Editor’s note: This article is the first 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.
Dr. Bernier is the rector of Providence Reformed Episcopal Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is also the head of Pastoral Theology at Cranmer Theological House. Dr. Bernier performed his doctoral work at the Armitt Library in Ambleside for the Religious Studies Department of Lancaster University, UK. His research focused on the religious foundation of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. Dr. Bernier holds an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Puerto Rico where he taught introduction to philosophy and logic. Dr. Bernier compiled and annotated the Scale How Meditations, Mason’s Bible lectures on the Gospel of John.
Dr. Bernier has found great encouragement and insight from studying and applying Charlotte Mason’s principles as a teacher at all levels: as pastor, teacher, husband, and father. He believes that Mason’s achievements have been underestimated and that Mason’s core writings ought to be required reading for any program designed to prepare people for the ministry, the school, or the family. You can read more by Dr. Bernier on his blog.
Education for the Kingdom: Uncovering the Essential Religious Foundation of Charlotte Mason’s Educational Philosophy, Part 1
© 2017 Benjamin Bernier
What is the main category under which Mason’s philosophy of education should be classified? Was Mason classical or modern? Was she more of a believer in schooling or homeschooling? Or was she more in favor of unschooling? A glance at the many discussion groups about Mason shows that such questions have been endlessly debated for a long time.
The question underlying many such concerns is: what was Mason’s religious background and personal faith? Was Mason an orthodox Christian? Was she liberal or conservative? Did she believe in the Bible as the Word of God, or did she merely consider the Bible to be good literature? What was her religious faith, and to what extent did it influence her philosophy and method? The fundamental question is whether or not there is an intrinsic relationship between Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education and her religion or theology. If there is such a relationship, how intrinsic is it? Can these two aspects of her thought be isolated, so that the educational philosophy may be used in a completely secular context?
In this series of articles, I will argue that Mason’s educational philosophy holds a unique place in the history of educational theory in general and in the history of Christian education in particular, and that any attempt to separate her religion and theology from her educational philosophy necessarily results in serious distortion and misunderstanding of the principles involved in her philosophy and method.
Mason’s educational philosophy is a fruit of her lifelong devotion to Christ and her desire to accomplish what she perceived as a divine calling devoted to helping others to do the same by means of the best education possible, which happens to be Christian education, and which I argue can be identified with the ideal of Christian discipleship.
Mason’s devotion to Christ gave foundation and direction to another lifelong passion for the practical investigation of the theoretical principles governing education at its best. As a result of both these lifelong commitments, Mason produced her own full-fledged Christian educational philosophy. But as an old friend of mine used to emphasize in seminary, “context is everything.” In order to properly understand Mason’s philosophy, it is important to grasp the essential socio-religious context of her life and work, which in this case happens to be the Anglicanism characteristic of the late-Victorian era in England.
Among other important features of this context, one which helps us understand the contemporary applicability of Mason’s method to various religious backgrounds is related to a distinctive characteristic of traditional Anglicanism as an established church. The Church of England has always had a variety of currents flowing within it, often incorporating under the same roof groups holding conflicting opinions. For this reason, it has a long-established tradition of differentiating between essentials and non-essentials in Christian doctrine by limiting the essentials to that deposit of truth which can be shown to be commonly shared by all Christians, i.e. what all Christians believe at all times and in all places.
This is essentially the same principle later identified by C.S. Lewis, another influential Anglican intellectual, who coined the term “mere Christianity” to identify it. It is this core of common Christian belief which Mason embraced from her Anglican perspective and used as a foundation to develop her interpretation of education for the children’s sake.
To help us uncover and discern the main features of this foundation it helps to remember what Mason herself observed, that everyone engaged in the task of education has in principle an essential philosophy of education answering, however uncritically, at least three essential questions: What? How? and Why?
The first two questions deal with the issues of content and method, while the third answers the most fundamental question: “Why?” This third question defines both the foundation and the goal of education which determines its direction, content, and method in any well-planned organization. If we use this criterion to evaluate Mason’s philosophy, we can readily perceive that her answers to these several questions are directly regulated by the framework provided by her religious beliefs. Every time Mason discusses the highest goal, the essential principles and underlying motives of her philosophy, she explicitly relates them to God as revealed in the Gospel of Christ, affirming the traditional theological framework of Christianity as understood in the tradition of historical Anglicanism.
We all have a tendency to read our own presuppositions into our understanding of another person’s philosophy, and the fact that I am an Anglican minister and teacher may open my assessment of Mason’s work to the accusation of bias. After all, classical educators tend to read Mason and claim her to be classical; unschoolers see her as advocating unschooling, homeschoolers, as advocating homeschooling; and those who work in Mason schools see her as being in favor of school education.
I will plead in my defense that I came in contact with Mason’s work while looking for guidance for homeschooling my children quite apart from my theological work as a pastor or my personal training in philosophy. Like many others, I first learned about Mason through Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children’s Sake, which follows the general outline of the Synopsis, and naturally touches very little upon Mason’s specific religious beliefs.
Macaulay’s work led me to Mason’s six volumes, and two unexpected surprises caught my attention repeatedly as I first read through the series:
- The depth of philosophical insight, combined with a depth of theological insight and application.
- The explicit linkage of such insight not only to the actual text of the Bible but also to the theology, language, and practices characteristic of traditional Anglicanism. This was evident in various references to the Book of Common Prayer, the Christian Year, and even the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, which are some of the essential features of traditional Anglicanism.
Both of these features came as a complete surprise to me, and it was this surprise which eventually led me to focus my doctoral dissertation on the religious foundation of Mason’s educational philosophy. In summary what I found was that Mason’s Anglican faith is intrinsic to her philosophy at every fundamental level, although this dependency has become obscured over time for various reasons:
- Mason’s writings and work encompass such a wide range of subjects and depth of understanding of principles that it is easy to miss the forest for the trees in relation to recognizing the primary foundations and goals of her philosophy taken as a whole.
- The philosophy was developed over many years while Mason was interacting with various changes in British culture at a time when it began to move from its traditional views to a secularized society. Such changes over time tend to hide from general view the underlying foundations and ultimate goals which gave the philosophy and method its integrity and continuity as it was developed over time.
- Some of the writings in which these ideas were made explicit were not prominently featured in the six educational volumes and therefore have not been as widely read or appreciated by contemporary readers of Mason.
- The transposition of context from Victorian England to contemporary America serves to hide many of the Anglican values which in their original context were commonly shared in relation to the role of the established church in traditional English society.
- Finally, living in an age when the educational establishment has been secularized and our lives are characterized by fragmentation, and when the dualistic separation between sacred and secular is generally taken for granted, it is easy for us to miss how profoundly integrated these aspects were in Mason’s educational outlook.
In order to support my case in the most concise fashion, I will highlight some key instances in which these underlying religious principles are clearly acknowledged and given the ruling role. In this role, these principles determine the framework, the content, and the goals of education relative to essentially gospel-centered ideas understood within the context of traditional Anglicanism, with an apologetic aim understood as essential to an educational method geared towards Christian discipleship.
I will highlight these ideas in chronological order, beginning with the original 1886 “Home Education” lecture series and culminating with Mason’s last publication in 1923. The next article will focus on the 1886 lecture series which launched Mason into the scene of educational reform. I hope you will join me in this next and subsequent articles as I intend to uncover the religious foundation of Mason’s philosophy, which has remained out of sight for far too long.