Charlotte Mason’s Careful Claim of Originality

Charlotte Mason’s Careful Claim of Originality

Charlotte Mason was modest until the end. Even the title of her magnum opus first published in 1925 reflects that modesty: Towards a Philosophy of Education. It is important that we interpret Mason’s writings in light of her modesty. For example, consider Mason’s message for the June, 1894 Annual Meeting of the P.N.E.U. It may be quoted as follows, without its context and with the skillful use of ellipses:

We lay no claims to original ideas or methods. We cannot choose but profit by the work of the great educators… We take what former thinkers have left us, and go on from there.[1]

One may then interpret this quotation with the following assumptions:

  1. The “great educators” must surely be the educational philosophers of the classical tradition: Plato, Aristotle, Quintillian, Augustine, Aquinas, and so on.
  2. The statement “We lay no claims to original ideas or methods” must surely be taken in a literal and absolute sense to mean that Mason only repeated and repackaged the ideas of others, viz. these classical philosophers.

Based on these assumptions, one may conclude that Mason was a prototypical Christian Classical Education theorist. After all, the sine qua non of classical education is that is not new. It is a recovery of ideas from the past. If we assume the “great educators” are Plato, Aristotle, Quintillian, Augustine, and Aquinas, then on the basis of the 1894 quotation we may simply assume that Mason promoted a theory of education characterized as follows:

  • The development of virtue is the chief aim of education.
  • Virtue means not just moral virtue but rather excellence in the broadest sense.
  • The teacher is the main vehicle of education and is called upon to mold or shape the student into the classical ideal.
  • Christian educational philosophers should “plunder the Egyptians” by adopting educational ideas and methods from pagan thinkers.
  • The program of education should give preference to the liberal arts over the so-called servile arts.
  • The curriculum should focus on the acquisition of the tools of learning via a narrow, progressive, and focused study of the trivium and the quadrivium.
  • Instruction in science and technology should be handled with diffidence and care due to their irrelevance to the development of virtue and their distance from the higher ideals.
  • The literature selected for study should be the classics, with a preference for ad fontes (going to the sources), and learning Latin and Greek.

In short, this quote could be used to establish Mason as a CCE theorist par excellence.

But this interpretation is only possible when the quotation is carefully removed from its context and distorted through the use of ellipses. The bridge to classical education vanishes when the full quotation is examined:

We lay no claim to original ideas or methods. We cannot choose but profit by the work of the great educators. Such men as Locke and Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel, have left us an inheritance of educational thought which we must needs enter upon. Our work as a Society is chiefly selective, but not entirely so. We are progressive. We take what former thinkers have left us, and go on from there. For example, in this matter of class differentiation, we believe we have scientific grounds for a line of our own.[2]

The previously omitted text (in blue) falsifies the proposed interpretation above. Let us begin with the first point.

Assumption #1. The “great educators” must surely be the philosophers of education of the classical tradition: Plato, Aristotle, Quintillian, Augustine, Aquinas, and so on.

Not at all. The “great educators” are Locke, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel, none of whom are considered to be classical educators. Rousseau and Pestalozzi are the prototypical romantic educators and are disavowed by CCE theorists.[3] Froebel is of course the romantic father of kindergarten. Locke is an enlightenment thinker associated with progressive learning.[4] Mason refers to these four as the “Fathers in education,” and her pattern of citations supports this high regard. (It is worth noting that while Mason writes extensively about the fresco entitled Filosofica della Religione Cattolica, she never once in her writings mentions the name of Aquinas.)

Mason further aligns herself with the romantics with her subsequent (omitted) statement, “We are progressive.” In calling herself a progressive in 1894, she was identifying herself with the well-defined progressive movement of her day. Educational philosopher and historian Gerald Gutek explains what it meant to be “progressive” at the start of the twentieth century:

… progressive education … was a broad and amorphous movement extending back to the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century naturalistic educators Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel, who developed educational theories that opposed traditional school practice. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment and nineteenth-century social reformism contributed the concept of “progress.” by which humans, using reason and science, could shape their environment. Educational reformers claimed that a natural educational methodology could free humanity by creating a better world.[5]

Mason’s writings demonstrate that her own self-categorization as a progressive was accurate. She describes at length how her “educational methodology could free humanity by creating a better world.”[6] I have also documented many of the ways in which she “opposed traditional school practice.”

Gutek elaborates on the meaning of “progressive education” in Mason’s historical context:

Progressive education was a reaction against conventional schooling’s prescribed curriculum with its emphasis on basic skills, books, examinations, and discipline. Although they were often merely reacting against traditional school practices, the progressives also developed their own educational philosophy and methodology. They established a number of private schools where they fostered a more permissive attitude toward children and encouraged activities to stimulate their creativity… Some progressives drew their inspiration from European reformers such as Pestalozzi, Froebel, and Montessori.[7] Others were simply interested in creating a school that would follow the child’s interests and needs… Stanwood Cobb brought progressive educators together in the Progressive Education Association in 1918, and the Association began to publish a journal called Progressive Education in 1924, which disseminated the views of its members. Among the major principles of progressive educators were the following:

  1. Encouragement of child freedom.
  2. Creation of a new school which would contribute to the development of the whole child and not merely his or her intellect.
  3. The use of activities designed to give the child direct experience with his or her world.
  4. Cooperation between the school and the child’s home.[8]

So let us take Mason’s statement “We lay no claims to original ideas or methods” at face value. That would mean that Mason only repeated and repackaged the ideas of the enlightenment and romantic educators. It would mean that just as Pestalozzi developed the ideas of Rousseau, Mason developed the ideas of Pestalozzi. It would make sense. After all, Mason’s formal training in education was received at the Home and Colonial Training Institution, the premier college in England in Mason’s day for teaching and promoting the Pestalozzian method. So we would say then that Mason simply worked out the implications of her own educational formation. We would say that Mason is indistinguishable from Rousseau and Pestalozzi. We would say beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is not a classical educator.

Assumption #2. The statement “We lay no claims to original ideas or methods” must surely be taken at face value to mean that Mason only repeated and repackaged the ideas of others.

Not at all. The context reveals that Mason did not mean this in a literal and absolute sense. Two statements in the immediate context make it clear that more is going on in Mason’s thinking here, and that modesty is at play:

Statement 1: “We take what former thinkers have left us, and go on from there.” What could “go on from there” mean, if not the introduction of new ideas and methods?

Statement 2: “For example, in this matter of class differentiation, we believe we have scientific grounds for a line of our own.” What could “a line of our own” be, if not new ideas and methods?

Indeed, at precisely the same time, in private correspondence, she did make an explicit claim to originality. On May 16, 1894, she wrote to Alfred Schofield. In this letter, written one month before her June 18 statement, she wrote:

I should rather we boldly claimed to originate our own school of educational thought, hanging on, not to the educational reformers – but to the physiologists of today & the philosophers of all time…[9]

So on May 16, in private, she expressed her desire to claim originality. But on June 18, in public, she said, “We lay no claims to original ideas or methods.” Which statement represents her true self-understanding? Her private statement to Dr. Schofield, or her modest public statement to the P.N.E.U.? The answer is made readily apparent as we examine Mason’s later writings.

In a breathtaking letter of March 22, 1904, Mason writes (again in private):

When there have not been a dozen original thinkers upon education in the world; when England has hardly had 3 or 4 — how can the P.N.E.U. believe that one of these has fallen to its share? Indeed I can hardly believe it myself and am continually comparing and enquiring to see if I am after all offering anything worth while. The answer always seems to be ‘yes’ but I am truly willing to leave the question to the ‘modesty of time.’

So we find that ten years later, Mason is still privately reflecting on her careful claim to originality.

But finally Mason’s modesty gives way by November, 1912. In her article entitled “Three Educational Idylls,” she notes the public reception of Maria Montessori’s theory of education:

Professor Holmes, of Harvard University, in his introduction to what in the English edition is called “The Montessori Method” says, “It is wholly within the bounds of safe judgment to call Dr. Montessori’s work remarkable, novel, and important. It is remarkable, if for no other reason, because it represents the constructive effort of a woman. We have no other example of an educational system—original at least in its systematic wholeness and in its practical application—worked out and inaugurated by the feminine mind and hand.”[10]

No other example? Mason is nonplussed. In the next paragraph she clearly indicates that the high praise given by Dr. Holmes to Montessori is actually due herself:

I lamented dolorously to her that the members of the Parents’ Union hardly seemed to realize that we stand for the most advanced, and, I suppose, the final movement in educational philosophy.[11]

She also referred to many of her principles as revolutionary in character. And of course, in her magnum opus at the end of her life, she famously writes, “Some of it is new, much of it is old.”[12] In saying this, she publicly claims an element of originality.

But back in 1894 if Mason wanted to claim originality, why did she hesitate? I believe that she was not only being modest, but also trying to avoid three misunderstandings:

1. The misunderstanding that her method was entirely new. Mason never claimed that her method was entirely new. (I have never claimed that either, but some seem to think I have.) Mason derived her theory of education from the discoveries of science, her personal observations of children, and the Holy Gospels. She did not originate these discoveries of science, but relied heavily on, for example, Dr. William B. Carpenter. She did not want to take credit for Carpenter’s ideas.

2. The misunderstanding that her method is out-of-step with the eternal truth of God. Rather, Mason was very insistent that her ideas were in alignment with ancient revealed truth. Mason referred to this truth as “the philosophy of the ages,” and in her letter to Dr. Schofield as “the philosophers of all time.” Far from being a reference to the classical tradition (e.g., thinkers such as Aquinas whom she never mentions once), she is referring to the crux of all profound thought:

The crux of modern thought, as indeed of all profound thought, is, Is it conceivable that the spiritual should have any manner of impact upon the material? Every problem, from the education of a little child to the doctrine of the Incarnation, turns upon this point.[13]

Now some might say that “the eternal truth of God” is nothing other than the classical tradition. In other words, classical is a synonym for true. But this simply will not do. Because with that definition even the Bible on my shelf is classical. God’s revelation to the Hebrew prophets then becomes classical, along with the Psalms and the Apocalypse of John. Indeed, all inquiry into the mind of God becomes classical. I then am classical because I am a Christian. And so the word classical means nothing because it means everything.

3. The misunderstanding that her work was one of invention rather than one of discovery. Mason was insistent that she was not some genius who invented new tricks and techniques for developing the human mind. Rather:

If one discovers, it is because the thing is there; there is no credit in making a discovery; gravitation was there for Sir Isaac Newton, the possibility of communication without visible medium, for Signor Marconi; in like manner, educational principles are present in human nature itself and only wait to be discerned, discovered.

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.[14]

She originated a school of thought, but she did not originate a phenomenon. It was there all along, just like radio waves for Marconi. It just had not yet been articulated yet. Not by Plato, not by Aristotle, not by Rousseau, not by Montessori. Since it had not yet been articulated, her work was not one of recovering a prior system. She was not classical.

A strange thing has happened in the Charlotte Mason community. Back in 1894, some thought that Mason’s theory of education was just a particular implementation of a Pestalozzian education. But Mason insisted that her method was decidedly new. She wrote that “the factors of education we have to deal with … is the new wine which cannot be put into old bottles.” She would not be submerged into the Pestalozzian tradition. “This teaching, be it remembered, is no mere patch on an old garment; it covers the whole scope of Education in every respect.”

Here we are a century later, and Mason is no longer misperceived as a particular implementation of a Pestalozzian education. Instead, we are told that she was actually a particular implementation of a classical education. But how is it that an educational theorist who wrote, “We are progressive,” is said to be classical? How is it that a woman who referred to “Locke and Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel” as “the Fathers” of education is said to be a child of Plato, Quintillian, or Cicero? Mason did not differentiate herself from the romantic “Fathers” by appealing to the classical tradition. Rather, she wrote of “having our own definite ideas on the lines of which we advance.”

The question persists, but we must settle it in order to determine the relevance and application of Mason’s ideas today. And it will not be settled by quotes taken out of context with the skillful use of ellipses. It will be settled by studying Mason’s writings firsthand and taking her at her word.


[1] Parents’ Review, volume 5, p. 426. Although published in the July, 1894 edition, it was read at the P.N.E.U. Annual Meeting on June 18, 1894.

[2] Parents’ Review, volume 5, p. 426

[3] Dr. Christopher Perrin, in the comments section of “Reconsidering Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition,” accessed March 22, 2018.

[4] (accessed 11/24/16)

[5] Gerald Gutek, A History of the Western Educational Experience, p. 486

[6] See, for example, Formation of Character, “A Hundred Years After

[7] Mason asserted that her theory of education was as revolutionary as that of Maria Montessori, but was nevertheless far superior.

[8] Gerald Gutek, A History of the Western Educational Experience, p. 487

[9] Coombs, Margaret A. (2015-09-24). Charlotte Mason: Hidden Heritage and Educational Influence, Kindle Locations 4471-4473

[10] Parents’ Review, volume 23, pp. 807-808

[11] Parents’ Review, volume 23, pp. 808

[12] Philosophy of Education, p. 27

[13] Parents and Children, p. 125

[14] Parents’ Review, volume 23, pp. 808

3 Replies to “Charlotte Mason’s Careful Claim of Originality”

  1. Art, I have a question about Charlotte Mason that really confuses me. In this article and in a few of your past writings, you have shared some of Miss Mason’s quotes that appear to suggest that she was influenced by Rousseau. I’m quite puzzled by this because Miss Mason was a devout Christian, and Rousseau brought wrong thinking into his times that caused so much trouble and mischief.
    As I remember, Rousseau lived immorally and abandoned his own children. Also, his writing helped influence the French Revolution. It just doesn’t fit that Miss Mason would be influenced by Rousseau and not point out the poisonous root of his thinking. Also, the romantics were involved in a movement that Christians cannot embrace. I’m quite puzzled by Miss Mason’s connection with Rousseau. Will you help me sort this out, Art?

    1. Sheila,

      Thank you for asking me this great question. Here are several points that collectively make up my answer:

      1. My thesis across all my articles is that Mason derived her theory of education from three authorities: (1) the neurophysiology of her day, (2) her own personal observations of children, and (3) the teachings of the Holy Gospels. I have shown, for example, how she ties each of her 20 principle back to one or more of these three sources. I have also shown that when she tells the story of how she developed her theory, she gives primary credit to these three categories of influence. As such, then, I do not see Rousseau as one of those three “pillars.”

      2. I think Mason’s precise and definitive statement about Rousseau is found in volume 2 (“Parents and Children”) chapter 1. In this chapter she praises Rousseau for the impact he had in awakening parental love for their children. In that regard, she goes as far as calling him a “preacher of righteousness.” That being said, in this chapter she also notes that he had flaws and was not to be considered an authority on the subject of education.

      3. From the perspective of the history of education, Mason’s theory does have some elements that are common with romantics such as Rousseau. These include (a) a belief that all education is self-education, (b) an exploration of the inherent rights of children, (c) a belief that the curriculum itself should be based on the nature of the child, and (d) an enthusiasm for nature study. This is in contrast to the classical approach, with its heavy emphasis on the teacher as the driving force of education, the child as a non-entity who is just the “father of the man,” the curriculum based on the received classical tradition of the trivium and the quadrivium, and an ambivalence towards science and nature study.

      4. The argument in this particular blog article is a nuanced one. I am trying to defeat an interpretation of the quote “We lay no claims to original ideas or methods” which takes it as a literal and absolute statement. I am trying to show that IF it is taken as a literal and absolute statement THEN the context would force the interpretation that Mason’s ideas are one and the same as those of Rousseau, Locke, Pestalozzi, and Froebel. I don’t think any Charlotte Mason educator today believes that. THEREFORE, the quote cannot be taken as a literal and absolute statement and we must interpret it more carefully.

      5. You are right to point out some of the errors in the thinking of Rousseau. But to be fair, we should also consider the errors in the thinking of Plato. Plato, for example, advocated separating children from their parents and raising them as children of the state. Rousseau was not a devout Christian, but nor was Plato. That is why I insist again and again that we look at how Mason, a devout Christian, drew her ideas from Scripture and not from the classical tradition.

      I hope this answers the question.


  2. Thank you for your informative and very helpful reply, Art. Your response gives good information to help with what has confused me concerning Rousseau and quotes by Miss Mason concerning him.

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