It is commonly known that Charlotte Mason left twenty principles as a compass to keep teachers on a steady course toward the right objective, but Mason also wrote six books. The Parents’ Review contains hundreds of articles. If the twenty principles cover everything, why is there so much literature on Mason’s method? I have a theory. While the twenty principles are Mason’s philosophy stripped down to the bare bones, the basic structure, there are more principles contained within the practices. These principles are the sinews, holding the bones together and allowing for movement. It is my belief that in addition to the explicit principles, Mason also taught many implicit principles, which may be discovered by looking for the themes across her practices. I further believe that an implementation of Mason’s method which ignores these implicit principles is only a shadow of Mason’s method. Today I would like to share with you just one principle that is essential to a Mason education, but is only discovered by applying Mason’s prescribed practices.
Before we begin, let’s clarify what a principle is.The most appropriate definition for our purposes is: “a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption” (Merriam-Webster, 2003). So for an idea to be considered a principle, it must be evident across multiple subjects or activities.
The principle I will focus on today is this: start where the child is. There are two ways this principle can be interpreted. First, start where the child resides on earth, and second, where the child stands in development for a particular ability or skill. It may be said that this principle relates to practice as much as philosophy, and “education is neither more nor less than the practical application of our philosophy” (Mason, 1989b, p. 119), so I think this principle can only be understood to the degree that it is practiced. In this article I will be referring primarily to my own experience as a Mason educator, sharing what I have seen with my children and what I remember from my own childhood.
As I was first researching different methods of education, Charlotte Mason caught my attention because of nature study. Growing up I spent a lot of time outside, but that time had no focus. I had general names, but no particular names, for the things I saw. There was no one to ask, but I did wonder. That wonder was the germ in the seed. Without knowledge to sustain it, my wonder went dormant. In Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane says:
Language is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment, for language does not just register experience, it produces it. (Macfarlane, 2016, p. 25)
He is speaking of the loss of language in western culture to describe the natural world. For myself, “re-wonderment” came with a cross-country move and a desire to have language for the flora and fauna of my new home. To a Southern California girl, the forests of North Carolina are enchanted, full of beauty and danger. The more I saw, the more I wondered, and the more I wondered, the more I looked. By the time I “met” Charlotte Mason, I was already well on my way to becoming an amateur naturalist.
Because I already had love for the natural world growing in my heart, and because my oldest child was years too young for formal education when I started, the first thing we tried was nature study. Specifically, hours out of doors. Now we get to the principle. We started in our tiny little back yard in our suburban neighborhood. We started right where we were. In that neighborhood we found our first Polyphemus moth, which gave us our first batch of caterpillars. We have been raising giant silk moths every summer now for four or five years. We watched a huge snapping turtle walk across the backyard just after a thunderstorm. We discovered stinkhorn mushrooms for the first time (and now we can’t miss them!) and we came to know the names of many wildflowers that are usually dismissed as weeds. My son’s fourth or fifth word and his first bird identification was “turkey,” as in turkey vulture, with a chubby baby hand pointing to the vultures circling in the sky above. We learned all this and so much more with within the comfortable walking distance of a young child.
If we take a brief look at the practices Mason suggests, I think it is clear that she would have the child start right where he is. She would have him go outside to observe trees in the neighborhood to take “into a sort of comradeship for the year” (Mason, 1989a, p. 53). She would have him keep a calendar to note “the first oak-leaf, the first tadpole, the first cowslip…”, and a nature diary to record his observations on the squirrel or the jay, the caterpillar or the spider, encountered on his daily walk (Mason, 1989a, p. 54). She was realistic about the options too; for town children, she suggested they become friendly with the sparrows or raise a caterpillar and watch his changes (Mason, 1989a, pp. 59-60). The child’s location may be less than ideal, but it is always the place to start in nature study.
Why, you wonder? Because we can only love what we know and we can know best what is right before us. Can you see how the principle of starting where the child is now is the key to principle 12, Education is the Science of Relations? The principle works in the same way when we apply it to history.
When Emily Kiser first announced the findings from her history research, that Mason would have the child begin with the country he or she lives in, I felt like I was being vindicated. I am fascinated by British history, but my heart is in American history, and I wanted my children to feel rooted in this country first and foremost. Therefore, three years ago we started year 1 with American history.
My ethnic heritage is Mexican and Native American on my mother’s side and Irish and English on my father’s side, but I am thoroughly American. I grew up in Southern California enamored with all things Old West because I could see it. I could feel it. It was part of me. However much things may have changed, I could still see the low rolling hills and endless sky. In my mind’s eye I could know what it looked like to see a herd of bison across the plain. The same hot sun would have shined on the Native Americans, perhaps some of whom had been my ancestors. The same rough wind would have greeted the settlers so long ago. I loved American history because I understood it. It was real. For my children, I wanted this same connection to the earth they walk upon, to their national heritage. If children are indeed a “public trust,” they should be invested in their homeland in their earliest years.
As I mentioned before, my husband and I are raising our family in North Carolina. My parents now live in northern Virginia. We are surrounded by the evidence of history. On the way to church each week we see a log cabin that reminds us of Laura’s log cabin in the Big Woods. Last year my oldest daughter read a biography about Pocahontas after seeing the Potomac River with her own eyes. When we read about Molly Pitcher and the Battle at Monmouth, she could understand how men were falling from heat stroke because heat and humidity is something we know well in the South. And more than that, because she knows the birds and the trees of this country, she can relate to the details often given in biographies or historical fiction. After reading about John James Audubon beginning his studies in childhood, my daughter was inspired to continue her own passion for studying birds. If I expect my children to appreciate history and understand that it is more than a fairy tale, they need to feel a connection from the start, in their own country. What better way is there to feel that than to walk the same paths, see the same sights, and hear the same sounds as the men and women in their history books?
In the introduction to this principle, I mentioned that there are two ways it can be understood. We have discussed the first interpretation, referring to location. Now we move to the second, which relates to development or understanding in the child himself.
I had a public school education and did very well in most subjects, except math. I got to a certain point where math became a foreign language. At first math was like speaking American English; then it became like listening to a British accent: different, but still easily understandable. Before long it was like a heavy Irish brogue. I was straining to get the idea. Well, by junior year of high school, math may as well have been Gaelic. It was completely foreign to me. After talking with my counselor and realizing I didn’t need the class to graduate, I decided to just drop it and be finished with math. But the trouble I was having was really only this: I got to a point where I was stuck and I didn’t know how to move forward. My teacher, rather than trying to help me along (seriously, she was the least engaged teacher I ever had), just made it clear that she was moving on with or without me. So I just quit. I didn’t want to waste my time in failure. How often does this happen? A child doesn’t understand or have the skills required, so to cover up embarrassment in his failure, he simply quits.
A few weeks ago I taught at my church’s vacation Bible school. It was a wonderful time. I used narration and picture study with my class to teach the Bible lessons, and then we moved through short lessons to different rooms for games, snacks, handicrafts, and then all together for worship and guest speakers. During the handicraft portion each night, I noticed one girl struggling with every project. She was about 10 years old and very tall for her age. She fumbled clumsily with her materials, and after a few minutes spent in a half-hearted attempt, she gave up every night. The projects were well-chosen; all of the other children did a nice job, and they all enjoyed their work… all except this one. She didn’t have the basic manual skills required for the projects. She just wasn’t ready.
So how can we apply the principle, start where the child is, to subjects requiring skill or mastery? First, we must stop comparing the child before us to other children. While it may give us a direction to know what children of a similar age are doing, we can’t make any progress without a starting point. If we begin to work with the child thinking more about where he should be than where he is, we are already starting wrong. First we must assess where the child is. We do that, as Mason did, through careful observation. In her article on Manual Training, Miss McMillan says:
A child of three when drawing will often use both arms and even put out its tongue to help what is, or ought to be a physical exertion. The teacher who would stop this natural impulse, and teach the child any finer work, such as needlework or drawing, is wrong. Every teacher should observe the order of the child’s exertions, and follow their natural sequence. (McMillan, 1898, p. 430, emphasis added)
To require work that the child cannot do is actually wrong. Miss Mason would say that it is an offense.
An offense, we know, is literally a stumbling-block, that which trips up the walker and causes him to fall. (Mason, 1989a, p. 13)
Almost as bad is the way the child’s intellectual life may be wrecked at its outset by a round of dreary, dawdling lessons in which definite progress is the last thing made or expected, and which, so far from educating in any true sense, stultify his wits in a way he never gets over. (Mason, 1989a, p.16, emphasis added)
Be it math or handicrafts, spelling or Swedish Drill, we have to look at the born person in front of us and know him. We need to look at him with “eyes to see” (Mason, 1989a, p. 231). As teachers and as parents, we need to observe the child’s postures, his movements, his emotions, and think about how that relates to lessons. Do we ask too much? Do we move too quickly? What kind of damage can we inflict if we don’t start with the child at his level?
A great deal has been said lately about the danger of overpressure, of requiring too much mental work from a child of tender years. The danger exists; but lies, not in giving the child too much, but in giving him the wrong thing to do, the sort of work for which the present state of his mental development does not fit him. (Mason, 1989a, pp. 66-67)
There are causes of stumbling not so easy to remove as an offending footstool; and woe to him who causes the child to fall! (Mason, 1989a, p.13)
My own life has turned out pretty amazing, despite dropping that math class. But dropping that class changed my trajectory. I was a very good student; I was in the AP classes; I had participated in Academic Decathlon and school plays. I was starting to think about where I would apply to college. Deciding to drop that class changed my plans for my future. High school then felt like a huge waste of time, so I graduated a semester early, and I was only minimally engaged for the one semester of half-days during my senior year. I doubt that teacher even noticed I dropped her class. I am sure that she has no idea how her actions affected my life.
Even as a Charlotte Mason educator, believing that “children are born persons,” I still need to check myself. I still need to look at the child in front of me and reassess where she is today. If my child should stumble, I want to be the one removing the “offending footstool,” not the one who caused her to fall.
Although we have the twenty principles to guide us, taken on their own they are not enough. We need the implicit principles found throughout the volumes, in The Parents’ Review, and in the programmes and practices. They are part of “PNEU thought,” the very culture that developed around Miss Mason’s work.
Today I have shared with you one implicit principle that has been meaningful to me, but there are many more. Have you seen any others? Will you be looking for them now? I hope you will.
Macfarlane, R. (2016). Landmarks. London: Penguin Random House UK.
Mason, C. (1989a). Home education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989b). Parents and children. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
McMillan (1898). Manual training. In The Parents’ Review, volume 9 (pp. 429-431). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Merriam-Webster. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Inc.