Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series of new essays by Dr. Benjamin E. Bernier which demonstrate that Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy can be characterized as a Christ-centered philosophy of education for Christian discipleship, a unique contribution in the history of Christian and educational thought.
© 2017 Benjamin Bernier
Lectures to Ladies
In our time, it is easy to underestimate Victorian society when we focus our attention on cartoon-like stereotypes that highlight its shortcomings, corruptions, and abuses, but downplay the values underlying the system. In order to understand the era, we must understand the principles upon which it stood. A lady in Victorian England, as well as in America, was perceived as the culmination of all the virtues which God ordained to adorn human life at its best, according to the teachings of Scripture. All the rules and regulations of polite society were based upon something more than expediency or narrow-minded sexism.
It was more than the notion of “being English.” It was the notion of having a duty towards God of acting according to his divine will. This may be seen, for example, in the introduction to The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette by Hartley Florence, published in 1860.
One had to belong to the upper classes in order to be considered a lady. However, lady-like virtues were not dependent on status as much as they were on excellence in Christian virtues, which were expected and required from all and were adapted to each person according to her particular station in life.
An English lady was generally an Anglican Church woman in charge of a household with more or fewer servants according to the family’s wealth and position in the social hierarchy. A big house would entertain guests regularly and would keep servants in “Downton Abbey” fashion, who considered their service as a life-calling. But Victorian society, especially towards the end of the nineteenth century, was experiencing serious trouble.
The foundations were being shaken to the core. The theory of evolution in science and textual criticism in religion shed grievous doubts over the factual reliability of Scripture. The whole of Christianity began to appear as a great building built upon unstable ground. High ranking critics were seriously questioning the grounds of the truth of the Christian religion, and therefore the whole Victorian system seemed to be under threat and ready to crumble. Different people reacted in various ways against this commonly perceived threat.
Mason responded through the means which she knew best: the art of Christian education. But where did she get this idea in the first place?
A career in teaching was one of the few avenues for action available to a woman seeking to assert her talent in a sphere of competence and service of others. It could also allow relative independence of means by providing the salary of a teacher without compromising lady-like respectability. Nevertheless, the system of education was absolutely restricted and dominated by men.
But this was beginning to change during Mason’s lifetime. One of the earliest proponents of innovation was a clergyman quoted by Mason in the introduction of her course of lectures to ladies in the winter of 1885 entitled “Home Education.”
Thirty years before Mason’s lecture series, this clergyman was an earlier advocate of this new avenue. He argued in principle that teaching was a worthy occupation for ladies. He was a prominent figure during Mason teenage years. His name was Frederick Denison Maurice, and he was raised in a Unitarian family, converted to Anglicanism, and became one of the most influential theologians of the nineteenth century and an apologist for the Anglican Church.
Today he is famous for his Christian Socialism, which was an effort to provide adult education for the benefit of the working class. His idea was to provide a college-like atmosphere in which members of the working class could listen to lectures and have discussions directed by well-trained clergymen and professors from the educated class.
Maurice contemplated the possibility of opening such a space for women also. But since the educational establishment was ruled by men, the female colleges would require ladies to take upon themselves the role of educators for the women of the working classes. These ladies would need to see the teaching profession as being compatible with lady-like virtues.
Therefore, Maurice spoke in a series of lectures given to ladies with this purpose in mind, as explained in his introductory lecture entitled “Plan of a Female College for the Help of the Rich and the Poor” (Maurice, 1855/1857, p. 1). Mason would quote from this lecture in the introduction to her own “lectures to ladies” thirty years later.
At the time of her lectures, Mason was approaching the age of 50. She had completed twenty years of experience as teacher. She had been refining her thought over this time, and was ready to begin sharing with a wider audience the first of the fruits she had collected as a teacher working at various levels.
She had already successfully published her first book, The Forty Shires, in 1881. Her “Lectures to Ladies” in the winter of 1885 launched Mason into the scene of educational reform characteristic of this period. These kinds of subjects drew much attention in Victorian Society. Mason carefully chose her target audience when she offered her lectures as a fundraising vehicle for a building project for her local Anglican church. It was a course of lectures to ladies discussing the training of children at home, with a particular focus on the education of young children and older girls preparing to take their place in Victorian Society. On the one hand, in these lectures Mason was promoting what could be considered innovations since she was recognizing the latest revelations of science and encouraging mothers to provide their girls with useful training for work in society. But at the same time, Mason clearly addressed these needs from a thoroughly conservative point of view, in which she took for granted the traditional roles of gender and the dynamics of power of Victorian society.
Victorian society was characterized by very strong distinctions of class, and proper conduct was assigned to each class within the sphere proper to its condition. These were tacit presuppositions in Mason’s work, and while she offered advice on how to make things better and overcome the limitations of the contemporary educational system, she did not upset the class system in principle.
Due to the fact that the majority of her target audience shared many of these theological and social presuppositions, Mason had no need to stress, highlight, or defend the religious principles upon which these values were justified. The Anglican framework of Victorian society comprised a common territory of shared beliefs and values which only needed to come to the forefront when challenged, in danger of neglect, ill-understood, or in need of improvement.
The lecture series began and ended within the framework of Mason’s theological convictions. The original series of lectures began with a fundamental recognition of the unique role of mothers in education as divinely inspired by the Spirit of God. The series ended by stressing the importance of a solid intellectual education for girls as the only and best instrument against a “horror of great darkness abroad,” the danger of the “black offense of unbelief”—the stark phrases Mason used to identify the crisis of faith which we identified earlier.
In order to establish this first point, Mason introduced a quote from Maurice, who she characterized as a “wise teacher of men”. As mentioned above, Maurice had been influential in promoting a movement for the education and improvement of the lower classes. As part of these efforts in 1855, he held his “Lectures to Ladies.” In the first of these lectures, he tackled the problem of women’s education. His lecture contains and makes explicit many of the ideas and values characteristic of Mason’s own thought and should be carefully read by anyone interested in understanding the theological framework of the early key influences in Mason’s thought, life, and work.
In his first lecture, Maurice encouraged upper class ladies to take on the task of becoming teachers of women for the poor classes in a new college for working women. Maurice makes his case based upon the traditional Christian values typical of the Victorian England in which Mason lived, values which Mason shared as an Anglican churchwoman, and values which Mason exemplified as a would-be teacher for the benefit of the poor.
It is not a stretch to suppose that Mason had access early in her life to these lectures by Maurice, and that she wholeheartedly embraced the counsel of this “wise teacher of men,” and that she viewed education as a divine calling from her early youth. The correspondence between the values expressed in Maurice’s introductory lecture and the values seen in Mason’s later life is so striking that one can even imagine Mason reading these lectures as a young orphan, with little support and limited options, yet thinking to herself, “This is it! Here I am, send me!”
As a starting point, Maurice defined the providentially designed place ordained by God for women, which uniquely endows them with all the necessary intuitions and faculties to accomplish the “mystery of education.” Mason chose to quote this portion of Maurice’s writings in her first lecture, and given the context of an educational system controlled by men, this was a pronouncement well ahead of its time.
Maurice argued that women, due to the wise design of God’s providence, are endowed with “immeasurably more aptitude for teaching” than men. He said:
I believe there is immeasurably more aptitude for teaching in women than in men. I should be very much puzzled if it were otherwise. If the great majority of us have to depend in all our early years for our physical, intellectual, moral life, upon the care and influence of mothers, it would be very strange if powers were not awakened in them which enabled them to fulfil the mighty task. There is no such terrible contradiction in the ways of Providence. The gifts are bestowed, the powers are awakened. The woman receives, not from her husband, not from her physician, not from her spiritual adviser, not from the books which she consults,—all these may help somewhat, if they do not hinder,—but from the Spirit of God Himself, the intuitions into her child’s character, the capacity for 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. God forbid that I should not acknowledge this, or that I should ever urge any Christian mother or Christian woman to expect any substitute for this in schools or colleges. If we can awaken the most simple, ignorant woman to feel that she has need of this highest aid, and that it will be given to her according to her need, that there are in her capacities for doing the highest work, which we cannot educe, but which a mightier than we can and will, we are helping her more, because we are speaking a deeper and more practical truth than if we could give her the wisdom which has been gathered up in all the doctors of the world—even than if we could give her all the experience which has been earned by the struggles and mistakes of all the mothers in the world. (Maurice, 1855/1857, pp. 7-9)
Here we have in germ the notion taught later by Mason when she stressed the “Great Recognition.” The idea is applied by Maurice to the role of the woman as educator. When this lecture was published, Mason was a little over thirteen years old. A few years later she answered the call presented in this lecture by devoting her life to teaching as a divine calling. It is interesting to realize that Maurice was tracing a path for professional involvement for ladies who could become effective instruments of change by devoting themselves to the education of women of the lower classes. This is in fact one of the key points Mason stressed at the conclusion of her own lectures, as she addressed the problem of “what to do with the girls,” in reference to the anxiety created in Victorian England by the lack of a proper sphere in which upper class young women could occupy themselves before or outside of marriage.
This final lecture of the original Home Education was not published in the fourth edition of the book, which we now know today as volume 1 of the Home Education series. The fourth edition was revised twenty years after the original lecture series and was adapted in order to answer the needs of the growing PNEU school movement. The final lecture was moved to volume 5, Formation of Character, where it has hardly drawn the attention it deserves.
For the Children’s Sake
This final lecture in the original edition of Home Education is very important as it contains Mason’s explanation of one of the predominant causes motivating her drive for securing the best education for the children of Christian mothers: the crisis of faith of the time. In Mason’s own words:
… if the man who does not place due and necessary faith in his fellows, however much his trust have been abused, is an outcast, what is to be said of him who lifts up his face to Almighty God, his Maker, Father, Preserver, Redeemer, sole intimate Friend, and everpresent Judge, and says, “I do not believe, because I can neither see nor understand”?
I am not going out of my way to speak strongly as to the necessity of taking a firm stand here. For the sake of the children yet to be born, let the girls be brought up in abhorrence and dread of this black offence of unbelief. On points not vital, let them think gently and tolerantly, having a firm grasp of the truth as they hold it themselves, but leaving others to choose their ways of approach and service. But on questions that trench on the being, nature, and work of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and our relations of love and service towards Him, there is no room for toleration of adverse opinions.
As for proofs, this is no question for proof. Every pulse that beats in the universe is, if we will have it so, a witness for God, being inexplicable without Him; but who goes about to prove that the sun is shining? At the same time, such works as Paley’s “Natural Theology,” possibly, and Butler’s “Analogy,” most certainly, have their use, if only as showing how many plausible arguments have long ago been answered (Mason, 1886, p. 268)
Mason preceded this statement with a warning against the horror of great darkness abroad:
… there is a horror of great darkness abroad; Christianity is on its trial; and, more than that, the most elementary belief in, and worship of, Almighty God. The judgment to come, the resurrection of the body, the life everlasting,—these fundamental articles of a Christian’s faith have come to be pooh-poohed in influential circles; and this, not amongst profane persons and ungodly livers—far otherwise.
And how are the young girls to be prepared to meet this religious crisis? In the first place, it is unwise to keep them in the dark as to the anxious questions stirring. Their zeal and love will be quickened by the knowledge that once again Christianity and infidelity are in the way to be brought into agonizing conflict at our doors. But let their zeal be according to knowledge. Lay the foundations of their faith. It matters less that the lines between Church and Dissent, or between High and Low and Broad Church, be well defined, than that they should know fully in Whom they have believed, and what are the grounds of their belief. Put earnest, intellectual works into their hands. Let them feel the necessity of bracing up every power of mind they have to gain comprehension of the breadth and the depth of the truths they are called to believe. Let them not grow up with the notion that Christian literature consists of emotional appeals, but that intellect, mind, is on the other side. Supply them with books of calibre to give the intellect something to grapple with—an important consideration, for the danger is, that young people, in whom the spiritual life is not yet awakened, should feel themselves superior to the vaunted simplicity of Christianity.
One more point: let them not run away with the fallacy that no one is responsible for what he believes, but only for what he does. Try this principle for a moment by applying it to our social relations—say, that no man is bound to believe in the fidelity of his wife, in the dutifulness of his child, in the common integrity of the people he has dealings with—and the whole framework of society is broken up. For, indeed, our whole system, commercial and social, is nothing else than a system of credit, kept up by the unbounded faith man reposes in man. (Mason, 1886, pp. 266-267)
These important quotations summarize and explicitly declare the full scope of the theological framework necessary to answer the “why?” of Mason’s educational philosophy and efforts. Mason developed her calling as a teacher and the aims of her educational efforts in the context of the need for a valid apologetic answer to the religious crisis assaulting traditional English Christianity. She clearly believed this crisis of faith could only be overcome by means of sound learning in the hands of young people, especially young girls emphasizing the knowledge of Christ: “they should know fully in Whom they have believed.” This was the primary aim which guided her reflection from beginning to end. This is why Mason derived the code of education from the Gospels and why she reflected upon the implications of Jesus’ instructions concerning children. As far as I have been able to trace, Mason was the first Christian educator to define a connection between these words of Christ and a philosophy of education.
In Mason’s explanation of her aims we find an explicit declaration of her commitment to sustain all the essential doctrines of orthodox Christianity and her recognition of faith as the foundation of the whole system of social relationships. She also displayed the recognition that a solid education must serve an apologetic aim, especially when the Christian faith is being challenged in its essentials, as it was during her times.
We should not misunderstand these statements as if they were fleeting comments out of place, being of little concern to the task of education as perceived by Mason. It is precisely the opposite; Mason did not pursue the educational challenge as an object of intellectual curiosity or just for the sake of improving society. For her, the spheres of the heavenly and the earthly kingdoms were intertwined. Mason was following the lead of Maurice, who argued for the need of ladies to become instructed in the principles and method of teaching, as that would be the best way to counteract the influences which he said were “benumbing our faith” (Maurice, 1955, p. 9). Through her educational work Mason aimed at fulfilling the same apologetic aim Maurice put forth as a goal for women’s education in the context of English society:
… [the lady taking education as her calling] would be saving herself and saving others from any cant and nonsense about the march of intellect and the progress of the species, by acting as if all ought to learn and all ought to teach, without talking or making the least fuss about it, simply because they are living in God’s Kingdom upon earth, and are inheritors of His Kingdom in Heaven; and because both are the more glorious for being common. (Maurice, 1955, p. 11)
Mason developed her whole educational philosophy and practice as an answer to such a calling, taking for granted such notions of the kingdom of God in heaven and earth, and building upon the same presuppositions laid down for this work as stated by Maurice. She had the same apologetic aims, the same recognition of the essential aspects of the Christian Faith, and the same conviction concerning the unique providentially-designed role of women in education. She and Maurice both saw this as a primary answer to the challenge raised in the context of the crisis of faith of Victorian Anglicanism.
Why should mothers train girls to be well-educated teachers? “For the sake of the children yet to be born, let the girls be brought up in abhorrence and dread of this black offence of unbelief” (Mason, 1886, p. 268). For the children’s sake, that they might believe.
In our next installment, we will explore other early instances in which this apologetic aim is manifested at the time of the foundation of the PNEU and the launching of the Parents’ Review.
Mason, C. (1886). Home education: A course of lectures to ladies. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench & Co.
Maurice, F. (1857). Lectures to ladies on practical subjects. Cambridge: Macmillan and Co. (Original work published 1855)