Author’s note: I am a homeschooling father who has experienced a genuine awakening as a result of engaging with Charlotte Mason’s ideas. This is my second article for the Charlotte Mason Institute blog that describes the relationship between Charlotte Mason’s theory of education and the Christian classical model of education. In this article, I explore Charlotte Mason’s theory of education in light of David V. Hicks’s seminal work on classical education.

In 1981, David V. Hicks first published his ground-breaking book entitled Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education. His (1981/1999) book “is about an ancient ideal expressed as ‘classical education’ against which the modern school is weighed and found wanting” (p. v). Hicks (1981/1999) describes the “modern school” as an institution dominated by “the aimless tyranny of a values-free analysis” (p. 85) where “all aims appear of equal value, and no aim can lay claim on the learner’s will” (p.84). Hicks (1981/1999) characterizes modern education as utilitarian: “Its utilitarian and nonnormative program of study stresses freedom at the expense of self-discipline and know-how at the expense of knowledge” (p. 11).

Hicks’s critique of modern utilitarian education is not merely devastating; it is torturous. He distributes this criticism throughout the entire span of his book, providing a steady stream of endlessly inventive and sharply eloquent attacks. Bordering on ridicule, his insightful exposé is unanswerable. I join him in decisively rejecting a model of education where the only question that matters is, “How is this useful?”

Hicks proposes classical education as an alternative to modern utilitarian education. In fact, he (1981/1999) indicates that classical education is the only alternative:

Norms & Nobility presents . . . a theory of classical education. . . . These general principles — what I have called normative contextual learning — are, I believe, universal. Any school, to be effective and complete, must reflect them in its aims, organizations, traditions, methods, and most of all, in its teachers. (p. viii)

For Hicks, classical education is rooted in the classical tradition which begins with Ancient Greece and Rome. He (1981/1999) asserts that this is the only model which can answer the need of our present day: “I believe that the dialectic between pagan humanism and Christianity must be revived in the classroom if education in the United States is going to fulfill its paideutic obligations toward the young” (p. 104).

A casual reading of Norms & Nobility gives the impression that classical education is the only kind of education that existed in the Western world prior to the modern era. For example, Hicks (1981/1999) writes, “After World War II . . . education left the path of normative learning” (p. 108). If one accepts this notion that all education was classical until World War II, and that only classical education can resist modern utilitarian theory, then a Christian reader would naturally assume that any good method of education must be classical.

But a careful reading of Norms & Nobility reveals that Hicks himself acknowledges that models other than classical education and modern utilitarian education exist. In one passage, Hicks paints the imaginative picture that all was not well before 1945. He (1981/1999) begins with the dramatic assertion that all things called classical are not actually classical:

The popular mind associates the idea of a classical education with the narrow and elitist schools of Victorian England. In fact, these schools perverted classical education by teaching in precept and in example a hereditary aristocratic ideal intended to serve the ambitions of Empire and to preserve the status quo. (p. 17)

According to Hicks (1981/1999), “To [the average Englishman in 1867], classical education meant little more than a symbol of ruling class privilege and a study of Latin, with perhaps a smattering of Greek” (p. 17). Hicks cites no source for his assertions about this state of affairs in Victorian England. But he (1981/1999) describes one result of this alleged corruption of classical education: “By the turn of the century, a growing number of self-proclaimed progressives, desiring to democratize the school and mistaking what went on in Victorian schools with classical education, began to put forward their own theories on education” (p. 17).

One such self-proclaimed progressive was Charlotte M. Mason (1842-1923). In 1895, Mason made her self-proclamation when she (1895) wrote, “We are progressive”:

We cannot choose but profit by the work of the great educators. Such men as Locke and Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel, have left us an inheritance of educational thought which we must needs enter upon. Our work as a Society is chiefly selective, but not entirely so. We are progressive. We take what former thinkers have left us, and go on from there. (p. 426)

Mason did not merely stand in the romantic tradition of “Rousseau [and] Pestalozzi.” Rather, with progressive zeal, she put forward her own “theories on education.”

Although educational romantics and progressives such as Rousseau and Pestalozzi lived well before World War II, Hicks did not include them under the classical umbrella. Rather, Hicks (1981/1999) writes:

The modern era suffers in two extremes over the nature of assumptions. The first extreme is born of an attitude contemptuous of the past and its unscientific ways. It expects to unearth an original set of assumptions upon which to construct the modern school. This extreme may be said to represent the sanguine position of the educational romantics and progressives. (p. 126)

Hicks (1981/1999) explicitly classifies Rousseau in this romantic and non-classical school when he writes, “Isokrates had little in common with the modern teacher who fantasizes an ideal child and bases his child-centered learning on the nostalgic writings of Rousseau” (p. 38). For Hicks, child-centered learning is inherently non-classical. He (1981/1999) writes, “Child-centered learning is a high-sounding euphemism for his refusal to admit a connection between what makes a person virtuous and what constitutes an educated person” (p. 39).

And yet Marian Wallace Ney (1997) describes Charlotte Mason’s theory of education as the only model offering a truly child-centered education:

Most contemporary plans for education make some, (often, a great deal of), obeisance to the notion of the child as individual, and vast educational impedimenta have been constructed in the name of child-centeredness. But it is solely in the PNEU that I find the curriculum to be designed not only to suit any and all, but each and every. (p. 19)

Ney (1923-1991) documented this conclusion in her 1981 thesis for Hofstra University. This work was the culmination of her study of Charlotte Mason’s theory of education, which included completing the PNEU Study Course with First Class Honors.

Hicks highlights a second major distinction between the romantic model and the classical model when he (1981/1999) writes, “Let us not, pleads the romantic, force a child into the drudgery of scholarship before he has outlived his playful, innocent youth” (p. 37). Here again, Mason fits squarely in the non-classical model. First, she (1886/1989a) wrote that children should in fact be free from scholarship:

. . . the chief function of the child . . . during the first six or seven years of his life—is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; . . . in fact, the intellectual education of the young child should lie in the free exercise of perceptive power, because the first stages of mental effort are marked by the extreme activity of this power; and the wisdom of the educator is to follow the lead of Nature in the evolution of the complete human being. (p. 96-97)

Once in school, “Studies serve for Delight” (Mason, 1905, p. 214) and not drudgery. Finally, only after the fifteenth year should “drudgery” (“the classical and mathematical grind”) be permitted (Mason, 1906/1989c, p. 381).

Finally, Hicks notes with disdain that “self-proclaimed progressives” of the Victorian era believed their ideas would change the world. He (1981/1999) writes, “The popular imagination . . . keeps the nineteenth-century ideologies with their Utopian prognostications alive” (p. 60). As with other progressives, Mason made her own Utopian prognostications. In 1912, she wrote:

We of the P.N.E.U., if we be minded to advance in our thousands with one heart and one purpose, are strong enough to bring about a Twentieth Century Renascence, more glorious and permanent than that of the Middle Age, because its ultimate source shall be a profound Christianity, in lieu of the poisoned springs of Paganism. We have the one thing to offer which the whole world wants, an absolutely effective system of education covering the whole nature of a child, the whole life of man. (p. 811)

In writing this, Mason falls squarely under the condemnation of Hicks, who writes of how, “with revolutionary fervor, the social scientist affirms the world-transforming benefits of his ‘new’ methods” (Hicks, 1981/1999, p. 5).

Mason’s revolutionary, child-centered beliefs are summarized in a claim that would be anathema to Hicks:

Should the reader . . . be convinced of the truth of what I have advanced, I think he will see that, not an educational reform here and there, but an EDUCATIONAL REVOLUTION is before us to which every one of us is bound to put his hand. . . .  If conviction has indeed reached us, the Magna Carta of children’s intellectual liberty is before us. (Mason, 1905, pp. 247-248)

Nevertheless, Mason and other progressives rejected utilitarian education with a vehemence equal to Hicks. For example, Gerald Gutek (1995) writes of educational progressive Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827):

Fearing the harmful effects of industrial specialization, Pestalozzi cultivated the model of the generally educated person. Despite some methodological eccentricities that crept into his work, he never lost sight of his vision of the generally educated natural human being. Basically, Pestalozzi was a humanitarian. “Love” was the center of his educational theory and practice. “Mother love,” “the loving home circle,” “love of man and of God,” were persistent Pestalozzian themes. (p. 251)

Similarly, Mason (1905) writes:

I should be inclined to say of education, as Mr. Lecky says of morals, that ‘the Utilitarian theory is profoundly immoral.’ To educate children for any immediate end – towards commercial or manufacturing aptitude, for example – is to put a premium upon general ignorance with a view to such special aptitude. (pp. 240-241)

Although Norms & Nobility is primarily a contrast between utilitarian education and classical education, Hicks implicitly acknowledges that there is a third way. Mason (1925/1954) herself enumerates these three models in one sentence: “We must have some measure of a child’s requirements, not based upon his uses to society, nor upon the standard [norms] of the world he lives in, but upon his own capacity and needs” (pp. 65-66). Mason’s model is neither utilitarian (based on “uses to society”) nor classical (based on norms or “standards”). Rather, Mason’s model is centered on the person of the child, upon “his own capacity and needs.”

Given that Mason’s theory of education was not classical, one would expect to find many theoretical and practical differences between her model and Hicks’s classical model. For convenience, the many differences may be grouped into five separate categories:

  1. The source of guidance for the method
  2. The purpose of education
  3. The curriculum
  4. The nature of the child
  5. The role of the teacher

The remainder of this article will briefly explore these five categories.

1. The source of guidance for the method

Hicks (1981/1999) explains that “Classical education refreshes itself at cisterns of learning dug long ago” (p. 14). He (1981/1999) looks to the ancient world for a theory of education, explaining, “I have tried to be faithful in presenting what I believe would be an ancient’s insight into our modern dilemma” (p. vii). This ancient insight begins with Plato and Aristotle; indeed, “Aristotle is our best introduction to the idea of a classical education” (Hicks, 1981/1999, p. 19).

From the ancients, Hicks (1981/1999) retrieves and apparently defends such pagan ideas as “Plato’s ‘theory of innate ideas’” (p. 24). He (1981/1999) notes that “down to the present day, men have sought and found reasons for believing in innate ideas” (p. 25). He (1981/1999) also sympathetically explores the dualistic worldview of Platonic philosophy: “[The word] clings to the normative essentials underlying the flux of appearances, thereby saving the appearances. . . . words disclose the transcendent order of meaning and value behind the curtain of a transient world” (p. 35).

Furthermore, Hicks traces every key idea in his theory of education back to the ancients. Indeed, he calls his method “classical” precisely because it is derived from ancient sources. In fact, it is not until Chapter 8 of the book that Hicks even discloses to the reader that he is advocating a Christian form of classical education. This led one reviewer to write:

Hicks does a great job describing Greek classical education. However, the manner in which he does often sounds prescriptive. . . . Thankfully, he later addresses how Christianity supplied the missing pieces. However, rather than describe Christianity as “crowning” classical education I would say Christianity provided the foundation upon which the honorable aspects of classical education was set. In any event, it was only upon reading this section that I realized Hicks was advocating a redeemed form of classical education. . . . Hicks uses pagan Greek language to describe Christian concepts, which concerns me. (No King But Christ, 2007)

This reviewer accurately notes that Hicks presents Christianity as the crown and not the foundation of classical education. Hicks (1981/1999) writes on p. 91:

Modern classical education . . . is (or ought to be) grounded on a dialectic between pagan humanism and Christianity. . . . The creative tension between pagan humanism and Christianity animates normative education and promises to lift the student to a level of understanding above reason in an experience of faith.

In a startling passage, Hicks (1981/1999) claims that Christianity is a kind of “reward” for classical thought: “Christianity injected a hopeful note and rewarded the classical tradition’s strivings for a link between right thinking and right acting” (p. 96).

Hicks (1981/1999) sees Christianity in its best form as a fulfilment of classical education: “According to Saint Paul, Christian paideia realized the transcendent objectives of classical education by offering access to the source of truth through prayer” (p. 101). But Hicks (1981/1999) actually sees Christianity in its other forms acting in direct opposition to the preferred ideals of classical education:

By formalizing the Ideal within ecclesiastical dogma, the Church at Rome and the schoolmen in Paris reduced the Ideal to a ritual and a creed, while refusing to permit the laity to challenge its part in the life of faith. On a practical level, the teaching of the Ideal by example suffered for lack of a reliable high-quality mythos. The rich, ancient mythos of Greece and Rome was lost or bowdlerized, and the simple Christian mythos had been plastered over with popular, irrelevant, and usually outlandish legends of the saints. (p. 48)

Hicks (1981/1999) further describes the destructive impact of the Christian Church on classical educational theory on page 66:

During the Middle Ages, the trivium was generally taught first, with logic taking the place of dialectic. This substitution was not accidental. For an age that possessed the Truth, the dialectical search for truth was a fruitless and even frivolous, irreverent endeavor. When one knows the truth, one has no need for dialectic — all one needs is logic. Yet to an age like ours, lacking the confidence (some would say the complacency) of the early Christian era, the dialectic holds out a serious method of study imbued with a noble purpose.

Hicks proposes to counter modern utilitarian education not with revelation but with dialectic. He (1981/1999) writes, “But all of this misplaced use of analysis is precisely why the dialectical must wrest control of our schools from the analytical” (p. 72). Given Hicks’s absolute dependence on the classical tradition and his view of Christianity as a fulfilment of that tradition, it is not surprising that he views modern Christian classical education as a “dialectic between pagan humanism and Christianity” (Hicks, 1981/1999, p. 91).

In contrast to this classical model, Mason begins not with Aristotle but with Christ. Mason first unveiled her theory of education in a series of lectures in 1885. The first lecture began with an exposition of specific teachings of Christ. In that way, she began her method both chronologically and structurally on the teachings of Christ. These lectures are captured in Volume 1 of the Home Education Series. Pages 12-20 contain her exposition of the key Gospel passages that are foundational to her entire theory of education. She (1886/1989a) began this exposition by saying that she had “discover[ed] . . . a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ” (p. 12).

Rather than seeing education as a “dialectic between pagan humanism and Christianity,” she (1912) worked towards “a profound Christianity, in lieu of the poisoned springs of Paganism” (p. 811). Mason found in pagan philosophy not an inspiring source but a dismal dead end. She (1925/1954) wrote:

Human nature has not failed; what has failed us is philosophy, and that applied philosophy which is called education. Philosophy, all the philosophies, old and new, land us on the horns of a dilemma; either we do well by ourselves and seek our own perfection of nature or condition, or we do well by others to our own loss or deterioration. If there is a mean, philosophy does not declare it. (p. 335)

Since Mason rejected pagan philosophy, she also rejected the notion that science is necessary merely for “saving the appearances” and as a way to “disclose the transcendent order of meaning and value behind the curtain of a transient world.” Instead, she (1886/1989a) wrote of the sacred nature of science:

Years hence, when the children are old enough to understand that science itself is in a sense sacred and demands some sacrifices, all the ‘common information’ they have been gathering until then, and the habits of observation they have acquired, will form a capital groundwork for a scientific education. (p. 63)

Given Mason’s high regard for science, she appealed to its discoveries as an authoritative basis for her method of education. In doing so, she fell under Hicks’s condemnation, who explains that “the social scientist affirms the world-transforming benefits of his ‘new’ methods” (Hicks, 1981/1999, p. 5). Standing with the scientists, Mason (1894) writes:

Within our own time the science of Education has been absolutely revolutionised, not by educationalists, but by Physiologists, who have made the brain their specialty. Any real education depends upon the possibility of setting up good records, obliterating evil records, in the physical substance of the brain.

Mason’s third major source of guidance for her theory of education was her own personal observation of children. Mason described her effort as follows:

For between thirty and forty years I have laboured without pause to establish a working and philosophic theory of education; and each article of the educational faith I offer has been arrived at by inductive processes, and has, I think, been verified by a long and wide series of experiments. (Cholmondeley, 1960/2000, p. 201)

This reliance on observation and experimentation falls outside of the scope of authority permitted by Hicks. Hicks (1981/1999) disdains this methodological approach: “The expert’s total reliance upon the methods of science renders him incapable of learning from his forebears anyway, for they cannot provide him with the hard statistical and clinical data alone with which he can work” (p. 2). In offering this condemnation, he implicitly condemns Mason’s theory of education.

Hicks cites the ancients as his primary source of guidance, and therefore his theory of education is classical. By contrast, Mason points to the authority of the Gospels, discoveries in science, and her own personal observations of children. Therefore, her theory of education is not to be considered classical.

2. The purpose of education

Hicks (1981/1999) explains that in classical education, “. . . the end of education is not thinking; it is acting” (p. vi). The kind of acting that Hicks (1981/1999) has in mind is virtue: “the formation of virtue that is the highest end of education” (p. 99). However, Hicks follows the ancients in characterizing virtue not simply as moral excellence but rather a broader self-perfection. For example, Hicks (1981/1999) writes:

. . . we mean by virtue all that the Greek aerte expresses: the life that knows and reveres, speculates and acts upon the Good, that loves and re-produces the beautiful, and that pursues excellence and moderation in all things. This vision of life dedicated to perfecting the self . . .  (p. 21)

In summary, Hicks (1981/1999) notes that “The greatest part of education is instilling in the young the desire to be good” (p. 98).

In contrast to this, Mason warns of the danger of centering on “the desire to be good.” She (1905) writes:

One caution I should like to offer. A child’s whole notion of religion is ‘being good.’ It is well that he should know that being good is not his whole duty to God, although it is so much of it; that the relationship of love and personal service, which he owes as a child to his Father, as a subject to his King, is even more than the ‘being good’ which gives our Almighty Father such pleasure in His children. (p. 136)

For Mason, the “greatest part of education” is not “being good.” Rather, it is cultivating a personal relationship with the living God. For Mason, this is foundational to human life and hence to education. She (1886/1989a) writes:

The Essence of Christianity is Loyalty to a Person. – Christ our King. Here is a thought to unseal the fountains of love and loyalty, the treasures of faith and imagination, bound up in the child. The very essence of Christianity is personal loyalty, passionate loyalty to our adorable Chief. We have laid other foundations – regeneration, sacraments, justification, works, faith, the Bible – any one of which, however necessary to salvation in its due place and proportion may become a religion about Christ and without Christ. (p. 350)

Indeed, Mason’s warning here seems to be almost directly aimed at the approach proposed by Hicks (1981/1999):

Why should the student seek to perfect himself? It was the will of God that all men should model themselves after the person of Christ, the perfect work of art, God planted in the flesh. The love of this work of art, because it was incontestably both perfect and transcendent, empowered man to satisfy the demands of conscience, while relieving him through grade of the anxiety of conscience. (p. 95)

Hicks characterizes Christ as a “work of art,” something to be imitated “to satisfy the demands of conscience,” but not a Person to be loved and adored.

Indeed, for Mason, the aim of every element of education is to bring persons into more intimate knowledge of and relationship with God. She (1925/1954) writes:

By degrees children get that knowledge of God which is the object of the final daily prayer in our beautiful liturgy—the prayer of St Chrysostom— ‘Grant us in this world knowledge of Thy truth,’ and all other knowledge which they obtain gathers round and illuminates this. (p. 64)

3. The curriculum

Hicks advocates a curriculum with a focus on depth rather than breadth. He (1981/1999) explains:

. . . better to teach a few subjects thoroughly than to force a child to be a mediocrity in many subjects. . . . The school is not preeminently a place where the child is exposed to a kaleidoscope of new ideas, but where he is given the direction, the discipline, and the methods to master basic ideas and where art, science, and letters are studied with the intention of forming the student’s conscience and style. (pp. 127-128)

Hicks (1981/1999) points to a classical precedent for this where “At Vittorino da Feller’s school in Mantua, for instance, the education of the youngest scholars was based on only four authors: Virgil, Homer, Cicero, and Demosthenes” (p. 133). Hicks clearly prefers this to modern school. He (1981/1999) writes, “By contrast, from the eclectic curriculum of the modern school flows an ocean one inch deep. There seems no end to the diversity of the modern school’s course offerings . . .” (p. 131).

Interestingly, there seems no end to the diversity of subjects in a Charlotte Mason education. In direct contrast to Hicks, Mason advocated breadth rather than depth. Mason (1925/1954) writes:

We labour under the mistake of supposing that there is no natural law or inherent principle according to which a child’s course of studies should be regulated; . . . . But what if in the very nature of things we find a complete curriculum suggested? the answer depends on a survey of the composite whole we sum up as ‘human nature,’ a whole whose possibilities are infinite and various… It is a wide programme founded on the educational rights of man; . . . . We may not even make choice between science and the ‘humanities.’ Our part it seems to me is to give a child a vital hold upon as many as possible of those wide relationships proper to him. (pp. 156-157)

For Mason, education is a rich banquet, not a tightly-controlled diet. The curriculum was to offer abundance, because the goal is to sustain a life, not to force compliance to a norm. Mason (1925/1954) writes, “[The child] is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs” (p. 109).

Hicks (1981/1999) notes that “Deep down, perhaps, the ancients distrusted science” (p. 57). Given his reverence for the ancients, it is not surprising that his curriculum would reflect this diffidence towards science. He (1981/1999) writes, “Classical education, therefore, did not exclude science so much as it judged science of less significance than other branches of learning that promised knowledge . . . at higher levels of being” (p. 57). Hicks (1981/1999) finds “difficulty in assigning any transcendent values to science” (p. 58). He (1981/1999) further questions studies in technology by asking, “How can one argue that a training in technological science, in the means of manipulating nonliving matter, prepares a young person for the life of virtue. . . ?”  (p. 58). Since all elements of education must link to virtue, Hicks struggles to integrate science and technology into his educational program.

By contrast, Mason does not face this challenge. Since she is not constrained by pagan philosophy, she is free to view science as a field that leads to the knowledge and adoration of God. Rather than being a lower form of study, science for Mason (1905/1924) is “a vast and joyous realm; for the people who walk therein are always discovering new things, and each new thing is a delight, because the things are not a medley, but each is a part of the great whole” (p. 35). Mason also had no trouble with technology, which she viewed as being received by revelation from God (Mason, 1905, p. 155).

Furthermore, Hicks apparently follows Aristotle’s lead in devaluing work with the hands and with the earth. Hicks (1981/1999) writes that “Medieval man plowed his feudal fields in the certain knowledge that he toiled at the imperfect fringes of God’s handiwork” (p. 9). By contrast, Mason (1896/1989b) saw the farmer not on the “imperfect fringes” but rather in the center of God’s revelation, citing Isaiah 28:26 (p. 246). Albert Wolters (2005) would later write of this sacred place:

This is not a teaching through the revelation of Moses and the Prophets, but a teaching through the revelation of creation – the soil, the seeds, and the tools of his daily experience. It is by listening to the voice of God in the work of his hands that the farmer finds the way of agricultural wisdom. (p. 28)

Hicks supplies guidelines for the selection of texts for the classical curriculum. He (1981/1999) writes, “Whatever . . . book . . . enables the student to perceive, articulate, and comprehend reason at work best suits the classical curriculum” (p. 19). Hicks (1981/1999) further notes that “the normative character of great literature is emphatically preferred” (p. 98). Mason, however, declines to advocate a particular book because it is “great literature” or it manifests “reason at work.” Rather, Mason insists that living books must be selected for the curriculum. She insists on this for theological reasons. Mason (1896/1989b) explains, “We are told that the Spirit is life; therefore, that which is dead, dry as dust, mere bare bones, can have no affinity with Him, can do no other than smother and deaden his vitalising influences” (p. 277). For Mason, living books are books that cooperate with the educational ministry of Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, according to Mason (1905), the expert cannot predict whether or not a book will prove to be living. The only definitive test is how the book is actually received:

A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. The expert is not the person to choose; the children themselves are the experts in this case. A single page will elicit a verdict; but the unhappy thing is, this verdict is not betrayed; it is acted upon in the opening or closing of the door of the mind. (p. 228)

Mason evokes the child-centered core of her theory when she writes that “the children themselves are the experts.” Her criteria for book selection includes an almost mystical dimension, which distinguishes her method from the “great books” program of classical education.

The contrast in curriculum theory between Hicks and Mason is partially evidenced in the specific curriculum proposal articulated in chapter 9 of Norms & Nobility. Hicks follows his maxim that it is “better to teach a few subjects thoroughly,” so his curriculum does not include such items cherished by Mason as:

  • Nature study, natural history, and field study.
  • Handcrafts, gardening, and vocational work.
  • Geography and travelogues.
  • Art and music appreciation, including hymns and folk music. For Fine Arts, Hicks (1981/1999) instead proposes “projects in music, drawing, painting, architecture” (p. 110).

4. The nature of the child

For Hicks, children are born “becoming.” He (1981/1999) writes approvingly that “Isokrates must have perceived childhood as a period of becoming rather than as a state of being” (p. 38). Hicks elaborates that Isokrates “ignored the ‘child’ and appealed directly to the ‘father of the man’ within his student.” Since children are “becoming” persons, the challenge of the educator is to transform them into the desired norm. The educator must know “exactly what kind of a person he wishe[s] to produce” (p. 39). Thus, “it is the challenge of learning to discipline the unruly and discursive mind, adjusting its disorderliness through rigorous study to the order of logical processes found outside it in the subject matter” (p. 38).

By contrast, Mason asserts that children are born “persons.” They are appealed to directly as children, not as proto-adults. Mason (1925/1954) rejects the notion “that by means of a pull here, a push there, a compression elsewhere a person is at last turned out according to the pattern the educator has in his mind” (p. 34). According to Mason (1925/1954), “the personality of children . . . 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” (p. xxix). Furthermore, Mason (1899) asserts that the individuality of children is sacred:

Parents are very jealous over the individuality of their children; they mistrust the tendency to develop all on the same plan, and this instinctive jealousy is right, for supposing that education really did consist in systematized effort to draw out every power that is in children, all must needs develop on the same lines. Some of us have an uneasy sense that things are tending towards this deadly sameness. But, indeed, the fear is groundless. We may rest assured that the personality, the individuality of each of us is too dear to God, and too necessary to a complete humanity, to be left at the mercy of empirics. (p. 420)

For Hicks, the emergence to personhood involves struggle. Hence he uses the language of struggle to describe the educational process: “An Ideal Type tyrannized classical education. The ancient schoolmaster . . . passed it on to his pupils by inviting them to share in his struggle for self-knowledge and self-mastery, the immature mind participating in the mature” (Hicks, 1981/1999, p. 43). But Mason describes education as joyous freedom, not painful tyranny. Mason (1925/1954) writes:

. . . children should have a fine sense of the freedom which comes of knowledge which they are allowed to appropriate as they choose, freely given with little intervention from the teacher. They do choose and are happy in their work, so there is little opportunity for coercion or for deadening, hortatory talk. (pp. 73-74)

For Hicks (1981/1999), the student must learn to force himself to work; “So much in a classical education depends on the development of conscience: the student’s motivation to learn” (p. 69). By contrast, for Mason, children have an inherent love for knowledge which fuels them with ample motivation and enjoyment in learning. Mason does not use words such as “struggle” to describe the experience of education. Rather, studies are for delight, and the child’s inherent “Desire of Knowledge (Curiosity) was the chief instrument of education; that this desire might be paralysed or made powerless like an unused limb by encouraging other desires to intervene between a child and the knowledge proper for him” (Mason, 1925/1954, p. 11).

Interestingly, this difference between the classical view and Mason’s view of the nature of the child has been highlighted by classical educators. For example, Aimee Natal (1999) writes:

Classical educators may at first be attracted to Mason’s advocacy for Great Books and the use of original sources, but to then proceed to buy into her educational methods, usually on the word of another, is folly. . . . It is folly because Mason assumes the child is born with a yearning for what is good, knowledge, and that that desire alone, along with good books, is all the child needs upon which to act, to learn.

Hicks joins Natal in rejecting this view, and he prescribes various mechanisms to fortify the motivation and retention of the learner. Hicks (1981/1999) writes that “Study questions . . . press the student to attack his reading critically. They direct his note taking, furnish a basis for classroom discussion, and eventually provide him with a comprehensive means for reviewing for examinations” (p. 151). Yet Mason insists that such prods are counterproductive. Mason (1925/1954) writes, “Of the means we employ to hinder the growth of mind perhaps none is more subtle than the questionnaire” (p. 54). Mason (1912) even disclaims the need for “reviewing for examinations”:

No effort is necessary to keep [the students’] attention by means of pleasing lessons; they attend for two reasons; first, because they care to know, and secondly, because they must know, the lesson in hand. It is not often necessary to enforce this “must”; it is in the air; there is the given work to be done in the given time, with the examination ahead at the end of the term. There are no prizes or place takings in the school; no honours lists, no marks to be gained or lost—for the children take pleasure in the work and in the examination to follow; for this no revision of passages out of the considerable number of books used in the term is usual. The teacher ascertains that they know each lesson or chapter, and it remains with them. (p. 807)

Hicks (1981/1999) postulates various mechanisms by which knowledge can enter the child. He insists that dialectic is the primary means; he goes as far as to claim, “Man’s knowledge is without value to him unless he reaches it dialectically” (p. 70). Hicks (1981/1999) also differentiates between imagination and reason. For example, he writes, “The mythos represents man’s imaginative and, ultimately, spiritual effort to make this world intelligible; the logos sets forth his rational attempt to do the same” (p. 29).

By contrast, Mason (1925/1954) sees the person as a “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” (p. xxx). Mason does not emphasize dialectic, mythos, or logos because she believes that the child as person is equipped by God with the ability to consume ideas. Thus she (1925/1954) conceives of a large part of education as “the presentation of living ideas” (p. xxix).

Hicks (1981/1999) challenges educators to reflect on this question: “Are your students alive to their needs of poetic truth, as well as scientific truth, religious truth, and historical truth?” (p. 124). In so doing, Hicks posits multiple categories of truth, knowledge, and knowledge acquisition. By contrast, according to Dr. Stephanie Spencer (University of Winchester), Mason rejected such dichotomies. Spencer (2009) writes:

Mason frequently conflated intellectual, spiritual and physical requirements and undermined any concept of a mind / body dualism. She clearly linked the intellectual with the spiritual when she rewrote Matthew Arnold’s definition of religion (religion is morality touched with emotion): “Knowledge is information touched with emotion: feeling must be stirred, imagination must picture, reason must consider, nay conscience must pronounce on the information we offer before it becomes mindstuff”. Her choice of “mindstuff” as analogous to foodstuff is unlikely to have been accidental as it is a theme to which she continually returns. She also worked to change ideas that reason, a characteristic primarily associated with men was not compatible with emotion, a traditionally female characteristic. (p. 118)

For Mason, poetic knowledge is not “pre-rational.” Rather, poetic, scientific, religious, and historical truth are all co-rational and co-emotional. For Mason, a child is a person, a spiritual and physical unity, who cannot be divided into faculties or modes of thought. Mason (1925/1954) writes, “the mind is one and works all together; reason, imagination, reflection, judgment, what you please, are like ‘all hands’ summoned by the ‘heave-ho!’ of the boatswain” (p. 41).

5. The role of the teacher

Hicks (1981/1999) describes a revival of classical education that “reemphasizes the role of the teacher” (p. 147). Hicks (1981/1999) begins with the ancient model and observes: “Students become the disciples of their teacher, so to speak. . . . Teachers then exercised such a profound influence over their students that the charge against Socrates of corrupting youth was not at all an uncommon one” (p. 41). Mason (1925/1954) observes a similar pattern in the ancients and writes, “ever since the Greek youth hung about their masters in the walks of the Academy there have been teachers who have undermined the stability of the boys to whom they devoted themselves. Were his countrymen entirely wrong about Socrates?” (p. 49).

Hicks and Mason respond to this classical record, however, in very different ways. Hicks (1981/1999), advocates a return to the ancient model of teacher influence when he describes the modern reincarnation of classical education:

The organization of the school of humane letters also fosters the ideal of a profound and intimate relationship between teacher and student wherein the student’s efforts are . . . personally rewarded. . . .  Only within the context of a profound and intimate teacher-student relationship can the school accomplish its normative purpose, joining the classroom to life and knowledge to responsibility. (p. 135)

Hicks (1981/1999) encourages students to be motivated academically by a desire to earn their teacher’s approval: “Classical education challenges both teacher and pupils: the one to justify his superior wisdom and intellectual skill; the other to win his teacher’s praise by matching his performance” (p. 42). Hicks depicts a powerful relationship in which the teacher uses influence, approval, and rewards to control the student’s development. This form of teaching directly contradicts the fourth principle in Mason’s (1925/1954) synopsis of education:

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. (p. xxix)

Mason (1925/1954) links this rule to her conception of children as persons:

Our business is to find out how great a mystery a person is quâ person. All action comes out of the ideas we hold and if we ponder duly upon personality we shall come to perceive that we cannot commit a greater offence than to maim or crush, or subvert any part of a person. (p. 80)

Because of this, Mason flatly rejects the influence model that Hicks recovers from the ancients. Mason (1925/1954) warns: “A snare which attends the really brilliant teacher is the exhausting effect upon children of an overpowering personality” (p. 48). Mason (1925/1954) elaborates on this warning:

Supineness before a single, steady, persistent influence is a different matter, and the schoolgirl who idolises her mistress, the boy who worships his master, is deprived of the chance of free and independent living. His personality fails to develop and he goes into the world as a parasitic plant, clinging ever to the support of some stronger character. (p. 83)

One reason for Hicks’s emphasis on the role of the teacher is that for him, teachers are superior to the proto-persons that they are educating. He (1981/1999) writes that:

. . . the activity of learning — gives teacher and student a common ground for friendship, while accentuating their unequal status. . . . Talk was freer, more intimate, and depended on the teacher’s lively intelligence and superior knowledge to keep it orbiting around essential concerns. (pp. 40-41)

This notion of unequal status is utterly rejected by Mason. Mason (1925/1954) writes: “Teachers are apt to slight their high office and hinder the processes of education because they cherish two or three fallacies. They regard children as inferior, themselves as superior, beings; — why else their office?” (p. 75). To correct this fallacy, Mason (1925/1954) insists that “there is no great gulf fixed between teacher and taught” (p. 71). Cholmondeley (1960/2000) writes of the attitude inculcated by Mason in the House of Education:

Teaching is not a technique exercised by the skilled on behalf of the unskilled. It is a sharing of the effort to know, using all that is best in the world of books, of music, of pictures, all that can be observed and cherished out of doors, all that hand and eye can make; all that religion, history, art, mathematics and science can reveal to the active mind. (p. 157)

For Hicks (1981/1999), the teacher is the window to the universe for the child: “Responsible learning requires a profound and intimate teacher-pupil relationship. . . .  A personality that embodies and evokes paideia is a window on the world of arts and letters and sciences” (p. 128). Mason (1925/1954), however, insists that “we may not play Sir Oracle any more” (p. 76). She (1925/1954) writes, “We may not pose before children, nor pride ourselves on dutiful getting up of knowledge in order to deliver it as emanating from ourselves” (p. 78). For Mason (1905), such a tenet of classical education is a deadly error: “Our deadly error is to suppose that we are his showman to the universe; and, not only so, but that there is no community at all between child and universe unless such as we choose to set up” (p 188).

According to Hicks, the teacher, as the window to the universe, relies primarily on oral methods. Like Hicks (1981/1999), “The ancients preferred oral teaching over the impersonal study of the written word” (p. 41). The teacher utilized “logical, probing, imaginative discourse” (p. 41) and “decided, therefore, to approach the question of virtue without a text” (p. 73). Such a classical program of oral structure is utterly rejected by Mason (1925/1954) who writes:

This natural aptitude for literature, or, shall we say, rhetoric, which overcomes the disabilities of a poor vocabulary without effort, should direct the manner of instruction we give, ruling out the talky-talky of the oral lesson and the lecture; ruling out, equally, compilations and text-books; and placing books in the hands of children and only those which are more or less literary in character that is, which have the terseness and vividness proper to literary work. (pp. 90-91)

What Hicks calls “imaginative discourse” is for Mason nothing more than “talky-talky.” According to Mason (1925/1954), “What [the children] want is knowledge conveyed in literary form and the talk of the facile teacher leaves them cold” (p. 53).

Mason (1925/1954) warns that a school full of world-class lecturers would actually have a negative impact:

. . . we cannot have a score of such [great] lecturers in every school, each to elucidate his own subject, nor, if we could, would it be good for the children. The personality of the teacher would influence them to distraction from the delight in knowledge which is itself a sufficient and compelling force to secure perfect attention, and seemly discipline. (pp. 78-79)

For the classical educator, another important activity is to prepare the lessons. This is very important, according to Hicks (1981/1999), since “what really matters is not so much what is taught (although the normative character of great literature is emphatically preferred), but how it is taught” (p. 98). This statement by Hicks places him directly in the Herbartian tradition which was repudiated by Mason’s (1925/1954) tenth principle:

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.” (p. xxx)

Presumably Hicks follows Herbart because he believes that the faculties must be developed. For example, Hicks (1981/1999) writes, “The study of mathematics, the ancients believed, reinforces the mind’s powers of concentration, memory, and logical process” (p. 143). But Mason rejects this notion of “mental training.” Mason (1914) writes, “Urge the importance of quantity as food stuff for the mind. ‘Mental training’ is a fiction which has disappeared with the ‘faculties’.” Mason (1905) indicates that this rejection is fundamental to her hope for education:

I think we should have a great educational revolution once we ceased to regard ourselves as assortments of so-called faculties and realised ourselves as persons whose great business it is to get in touch with other persons of all sorts and conditions, of all countries and climes, of all times, past and present. (pp. 82-83)

When students produce written compositions, Hicks advises the teacher to correct them liberally. Hicks (1981/1999) expresses this advice in colorful terms: “The weekly essay ought to be carefully graded, with rivers of red ink running down the margins” (p. 150). In Mason’s method, however, “Teachers are relieved from much of the labour of corrections” (Mason, 1925/1954, p. 28). Mason (1925/1954) explains why:

In [Forms V and VI] some definite teaching in the art of composition is advisable, but not too much, lest the young scholars be saddled with a stilted style which may encumber them for life. Perhaps the method of a University tutor is the best that can be adopted; that is, a point or two might be taken up in a given composition and suggestions or corrections made with little talk. Having been brought up so far upon stylists the pupils are almost certain to have formed a good style; because they have been thrown into the society of many great minds, they will not make a servile copy of any one but will shape an individual style out of the wealth of material they possess; and because they have matter in abundance and of the best they will not write mere verbiage. (pp. 194-195)

Given the critical role of the teacher to the classical system, it is not surprising that Hicks (1981/1999) laments “the difficulty in obtaining teachers whose expectations and abilities coincide with the reforming vision” (p. 147). By contrast, Mason strives to eliminate this teacher-dependency: “it occurred to me that a series of curricula might be devised embodying sound principles and securing that children should be in a position of less dependence on their teacher than they then were” (Mason, 1925/1954, p. 28). Ney (1997) notes that Mason intended to design “a curriculum that would, in so far as possible, be teacher-proof” (p. 3). Teacher-proof, that is, except for the teacher who refuses to get out of the way: “we believe in self-education and it is not every teacher who can withhold himself and give the children scope” (Mason, 1922).


In 1893, a school inspector named Mr. Rooper investigated Mason’s House of Education. He (1894) wrote, “The training which is given in the House of Education is a new departure in education” (p. 874). His evaluation stands to this day. David Hicks presents a powerful indictment of modern utilitarian education. He offers an alternative: classical education. Mason offers a second alternative: a new departure. To escape a modern utilitarian education, one may look to the code of education of the pagans, or one may look to the code of education in the Gospels. Hicks chose the former; Mason chose the latter.


Cholmondley, E. (2000). The story of Charlotte Mason. London: Wadsworth and Co. (Original work published 1960)

Gutek, G. (1995). A History of the western educational experience. (2nd ed.) Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Hicks, D. (1999). Norms & nobility: a treatise on education. Lanham: University Press of America. (Original work published 1981)

Mason, C.M. (1894). Pamphlet in the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection (i2p3pneu36). Retrieved from

Mason, C.M. (1895). P.N.E.U. principles. The Parents’ Review, 5, 426-431.

Mason, C.M. (1899). The history and aims of the P.N.E.U. The Parents’ Review10, 411-434.

Mason, C. M. (1905). School education. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

Mason, C.M. (1912).  Three educational idylls. The Parents’ Review, 23, 801-811.

Mason, C.M. (1914). Letter in the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection (i104p4cmc393). Retrieved from

Mason, C.M. (1922). Letter in the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection (i94p1cmc393). Retrieved from

Mason, C. M. (1989a). Home education: Training and educating children under nine. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1886)

Mason, C. M. (1989b). Parents and children: The role of the parent in the education of the child. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1896)

Mason, C. M. (1989c). Formation of character: Shaping the child’s personality. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1906)

Mason, C. M. (1924). Ourselves: Book I, self-knowledge. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. (Original work published 1905)

Mason, C. M. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education. London: Lowe & Brydone. (Original work published 1925)

Natal, A. R. (1999). Charlotte Mason: For whose sake? Retrieved from

Ney, M. W. (1997). Charlotte Mason: ‘A pioneer of sane education’. Bramcote Hills: Educational Heretics Press.

No King But Christ. (2007). Been there. Done that. Retrieved from (accessed 7/24/16)

Rooper, T.G. (1894). Our Work. The Parents’ Review4, 874.

Spencer, S. (2009). Knowledge as the necessary food of the mind. In Women, education, and agency, 1600–2000. New York: Routledge.

Wolters, A. (2005). Creation regained: Biblical basics for a reformational worldview. (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Company.

© 2016 by Art Middlekauff

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6 thoughts on “Norms, Nobility, and a New Departure by Art Middlekauff

  1. Thank you for this post. As Kipling said “What know they of England that only England know?” I have been a CM educator from the start, and felt that my aversion to “Christian classical” education was rather intuitive and perhaps superficial or unfair. You have provided valuable mindfood to digest. I also once again thank God that he directed me into this method of educating as He did… for my children’s sake.

    • Dear Valerie,

      Thank you for reading my article and providing your feedback. I am happy to hear that your implementation of Charlotte Mason’s method has been fruitful for your family!


  2. I am going to ask a question, hoping that it is not so simple as to seem insulting: Why does it matter that Charlotte Mason does or does not fit with the ideas of another writer/writers? To what extent do you consider it important to put clear blue water between Charlotte Mason and say, Plato?

    • Dear Anthea,

      Thank you for your comment. There are many reasons why it is helpful to compare Charlotte Mason’s ideas to those of other educational theorists. I will highlight three:

      1. By comparing one person’s ideas to another person’s ideas, it helps us to better understood the ideas of both. Comparing and contrasting are common tools for investigation and analysis. Suppose, for example, I wanted to explain what Maria Montessori believed about education. One way I could do this would be to simply write an exposition of her ideas. Another approach would be to compare her ideas to the ideas of Charlotte Mason or David Hicks. Don’t you think such a comparison would be informative? I think it would lead to a deeper understanding of both Mason and Montessori.

      2. When a person’s ideas are classified under a well-known category, this may lead readers to interpret that person’s ideas within a particular paradigm. If the classification is incorrect, it can lead to misinterpretation. For example, suppose you gave me a book containing writings by John Wesley, and you told me he was a Calvinist. Assuming I had no prior knowledge of Wesley, it is likely that I would misinterpret key elements of Wesley’s writings due to an incorrect interpretative paradigm. For example, I might interpret his treatise on Original Sin in a way that excludes his doctrine of prevenient grace. In a similar way, if one misclassifies Mason as a Classical Educator, then one will likely misinterpret key elements of her ideas.

      3. On a practical level, it is helpful for the educator to know when two methods are incompatible. For example, a curriculum cannot be both narrow and broad. The educator must make a choice. I have attempted to highlight some of these decision points for the educator who is interested in both Mason and Hicks.

      Regarding Plato, it is important to understand that many of Mason’s ideas are incompatible with Plato’s philosophy and worldview. For example, Stephanie Spencer of the University of Winchester writes, “Mason frequently conflated intellectual, spiritual and physical requirements and undermined any concept of a mind / body dualism.” (Women, Education, and Agency, 1600–2000, p. 118). Mason also rejected spirit / matter dualism and advocated a sacramental view of nature, elevating nature study and science to a means of grace. I believe it is important to differentiate Mason from Plato so that these key aspects of Mason’s teaching are not lost in the interpretive shuffle.