Over the past several months, I have written several articles which discuss the relationship between Charlotte Mason’s theory of education and the classical tradition. Some of these articles have appeared here and other articles have appeared on the blog of the Charlotte Mason Institute. Some people have wondered why I write so frequently about this topic. I thought it would be helpful to explain my rationale.
First, I would like to dispel any misunderstandings about my motivation. I will begin with questions that I have either been asked or that I suppose people may want to ask me.
1. Are you trying to persuade educators and students not to read classical books?
No. I align with Charlotte Mason regarding the use of classical books in the standard curriculum. My children read Plutarch. I also think it is beneficial for parents and educators to read widely, including books on education from a variety of schools of thought. This might include perspectives from the modern, progressive, Hebrew, or classical traditions. The wisdom of such wide reading is supported by Mason’s 19th principle, which I think is as valid for parents as it is for children: we all build a wide range of knowledge in order to effectively discharge our responsibility to accept or reject ideas.
2. Are you trying to prove that Charlotte Mason’s method is better than other methods?
No. I personally have spent little time arguing about the comparative merits of one theory of education relative to another. While I extol the benefits of Charlotte Mason’s approach, I have not proposed a set of criteria to adjudicate between methods, nor have I attempted to rate methods of education against systematic criteria.
3. Are you trying to shame people who are not “pure enough” in their own implementation of Charlotte Mason?
No. I write almost exclusively about Mason’s ideas and guidelines, her sources, and the history of her work. I rarely write about how her method should be applied in the contemporary situation, much less about how to rate or measure someone’s fidelity to the method. I have many friends who employ Mason’s ideas to a more or less extent, and I rejoice with them in whatever benefit or blessing they have found from these ideas.
4. Are you trying to influence people’s evaluation of various contemporary curricula that claim to support the Charlotte Mason method?
No. I have limited knowledge of the various Mason-related curricula available today, and in general I do not comment on them. I have not proposed a set of criteria to adjudicate between curricula, nor have I attempted to rate curricula against systematic criteria.
5. Are you trying to keep classical schools from employing some ideas from Charlotte Mason?
No. I don’t have a strong or developed opinion in this area, and I can’t say for sure whether the result of such a mixture would be positive, negative, or indifferent. I think this is an area of fruitful investigation, but not one that I personally wish to pursue.
6. Are you trying to suggest that Mason wasn’t well-read?
No. I believe she read extensively from a wide range of sources. I think she carried out her own advice in her 19th principle.
7. Are you proposing that Mason’s method is completely new and was entirely invented by her?
No. I believe her own testimony that she developed her theory of education from the divine revelation of the Holy Gospels, from the insights of contemporary science, and from her own personal observation of children.
8. Are you obsessed with the taxonomy and classification of methods of education?
No. While I find the topic to be somewhat interesting, I probably would not spend much time on it were other considerations not involved.
9. Did someone from the classical education movement do something to upset you?
No. Generally speaking I have had positive and pleasant interactions with members of the classical education movement. I am particularly pleased when classical education advocates manifest their commitment to logic and dialectic. I find that this commitment in practice leads to stimulating and edifying dialogs that focus on ideas rather than persons.
10. Is this personal for you in some way?
No. I am concerned about ideas. I generally don’t write about people. I mention names only as the sources of quotations and ideas that I exposit or challenge.
11. OK, I give up! Why do you write about this?
I’m glad you asked! There are two reasons I write about Charlotte Mason and the classical tradition.
Real Reason 1: I believe that wrongly situating Mason within the classical tradition can lead her readers to approach her texts with an interpretative paradigm. If that paradigm is very strong, it can lead to eisegesis (interpreting texts in such a way that it introduces one’s own presuppositions or biases). It can also lead to a truncation of Mason’s ideas in order to fit them into the classical tradition.
To explain why I believe this, I first need to be explicit about two assumptions:
Assumption 1. I assume the phrase classical tradition has a common and standard definition. This is in contrast to the possibility of a specialized definition known and accepted by a single community. Of course a community may adopt whatever definition it wants for whatever word it chooses. But that suffices only for conversations within that community. Once the conversation crosses community boundaries, dialog is only possible if common definitions are used. Therefore, for this discussion I assume the common and standard definition of the classical tradition: “the reception of classical Graeco-Roman antiquity in all its dimensions in later cultures,” including “not only the texts, but also the images and objects, the ideas and institutions, the monuments and cultural artifacts, [and] the rituals and practices” (Grafton, Most, and Settis, 2010, pp. vii-viii).
Assumption 2. Not everything in contemporary Western civilization may be situated within the classical tradition. This may seem obvious, but some people seem to assert that when one is born into Western civilization, this by definition situates him or her within the classical tradition. In that sense we are like fish in water: the classical tradition is simply the water we swim in, and we can no more leave that tradition than the fish can leave the fishbowl. But such a view really is not workable. There are three problems with this fish-in-water theory:
- It denies the counter-cultural power of the Gospels in particular and divine revelation in general, and to marginalize the influence of the (non-Greek) Hebrew tradition preserved for us in the Old Testament.
- It denies the possibility of real innovation and invention. It underestimates the power of human creativity (with or without divine intervention) to chart new courses in philosophy, politics, art, and culture.
- It does not align with the pattern of usage of members of the classical education movement. All classical education enthusiasts I have ever read or talked to affirm that some methods of education that exist in western civilization are not in fact classical. Many examples could be provided here but a common one is John Dewey, who favorably quoted Plato and the other ancients extensively. If Dewey is western but not classical, then there must be others. He cannot be the only one.
Given those assumptions, in my view the historical evidence strongly supports the thesis that Mason’s theory of education is a dramatic departure from the classical tradition.
But if one insists that Mason is classical, then one is likely to misinterpret her writings. I will provide just a few examples of how that may happen. This list is by no means exhaustive.
The classical paradigm may lead one to misunderstand Mason’s terms. Three examples will suffice:
- The precise meaning of the word virtue varies depending on the tradition in view. For example, the word virtue has a specific meaning in classical Graeco-Roman writings, and that meaning is often explicitly preserved by contemporary classical educational theorists. If one reads Mason’s writings assuming she is classical, one will attach similar connotations to her use of that word.
- The meaning of the phrase “liberal education” varies depending on the cultural context. When Mason uses the phrase, it is an allusion to the liberal arts tradition which dates back to Aristotle? Or does she have in view Thomas Huxley’s groundbreaking 1868 essay, “A Liberal Education and Where to Find It”? It would be hard to think of two more dramatically different meanings for the phrase.
- The meaning of the word revolutionary also varies. When Mason asserts repeatedly that elements of her theory of education are revolutionary, how is that to be understood? If one assumes that she is classical, and hence receiving the ideas of classical Graeco-Roman antiquity, then one must assume that her use of the word revolutionary involves a change to current practices that involves a return to ancient practices. On the other hand, if one allows that Mason has departed the classical tradition, then one can interpret this word according to the dictionary definition of revolution: “a sudden, radical, or complete change.” (Merriam-Webster, 2003).
2. The classical paradigm will lead one to misunderstand Mason’s references. Specifically, when Mason quotes a particular thinker, who is doing the explaining? Is Mason using a thinker’s statement to explain her own idea? Or is she citing the thinker as an authority which Mason is merely explaining? Here are examples of what this looks like in practice:
- In Acts 17:28, St. Paul quotes the pagan Greeks: “for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (RSV2CE, 2006). If we assume that St. Paul is classical, we would assume that he cites the pagan Greeks as an authority, and he is simply expositing or explaining their ideas. On the other hand, if we assume St. Paul is not classical, then we would assume that his theology is grounded in Hebrew theology, and he is merely quoting pagans in order to explain his idea to his audience.
- In a blog article that I wrote, I quote St. Thomas Aquinas. If one assumes that I am classical, one would assume that I cite Aquinas as an authority, and I am simply expositing or explaining his idea. On other hand, if one assumes I am not classical, one would assume that I adhere to a different philosophical base, and I am merely quoting Aquinas to appeal to my audience.
The difference this makes is not trivial. A friend of mine wrote, “Although I am not a naive foundationalist, I see the vast chasm between a philosophy of education that begins in the Gospels as opposed to one that sinks its roots into pagan Greco-Roman soil.”
3. If someone wishes to better understand Mason’s method, the classical paradigm will lead that person to read less helpful books. For example, if someone wants to better understand Mason’s writings, which book should he or she read? Principles of Mental Physiology by William B. Carpenter, or the Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas? The answer will most likely be determined by whether or not one believes Mason is classical.
4. The classical paradigm will lead one to misunderstand Mason’s philosophical context. The P.N.E.U. was aware of the difference between Hebrew philosophy and classical Greek philosophy. In The Parents’ Review, Henry Belcher writes:
Religion naturally in theory falls into two departments, the Hebrew-Christian department, and the Hellenic-Buddhist department. The former looks chiefly to the worship, attributes and work of the Almighty, subsidiarily to the action and scope of the soul. The latter to the soul, subsidiarily towards Almighty God. (Belcher, 1900, p. 756)
This philosophical difference has profound implications for education, as explained by Old Testament scholar Norman Snaith:
In the New Testament teaching as to the effective working of the Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit), we see most clearly the difference between the Hebrew and the Greek attitudes to life. They are fundamentally different. The object and aim of the Hebrew system is da’ath Elohim (Knowledge of God). The object and aim of the Greek system is gnothi seauton (Know thyself). Between these there is the widest possible difference. There is no compromise between the two on anything like equal terms. They are poles apart in attitude and method. The Hebrew system starts with God. The only true wisdom is Knowledge of God. ‘The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.’ The corollary is that man can never know himself, what he is and what is his relation to the world, unless first he learn of God and be submissive to God’s sovereign will. The Greek system, on the contrary, starts from the knowledge of man, and seeks to rise to an understanding of the ways and Nature of God through the knowledge of what is called ‘man’s higher nature’. According to the Bible, man has no higher nature except he be born of the Spirit.
We find this approach of the Greeks no where in the Bible. The whole Bible, the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, is based on the Hebrew attitude and approach. We are of the firm opinion that this ought to be recognized on all hands to a greater extent. It is clear to us, and we hope that we have made it clear in these pages to others, that there is often a great difference between Christian theology and Biblical theology. Throughout the centuries the Bible has been interpreted in a Greek context, and even the New Testament has been interpreted on the basis of Plato and Aristotle. This may be justifiable, but we hold that those who adopt this method of interpretation should realize what it is that they are doing, and should cease to maintain that they are basing their theology on the Bible. (Snaith, 1944/2009, pp. 184-185)
In this passage, Snaith asserts that some thinkers interpret the New Testament on the basis of Plato and Aristotle; one could similarly assert that some thinkers interpret Mason’s writings on the basis of Plato and Aristotle. And yet Mason follows the Hebrew system by pointing to the knowledge of God as the chief end of education, and she seeks through education to fulfil the child’s “relation to the world.” Assuming a Greek philosophical context for Mason cannot but alter one’s understanding of her principal ideas. Snaith urges interpreters to “realize what it is that they are doing”; in other words, he urges them to recognize their eisegesis.
But given the powerful influence that classification has on interpretation, how can one guard against eisegesis? I believe one must constantly challenge one’s presuppositions about the text. One must read carefully and take into account the author’s historical context, background and education, and other writings. One must perform analysis and invite peer review of new or novel interpretations. And one must continually ask him or herself whether he or she is reading the text with an open mind, or is simply looking to the text for evidence to support an a priori belief.
As an illustration of this process, I undertook a brief study of Maria Montessori with the express purpose of making the case that she developed a classical model of education. On the surface, the premise sounds absurd. No one is claiming that Montessori is classical. And yet ten years ago, it was equally absurd to claim that Mason was classical. In fact, one can find a classical education theorist from a decade ago writing a skillful rejection of Mason’s ideas.
I completed my case on Montessori, and it is fairly convincing. It shows what can be accomplished when one is firmly committed to eisegesis. But of course in reality the proof falls short, for the simple reason that correlation does not prove causality. Montessori had no intention of advancing the classical tradition, even if one can find some correlations between her ideas and Plato’s.
What happens if we persist in doing to Mason what I did to Montessori? The end result is that we force a round peg into a square hole. Mason’s round peg is more malleable than thousands of years of the classical tradition. So it is the peg that suffers. And so Mason’s ideas are truncated in order to harmonize them with the broad consensus of the classical tradition.
The result is tragic. A friend of mine wrote:
I’m starting to think that even if you took all of the external techniques of CM’s method (giving children direct access to living books, single reading, narration, etc.) and literally just mechanically applied them, then it still would not be her method and would not reap the outcomes she describes. From what I’ve read of her writing, CM’s entire approach lives or dies by the great recognition that is its foundation, that the Holy Spirit is living and active and is literally the teacher. It would be impossible for a teacher or parent to facilitate CM’s method without that teacher having an undoubting belief that the Holy Spirit is literally working in each moment of the lesson, and having an intentional obedient surrender to the Spirit. The teacher must truly see the lesson as divinely led, and be actively looking to cooperate with the divine leading of the Spirit. Without this recognition and obedience, the teacher will either encroach on the student or will be too detached, and in both cases interfere with what the Spirit is doing in the child…
If I had to describe to someone what CM’s education approach was in a sentence or two I would say something like “CM education is based in the recognition that the Holy Spirit literally teaches children and that the children are fully equipped to receive that education. She provides a series of techniques that will help the teacher cooperate with the Spirit and maximize the effectiveness of the outcome.” I highly doubt that if someone from the field of classical education summarized the classical education approach in a few sentences that it would bear resemblance to this summary. I see the danger of implying that CM is a part of an overall classical sphere is that this precious jewel at the heart is lost, and people just start picking up some or all of the external techniques.
So that is the first reason I write about Charlotte Mason and the classical tradition. Here is the second:
Real Reason 2: Charlotte Mason indicated that the results she claims for her method are achieved only when her method is followed completely and consistently. But if Mason was actually expositing, continuing, or developing the classical tradition, then one would rather assume that any element of that tradition could be incorporated unless it was specifically proscribed by Mason.
Charlotte Mason wrote:
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, 1925/1954, p. 19)
Similarly, her early advocate H.W. Household 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)
I believe it is important to assert Mason’s departure from the classical tradition in order to preserve the integrity of the method.
The Deeper Reason
“OK, I get that,” you may say, “but what is the real motivator for you?” In other words, why do I care whether Mason’s writings are interpreted faithfully or not? Why do I care whether people believe they can achieve the results she promised by only piecemeal adoption?
My answer to that question reveals the deeper reason why I write about this topic. Charlotte Mason’s ideas changed my life. I believe these ideas can change other people’s lives as well. Therefore I am dedicated to protecting the integrity of these ideas to the best of my ability, so that other people may also taste and see. That is my motivation. It’s as simple as that.
Belcher, H. (1900). A theory of education. In The Parents’ Review, volume 11 (pp. 755-762). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Grafton, A., Most, G., and Settis, S. (2010). The classical tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Household, H. (1926). A short exposition of miss Mason’s method of teaching. London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Mason, C. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education. London: Lowe & Brydone. (Original work published 1925)
Merriam-Webster. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.
RSV2CE. (2006). Revised standard version; second Catholic edition. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.
Snaith, N. (2009). Distinctive ideas of the Old Testament. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. (Original work published 1944).