Editor’s note: This is the final article 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
Our exploration of the underlying religious foundation of Mason’s philosophy and its Christ-centered apologetic goal has led us to explore the early stages of the PNEU philosophy and method. We have highlighted the practical importance of the discipline of meditation, and we have shown that it is the essential discipline required by those engaged in the service of education, since the sustenance of ideas is the primary means of education and is therefore of primary importance for both parents or teachers.
For many contemporary readers and interpreters of Mason, however, the previous statement, as well as much of the content of our previous articles in this series, may come as a surprise. I will try to clarify the reason for this as we focus our attention on the next stage of development of Mason’s PNEU philosophy.
One unforeseen fruit of the House of Education (HOE) governess training program was the spontaneous generation of schools around HOE graduates. As it turned out, it was very convenient for families who could afford to host one of Mason’s graduates to gather the children of several families into one place to follow the curriculum. Once such schools were established and began to grow, it was an easy step to commend the adoption of the model to other schools that were already established. It was necessary to convince headmasters who had some interest in the PNEU to try the curriculum, at least in part. Thereby the PRS curriculum began to grow into an ever-expanding network of schools, side-by-side with the homeschool room, run at a distance from Ambleside.
Mason’s first two educational volumes, and The Parents’ Review in general, had focused primarily on the duties and prerogatives on parents. But this new development caused the prior home education emphasis to expand to include the needs of headmasters and teachers of schools.
The demands of this expansion led Mason to produce two important new resources:
1. The codification and summary of the PNEU philosophy in a new set of principles called the Synopsis of 1904, and
2. The writing of the Home Education Series, which required a reorganization and selection of all the material Mason had written up to that point, with new material adapted to the new circumstances. The series was comprised of:
- The fourth edition of Home Education, as volume one (1904)
- The third edition of Parents and children, as volume two (1904)
- School Education, as volume three (1905)
- The two books Ourselves, gathered into one, as volume four (1905)
- Formation of Character, as volume five (1906)
The new volumes of the series consisted of various articles previously published by Mason in The Parents’ Review combined with the new material organized to answer the needs of an expanding PNEU school movement. The school movement was growing side-by-side with all the other programs related to the PNEU, which up to that point had parents as the primary target audience. Now the PNEU had the goal and very real possibility of directly influencing the whole system of school education in England. Schools were in a state of reform at the time, and by appealing directly to headmasters and the authorities responsible for school policy, the PNEU had the opportunity to directly impact that reform.
As you can see, this new stage began to widen the target to include the headmaster and the teacher at school without abandoning the primary focus on the parent at home. This expansion of focus is important, since a tension exists between the idea of religious education at school and one of Mason’s emphases in her first and second volumes. This is especially the case with volume two, Parents and Children, where it is stressed that the primary religious education of children is best given at the hands of parents, especially those enlightened with PNEU philosophy.
Notice that a religious foundation for education at home solves the difficult problem of providing education for groups of children belonging to mixed denominational backgrounds, a problem which any national curriculum must solve. The home can be both passionate and explicit in details according to the family’s own values without fear of offense to any particular sensibility. By contrast, the religious instruction of the many necessarily imposes the need for finding through careful selection a minimum common denominator. This tends to produce a more abstract or generic instruction in religious topics than is typical of religious education in the home, which Mason had been stressing from the beginning of her lectures as the best way to overcome the danger of unbelief.
The solution to this new tension, which resulted from incorporating both the home and the school spheres, was to allow them to stand side-by-side without differentiation. Mason did this by producing a new statement of her principles designed to answer simultaneously the needs of both parents and teachers, without addressing either one in particular. This was the synopsis of 1904, which was to be printed in a preface at the beginning of each volume of the Home Education Series, with a note at the end indicating that the title, taken from the first volume, did not imply that the series would be dealing “wholly or principally, with ‘Home’ as opposed to ‘School’ education” (Mason, 1905, p. xvii).
This enlargement of focus from the home alone to the home and the school together caused a diminution of public emphasis on the religious foundation and apologetic goal of Mason’s philosophy in favor of a more general application of her method. So Mason indicated in her preface to School Education, by explaining that certain principles should be present but not in evidence: “we do not expose the foundations of our house” (Mason, 1905, p. xix). By this time, the religious foundation of Mason’s movement had been so well established, so clearly and for so long, that it was possible to build upon it without having to explicitly highlight it in this new turn.
It is important to realize that Mason saw herself as building upon a foundation she had already established. She was in no way renouncing the principles she so clearly espoused and included within the series itself. She incorporated the whole content of her first two volumes within the series which continued to develop her insights into a whole body of practical application of education for both the home and the school. In other words, the Christ-centered foundation of Mason’s thought was not diminished one bit; it simply became less overt and less conspicuous to a general audience when her message was repackaged in the hope of influencing the evolving national system of education at such a crucial stage. But as we will see, this change in strategy carried some unforeseen consequences for the near and distant future.
At the time, this tradeoff surely must have appeared as a minor adaptation, since the work of the PNEU branches and the publication of The Parents’ Review continued to provide the obvious religious context for the PNEU education movement. For example, each annual conference began with a service of Morning Prayer along with a sermon. Also, the PNEU frequently published sermons by clergymen in the many volumes of The Parents’ Review. The Mother’s Educational Course maintained its emphasis on divinity, and the House of Education continued in the same spiritual disciplines that it always had.
Yet it is important to point out some of the implications of this broadening of the primary focus from parents to headmasters. In the “PNEU Philosophy” article of 1892, the emphasis was on the sustenance of ideas linked to the person of Christ as the Bread of Life. In Parents and Children (1896), the prerogatives of parents to be the primary educators of the religious life of their children and the role of the Holy Spirit as the educator of the whole human race were emphasized as essential aspects of PNEU thought. But the synopsis of 1904 reduced references to these principles to a brief mention of the child’s mind as a spiritual organism in principle 10 and a concluding reference in principle 18 to the “divine Spirit” who has continual access to the spirit of the child (Mason, 1905, p. xvii). The name “divine Spirit” sounds much more abstract than the name “Holy Spirit” given in the Great Recognition.
Furthermore, this switch had an unfortunate and unintended consequence when the series was republished in 1989. People began to be read, interpret, and apply these books outside of their original context, and Mason’s thought was introduced to a new set of contemporary readers not acquainted with the English-Anglican ethos characteristic of its original audience. Many contemporary readers of Mason, who naturally come to the series interested in learning the method, read the synopsis first, and then go on to be puzzled by the apparent incongruence between it and the religious emphasis spread out across so many articles. These readers often do not realize that these articles were written many years before the synopsis. Such readers are often surprised to find so many references to God, the doctrine of ideas, and the importance of religion, peppered all throughout the series. If these concepts are so important, they wonder, why are they so little represented in the synopsis? They understandably become confused as to what the real primary emphasis of Mason is, and how important her religious views are to her educational philosophy. Before the advent of the Internet, there were very few outlets by which to learn about the historical and religious background of Mason’s work. This situation even generated debates about whether or not Mason herself had been a devout Christian.
Let me give some examples of how reading of the series out of context has made it difficult for contemporary readers to interpret Mason. The 1989 reprint of the first volume of the series, Home Education, was based on the 1925 edition of the book. Appendix A of that edition begins with the heading “Questions for the Use of Students” (Mason, 1989a, p. 353). There is no explanation as to who these “Students” are. By contrast, the original series included the fourth edition of the book. The appendix of that edition includes a footnote after “Students” to explain who they are:
The students in question are persons preparing to become “Qualified Members” of the Parents’ National Educational Union. Particulars may be had at the office, 28 Victoria Street, London, S.W. (Mason, 1906, p. 357)
In other words these questions were not intended for young students, but corresponded with a reading course designed to accredit adult readers as “Qualified Members” of the PNEU. (Mason, 1905, p. 367)
A “qualified member” would naturally also subscribe to The Parents’ Review and would have access to the Annual Conference and the Mother’s Educational Course, all of which were built on the premise of helping Christian parents to educate their children. Recall what we read in the description of the Mother’s Educational Course: “To help mothers to give their children such teaching as should confirm them in the Christian religion.” (Anson, 1897, p. 463)
A second example illustrates that the interpretive challenge is not limited to the religious aspects underlying the philosophy. Appendix A of the series presented a list of books with the following preliminary explanation:
Appended is a list of books, etc., spoken of in various connections in this volume, with particulars as to publisher or agent, and price; but it must be borne in mind that books of the kind are constantly going out of print, and that the mention of these in the text is designed rather to indicate the sort of books it is desirable to use than to point out particular works. Indeed, to regard this as a stereotyped list of school-books for young children would be unfair both to authors and publishers, and also to the purchaser; for there are, no doubt, many equally good books in the market at the present time, and new works on similar lines are constantly issuing from the press. (Mason, 1906, p. 353)
How much effort and controversy may have been avoided if contemporary purveyors of Mason’s “authentic” and diverse curricula had always kept in mind such an important caveat against stereotyped lists of children’s books and the need to be fair to authors, publishers, and purchasers of new books? In fact, apart from the Bible and a few classics, Mason’s curriculum was a fluid product which was continually updated as new resources became available. This was in keeping with the principles and goals of the philosophy and the new discoveries of science.
Another interesting aspect of this new stage in the development of Mason’s work is how examinations began to play a new role within the PNEU world. In the early stages, examinations were just an educational tool by which children shared what they had learned and by which the quality of the books assigned was assessed. (A living book was that one which children in general could read and narrate with living interest.) In other words, the curriculum was measured by the child’s response, and not the other way around. The formation of their Christian character and their natural appetite for learning played the leading role. There was never a need for test preparation or cramming.
But when marketing a growing PNEU school movement became a primary concern, given the possibility of influencing the educational system of the whole nation, the exhibition of examination results became palpable evidence of the efficacy of the method. Some began to promote the method on the basis of its ability to produce extraordinary academic results, which no doubt introduced an element of pressure on the students to perform. This may have introduced through the back door the need for cramming, and may have fostered some of the self-consciousness which had been previously and officially so much deprecated.
Ourselves, Ours Souls and Bodies
Yet the religious foundation of the primary principles was never abandoned. It continued to find expression in two new major productions, one of which also forms part of the series:
- Ourselves, the book in two parts first published in 1905, and incorporated as volume four of the series, and
- The later publication of the poetry volumes on the life of Christ which eventually became a primary text for religious instruction in PNEU schools.
Ourselves was designed to supply an understanding of human nature with a view towards helping with the proper ordering of the inner life and providing for the spiritual direction and moral growth into the maturity of Christian character. Book I was intended for children below the age of sixteen, and Book II was intended for all people above that age. The basis was stated to be “intuitive morality, as sanctioned by the authority of Revelation” (Mason, 1989d, Preface).
It is worth noting that this book was Mason’s attempt to provide a tool to answer one of her primary exhortations given to Christian mothers at the conclusion of her first set of lectures in 1885 when she said:
It is true that a life of stirring action and great responsibility is the readiest means of developing character—better or worse: but not one woman in a thousand leads such a life; and then, not until she has reached maturity. Put into the hands of the girl the means of doing for herself what only exceptional circumstances will do for her; teach her, that is, the principles and methods of self-culture, seeing that you cannot undertake to provide for her the culture of circumstances. To point out these principles and methods in detail would be to go over the ground we have attempted to cover in the former lectures. By the time the girl has some insight into the nature of those appetites, affections, emotions, desires, which are the springs of human action; into the extraordinary power of habit, which, though acquired by us, and not born in us, has more compelling force than any or all of the inborn principles of action; into the imperious character of the will, which rules the man, and yet is to be ruled and trained by the man; into the functions of conscience, and into the conditions of the spiritual life,—by the time she has some practical, if only fragmentary notions on these great subjects, she may be led to consider her own nature and disposition with profit. So far from encouraging the habit of morbid introspection, such a practical dealing with herself is the very best cure for it. She no longer compares herself with herself, and judges herself by herself; but, knowing what are the endowments and what the risks proper to human nature, she is able to think soberly of, and to deal prudently with herself, and is in a position to value the counsels of her mother. (Mason, 1886, pp. 253-254)
When the above passage was removed from its place at the conclusion of Home Education and incorporated in the fifth volume of the series, Formation of Character, it was edited to read:
… Put into the hands of the girl the means of doing for herself what only exceptional circumstances will do for her; teach her, that is, the principles and methods of self-culture, seeing that you cannot undertake to provide for her the culture of circumstances. To point out these principles and methods in detail would be to go over the ground I have attempted to cover in a former volume. (Mason, 1989e, p. 241)
This quote was immediately followed by a footnote indicating that the volume referred to is the book: “Ourselves, our Souls and Bodies, Kegan Paul, London”. (Mason, 1989e, p. 241)
In other words, in Mason’s view the book Ourselves corresponds with the essential content and aim of Mason’s first set of lectures, which was designed to help Christian mothers with the formation and growth of the Christian character of their daughters. It was essential to have an understanding of the principles and methods of self-culture as they relate to human nature and lead “into the functions of conscience, and into the conditions of the spiritual life” based upon “intuitive morality, as sanctioned by the authority of Revelation.” So essential indeed that Mason devoted a whole volume in two parts to its detailed elucidation, under the title of Ourselves, Ours Souls and Bodies.
Education is the Key
The book Ourselves is built on a metaphor exploring an analogical relationship between the inner life of the soul and the administration of a kingdom. This metaphor explores and applies, department by department, all the essential principles necessary for the ordering of one’s inner life as if it were the same as the wise administration of the province of a kingdom. This kingdom is mansoul, which every human person possess by virtue of being created in the image of God, who is the ruler of all.
From the beginning of her first lecture series, Mason had emphasized the idea of Christ the King as the essential need of every human soul. She again quoted F.D. Maurice, referring to him as “a writer who has searched into the deep things of God,” this time from his Sermons on Sacrifice:
… it is a King that our spirits cry for, to guide them, discipline them, unite them to each other: to give them a victory over themselves, a victory over the world. It is a Priest that our spirits cry for, to lift them above themselves to their God and Father,—to make them partakers of His nature, fellow-workers in carrying out His purposes. Christ’s Sacrifice is the one authentic testimony that He is both the Priest and King of men. (Maurice, as cited in Mason, 1886, p. 187)
Mason recognized education as the primary key by which to “enthrone the King,” i.e., to make disciples into His kingdom. Parents, unworthy instruments in themselves, have graciously received from Christ the primary duty and privilege to enthrone Him. They have been commissioned with the keys to the inner chambers of the spiritual life of their children from their earliest stages of their formation:
Conscience, we have seen, is effective only as it is moved from within, from that innermost chamber of Mansoul, that Holy of Holies, the secrets of which are only known to the High-priest, who “needed not that any man should tell Him, for He knew what was in man.” It is necessary, however, that we should gather up crumbs of fact and inference, and set in order such knowledge as we have; for the keys even of this innermost chamber are placed in the hands of parents, and it is a great deal in their power to enthrone the King, to induct the Priest, that every human spirit cries for. (Mason, 1886, pp. 187-188)
Education is that key. Therefore the idea promoted from the beginning to the end in Mason’s philosophy is that education is the instrument by which children are nourished and guided by their parents and teachers to grow into the essential relationship with Christ as Lord, through the sustenance of ideas, which is the feeding upon the Word and Bread of Life. This includes the application of His rule to the ordering of their inner lives with a view towards the formation of a character that is pleasing to Him. This then constitutes the basis for the ordering of all external relationships in family, church, society, and nation. It is an education for Christian discipleship which recognizes in both Christian parents and children the primary importance Christ Himself gave to them when He instructed His disciples not to hinder the children from coming to Him according to the principles governing His kingdom.
It is for this reason that Mason, along with Maurice, saw the parent as one of the most important instruments for the establishment and extension of God’s kingdom. Mason states this at the conclusion of volume 2, Parents and Children:
… when we put it to parents, we offer it to those for whom no endeavour is too difficult, no aim too lofty; to those who are doing the most to advance the Kingdom of Christ. (Mason, 1989b, p. 291)
In conclusion it is worth remarking how this vision of education as the key to spiritual formation is integrated into Mason’s sacramental understanding of discipleship within the life of the Church of England. The title of the book Ourselves is revealing in and of itself when read in its proper historical context. Allow me to call your attention to another detail obscured from the sight of most contemporary readers. The title of the 1989 version of fourth volume of the series is Ourselves, with the subtitle “Improving character and conscience.” However, the original title was Ourselves, our Souls and Bodies. This can be seen from the following advertisement (Mason, 1905, p. ii):
But what most people do not realize is that the title Ourselves, Our Souls and Bodies immediately resonates in the mind of any traditional Anglican. It is a direct reference to the Holy Communion liturgy of the Church of England. Every church member in England in Mason’s day, even those belonging to other denominations, was familiar with the Book of Common Prayer which was used in every service of the Church of England. Immediately upon hearing “ourselves, our souls and bodies,” Mason’s primary audience would have associated the title of the book with the rest of the Prayer of Oblation of which this phrase is a prominent part. This prayer is read as part of the Holy Communion liturgy immediately after everyone has partaken of the bread and the wine. The communicants say together:
And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that all we, who are partakers of this holy Communion, may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction. (Book of Common Prayer, 1873, pp. 60-61)
This prayer in which the offering of ourselves in sacrifice is given as a response to our partaking of the Holy Communion is a reference to Romans 12:1-4. In this passage, the apostle Paul exhorts all Christians not to conform to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds; to present their bodies as a living sacrifice unto God, which is, according to Paul, our “reasonable service.” Once the title of Mason’s book is read in such a context it is not difficult to understand what her book Ourselves is all about. We can see why it is included in a series of books dealing with education and we can see what character is aimed at through its writing.
The aim of my series of articles has been to help contemporary readers and interpreters of Mason to become aware of those aspects of her original work which have been largely hidden from view. My hope is that we will overcome the limitations of contemporary assessments of Mason’s ideas by tracing them back to their foundation and development. In this light, the tensions indicated are more easily understood. In the end, the essential Christian discipleship aspect of Mason’s work will be recognized for what it is historically: the primary foundation, motive, content, and goal of all her work.
Anson, Mrs. (1897). The Mother’s Educational Course, In The Parents’ Review, volume 8 (pp. 463-468). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Book of Common Prayer. (1873) The book of common prayer, and administration of the sacraments, and other rites and ceremonies, as revised and proposed to the use of the protestant Episcopal church. Philadelphia; London: J. Debrett.
Mason, C. (1886). Home education: A course of lectures to ladies. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench & Co.
Mason, C. (1905). School education. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.
Mason, C. (1906). Home education. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.
Mason, C. (1989a). Home education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989b). Parents and children. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989d). Ourselves. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Mason, C. (1989e). Formation of character. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.