Charlotte Mason’s First Principle

Charlotte Mason’s First Principle

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“the ‘Child a Person’ will be the very crux for our Crusade” (Mason, 1904, p. 10)

The first principle of Charlotte Mason’s twenty-point synopsis reads simply:

Children are born persons. (Mason, 1989f, p. xxix)

Comprised of only four words, it is the shortest principle in the synopsis. This economy of wording has contributed to a general state of confusion about what Mason means by this assertion. Contemporary interpreters of Charlotte Mason have approached this principle in a variety of ways.

1. Some interpreters take the first principle to be primarily a statement about the nature of man rather than about the nature of children. For example:

Charlotte Mason understood this, and it is no accident that she begins her series of educational principles by giving her answer to this question of the ages—“what is man?” She knew that every philosophy, including every philosophy of education, must begin and develop naturally around a chosen understanding of man and remain consistent with that conception. (Glass, 2014, p. 12)

2. Other interpreters see in the first principle a statement of the continuity of being between children and adults. It is thought that Mason is simply claiming that ontologically, children and adults are the same kind of thing. For example, it has been suggested that Mason’s first principle asserts what had been previously asserted by St. Augustine:

Thou, therefore, O Lord my God, who gavest life to the infant, and a frame which, as we see, Thou hast endowed with senses, compacted with limbs, beautified with form, and, for its general good and safety, hast introduced all vital energies… (Augustine, 1886, p. 48)

By this interpretation, Mason’s first principle is seen to be contained within biblical statements that demonstrate God’s foreknowledge of the future life of a child:

Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:4-5, ESV, 2016)

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:16, ESV, 2016)

3. Some interpreters suggest that the first principle is primarily a reaction to the theory of evolution, introduced by Charles Darwin with his publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. This interpretation is based on Mason’s refutation of the following error:

A baby is a huge oyster (says one eminent psychologist) whose business is to feed, and to sleep, and to grow. (Mason, 1896, p. 852)

The “eminent psychologist” indicated that he was influenced by the theory of evolution; hence Mason’s first principle is seen as a simple corrective to a scientific idea of the late Victorian era. It is then supposed that Mason is merely advocating a return to a pre-scientific and traditional concept of the nature of the child.

4. Finally, some interpreters understand the first principle to be narrow in scope and incidental or at best complementary to the other nineteen principles, rather than foundational and necessary to a proper understanding of Mason’s method.

In contrast to these various approaches to interpretation, some suggest that Mason’s first principle is a profound truth with dire relevance to the modern church. For example, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay writes:

This first proposition of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy may seem merely a statement of the obvious. But I want to emphasize that it is not some minor element of a greater truth. It is a central truth in its own right, and if we ignore it, great sorrow and malpractice can result. (Macaulay, 1984, p. 12)

How do we adjudicate between the many different viewpoints swirling around the meaning of Mason’s four-word principle? How do we properly understand Mason’s intention behind this phrase? The answer begins with an understanding of the history of Mason’s writings and the unfolding of her theory of education over time.

The unveiling of Mason’s theory of education occurred in her series of Bradford lectures in the winter of 1885. These lectures were collected and published in 1886 as Home Education. Mason significantly revised Home Education in later editions, but it is still possible to consult the original edition to determine the foundational concepts of Mason’s theory of education. Mason later testified that the original edition of Home Education “contains the whole in the germ” of Mason’s theory of education (Mason, 1904, p. 2). Nevertheless, the original volume does not contain the phrase “children are born persons,” or even the word “persons” in connection with children, except for one incidental remark.

In fact, the phrase “children are born persons” does not appear in Mason’s printed works until the publication of the Synopsis itself in 1904, a full 19 years after the Bradford lectures. Mason offers her first dedicated treatment of the concept in an article in The Parents’ Review in 1911, well after the completion of the five-volume Home Education Series. The 1911 article entitled “Children Are Born Persons” (Mason, 1911a) must then be seen as the definitive explanation by Mason of what she meant by the principle, as no other segment of her writing is so explicitly linked to the phrase.

We know that Mason believed this to be an important document since she published it as a standalone booklet several times after its first appearance in The Parents’ Review. The Charlotte Mason Digital Collection contains a 1921 edition of the booklet (entitled “Children As ‘Persons’”) as well as a 1923 edition. The document was also included in Essex Cholmondeley’s The Story of Charlotte Mason, where it appears from pages 220 to 233 under the title “Children As ‘Persons’”. The footnote reads, “Written in 1911 and twice revised by Charlotte Mason” (Cholmondeley, 2000, p. 220).

We learn about the purpose of the original 1911 article from an important letter from Mason to Henrietta Franklin. Mason writes:

About my paper, by all means print it as a pamphlet a good deal if [sic] it has been said before, however — but I wanted to bring it under the idea of a “Reason”. (Mason, 1911b, p. 16)

This letter provides the interpretive key to the article “Children Are Born Persons.” Mason explains that she wrote the 1911 article as a way to collect a number of previously expressed concepts under a single unifying idea. This indicates that many concepts in the article “Children Are Born Persons” must have earlier precedents in Mason’s writings. We can find these precedents by a careful study of “Children Are Born Persons” in which we identify links to earlier ideas in Mason’s writings. This, then, allows us to approach all of Mason’s writings with a full view of her first principle.

All references to “Children Are Born Persons” (Mason, 1911a) in this article will cite the paragraph number. A version of Mason’s 1911 article with numbered paragraphs may be found here. The content of “Children Are Born Persons” is summarized in the second-to-last paragraph:

We have now considered, however inadequately, the greatness of the child as a person, the liberty that is due to him as a person, some forms of oppression which interfere with his proper liberty (most of which come upon him from within), and the aliment which he is to live by – Admiration, Hope and Love. (Mason, 1911a, ¶30)

This paragraph reveals to us the outline of the article, which is made up of four sections:

    1. “the greatness of the child as a person”
    2. “the liberty that is due to him as a person” and “some forms of oppression which interfere with his proper liberty”
    3. “the aliment which he is to live by”
    4. Concluding remarks

1. The Greatness of the Child as a Person

Mason begins her paper by describing “the greatness of the child as a person.” In this opening section, she reaches back to the opening pages of Home Education to explore the nature of the child, and the qualities that make a child different from an adult.

After quoting “Despondency Corrected” by William Wordsworth (c. 1806), Mason describes the error she wishes to correct:

… we regard a person as a product, and have a sort of unconscious formula, something like this: Given such and such conditions of civilization and education, and we shall have such and such a result, with variations. (Mason, 1911a, ¶1)

According to Mason, most people view persons as products. They do not realize the “mystery of a person.” If they did, they would not blunder in education and other fields:

This doctrine, of the mystery of a person is very wholesome and necessary for us in these days; if we even attempted to realize it, we should not blunder as we do in our efforts at social reform, at education, at international relations. (Mason, 1911a, ¶1)

In the second paragraph, Mason explains that “The mystery of a person is indeed divine” (Mason, 1911a, ¶2). Because the mystery of a person is divine, she says, personhood has no bounds and cannot be measured.

Mason then claims that the first principle is revolutionary:

We believe that the first article of our P.N.E.U. educational creed—“children are born persons”—is of a revolutionary character; for what is a revolution but a complete reversal of attitude? And by the time, say, in another decade or two, that we have taken in this single idea, we shall find that we have turned round, reversed our attitude towards children not only in a few particulars, but completely. (Mason, 1911a, ¶3)

In the fourth paragraph, Mason reveals that the first principle is not an assertion of a continuity of being between children and adults. Mason is not simply claiming that ontologically, children and adults are the same kind of thing. Rather, Mason is saying that the “immensity” of the little child is actually greater than that of the mature person:

… the immensity of a person, and the greater immensity of the little child… (Mason, 1911a, ¶4)

Why did Mason choose to use the word immensity? Because of its occurrence in Wordsworth’s 1804 poem “Ode. Intimations of Immortality”, describing the child:

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie

Thy soul’s immensity;

Thou best philosopher, who yet dost keep

Thy heritage, thou eye among the blind, … (Wordsworth, 1828, p. 250)

These lines are among the 23 lines of the ode quoted by Mason on page 8 of the 1886 edition of Home Education. Rather than quoting all 23 lines as she did in 1886, in this 1911 article Mason only includes key phrases from the quoted stanzas:

… when the poet says, “Thou best philosopher,” “Thou eye among the blind,” “haunted for ever by the eternal mind,” “Prophet, Seer blest,” and so on,—phrases that we all know by heart, but how many of us realize? (Mason, 1911a, ¶4)

In 1886, Mason places those phrases in Wordsworth’s original stanza:

Thou best philosopher, who yet dost keep

Thy heritage; thou eye among the blind,

That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,

Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,

Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!

(Mason, 1886, p. 8)

The poem is quoted in a section of Home Education entitled “The Child’s Estate” (p. 7), which continues to page 9 of the 1886 edition. Mason evokes this section of her first book of educational philosophy by directly incorporating the section title in this 1911 article:

But perhaps this latter statement is not so certain; perhaps the land-tax on the Child’s Estate is really inevitable, and it rests with us parents and elders to investigate the property and furnish the returns. (Mason, 1911a, ¶4)

But in spite of Wordsworth’s lofty and poetic language about the child, Mason says that he fell short. “Wordsworth had glimmerings of the truth” (Mason, 1911a, ¶4). He saw only a glimmering of the truth — not the fullness of the truth. Where did Wordsworth fall short? And where is the fullest truth to be found? Mason answers those questions in 1886. In the section “The Child’s Estate,” she writes:

… the whole of that great ode [by Wordsworth], which, next after the Bible, shows the deepest insight into what is peculiar to the children in their nature and estate. (Mason, 1886, p. 8)

This clearly shows that Mason believes that the only document which properly revels the nature of children is the Bible; the second-best is this poem by Wordsworth. But where in the Bible do we find this teaching?

“Of such is the kingdom of heaven.” “Except ye become as little children ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And He called a little child, and set him in the midst.” Here is the Divine estimate of the child’s estate. It is worth while for parents to ponder every utterance in the Gospels about the children, divesting themselves of the notion that these sayings belong, in the first place, to the grown-up people who have become as little children. (Mason, 1886, pp. 8-9)

The teaching is found at the lips of Christ. And Mason finds in these words something far greater than the lofty claims of Wordsworth:

What these profound sayings are, and how much they may mean, it is beyond us to discuss here; only they appear to cover far more than Wordsworth claims for the children in his sublimest reach, “Trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home.” (Mason, 1886, p. 9)

The clear links between this paragraph of “Children Are Born Persons” and Home Education demonstrate that Mason’s statements about “The Child’s Estate” in Home Education pp. 7-9 are meant to be understood as core to the meaning of the first principle.

Mason continues in the next paragraph to contrast children from adults by asserting that little children have a greater ability to appreciate the wonder of all things than do adults (Mason, 1911a, ¶5).

Mason then indicates that we have only two options: “We must either reverence or despise children” (Mason, 1911a, ¶6). We despise children when we regard them as “incomplete and undeveloped beings” (Mason, 1911a, ¶6). Mason chooses the word despise because it is the word Christ used:

We all remember the divine warning, “See that ye despise not one of these little ones” (Mason, 1911a, ¶6)

This is a direct reference by Mason to what she referred to in 1886 as the “code of education in the Gospels”:

It may surprise parents who have not given much attention to the subject to discover also a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ. It is summed up in three commandments, and all three have a negative character, as if the chief thing required of grown-up people is that they should do no sort of injury to the children: Take heed that ye OFFEND notDESPISE not—HINDER notone of these little ones. (Mason, 1886, p. 9)

The next sentence shows that the code is comprehensive:

So run the three educational laws of the New Testament, which, when separately examined, appear to me to cover all the help we can give the children and all the harm we can save them from; that is, whatever is included in training up a child in the way he should go. (Mason, 1886, p. 9)

This code of education from Christ is not some small detail that influences only one small portion of Mason’s theory of education. Rather, Mason bases her entire method on it. For example, she appeals to these words of Christ as her mandate for prohibiting boring lessons:

Almost as bad is the way the child’s intellectual life may be wrecked at its outset by a round of dreary dawdling lessons… (Mason, 1886, p. 12)

So we see that Mason’s first principle is meant to evoke the “code of education in the Gospels,” which is Mason’s distinctively Christian foundation for her philosophy of education.

Continuing her contrast between children and adults in the next paragraph, Mason provides a list of ways that children are superior to mature persons:

  • closeness of observation
  • intensity of emotional experience
  • ability to truly love
  • fertility of imagination
  • rate of learning

The next paragraph says this may seem to be “an absurdly exaggerated statement of a child’s powers and progress” (Mason, 1911a, ¶8) — but Mason asserts that it is sober truth.

In the eighth paragraph, Mason again contrasts children from adults by providing a list of practical accomplishments of children in the first few years of life, such as learning a language. Then Mason differentiates her view of children not only from Wordsworth but also from the evolutionist:

I am considering a child as he is, and am not tracing him either, with Wordsworth, to the heights above, or, with the evolutionist, to the depths below; because a person is a mystery; that is, we cannot explain him or account for him, but must accept him as he is. (Mason, 1911a, ¶8)

In the last paragraph of the first section, Mason asserts that children have evil tendencies and yet are innocent. This is reminiscent of Mason’s second principle: “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil” (Mason, 1989f, p. xxix). In this way, the second principle may be understood as a corollary of the first.

Mason also continues to cite Christ as the foundation of her philosophy: “Christ describes … the humility of little children” (Mason, 1911a, ¶9).

Mason concludes this section with a direct response to people who may assume that her first principle is not revolutionary. To those who think that “children are born persons” is nothing new, Mason writes:

Of course we must, say you; What else does the world do but accept a child as a matter of course?… But are we not going too fast? Do we really accept children as persons… ? (Mason, 1911a, ¶9)

2. The Liberty That is Due to Him as a Person and Some Forms of Oppression Which Interfere With His Proper Liberty

In this second section, Mason moves from the nature and attributes of the child to the inherent rights of the child. She enumerates six distinct rights that the child possesses by virtue of being born a person. She refers to these as “the child’s Bill of Rights” (Mason, 1911a, ¶14), a term that has raised the eyebrows of at least one classical educator (Natal, 1999).

According to Mason, the idea that unifies the various rights of the child is “liberty.” Liberty is the most “inalienable and sacred right of a person qua person” (Mason, 1911a, ¶10). Mason indicates that this is a new revelation: “Parents have suspected as much for a generation or two” (Mason, 1911a, ¶10). What parents have “suspected” (since about 1800), Mason will more fully reveal in the subsequent paragraphs. Parents have been suspecting this since roughly the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who “was the first to recognise that children are born persons.” (Armfield, 1906, p. 77).

Before enumerating the specific rights, Mason lays the groundwork by stating that obedience can only be rightly taught on the basis of moral authority (Mason, 1911a, ¶11). This is a restatement of the third principle of her synopsis, indicating the direct linkage between principles 1 and 3.

Right #1: Freedom from license

In the eleventh paragraph, Mason writes:

… the first duty of the parent is to teach children the meaning of must; and the reason why some parents fail to obtain prompt and cheerful obedience from their children is that they do not recognize “must” in their own lives. (Mason, 1911a, ¶12)

This is a direct parallel from her writing in 1886:

The child has never discovered a background of must behind his mother’s decisions; he does not know that she must not let him break his sister’s playthings, gorge himself with cake, spoil the pleasure of other people, because these things are not right. Let the child perceive that his parents are law-compelled as well as he, that they simply cannot allow him to do the things which have been forbidden, and he submits with the sweet meekness which belongs to his age. (Mason, 1886, pp. 11-12)

By referring again to the opening pages of Home Education, Mason shows that the phrase “Children are born persons” is meant to encompass her teaching from 1886, even though she did not use the term personhood at that time.

In the next paragraph, Mason indicates that the parent is also under authority (Mason, 1911a, ¶13). This is closely related to the fourth principle of her synopsis, indicating the direct linkage between principles 1 and 4. Again, the idea is also presented first in the early pages of Home Education:

Let the child perceive that his parents are law-compelled as well as he, that they simply cannot allow him to do the things which have been forbidden, and he submits with the sweet meekness which belongs to his age. (Mason, 1886 p. 12)

Right #2: Freedom from self-consciousness

In the next paragraph, Mason writes:

The next article in the child’s Bill of Rights is that liberty which we call innocence, and which we find described in the gospels as humility. (Mason, 1911a, ¶14)

The parent should not make the child self-conscious. Mason finds the basis for this right not in the classical tradition but in the teachings of Christ. In this paper, Mason proceeds from Christ’s teaching on the nature of the child to this first right of the child as found “in the gospels.”

Right #3: Access to the banquet

In the fifteenth paragraph, Mason notes that:

Our work in securing children freedom from this tyranny must be positive as well as negative; it is not enough that we abstain from look or word likely to turn a child’s thoughts upon himself, but we must make him master of his inheritance and give him many delightful things to think of… (Mason, 1911a, ¶15)

Mason’s use of the words “positive” and “negative” is again a direct allusion to her first exposition of the “code of education in the Gospels” from 1886:

But, as a matter of fact, the positive is included in the negative, what we are bound to do for the child in what we are forbidden to do to his hurt. (Mason, 1886, p. 9)

So we see that the eleventh principle of the Synopsis is derived directly from the first principle:

11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. (Mason, 1989f, p. xxx)

We see yet another principle deduced by Mason from the nature of the child, as understood from the words of Christ in the Gospels.

Right #4: Freedom from selfishness

Mason then asserts that all children have the right to be free from the tyranny of selfishness, and that this imposes a responsibility upon parents to educate their children properly. Mason provides this guidance:

Selfishness is a tyranny hard to escape from; but some knowledge of human nature, of the fact that the child has, naturally, other desires than those that tend to self-gratification, that he loves to be loved, for example, and that he loves to know, that he loves to serve and loves to give, will help his parents to restore the balance of his qualities and deliver the child from becoming the slave of his own selfishness. (Mason, 1911a, ¶16)

Mason implies that a method of education based on prizes and emulation will strengthen rather than weaken the impulse of selfishness. But she indicates that a method of education based on the child’s desire for knowledge will help deliver the child from this tyranny. Hence we see that Mason’s approach to motivation is directly linked to her understanding of the child as a person.

Right #5: Freedom of thought

Mason writes, “Another liberty we must vindicate for children is freedom of thought” (Mason, 1911a, ¶17). Parents and teachers may not violate the inherent rights of their children by imposing or implanting thoughts, ideas, and opinions. The child must be allowed to (and encouraged to) think for himself.

Right #6: Freedom from superstition

The sixth right of the child is perhaps the most important. Mason writes, “The last tyranny that we can consider is that of superstition” (Mason, 1911a, ¶18). According to Mason, the only way to secure this freedom is by teaching and forming the knowledge of God:

If we would not have our children open to terrors which are very awful to the young, our resource is to give them the knowledge of God, and “the truth shall make them free.” (Mason, 1911a, ¶18)

By quoting John 8:32, Mason reveals again that she is looking to Christ for guidance. Indeed, in this paragraph she shows that the answer was not known to the pre-Christian classical thinkers:

The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, have all of them a single appalling theme, the arbitrary and reckless play of the gods upon human fortunes. Indeed, it has been well said that tragedy in a Christian age is impossible, because the hopelessness of any situation implies the ill-will of the gods; and it is cited as a curious fact that of Shakespeare’s three great tragedies two are laid in pre-Christian times, and the third is brought about by a non-Christian person. (Mason, 1911a, ¶18)

One might object that education cannot teach the knowledge of God, and that such spiritual and religious content is outside the reach of the parent and teacher. But Mason insists that this is not the case, because of the 20th principle of her synopsis:

It is necessary to make children know themselves for spirits, that they may realize how easy and necessary is the access of the divine Spirit to their spirits, how an intimate Friend is with them, unseen, all through their days, how the Almighty is about them to cherish and protect, how the powers of darkness cannot approach them, safe in the keeping of their “Almighty Lover.” (Mason, 1911a, ¶18)

We see yet another principle deduced by Mason directly from the words of Christ in the Gospels.

Mason concludes her presentation of “the child’s Bill of Rights” by insisting upon the responsibility of the parent:

… if a child’s place is a well-ordered heaven, he has his parents to thank for his happy state; and, if he is condemned to a “hell” of unrest and fiery desires and resentments, are his parents without blame? (Mason, 1911a, ¶19)

Mason is again reasserting the responsibilities of parents that she first identified nearly 30 years before in her series of lectures:

And this responsibility is not equally divided between the parents: it is upon the mothers of the present that the future of the world depends, because it is the mothers who have the sole direction of the children’s early, most impressible years. (Mason, 1886, p. 2)

3. The Aliment Which He Is To Live By

In the twentieth paragraph, Mason transitions from discussing the child’s rights to discussing the child’s needs. She indicates that she will be using three lines from Wordsworth’s “Despondency Corrected” (c. 1806) to describe the three main needs.

Need #1: Hope

Mason indicated first that the person lives by hope. The primary evidence she cites is that “Our God is described as ‘the God of Hope.’” While some may scoff and say, “what’s the good of Hope,” Mason counters with:

… hope is a real if not tangible possession, which, like all the best things, we can ask for and have. (Mason, 1911a, ¶21)

Need #2: Love

In the next paragraph, Mason notes that the person lives by love in many dimensions: love to and from others, and love to and from God. But these many dimensions form a unity: “As all love implies a giving and a receiving, it is not necessary to divide currents that meet” (Mason, 1911a, ¶22). And this is not “a consuming and unreasonable affection for any individual,” but rather “the outgoing of love from us in all directions and the in taking of love from all sources” (Mason, 1911a, ¶22).

Mason cites Scriptural authority for the three great needs of the child. She equates Wordsworth’s admiration, hope, and love with St. Paul’s “faith, hope, and love” (1 Co 13:13, ESV, 2016). Two of the words match; Mason then equates “admiration” with “faith.” For the second time now, Mason indicates how close Wordsworth comes to articulating the perfect truth of God’s Word:

… the whole of that great ode [by Wordsworth], which, next after the Bible, shows the deepest insight into what is peculiar to the children in their nature and estate. (Mason, 1886, p. 8)

Need #3: Admiration (Faith)

Mason now describes the third great need of the person, “admiration” (Wordsworth) or “faith” (St. Paul). In this paragraph, Mason notes that admiration or faith is conveyed to the child primarily through atmosphere: “we may not talk much about the matter” (Mason, 1911a, ¶23). This is reminiscent of the sixth principle of her synopsis, indicating the direct linkage between principles 1 and 6.

In the twenty-fourth paragraph, Mason indicates that the most important thing to convey in education is the knowledge of God:

[Parents] believe that the knowledge of God, faith in a God, is the vital thing, and it is truly that which they are most anxious that their children should possess… (Mason, 1911a, ¶24)

This is in contrast to classical education, where virtue is the highest aim. Some may claim that the knowledge of God is a religious matter that cannot be conveyed through education. But Mason counters this notion by saying:

I think it would help us if we realized that at no time in their lives are children ignorant of God, that the ground is always prepared for this seed, and that the mother’s only care need be to avoid platitudes and hackneyed expressions, and speak with the freshness and fervour of her own convictions. (Mason, 1911a, ¶24)

Since the knowledge of God is the natural (not supernatural) condition of the child, it is a proper focus of education. And Mason points to narration of the Bible text as a key means to achieve it (where meditation is mental narration):

I think we might make more use than we do of the habit of meditation as a means of attaining to the knowledge of God. (Mason, 1911a, ¶24)

Mason explains what is meant by meditation in her 1906 article by that name:

But all this is not meditation? No; but at the end, the mother, or teacher, might say, “You awake sometimes before nurse comes. If you should do so to-morrow, you might tell this story to yourself without leaving out a word.” This is one of the pleasant things a child will love to do; and here we have meditation, not in its initial stage, but in perfection; because this act of mental narration has the curious effect of bringing before the mind’s eye the persons and the action of the tale, somewhat as they would appear in a cinemetograph; and, with the progress of the story and the action of the figures, come into the mind the ideas proper to it—you meditate in the fullest sense of the word.

This manner of meditation might well be recommended to children of all ages; their own evening devotional reading forming the subject of their morning meditation, or vice versa, whichever is the more convenient. (Mason, 1906, p. 708)

By equating meditation with narration, Mason points to the fourteenth principle of her synopsis, indicating the direct linkage between principles 1 and 14.

Mason then returns to the subject of hope and expounds on the idea that “We must bring young people upon this tonic” of hope (Mason, 1911a, ¶25). In paragraph 26, she describes in more detail how the grace of hope may be communicated to children.

In the next paragraph, Mason asserts again that the knowledge of God is the highest aim and reward of life: “the knowledge of God, is the ineffable reward set before us…” (Mason, 1911a, ¶27). In speaking of life, Mason sees a radical continuity between this life and the next. Instead of reducing hope to a longing for the next world, Mason indicates that hope now and in the hereafter is largely the same:

… there is no hint given us of change in place, but only of change of state; that, conceivable, the works we have begun, the interests we have established, the labours for others which we have undertaken, the loves which constrain us – may still be our occupation in the unseen life – it may be that, with such a possibility before us, we shall spend our days with added seriousness and endeavour, and with a great unspeakable Hope. (Mason, 1911a, ¶27)

Mason elaborates on the common nature of this life and the next in a 1911 letter to Henrietta Franklin:

Do you mind my asking you to read again Vol. II. of the little red books [of The Saviour of the World] pp. 71-76 and Vol. III. pp. 106-117. I have tried to say there in a very crude way something of what I mean. (I know you too receive Jesus as “a teacher sent from God” and that is all the argument requires). But l want to tell you why I feel I must go on living as long as I am allowed. I do not look for anything in the way of punishment or reward or compensation more than of the sort I get here – with the one vast exception of “life more abounding,” that is, I think God-knowledge, God-consciousness.

But there will be there
So much to do
So much to know
So much to see
So much to love

At the present time people can only see, know, do, love, as they are prepared, and I have a notion we have to begin the things in the flesh. We shall go on with it in the spirit. All the people we shall meet we ought to know, realise, first; all the flowers in the world — all the stars in the universe (and I know no astronomy to speak of!)

Of course “His servants shall serve Him” always in all manners and we don’t know which is first or last of the ways, you remember Browning’s Lazarus, how intensely insignificant things attracted him.

I shouldn’t wonder if this is the sort of Gospel our age is waiting for and we are so sick waiting that we play like tired children at a fair. (Mason, 1911c, p. 18)

Mason indicates that in order to fix this hope in children, we must fix hope first in our own hearts.

Then in paragraph twenty-nine, Mason returns to the subject of love, and indicates that atmosphere is the primary means to convey this grace to children:

If we ourselves love those things which be lovely, why, love is contagious, and the children will do as we do. (Mason, 1911a, ¶29).

4. Concluding Remarks

In the thirtieth paragraph, cited above, Mason reveals the structure of the article. And in conclusion, Mason quotes once again the poems she quoted at the beginning.


In her paper, Mason claims several times that the first principle is revolutionary. She states that the general idea has only been suspected of for “a generation or two” (¶10). This perspective is explained by an earlier lecture to a PNEU audience. On November 24, 1906, a woman named Miss Shakespeare addressed a PNEU gathering in Oakleigh, Duppas Hill. Her topic was “The Child in Literature.” In her address, she “reviewed the treatment of children in the literature of the world down to the present day” (Armfield, 1906, p. 77). We are told that she began with the ancients:

She pointed out that children had always been treated objectively in the literature of the Ancients and showed that it was comparatively recently that the point of view had changed. She read quotations from Homer and other writers to prove this and to show the passionate love for children even in those days. (Armfield, 1906, p. 77)

According to this PNEU lecturer, the classical Greek view of the child, as expressed by Homer and others, was “objective.” But “comparatively recently” something had changed – the contemporary view of children was no longer “objective” (Armfield, 1906, p. 77).

In Miss Shakespeare’s lecture she “[passed] over the middle ages,” for it “gives us no picture of childhood, not even from the pen of Chaucer.” Next “the lecturer dwelt on the formalities and ceremony existing between parents and children in the 17th and 18th centuries, quoting from Montaigne to show to what lengths these formalities went.” Miss Shakespeare particularly noted the view of John Locke:

The lecturer mentioned Locke’s view of the mind of a child as a sheet of blank paper to be written on to show how entirely objective the point of view still was. (Armfield, 1906, p. 77)

Miss Shakespeare then describes a change:

She then went on to Rousseau, pointing out that he was the first to recognise that children are born persons, and how from his day onward the ideas about children had been gradually changing until to-day the point of view had become entirely subjective; the rights of children were recognised, their individuality was given room to expand, and they were treated with a wise and thinking love. Miss Shakespeare illustrated this gradual change of attitude towards children by delightful and pertinent extracts from the literature of each period. (Armfield, 1906, p. 77)

With the appearance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, children began to be seen from a subjective point of view: children were seen as persons. According to Shakespeare, the implications of that point of view were:

  • “The rights of children were recognized”
  • “their individuality was given room to expand”
  • “they were treated with a wise and thinking love”

This perspective aligns perfectly with the content of “Children Are Born Persons,” in which Mason explicitly lays out “the child’s Bill of Rights” (¶14).

Mason describes a progression of thought that occurred between the time of Rousseau and her own day. In The Parents’ Review in 1896, Mason says that “our grandfathers and grandmothers had one saving principle, which, for the last two or three decades, we have been, of set purpose, labouring to lose” (Mason, 1896, p. 851). Mason’s grandparents were parenting around 1800, shortly after the death of Rousseau. Something changed two or three decades before the time of Mason’s writing, which would be sometime between 1866-1876.

In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. This influenced the thinking of many in Mason’s day, including James Sully, who published Studies of Childhood in 1895. In the 1896 article, Mason writes:

A baby is a huge oyster (says one eminent psychologist) whose business is to feed, and to sleep, and to grow. Even Professor Sully, in his most delightful book, is torn in two. The children have conquered him, have convinced him beyond doubt that they are as ourselves, only more so. But then he is an evolutionist, and feels himself pledged to accommodate the child to the principles of evolution. (Mason, 1896, p. 852)

Mason describes a change of attitude which was due to the influence of the theory of evolution. Note, however, that this does not indicate a change in the trajectory of thought from the objective view to the subjective view. Every indication given by Mason’s description of the impact of Sully and related ideas is consistent with an increasingly subjective view of children.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand that Mason’s first principle cannot be reduced to a refutation of the evolutionary “oyster” concept. In “Children Are Born Persons,” evolution is mentioned only once, but then as one piece of a much larger picture:

I am considering a child as he is, and am not tracing him either, with Wordsworth, to the heights above, or, with the evolutionist, to the depths below; because a person is a mystery; that is, we cannot explain him or account for him, but must accept him as he is. (Mason, 1911a, ¶8)

Recall that according to Mason, Wordsworth, “next after the Bible, shows the deepest insight into what is peculiar to the children in their nature and estate” (Mason, 1886, p. 8). For Mason, the fullness is found in the words of Christ, and if we enter into those words by faith, we enter into a revolution. Edward Lyttelton, former Eton headmaster, recognized the revolutionary nature of Mason’s “subjective view” of the child:

Lyttleton [sic] speaking in 1922 had said that C. M. Mason had made ‘the great educational discovery of the age’.

‘The discovery,’ said Elsie Kitching, ‘is that Persons have minds and that minds need relations and that relations are inspired by the Holy Spirit’ (Cholmondeley, 1956, p. 6)

A helpful test to see if a parent or teacher understands the first principle is to consider these words of Mason:

Now place a teacher before a class of persons the beauty and immensity of each one of whom I have tried to indicate and he will say, “What have I to offer them?” His dull routine lessons crumble into the dust they are when he faces children as they are.

We take off our shoes from off our feet; we ‘did not know it was in them,’ whether we be their parents, their teachers or mere lookers-on. And with some feeling of awe upon us we shall be the better prepared to consider how and upon what children should be educated. (Mason, 1989f, pp. 44-45)

If we look at our children and do not have that “feeling of awe,” then we don’t understand Mason’s first principle. If our routine lessons do not crumble into dust, then we have not faced “children as they are.” If we don’t recognize our own poverty, and ask “What have I to offer” the children, then we have not yet entered the revolution.

Mason claims that children are born with several powers:

  • “all the powers necessary wherewith to realize and appropriate all knowledge, all beauty and all goodness” (Mason, 1911a, ¶15)
  • “the degree of power to deal with knowledge which will belong to himself as a man” (Mason, 1989e, p. 363)
  • “all the mind he requires for his occasions” (Mason, 1989f, p. 36)

The implication is that we must abandon the classical notion of teaching our children the tools of learning:

Therefore our business is to feed him daily with the knowledge proper for him … rather than to furnish him with the tools for dealing with knowledge, or even to make him an expert in the use of these tools… (Mason, 1989e, p. 363)

Furthermore, we must recognize the rights of the child. In Mason’s other writings, she enumerates additional rights of children as persons not enumerated in her 1911 paper:

  • “the right of each individual to develop on the lines of his own character” (Mason, 1989c, p. 138)
  • “our first care should be to preserve the individuality, give play to the personality, of children” (Mason, 1989a, p. 186)
  • “we may not meddle directly with the personality of child or man” (Mason, 1989c, p. 183)
  • “we cannot commit a greater offence than to maim or crush, or subvert any part of a person” (Mason, 1989f, p. 80)

It is impossible to overstate the foundational importance of the first principle to Mason’s theory of education. We have seen from the 1911 paper that principles 2, 3, 4, 6, 11, 14, and 20 are all derived from principle 1. Indeed, Mason states that “the ‘Child a Person’ will be the very crux for our Crusade” (Mason, 1904, p. 10). It is inconceivable that the crux of the crusade is a return to classical philosophy. Rather, Mason’s 1911 paper directly alludes to her 1886 conception of the “code of education in the Gospels,” which encompasses “whatever is included in training up a child in the way he should go” (Mason, 1886, p. 9). We see then that the “crux for our Crusade” is nothing less than the code of education in the Gospels.

Thus we see that the principle “Children are born persons” is a major statement that contains a multitude of derived ideas. After Mason’s death, it was seen as a fundamental rule to identify what is faithful to her method:

[Mason] always tested each new idea by the underlying principles of her philosophy—“A child is a Person” and as such requires food for the soul and mind as the body does. (Franklin, 1927, p. 182)

That rule is applicable today. Any interpretation that does not support this test is a counterfeit Mason method. Embrace this test and enter the revolution today. These ideas still have the power to change the world, one parent or teacher at a time. The next one to change could be you.


Armfield, F. (1906). P.N.E.U. notes. In The Parents’ Review, volume 17 (pp. 75-80). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Augustine of Hippo. (1886). The Confessions of St. Augustin. In P. Schaff (Ed.), J. G. Pilkington (Trans.), The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work (Vol. 1, p. 48). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

Cholmondeley, E. (1956). Untitled. In Elsie Kitching, 1870-1955: Recollections, pp. 4-6. Oxford: Holywell Press.

Cholmondeley, E. (2000). The story of Charlotte Mason. Petersfield: Child Light Ltd.

ESV. (2016). The Holy Bible: English standard version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Franklin, H. (1927). Report of the P.N.E.U. meeting. In The Parents’ Review volume 38, pp. 182-183. London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Glass, K. (2014). Consider this: Charlotte Mason and the classical tradition. Publisher: Author.

Macaulay, S. (1984). For the children’s sake. Wheaton: Crossway Books.

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

Mason, C. (1896). Whence and whither. In The Parents’ Review, volume 6 (pp. 850-855). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Mason, C. (1904). Letters from Charlotte Mason to Henrietta Franklin. Ancaster: Redeemer University College.

Mason, C. (1906). Meditation. In The Parents’ Review, volume 17 (pp. 707-719)

Mason, C. (1911a). Children are born persons. In The Parents’ Review, volume 22 (pp. 419-437). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Mason, C. (1911b). Wallet of copies (transcripts) of letters from Charlotte Mason. Ancaster: Redeemer University College.

Mason, C. (1911c). Letters from Charlotte Mason to Henrietta Franklin. Ancaster: Redeemer University College.

Mason, C. (1989a). Home education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.

Mason, C. (1989c). School education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.

Mason, C. (1989e). Formation of character. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.

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

Natal, A. R. (1999). Charlotte Mason: For whose sake?

Wordsworth, W. (1828). The poetical works of William Wordsworth. Paris: A. and W. Galignani.

5 Replies to “Charlotte Mason’s First Principle”

  1. Was Charlotte Mason wholly in agreement with Rousseau? My understanding is that he rejected any idea of original sin and believed that children were corrupted by society and education? Do I have incorrect views of Rousseau (whom I have admittedly not read for myself)? Or is there somewhere where Charlotte Mason distinguishes herself from his ideas?

    Thanks as always for your careful and indepth research!

    1. Nancy,

      Thank you for reading my article and asking this interesting question. No, Charlotte Mason was not in total agreement with Rousseau. Mason’s balanced view of Rousseau may be 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.” But in this chapter she also notes that he had flaws and was not to be considered an authority on the subject of education.

      However 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 an objective entity, the curriculum based on the received classical tradition of the trivium and the quadrivium, and an ambivalence towards science and nature study. The PNEU was aware of its own place in educational history, and many articles in The Parent’s Review discuss Rousseau.

      You are right to point out some of the errors in the thinking of Rousseau. Rousseau was not a devout Christian, but Mason was. She had no problem disagreeing with anyone — from Plato to Rousseau — whenever that person’s ideas did not line up with her understanding of Scripture.


  2. Thanks for an excellent article!
    I have a question regarding right #5: Freedom of Thought. You write, “Parents and teachers may not violate the inherent rights of their children by imposing or implanting thoughts, ideas, and opinions. The child must be allowed to (and encouraged to) think for himself.” Can you clarify this statement? What exactly would it look like for a parent to impose or implant an idea, thought, or opinion in a way that is harmful to a child? Is this not one of the very reasons Mason had for giving children living books to read, that they may feed upon ideas and great thoughts?

    1. Jessica,

      Thank you for reading my article and asking this very astute question. This sentence was my paraphrase of paragraph 17 of Mason’s “Children Are Born Persons”:

      Parents and teachers may not violate the inherent rights of their children by imposing or implanting thoughts, ideas, and opinions. The child must be allowed to (and encouraged to) think for himself.

      I probably should have phrased this better, because you are absolutely right, giving children living ideas is a hallmark of a Charlotte Mason education.

      Paragraph 17 opens with “Another liberty we must vindicate for children is freedom of thought.” In my notes, I connected this with volume 3, pp. 42-43, which also uses the term “freedom of thought” in a chapter entitled “Some of the Rights of Children as Persons.” I will quote that section in its entirety:

      We have only room to mention one more point in which all of us, who have the care of young people, would do well to practise a wise ‘letting alone.’ There are burning questions in the air, seething opinions in men’s minds: as to religion, politics, science, literature, art, as regards every kind of social effort, we are all disposed to hold strenuous opinions. The person who has not kept himself in touch with the movement of the thought of the world in all these matters has little cause to pride himself. It is our duty to form opinions carefully, and to hold them tenaciously in so far as the original grounds of our conclusions remain unshaken. But what we have no right to do, is to pass these opinions on to our children. We all know that nothing is easier than to make vehement partisans of young people, in any cause heartily adopted by their elders. But a reaction comes, and the swinging of the pendulum is apt to carry them to a point of thought painfully remote from our own. The mother of the Newmans was a devoted Evangelical, and in their early years passed her opinions over to her sons, ready-made; believing, perhaps, that the line of thought they received from her was what they had come to by their own thinking. But when they are released from the domination of their mother’s opinions, one seeks anchorage in the Church of Rome, and another will have no restriction as to his freedom of thought and will, and chooses to shape for himself his own creed or negation of a creed. Perhaps this pious mother would have been saved some anguish if she had given her children the living principles of the Christian faith, which are not matters of opinion, and allowed them to accept her particular practice in their youth without requiring them to take their stand on Evangelical opinions as offering practically the one way of salvation.

      In politics, again, let children be fired with patriotism and instructed in the duties of citizenship, but, if they can be kept out of the party strife of an election, well for them. Children are far more likely to embrace the views of their parents, when they are ripe to form opinions, if these have not been forced upon them in early youth when their lack of knowledge and experience makes it impossible for them to form opinions at first hand. Only by masterly inactivity,’ ‘wise passiveness,’ able ‘letting alone,’ can a child be trained—

      “To reverence his conscience as his king.”

      Hopefully that passage from volume 3 gives you a sense of how Mason thought it could be harmful to impose an opinion on a child. Perhaps I should remove the word “idea” from my paraphrase and change it to the following:

      Parents and teachers may not violate the inherent rights of their children by imposing or implanting thoughts and opinions. The child must be allowed to (and encouraged to) think for himself.

      Do you think that would be in better alignment with paragraph 17 of Mason’s “Children Are Born Persons” and pages 42-43 of School Education?


  3. Thank you for your clarification. What wisdom in these warnings from Mason! Thank you for prompting us all to think through these things. I have much to ponder.

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