss topics that would foster thought and action based upon ideas. It was not a requirement that everyone agree about everything, and the various articles that appeared in The Parents’ Review made that clear. And it was fine with Charlotte Mason. When she knew there was a difference of opinion, as the editor, she would add a note to the end of an article, “Discussion is invited.” She was willing to hear various points of view, and to allow others to hear them as well.
The enthusiasm and vitality of the P.N.E.U. branches gave Charlotte the greatest encouragement. She valued their local independence and initiative. (The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondeley, p. 31)
We read that “each local branch was left free to organize itself” and “a broad unifying basis of thought supported the whole union.” (SOCM, p. 42)
We aren’t left in doubt about what that unifying basis was, either.
Charlotte Mason describes the basis of thought behind the union as a tentative effort in education “having more or less the characteristic of a philosophy; notably having a central idea, a body of thought with various members working in vital harmony.” (SOCM, p. 42) And yes, that’s why I borrowed the phrase as the title of my most recent book.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what Charlotte Mason’s attitude might be toward the various groups that have grown up over the last twenty-odd years that put her name to their work. I have been a part of such groups—for example, the curriculum project that is AmblesideOnline. If a group adheres to the central body of thought, do you think she’d mind if they add “Charlotte Mason” to their name?
One cannot say for sure, although she made a special effort to avoid having the work of the PNEU associated with any particular names (there were members who wanted to say, for example, that the PNEU was following the thought of Froebel or Pestalozzi). She didn’t refuse to have their names attached to the PNEU because she necessarily disagreed with them. Her concern was to avoid the hindrances associated with a name, because any single person’s teaching would limit their scope of endeavors. She resisted attaching any name to the PNEU, including her own, and she got her way. Charlotte Mason reiterated that at the very founding of the union:
…care was taken to avoid limitations which would hinder the advance of science; especially that most serious of all hindrances, the docketing [of] the union with any given name or names. (SOCM, p. 53)
And she went on to tell us why:
The moment [education] frames a stereotyped creed represented by any given name or names of the past or present, she becomes formal and mechanical rather than spontaneous and living. The effort to define or limit in matters too broad and deep to be expressed in a definition or represented by a name is the history of all division whether in religion or education. (SOCM, p. 54, emphasis added)
If you have read even a little of Charlotte Mason’s own writing, you have probably encountered the idea that formal, mechanical systems were to be abhorred. One of her principles is that “education is a life,” and life is hindered and cramped by systems. The use of her own name is no safeguard against allowing her ideas to be confined to something “formal and mechanical.” The very act of putting a given name to educational ideas limits it to a “stereotyped creed.” There is no room for growth, and the life of the ideas may be snuffed out by confinement.
If you consider how Charlotte Mason felt about systems, can you begin to comprehend why she might have dreaded shibboleths? She didn’t like the idea of limiting education too narrowly, and she didn’t like division into camps. The central body of thought was vital, but the implementation of it could take various forms. You have probably seen it yourself. Do you know Charlotte Mason homeschoolers who use a different curriculum than you, or who are following a different timetable, or who incorporate a different framework for history? Do you think those differences would have mattered to Charlotte Mason if the unifying principles were adhered to? Would she have wanted the point of difference to be a shibboleth that separated the sheep from the goats, as it were? What if there aren’t any sheep and goats? Children are born persons.
Charlotte Mason knew that the principles she expressed were so fundamentally true that they could accommodate themselves to any situation. When questions arose, “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 a Parent’s Review article by Elsie Kitching) She didn’t imagine for a moment that the precise way the PNEU did things would remain unaltered forever (and it didn’t). The PNEU was built upon the faith that “education is the science of relations,” and for that reason,
This faith can shed a searchlight beam on the educational needs and practices of a new age. It can inspire new efforts to meet changing conditions of society.” (SOCM, p. 199)
“New efforts” were okay with the PNEU. There has been an explosion of new curricula, new bloggers, new podcasts in the past few years, all professing to follow Charlotte Mason. This is no bad thing, and Charlotte Mason was more than happy for the various members of the PNEU to share their knowledge about nature, music, history, or anything that would contribute to the knowledge of everyone else in the movement. Provided the principles are kept in mind, various implementations of those principles can be illuminating for us all. If you’re not sure whether a particular practice is in line with the principles, it’s only by delving into the principles that you will be able to know. This safeguards us from faulty methods while still allowing plenty of room for variation.
Every lesson needs a special giving and the method is based upon broad principles which leave the teacher all the exercise of her own ingenuity. (In Memoriam, PNEU publication)
But there is a pitfall out there that Charlotte Mason dreaded, and any student of Charlotte Mason’s runs the risk of falling in. The easiest way to avoid falling into a pit is for someone to tell you exactly where it is, so you can avoid it, and that is what I’m proposing to do here. The pitfall Charlotte Mason dreaded was that any individual part of the PNEU teaching and practice would become a shibboleth. In In Memoriam, her very close associate Elsie Kitching wrote:
Miss Mason always dreaded lest the P.N.E.U. should suffer by the repetition of the shibboleths. (In Memoriam, p. 122)
Charlotte Mason did not want some acid test of authenticity to be applied to the educational philosophy that she considered a living, growing, life-giving force. Her primary concern was for the principles, and she did not ask her colleagues to “say shibboleth” or be cast from favor. On the contrary, she urged her former students to keep the principles fresh in their minds in their educational endeavors.
Your definite and distinct code of educational principles must be kept fresh in your minds by reading and re-reading your books and pamphlets and reports. (from a letter reprinted in L’Umile Pianta)
It was the principles (especially their presentation of education as a whole), and not any particular practice that she wanted to protect.
Miss Kitching even warned explicitly,
It is well to consider the position she gives to Attention in mental training lest the method of narration should become a shibboleth whereas it is only the outward and audible sign of that inward and spiritual grace, the power of attention, by which the mind feeds upon the food convenient for it. (In Memoriam, p. 122)
Now, narration is such a fundamental part of a Charlotte Mason education—it is even included in the principles—that one cannot imagine a “Charlotte Mason” education without narration. I’m tempted to make a shibboleth of it, myself. And yet even something so foundational should not be allowed to become a shibboleth. Why? Well, Charlotte Mason never told us to give children a “Charlotte Mason” education (remember how she felt about names?) She said she wanted to offer children a “liberal education.” Narration is only the “outward and audible sign” of an “inward and spiritual grace.” Narration is an important and valuable tool, but it is the work going on in the mind and heart of the child that is what really matters, and if that is occurring, however it manifests itself, we should be satisfied. I’m not suggesting you give up narration, and neither is Miss Kitching, nor would have Miss Mason. What she is saying is—don’t make a shibboleth of it. Don’t make it a yardstick by which you measure how authentic someone’s practice of Charlotte Mason’s principles is. Above all—don’t adhere to the practices by rote but lose the more vital reasons that underpin them. “Narration” may take many forms.
And if we can’t make a shibboleth of narration, what of the rest of it? The timetables, the three terms, the precise number of pictures from an artist for picture study, the number of foreign languages a child learns, what history to begin with, how many minutes your lesson is, how many pages you read, how reading is taught, what media you use in your nature notebook, what handicraft you choose, or whether you include music with your Swedish Drill? How about tea time, sol-fa, or habit-training? Is it okay to make a shibboleth of any of those? What do you think? What do you think Charlotte Mason would have said? She actually told us, “we must not make a fetish of habit.” (Home Education, p. 192) If we can’t make shibboleths (or fetishes) of individual “Charlotte Mason” things, where should our focus be?
I’m not suggesting we toss out any part of what we think of as a “Charlotte Mason” education. I think you should try your hand at as many of the things she recommended as possible. I especially think you should implement narration to the fullest extent possible. But I also think that we should take a leaf from Miss Mason’s book, and dread making a shibboleth of any of these things, of casting out or castigating those who don’t do things precisely as we do them, or even precisely as Miss Mason set forth for the PNEU to do them. Sometimes her insistence on adherence to a given practice was for the sake of consistency within the school—she had to answer to parents and inspectors—not because a principle was at stake.
Charlotte Mason wrote,
We sometimes err, I think, in taking a part for the whole and part of a part for the whole of that part. (SOCM, p. 261)
When we make a shibboleth of anything, we are hyper-focusing on a part to the detriment of the greater whole. In the same way that Jesus distilled the entire Old Testament law into the all-encompassing principles that we should love God and love our neighbor, Charlotte Mason distilled her whole philosophy into a few essential principles. Her primary concern was the essential personhood of children, and the other principle she was passionate about was “education is the science of relations,” which she called a universal principle. She laid no personal claim on those principles and I suspect that is why she did not attach her name to them.
I have not made this body of educational thought any more than Columbus made America. But I think it has been given me…to recognize that education is the science of relations, to perceive certain working theories of the conduct of the will and of the reason, to exact due reverence for the personality of the child,…and some few other matters which go to make up a living, pulsing body of educational thought which I find to be a wonderful power in the lives of those who apprehend it. (SOCM, p 108, emphasis added)
It was at about the time she wrote this that she also wrote the synopsis of her thinking which we call her twenty principles. Although there are twenty, you see the two—relations and personhood—that summarize the rest (because of course the conduct of will and reason are an aspect of that personhood). These principles are living and exert a powerful influence on those who “apprehend it.” For Charlotte Mason, Education is the science of relations is the guiding principle that leads to the various practices.
Let it be our negative purpose to discourage in every way we can the educational faddist, that is, the person who accepts a one-sided notion in place of a universal idea as his educational guide. Our positive purpose is to present, in season and out of season, one such universal idea: that is, that education is the science of relations. (SOCM, p. 271)
You can’t really make a shibboleth out of a universal idea.
As Charlotte Mason prepared for an educational conference as early as 1898, she wrote that she wanted the new union (PNEU) to…
…grasp the view of education as a whole. . . . On this occasion I think we need not trouble ourselves about how to teach children this or that but rather get ourselves fired with the notion of the manifold intimacies with which we might enrich the lives of our children as occasion offers. (SOCM, p. 104-05)
Eventually, you will want to address “how to teach children this or that,” but first you must grasp education as a whole, through the consideration of a few—just a very few—fundamental principles. (That’s what In Vital Harmony is all about.) When you do that, the risk of setting up an idol or a shibboleth grows much, much smaller. Educational principles are a firmer foundation than the “repetition of the shibboleths.” When we understand them, we won’t feel free to randomly do anything we please, but can consider our options in light of sound natural laws of education. After Charlotte Mason’s death, Miss Kitching tried to carry things on in the same spirit, and she said, “we need to take a bird’s-eye view of the whole ground covered by any problem, lest we should not see the wood for the trees.” (From a Parent’s Review article ) “Education as a whole” is too important to miss, to be waylaid by shibboleths.
As you read and study Charlotte Mason’s own writings (and I hope you will), and as you learn and grow by using her educational methods, you will possibly encounter Charlotte Mason teachers who have fallen into this error. They may point at what you are doing and declare it invalid or “not CM” because it doesn’t line up with their chosen shibboleth. May I be forgiven, for I have been guilty, too. That’s how I know how easy it is fall into this error. The antidote is to read and read what Charlotte Mason actually said. Fear not. If what you are doing is consistent with the principles, that’s what really matters. Charlotte Mason herself said, “there is no last word to be said upon education,” (School Education, p. 46) and was open to new thinking, new ideas, new books. If Charlotte Mason didn’t need shibboleths, why do we?
Please don’t let any shibboleth deter you or discourage you. Charlotte Mason would not have laid that burden on you. She valued the original thinking of the various PNEU branches and of her student-teachers who went out into the world. She knew they would continue learning and thinking and growing, and her concern was that they would remember the principles and apply them “as occasion offers,” not that they would never do anything differently. Sometimes her students were perplexed by her refusal to give them hard and fast rules to follow.
If someone confronts you with a shibboleth, maneuver your way back to the principles. Have the courage of your convictions, but there is no need to feel obliged to sweep the scales from another educator’s eyes. Charlotte Mason may have dreaded the encroachment of shibboleths, but she was content to let ideas speak for themselves without contention.
Attack nothing. Be indignant at nothing. When people’s minds are put on the defensive, they have no room to receive new ideas. (SOCM, p. 106)
Don’t stumble at a shibboleth, but don’t worry about trying to slay it either. If you do, it may be like the many-headed hydra and just grow stronger. The shibboleths are always with us, but we can take a leaf from Charlotte Mason’s book and eschew them. One of her close colleagues said, “she never thought her way was the way but only a way” (In Memoriam). That kind of generous, open thinking will keep you from raising divisive shibboleths of your own as well as avoiding the pitfalls of anyone else’s. If Charlotte Mason wouldn’t ask us to “say shibboleth” by way of test, why would we do that, either? It is much more profitable to allow the unifying principles to bind us together as we seek to teach our children and to learn and grow ourselves.
Discussion is invited!
N.B. Some links are affiliate links.
N.B. The Story of Charlotte Mason is out of print and difficult to obtain for a reasonable price.
N.B. But In Memoriam is online, and can be read freely as well as purchased at the link above.
5 thoughts on “Would Charlotte ask us to “say Shibboleth?””
Thanks for writing this! In 1992, I read Charlotte Mason’s Towards a Philosophy of Education and I was completely sold on this philosophy’s being the right match for our family’s home education endeavors. Over the decades, we homeschooled our ten children adhering to this philosophy but without community (since, apparently, I was an unconvincing Charlotte Mason evangelist to my local fellow homeschoolers). I had been aware of Ambleside Online, but I had always enjoyed developing my own curricula so I hadn’t utilized it nor realized that a huge community had developed. Nor was I aware of the growing popularity of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education until 2017 when I, like a castaway believing he was on a deserted island for years stumbles onto a city, discovered several well-established Charlotte Mason camps. At first I was thrilled! These were my people! Finally, I was not alone! But I soon discovered that there was an abundance of shibboleths. I struggled to comprehend how this philosophy of education to whose principles I had adhered for decades had become so rigid and prescribed in some of these camps. Even as I have struggled with the shibboleths, however, I have greatly enjoyed and been encouraged by participating in community with fellow Charlotte Mason adherents. I appreciate your perspective on the importance of refraining from developing shibboleths—and your welcoming discussion!
“When we make a shibboleth of anything, we are hyper-focusing on a part to the detriment of the greater whole.”
“Please don’t let any shibboleth deter you or discourage you. Charlotte Mason would not have laid that burden on you.”
These points are very needed, Karen, and succinctly phrased.
Bravo – and thank you for another marvelous article,
Thank you! I need to hear this- both as a slightly zealous novice leading a cm reading group and as a mum trying to work out what to do next year about science and geography! Stick.to.the.principles. off to read cm…
What a thoughtful and timely post! Thank you!
Bravo. So well said! Thank you so much for putting this in such emphatic yet gracious words. We need this!