The CiRCE Institute recently hosted a discussion on the relationship between Charlotte Mason and classical education. It was recorded in the July 22 edition of The Mason Jar Podcast entitled “The Mason Jar Q&A: LIVE from the 2016 CiRCE Conference.” In this episode, David Kern asked:
“So you think that when people think that Charlotte Mason and classical education don’t go together that there’s just a good chance that the people on the … ‘just Charlotte Mason side’ … don’t understand classical education completely and then vice [versa]?”
With this question, Kern rightly highlighted the importance of correct understanding of both Charlotte Mason and classical education. Kern and I agree that assertions must be accurate and supported by evidence. This is especially true for any answer proposed to Kern’s key question in the Podcast:
“Where do you see in particular overlap… between Charlotte Mason’s ideas and classical? There’s been a lot of talk about how they’re not the same.”
Karen Glass was called upon to answer the question. Glass’s answer centered around three points of evidence. However, the evidence provided did not match the assertions made. In the interest of clarity and understanding, I would like to comment here on the evidence shared in the Podcast:
1. First, Glass read the following quotation from In Memoriam (1922):
“[Charlotte Mason’s] students learnt too that education is not, as in some Universities, a departmental subject; rather, that all life is education, and all education that deserves the name is life. Plato taught, in the Republic, that the theory of education is the theory of life (Philosophy) and its message the message of life (Religion). So likewise taught the wise and noble teacher whose life-work we commemorate, in reverence and thankfulness, to-day.” (p. 105)
On the basis of this quote, Glass asserted that:
- “They knew even then that what they were doing had links and ties to the classical educators and so this man said.”
- “There’s no way that you can completely divorce Charlotte Mason from the historical classical educators.”
Unfortunately, Glass’s assertions are not substantiated by the quote she provided. W. G. de Burgh in In Memoriam did indeed compare one aspect of Mason’s theory to the theory of Plato. But that does not link Mason to the classical educators. A simple example proves this point. In 1965, John P. Anton wrote the following about John Dewey:
“The works of John Dewey abound in critical discussions and analyses of ancient Greek thinkers and the philosophical traditions that go back to Plato and Aristotle… [This includes the] cumulative aspect, which includes some of the features that Dewey not only shared with the classical world, such as problems and concerns, ideals and practices, methods and solutions, but also extended significantly.”
Anton notes that Dewey’s theory included overlap with Plato’s theory. According to Glass’s reasoning, since we cannot “divorce [Dewey] from the historical classical educators,” we must thus classify Dewey as a classical educator. But this implication would be unacceptable to classical education theorists. For example, Andrew Kern goes as far as to say that classical educators should “revolt against Dewey,” whose “strategy was to insist” that we must escape the “Christian classical tradition” of education.
Anton’s favorable comparison of Dewey to Plato does not tie Dewey to the classical educators. Similarly, de Burgh’s favorable comparison of Mason to Plato does not tie Mason to the classical educators.
2. Second, Glass read the following quotation from School Education (1904):
“I think we (of ‘The Parents’ Union’) hold amongst us the little leaven which is able to leaven the whole lump. 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.” (p. 156)
On the basis of this quote, Glass asserted that:
“So she really appreciated what an older method of education had done for people and it was part of her vision to [restore that] to the world.”
Unfortunately, Glass’s assertion is not substantiated by the quote she provided. The full quote in context from School Education is as follows:
“Science, the Teaching vouchsafed to Men to-day.—I think we (of ‘The Parents’ Union’) hold amongst us the little leaven which is able to leaven the whole lump. 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. Nor need we fear that in endeavouring after some such doctrine of ideas as may help us in the work of education, we are running counter to science. Many of us feel, and, I think, rightly, that the teaching of science is the new teaching which is being vouchsafed to mankind in our age. Some of us are triumphant, and believe that the elements of moral and religious struggle are about to be eliminated from life, which shall run henceforth, whether happy or disastrous, on the easy plane of the inevitable; others are bewildered and look in vain for a middle way, a place of reconciliation for science and religion; while others of us, again, take refuge in repudiating ‘evolution’ and all its works and nailing our colours to religion, interpreted on our own narrow lines. Whichever of these lines we take, we probably err through want of faith.”
The context reveals clearly that when Mason speaks of “that great scheme of unity of life,” she is referring to religion. The key interpretive phrase is, “others are bewildered and look in vain for a middle way, a place of reconciliation for science and religion.” In other words, Mason is asserting that she can propose a method of education that accepts both science (neurophysiology) and religion (Christianity). This supports what I have repeatedly asserted, which is that Mason derived her theory of education from three sources:
- The teachings of Christ
- The discoveries of science
- The observed behaviors of children
Mason was not attempting to revive a classical model of education, and the quote from School Education does not in any way imply that she was doing so.
3. Finally, Glass asserted that Mason “actually recanted, retracted some of that later in her life, to be honest.” Presumably Glass is referring to the following excerpt from a 1922 letter by Mason:
“Science has done nothing to confirm the ‘rut’ theory in all these years, and Brother Body seems to me much the inferior partner. I think all that I have written is still true but I would emphasize habit and so on less. Child mind – no, because a child has as much mind as the rest of us.” (emphasis added)
This quote does not substantiate the assertion that Mason recanted or retracted any portion of her theory. Mason’s statement “all that I have written is still true” is the opposite of a retraction. It is her endorsement of her life work written months before her death. Granted, Mason indicated that she would shift the emphasis somewhat. But a shift in emphasis is not a retraction.
By contrast, Glass said:
“There was a lot of psychological knowledge that was very fascinating to [Mason] and she specifically thought—and this is actually—I don’t actually mind saying this, that, where I actually slightly depart from Charlotte Mason’s beliefs, simply because she—it’s outdated.”
Here Glass explicitly states where she departs from Mason. It is interesting that she disagrees with Mason in the area of “psychological knowledge,” when this area has been confirmed by later research into neural plasticity. On the other hand, Mason’s emphasis on the neurophysiology of habit is not found in the classical tradition. So it is not surprising that a classical education advocate such as Glass would reject that aspect of Mason’s teaching.
The July 22 Mason Jar Podcast recorded an interesting discussion which is a fruitful source of reflection. It helps to further highlight that Mason introduced a distinctly new philosophy of education that is a dramatic departure from the classical tradition. In 1922, E. Percival Horsey wrote that he “had at times heard vague rumours about a new departure in education associated with the name of Miss Mason” (PR33:396). Classical educators are certainly free to draw from Mason’s ideas to create a hybrid model of education that combines the classical model with some of Charlotte Mason’s ideas. But in doing so, they have made their own “new departure.”
 Glass is apparently familiar with this quote. It was selected as the May 30, 2012 “Quote for Thought and Discussion” by the “cmason Yahoo! Group”, of which Glass was a member. The citation includes the explanation, “Found by Leslie N in notes from Karen Glass.”