If there is a single phrase most commonly associated with Charlotte Mason, it is probably “Children are born persons.” It is the concise first article of the Short Synopsis authored by Mason and approved by the PNEU Executive Committee in 1904. In the years that have followed, it has inspired countless parents and teachers. For many, its elegant simplicity evokes what makes Mason’s theory of education so beautiful, life-giving, and pure.
But some have suggested that Mason chose this phrase to counteract a particular scientific idea of her day. The assumption is that wise thinkers have always known that children are persons, and that this is the classical understanding. Now that science has progressed beyond the shadows of the Victorian era, we no longer need this reminder. We may bypass this simple phrase and immerse ourselves in the legacy of classical education, where we will find whatever of Mason’s ideas that we need. Or so we are told.
But did Mason assert that “children are born persons” simply to counter a temporal incursion into personhood by science? Was she trying to point people back to the classical ideal of personhood? Should those who wish to follow her insights today understand this principle to be a restatement of what the ancient tradition has always believed?
To answer this question, we will call upon to history to testify. We will consult those who have been inspired by Mason’s ideas, and we will hear what they have to say about Mason’s first principle.
On November 24, 1906, two years after the publication of the Synopsis, a woman named Miss Shakespeare addressed a PNEU gathering in Oakleigh, Duppas Hill. Her topic was “The Child in Literature.” In her address, she “reviewed the treatment of children in the literature of the world down to the present day.” We are told that she began with the ancients:
She pointed out that children had always been treated objectively in the literature of the Ancients and showed that it was comparatively recently that the point of view had changed. She read quotations from Homer and other writers to prove this and to show the passionate love for children even in those days. (PR17:77)
According to this PNEU lecturer, the classical Greek view of the child, as expressed by Homer and others, was “objective.” What does that mean? Does that mean that children were seen as persons? We must follow Miss Shakespeare’s logic to see; but for now, we should point out that “comparatively recently” something had changed – the contemporary view of children was no longer “objective.”
The Middle Ages
Miss Shakespeare continued her survey of the child in literature with a brief mention of the Middle Ages. Did the thinkers of that era perceive children as persons, in the PNEU. sense? Apparently not. In Miss Shakespeare’s lecture she “[passed] over the middle ages,” for it “gives us no picture of childhood, not even from the pen of Chaucer.” So apparently the classical education of the medieval world did not record the notion of children as persons that Miss Shakespeare was watching for.
Moving on from the Middle Ages, “the lecturer dwelt on the formalities and ceremony existing between parents and children in the 17th and 18th centuries, quoting from Montaigne to show to what lengths these formalities went.” Miss Shakespeare particularly noted the view of John Locke:
The lecturer mentioned Locke’s view of the mind of a child as a sheet of blank paper to be written on to show how entirely objective the point of view still was.
So we begin to see now what Miss Shakespeare meant by the “objective” view. The view she found in the classical world of Homer she saw persisting in Locke.
Miss Shakespeare then describes a change:
She then went on to Rousseau, pointing out that he was the first to recognise that children are born persons, and how from his day onward the ideas about children had been gradually changing until to-day the point of view had become entirely subjective; the rights of children were recognised, their individuality was given room to expand, and they were treated with a wise and thinking love. Miss Shakespeare illustrated this gradual change of attitude towards children by delightful and pertinent extracts from the literature of each period.
Something happened with appearance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a man who, despite his manifold flaws, Mason considered to be “a preacher of righteousness” (II:3). Something happened that had never happened before: children were seen from a subjective point of view: children were seen as persons. What were the implications of that point of view?
- “The rights of children were recognized”
- “their individuality was given room to expand”
- “they were treated with a wise and thinking love”
By using the word subjective, Miss Shakespeare explicitly showed that this view of children as persons is not a return to the classical Greek view, but rather a progression towards something new.
A century and a quarter after the death of Rousseau, Mason penned her Synopsis. In this Synopsis, she used the phrase “Children are born persons” for the first time (as far as I have been able to determine). Was she signaling a return to a pre-scientific era? Was she hearkening back to the classical past? She explained in her landmark article “Children Are Born Persons,” first published in The Parents’ Review in 1911:
We believe that the first article of our P.N.E.U. educational creed—“children are born persons”—is of a revolutionary character; for what is a revolution but a complete reversal of attitude? And by the time, say, in another decade or two, that we have taken in this single idea, we shall find that we have turned round, reversed our attitude towards children not only in a few particulars, but completely. (PR22:420)
Far from a return to the past, Mason explained that this principle is a bold vision for the future. But perhaps I have misunderstood? Perhaps it is a revolution to return to pre-evolutionary ideas? Mason continued:
Wordsworth had glimmerings of the truth: poets mean, not less, but a great deal more than they say; and when the poet says, “Thou best philosopher,” “Thou eye among the blind,” “haunted for ever by the eternal mind,” “Prophet, Seer blest,” and so on,—phrases that we all know by heart, but how many of us realize?—we may rest assured that he is not using poetical verbiage, but is making what was in his eyes a vain endeavour to express the immensity of a person, and the greater immensity of the little child, not any of whose vast estate is as yet mortgaged, but all of it is there for his advantage and his profit, with no inimical Chancellor of the Exchequer to levy taxes and require returns. (PR22:420)
So Wordsworth, who died nine years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, had merely “glimmerings of the truth.” Wordsworth was not reacting against late Victorian science. Rather he was beginning to see the subjective view of the child, first discovered by Rousseau, and according to the PNEU, unknown in the classical past.
But what Wordsworth saw dimly, Mason claimed to see clearly. Why? Because she was indebted to Rousseau? No, because she was indebted to Christ:
We all remember the divine warning, “See that ye despise not one of these little ones”; but the words convey little definite meaning to us. (PR22:421)
She saw clearly because she imagined what it would be like if we took those words of Christ not as a vague platitude or aphorism, but rather as “a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ” (I:12).
Three years after Mason’s death, the PNEU was nearing the completion of “another decade or two” from Mason’s groundbreaking 1911 article. The Parents’ Review of 1926 contained the record of an address by Henrietta Franklin entitled “Miss Mason’s Contribution to Educational Thought”:
It was the gradual infiltration of Miss Mason’s ideas, viz.: that children are born persons; that that precious individuality which marks off one child from another must not be crushed out, but made to operate in his grasp of the universe; that it was the parents’ high responsibility, while preserving his individuality, at the same time to nourish his mind, train his will and instruct his conscience, and so equip him with the means of giving and receiving to the utmost of his capacity—it was the infiltration of such ideas that had changed the old domineering attitude of parents towards their children.
Franklin explained that Mason’s principle was not intended to counteract evolutionary principles; rather, it was intended to change “the old domineering attitude” and protect “the precious individuality” of the child.
Eighteen years after Mason’s death, had the revolution that Mason predicted been achieved? Or had late Victorian science been effectively discredited so that this article of an educational creed was now obsolete? In The Parents’ Review, Elsie Kitching wrote:
Professor Livingstone tells us, in his illuminating book, ‘The Future in Education,’ that we are an uneducated nation. Charlotte Mason believed that every child is born a person, that many are handicapped because we do not recognise that every child has affinities with all the knowledge due to him (to God, to man, to the universe around him); that he has natural powers to deal with it, and that his education must be planned to secure due and continuous supplies for body, mind and spirit, and that ‘every school should educate every scholar in the three sorts of know ledge.’ The P.N.E.U. has a great contribution to offer; the time is ripe and our need is great. (PR52:329)
In 1941, Kitching asserted that the PNEU still had a unique offering to the world: Mason’s theory of education, based first and foremost on the personhood of the child.
After the close of World War II, the world had been reordered in fundamental ways. Had Mason’s first principle lost its luster? Nancy Hatch wrote in The Parents’ Review:
In the Short Synopsis of the Educational Philosophy of Charlotte Mason, the first fundamental principle listed is: ‘Children are born persons.’ This statement stands as a beacon light; Charlotte Mason herself calls it ‘a revolutionary idea’ which she anticipated would be accepted only many years after the initial launching of her educational message. This fundamental idea has not yet been accepted, though it is the keystone of her thought and all her teaching hangs upon this fact. (PR63:283)
Now in the modern era, a Charlotte Mason certified teacher asserted that:
- The principle still shines as a “beacon light”
- The revolutionary idea still has not been accepted
- It is the keystone of her thought
I like this paragraph from Nancy Hatch. It sounds like something I would write.
In 1960, a mother was taking a PNEU Correspondence Study Course. She was well-educated, holding a degree in Modern Languages from London University, and a Teacher’s Diploma from Cambridge. In a letter quoted in The Parents’ Review, she wrote:
I have now completed the first section of Stage I of the Study Course, ‘Children Are Born Persons’. One is struck first by the amazing relevance of the remarks to the present day: teachers as a whole do tend to depreciate their pupils—and not only teachers are guilty, as the welter of pap-food issuing from the children’s press testifies. (PR71:263)
So even in 1960, 56 years after the Synopsis, the first principle was still seen as relevant. Teachers would still “depreciate their pupils.”
In 1984, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s momentous For the Children’s Sake was published. A 1985 review by Charlotte Mason Teacher Doreen Russo heartily endorsed Macaulay’s book:
The title of Mrs Macaulay’s book means much to those of us who trained at Charlotte Mason’s College in Ambleside. FOR THE CHILDREN’S SAKE was our motto, and the book’s subtitle Foundations of Education for Home and School was what our training was all about: the interpretation of education as enveloping the whole of a child’s daily life; the environment and the atmosphere in which he grew; an educational programme which would nourish his mind to the full, encourage his natural interest and curiosity and NOT stifle his inborn wish to learn nor his individuality, and would above all respect him as a person from his very birth. We set out to teach in PNEU schools, homes and classrooms armed with this philosophy and provided with programmes of work to guide us.
In her book Mrs Macaulay most ably reiterates and assesses Charlotte Mason’s ideas — and questions why they are not more widely known today — not as one professionally trained in the system, but as a parent who witnessed an “indescribable” and “electrifying change” in two of her young children after they joined a small PNEU school where, as she says, “true education was going on” from which they came home “glowing with life and interest.., their eyes bright and their minds alert.” Thereafter she studied, tested and applied Charlotte Mason’s principles in the bringing up of her own four children and has spread this philosophy among her contacts in Switzerland, the USA and elsewhere. As she states in the initial acknowledgements, her book was “lived first and then written.” Like Charlotte Mason she realizes that the basis of a wholesome approach to life with children — as parent or teacher — is an appreciation of them as people. Looking at today’s world she sees all too often that children have become “the chattels of adults”, their worth expressed “in terms of dollars and cents”, the sole purpose of their education being seemingly “to fit them for the highest paid job possible.” (PR 1985)
When this venerable teacher, who had experienced the Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside, read Macaulay’s book, she at once sensed that Macaulay had understood the true meaning of Mason’s ideas. She wrote, “Like Charlotte Mason she realizes that the basis of a wholesome approach to life with children. . . is an appreciation of them as people.”
Macaulay described that appreciation in For the Children’s Sake, in the chapter entitled “Children Are Born Persons”:
This first proposition of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy may seem merely a statement of the obvious. But I want to emphasize that it is not some minor element of a greater truth. It is a central truth in its own right, and if we ignore it, great sorrow and malpractice can result.
Macaulay explained one implication of that “central truth”:
Look well at the child on your knee. In whatever condition you find him, look with reverence. We can only love and serve him and be his friend. We cannot own him. He is not ours.
Macaulay called attention towards a reverence for the child, a reverence not derived from the classical past, but still relevant in the 1980’s.
Fourteen years later, Karen Andreola’s A Charlotte Mason Companion was published. Andreola saw clearly the distinguishing character of Mason’s first principle. She cited it as the key differentiator between Mason’s Gospel-based method of education and the classical education approach revived by Dorothy Sayers:
Children are persons, Charlotte reminds us. They are human beings. A true intellectual life is not achieved by exercising children’s minds as if they were nothing but memory machines. This is where Charlotte’s method is in disagreement with Dorothy Sayers’ strong emphasis on memory work in the early grades. Unlike Dorothy Sayers, Charlotte spent all her grown life with children, observing them and teaching them, always refining and reforming education for the children’s sake. (p. 43)
Andreola found in Mason’s first principle a vital and relevant truth, helping her navigate a path through the educational methods competing for her attention.
A little more than a decade after the publication of Andreola’s book, Tara Schorr wrote an article containing these words:
Upon ﬁrst hearing the foundational principal of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, “Children are born persons,” I couldn’t have been less impressed. It seemed like a statement of the obvious and a waste of paper to bother writing it down. Now, however, it is the lens which I look through to weigh all other thought regarding the education of children. It has taken a grip on my heart and breathes life into my decisions and relationships.
At first glance, the first principle is deceptively simple. And yet it took a grip on Schorr’s heart as it breathed life into her decisions and relationships. Indeed, it became for her “the lens which [she looks] through to weigh all other thought regarding the education of children.” Schorr explained:
So what does this seemingly overt declaration mean and what are its implications? To understand it in its fullness we have to look back at life itself. We were all created in the image of God; and if we were all created in the image of God, then children were as well. Children are born complete, with all of the complexities and potential that they will ever have. While they will grow, mature, and be affected by the people and circumstances around them, the very essence of that eternal being which was knit together in His image is there from the beginning. The ramiﬁcations of this truth are far-reaching and humbling. Children are not ours to make into little displays or products to be used for our utilitarian end or for self-adulation.
Schorr’s description is as vital and relevant as the testimonies we have seen from each preceding decade. Are we close now to seeing the fulfilment of Mason’s vision?
And yet we are told by some that this is really nothing new. We are told that this is what classical education has been saying all along. After all, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). How could anyone really discover something new? How could Mason really have presented something fresh that hadn’t already been articulated by Plato, Aristotle, and all the other classical thinkers before her?
The fact is that some things are new. Solomon wished to see the day of our Lord. That same Lord who said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34, RSV). Jesus really did bring something new into the world. Something that those pre-Christian thinkers could not even dream of.
Charlotte Mason didn’t invent truth. Rather, she took our Lord at His Word. She imagined by faith what would happen if we actually applied Christ’s new commandments – His code of education in the Gospels – to children. It was a revolutionary idea. It was revolutionary in 1911, 1926, 1941, 1952, 1960, 1984, 1998, and 2009. This first principle has not been used up, and Charlotte Mason’s vision has not been fulfilled. Will you allow yourself to be surprised by a “new commandment”? Then embrace it by faith. Believe it to be true. Soon you will find it to be “the lens which [you] look through to weigh all other thought regarding the education of children.” Let it take a grip on your heart. When you breathe in its life, you will find it to be sweet indeed.