Was Charlotte Mason a CM Purist?

Was Charlotte Mason a CM Purist?

The first definition that Webster gives for pure is “unmixed with any other matter.” Several secondary definitions are like it: “being thus and no other”; “containing nothing that does not properly belong.” A word that means the opposite of pure in this sense would be hybrid: “something heterogeneous in origin or composition” (Merriam-Webster, 2003).

What happens when we apply these terms to the Charlotte Mason method? Mason herself characterizes the term method as follows:

Method implies two things—a way to an end, and step-by-step progress in that way. Further, the following of a method implies an idea, a mental image, of the end or object to be arrived at. (Mason, 1886, p. 5)

When considering a method, let us assume that a purist is a person who thinks that the method should be kept pure. Putting all this together, we can propose the following definition for a Charlotte Mason purist:

A Charlotte Mason purist is someone who desires to preserve the Charlotte Mason method (which consists of an end, a way to an end, and step-by-step progress in that way) unmixed with other elements that do not properly belong and are heterogeneous in origin.

Now we can apply this definition to the title of the article. When we asked the question, “Was Charlotte Mason a CM Purist?” we are asking the following:

Did Charlotte Mason desire to preserve her method (which consists of an end, a way to an end, and step-by-step progress in that way) unmixed with other elements that do not properly belong and are heterogeneous in origin?

I would note a few things about our question:

  • It is an objective question. There is a right and a wrong answer. Either Mason did or she didn’t. We can debate whether I get the answer right—but we can’t debate that there is only one right answer.
  • It is a historical question. The answer to the question is answered exclusively by appeal to historical evidence. It is a statement of fact about the intentions of a historical personage.
  • It is a morally neutral question. It is a statement of fact that in-and-of-itself does nothing to make contemporary educators feel guilty or vindicated, oppressed or empowered.

I would also like to note what a CM Purist is not. First, a CM Purist is not someone who believes that Mason defined once and for all a final and definitive booklist to use in school. As Dr. Benjamin Bernier recently pointed out, Mason stated with regard to her own book list:

… to regard this as a stereotyped list of school-books for young children would be unfair both to authors and publishers, and also to the purchaser; for there are, no doubt, many equally good books in the market at the present time, and new works on similar lines are constantly issuing from the press. (Mason, 1906a, p. 353)

Secondly, a CM Purist is not someone who defined a system, characterized by Mason in this way:

System—the observing of rules until the habit of doing certain things, of behaving in certain ways, is confirmed, and, therefore, the art is acquired… (Mason, 1886, p. 6)

So when we speak of the CM Purist, we are not speaking of a “stereotyped list of school-books” or “the observing of rules.” That being said, we find that Mason’s 1886 differentiation between method and system was not meant by her to be an absolute prohibition by Mason of ever using the term system in conjunction with her philosophy. Indeed, we find such a use of this term by Mason 26 years later:

“It is our system that counts,” says Emerson, “not the single word or unsupported action”; and I would pray all members of the P.N.E.U. to make a thoughtful, earnest and continuous study of a system which meets the perplexities and the aspirations of our age, and which should issue in a generation of men and women, who shall be indeed, beings of large discourse, looking before and after.

… 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. (Mason, 1912, p. 811)

Presumably when Mason uses system now, she is using the primary definition of the word:

a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole (Merriam-Webster, 2003)

Taken in this way, Mason’s “system of education” is not “the observing of rules,” but is nonetheless an “interdependent group of items” that are “absolutely effective” and which are can only be applied by “thoughtful, earnest and continuous study.” What specific resources is one to utilize in this “continuous study”? In that same article, Mason explains:

For forty years I have laboured to establish a working and philosophic theory of education, and, I think, with success. It has been said that “The best idea which we can form of absolute truth is that it is able to meet every condition by which it can be tested.” Now, the truth which I have formulated,* is, I think, able to meet every such condition.

*In some five volumes, of which, had they the good fortune to have been written by someone else, I should be able to say, read them through every year or two, so that the truths they embody may become a usual and natural part of your thinking. (Mason, 1912, p. 808)

The five volumes are of course a reference the Home Education Series. We see that Mason’s system of education is not some subset of her writings, much less merely the synopsis of twenty principles. Rather, it is her complete body of work, “formulated” as “truth” across five volumes of approximately 1,000 pages. (Volume 6 was not published until 1925.)

At the end of her life, Mason developed that sixth volume. On page 27, she reworded the “forty years” paragraph from her 1912 article as follows:

I have attempted to unfold (in various volumes1) a system of educational theory which seems to me able to meet any rational demand, even that severest criterion set up by Plato; it is able to “run the gauntlet of objections, and is ready to disprove them, not by appeals to opinion, but to absolute truth.”

1The Home Education Series. (Mason, 1925/1989f, pp. 27, 32)

Joseph Lister

Notice the perfect parallel to the 1912 reference, down to the footnote. At the end of her life, Mason reiterates her view, that her “system of educational theory” is “unfolded” across all the volumes of The Home Education Series. Eight pages earlier, we find the now-well-known “Lister quote”:

The reader will say with truth,—“I knew all this before and have always acted more or less on these principles”; and I can only point to the unusual results we obtain through adhering not ‘more or less’ but strictly to the principles and practices I have indicated. I suppose the difficulties are of the sort that Lister had to contend with; every surgeon knew that his instruments and appurtenances should be kept clean, but the saving of millions of lives has resulted from the adoption of the great surgeon’s antiseptic treatment; that is from the substitution of exact principles scrupulously applied for the rather casual ‘more or less’ methods of earlier days. (Mason, 1925/1989f, p. 19)

Note that Mason refers to both principles (“comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption”) and practices (“the usual way of doing something”) (Merriam-Webster, 2003). What are these “principles and practices”? Are they what make up the “system of educational theory” which is “formulated” and “unfolded” across all the volumes of The Home Education Series? Are they thus one and the same as “an end, a way to an end, and step-by-step progress in that way”?

Of course! The “Lister quote” occurs in the section of volume 6 entitled “Principles Hitherto Unrecognized or Disregarded” (Mason, 1925/1989f, p. 8). This section is none other than Mason’s historical narrative of how she developed her “system of education.” On the preceding page she describes this system:

I have succeeded in methodising the whole and making education what it should be, a system of applied philosophy (Mason, 1925/1989f, p. 18)

The next sentence begins a narration of the twenty principles, starting, of course, with “A child is a person.” The evidence is overwhelming for anyone who cares to honestly assess it: the “principles and practices” of the Lister quote are the “whole,” the “system of education” which was “formulated” across the entire Home Education Series. We may thus paraphrase the Lister quote as follows:

I can only point to the unusual results we obtain through adhering not ‘more or less’ but strictly to the laws, doctrines, and assumptions, conducted in the standard way that I have indicated across the entire Home Education Series.

Charlotte Mason was a CM purist. But we know this not only from this one Lister quote. She says the same thing again and again. For example, in 1919, she writes:

I feel strongly that to attempt to work this method without a firm adherence to the few principles laid down would be not only idle but disastrous.  “Oh, we could do anything with books like those,” said a master; he tried the books and failed conspicuously because he ignored the principles. (Mason, 1919, p. 498)

Recall that “pure” is the opposite of “hybrid.” Note what Mason says about hybridizing her principles and practices with other philosophies and techniques:

We do not invite Heads of schools to take up work lightly, which implies a sound knowledge of certain principles and as faithful a practice. The easy tolerance which holds smilingly that everything is as good as everything else, that one educational doctrine is as good as another, that, in fact, a mixture of all such doctrines gives pretty safe results,—this sort of complacent attitude produces lukewarm effort and disappointing progress. (Mason, 1925/1989f, p. 270)

Later in volume 6, Mason again cautions against mixing her method with other philosophies:

For if our conceptions of education are heterogeneous and incoherent, naturally, we shall have a tangle of examination schemes evolved to test our ill-conceived work. (Mason, 1925/1989f, p. 300)

Elsie Kitching

Mason’s disciple Elsie Kitching reiterated this warning against hybridization in 1926:

Miss Mason’s method, springing from vital principles and some knowledge of the laws of mind, seems to meet the needs of children at all points. A “school which is open-minded to the best of everything” is apt to become a patch-work of good plans without any unifying principle. (Kitching, 1926, p. 201)

Kitching went as far as using the word “dogmatic” to describe the inflexibility of the method, even though the word had negative connotations, then as now:

Those of us who belong to the P.N.E.U. have a chart and a compass for we have an inheritance, a synopsis of dogmatic teaching but I say dogmatic with hesitation because dogma is not a pleasant-sounding word to some people. (Kitching, 1927, p. 332)

Was this dogmatic teaching meant to be a burden to home educating mothers? Far from it! By contrast, it was meant to be freeing! Having received precise and clear instructions, the mother was free to focus on educating, not on developing an educational program:

Miss Mason … realised that the busy mother, over-burdened with family cares, becomes overwhelmed if left to choose between the many points of view on the up-bringing of children current to-day; that what she needs is definite help on definite lines with an end in view which she may have some hope of achieving for her children’s sake. (Kitching, 1927, p. 337)

But Mason was a CM purist not only because she thought it would be helpful to mothers. Her other reason goes back to the definition of system: “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.” The point is that the principles and practices all work together. The system works because it is a unity. If a principle or practice is removed, the system breaks. It is like a mousetrap: if one component is not present, the device fails. To put it in Mason’s own words:

Those who do not regard education as a vital whole but as a sort of conglomerate of good ideas, good plans, traditions and experiences, do well to adopt and adapt any good idea we come across. But our conception of education is of a vital whole, harmonious, living and effective. You will see, therefore, that every little plan we recommend rises out of a principle and that each such principle is a part of a living educational philosophy (if I may call it so), and does not very well bear to be broken off and used by itself. (Mason, 1906c, p. 588)

One of Mason’s students used similar language to describe Mason’s method:

But in many things she is still far ahead and it is only when used as a balanced whole that P.N.E.U. methods give their best results. (Anonymous, 1923, p. 87)

There is apparently a great temptation to truncate the number of principles and practices that comprise this balanced whole. But Helen Wix explains that the method is not found on just 2-3 pages of volume 6; the method is found across the entire Home Education Series:

It is such a temptation to us ordinary folks to emphasise some part at the expense of the rest and so turn a strength into a weakness. There is only one way to avoid this danger. That is constantly to read and re-read Miss Mason’s books, constantly to remind ourselves of her first principles—for from now onwards Miss Mason’s work is in our hands; we dare not leave un-made any effort to keep the truth. (Wix, 1923, p. 418)

Wix explains that the “balanced whole” is made up of both principles and practices:

Breadth and balance are perhaps the main marks of Miss Mason’s teaching, so that there are many standpoints from which we may try to study it. Surely few educationists have solved both a theory and a philosophy of education—in its broadest sense—and a practical concrete method of teaching as well. There are these two main sides of her ideal, often separated but not really separable. First, the upbringing of the child, the person; the teaching of habit, the training of the will, the gradual evolution of character. Founded on this and on much more, is Miss Mason’s theory and practice of education in its narrower sense; how to teach children in their school days. (Wix, 1923, p. 411)

According to Wix, we must resist the temptation to “reduce it to lowest terms,” and must even look at Mason’s own programmes to fully understand it:

What is the secret of this? I do not know. What we cannot do with Miss Mason’s ideal is to reduce it to lowest terms, and just in so far as we try to, so far we misrepresent it, and misunderstand it. But some of the secret undoubtedly lies in the Programmes of Work; the longer we work from those wonderful programmes the more we realise how well balanced they are; how satisfying to the hungry mind; how the subjects dovetail; how difficult it is to teach history only in history time, how it will “flow over” into geography, literature, or even into such unexpected channels as arithmetic or botany. (Wix, 1923, p. 416)

H.W. Household

Similarly, Mason’s early advocate H.W. Household also spoke to the inherent unity of the programmes themselves. He wrote:

If you regard the Charlotte Mason method as a bag of tricks of which you can select one or two for adoption, leaving the rest, you will have nothing but disappointment. It is the outcome of a philosophy of education, and you must take all or none. You cannot use her methods and books for teaching literature and developing Composition, and use other methods and other books for teaching, say History and Geography. You cannot encourage the boy to get knowledge from the book for himself in one lesson, and insist on pumping textbook stuff into him the next; you cannot rely upon interest, a single reading, concentration and narration to-day, and upon slow wearisome preparation of dry facts followed by questions and detention to-morrow. The programme hangs together as a whole. (Household, 1926, p. 9)

Household, a school administrator, is doubtless referring to the programme specified in the Prospectus of the Parents’ Union School which is said to be “worked by Miss Mason, who alone is responsible” (Mason, 1906b, p. 1). The degree of specificity by Mason in the prospectus is breathtaking. For example, she even mandates the amount of time spent on each subject by stipulating the following requirement:

That the amount of time for each subject shall be not more nor less than that stated in the Time-tables. (Mason, 1906b, p. 2)

For avoidance of doubt, Mason states that the principles and methods mandated for the school are not some “essential subset” of her philosophy; rather, “The principles and methods on which the Parents’ Union School is worked are fully described in Vols. I. II. and III. of the ‘Home Education Series’” (Mason, 1906b, p. 4). Household understood clearly Mason’s own point of view: the system of education defined by Mason, expressed in detail across the Home Education Series, is recommended for adoption as a whole. Mason explains in the prospectus:

Is it not possible to pay a fee, receive the papers of the Parents’ Union curriculum and make as much or as little use of them as we think fit? This appears, on the face of it, an attitude justifiable from every point of view, but I think that by admitting that position we should be doing serious harm to the cause of education and adding one more patch to a garment, already a patchwork over which most of us grieve. (Mason, 1906b, p. 3)

With this in mind, we return to our original question:

Did Charlotte Mason desire to preserve her method (which consists of an end, a way to an end, and step-by-step progress in that way) unmixed with other elements that do not properly belong and are heterogeneous in origin?

The answer, according to the verdict of history, is yes. Mason believed that the principles and practices unfolded across all of the volumes of the Home Education Series were a balanced and integrated unity that were meant to be adopted as a whole. Mason was a CM purist.


Anonymous. (1923). The children’s tribute. In In Memoriam (pp. 86-99). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Household, H. (1926). A short exposition of miss Mason’s method of teachingLondon: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Kitching, E. (1926). Notes and queries. In The Parents’ Review, vol. 37 (pp. 200-205). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Kitching, E. (1927). Tinkers. In The Parents’ Review, vol. 38 (pp. 331-337). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

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

Mason, C. (1906a). Home education. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

Mason, C. (1906b). Prospectus of the Parents’ Union SchoolLondon: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Mason, C. (1906c). Conference held at the House of Education (Scale How), Ambleside. In The Parents’ Review, vol. 17 (pp. 580-590). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Mason, C. (1912).  Three educational idylls. In The Parents’ Review, vol. 23 (pp. 801-811). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Mason, C. (1919). The liberal education for all movement. In The Parents’ Review, vol. 30 (pp. 481-555). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

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

Merriam-Webster. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Inc.

Wix, H. (1923). Miss Mason’s ideal: its breadth and balance. In The Parents’ Review, vol. 34 (pp. 411-420). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

4 Replies to “Was Charlotte Mason a CM Purist?”

  1. Though I read widely, “Charlotte Mason Poetry” is the only blog to which I subscribe. Having enjoyed the fruit of Mason’s applied philosophy of education in our own home without always knowing the historical context, your writers have certainly enlarged my view while inviting me to continued deep thinking for myself. A “thank you” from me is long overdue.

    Dr. Bernier’s series on “Education for the Kingdom” beautifully laid out how Mason’s philosophy of education was a resulting fruit of her steadfast devotion to Christ and the dire effect separating the two has on understanding her philosophy. His treatment of the third essential question, Why?, has had an especially sobering effect on me.

    The series was briefly interrupted by Brittney’s joyful post of freedom found in “The Mediocre Purist” in which she references Mrs. Grace Gwynn’s PR article “An Apology to the Mediocre Person.” Your readers may find it interesting that Mrs. Gwynn was mother to and home educating five children born within an eight-year-span. In fact, a number of PR articles were written by mothers of large households who likewise found freedom and not constraint in applying Mason’s philosophy of education as a whole.

    And then there is today’s post which immersed me in Mason’s own defense of her practices and principles as a unified whole never meant to be divorced from one another. You have included some of my favorite advocates of the P.N.E.U. while introducing me to a new one in Miss H. Wix, who had apparently taken the HOE training some twenty years earlier. As an earnest student of this system, I adopt Mason’s methods not as a form of legalism but so not to miss beauty and truth.

    The best of poetry is as memorable as prayer and so I sincerely thank you for Charlotte Mason Poetry.


  2. Art, it is ironic that in Mason’s time the most notable temptation to blend her method with other educational methods was Lady Isabel, as had been alluded to numerous times throughout the past year of debate, and yet now, despite all of the facts that you and others are presenting, more and more people are attempting to promote the “Charlotte Mason and…” eclectic approach. Thank you for your continued promotion of purity.

  3. Art, not only is the debate continuing of what Charlotte Mason intended throughout her writings, the debate of what the Holy Spirit wants for all is also continuing. Charlotte referenced both those who preceded her as well as those current to her day. However, she embraced the Holy Spirit above herself and above all others. She trusted His guidance and teaching as divine clarity. She relied on Him to fulfill the large questions regarding educating ourselves and our children. He is the Supreme Educator.

    …The initial idea in this case may always be traced to another mind. The Supreme Educator. – Then the spiritual sustenance of ideas is derived directly or indirectly from other human beings? No; and here is the great recognition which the educator is called upon to make. God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself the supreme educator of mankind.

    You ask “Did Charlotte Mason desire to preserve her method (which consists of an end, a way to an end, and step-by-step progress in that way)?”

    CS Lewis was keen on using the original meaning of a word. He gives examples of how a word with its original, intended meaning can change to mean something else entirely. In Mere Christianity, Lewis says on progress:

    We all want to progress. But progress means getting near to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not mean you get any nearer. If you were on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; … The sooner I admit this and get back and start again, the faster I should get on. There’s nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. (pp. 28-29)

    Thank you for pursuing progress with CM.


    1. Laura,

      Thank you for reading and commenting on my article. I appreciate your insightful remark:

      Charlotte referenced both those who preceded her as well as those current to her day. However, she embraced the Holy Spirit above herself and above all others.

      First, it is important to emphasize that Mason felt comfortable referencing predecessors and contemporaries even when she recognized deep flaws in their thinking. She wrote:

      But, because philosophic thought is so subtle and permeating an influence, it is our part to scrutinise every principle that presents itself. Once we are able to safeguard ourselves in this way, we are able to profit by the wisdom of works which yet rest upon what we regard as radical errors.

      Second, it is important to consider why Mason wanted to keep her method pure. It was not out of pride or vainglory. Rather, it was because she truly believed that the Holy Spirit had revealed something special to her and her associates. She wrote:

      Life is more intense, more difficult, more exhausting for us than it was for our fathers; it will probably be more difficult still for our children than for ourselves. How timely, then, and how truly, as we say, providential, that, just at this juncture of difficult living, certain simple, definite clues to the art of living should have been put into our hands! Is it presumptuous to hope that new light has been vouchsafed to us in these days, in response to our more earnest endeavours, our more passionate cravings for “more light and fuller.”

      If she was right, and new life was vouchsafed to her, then we have an obligation to be stewards of that light. That obligation applies especially those who claim to speak for and about her method.


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