Towards an Authentic Interpretation

Towards an Authentic Interpretation

At Charlotte Mason Poetry, one of our goals is to promote an authentic interpretation of Charlotte Mason’s writings. Why is that important? Is it because we have a slavish loyalty to a particular historical figure, a loyalty bordering on idolatry? Is it because we believe that this one person alone in history has received the mantle of educational prophecy, and alone has the right to speak to us today? Or is some other motivation involved?

To answer the question, we must turn to Mason’s own explanation of why she developed her theory of education. She tells us early on, in her first articulation of her theory of education in 1886:

… my sense of this danger is my only reason for venturing to invite you to listen to the little I have to say upon the subject of education. (Mason, 1886, p. 28)

What is “this danger” that invites Mason’s original readers—and her readers of today—to listen to what she has to say “upon the subject of education”?

… the threatening danger to that confessed dependence upon and allegiance to Almighty God which we recognize as religion—not the wickedness, but the goodness of a school which refuses to admit any such dependence and allegiance. (Mason, 1886, p. 28)

Mason’s concern was that schools of thought with no Christian allegiance might achieve greater levels of “goodness” than schools of thought with professed Christian commitment. But how could that even be possible, if goodness is properly defined as conformance to God’s laws? The answer is not in the definition of goodness, nor even in the nature of God’s laws, but rather in the means of revelation of God’s laws:

… well-intended efforts come to little if they are not carried on in obedience to divine laws, to be read in many cases, not in the Bible, but in the facts of life. (Mason, 1886, p. 27)

Mason sought to develop a theory of education that conforms to divine law in every way. However, she believed that divine law was to be discerned not only from sacred Scripture, but also from the facts of life, and as such, should be derived from observation—both formal observation (the scientific method) and informal observation (trial and error and experimentation). Mason did not differentiate between the laws discerned from these various sources, as if some laws were “sacred” and others were “secular.” Rather, all such laws are divine laws:

… the child cannot blow soap bubbles or think his flitting thoughts otherwise than in obedience to divine laws; that all safety, progress, and success in life come of obedience to law, to the laws of mental, moral, or physical science, or of that spiritual science which the Bible unfolds; that it is possible to ascertain laws and keep laws without recognizing the Lawgiver, and that those who do ascertain and keep any divine law inherit the blessing due to obedience… (Mason, 1886, p. 28)

Mason claimed that she developed a theory of education that conforms to divine law, that is, the way things are. And unlike the theories of man, divine law never changes. To the extent to which Mason succeeded in her aim, her method is as relevant today as it was a century ago. And if we wish to benefit from the results of her method, we must seek to understand and apply it authentically.

But what is an authentic interpretation? Or more specifically, if a particular educational practice is to be considered, how can we determine whether or not it conforms with the “Mason method”? The quest for an authentic interpretation begins with the recognition that in Mason’s twenty principles, she has summarized a method of education that conforms with divine law. With that in view, I propose the following sequence of questions to evaluate the fitness of any particular practice within the Mason paradigm:

  1. Does the practice have a logical connection to the twenty principles, Mason’s “short synopsis” of her educational philosophy?

  2. Is the practice consistent with Mason’s writings, whether in her six educational volumes, her six poetry volumes, her Scriptural meditations, and her articles in The Parents’ Review?

  3. Is the practice reflected in the programmes and procedures of the PNEU and the Parents’ Review Schools?

  4. Is the practice consistent with the thought expressed by other writers in The Parent’s Review during Mason’s lifetime?

  5. Is the practice consistent with the thought expressed by Mason’s close associates, such as Henrietta Franklin, Elsie Kitching, and H.W. Household, in the years after Mason’s death?

  6. Is the practice consistent with the thought expressed by other advocates of Mason’s philosophy who wrote in the years after Mason’s death, whether in The Parents’ Review, or more recently, in other online and printed publications about Mason’s method?

I argue that a practice affirmed by questions 4-6 but not affirmed by questions 1-3 cannot lay claim to being an authentic interpretation of Mason’s method. On the other hand, a practice affirmed by questions 1-3 but not affirmed by questions 4-6 may fairly be considered an authentic Mason practice.

A case study will help to illustrate this heuristic. Consider the question: should children use natural objects such as beans and buttons in arithmetic lessons? Or should they use specially-crafted objects with pure geometric shapes designed specifically for math lessons? Let us walk through my proposed series of questions:

1. Does the practice have a logical connection to the twenty principles, Mason’s “short synopsis” of her educational philosophy?

Mason’s sixth principle reads:

When we say that “education is an atmosphere,” we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the ‘child’s’ level. (Mason, 1925/1989f, p. xxix)

When a child uses beans and buttons, he or she is benefiting from “the educational value of his natural home atmosphere.” On the other hand, if we deprecate beans and buttons because of the geometric “imperfection” of their shapes, we “bring down his world to the ‘child’s’ level.” The result of such an atmosphere is that “it stultifies a child.”

Does math reside only in the pure forms of abstract thought? Does the nitty-gritty world of imprecision and superficial asymmetry somehow obscure the vividness of mathematical truth? Or rather, do we live in a world that naturally expresses math at every turn? And do we approach the mind of God when we see mathematical law operating in the most basic of everyday activities?

These are not questions that pertain to slavish loyalty to Mason’s particular classroom practices. These are questions that pertain to education that conforms to divine law.

2. Is the practice consistent with Mason’s writings, whether in her six educational volumes, her six poetry volumes, her Scriptural meditations, and her articles in The Parents’ Review?

Mason writes in Home Education:

A bag of beans, counters, or buttons should be used in all the early arithmetic lessons, and the child should be able to work with these freely, and even to add, subtract, multiply, and divide mentally, without the aid of buttons or beans, before he is set to “do sums” on his slate. (Mason, 1886, p. 146)

We see from our answer to the first question what we would expect from Mason’s writings as a confirmation which flows logically from the principles, principles that conform to divine law, the way things are.

And what, after all, is the purpose of math instruction? Is it to generate the most efficient human calculators? Mason writes:

We remember how instructive and impressive Ruskin is on the thesis that ‘two and two make four’ and cannot by any possibility that the universe affords be made to make five or three. From this point of view, of immutable law, children should approach Mathematics; they should see how impressive is Euclid’s ‘Which is absurd,’ just as absurd as would be the statements of a man who said that his apples always fell upwards, and for the same reason. The behaviour of figures and lines is like the fall of an apple, fixed by immutable laws, and it is a great thing to begin to see these laws even in their lowliest application. The child whose approaches to Arithmetic are so many discoveries of the laws which regulate number will not divide fifteen pence among five people and give them each sixpence or ninepence; ‘which is absurd’ will convict him, and in time he will perceive that ‘answers’ are not purely arbitrary but are to be come at by a little boy’s reason. Mathematics are delightful to the mind of man which revels in the perception of law, which may even go forth guessing at a new law until it discover that law; but not every boy can be a champion prize-fighter, nor can every boy ‘stand up’ to Mathematics. (Mason, 1925/1989f, p. 152)

Not every child will become a “prize-fighter” mathematician. But every child should learn that the universe is “fixed by immutable laws.” Do we need artificial devices to teach the immutability of natural laws? I am sure that we could find technology that would help us better remember the death and resurrection of Christ. But we use bread and wine, for those are the natural elements He chose when He said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

3. Is the practice reflected in the programmes and procedures of the PNEU and the Parents’ Review Schools?

We assume that the books and resources identified in the PNEU programmes during Mason’s lifetime faithfully reflect her philosophy and ideas. In  Programme 92 (for January to March of 1922), we find the following listed for Form 1B:

Teachers should use The Teaching of Mathematics to Young Children, by I. Stephens (PNEU Office 6d.).

Pendlebury, Year I., * Term I., to be worked with dominoes, beans, etc. Rapid mental work. (PNEU, 1922)

Both of the prescribed resources give specific guidance regarding manipulatives. In the inside cover of Pendlebury’s New Concrete Arithmetic we read:

No elaborate and costly apparatus is necessary for the working of the scheme (Pendlebury, 1914)

Stephens is even more explicit, and ties her method to principle:

The whole use of the special apparatus is omitted. The use of complicated apparatus specially designed to teach the child certain facts about numbers tends to form in his mind an iron connection between the facts and the apparatus; he is unable to separate them or to realise that the facts are general.  We therefore think it advisable, where apparatus is necessary, to use match sticks, buttons, pencils, everyday articles, and a sufficient number of them. (Stephens, 1911, p. 6)

So we find in the programmes exactly what we would expect if Mason were acting on the basis of principle. She selected texts that conform with her fundamental axiom to “take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere.”

4. Is the practice consistent with the thought expressed by other writers in The Parent’s Review during Mason’s lifetime?

If Mason’s guidance regarding manipulatives was based on principle, then we should expect to see this guidance reflected at least somewhere in the writings of other authors in The Parent’s Review. We would not expect to find unanimity, however, given that many viewpoints are expressed in The Parent’s Review, some of which go as far as to contradict some of the basic principles held today by nearly all Charlotte Mason educators. Nevertheless, we expect Mason’s ideas to have permeated at least some of the other PNEU thinkers, and we find exactly this phenomenon in the case of math manipulatives:

I believe that in many infant schools and kindergartens domino cards are used; but each child should be allowed his own counters—buttons or beans would do—for the child must arrive at abstract ideas of numbers through objects which he sees and handles. (Hart Davis, 1890, p. 213)

A later writer in The Parent’s Review again provides a principle-based explanation of the Mason method:

All members of the P.N.E.U. are well aware that in the first instance we get all our knowledge through the senses; now, Mental Arithmetic is no exception to that rule.

The child will have to learn the names of numbers, but the names of the numbers must not be divorced from the things that are numbered, therefore let him count with real things, buttons, bricks, anything you like; but do not teach him to count high numbers. (Pridham, 1897, p. 133)

Pridham’s reference to the idea of “real things” echoes Mason’s sixth principle and the natural home atmosphere. Because God created a physical universe governed by math, we find the true meaning of math in connection with real things. We do not, like Plato, point our students to idyllic forms that exist only in a distant heavenly realm. Rather, we point to the nitty-gritty world around us, where physical objects may appear misshapen and yet they too are connected to the mathematical laws set in place by the God who is here.

We have seen that questions 1-4 offer an answer to a question about math instruction, an answer that is based on principle and that flows logically from Mason’s core ideas. Approaching the question in this manner is not a kind of crass legalism, but rather an effort to sincerely understand what a Charlotte Mason education is. It is the approach we use to understand what is meant by living books, narration, and dictation. To say that we can study Mason’s writings in this way to learn about narration but not about math is arbitrary.

5. Is the practice consistent with the thought expressed by Mason’s close associates, such as Henrietta Franklin, Elsie Kitching, and H.W. Household, in the years after Mason’s death?

6. Is the practice consistent with the thought expressed by other advocates of Mason’s philosophy who wrote in the years after Mason’s death, whether in The Parents’ Review, or more recently, in other online and printed publications about Mason’s method?

Having answered questions 1-4, the answers to questions 5-6 now seem extraneous at best and irrelevant at worst. We have developed a solid case for the nature of manipulatives for the instruction of math in a Charlotte Mason paradigm. What evidence from questions 5 and 6 could overturn it?

One may respond by saying that new discoveries have come to light since Mason’s death, and that if Mason were alive today, she would embrace those discoveries and revise her method. But to evaluate such claims it is so important to return to our starting point: the synopsis of an educational method that conforms to divine laws. It would be a rare scientific discovery indeed that would override this principle:

… we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the ‘child’s’ level. (Mason, 1925/1989f, p. xxix)

That is why an authentic interpretation of Mason’s writings is so important. We can only imagine what Mason would do with modern research if we have a very clear understanding of Mason’s twenty principles and her other concepts. If we have misinterpreted these in any way, then we risk grossly misunderstanding what Mason would do with modern research.

The debate about an authentic interpretation of the Charlotte Mason paradigm is a debate about principles. It is not to be seen as a conflict between Mason idolaters, who are fixated on the past, and Mason enthusiasts, who keep to the spirit of Mason and defend and endorse whatever seems right in their own eyes. Such a debate is a caricature. Mason proposed a complete method of education that conforms to divine law. That method is fully documented and available for our consideration. Perhaps Mason got it wrong. If anyone thinks they’ve got something better, they are invited to propose and promulgate it. But they are not invited to attach it to Mason’s name.

References

Hart Davis, M. (1890). First lesson In arithmetic. In The Parents’ Review, volume 1 (pp. 210-214). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Mason, C. (1886). Home education. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co.

Mason, C. (1989f). A philosophy of education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1925)

Pendlebury, C. (1914). Pendlebury’s new concrete arithmetic, first year. London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd.

PNEU (1922). Programme 92. London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Pridham, A. (1897). Mental arithmetic. In The Parents’ Review, volume 8 (pp. 112-118). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Stephens, I. (1911). The teaching of mathematics to young children. London: Wyman & Sons.

10 Replies to “Towards an Authentic Interpretation”

  1. Art,
    Thank you for so eloquently writing the words that some of us have thought, but not able to concisely transcribe.
    Blessings.

  2. “If anyone thinks they’ve got something better, they are invited to propose and promulgate it. But they are not invited to attach it to Mason’s name.” Art, this last argument sums up the current debate so precisely. It is not that we are arrogant and think that a child can only learn this way. It is that if we try to hybridize CM we run the risk of doing what the London PNEU did under Lady Isabel and that Charlotte opposed so vehemently, even to the point of seeking legal action. Is it because we are dealing with education and experts are not willing to pass on the work as is, but want to make a name for themselves and attach something else to it? Thanks, Brother.

  3. Thank you so much for putting into words several things that many of us adhere to intuitively in our research but have never broken down into a clear formula.

    I also very much appreciate your comment “If we have misinterpreted these in any way, then we risk grossly misunderstanding what Mason would do with modern research.” I think this applies in every subject, but I personally see it most often with regards to the study of science. Our children are still persons and we cannot toss out Mason’s words because there is “more to learn today.”

    Thank you again, for so clearly explicating this idea.

  4. I would like to echo the words of Nicole. “Thank you so much for putting into words several things that many of us adhere to intuitively in our research but have never broken down into a clear formula.” I too have had a rough rubric in my mind, and I like seeing it flushed out here.

    I would also like to propose a potential 7th item in the sequence. This is a rough draft.

    7. Is there evidence of a contrary practice in the main stream educational practices of Charlotte Mason’s times?

    For example, I’m fascinated by the timing of Adolf Sonnenschein’s introduction of the ‘Arithmometer’ in the late 19th century. This was very real to Miss Mason, and she was seeing what was happening in math in the schools of her time. I appreciate being led to the quote in which she writes about this in Volume 1.

    1. Dawn,

      Thank you for this excellent insight. I think this is a solid contribution. If I’ve understood your point correctly, I would say this question would go higher on the list than just #7.

      Blessings,
      Art

      1. Art,

        I appreciate your comment. Let me try to flush out my thought. We know Miss Mason’s ideas are often pushing back against ideas and practices prevalent in her culture or being presented by her peers. I find, at times, I can better understand what Miss Mason is saying by understanding the idea she is countering. She often gives us this information directly in her writings, and I have learned I have to be a careful reader and researcher to sometimes catch the depth at which she is writing. She can use a name which means nothing to me, but once I research the person, I grow in understanding.

        For example, how was math being taught in the schools in the late 19th century and early 20th century and to what degree were her writings influenced by what she saw and with what she either agreed or disagreed being done in the average classroom? With the specific question of “should children use natural objects such as beans and buttons in arithmetic lessons?” we can point to Adolf Sonnenschein’s Arithmometer and most likely Maria Montessori for examples of math practices during her time against which she was potentially writing.

        1. Dawn,

          Thank you for this helpful insight. I think it is important to understand Mason’s context, and in particular what educational tools and techniques she was aware of but had rejected. The rule would probably be inserted between #3 and #4 in my proposed heuristic, and it would bring out the notion that we cannot claim Mason would adopt a particular discovery or practice if she were alive today if that very same discovery or practice had been rejected by Mason in her own day.

          Respectfully,
          Art

  5. I am wrestling with this issue of what Mason would do with current research. It seems logical that one should tread softly when considering this issue in order to respect Mason and not push our own assumptions on someone who is not here to speak for herself. The litmus test you have presented here has given me food for thought. Here are some thoughts–not claims of truth, but just little inklings that are not fully formed in my mind yet. First is the fact that Mason had parents educating themselves on the current (in her day) research on how children learn math. Has the research changed significantly since then? I would have to spend some time comparing the book she was having parents read with current meta-analyses to answer that question. What I do know is that Mason learned the Pestalozzian model at the Ho and Co. Pestalozzi was a huge influence in bringing education out of the classical model and towards a progressive one. But I consider him to be sort-of like the “Beethoven” of educational theorists (somewhere in between the classical and romantic), in that he still had one foot in the traditional world as he was working out his own theories based on his observation of children. He started turning the ship around, but it was a big ship! As I think about the evolution of educational practice, I see Mason as continuing the work of Pestalozzi regarding math; she continued the turning of the ship, but I am not quite sure she finished turning it completely around during her lifetime. (Heresy, I know.) I do believe she would have paid attention to current research, especially when thousands upon thousands of well-conducted studies point in the same direction, and I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that it would have had some influence on her own practice. The question for me is how, and I think this blog gives some direction there. I would also propose that good research gives us a better understanding of some facets of the child’s personhood. For me, it is part of the discussion on how to translate Mason’s practices into the 21st century, which we all have to do, without violating any of the 20 principles. It is not an easy task, and, at least for me, the answers are not simple. The translation piece is where most of the disagreements arise, but I really think this conversation is crucial and I am very glad it is happening. I feel that there is a continuum of thought within the Mason community between two opposing ideas: 1) Just do exactly what Mason did in exactly the way she did it, and 2) The specific methods do not matter as long as you are true to the principles. Neither of those extremes seems logical to me as we work towards translation. And while solid research should probably play some role in how we translate, what do we do with a scientific community that does not recognize the spiritual side? I’m sorry if I’m rambling here. It’s just that this has been on my mind for a little while. Thanks for writing something that may help me on my way!

    1. Jen,

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my article. I think a question that must be asked in this discussion is whether a Charlotte Mason education is a means for developing an educational method, or whether it is itself an educational method. In other words, is it fundamentally a set of criteria (a methodology), or is it a set of guidelines (a method). This is a vital question for those of us in the Charlotte Mason community today.

      Some say that Mason was squarely embedded in the classical tradition of education, and as such, her fundamental orientation was to elucidate that tradition, rather than to firmly break from it. If that is the case, then it would seem that a Charlotte Mason educator today would be more committed to the classical tradition than to Mason’s own unique contributions (if any are even recognized to be unique). To be authentically CM would mean to maintain primary allegiance to that classical tradition, and to embrace whatever is found to be most true to that kind of education, whether new or old.

      Others say that Mason was squarely embedded in an ongoing process of reform, and as such, her fundamental orientation was to embrace whatever is new, rather than to point to timeless and unchanging truths. If that is the case, then it would seem that a Charlotte Mason educator today would be more committed to the latest discoveries of science and theology than to Mason’s own (perhaps dated) conclusions. To be authentically CM would mean to maintain primary allegiance to contemporary thought, and to embrace whatever is found to be most true to the latest research.

      In my view, however, neither paradigm reflects the reality of Mason’s self-understanding. I think the inescapable conclusion from the complete set of her lifetime of writings is that she believed she had discovered a method and not a methodology. She believed she had discovered a set of timeless and unchanging truths from which she could derive a stable and reliable set of principles and practices. And those principles and practices do not change whether one looks more closely at the past (to classical ideas) or at the present (to the latest scientific discoveries).

      At this point it is important to emphasize that I am talking about the method of education, not the content of what is studied. While Mason included some classics in her curriculum, that does not make her classical. Similarly, she could continually revise her selection of science texts without surrendering her commitment to certain unchanging truths. So a CM educator can study quarks and Java even though neither are found in any of the historical PNEU programmes.

      What were the timeless and unchanging truths that Mason believed she discovered? That children are born persons. (It is important to note that her primary frame of reference for this principle was the child’s estate as articulated by Christ. It is primarily a theological commitment, rather than a physiological one.) That knowledge is formed through narration. That the Holy Spirit is the supreme educator. And that we learn through the real world, and not through artificial environments.

      What if contemporary scientific research were to cast doubt on any of these principles? What if science were to show that children are incomplete persons after all? Or that narration isn’t really what forms knowledge? Or that understanding is developed more rapidly from artificially developed environments and manipulatives than from the real world? What if the latest biblical scholarship were to determine that the Holy Spirit does not, in fact, assist parents in a grammar lesson?

      What then? Does that mean that the authentic CM educator would follow the “methodology” and abandon these discredited principles in the spirit of following the CM way? Or would the research rather cast doubt on the CM method as a whole? Wouldn’t the research rather lead the authentic student to conclude that Mason got it wrong, and that it was time for a new reformer to articulate a new method and a new way, this time in harmony with what science and theology are really saying?

      When it comes to the question of math, artificial manipulatives were available in Mason’s day. She evaluated them and found them lacking. She pointed to special and general revelation, and in harmony with her seventh principle, she said that children should learn in the real world, from real objects, and not in an artificial child-friendly environment. But if research shows that she was wrong, and that Montessori was right, then let us all transfer our allegiance to the dottoressa. That would be better than claiming that the CM way is to import ideas from Montessori.

      Scientists may conclude that nature study is not really the right way to prepare a child for life. Science may show that the Holy Spirit is not to be found in the classroom. Science may show that living books are a myth and that no book is really alive. But if those things happen, then science has proven that CM was wrong. And the best thing to do would be to leave her work in the Armitt Museum and move on to something that is true.

      But science has tried to prove many things. For example, it has tried to prove that a man who was dead for three days cannot rise to life. Science meets its match when it faces the Person who created science. And that is the same Person who said, “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Those words are a rock upon which one may build a theory of education that can withstand the winds of change.

      Respectfully,
      Art

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