Humanities and a Charlotte Mason Education

child-labouring-through-own-endeavorsfrom In Memoriam:

“It was in the autumn of 1915 that Miss Mason, to talk with whom as she lay on her couch on the verandah at “Scale How” was always a real treat, asked me to listen as she unfolded a scheme which she had very much at heart for bringing a new atmosphere into the lives of the children in our elementary schools, and she begged me to go and see for myself the really wonderful work which her method had in quite a short time effected in some of the schools in Bradford, Yorkshire.

She told me that the principle was to teach “by the humanities, ” that is to say by supplying the children from quite the earliest teachable age with plenty of really good English literature: and she was ready to stake her reputation on the fact that they would understand and assimilate what they read to themselves, and would love to feel that they were getting of themselves daily new knowledge.

I found that Miss Mason had been under no deception. All that she had expected had come to pass and the experiment was already a perfect success.

Now these children were not picked specimens–they were mostly miners’ children from the Yorkshire coalfield, but their bright, happy faces showed that Miss Mason’s idea that a child was naturally anxious to know, and would be intensely interested in feeling that he was getting fresh knowledge by his own endeavours, through quite a new way of looking at the teaching problem, was a real incontrovertible fact. The treating the child as a pitcher into whom so many facts were to be poured was to be discontinued entirely, and the laborious task of the teacher in lecturing to a class who never tried to give their attention was to be exchanged, to the great comfort both of teacher and pupil, for a system by which the child was the labourer, and pleased to be so, whilst the teacher guided, and explained difficulties and was at hand to help if required; thus putting an end to the ingrained idea of so many, indeed the vast majority, of teachers of the old method, that for both master and pupil a terrible amount of “drudgery” was inevitable.”

My bullet point ‘narration’ of a CM Education:

What it is:
From the ‘humanities’- the best that English Literature has to offer
They read it to themselves when possible, getting at or digging out the information themselves
Appeal to their sense that they are getting fresh knowledge by their own efforts
The child is the chief labourer.
The teacher is there for guidance and explanations *as needed*
It’s for all children- including the ‘working class’

What it is not:
lecturing and ‘laborious fact-pouring’ by the teacher
treating the child as an empty pitcher to be filled with facts

Now, today if you were to answer the average questioner asking what it is you do by saying “we learn from the humanities, the best English Literature has to offer,” the next question would of course be, “What are the humanities?” (Although it might also be ‘why do we have to know that stuff?)

I found this description online in a report of an annual meeting of the “Modern Languages Association.” The president of the association addressed the meeting on the point of whether Greek really ought to continue to be a required subject.
“Professor Sadler says: Did not the Humanities in their deeper sense mean a study of man and of his environment, the physical conditions which affected his life, the language in which he expressed his thought, the relationship between nations and between races, the influence of past generations on the present, the factors which determined his wealth or poverty, the which had been the backbone of his corporate life, his philosophy, and his ideals?  Did we not really mean by the Humanities that whole group of studies which threw light upon man in relation both to other men and to the world in which he lived? From this point of view there was no ultimate conflict between Humanities and physical science. Both aspects of study were indispensable to any real knowledge of the conditions of human life.

Surely we get here the compendium of what is meant by the term ‘Humanities” and Locke, I think, takes the same view; a common sense one, because ordinary schools- in which the majority of our children are taught- need the humanities and have not the time for Greek. A dose of Smiles, Dickens, or Daudet help them more than a similar amount of time spent painfully acquiring a few Greek roots (which is not study of Greek thought and does not usually help in attainment of polite manners).

Can this not be managed without destroying the beautiful ideal we most of us have of the life at Oxford and Cambridge- a kind of backwater in the torrent of present day life- where there leisure for thought and study, and a cultured calm which might supply to the ordinary present day man that which the monasteries of mediaeval times undoubtedly supplied to the thoughtful of their own period.”

From The Review of Reviews, Volume 31, 1905

There I think we have the answer to both hypothetical questions- what are the Humanities, and why do we need to know ‘that stuff:’ We study and learn about mankind in relation both to our fellow humans and to the world in which we, and they, live and have lived. From this point of view there was no ultimate conflict between Humanities and physical science, a field indispensable to any real knowledge of the conditions of human life.

Charlotte, to this study of man and his environment, added, of course, knowledge of God as chief:


Of the three sorts of knowledge proper to a child, the knowledge of God, of man, and of the universe,––the knowledge of God ranks first in importance, is indispensable, and most happy-making. Mothers are on the whole more successful in communicating this knowledge than are teachers who know the children less well and have a narrower, poorer standard of measurement for their minds. Parents do not talk down to children, but we might gather from educational publications that the art of education as regards young children is to bring conceptions down to their ‘little’ minds. If we give up this foolish prejudice in favour of the grown-up we shall be astonished at the range and depth of children’s minds; and shall perceive that their relation to God is one of those ‘first-born affinities’ which it is our part to help them to make good.

There’s the outlines of pretty decent minimal daily plan there for your family- every day, learn something to increase your store of understanding about the knowledge of God, mankind, and the universe.

That’s a comprehensive education. These are the sorts of things that fall under those headings:

First and chiefest is the knowledge of God, to be got at most directly through the Bible; then comes the knowledge of man, to be got through history, literature, art, civics, ethics, biography, the drama, and languages; and lastly, so much knowledge of the universe as shall explain to some extent the phenomena we are familiar with and give a naming acquaintance at any rate with birds and flowers, stars and stones; nor can this knowledge of the universe be carried far in any direction without the ordering of mathematics.

And this is mainly how:

Read good books, and then  “Let the child (up to any age while he is an infant in the eye of the law) tell what he has read in whole or in part on the instant, and again, in an examination paper months later.”

Plus, of course, the other humanities, or liberal arts tradition studies- art, music, singing, nature study, handicrafts and so on.

Once they have mastered oral narration, you move on to written.  And then gradually, further on in their school career, you add some of those ‘other ways to use books,’ but always, the best books of the humanities or liberal arts tradition.

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