Charlotte Mason seems to have been tireless in her quest for every bit of knowledge that she could find on the subject of education. When she was thrust into a teaching position while still a teenager herself, she must have been overwhelmed by the responsibility of nurturing the growing minds in her care. But she set her sights high, and sought for a philosophy of education that would meet the very real needs she saw in her pupils.
In Formation of Character, Charlotte Mason uses Thackery’s novel Pendennis as the basis for a discussion about what education should be and what it should do. She laments that education as it was generally practiced had failed to give young people the moral foundation upon which to build a life of character and nobility. The young man Arthur Pendennis failed to take his degree at university, but Miss Mason suggests that even those who do complete their degrees have failed, if they have done so without learning to love knowledge and without strengthening their wills to act rightly based upon the wisdom they have acquired.
And then she tells us, “In some ways the Greeks had a more adequate view of education than ourselves.” (Formation of Character, p. 383) Why does she hearken back to the Greeks for lessons on what education should be? She does not leave us in doubt. She tells us that the Greeks held that Philosophy should be the chief study, and she quotes Plutarch extensively to explain the reasons.
“Through philosophy, man arrives at the knowledge of what is good and what is bad, what is just and what is unjust; most especially he learns what he should endeavour after, and what he should avoid; how he should order himself towards God, towards father and mother, towards his elders, towards the laws, towards strangers and superiors, towards his friends, towards wife and child and slave. She teaches humility towards God, reverence for parents, respect for the aged, obedience to law.” (Plutarch, quoted in Formation of Character, p. 384)
But Miss Mason was a Christian, and she asserts that the claims Plutarch makes for philosophy should rather be ascribed to religion, with this important difference: “while philosophy instructs, religion both instructs and enables.” (Formation of Character, p. 385) Nevertheless, because she viewed instilling an ethical and moral foundation in her pupils as the chief end of education, she stresses the importance of giving each one “an ordered knowledge of himself.”
Again, Miss Mason hearkens back to the educational traditions of the past for ideas about how to actually accomplish this important work. “The medieval Church preserved classical traditions. It endeavoured to answer the Socratic inquiry: ‘What ought we to do and what do we mean by the words ‘ought’ and ‘doing’ or ‘acting’?’ and it answered, as far as might be by way of object-lessons, visible signs of spiritual things signified.” (School Education, p. 131-32)
Miss Mason understood that it was a vital part of education to provide children with a broad picture of life and knowledge that would allow the answers to questions such as “what ought I to do?” to emerge with clarity and conviction. In modern terms, we might speak of providing children with a worldview. Naturally, Miss Mason’s understanding of what that worldview should be is based upon Christian principles and Scripture.
“It has been said that ‘man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’; and the augustness of the occasion on which the words were spoken has caused us to confine their meaning to what we call the life of the soul; when, indeed, they include a great educational principle which was better understood by the mediæval Church than by ourselves.” (School Education, p. 152-53)
This brings us to what Miss Mason called “The Great Recognition.” The great educational principle, the great recognition which she would have us understand, is that all knowledge of all kinds has a single source, and that source is the Holy Spirit. There is not room in this short article to describe it at length, but those who have read The Original Homeschooling Series will remember how inspired she was by the painting on walls of the Spanish Chapel in Florence, which depicts all knowledge and knowledge-givers as outpourings from God. She calls the ideas upon which this picture is based a “creed which unifies life” and says, “Here we have the scheme of a magnificent unity.” (School Education, p. 154)
She sums up this concept in her own principles by asserting that “education is the science of relations.” It was a matter of importance to the Greeks to unite their educational endeavors around philosophy, and for later Christian educators, that unity was refined into an understanding which identified God himself as the source of those relationships. It is an idea which may rightly be called both classical and Christian. It is also an idea which was slowly eroded over time. Modern philosophers speak of “deconstruction” and “fragmentation,” rather than unity, and that trend has its roots in more recent centuries, dating from the Enlightenment. Charlotte Mason could see the workings of it in her lifetime, which is why she reached further back in history, looking for sounder principles.
She was aware that the classical and Christian understanding of the unity of knowledge had been exchanged for a scrappy, fragmented view which pitted “secular” knowledge against “religious” knowledge, rather than understanding that all knowledge is connected. It was at the heart of the mission she had for herself to regain for another generation that which had been lost. She urges, “Let us set ourselves to labour with purpose and passion to restore to the world, enriched by the additions of later knowledge, that great scheme of unity of life which produced great men and great work in the past.” (School Education, p. 156, emphasis mine)
It has been my privilege and my pleasure to study Charlotte Mason’s writings and the works of those educators of the past for some twenty years, and to find in those older writings the same principles that underlie Miss Mason’s methods. As I have read, I have often felt that Charlotte Mason had been there before me, and had gleaned from Milton, or Comenius, or Plato, the living ideas that were worth carrying forward. All of her methods are solidly grounded upon principles which she articulated and shared only after decades of her own personal study and application.
This principle, the unity of knowledge, is one of the most vital. It was a hallmark of education in the past, and it is the principle most in danger of being lost in our postmodern world. In fact, it has been lost before. The traditional classical education, which was born during the Renaissance in hope and fervor, had withered away to an empty husk by the time Charlotte Mason lived and taught.
“The radical fault of our English thought and opinion on the subject of education seems to be that we have somehow lost the sense of historical perspective. At each new idea, which we believe we have ourselves conceived, we cry––‘We are the people’; ‘Never was education like unto ours.’ And here, towards the end of the fourteenth and early in the fifteenth centuries, we have every one of our vexed questions answered with liberality and philosophic conviction to which we have not attained.” (Formation of Character, p. 436)
It was Miss Mason’s hope to restore to the world that which had been lost, in perhaps an even finer form. This was the work of the PNEU (Parents’ National Educational Union), and the labor of her life. She worked out practical, life-giving methods that made the principles a reality in the life of children, and in the lives of those teachers she trained. She says, “We feel that the country and indeed the world should have the benefit of educational discoveries which act powerfully as a moral lever, for we are experiencing anew the joy of the Renaissance, but without its pagan lawlessness.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 9)
The Renaissance was the rebirth of classical learning, but Miss Mason did not concern herself with merely the classical languages and literature. She lifted the vital classical principles into the present and applied them with great precision. In Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition, it is my proposition that we look beyond “what” was done in the practice of classical education, and understand “why” it was being done. It was partly the focus on “what” instead of “why” that caused the classical tradition to lose its living character. Charlotte Mason recognized what was truly vital, and her carefully-articulated principles resonate with those classical reasons “why”.
In Liberal Education, Mark Van Doren writes of the classical tradition,
“The great tradition is a tradition of change and growth; ideas have never stood still. It is also–and indeed for this very reason–astonishingly stable. Where there is so much life there is bound to be sturdiness.”
Charlotte Mason found, in the educational traditions of the past, the vital principles that deserved to be kept and nurtured. Her fellow-laborers knew this as well, and honored her for it. Thomas Rooper dedicated his book Educational Studies and Addresses to her, and says in his preface “Sound principles that are old may easily be laid on the shelf and forgotten, unless in each successive generation a few industrious people can be found who will take the trouble to draw them forth the storehouse.”
Miss Mason was such a person. She identified the truly living principles that should be drawn forth, and then developed one of the most comprehensive and effective methods of realizing those principles that the educational community has ever seen. As she prepares to present her principles in her final book, Philosophy of Education, she says plainly, “Some of it is new, much of it is old.” (p.27) My purpose for writing Consider This has been to focus the attention of Charlotte Mason’s followers on the reasons why her methods are important for us, today. We, too, are at risk of focusing so intently on “what” we should do for language arts or science or history that we lose sight of “why” Miss Mason’s methods are worth implementing. The message in her first principle–children are born persons–is a message of hope and meaning in a world which suffers from the lack of them. Miss Mason told her fellow-laborers, “But we are not a faint-hearted body; we mean, and mean intensely; and to those who purpose the best, and endeavour after the best, the best arrive.”
In Consider This, I have shown the links between Charlotte Mason’s principles and the older, classical principles which the educators of history have recognized and striven for, but with far less effective methods than those which Charlotte Mason developed. It is my hope that readers of Consider This will take up the endeavor which Miss Mason cherished, and work to restore to the world that which has lamentably been lost. The classical tradition is not important because it is “classical,” but because it contains vital truths about man and his relationship to the world which must be articulated again and again, in every generation, with fresh life and hope.
© 2015 by Karen Glass