The Teaching of Chemistry

The Teaching of Chemistry

Charlotte Mason introduced her philosophy at a time when education in England was in a state of flux. From the early years of the PNEU to the last days of Mason’s life, a tug-of-war was taking place between advocates of science education and advocates of the humanities. Mason’s Parents’ Educational Union went national in 1890; Christopher Stray describes what was happening in English education that decade:

Science teaching had been expanding in the 1890s in response to the generous grants offered by the Department of Science and Art, to the alarm of the (largely classically-educated) senior officials of the Education Office.[1]

That expansion was met with resistance. There were only so many hours in the day, and “Classics continued to fill about 40% of the classroom time of the 13-year-old public schoolboy, rising to about 60% two years later.”[2] In this article, whenever I use the term “public school,” I am using it in the historical British sense, not in the American sense. In England, public schools were independent fee-based institutions that offered the best college preparation in the country. Many of these schools refused to modify their classical curricula to make room for science. Instead, they opted to set up a separate track for science-oriented students:

Some of the more liberal and adventurous schools certainly tried: the introduction of a ‘Modern Side’ at Harrow, set up explicitly to have equal standing with the ‘Classical Side’ of the school, is a notable example.[3]

But old traditions die hard, and by the time of World War I, the neglect of science education had become desperate:

Among the consequences of the wartime situation, as it revealed the weakness of Britain’s industrial base and scientific and technical education, was a growing campaign for educational reconstruction. The debates on education stimulated by the activities of the Neglect of Science Committee in 1916 led to the appointment of a series of official committees (on science 1916; modern languages 1916; English 1919; and Classics 1919). The pro-science campaign was led, among others, by the biologist Lankester and by H.G. Wells. Their manifesto, which appeared in The Times on February 2nd 1916, pointed to the inadequacy of British industrial production in meeting the demand for war material, and identified the continued domination of the public-school curriculum by the humanities, especially Classics, as a major culprit.[4]

Against the backdrop of this unfolding situation, Mason steadfastly refused to favor either science or the humanities in her own curriculum. She believed that all children were entitled to all knowledge. In fact, she explicitly argued against the very specialization symbolized by a “Modern Side” versus a “Classical Side”:

The programme is immense and school life is limited. What we may call the ‘Academic’ solution of the problem is,—teach a boy to know one thing thoroughly, say, Greek or Chemistry or Mathematics, and you give him the key to all knowledge… The plan answers fairly well with the dozen best boys or girls in any school, because these are so keen and intelligent that they forage for themselves in various directions; but it does not answer with the average pupil, and he is coming in for his share of public attention.[5]

Mason’s reference to the “Academic” solution to the problem was no mere rhetorical device. Indeed, it was probably the main reason that the public schools resisted making room for science:

But in most of the schools, for most of the pupils, the learning of Classics meant the ‘grammar grind’ (believed by its supporters, still in a majority in public-school staffs, to make boys into men), followed by the memorising of passages from Horace or Virgil.[6]

Mason, however, was not so concerned about making “boys into men,” since she believed that the children were born persons. Thus she predicted that generalization would eventually overtake specialization:

Shortly we shall have a new rule,—every school must educate every scholar in the three sorts of knowledge proper to him as a human being.[7]

Those three sorts of knowledge were, for Mason, “Divinity, the Humanities, and Science.”[8] (Today we are more familiar with Mason’s other terminology for this “threefold classification”: “knowledge of God, knowledge of men, and knowledge of the natural world.”[9])

But how was she going to fit three branches of knowledge into her curriculum, when the public schools could only take on two? She utilized two mechanisms. First and foremost, she leveraged the power and efficiency of a new method of instruction. She described this in Towards a Philosophy of Education:

Perceiving the range of knowledge to which children as persons are entitled the questions are, how shall they be induced to take that knowledge, and what can the children of the people learn in the short time they are at school? We have discovered a working answer to these two conundrums. I say discovered, and not invented, for there is only one way of learning, and the intelligent persons who can talk well on many subjects and the expert in one learn in the one way, that is, they read to know.[10]

In the pages that follow, she elaborated how the synergy of living books, the habit of attention, and the efficacy of narration lead to the most efficient form of education the world has ever seen.

However, there is a second mechanism that she used to make the three branches of knowledge “fit” into a reasonable curriculum. It is, quite simply, that she limited the scope of each branch. So for example, in the high school years, a public-school student would learn not only Latin but also Greek. Yet Greek never appears in any of Mason’s programmes, even for Form VI (the form for youth ages 17–18). But Mason didn’t only limit the scope of instruction in the classics. She also limited the scope of instruction in science. Helen Wix wrote:

It is also said that the P.U. Schools teach no science; that has never been true, though Miss Mason felt that science very easily could usurp too large a share of the time-table, so that though the programme includes science teaching from Form II upwards, it is not until after the School Certificate has been taken that a girl, who wishes to specialise, spends more than two or two and a half hours a week on science.[11]

Mason herself explained her view of the appropriate scope of science instruction in this revealing line from Towards a Philosophy of Education:

Every youth should know some thing of the flowers of the field, the birds of the air, the stars in their courses, the innumerable phenomena that come under general observation; he should have some knowledge of physics, though chemistry perhaps should be reserved for those who have a vocation that way.[12]

The PNEU programmes for the upper forms reflected this stance on chemistry. In Charlotte Mason’s programmes, Forms V and VI correspond to American high school — ages 15–18. In the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection, we have the Form V and VI programmes numbered 115 to 127, which correspond to the years 1929 to 1933. Three science sections are included in these programmes:

  • General Science
  • Biology, Botany, Physiology, etc.
  • Astronomy

In the General Science section, no chemistry texts are listed in the programmes we have. The closest is a text called Elements of Natural Science, Part 1, by W. Bernard Smith. However, consistent with Wix’s remarks, this book was explicitly limited to only those students who were preparing for the “Cambridge School Certificate.” Indeed, a review by Nature seems to indicate that the book was designed specifically to prepare for standardized tests:

Part I of the “Elements of Natural Science” includes mechanics, chemistry, heat, properties of matter, light, and sound. With part 2 the course is intended to cover the “general science” syllabuses of School Certificate and Army Entrance Examinations. The treatment of the subject-matter, together with the experiments in illustration, should prove successful in exciting and maintaining the interest of the student.[13]

This text is not assigned after programme 188, so after 1930, no chemistry text appears in the General Science section.

The question I would like to explore in this article is how one should teach high school chemistry in the modern era following the Charlotte Mason method. Based on the approach of Miss Mason herself, perhaps the answer is actually very simple: “Don’t do it.” At least, unless you’re raising a scientist or an engineer.

Of course you might object and point out that Mason implicitly recommended the teaching of chemistry even before high school by her endorsement of Edward Holden’s The Sciences:

“The sciences of astronomy, physics, chemistry, meteorology, and physiography are treated as fully and as deeply as the conditions permit; and the lessons that they teach are enforced by examples taken from familiar and important things.”[14]

The key to resolving this apparent discrepancy is to explore another avenue by which Mason broke down the dichotomy between science and the humanities. Not only did she change the “either-or” to a “both-and”; she also effectively merged science into the humanities. First, she stated that the distinction between science and the humanities is groundless and harmful:

As a matter of fact the teaching of science in our schools has lost much of its educative value through a fatal and quite unnecessary divorce between science and the ‘humanities.’[15]

Next, she explained that the threefold division of knowledge actually falls under a single overarching category:

Matthew Arnold helps us by offering a threefold classification which appeals to common sense—knowledge of God, knowledge of men, and knowledge of the natural world; or, as we should say, Divinity, the Humanities, and Science. But I think we may go further and say that Letters, if not (as I said before) the main content of knowledge, constitute anyway the container—the wrought salver, the exquisite vase, even the alabaster box to hold the ointment.[16]

Mason’s assertion here about “Letters” is reminiscent of a core element of her philosophy, expressed in principle 13 (c) of her 20 principles:

Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.[17]

Mason was convinced that the French had fully grasped this point about science and “Letters”:

The French mind has appreciated the fact that the approach to science as to other subjects should be more or less literary, that the principles which underlie science are at the same time so simple, so profound and so far-reaching that the due setting forth of these provokes what is almost an emotional response; these principles are therefore meet subjects for literary treatment, while the details of their application are so technical and so minute as,—except by way of illustration,—to be unnecessary for school work or for general knowledge.[18]

In this statement, Mason implies that there are three elements in science instruction, which I will label for convenience as follows:

  1. The qualitative. By this I mean “the principles which … are … simple, … profound and … far-reaching.”
  2. The experiential. By this I mean experiments and labs which are used “by way of illustration.”
  3. The quantitative. By this I mean the applied numerical dimension of science, which is the basis of technology. Mason says that this “application [is] so technical and so minute as … to be unnecessary for school work or for general knowledge.”

Although the French understood that the mind best understands scientific knowledge via the “literary form,” Mason grieved that the English for the most part missed this concept:

The French scientists know better; they perceive that as there is an essence of history which is poetry so there is an essence of science to be expressed in exquisite prose. We have a few books of this character in English and we use them in the P.U.S. in conjunction with field work and drawing—a great promoter of enthusiasm for nature.[19]

Nevertheless, Mason did her best to find “living books” in the English language for science instruction. Some examples are found in the General Science section of the high school forms:

  • Scientific Ideas of To-day, by Charles R. Gibson
  • The Mechanism of Nature, by N. da C. Andrade
  • The Nature of the Physical World, by Arthur S. Eddington
  • Science and the Unseen World, by Arthur S. Eddington
  • Discovery, by Sir Richard Gregory
  • From Crystal to Television, by Vyvyan Richards

These living books explored what I refer to as the qualitative elements of science. That doesn’t mean that they were lightweight, easy, or basic. For example, Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World was the book version of a series of lectures he delivered at the University of Edinburgh. Many of these books were thus college-level texts offering sophisticated information and intellectual enrichment. However, they did not give the student experience with quantitative operations such as calculating molarity, molality, or equilibrium.

In the earlier forms, Holden’s The Sciences also falls into this category. It covers chemistry in a sense, but only in the qualitative and the experiential dimensions. Mason reiterated her view that these are the two appropriate dimensions of science for general schooling when she discussed Sir Richard Gregory’s address to the Education Science Section of the British Association:

The only sound method of teaching science is to afford a due combination of field or laboratory work, with such literary comments and amplifications as the subject affords.[20]

The key to understanding Mason’s focus on the qualitative and experiential is to recognize her focus on ideas. “The mind feeds on ideas,”[21] she insisted, and our priority is to feed our students. One way to know whether the student has received ideas is by his or her response. Mason was adamant on this point:

Where science does not teach a child to wonder and admire it has perhaps no educative value.[22]

The experience of nature and of science in action, along with the explanation of scientific principles in fine literary form, is what awakens wonder and admiration. Living ideas, according to Mason, cannot be drawn from dry scientific formulae:

The French Academy was founded to advance Science and Art, a fact which may account for the charming lucidity and the exquisite prose of many French books on scientific subjects. The mind is a crucible which brings enormous power to act on what is put into it but has no power to distil from sand and sawdust the pure essence of ideas.[23]

The mind feeds on ideas; it is sustained on ideas; but these ideas are not found in sawdust. The stakes are high, because the child’s resistance to sawdust can manifest itself as a resistance to science education:

Then, boys (and girls too) offer a resisting medium of extraordinary density. Every boy ‘resists in a mulish way’ attempts to teach him, not only dead languages and higher mathematics, but literature and science and every subject the master labours at; with the average boy a gallon of teaching produces scarce a gill of learning, and what is the master to do? It is something to know, however, that behind all this ‘mulishness’ there is avidity for knowledge, not so much for the right sort (every sort is the right sort), but put in the right way, and we cannot say that every way is the right way.[24]

The conclusion would seem clear. The teaching of chemistry the Charlotte Mason way involves the use of living books to convey living ideas which are narrated and assimilated by the student. Scientific principles are also demonstrated or discovered via experiences or experiments. This approach is necessary to overcome resistance to learning, to awaken wonder and admiration, and to feed the mind of the child. This approach covers the qualitative and experiential dimensions of science.

But what about the quantitative? Must it be excluded from a Charlotte Mason education?

Mason gives a glimmer of hope when she describes physics, a discipline which gets quantitative pretty fast:

I have so far urged that knowledge is necessary to men, and that, in the initial stages, it must be conveyed through a literary medium, whether it be knowledge of physics or of Letters, because there would seem to be some inherent quality in mind which prepares it to respond to this form of appeal and no other. I say in the initial stages, because possibly, when the mind becomes conversant with knowledge of a given type, it unconsciously translates the driest formulæ into living speech; perhaps it is for some such reason that mathematics seem to fall outside this rule of literary presentation; mathematics, like music, is a speech in itself, a speech irrefragibly logical, of exquisite clarity, meeting the requirements of mind.[25]

The hope for the educator, and for the learner, is that having once begun with the literary form, it may be possible to continue in the mathematical form. A child who is taught mathematics in a living way, and has learned to wonder and admire in the face of mathematics, may also find living ideas in the quantitative expression of science. In fact, it is not just a hope. It is a reality that has proven itself in the life of many women and men who have found transcendent beauty in the union of mathematics and scientific principle.

Mason’s choice of words is important, however: “in the initial stages, it must be conveyed through a literary medium.” It is important to resist the temptation to follow the mold of most of the educational systems employed today which rush to the quantitative and skip over the ideas. Children must find wonder and awe in the concepts of physics before they will desire to model them mathematically. And children must fall in love with chemistry before they will want to explore it analytically.

Many resources are available which apply the literary and living style to the teaching of chemistry. A notable example is the set of resources from Sabbath Mood Homeschool. Perhaps in the years since Mason’s day the English-speaking world has caught up with the French in the development of literary books about science!

But a question remains which I feel must be faced. Is it still true today that the quantitative dimension of science instruction is only for the specialist? Should we still hold to Mason’s determination that “the details of [mathematical] application are so technical and so minute as … to be unnecessary for school work or for general knowledge”? Should the fullness of “chemistry perhaps … be reserved for those who have a vocation that way”?

To answer this question, we must consider what it means to apply an authentic interpretation of Charlotte Mason in our current context. Did Miss Mason give us principles or recipes? Did she give us tools to reason with, or rules to conform to? If the latter, then the answer is simply “No.” Stoichiometry, solution chemistry, pH calculations, thermochemistry, chemical equilibrium, and redox reactions are off the table. They are not to be served at this banquet.

But that is not how I take the Charlotte Mason method. I take it as a set of principles and not a set of recipes. I believe that the technical elements of chemistry that did not seem so relevant in Mason’s day are quite relevant today. The knowledge is useful.

Even that gives me pause, however. Knowledge is not only good for its uses. Knowledge is inherently good. Indeed, “the child’s mind is … a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge.”[26] That’s all knowledge, not only small knowledge. Not only easy knowledge. Not only common knowledge. Why all knowledge? Because it all comes from God. Who created the properties of solutions, thermodynamics, and equilibrium? When we model these concepts mathematically and then observe them in the real world, we are admiring the handiwork of the greatest Engineer of all time.

When my daughter reached her senior year in high school, I had a decision to make. She was not going to have a STEM major in college. She was not majoring in science. She had read many living books on science. She had experienced awe and wonder. So perhaps we were done.

But I didn’t think so. I made a decision to take another journey in a mountainous land, a land where…

… the air is very fine and health-giving, though some people find it too rare for their breathing. It differs from most mountainous countries in this, that you cannot lose your way, and that every step taken is on firm ground. People who seek their work or play in this principality find themselves braced by effort and satisfied with truth.[27]

I made every effort to teach the fullness of chemistry in a living way, to teach it like math. Every step was firm as we calculated molarity, molality, and pH.

Towards the end of her senior year, we found ourselves embroiled in the complex process of counting and balancing electrons in redox reactions. The inutility of it all was almost humorous. Would she ever need this skill again? Surely not. Was it a waste of time? Surely not. I stared at the face of what is practical and what is useful and I laughed out loud. You see, we were at the banquet table. And counting electrons was part of the feast. Those delightful moments are now delightful memories that no one will ever be able to take away.


[1] Stray, C. The Living Word, p. 21.
[2] Ibid., p. 28.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., p. 49.
[5] Mason, C. Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 254.
[6] Stray, op. cit., pp. 28–29.
[7] Mason, op. cit.
[8] Ibid., p. 316.
[9] Ibid., pp. 315–316.
[10] Ibid., p. 14.
[11] The Parents’ Review, vol. 54, p. 319.
[12] Ibid., p. 289.
[13] Nature, vol. CIX, p. 643.
[14] Mason, C. Home Education, p. 267.
[15] Mason, C. Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 223.
[16] Ibid., pp. 315–316.
[17] Ibid., p. xxx.
[18] Ibid., pp. 218–219.
[19] Ibid., p. 275.
[20] Ibid., p. 223.
[21] Ibid., p. xxix.
[22] Ibid., p. 224.
[23] Ibid., pp. 256–257.
[24] Ibid. p. 253.
[25] Ibid. pp. 333–334.
[26] Ibid., p. xxx.
[27] Mason, C. Ourselves, Book I, p. 38.

4 Replies to “The Teaching of Chemistry”

  1. Thankyou Art for this article. For children to be able to engage in conversations outside their specialisation is another aspect of what we are aiming for in a CM education. Charlotte recalled the conversation where there was no common ground until the topic of leather work came up. I believe chemistry falls into this category to enable our chidren to speak into and listen into many diverse conversations as part of a magnanimous humanity.

  2. A very well explained article, Art. Thank you for preparing it. I am grieved when I learn of homeschoolers who only read living science books and don’t do any experiments, but you have rightly pointed out that we must include even another facet. Mathematics is the language of science, and that language reveals the natural laws of the word – God’s laws, His world. There is beauty in the math, in seeing how perfectly things work.

    I have noticed a trend in our day, however. Chemistry is the given, and physics is the one people skip. I often wonder if physics is cut *because* of the math. Physics is all around us, so is chemistry, for that matter, so neither should be skipped anymore than we would skip biology. Charlotte Mason wanted the whole feast to be provided to every child, and it would be disappointing for a student to miss what they can of the sciences because they (or their parents) fear the math. Thus, I think it’s important that we remember that students can learn much without the math if necessary. In his book, For the Love of Physics, Walter Lewin explains the math so well that even a student who cannot do it can see its beauty.

    Still, you make an essential point. Parents and teachers should challenge each student to do what he can. The qualitative, experiential, and quantitative are all part of the package. This job we have signed up for can be challenging at times. I have listened to a mom cry at the thought of doing handicrafts with her child. I have just about cried at the thought of teaching my children to sing! Each of these things, handicrafts, singing, math, and much more, are part of this broad feast we wish to give our children. We must resolve to provide all we can.

    Thank you for challenging parents in this area, Art. Our kids are often up to a greater challenge than we suspect. (And maybe so are we.)

    1. Nicole,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Your observation that “Charlotte Mason wanted the whole feast to be provided to every child” goes to the heart of what I was contemplating in this article. It is interesting that contemporary parents tend to forego physics in favor of chemistry, whereas Charlotte Mason encouraged the opposite: “Every youth … should have some knowledge of physics, though chemistry perhaps should be reserved for those who have a vocation that way.” I agree with you that math should not frighten anyone away from physics. Richele Baburina has written a great series of articles which showcase this point.

      Given that Mason seemed ambivalent about chemistry (as in the quote above) and even more so about the quantitative aspect of science (“the details of [the] application [of scientific] are so technical and so minute as,—except by way of illustration,—to be unnecessary for school work or for general knowledge”), I felt the need in this article to raise the question of whether the feast is static, or whether the essential elements of the feast might vary across time and place.

      In Mason’s day, three foreign languages were deemed essential to the feast. No doubt it is challenging to cover the quantitative aspects of chemistry (and physics), but it may be even harder to learn and teach three foreign languages. Perhaps contemporary Charlotte Mason educators can take heart in the fact that they are (usually) only expected to teach French (or Spanish). The time they would have had to spend on German and Italian is (perhaps) now available for digging deeper into chemistry.


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