Education for the Kingdom, Part 1

Education for the Kingdom, Part 1

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

8 Replies to “Education for the Kingdom, Part 1”

  1. Hello Dr Bernier. (Pastor Bernier?) This will be a fascinating series of articles. I am particularly intrigued with your perspective as an English person. Besides Susan Schaeffer Macaulay and Karen Andreola (who lived in England), it is very rare to find a person from a British background who explores Charlotte Mason’s ideas. So it will be really interesting to see what you include in your articles. I have looked at your blog, but confess that I have not read your doctoral thesis.

    Is it necessary to read along with you? That is, as you write about Vol. 1 in the article, do all your readers need Vol 1 in front of them? I am reading CM’s volumes out of order, with my own goals in mind. Are you going to mess up my schedule?

    Re your comment about bias: your background will allow you to uncover and translate CM’s ideas to the readers of your essays with an understanding of the Anglican perspective. I suspect that this will be helpful. On the other hand, as a Christian who is *not* an Anglican, I have noticed that the essentials of the faith are very much to the fore in the life of committed Christians, of all denominations. As you know, the Christian community is much smaller in the UK, and there is a distinctively ‘British’ feel to our faith walk, even if we are based in a Baptist or a Pentecostal church.

    1. Hello Anthea,

      Thank you for your comment.
      You may call me Ben, or any way you feel more comfortable.
      I will have to tell you a little bit more about myself to clarify that when I refer to myself as “Anglican” I do not imply that I am English.

      My first Language is Spanish. I was born, raised and educated in Puerto Rico all the way to my MA in Philosophy, including my theological education. Also, I became an Anglican by choice, after being born to a predominantly Baptist family, -my mother’s side of the family was Catholic. But I was educated in the Baptist school of my Baptist Church and remained an active member of the Baptist Church until about a year and a half before I was married at 26 years of age.

      It is true though that the perspective of English people is very valuable in reading Mason. I had the privilege of spending almost a year (2000 – 2001) doing research at Ambleside and that gave me the opportunity of meeting many of the key persons related to CM, back then, when the College was still open, including John Thorley, John Inman (who wrote the history of the College), Susan Schaeffer, Elaine Cooper, and a few of the Old Students from the House of Education who had been life-long PNEU teachers Eve Anderson and Marrion Berry (“I Buy a School”), now with the Lord. Last year I had the privilege of also meeting Margaret Coombs, (“Hidden Heritage…”). As many others will tell you just visiting Ambleside gives you a greater appreciation of Mason’s philosophy and work.

      The doctoral thesis is what it is, an academic work written to meet the requirements of a Degree for a secular English university, but it has the benefit of being fully referenced, which for anyone interested in exploring deeper, could be helpful.

      To answer your question, I do not think I will mess up your reading schedule. But instead, it will give you a little bit more context and a better understanding of what you are reading.
      To follow these articles it is not necessary to read anything in particular, as I will be including the material which is not readily available in the printed volumes of the series. Some of the referenced material will see internet light for the first time as this series develops. And I will probably include the full primary sources on my blog so that those who want to read the whole can find them.

      You are exactly right, committed Christians are one in spirit and love across all the boundaries of language, culture, space and time, and that is what needs to be understood about Mason. She was English, no doubt, but more than anything she was a committed Christian, not perfect, like we are not, but loving God above all things to the best of her ability and striving to achieve her calling in life, just like us.

      So, you are a Christian living in England? were you born and raised in England? how did you become alerted to the work of Charlotte Mason? Thank you for your comment and let me know if you have any other questions.

      Yours in Christ,
      Ben

  2. Hello Ben

    Thank you for such a prompt reply, especially on Saturday night (I mean afternoon, in Texas).

    How interesting to read your short biography. My parents were both from Guyana, but I am a little Cockney sparrow — born in Mile End Hospital and raised in London. I now live in Essex. So I am thoroughly English. My husband is from a ‘white working class’ family.

    Hubby wanted to home educate, and that’s been the way ever since. After using Five In A Row for a few years, I got to the end of the books. A friend recommended AO, then I added some of HUFI/Charlotte Mason Help. However, this last summer I found myself using my own instincts and observations to select books and activities that fit our family. Online booklists can be as restrictive as the National Curriculum or Common Core, although their convenience is supportive for beginners. (Ironic really, since we were home educating because we wanted to avoid the prescriptive culture of English schooling.)

    So I am going back to basics with the intention of learning how to think for myself. In Vol. 3 Miss Mason seems to be guiding parents so that they can craft a great learning experience for their children — helping us to develop good instincts.

    I am looking forward to your next instalment.

  3. Thank you for writing these posts, Dr. Bernier!

    I very much appreciate hearing your perspective, and am eager to read your next installments. I am also grateful to Art for making these posts available to us on his blog.

    I have been repeatedly blessed by your work on Scale How Meditations. Thank you for your contributions to the CM community!

    Blessings to you,
    Mary Beuving

  4. Father Ben, I have always known you to be a deep thinker and a good speaker.

    I had no idea you were so well educated as you are. Socializing after Mass just doesn’t provide much opportunity for deep conversations, does it?

    When we were there a year ago, I got a brief chance to talk with your eldest. The fruit does not fall far from the tree. He is also a deep thinker and a very good listener/questioner.

    I don’t look to more back to Corpous Christi, but people such as are in your family make the idea a LITTLE more attractive.

    I plan to share your posts, particularly with our friends who still are raising children. Maybe we can save a few young people from the public school system. I see that as a good thing.

    1. That is very kind of you to say, and thank you also for sharing. I truly think that Mason’s philosophy has much to contribute for educating the next generations for Christ in the midst of so many contemporary challenges.

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