This essay was first published in Essays on the Life and Work of Charlotte Mason, Volume 2, published by Riverbend Press. ©2015 by the Charlotte Mason Institute. The recording is taken from the Vision for Children event at Joy Christian Fellowship, September 23, 2017.
El artículo está disponible en español, traducción de Nat Leighton.
In the past twenty-five years, many families and schools have attempted to implement Charlotte Mason’s ideas within their educational program. These efforts typically focus on elements associated with Charlotte Mason such as living books, narration, and nature study. Some contemporary practitioners go further and imitate the exact techniques used in Mason’s original schools, such as journaling and dictation. However, Mason herself says that all such tools of education are inherently limited. According to Mason, the effectiveness of and responsibility for education ultimately reside with parents. Mason characterizes this responsibility as a call to parents. What is the nature and priority of this call? How does it relate to the essence of education and the role of schools? How can parents answer this call today?
The Nature of the Call
The foundational principle of Charlotte Mason’s call to parents is that it is not, in fact, her call. Instead, according to Mason, it is God’s call. As with so many of Mason’s ideas, she claimed not to be inventing something, but rather to be discovering something. God’s call to parents is universal and binding, whether or not parents are aware of it. Mason writes, “Be his knowledge of the law little or much, no parent escapes the call” (Mason, 1989b, p. 10). Other callings may, perhaps, be delegated, but the call to parents is so comprehensive that “he can have no deputy.”
According to Charlotte Mason, parents are called to fill a prophetic office. An office is defined as “a special duty, charge, or position” (Merriam-Webster, 1981, p. 790). Only God may appoint someone to a prophetic office. The prophets of Holy Scripture were chosen, commissioned, and empowered by God (2 Peter 1:21). In the same way, parents are appointed to a specific role:
“It is probable that parents as a class feel more than ever before the responsibility of their prophetic office. It is as revealers of God to their children that parents touch their highest limitations” (Mason, 1989b, p. 41).
“Their relation to their children is not an accident, but is a real office which they have been appointed to fill” (Mason, 1989e, p. 199).
As prophets, parents receive instruction directly from God as to how to carry out their office:
“And this individual work with each child, being the most momentous work in the world, is put into the hands of the wisest, most loving, disciplined, and divinely instructed of human beings” (Mason, 1989b, p. 50).
It is not surprising that God would provide direct enablement for “the most momentous work in the world.”
For Charlotte Mason, the prophetic office of parents takes on a sacramental quality. Charlotte Mason was an Anglican, and Anglicans define a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (Book of Common Prayer, 1662, Catechism). Thus a sacrament is a single event that contains both physical (“outward and visible”) and spiritual (“inward and spiritual”) dimensions. According to Charlotte Mason, parents are the outward and visible means of transmitting inward and spiritual grace to their children:
“We perceive that God uses. . . parents above all others, as vehicles for the transmission of his gifts” (Mason, 1989b, p. 20).
“All our teaching of children should be given reverently, with the humble sense that we are invited in this matter to co-operate with the Holy Spirit; but it should be given dutifully and diligently” (Mason, 1989b, p. 48).
“[The parent] is, strictly, no more than the agent of Almighty God, appointed to bring the children under the Divine government” (Mason, 1989e, p. 199).
This is sacramental language.
The Priority of the Call
If the nature of the call is divine, how important is it? How does the priority of this call compare to the other demands and callings of the parent? The first chapter of Mason’s second volume includes an interesting discussion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In this chapter, Mason takes great pains to distance herself from Rousseau’s philosophy. However, she attributes to him one great accomplishment, saying: “He turned the hearts of the fathers to the children, and so far made ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Mason, 1989b, p. 3). Mason here describes Rousseau in a manner that paraphrases the last verse of the Old Testament, as well as the beginning of the gospel:
“And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6, RSV).
“He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:17, RSV).
A sign of the Gospel of Christ is that the hearts of fathers are turned to the children. When parents follow this call, they are fulfilling the ministry of the one who prepares the way for the Lord.
Mason summarizes the teaching of Rousseau as follows:
“Fathers and mothers, this is your work, and you only can do it. It rests with you, parents of young children, to be the saviours of society unto a thousand generations. Nothing else matters. The avocations about which people weary themselves are as foolish child’s play compared with this one serious business of bringing up our children in advance of ourselves” (Mason, 1989b, pp. 2-3).
The context clearly indicates that Mason endorses Rousseau’s opinion. Why is this work so important that “nothing else matters”? The primary answer is simply that the children are worth it:
“The beautiful infant frame is but the setting of a jewel of such astonishing worth that, put the whole world in one scale and this jewel in the other, and the scale which holds the world flies up outbalanced” (Mason, 1989f, p. 34).
The secondary answer is that there is no substitute for the parent. As stated earlier, the office cannot be delegated. The parent may give up his or her parental rights, but he cannot delegate his sacramental anointing:
“The Rule of Parents cannot be Deputed. . . the king may rule by deputy; but, here we see the exigent nature of the parent’s functions; he can have no deputy. Helpers he may have, but the moment he makes over his functions and authority to another, the rights of parenthood belong to that other, and not to him” (Mason, 1989b, pp. 10-11).
Charlotte Mason describes the tragedy when parents give up their parental rights by not fulfilling their office. Even though each child is “a jewel of such astonishing worth,” (Mason, 1989f, p. 34) some parents focus on jewels of lesser value:
“Even so, the busy parent, occupied with many cares, awakes to find the authority he has failed to wield has dropped out of his hands; perhaps has been picked up by others less fit, and a daughter is given over to the charge of a neighbouring family, while father and mother hunt for rare prints” (Mason, 1989b, p. 12).
Note that Mason explicitly names both mothers and fathers as the parents who are occupied with secondary treasures (“rare prints”).
Mason points out that conscientious parents would not rely on public charities to provide food for their children. And yet the tragedy she observes is that parents rely on public charities to give them their spiritual food:
“That parents should make over the religious education of their children to a Sunday School is, no doubt, as indefensible as if they sent them for their meals to a table maintained by the public bounty” (Mason, 1989b, p. 92).
According to Mason, the priority of the call to parents is paramount.
The Call and the Essence of Education
Charlotte Mason describes the essence of education as “an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life” (Mason, 1989f, p. xxix). Interestingly, Mason demonstrates the foundational role of the parent in these three dimensions of education. Since the call to parents is foundational to atmosphere, discipline, and life, we may conclude that the call to parents is foundational to education.
Atmosphere is the first instrument of education, and according to Mason, the application of this instrument begins with parents:
“This atmosphere in which the child inspires his unconscious ideas of right living emanates from his parents” (Mason, 1989b, p. 36).
“Education is an atmosphere – that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives” (Mason, 1989b, p. 247).
The atmosphere of education emanates from the parent. It is not something that is scheduled as part of the school day. It is not something that the parent takes off the shelf at the beginning of a lesson and then puts away when the lesson is done. It is not something that is created in the schoolroom. It is who the parent is. That which emanates from the parent is the atmosphere of education.
The discipline of education is the formation of habits. A superficial reading of Mason’s discussion on habits may suggest that habit formation is a purely activity—physical, scientific, and even mechanical. But Mason describes the true nature of habit formation as follows:
“Let me offer a few definite practical counsels to a parent who wishes to deal seriously with a bad habit. . .Above all, ‘watch unto prayer’ and teach your child dependence upon divine aid in this warfare of the spirit; but, also, the absolute necessity for his own efforts” (Mason, 1989b, pp. 175-76).
Habit formation is spiritual warfare. Charlotte Mason calls upon parents to develop habits within their children that are distinctly spiritual in nature:
“To keep a child in this habit of the thought of God – so that to lose it, for even a little while, is like coming home after an absence and finding his mother out – is a very delicate part of a parent’s work” (Mason, 1989c, p. 141).
Habits such as being continually in the thought of God leave a track in the immaterial soul, as well is in the material brain.
Mason indicates that children who have been “well brought up” by their parents are trained in “virtues and graces.” Mason classifies these virtues and graces as habits, and enumerates them as follows: “Diligence, reverence, gentleness, truthfulness, promptness, neatness, courtesy” (Mason, 1989b, p. 237). Parents must use the discipline of education to develop these habits in their children.
Education is a life in “the presentation of living ideas,” because “the mind feeds on ideas” (Mason, 1989f, p. xxix). The duty and responsibility of parents is to present the foundational living ideas to their children:
“The destiny of the child is ruled by his parents, because they have the virgin soil all to themselves. The first sowing must be at their hands. . . What do parents sow? Ideas” (Mason, 1989b, p. 29).
This initial sowing must be followed by an ongoing presentation of living ideas:
“The duty of parents is to sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as they sustain his body with food. . . In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand” (Mason, 1989b, p. 39).
Mason calls upon parents to practice education as an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.
The Call and Schools
If parents are foundational to the three instruments of education, then should children be educated exclusively at home? Not necessarily. Mason states that school education is a viable alternative to home education for both girls and boys. Regarding girls, she states:
“The home-taught girl may, in happy circumstances, excel in intellectual keenness and moral refinement; but for habits of work, power of work, conscientious endeavour in her work, the faithful schoolgirl is, as a rule, far before the girl who has not undergone school discipline” (Mason, 1989e, p. 192).
And regarding boys, she states:
“The parents of the young genius will probably do him an injury if they do not give him the chance of the school-training in habits of clear thinking and right judgment, as well as in the invaluable power of sustaining relations with his fellows” (Mason, 1989e, p. 326).
On the other hand, school education is only effective if it is preceded and accompanied by effective parenting:
“The point for our consideration is, that the duty of the parents to educate their child is by no means at an end when he enters upon school life; because it rests with them to supplement what is weak or wanting in the training of the school” (Mason, 1989e, p. 193).
In fact, according to Charlotte Mason, school education and home education are each characterized by respective strengths and weaknesses:
“We may assume at once that the discipline of the school is so valuable, that the boy or girl who grows up without it is at a disadvantage through life; while, at the same time, the training of the school is so far defective that, left to itself, it turns out very imperfect, inadequate human beings” (Mason, 1989e, p. 193).
It is remarkable that Mason, who worked so much with schools, would describe school training as “defective.” But she insists that parents must recognize this fact and act accordingly.
Mason gives parents specific instructions on how to compensate for the defects of school education. She describes in detail how parents are to:
- Follow, encourage, and review their children’s studies (Mason, 1989e, p. 196).
- Provide their children with a moral education (Mason, 1989e, p. 198).
- Develop hearts of gratitude, kindness, and love in their children (Mason, 1989e, p. 204).
- Secure for their children a daily time for private devotions (Mason, 1989e, p. 209).
- Train their children in intellectual culture (Mason, 1989e, p. 212).
- Read aloud with their children (even older children) (Mason, 1989e, p. 220).
- Develop their children’s poetic taste (Mason, 1989e, p. 226).
- Develop their children’s aesthetic sense (Mason, 1989e, p. 232).
- Train their children’s senses of smell and taste (Mason, 1989e, pp. 187-88).
Parents would need to spend an extraordinary amount of time with their children in order to carry out all of these activities in the manner that Mason prescribes. It is remarkable that Mason expects all of this work to be done in the family context outside of normal school hours.
Performing these activities will of necessity encroach on the leisure time of both parents and children. Parents may choose to send their children to a Charlotte Mason school and then give their children free rein over their leisure time. The children may then spend every afternoon playing video games. Such an education, however, would not be a Charlotte Mason education. Charlotte Mason’s call to parents is to practice atmosphere, discipline, and life during leisure time, including even Sundays and vacations.
In fact, Charlotte Mason presents clear instructions to parents for Sunday activities:
“Let the day be full of its own special interests and amusements. An hour’s reading aloud, from Sunday to Sunday, of a work of real power and interest, might add to the interest of Sunday afternoon; and this family reading should supply a pleasant intellectual stimulus” (Mason, 1989e, p. 211).
Sunday is the day for a very particular kind of poetry:
“A little poetry may well be got in: there is time to digest it on Sunday; not only George Herbert, Vaughan, Keble, and the like, but any poet who feeds the heart with wise thoughts, and does not too much disturb the peace of the day with the stir of life and passion” (Mason, 1989e, p. 211).
And it is also a day for a specific kind of music:
“Music in the family is the greatest help towards making Sunday pleasant; but here, again, it is, perhaps, well to avoid music which carries associations of passion and unrest” (Mason, 1989e, p. 212).
Charlotte Mason expects that the parents, not the schools, will be exposing the children to this flavor of reading, poetry, and music.
Even vacations are to be oriented towards family education. Mason devotes an entire chapter to this topic, explaining that “the whole secret of a successful holiday [is that] the mind must be actively, unceasingly, and involuntarily engaged with fresh and ever-changing interests” (Mason, 1989e, p. 132). Mason urges parents to refrain from lessons and homework during the vacation and let the atmosphere, surroundings, and Nature provide the education (Mason, 1989b, p. 193).
To what extent is Mason’s call to parents a call to fathers? This is a natural question to ask. A brief glance at the covers of contemporary books about Charlotte Mason reveals that most of them include some kind of picture of a mother and a daughter. I am not aware of a single book about Charlotte Mason’s life or work that includes a picture of a father on the cover. This sampling of data may suggest that Mason’s call was primarily directed to mothers.
However, a different sample of data yields a different conclusion.
Mason’s fifth volume, Formation of Character, includes the word parent 280 times, the word mother 260 times, and the word father 182 times. So Mason refers to parents collectively more often than she refers to mothers or fathers separately. Charlotte Mason’s call is to parents. Furthermore, if there are 182 references to the word father in a 450-page book, that means that father appears on almost every other page. And not all of those references to father are generic. For example, at one point she states explicitly, “Girls often fare well when their fathers have a hand in their education” (Mason, 1989e, p. 192).
Mason’s longest discussion about fathers in particular is found in Formation of Character. In this book she includes a 65-page exposition of the education of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. (The treatment is so long that it could actually be published on its own as a small book.) In these pages, Mason describes how Goethe was homeschooled by his father:
“Young Goethe’s father, who delighted in teaching, instructed his children himself; and there are still exercises of the boy preserved in the Frankfurt library, in German, Latin, Greek, and French, written between his seventh and ninth years. These exercises show that the manner of instruction was immediate and interesting; the father dictating what had struck himself. . . [Goethe] never seems to have gone to school, except on one occasion, when the family house was being rebuilt and the children were sent out of the way” (Mason, 1989e, pp. 306-07).
Johann Caspar Goethe planned, designed, and delivered his son’s education at home.
The elder Goethe emanated an atmosphere of education. This began with his own delight in learning:
“[The father’s] love for the Italian language, and for everything concerning that land, was very outspoken. He often showed [the children] a little collection of marbles and natural objects which he had brought away with him” (Mason, 1989e, p. 314).
“A whole row of the beautifully-bound works of poets. . .; these the father read constantly and knew well, and so did the boy, who could recite many passages for the pleasure of his elders” (Mason, 1989e, p. 327).
The father also delighted in his son:
“The Boy’s gifts of language and rhetoric were greatly cherished by his father” (Mason, 1989e, p. 318).
Home education was evidently the father’s passion, hobby, and perhaps even vocation. Mason recounts several examples of the father’s diligence, including:
- Locating and hiring a French teacher for his son (Mason, 1989e, p. 336)
- Purchasing an interlinear Old Testament for his son (Mason, 1989e, p. 342)
- Continuing to practice English (in addition to other languages) after an introductory course (Mason, 1989e, p. 339)
In summary, Mason says that the success of Goethe’s education was due to “the unresting efforts of his father” (Mason, 1989e, p. 357).
I would love to see a new book about Charlotte Mason with a picture on the cover that shows Johann Caspar Goethe with his son Johann Wolfgang. Mason calls us to imagine a world where children love to learn. But she also calls us to a world where fathers love to learn, and where fathers love to teach.
Answering the Call
Given the nature, priority, scope, and extent of Charlotte Mason’s call to parents, how can parents answer this call today? I suspect that the biggest challenge for parents today is to find the time to invest in these activities. Perhaps we think that the time challenge is a modern phenomenon. We might think that the parents that Mason addressed had more time to devote to education.
Interestingly, Mason was aware that parents are busy and that it is hard to find time to perform the activities she suggested. In fact, she described it as a contemporary problem:
“Yes; but where is his mother to get time in these encroaching days to put Henry under special treatment? She has other children and other duties, and simply cannot give herself up for a month or a week to one child” (Mason, 1989b, p. 87).
Mason offers a solution:
“If the boy were ill, in danger, would she find time for him then? Would not other duties go to the wall, and leave her little son, for the time, her chief object in life” (Mason, 1989b, p. 87)?
Mason points out that there is something about crises that help us understand what is really important in life. When a child is ill or in danger, he or she becomes the chief object in life.
I was once invited to speak with a small gathering of parents. Several fathers were in attendance and I gave the fathers this thought exercise: What would you do if your daughter were dying of a rare blood disease which necessitateddaily blood transfusions, and only you, the father, had the matching blood characteristics that would sustain her life? If it required two hours of transfusions per day during which you had to sit by her side in the hospital, could you manage?
Not one of them said to me, “No I can’t do that. . .” No one said, “See, I watch football on Monday nights. And I go to a board meeting on Tuesday nights. And by Wednesday night I’m really tired after work, so I go to bed early. On Thursday nights I like to catch up on my reading. And Friday night I usually make some repairs to the house. Saturday nights, of course, I have a game night with friends. So no, it wouldn’t work out.” In fact, I have never met a Christian man who said he could not give two hours a day to his daughter if he knew her life depended on it.
But what about her spiritual life? Fathers, your children don’t need your blood, they need your heart. Your children need something that only you can provide. You have the prophetic office. You are the agent of Almighty God to bring your children under His divine government. There is no substitute. Please, feed your children with the ideas that sustain their lives.
Time was an issue even in the Middle Ages. In 1377, Catherine of Siena wrote,
“And then our heart rises up. . . in search of how we might best spend our time. For we seem never to have enough time. . . In our concern for [souls] we steal time from ourselves – time, that is, that we might have had for our own comfort, any comfort new or old – and we give that time to our neighbors” (Noffke, 2001, p. 653).
There are so many things I would like to do with my time – hobbies I would like to pursue, books I would like to read, places I would like to go, concerts I would like to attend, friends I would like to see, games I would like to play, classes I would like to take – and I have the right to enjoy all of these things for my “comfort.” But I have stolen all of these things from myself so I can give the gift of time to my children.
Why would I do this? Why would I steal from myself? There is only one force that could make me do it: love. Mason explains how love works. She quotes a poem from Wordsworth:
“Your love hath been, nor long ago,
A fountain at my fond heart’s door,
Whose only business was to flow;
And flow it did; not taking heed
Of its own bounty, or my need” (Mason, 1989e, p. 203).
Love’s only business is to flow. Love never runs out. Love never burns out. As Charlotte Mason wrote, “love grows, not by what it gets, but by what it gives” (Mason, 1989e, p. 205).
In January of 2008, Michele Quigley wrote in her blog that the month of February is notorious for burnout. She continued:
“When I feel the stress and challenge of these days I am tempted to go inward. Not spiritually, but selfishly. I want to hibernate, relax, do something for me. But a funny thing happens at my house when I start focusing too much on myself; everyone else starts focusing on themselves too…” (Quigley, 2008)
Then she described how at church her toddler became fussy. Michele stopped thinking about herself and focused on the needs of her daughter. And she finally felt peace. She remembered that Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-26, RSV). Her blog continued,
“It’s all about love. It’s about following our Lord’s example and laying down our lives. It’s about burning up that which is not of God and turning towards Him by turning towards others and away from ourselves” (Quigley, 2008).
She wrote that we burn up, we don’t burn out.
All of this doesn’t really make sense – stealing from yourself, giving without limit, focusing entirely on others. Michelle concluded her article:
“Oh I know. . . that’s so contrary to what the world would tell me. The world would tell me that I need to find myself and be fulfilled. But I don’t need to find myself, I know exactly who I am and what fulfills me. The world has no clue. But thanks be to God, I do” (Quigley, 2008).
And you do, too.
Book of Common Prayer (1662). Retrieved from http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1662/baskerville.htm.
Mason, C. M. (1989b). Parents and children: The role of the parent in the education of the child. Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1896)
Mason, C. M. (1989c). School Education: Developing a curriculum. Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1905)
Mason, C. M. (1989e). Formation of Character: Shaping the child’s personality. Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1905)
Mason, C. M. (1989f). A Philosophy of Education: Curiosity – the pathway to creative learning. Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1925)
Merriam-Webster (1981). Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 150th Anniversary Edition. G. & C. Merriam Co.
Noffke, Suzanne (2001). The Letters of Catherine of Siena: Volume II. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Quigley, Michele (2008). Burning Up, Not Out. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20110907164838/http://family-centered.com/home/burning-up-not-out.
RSV. The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version.