Who is Charlotte Mason?

Charlotte Mason in 1864
Portrait by Fred Yates

An Introduction

Almost a century after her death, Charlotte Mason’s design for education continues to stir the imagination and practice of parents and teachers and impact the lives and education of thousands of children. But who was she, and how did this movement begin?

Dean Van Pelt briefly describes the life and work of Charlotte Mason in her opening remarks at CMI’s 2021 Conference.

A British educator and philosopher in the late 19th and early 20th century, Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) designed, developed, and promoted a relational education in a living environment filled with books, experiences, nature, and ideas, where the child is viewed as a person and the educator as one who cooperates with God.

After more than a dozen years of teaching children in the British school system in Worthing, UK, and then four years teaching adults in a new teacher education program in Chichester, UK, Mason gave a pivotal series of “Lectures to Ladies” in Bradford, UK during the winter of 1885/1886. The seven-lecture series had such resonance that over the succeeding seven years, Charlotte Mason was at the heart of founding and launching a parent’s union, a teacher’s college, an educator’s journal, and a curriculum. A network of parents, educators, student teachers and governesses, community activists, writers, and schools were organized—organic, structured, connected organizations, institutions, and individuals all around a rather new guiding and developing philosophy of education led by Charlotte Mason.

Charlotte Mason, a thoughtful only-child who lost both her parents by the time she was sixteen, and was apparently unconnected to her dozen older siblings, children of her father from an earlier marriage, developed deep relationships with many late 19th century British educational and social activists. With Mason’s insights, writings, and organizing playing a key part, the following were launched: the Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU), with local chapters across the UK, which provided resources and support for teachers and parents; the Parents’ Union Schools, the curriculum Mason developed which was eventually used by parents, governesses, and schools across the British empire; the Parents’ Review, an educational journal, that published monthly for 99 years of which Mason was editor till the year of her death, 1923; and a teacher college, originally with a practicing school, in Ambleside, UK, in the Lake District, The House of Education, now part of the University of Cumbria. A detailed timeline of her life is available here in the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection.

As she promoted the idea that “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life,” Mason summarized her educational philosophy into twenty principles drawn from her observations of children during years of teaching, the science of her day, and, most importantly, from the “code of education” she found in the gospels.

In addition to numerous letters, pamphlets, and articles, Mason’s writings include a six-volume poetic mediation on the gospels based on her Sunday meditations on the gospel of John (published from 1908-1914), six geography volumes for students written and published prior to her pivotal lectures in the 1880s, and a series of six volumes in which she describes her philosophy of education (first published from 1887-1925), later called the home education series partly because of the emphasis it places on the education that takes place in a child’s life at home (not because, as some might assume, they are necessarily about homeschooling).

A fulsome introduction to Mason’s ideas would include the following books:

Home Education Series by Charlotte Mason
Vol 1. Home Education
Vol 2. Parents and Children
Vol 3. School Education
Vol 4. Ourselves, Our Souls and Bodies
Vol. 5 Some Studies in the Formation of Character
Vol 6. An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education

Key introductions to Mason’s philosophy:
For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay
When Children Love to Learn: A Practical Application of Mason’s Philosophy for Today edited by Elaine Cooper
The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondeley

The Charlotte Mason Digital Collection

Housed at Redeemer University and digitized by Deani Van Pelt and The Charlotte Mason Institute, the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection makes a wide variety of artifacts surrounding Mason’s life and work available to the public. The full collection is available here.

Pictures courtesy of the Armitt Museum and Charlotte Mason Digital Collection.