I didn’t know her name. I only knew her question. She wrote it anonymously on a piece of paper, a question for the “experts.” We were wrapping up two wonderful days of celebrating Charlotte Mason’s life-giving method at the 2018 Charlotte Mason Soirée Summer Mountain Mini. I was feeling a glow as I sat with the rest of the panel for the fireside chat. I naïvely assumed everyone else in the room was feeling the same glow too. Until I heard this question.
It started out just right—very pure and very authentic. This anonymous mother had read that Charlotte Mason said that nature study must be a year-round activity. So far so good. She understood that the authentic Charlotte Mason educator must never take a break despite the weather. Even if it is cold. Very good, I thought. Check that box.
The question continued. “But I have a medical condition that makes me lose circulation in my toes even when the temperature is 50 degrees. What suggestions can you give me in order to give my children a true CM education?”
A true CM education.
What could she do? Was she forced to settle for an “imperfect” Charlotte Mason education? Would she be disqualified from the “full” experience? Could she never be a “Charlotte Mason purist”?
Her question broke my heart. I dispensed with protocol and didn’t wait for the other members of the panel. I simply reached for the microphone because I was compelled to speak.
An Authentic Interpretation
As we’ve said many times at Charlotte Mason Poetry, one of our goals is to promote an authentic interpretation of Charlotte Mason’s writings. What does that mean? Webster (2003) gives us a hint:
au•then•tic: conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features
Our original, of course, is the pattern set by Charlotte Mason herself, in her books, programmes, and schools. We believe that this pattern has value for today. But how do we reproduce those essential features in a North American, 21st-century context?
The Naïve Approach
One approach would be the naïve approach. Suppose we wanted to determine the recommended plan for modern language study for the authentic Charlotte Mason educator. We would begin with Mason’s own volumes:
In Class III. the range of age is from eleven or twelve to fifteen. The ‘subjects’: Bible Lessons and Recitations (Poetry and Bible passages); English Grammar, French, German, and Latin; Italian(optional); English, French, and Ancient History (Plutarch’s Lives); Singing (French, English, and German Songs); Writing, Dictation, Drill; Drawing in Brush and Charcoal; Natural History, Botany, Physiology, Geography; Arithmetic; Geometry, and Reading. (Mason, 1989c, p. 286)
Clearly, the modern languages to study are French, German, and Italian. To be more thorough, however, we can go beyond Mason’s volumes and consult with the programmes as well. We find the historical PNEU programmes again and again list the same three modern languages: French, German, and Italian. Since we believe that Mason’s philosophy of education is relevant for today, the conclusion is obvious. Authentic CM educators will teach their children three modern languages: French, German, and Italian.
It seems so simple. Yet I am not aware of any Charlotte Mason interpreter, curriculum, or school that holds that these are the three modern languages that all contemporary CM students should learn. Why is that? I would suggest it is because the naïve methodology of interpretation is too simplistic:
- Determine what Charlotte Mason implemented in the historical PNEU schools.
- Implement the same thing today.
Everyone (I think) realizes that the naïve approach is not really the authentic approach. Why? Because it seems to skip a step. As Brittney McGann has so insightfully observed, there are principles in the practices. The practices of Charlotte Mason and the PNEU schools are informative for us today not so much as blueprints to be precisely copied, but rather as expressions of timeless principles in a particular time and place. We study the historical practices so we can deduce the principles. Then we apply the principles to our own context.
The Authentic Approach
Or to propose it as a sequence of steps:
- Determine what Charlotte Mason implemented in the historical PNEU schools.
- Deduce the principles which informed those practices.
- Apply those principles to the North American, 21st-century context.
This would be a more authentic approach—“conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features”—and yet it is fraught with difficulty and challenge. Let us take the example of modern languages to illustrate why this is hard.
Step 1. Determine what Charlotte Mason implemented in the historical PNEU schools.
As seen above, the historical practice is quite clear. The modern languages to learn are French, German, and Italian. It seems indisputable. That is, until we dig deeper into The Parents’ Review. In volume 31 (1920) we find a letter to the editor:
Personally, I have begun to teach my little daughters (aged 8 and nearly 10) Spanish. They had made a certain amount of progress in French first, of course, and now one can work in the two languages together, pointing out such similarities of construction as tout le monde and todo el mundo. Let no one think the children’s brains are being unduly taxed at too early an age. Our Spanish lesson merely consists of reading part of a fairy tale in that language every day. With very young children the natural way to acquire a language is to learn to understand it first, and then to tackle the grammar.
Why did I start teaching Spanish rather than Italian or German? Well, I have small hope of finding a school advanced enough in its ideas to include Spanish among the subjects taught, so the children must learn it while still at home and take up German—as belonging to another branch of languages—later. Then we are told that the knowledge of Spanish is likely to be of the greatest importance to us in our dealings with the people of South America—it is one of the languages of the future. The Germans realise this and are learning it—it is a patriotic duty not to be left behind as a nation in this matter. But, oh, I do long to hear of some books on the teaching of Spanish on the same lines as “Preliminary French Lessons,” by Otto Siepman and L. F. Vernols. Can any member of the P.N.E.U. tell me of one? Or of good stories written for Spanish children, not merely translations from Grimm, etc? I should like my children to learn Italian later on, but Spanish (also a beautiful language) is easier to begin with, and likely, I think, to be more useful. (Fawssett, 1920, p. 472)
The writer, S. Fawssett, makes an appeal to the PNEU to share good books for teaching Spanish. The editor, Miss Mason herself, does not reply with a hand-slap along the lines of, “We don’t study Spanish.” And how did Fawssett come to the conclusion that Spanish was such a beautiful language? Perhaps she read a Parents’ Review article from 1901:
Looking to the subjects of instruction, Lord Collingwood writes, “I hope my girls will write a French letter every day to me or their mother. I should like them to be taught Spanish, which is the most elegant language in Europe and very easy. I would have them taught geometry; it expands the mind more to the knowledge of all things in Nature, and better teaches to distinguish between truths and such things as have the appearance of being truths, yet are not, than any other.” (Rooper, 1901, p. 327)
Indeed, even Mason herself speaks of a lifelong learner studying the language:
The writer knew a man of ninety who then began to study Spanish. (Mason, 1989e, p. 410)
The more evidence gathered, the less crisp the picture. Perhaps there were pockets even within the PNEU of Mason’s day in which other languages were studied.
Step 2. Deduce the principles which informed those practices.
Once the historical practice is determined, to the best of our ability, the next step is to deduce the principles behind those practices. In the case of modern languages, we would seek to understand, “Why did Mason choose French, German, and Italian?” Two principles have been proposed:
Hypothesis 1: These languages were chosen because those were the languages spoken by countries geographically close to England. This hypothesis draws heavily from Chapter 1 of Parents and Children, in which we read:
It is the duty of the nation to maintain relations of brotherly kindness with other nations; therefore it is the duty of every family, as an integral part of the nation, to be able to hold brotherly speech with the families of other nations as opportunities arise; therefore to acquire the speech of neighbouring nations is not only to secure an inlet of knowledge and a means of culture, but is a duty of that higher morality (the morality of the family) which aims at universal brotherhood; therefore every family would do well to cultivate two languages besides the mother tongue, even in the nursery. (Mason, 1989b, p. 7)
Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of why the beautiful Spanish language was not chosen, even though Spain was roughly as close to England as Italy.
Hypothesis 2: These languages were chosen because of their relevance to the English literary canon. This hypothesis draws from Home Education:
Again, all educated persons should be able to speak French. (Mason, 1989a, pp. 300-301)
Anyone who has read Charlotte Brontë would understand why an “educated person” would want to know French: long passages of her lovely novels are left in untranslated French for the reader. A passage in The Parent’s Review also suggests that the literary canon plays a factor in the choice of modern language to study:
What language should be first taught is a problem of great interest, but one I can hardly discuss now. German has many advantages over French in its early stages, but afterwards it becomes much harder. Moreover it lacks the ease and grace of its rival, and is never likely to become the “lingua franca” of educated society. Of all European languages Spanish is probably the easiest for Englishmen; but its modern literature, like that of Italy, is incomparably inferior to that of France or Germany. (Tetley, 1903, p. 807)
Which hypothesis is correct? What is the real reason that Mason chose French, German, and Italian? It is a difficult question to answer. Sincere, well-meaning people striving for an authentic interpretation may in the end disagree.
Step 3. Apply those principles to the North American, 21st-century context.
Having deduced the underlying principles, we now “reproduce essential features” in 21st-century North America. Suppose we side with the first hypothesis, and decide that authentic Charlotte Mason educators should study the modern languages spoken by our close neighbors. Geographically, that would point to two modern languages to learn: Spanish (to converse with our Mexican neighbors) and French (for our Canadian neighbors). It seems quite simple, and again the case would seem to be closed.
And yet Fawssett’s letter lingers in our ears: “it is one of the languages of the future.” Maybe we should be thinking about something besides just geographical proximity. Chinese is spoken by more than one billion human beings. Perhaps we should urge our children to learn to communicate with this vast segment of the world population. Or should we consider Arabic? According to k-international, Arabic is one of the languages of the future, and professionals who are bilingual in English and Arabic are expected to be in high demand.
And in the world of the Internet, satellite communication, immigration, and international flights, who are our neighbors anyway? More than one million Americans speak Tagalog, and my next-door neighbor could just as possibly speak Vietnamese as Spanish. If we wish to apply Mason’s guidance to “acquire the speech of neighbouring nations,” it seems challenging to determine just what nations are our neighbors in a world that is flat.
But while applying Mason’s principles to the contemporary context, the authentic interpreter of Charlotte Mason must always remember her words:
With this thought of a child to begin with, we shall perceive that whatever is stale and flat and dull to us must needs be stale and flat and dull to him, and also that there is no subject which has not a fresh and living way of approach. (Mason, 1989b, p. 278)
In our rush to identify “the languages of the future,” we must beware lest we overstep our bounds and reach too far into the future (or into the past), and leave the Holy Spirit and His “fresh and living way,” behind. If we fail to heed this warning, we find that the cutting-edge research of the day (and the time-worn tradition of the past) have left us with nothing but stale, dry crumbs.
A Fourth Step
As challenging as the first three steps to developing an authentic interpretation may seem, the fourth step is actually the hardest. In this step, we must apply an authentic interpretation.
Recall that Mason wrote that education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. By atmosphere, she means all of the natural conditions of a child’s life. This includes environmental factors such as clothing, food, and décor. It also includes all of the freedom that flows from the parents’ masterly inactivity: time alone in nature, freedom to invent games with friends, freedom to choose friends and activities, and freedom to fail—and freedom to experience that failure. It also includes the attitudes and values of the child’s parents—the ideas which rule their lives.
By discipline, she means the thoughtful formation of habit. I would love to see a listing of every habit of mind, heart, and life that Mason advises parents to develop in their children. Have you surveyed every habit in all six volumes? Do you have a plan to inculcate each and every one of those habits in your children before they graduate from your home school?
And by life, she means the presentation of living ideas. As Charlotte Mason educators, we aim to present a banquet to our children; the feast of living ideas is meant to be generous (liberal) and full of variety. We look to the programmes and wish to give our children all of it: living books, time in nature, musical training, foreign languages, Latin, drill, picture study, drawing… the list goes on and on.
The authentic Charlotte Mason educator will of course attempt to do it all. Right? Every element of atmosphere. Every guideline of diet and clothing. Every placement of objects in the home. Every right of the child’s freedom outlined in Parents and Children chapter 4. Every opportunity to fail. And every element of discipline. Every habit, checked off one by one, to be completed by the 18th birthday. And every subject outlined for every form. No gaps, no omissions. That’s the path of the purist, right?
I know of one mother who may have thought that. She is the mother who asked the anonymous question at the Summer Mountain Mini. I didn’t hesitate when the question was read. I reached for the microphone. I believe everything that I’ve said here about principles in the practices. But behind these wonderful principles, there are some principles that are even deeper, even more profound, and even more authentically CM.
On the very first page of Home Education in 1886, Charlotte Mason wrote:
Let me add, that, in venturing to speak on the subject of Home Education, I do so with the sincerest deference to mothers, believing that, in the words of a wise teacher of men, “the woman receives from the Spirit of God Himself the intuitions into the child’s character, the capacity of appreciating its strength and its weakness, the faculty of calling forth the one and sustaining the other in which lies the mystery of education, apart from which all its rules and measures are utterly vain and ineffectual.” (Mason, 1886, pp. v-vi)
Though I was quick to grab the microphone, when I started to speak, I had to go slowly so that my voice would not crack. I didn’t know where she was in the room, but I told her that there may be some mother down the street who has healthy toes and can do nature walks in the winter. But that’s not the mother that God chose for her children. I called out, “God chose YOU!” God knew every weakness and every limitation you possess. And then He spoke: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9, ESV, 2016). That is a true Charlotte Mason education.
An authentic interpretation of Charlotte Mason is difficult. The first step involves weighing volumes, programmes, and Parents’ Review articles. Sincere people will study and sincere people will disagree. There are no dogmatic answers—at least not yet. The second step involves discerning principles, and weighing the evidence even more subtly. Who will always do that correctly? And the third step is even more challenging. One must understand the signs of the times in which we live. What are “the languages of the future”? Not just spoken languages, but also the languages of math, science, literature?
Scholars, experts, teachers, and homeschoolers may all discuss and debate about those three steps. We can challenge each other. We can sift the evidence. We can point holes in each others’ reasonings. But when we approach the fourth step, the forum of the debate shifts to sacred ground. Far be it from me to ever tell a mother that she needs to find some way to go outside in the winter when her toes won’t allow it. You’ll never see it from my pen. The Spirit of God Himself will give her the intuitions she needs into her child’s character. For me to claim anything less would be an inauthentic interpretation. And that’s not what I’m about.
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Fawssett, S. (1920). The “P.R.” letter bag. In The Parents’ Review, volume 31 (p. 472). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
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Mason, C. (1989a). Home education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989b). Parents and children. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989c). School education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989e). Formation of character. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
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Rooper, T. (1901). Lord Collingwood’s theory and practice of education. In The Parents’ Review, volume 12 (pp. 321-331). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Tetley, A. (1903). On the teaching of modern languages. In The Parents’ Review, volume 14 (pp. 801-807). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.