My last post dwelt almost entirely in the land of the theoretical; we’ve been camping out in the world of ideas and ideals. I am eager to get to begin telling you about some of the practices we use in our home to put flesh on our ideals, but we are not quite there yet. Today I will be sharing with you the two ideas or philosophies that have most keenly informed our homeschool life: Charlotte Mason and schole.
I “discovered” Charlotte Mason about ten years ago when I was first researching homeschooling methods. Somehow I stumbled across a website called Ambleside Online. I remember perusing the site a little bit and even checking out the forums...and then proceeded to move on, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information. Her ideas were so far from what I was familiar with from my own education that I couldn’t even wrap my mind around what it would look like to homeschool using her methods. I went on to read The Well Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer, and I appreciated the clear-cut instructions, and the fact that the entire K-12 plan was right there for me in one handy book. So that’s what we dove into, and followed various forms of “classical” education for the next nine years.
Fast forward now to the summer of 2015. I had started actively listening to podcasts when I was out running or doing household tasks, and came upon the Circe Institute Podcast Network. What. A. Blessing. I was introduced there to Cindy Rollins and the Mason Jar (as in Charlotte Mason!) podcast and my curiosity was piqued once again. I had the nagging feeling that we were missing something really big in our homeschool. The only way I can describe that “something” would be beauty. My kids knew lots of stuff. They were usually well behaved and always impressed visitors with how well they conversed with adults, etc, etc. A lot of things were going right, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that it just wasn’t all coming together.
Over the next few months I began diving into Ambleside Online, reading articles and blogs, studying booklists, trying my darndest to figure out how I could tweak what we were doing to fit into a Charlotte Mason mold. Finally one day in January of 2016, I had enough. Mentally exhausted and feeling overwhelmed with school planning, I threw in the towel and decided to go all in with Ambleside. Everything I saw there just made so much sense. Charlotte talked so much about the “feast” of education, of giving our students a full and generous banquet of ideas, and I knew in my heart that this was what we needed.
Who Is Charlotte Mason?
Charlotte Mason was an educator, author, and teacher of teachers in the early 1900’s. The six-volume compilation of her writings is some pretty thick reading, but thankfully she condensed her ideas into twenty principles which provide an excellent overview of what a “Charlotte Mason education” looks like. She expounds on each principle in her six volumes, and especially in the final volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education. You can find the complete text of this book here. I’m sure we will cover these twenty principles much more in the future, but for now I will simply list them for you here and let them sink in…
1. Children are born persons.
2. They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.*
3. The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental; but--
4. These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.
5. Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments--the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. The P.N.E.U.** Motto is: "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life."
6. When we say that "education is an atmosphere," we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a 'child-environment' especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child's level.
7. By "education is a discipline," we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e., to our habits.
8. In saying that "education is a life," the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.
9. We hold that the child's mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.
10. Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher's axiom is ,'what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.'
11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that,--
12. "Education is the Science of Relations"; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of--
"Those first-born affinities
"That fit our new existence to existing things."
13. In devising a SYLLABUS for a normal child, of whatever social class, three points must be considered:
(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.
(b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity)
(c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.
14. As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should 'tell back' after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.
15. A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarising. and the like.
Acting upon these and some other points in the behaviour of mind, we find that the educability of children is enormously greater than has hitherto been supposed, and is but little dependent on such circumstances as heredity and environment.
Nor is the accuracy of this statement limited to clever children or to children of the educated classes: thousands of children in Elementary Schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behaviour of mind.
16. There are two guides to moral and intellectual self-management to offer to children, which we may call 'the way of the will' and 'the way of the reason.'
17. The way of the will: Children should be taught, (a) to distinguish between 'I want' and 'I will.' (b) That the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts from that which we desire but do not will. (c) That the best way to turn our thoughts is to think of or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting. (d) That after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its work with new vigour. (This adjunct of the will is familiar to us as diversion, whose office it is to ease us for a time from will effort, that we may 'will' again with added power. The use of suggestion as an aid to the will is to be deprecated, as tending to stultify and stereotype character, It would seem that spontaneity is a condition of development, and that human nature needs the discipline of failure as well as of success.)
18. The way of reason: We teach children, too, not to 'lean (too confidently) to their own understanding'; because the function of reason is to give logical demonstration (a) of mathematical truth, (b) of an initial idea, accepted by the will. In the former case, reason is, practically, an infallible guide, but in the latter, it is not always a safe one; for, whether that idea be right or wrong, reason will confirm it by irrefragable proofs.
19. Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.
20. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and 'spiritual' life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.
As you can see, Miss Mason thought very deeply about how to educate children...and adults. If some of what she says here sounds like gibberish to you, don’t worry. I will be unpacking a lot of this and putting the “flesh” on it in much more depth in the future. But if I had to pin down just a few things that are defining characteristics of a Charlotte Mason education, it would be the following:
~A wide and generous “feast” of ideas: the mind, like the body, will be the most healthy when provided with “food” (ideas) from as broad a range of “subjects” as possible. This leads to…
~The relations between all things: when we have an understanding of a broad range of ideas, it becomes much more natural to see things in relationship with each other. Nothing and no one exists in isolation...we live in a world of complex relationships.
~The idea of education as habits: beginning in the earliest years we can begin the “education” of our children by establishing healthy habits, or discipline. Later this organically grows into the capacity for self-control, which leads to…
~Self-governance: or, in Mason’s words, the acceptance or rejection of ideas. Because, after all, ideas have consequences; the ideas we embrace become our actions.
~The practice of narration: Narration is simply “telling back” what was just read (or read to you, in the case of younger children). Miss Mason considered narration to be absolutely essential...we’ll get into this much more very soon!
After putting these ideas fully into practice in our home for several months, the only way I can describe it is coming home. After nearly ten years of searching for the “perfect” homeschool approach, I can honestly say that all the ideals I was seeking for our children’s education are satisfied in this approach. This is certainly not to say that our execution of these ideals is always perfect on a day-to-day basis, but I finally have a sense of contentment about our “curriculum” (if I can even call it that) that I never quite had before. Gone are the days of endlessly poring over curriculum catalogs and convention booths...give us some excellent books, music, and art, and mix in some nature study and math, and you’ve pretty much got it.
Beginning in January I hope to give you an overview of what our homeschool days typically look like in “real life” (I have some other things on my heart that I want to share with you between now and then though!). I’ll dive into the ideas and practices that have come to shape our day, including morning time, narration, reading aloud, and the beautiful concept of schole. Until then, I would love to hear your thoughts about a Charlotte Mason education.
Take the next step:
Are you familiar with Charlotte Mason's ideas?
Do you already follow her methods, and if so, what has your experience been?
Do you have questions about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy?
Does it just totally overwhelm you, like it did for me at first?
Please share your thoughts in the comments or drop a line on the facebook page!
* Note - Principle 2 should not be understood as a theological position on the doctrine of original sin, but as a belief that even poor children who were previously thought incapable of living honest lives could choose right from wrong if they were taught. Charlotte Mason was a member in good standing of the Anglican Church of England, whose Thirty Nine Articles includes this statement: "Original sin stands not in the following of Adam, but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil."
**Parents’ National Educational Union...not to be confused with our modern-day Teacher’s Union! The PNEU was Miss Mason’s organization for informing and instructing parents on the education of children.
Huge thank you to Ambleside Online for providing so many resources on the works of Charlotte Mason. You can read the 20 principles with a modern side-by-side paraphrase here.