“How many such instances occur in History, where the Ideas of Nature (presented to chosen minds by a Higher Power than Nature herself) suddenly unfold, as it were, in prophetic succession, systematic views destined to produce the most important revolutions in the state of Man!”
– S.T. Coleridge
“Should the reader … be convinced of the truth of what I have advanced, I think he will see that, not an educational reform here and there, but an EDUCATIONAL REVOLUTION is before us to which every one of us is bound to put his hand.”
– Charlotte Mason
One thing we all agree about Charlotte Mason is that she was modest. Karen Glass wrote, “Nothing could be clearer than her own modesty about her contribution.” Given Mason’s patent modesty, her claims about her own contribution to the field of education are extraordinary. Three of her remarkable claims stand out above the rest.
Mason’s Extraordinary Claim #1:
No satisfactory or sufficient theory of education existed prior to Charlotte Mason’s own day.
In 1904, Mason wrote:
Those of us, who have spent many years in pursuing the benign and elusive vision of Education, perceive that her approaches are regulated by a law, and that this law has yet to be evoked… Not having received the tables of our law, we fall back upon Froebel or upon Herbart; or, if we belong to another School, upon Locke or Spencer; but we are not satisfied.
Mason asserted that some universal “law” must exist which would “regulate” the practice of education. But she further asserted that those laws had not yet been revealed. Mason’s claim is extraordinary because it runs counter to Christian Classical Education (CCE) theorists who assert that the universal principles of education have been stated and restated many times and in many forms throughout history. For example, Glass writes:
… nothing is old and stale because [children] see it with fresh eyes. The same is true for the universal principles of education which have been presented to the world again and again in various guises.
CCE theorists refer to these “universal principles of education” as classical education. In common usage, however, classical refers the classical tradition, which may be defined as “the reception of classical Graeco-Roman antiquity in all its dimensions in later cultures.” Some CCE theorists, however, alter this definition. Rather than linking the classical education to an objective historical era, geographical location, cultural foundation, or philosophical school, classical education is redefined to simply comprise anything that is true:
We are not merely treading over old ground when we pursue the idea of a “classical” education, we are delighting anew in the recognition of profound truth and beauty.
But when classical is used as a synonym for true, there is no longer any way to test whether an idea is classical or not (except to prove that it is false). The word classical then means at the same time everything and nothing. It is like the SAT. Originally, “SAT” stood for something: “Scholastic Aptitude Test.” But in 1997, the College Board dropped the etymology, but retained the moniker:
‘The SAT has become the trademark; it doesn’t stand for anything,’ said Scott Jeffe, a spokesman for the College Board in New York. ‘The SAT is the SAT, and that’s all it is.’
To the extent to which Mason’s theory contains elements of truth, it is considered to be classical by CCE theorists. However, many CCE theorists go further and claim that Mason derived most of her ideas from the “classical educators of history,” albeit filtered or magnified by a Christian “lens.” For example, Glass writes:
Such wisdom as she found from past educators, viewed through the lens of her Christian worldview, and combined with a more modern appreciation of how the brain works have given us some of the most effective pedagogical methods ever used.
But this story of the development of Mason’s theory of education does not match the account of Mason’s close associate, Agnes Drury, who wrote:
[Mason] has herself told us that she has drawn her philosophy from the Gospels, where we may study and note “the development of that consummate philosophy which meets every occasion of our lives, all demands of the intellect, every uneasiness of the soul.”
My own quantitative analysis of Mason’s writings confirms Drury’s account. I have shown how scarcely Mason relied on classical sources, as properly defined by the standard dictionary definition of classical. But if classical means true, then why would one need to look at truth “through the lens of [a] Christian worldview”? The very suggestion is a tacit admission that all that is classical is not, in fact, true.
The historical reality is that Mason claimed that the “tables of our law” had not been articulated by prior thinkers, classical or otherwise. So she looked elsewhere and discovered a theory of education in the Gospels.
Mason’s Extraordinary Claim #2:
Mason articulated a theory of education that was both satisfactory and sufficient.
In 1904, Mason wrote:
The patently modest Charlotte Mason claimed to have articulated “the only sufficient and efficient philosophy of education which exists.”
Mason’s statement falsifies Glass’s characterization:
[Mason] recognized the wisdom of the educators of the past, and was proud to consider herself just such another reformer…
Indeed, Mason herself rejected the label of reformer:
Should the reader … be convinced of the truth of what I have advanced, I think he will see that, not an educational reform here and there, but an EDUCATIONAL REVOLUTION is before us to which every one of us is bound to put his hand.
Articulating the “only sufficient and efficient philosophy of education” is not the task of “just another reformer.” How could such a modest woman as Mason claim to have completed such an extraordinary task? She explains:
While Glass asserts that “Charlotte Mason acknowledged the influence of past thinkers on her philosophy of education,” Mason herself said she had received something that was (she believed) “God-given.” And God did not give it to her to see “through the lens of [a] Christian worldview.” God’s truth is a Christian worldview.
Therefore we cannot accept that Mason herself would concur with Glass’s assertion that she merely “laid hold of the universal truths and expressed them anew.”
Mason’s Extraordinary Claim #3:
Charlotte Mason supposed that her theory of education could very well be the last.
I have done a great deal of reading about educational philosophy and methods in the past twenty years, but I do not believe I have ever read a book whose fundamental message was “this is what everyone is doing in education, and we’re satisfied with it, and we think we should just keep on doing it in perpetuity.” I don’t recall ever reading a book with that message, and if there is one somewhere, I think I’d rather not.
With that backdrop, we must carefully reflect on Mason’s statement from November, 1912:
… the members of the Parents’ Union hardly seemed to realize that we stand for the most advanced, and, I suppose, the final movement in educational philosophy.
It seems that Mason has failed Glass’s test. Mason’s supposition that she was part of “the final movement in educational philosophy” makes her precisely the kind of author that Glass said she’d “rather not” read.
Are Mason’s Claims True?
I have documented three extraordinary claims by Charlotte Mason. However, I am not going to investigate whether or not Mason’s claims were true. Educators can derive great value from Mason’s theory of education whether or not Mason’s claims were true. However, any attempt to classify and interpret Mason’s writings must take into account the fact that she made these claims. The fact alone that Mason made these claims disqualifies her from being classified as classical. Furthermore, it strongly suggests that we should not attempt to harmonize Mason’s writings with the classical thinkers. Rather, we should seek to understand which ideas and practices she herself considered to be novel, and why.
And yet Glass writes:
So what, exactly, is my point? Just this: that “classical” and “progressive,” far from being mutually exclusive terms, in fact go hand in hand. Those worthwhile authors on education, throughout history, among whom we number with honor Charlotte Mason, were progressive reformers.
But if we apply this logic to the contemporary scene, we should classify educational theorists as follows:
|Progressive||· Dorothy Sayers
· David Hicks
· Susan Wise Bauer
· Christopher Perrin
· Kevin Clark
· Ravi Jain
|Classical||· John Dewey
· Jean Piaget
Sayers and Hicks challenged their contemporaries. According to Glass, that makes them progressive. But how does it add clarity to refer to Sayers and Bauer as progressive? Dewey frequently and favorably quoted classical thinkers such as Plato. But how does it add clarity to refer to Dewey as classical?
One must look beyond labels, and understand substance. Boxes and labels are stultifying and limiting, and far removed from the bursting-with-potential ideals that have inspired educators for centuries.
But this gets to the crux of the issue. We apply labels for a reason. There is in fact a reason why Christian Classical Education is called classical. The reason is because in reality, CCE theories are based on the classical tradition as properly defined.
For example, in Norms & Nobility, David Hicks spends the first seven chapters on classical Greek philosophy and its implications for education. It is not until the eighth chapter that he reveals his intention to revise that with Christian theology. One reviewer writes:
Hicks does a great job describing Greek classical education. However, the manner in which he does often sounds prescriptive… Thankfully, he later addresses how Christianity supplied the missing pieces. However, rather than describe Christianity as ‘crowning’ classical education I would say Christianity provided the foundation upon which the honorable aspects of classical education was set. In any event, it was only upon reading this section that I realized Hicks was advocating a redeemed form of classical education… Hicks uses pagan Greek language to describe Christian concepts, which concerns me.
Hicks does indeed describe Christianity as “crowning” classical education. He writes:
Modern classical education… is (or ought to be) grounded on a dialectic between pagan humanism and Christianity… The creative tension between pagan humanism and Christianity animates normative education and promises to lift the student to a level of understanding above reason in an experience of faith.
In a startling passage, Hicks claims that Christianity is a kind of “reward” for classical thought:
Christianity injected a hopeful note and rewarded the classical tradition’s strivings for a link between right thinking and right acting.
A second example is Classical Conversations. On their web site, we read:
Can an education be both classical and Christian? Parents often associate a classical education with “non-Christian” content such as Greek mythology or philosophy. Naturally, they then wonder how these studies can be Christian.
First, because God has dominion over all, Christians can find profit in studying Greek literature and philosophy.
Second, this study is most useful when it prepares the heart for the acceptance of Christ, and then leads an individual to develop a rational, defensible faith; a faith that is also unlikely to be susceptible to false teaching.
Third, Christians must approach all reading carefully, pulling out that which is true and profitable and rejecting that which is untrue.
You can scour Mason’s writings, but you will never find statements such as that pagan philosophy prepares the child’s heart for Christ.
A third example is The Liberal Arts Tradition by Clark and Jain. In that short 169-page volume, the authors reference Plato 112 times and Aristotle 94 times. Across 169 pages, Plato and Aristotle are collectively mentioned 206 times – more than once per page, and four times as frequently as references to Christ. This leaves absolutely no doubt as to what is the philosophical foundation for this theory of education. We call such a theory of education classical. Everyone understands that label. No one calls it progressive.
The bottom line is that classical education is founded upon classical Greek philosophy. Of course, CCE alters the theoretical structure when it conflicts with Christian theology. But I think all Christians agree that at least some elements of Platonic philosophy cannot be reconciled with Christian orthodoxy. In that way, Platonic philosophy may be seen as a “poisoned spring.” When faced with a poisoned spring, one has two options:
- Attempt to clean up the water downstream and somehow remove the poison,
- Find a fresh spring that is not poisoned in the first place.
CCE theorists have chosen the first option, whereas Mason chose the second. This is what Mason was getting at when she wrote:
We of the P.N.E.U., if we be minded to advance in our thousands with one heart and one purpose, are strong enough to bring about a Twentieth Century Renascence, more glorious and permanent than that of the Middle Age, because its ultimate source shall be a profound Christianity, in lieu of the poisoned springs of Paganism. We have the one thing to offer which the whole world wants, an absolutely effective system of education covering the whole nature of a child, the whole life of man.
That does not mean that Mason avoided reading classical literature. She clearly believed (and I concur) that there is generally no harm in reading the ancient philosophers. Mason’s interpretation of the fresco in the Spanish Chapel was that many pagans had been taught by the Spirit of God. Great thoughts are from the Holy Spirit. To the extent to which those pagans received such thoughts, their ideas are as true now as they ever were. But Mason did not grant authority to the classical philosophical system. She built her theoretical structures upon a Gospel foundation. Once we also have done that, then we can go back and find the down payments of that made by the Spirit of God to the ancients.
Such is not the approach of a classical educator, or even of a reformer. Such is the approach of a revolutionary.
Dr. Stephanie Spencer of the University of Winchester wrote about this revolutionary:
[Mason’s] philosophy of education was centred firmly on the child as a person. She was prepared to defend her philosophy publicly and engage in debates over new ideas within educational theories. She ensured that her theories could develop alongside new physiological and psychological research, however well meaning the attempts were to publicly locate her theories within those of famous male educationists… What she could not foresee was that her biographers’ understandable admiration for their mentor resulted in a legacy which, while worthy, has not yet been examined or researched in the detail which it undoubtedly deserves.
Mason’s enthusiasts in her own day tried to correlate Mason with famous male educationists. In doing so, according to Dr. Spencer, they buried Mason’s revolutionary ideas under a classical veil. A hundred years later, well-meaning Mason enthusiasts continue this tradition of burying Mason’s ideas within the stream of male classical educationists. Enough. Please, let us examine and research Mason’s theory of education “in the detail which it undoubtedly deserves.” Let us be struck afresh by her revolutionary ideas.
 A Dissertation on the Science of Method, p. 25
 School Education, pp. 247
 Parents and Children, pp. ix-xi
 The Classical Tradition, by Grafton, Most, and Settis, p. vii
 New York Times
 L’Umile Pianta, May, 2014, p. 64
 The Story of Charlotte Mason, by Essex Cholmondeley, p. 107. The handwritten notes are my own.
 School Education, pp. 247
 The Story of Charlotte Mason, by Essex Cholmondeley, p. 108. The handwritten notes are my own.
 Parents’ Review, November, 1912, p. 808
 Norms & Nobility, p. 91
 Norms & Nobility, p. 96
 Parents’ Review, November, 1912, p. 811
 “Knowledge as the Necessary Food of the Mind: Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy of Education,” from Women, Education, and Agency, 1600–2000, p. 121