The Classical Side of Charlotte Mason
by Karen Glass
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since I’m not a Mason expert, I recruited one: Karen Glass is a homeschooling mother who has been implementing Charlotte Mason’s philosophies for six years. She moderates the CMSeries email list at yahoogroups.com, which focuses on reading through The Original Home Schooling Seriesand discussing Charlotte Mason’s ideas.
Classical education is enjoying a much-deserved day in the sun. The Well-Trained Mind and other recent books have shed new light on an old model of education, and thus ancient ideas are touching our modern methods, shaping them to resemble an education rooted in antiquity.
Charlotte Mason, a British educator of the last century, was not much different from ourselves. She cared passionately about offering the best education possible to children, while lamenting the general state of education in her day and time. Her six volume series of educational writings (now called The Original Home Schooling Series) reveals the extent of her experience and her research on education.
She was familiar with all the popular modern educators whose influence was strong at that time (and continues to this day) — Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Herbart, Montessori. She borrowed what she found good from them, though her writings are littered with dissatisfaction with them and “progressive education” in general. She wrote:
“Is there not some confusion of ideas about this fetish of progress? Do we not confound progress with movement, action, assuming that where these are there is necessarily advance? Whereas much of our activity is like the waves of the sea, going always and arriving never” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 297).
Miss Mason also reached back into the past, to educators who certainly deserve to be called “classical,” such as Comenius, Milton, and Plutarch. These are the men she quoted again, and again, as she attempted to articulate a method of education which would incorporate the principles of the best part of classical education. She especially sought to fulfill Milton’s goal of developing “magnanimity” in her students.
David Hicks, in Norms and Nobility, reminds us that the primary goal of the classical educators was to instill virtue in their pupils—not merely to provide them with rigorous, intellectual training. He discusses the ancient’s “Ideal” — the hero, the man of virtue, whom they aspired to imitate at great length. This was an education of the spirit — not a practical, utilitarian education by any means, but an education intended to teach man to serve something other than self. This kind of education does not teach a man how to fulfill his desires — it teaches him what he ought to desire. Intellectual development was only a part of the process.
The goal of classical education was the attainment of virtue. David Hicks asks the question, “Can virtue be taught?” and he tells us that all of the notable ancients answered, “yes.” It sounds remarkably like Charlotte Mason’s contention that the chief end of education is the formation of character. David Hicks says, “The sublime premise of a classical education asserts that right thinking will lead to right, if not righteous, acting.”
This emphasis on guarding our thoughts and thinking rightly is found throughout Charlotte Mason’s writings. But how, then, is this form of education to be carried out?
Miss Mason lived and worked and taught long before Dorothy Sayers wrote her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Her view of classical education, therefore, does not incorporate the popular Trivium terminology of the “stages” of education, called “grammar stage, logic stage, and rhetoric stage.” However, she does incorporate the fundamental principles of classical education in her philosophy.
This begins with a focus on language—words both written and spoken. The ancient and medieval educators were primarily dealing with language and literature. Charlotte Mason used literature to capture the attention of boys and girls from all walks of life. As she observed poor children from uneducated families enjoying Shakespeare and other excellent authors, she came to understand how vital it was for children to learn from literary sources.
She recommended that even the youngest pupils’ minds be fed with the very best that was available — Plutarch, the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Pilgrims’s Progress — as well as poetry, art, and music. The children were taught to narrate all their school lessons, and thus they practiced an educational method rooted in classical rhetoric and prescribed by Erasmus:
“The master must not omit to set as an exercise the reproduction of what he has given to the class. It involves time and trouble to the teacher, I know well, but it is essential. A literal reproduction of the matter taught is, of course, not required — but the substance of it presented in the pupil’s own way” (Erasmus, “Upon the Right Method of Instruction”).
Charlotte Mason recommended that oral narration come first, and this was practiced throughout the high school years. Written narrations were added between ages 10 and 12, or when the students were able to write fluently. Because they were in the habit of organizing and speaking their thoughts via narration, Miss Mason’s students were able to write extensively about what they knew. As the students grew, this writing was often what we might call “composition” or even “creative writing.” Charlotte Mason gives explicit examples of such assignments, such as rewriting a scene from Jane Austen to take place in modern times, or imagining the future influence of the League of Nations and writing about its accomplishments 30 years hence.
Miss Mason was not interested in an education that looked solely to the past, focusing only on Greek and Roman history and culture. She took the best of classical education—its principles and methods—and attempted to articulate a philosophy of education that would revitalize her own time. She wrote:
“The task before us in setting in order the house of our national education is a delicate one. We must guard those assets of character which the education of the past affords us, and recover, if we may, the passionate love of knowledge for its own sake which brought about an earlier Renaissance” (Formation of Character, pp. 381-382).
It is interesting to note that, although Charlotte Mason did not adhere to what we call the “stages” of the trivium, she did observe a natural progression in the nature of education. She calls the early years of learning the”synthetic” stage of education, for the learner is gathering knowledge from many sources and developing relationships with them. During these years, the emphasis is on wide exposure to every area of knowledge—literature, poetry, history, all branches of science, art, music, Scripture—in short, all the areas of knowledge that men have cared to write about. Her emphasis is different from Dorothy Sayers’, in that she did not insist that children memorize facts, but that they have the opportunity to learn to care, or develop relationships with a variety of subjects.
“The question is not—how much does the youth know when he has finished his education—but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” (School Education, pp. 170-171)
The next stage of education she calls the “analytical” stage. As the mind of the student matures, he begins to analyze and interpret what he reads. The final stage she does not name, but tells us that the first two stages will coalesce, so that the pupil becomes in essence a scholar—reading both widely and studiously. “If we are to read and grow thereby, we must read *to know*, that is, our reading must be study — orderly, definite, purposeful” (Formation of Character, p. 382).
This progression in education is not at the forefront of her methods, but it underlies everything, lending structure and order to what she proposes. Miss Mason wrote extensively about the mind—the way that it works (so far as that knowledge was available to her), what it requires for growth, and how that may be effected through education. Were she to write a book today, she might title it, The Well-Nourished Mind, for she compares the ability of the mind to assimilate knowledge to the ability of the digestive tract to deal with its proper food. That was why she insisted that the books and materials used in education should be nothing less than the very finest literature available.
Those who have chosen to follow the educational principles of Charlotte Mason can do so with the confidence that her methods are classical in every important area. The classical educators of antiquity did not always agree with one another about the exact practices, but those differences do not make one “more classical” or another “less classical.” The same is true of the different voices espousing classical education today. Differences of practice are not the same as differences of principle. The methods of Charlotte Mason are as valid a path to classical education as those set forth in The Well-Trained Mind.
Those who seek to incorporate the methods of Charlotte Mason with classical education will not find it difficult to do so, because the roots of her philosophy lie therein. She was seeking a classical education that would serve the needs of the general population, but founded in principles that had weathered well. The practical application of her philosophy is not always easy to discern, but the results are well worth the effort.