At CharlotteMasonPoetry.org, our stated goal is to promote an authentic interpretation of Charlotte Mason’s writings. Why is that important? Is it because we have a slavish loyalty to a particular historical figure, a loyalty bordering on idolatry? Is it because we believe that this one person alone in history has received the mantle of educational prophecy, and alone has the right to speak to us today? Or is some other motivation involved?
To answer the question, we must turn to Mason’s own explanation of why she developed her theory of education. She tells us early on, in her first articulation of her theory of education in 1886:
… my sense of this danger is my only reason for venturing to invite you to listen to the little I have to say upon the subject of education. (Mason, 1886, p. 28)
What is “this danger” that invites Mason’s original readers—and her readers of today—to listen to what she has to say “upon the subject of education”?
… the threatening danger to that confessed dependence upon and allegiance to Almighty God which we recognize as religion—not the wickedness, but the goodness of a school which refuses to admit any such dependence and allegiance. (Mason, 1886, p. 28)
Mason’s concern was that schools of thought with no Christian allegiance might achieve greater levels of “goodness” than schools of thought with professed Christian commitment. But how could that even be possible, if goodness is properly defined as conformance to God’s laws? The answer is not in the definition of goodness, nor even in the nature of God’s laws, but rather in the means of revelation of God’s laws:
… well-intended efforts come to little if they are not carried on in obedience to divine laws, to be read in many cases, not in the Bible, but in the facts of life. (Mason, 1886, p. 27)
Mason sought to develop a theory of education that conforms to divine law in every way. However, she believed that divine law was to be discerned not only from sacred Scripture, but also from the facts of life, and as such, should be derived from observation—both formal observation (the scientific method) and informal observation (trial and error and experimentation). Mason did not differentiate between the laws discerned from these various sources, as if some laws were “sacred” and others were “secular.” Rather, all such laws are divine laws:
… the child cannot blow soap bubbles or think his flitting thoughts otherwise than in obedience to divine laws; that all safety, progress, and success in life come of obedience to law, to the laws of mental, moral, or physical science, or of that spiritual science which the Bible unfolds; that it is possible to ascertain laws and keep laws without recognizing the Lawgiver, and that those who do ascertain and keep any divine law inherit the blessing due to obedience… (Mason, 1886, p. 28)
Mason claimed that she developed a theory of education that conforms to divine law, that is, the way things are. And unlike the theories of man, divine law never changes. To the extent to which Mason succeeded in her aim, her method is as relevant today as it was a century ago. And if we wish to benefit from the results of her method, we must seek to understand and apply it authentically.
But what is an authentic interpretation? Or more specifically, if a particular educational practice is to be considered, how can we determine whether or not it conforms with the “Mason method”? The quest for an authentic interpretation begins with the recognition that in Mason’s twenty principles, she has summarized a method of education that conforms with divine law. With that in view, I propose the following sequence of questions to evaluate the fitness of any particular practice within the Mason paradigm:
Does the practice have a logical connection to the twenty principles, Mason’s “short synopsis” of her educational philosophy?
Is the practice consistent with Mason’s writings, whether in her six educational volumes, her six poetry volumes, her Scriptural meditations, and her articles in The Parents’ Review?
Is the practice reflected in the programmes and procedures of the PNEU and the Parents’ Review Schools?
Is the practice consistent with the thought expressed by other writers in The Parent’s Review during Mason’s lifetime?
Is the practice consistent with the thought expressed by Mason’s close associates, such as Henrietta Franklin, Elsie Kitching, and H.W. Household, in the years after Mason’s death?
Is the practice consistent with the thought expressed by other advocates of Mason’s philosophy who wrote in the years after Mason’s death, whether in The Parents’ Review, or more recently, in other online and printed publications about Mason’s method?
I argue that a practice affirmed by questions 4-6 but not affirmed by questions 1-3 cannot lay claim to being an authentic interpretation of Mason’s method. On the other hand, a practice affirmed by questions 1-3 but not affirmed by questions 4-6 may fairly be considered an authentic Mason practice.
A case study will help to illustrate this heuristic. Consider the question: should children use natural objects such as beans and buttons in arithmetic lessons? Or should they use specially-crafted objects with pure geometric shapes designed specifically for math lessons? Let us walk through my proposed series of questions:
1. Does the practice have a logical connection to the twenty principles, Mason’s “short synopsis” of her educational philosophy?
Mason’s sixth principle reads:
When we say that “education is an atmosphere,” we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the ‘child’s’ level. (Mason, 1925/1989f, p. xxix)
When a child uses beans and buttons, he or she is benefiting from “the educational value of his natural home atmosphere.” On the other hand, if we deprecate beans and buttons because of the geometric “imperfection” of their shapes, we “bring down his world to the ‘child’s’ level.” The result of such an atmosphere is that “it stultifies a child.”
Does math reside only in the pure forms of abstract thought? Does the nitty-gritty world of imprecision and superficial asymmetry somehow obscure the vividness of mathematical truth? Or rather, do we live in a world that naturally expresses math at every turn? And do we approach the mind of God when we see mathematical law operating in the most basic of everyday activities?
These are not questions that pertain to slavish loyalty to Mason’s particular classroom practices. These are questions that pertain to education that conforms to divine law.
2. Is the practice consistent with Mason’s writings, whether in her six educational volumes, her six poetry volumes, her Scriptural meditations, and her articles in The Parents’ Review?
Mason writes in Home Education:
A bag of beans, counters, or buttons should be used in all the early arithmetic lessons, and the child should be able to work with these freely, and even to add, subtract, multiply, and divide mentally, without the aid of buttons or beans, before he is set to “do sums” on his slate. (Mason, 1886, p. 146)
We see from our answer to the first question what we would expect from Mason’s writings as a confirmation which flows logically from the principles, principles that conform to divine law, the way things are.
And what, after all, is the purpose of math instruction? Is it to generate the most efficient human calculators? Mason writes:
We remember how instructive and impressive Ruskin is on the thesis that ‘two and two make four’ and cannot by any possibility that the universe affords be made to make five or three. From this point of view, of immutable law, children should approach Mathematics; they should see how impressive is Euclid’s ‘Which is absurd,’ just as absurd as would be the statements of a man who said that his apples always fell upwards, and for the same reason. The behaviour of figures and lines is like the fall of an apple, fixed by immutable laws, and it is a great thing to begin to see these laws even in their lowliest application. The child whose approaches to Arithmetic are so many discoveries of the laws which regulate number will not divide fifteen pence among five people and give them each sixpence or ninepence; ‘which is absurd’ will convict him, and in time he will perceive that ‘answers’ are not purely arbitrary but are to be come at by a little boy’s reason. Mathematics are delightful to the mind of man which revels in the perception of law, which may even go forth guessing at a new law until it discover that law; but not every boy can be a champion prize-fighter, nor can every boy ‘stand up’ to Mathematics. (Mason, 1925/1989f, p. 152)
Not every child will become a “prize-fighter” mathematician. But every child should learn that the universe is “fixed by immutable laws.” Do we need artificial devices to teach the immutability of natural laws? I am sure that we could find technology that would help us better remember the death and resurrection of Christ. But we use bread and wine, for those are the natural elements He chose when He said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”
3. Is the practice reflected in the programmes and procedures of the PNEU and the Parents’ Review Schools?
We assume that the books and resources identified in the PNEU programmes during Mason’s lifetime faithfully reflect her philosophy and ideas. In Programme 92 (for January to March of 1922), we find the following listed for Form 1B:
Teachers should use The Teaching of Mathematics to Young Children, by I. Stephens (PNEU Office 6d.).
Pendlebury, Year I., * Term I., to be worked with dominoes, beans, etc. Rapid mental work. (PNEU, 1922)
Both of the prescribed resources give specific guidance regarding manipulatives. In the inside cover of Pendlebury’s New Concrete Arithmetic we read:
No elaborate and costly apparatus is necessary for the working of the scheme (Pendlebury, 1914)
Stephens is even more explicit, and ties her method to principle:
The whole use of the special apparatus is omitted. The use of complicated apparatus specially designed to teach the child certain facts about numbers tends to form in his mind an iron connection between the facts and the apparatus; he is unable to separate them or to realise that the facts are general. We therefore think it advisable, where apparatus is necessary, to use match sticks, buttons, pencils, everyday articles, and a sufficient number of them. (Stephens, 1911, p. 6)
So we find in the programmes exactly what we would expect if Mason were acting on the basis of principle. She selected texts that conform with her fundamental axiom to “take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere.”
4. Is the practice consistent with the thought expressed by other writers in The Parent’s Review during Mason’s lifetime?
If Mason’s guidance regarding manipulatives was based on principle, then we should expect to see this guidance reflected at least somewhere in the writings of other authors in The Parent’s Review. We would not expect to find unanimity, however, given that many viewpoints are expressed in The Parent’s Review, some of which go as far as to contradict some of the basic principles held today by nearly all Charlotte Mason educators. Nevertheless, we expect Mason’s ideas to have permeated at least some of the other PNEU thinkers, and we find exactly this phenomenon in the case of math manipulatives:
I believe that in many infant schools and kindergartens domino cards are used; but each child should be allowed his own counters—buttons or beans would do—for the child must arrive at abstract ideas of numbers through objects which he sees and handles. (Hart Davis, 1890, p. 213)
A later writer in The Parent’s Review again provides a principle-based explanation of the Mason method:
All members of the P.N.E.U. are well aware that in the first instance we get all our knowledge through the senses; now, Mental Arithmetic is no exception to that rule.
The child will have to learn the names of numbers, but the names of the numbers must not be divorced from the things that are numbered, therefore let him count with real things, buttons, bricks, anything you like; but do not teach him to count high numbers. (Pridham, 1897, p. 133)
Pridham’s reference to the idea of “real things” echoes Mason’s sixth principle and the natural home atmosphere. Because God created a physical universe governed by math, we find the true meaning of math in connection with real things. We do not, like Plato, point our students to idyllic forms that exist only in a distant heavenly realm. Rather, we point to the nitty-gritty world around us, where physical objects may appear misshapen and yet they too are connected to the mathematical laws set in place by the God who is here.
We have seen that questions 1-4 offer an answer to a question about math instruction, an answer that is based on principle and that flows logically from Mason’s core ideas. Approaching the question in this manner is not a kind of crass legalism, but rather an effort to sincerely understand what a Charlotte Mason education is. It is the approach we use to understand what is meant by living books, narration, and dictation. To say that we can study Mason’s writings in this way to learn about narration but not about math is arbitrary.
5. Is the practice consistent with the thought expressed by Mason’s close associates, such as Henrietta Franklin, Elsie Kitching, and H.W. Household, in the years after Mason’s death?
6. Is the practice consistent with the thought expressed by other advocates of Mason’s philosophy who wrote in the years after Mason’s death, whether in The Parents’ Review, or more recently, in other online and printed publications about Mason’s method?
Having answered questions 1-4, the answers to questions 5-6 now seem extraneous at best and irrelevant at worst. We have developed a solid case for the nature of manipulatives for the instruction of math in a Charlotte Mason paradigm. What evidence from questions 5 and 6 could overturn it?
One may respond by saying that new discoveries have come to light since Mason’s death, and that if Mason were alive today, she would embrace those discoveries and revise her method. But to evaluate such claims it is so important to return to our starting point: the synopsis of an educational method that conforms to divine laws. It would be a rare scientific discovery indeed that would override this principle:
… we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the ‘child’s’ level. (Mason, 1925/1989f, p. xxix)
That is why an authentic interpretation of Mason’s writings is so important. We can only imagine what Mason would do with modern research if we have a very clear understanding of Mason’s twenty principles and her other concepts. If we have misinterpreted these in any way, then we risk grossly misunderstanding what Mason would do with modern research.
The debate about an authentic interpretation of the Charlotte Mason paradigm is a debate about principles. It is not to be seen as a conflict between Mason idolaters, who are fixated on the past, and Mason enthusiasts, who keep to the spirit of Mason and defend and endorse whatever seems right in their own eyes. Such a debate is a caricature. Mason proposed a complete method of education that conforms to divine law. That method is fully documented and available for our consideration. Perhaps Mason got it wrong. If anyone thinks they’ve got something better, they are invited to propose and promulgate it. But they are not invited to attach it to Mason’s name.
Hart Davis, M. (1890). First lesson In arithmetic. In The Parents’ Review, volume 1 (pp. 210-214). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Mason, C. (1886). Home education. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co.
Mason, C. (1989f). A philosophy of education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1925)
Pendlebury, C. (1914). Pendlebury’s new concrete arithmetic, first year. London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd.
PNEU (1922). Programme 92. London: Parents’ National Educational Union. As cited by Ambleside Online: https://www.amblesideonline.org/Programme92I.shtml
Pridham, A. (1897). Mental arithmetic. In The Parents’ Review, volume 8 (pp. 112-118). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Stephens, I. (1911). The teaching of mathematics to young children. London: Wyman & Sons.