Charlotte Mason helped me make sense of my education.
I had caring and competent teachers in high school, but they could not compensate for the educational system we operated in. You may find that system familiar. It breaks education down into a series of benchmarks, rewarding those who have the personality, ability, and motivation to keep in line. I was one of those students, and high school was a steady process of accruing good grades and extracurriculars for my impending scholarship applications. Although I enjoyed many of my classes, they were ultimately transactions, exchanging effort for grades and letters of recommendation, currency for higher education and, later, the job market. I graduated with the transcript I wanted, but I missed something.
I couldn’t have told you, though, what was absent from my experience until I met Miss Mason. A British educational philosopher who died over sixty years before I was born, we clearly never met in person. I found her ideas through her writing, which shone a light on my education and illuminated an alternative.
Miss Mason’s culture did not feel the influence of capitalist ideology to the same degree as we do, but she noted a tendency to treat children as products of an assembly line and a cultural movement toward individualism and personal autonomy. I recognized both from my experience, and I took hope from her response. Not content to let the cultural trends take their course, Miss Mason began a campaign to elevate children from products to persons in the eyes of parents and educators, and to bring education into the service of Christian discipleship.
Miss Mason entered the teaching profession in her late teens, full of optimism, thinking that “education should regenerate the world.” She felt that “it was impossible but that the teacher should leave his stamp on the children. His own was the fault if anything went wrong, if any child did badly in school or out of it…But, all this zeal notwithstanding, the disappointing thing was, that nothing extraordinary happened.”
For all her enthusiasm, she did not see her pupils develop greater virtue, stronger character, or even improved intellect. “The faults they had, they kept; the virtues they had were exercised just as fitfully as before.” Miss Mason found that her teaching practice needed stronger foundations than optimism if her work would nurture and serve children. She would find those foundations by answering two questions: what is the nature of a child, and what is the nature of education?
At their root, the educational approaches of Miss Mason’s day objectified children as buckets to be filled or blank boards to be written upon at the will of the educator. “Their notion is 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.” The child brings nothing in himself to the process.
This did not accord with Miss Mason’s personal experience. She had observed, as countless others have, how quickly and naturally children learn from birth without a teacher. By two or three years old, babies learn at least one language. They experiment with the laws of physics as they drop their toys on the floor. The season of the eternal “Why?” is infamous, our preschoolers ruthlessly seeking explanations for the most mundane and most complex phenomena.
These reflections became the basis for Miss Mason’s first principle of education, articulated in the simple phrase “children are born persons.” In the word person, Miss Mason meant children crave knowledge from birth and they grow intellectually from new ideas, like they grow physically from eating and drinking. No educator could apply an external process to make a child learn, not without damage to a child’s natural appetite for knowledge.
But if children are natural, motivated, capable learners, why do so many seem to lose their desire for knowledge? This question suggested the missing piece from my education. I had a degree, but my desire to learn was dull.
For Miss Mason, the answer was simple. The factory-style education of the day that focused on facts, marks, and exams, failed to spark interest, to arrest attention, and to offer a healthy variety of ideas in a way that appealed to a child’s natural appetite for learning. If a child is born with a desire to learn, then they need proper intellectual nutrition to thrive. Schools and governesses were plating up the intellectual equivalent of bread and water — and sometimes slop. A child might survive on it, but not much more. In contrast, Miss Mason desired every child to enjoy a feast of ideas.
Miss Mason summarized the idea of an educational feast in her statement, “Education is the Science of Relations.” The work of education is not to fill up children with facts, but to encourage personal knowledge within many domains, founded in recognition, appreciation, familiarity, and affection. Just as children need a broad and varied diet physically, intellectually, they need relationships with the natural world, with humankind, past and present, and with their Creator.
Miss Mason trusted the minds of children to work upon knowledge without an external push-and-pull process. The role of the educator is that of a nutritionist-chef-parent. They plan a wide variety of subjects within the curriculum, prepare and present them in a palatable way, and ask the child to come to the metaphorical table and eat.
For Miss Mason, the teacher, whether in a school or a home classroom, was not a bucket-filler or a factory worker who could form children according to his plans. Instead, “[t]he teacher’s business is to indicate, stimulate, direct and constrain to the acquirement of knowledge, but by no means to be the fountain-head and source of all knowledge in his or her own person.” A teacher should offer children well-written, engaging books as sources of knowledge and plan a wide curriculum.
Then the child must do the work of learning. To aid this, Miss Mason asked students to “tell back” or narrate readings from their schoolbooks. By recalling the material from memory, children paid closer attention and were more likely to remember what they read after the lesson, having made the knowledge their own. And while the child works, he has the companionship of the Holy Spirit, illuminating, enlivening, and animating his mind.
Miss Mason believed that education should be living. Rather than a mechanical process with a predetermined output, education should cause life and growth, seen in an animated mind and the formation of new relationships. This vision of a vital education captured my imagination, as well as countless others in her lifetime and after it.
Miss Mason first brought her ideas into the public sphere through a series of lectures delivered to mothers rather than teachers. If children learn rapidly from birth, then education begins before they go to school. Miss Mason wanted to empower parents with basic educational philosophy. She saw they could play an active role in that education and, where relevant, direct any governesses or tutors working in their homes.
Miss Mason’s audience received the lectures with enthusiasm, and she continued to advance her ideas. She refashioned her lectures into a book and many readers wanted to learn more and share Miss Mason’s ideas with others. Soon, the Parents’ Educational Union was born, later renamed the Parents’ National Educational Union (P.N.E.U.). The P.N.E.U. taught parents about educational philosophy while serving as a place for friendly debate and discussion on educational topics. This occurred through local meetings, national conferences, and the Parents’ Review, a magazine for members.
As the P.N.E.U. grew, parents looked for governesses who could care for their children in line with Miss Mason’s principles. Miss Mason now took up the work of training teachers by establishing a training college in Ambleside in the English Lake District. The students arrived, and graduates soon trickled out, often finding employment in the homes of P.N.E.U. members. From time to time, members would club together to hire a teacher and the first P.N.E.U. schools were born.
Miss Mason shared her principles wherever she could, writing for newspapers and upholding them as the central tenets of the P.N.E.U. She also practiced them in all aspects of her life and work. Not only are children born persons, but so are trainee teachers, P.N.E.U. members, and the wider public. In her efforts to teach others about her method, Miss Mason trusted her ideas to function as she believed all other ideas do. “We say of an idea that it strikes us, impresses us, seizes us, takes possession of us, rules us.” It was her responsibility to share, not to cajole, convince, or use the influence of her personality to bring people to her point of view. This, in her opinion, would have encroached upon the rights intrinsic to other persons. For Miss Mason, it is the duty of every person to thoughtfully form their own opinions, and after presenting her case, she consequently left other people to do so.
In this way, Miss Mason achieved the modern ideal of authenticity. She kept to her convictions, making her case through her writing, teaching, and leadership by “present[ing] an attractive alternative to the ideologies of the day.” She desired that others would respect children, and that parents and educators would give them thoughtful, loving discipleship. But for Miss Mason, the means of accomplishing this must align with the ends, and the primary means was the Holy Spirit, the One who breathes inspiration and brings ideas to fruition in the mind. Hence Miss Mason’s efforts to reach parents and teachers through the written and spoken word: this is how ideas take hold and spread, one individual at a time.
Committed to her principles, Miss Mason saw considerable success as her ideas spread. She published more volumes on education, continued to edit and write for the Parents’ Review and oversaw the training college. Ten years before her death, against the backdrop of World War I, she began an effort to take her method into even more schools. Called “A Liberal Education for All”, she sought community schools, schools in cities, schools which taught the working classes, schools with very little money. Through the efforts of Miss Mason and the P.N.E.U., they became schools where children, perhaps unexpectedly, thrived on a diet of fairy tales, Shakespeare, Plutarch, and history.
By the time of Charlotte Mason’s death in 1923, the P.N.E.U. had helped start or revive 175 elementary schools, 117 secondary schools, and hundreds of home schools worldwide. This is to say nothing of the parents and educators who were impacted by the work of the P.N.E.U. In her lifetime alone, Miss Mason’s principles shaped the lives of countless people.
“The question is not –– how much does the youth know?…— but how much does he care?”
There is much to admire in Miss Mason, her philosophy, practical method, and leadership. But beyond admiration, her ideas and example continue to offer a relevant and inviting alternative to the educational options of our day. We have extended the mechanization of education to the commodification of education, and students are at once products and consumers in the system. Students drive up demand for schools and universities as those institutions form economically productive citizens. Yet modern schools and universities have not delivered on their promises that with greater attainment comes greater prosperity, and that more choice will lead to more happiness.
Like Miss Mason, we need stronger foundations for our educational philosophy. We also must consider the nature of children and the nature of education. If our underlying educational principles assume that children and their parents are consumers in a free market, then education is nothing more than the pursuit of intellectual and cultural capital. We end up either bloated from choice or starved by the system because we don’t have enough capital to play the game. “The stream can rise no higher than its source,” Miss Mason wrote. Education cannot accomplish more than its starting principles allow.
Children are not cogs in a machine or consumers in a market, but persons. They are human beings with inherent dignity and a desire and capacity for life-giving relationships. This should give hope to parents, educators, pastors, and any person concerned with the discipleship of children. We must trust that they have the natural interest, ability, and motivation to engage with a wide curriculum, and that by offering them true, good, and beautiful ideas, we orient their education toward God. In other words, the work of education is to order the affections. Education is discipleship.
After I met Miss Mason, I realized that the starting principles of the system I encountered in high school and college took a low and limited view of children and education, even if my individual teachers did not. But I also saw that my education didn’t end at college graduation. In fact, it had hardly begun. Although my desire for learning had dulled, her principles gave me a way to recover that appetite. That we all have this opportunity is a hopeful thought for any person.
For example, a typical curriculum for a nine-year-old would include Bible, Latin, French, Literature, Poetry, Shakespeare, Plutarch, natural history and nature study, English and French History, geography, artist and composer study, and drawing, as well as time for singing, handicraft, and physical exercise. ↑