Is a Charlotte Mason Education for Everybody?

It is my personal, but very strong opinion (I see no point in writing at length about a weak opinion) that a Charlotte Mason education is for everybody.  From what I can tell, most people who think otherwise have a different understanding of what a CM education is than I do.  Mason’s education approach is a philosophy, a collection of ideas and principles, and those principles apply to the vast majority of the human race.

Her first principle, for instance, is that children are *born* persons. They are not born oysters, or empty sacs and we make human beings out of them. They don’t become people, they are people, individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses, bents and inclinations.  We definitely can help them along to be better informed people, and we can instill in them some helpful habits and knowledge about the world. but they come to us as fully human as you or I.  This is true for all children (and all adults- we, too, are born persons).  Of course, this is for everybody.  All human children are born persons.

Although they are born persons, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say because they are born persons, children are in need of assistance in the development of what used to be called character.  Mason says in her first edition of the Parents’ Review that “the formation of character” is “the essential function of education.” (here).  That goes along with the second principle:

“2. They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.”

As with all the other principles her meaning is fleshed out further in her books, particularly in the first part of volume VI, but in summary, here Mason is speaking to the idea of hereditary determination, that children inherited, infallibly, the failures, weaknesses, sins, or successes, of their parents.  Children of thieves would be born with a nearly inescapable propensity to theft and children born illegitimate were tainted forever by that stain as it came with the same weak character and lack of moral standards which had resulted in a pregnancy outside of wedlock in the first place.  Mason is pronouncing that theory bankrupt and stresses that children have equal possibilities for good or evil regardless of their birth circumstances.  This is true of all children.

” 3. The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental; but––”

Authority and obedience are surely appropriate concepts for for all of us.

 “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.”

Balanced application, don’t resort to manipulation based on fear or feelings (If you love me, you’ll….”)-  again, concepts appropriate for all.

 “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.”

Note that limited sphere of the application for this principle- “educational instruments.”  In the course of their education, are there any children who do not benefit from an educational environment, good habits, or living ideas? Are there children who are harmed by a healthy home atmosphere conducive to learning. harmed by learning good habits, harmed by being presented with living ideas? No.

 “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.”

Are there children who would *not* benefit from their parents taking into account the educational value of the natural home atmosphere?  Now, this principle definitely parts ways with the Montessori, nursery school/preschool, kindergarten movements, where everything is all about bringing the world down to the child’s level.  Certainly, most children enjoy the artificial world of the small children’s classroom with all the furniture sized small and all the activities centered entirely around their interests and and special little songs and stories and rows and rows of toys and specially created wooden shoes for lacing and towers for stacking and spoons for polishing.  There’s nothing wrong with having childsized tools. It’s quite helpful, in fact.  But there is not really a good reason to spend forty dollars on a lacing tool when he could just practice lacing real shoes at home.

Keep in mind, too, that the kindergarten was a strong, devoted movement in Charlotte’s time, promoted by strong-minded, cheerful, zealous, activists.  Kate Douglas Wiggins was one of its disciples and missionaries in the U.S.  Of the specialized games kindergarteners used in their new classrooms, she said: “Kindergarten games are a systemized sequence of human experiences, in which the child interprets more and more clearly to himself his own life and the life of mankind toward which his is growing. ”  That’s the sort of thing Charlotte Mason thought too stultifying, too precious and cloying.

 “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.”

Are there any of us who would be better off without good habits?  I know in my own life quite a number of daily frustrations would be smoothed over if I exercised the discipline of good 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.”

Do we really want to claim that children do not need ideas, and they should *not* have a generous curriculum?

I think where people tend to stick at the idea that this educational philosophy really is suitable for all children begins about here:

 “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.”

Children are born wanting to know, providing they are born in a more or less ‘normal’ condition- and it takes a considerable distance from ‘normal’ range to flatten that hunger for knowledge.  Our Cherub measures somewhere between severe and profound retardation. and there is very little interest in exploring her environment. But most children are born curious, and very few children have ever had to be taught to ask “Why?” because that mind hunger is the typical state of the majority of children. For some of them, too many, that appetite for knowledge can be squelched by too much candy (screens, the substitution of boring lists of facts for real knowledge of the world around them, worksheets, lectures, and sadly, dysfunctional homes or schools).  But the come with an appetite for knowledge, and if that appetite is not injured they are able to deal with knowledge when given to them. We don’t have to turn it into games and paperwork, and we really need to beware that doing so doesn’t become a replacement for real knowledge, real work in the mind.

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.”

The person doing the most work is the person doing the most learning.  Do not deprive your children of the profitable labour of doing the work of the mind themselves.  For further understanding of this principle, you will find no better explanation than Lynn Bruce’s excellent study on it here)

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. ––

In order to determine if it’s true that this method is not for the majority of children, once more, consider the opposite- should children *not* be given a full, generous curriculum?  hould it be narrow, limited, and materialistic, lacking vitality, dead, facts only and no ideas?  Surely not.

By the time she finished her six volumes, Miss Mason had arranged her principles into a group of 20.  I will write more about the remaining principles as they apply to all in a later post.  This is already so long that I wanted to give my dear readers time to finish reading it before I go on.\


Part II

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