Cultivating a Divine Education with Charlotte Mason

Cultivating a Divine Education with Charlotte Mason

I first encountered the philosophy of Charlotte Mason when my oldest child was just three years old. We joined a book club studying A Charlotte Mason Companion, and my heart was stirred by the vision of a homeschool centered on goodness and beauty. I was drawn to this method that left space in the day for me and my children to enjoy God. My homeschool motto became “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God: But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,”[1] an excerpt of a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. With this poem in mind, I set out to use the philosophy of Charlotte Mason to help my children see the goodness of God in the world.

Charlotte Mason’s Principle 20 says this:

We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.[2]

She also wrote that:

The Indwelling of Christ is a thought particularly fit for the children, because their large faith does not stumble at the mystery, their imagination leaps readily to the marvel, that the King Himself should inhabit a little child’s heart.[3]

These principles encapsulated my hopes for my children, my desire that they would love God and glorify Him forever, and I believe a Charlotte Mason education is a tool to that end.

But what are some of the ways that we do this, that we help our children to grow up with an awareness of God in this earth? And can we do it while still giving our children a solid education? First we need to define education: what does it mean and what is our end goal? We are given standards by the state that we are supposed to adhere to, but to what end are these standards given, and is it safe to diverge, to go a different path? Charlotte Mason, in her book Towards a Philosophy of Education said this:

The educational thought we hear most about is, as I have said, based on sundry Darwinian axioms out of which we get the notion that nothing matters but physical fitness and vocational training. However important these are, they are not the chief thing.[4]

She recognized, even then, that the educational system was ignoring spiritual nurture in favor of solely nurturing the ability to make money, and our current educational system is geared along those same lines. She goes on to say that “the period when Germany made her school curriculum utilitarian marks the beginning of her moral downfall.”[5]

We can see this reflected in society today. There is such an emphasis in schools on getting good test scores, to the exclusion of the spiritual and physical well-being of the child, to the detriment of society. But as homeschooling parents, we are free to take a different path, one that honors the pursuit of higher things than just sports acumen and good grades. John Ruskin defined the goal of education in this way:

And the entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things:—not merely industrious, but to love industry—not merely learned, but to love knowledge—not merely pure, but to love purity—not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice.[6]

We don’t need to be afraid of leaving holes by not covering everything that is prescribed by the state standards. We can present a feast of ideas, beautiful literature, heroic characters, and the finest art and music. We can let our children explore subjects of interest to them, and let them develop connections between ideas, people, and God. We can be confident that our children will get a great education even though we’ve prioritized spiritual development.

What then, are some practical steps to truly educating our children, to making them aware that “Earth’s crammed with heaven?”

Charlotte Mason Distinctives

Charlotte Mason had a motto — “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life” — which has guided Charlotte Mason homeschools for many years. Charlotte believed that one third of education is atmosphere, so when you begin homeschooling, one of the first things that should be done, before buying curriculum, or signing your children up for classes, is to create a home atmosphere that reflects our love for God. She says:

Every look of gentleness and tone of reverence, every word of kindness and act of help, passes into the thought-environment, the very atmosphere which the child breathes; he does not think of these things, may never think of them, but all his life long they excite that ‘vague appetency towards something’ out of which most of his actions spring.[7]

There are several factors to setting up this atmosphere. As you evaluate your home, take steps to get rid of things and attitudes that don’t communicate a divine atmosphere. The atmosphere is primarily educating your child by the way people in your home treat each other. Are harsh words and insults allowed to pass unnoticed? Do you take the time to talk through issues with your children? Do you as parents pursue time with God so that you can allow His Spirit to give you the joy and peace you need as you seek to bring up your children?

In our home we have also begun to recognize the importance of forgiveness for connecting with God and seeing His presence in the world. When we hold on to irritations towards each other, we give the enemy a chance to bother us. Ephesians 4:26–27 says, “do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil” (NKJV). Because of this, I teach my children to say the Lord’s Prayer, and we take care to thoroughly forgive offenses so that we can stay close to the heart of God.

This area of atmosphere and of communicating our values to our children by our behavior makes us aware of how important it is to leave margin in our daily schedule. If your family is always pressed for time, you won’t be able to stay patient or take the time to help your children work through relational issues. We need time to be able to cultivate a heavenly atmosphere. If Moses had gone rushing by the burning bush because he was late for gymnastics, he would have totally missed his destiny. We need time to develop the ability to see.

It is important to also carefully evaluate the books, movies, and toys that we have in our home. Ask ourselves, do these bring joy to our home? Do these books and movies and toys cultivate a love for God in my children or do they create a drain on the atmosphere of our home? You can ask the same thing about your schedule, and even your practical belongings such as your furniture could either inspire or deplete. Simple things like getting rid of clutter, opening the windows to let in fresh air, shutting off the TV or internet for a few hours, hanging a beautiful print on the wall, or playing a classical composer or inspiring worship music all contribute to a divine atmosphere that is passively educating your child.

Habits

Another important Charlotte Mason distinctive is the importance of good habits. Charlotte Mason claimed that another third of education is the discipline of habit. Charlotte Mason says in her book Home Education:

The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures for herself smooth and easy days; while she who lets their habits take care of themselves has a weary life of endless friction with the children.[8]

I have tried both ways with my young children, and I can definitely say that it is much easier to homeschool children who have basic good habits than to try and instruct children who won’t do anything you tell them to, and who don’t know how to take basic care of themselves.

Taking the time before school starts to teach your children how to make their own beds, brush their teeth, and do some basic chores not only makes it much easier to add in daily teaching, but is also important preparation for life. There are also habits that are equally important but not what immediately comes to mind when we think of habits. Obedience is a cultivated habit. It is important to only ask your children to do what you are willing to require, because allowing everything to be up for negotiation can create an insecure atmosphere both for us and our children. When we can teach our children while they are young to listen when we speak to them, and respect what we say, we are ultimately teaching them to listen to God and respect what He says. I am continuing to work on developing habits with my children. I love to see them happy and having fun, so I hesitate sometimes to call them back to clean up after themselves when they have moved on to the next messy game, and I can be as lazy and selfish as the next person, sometimes preferring to continue with my own projects rather than enforce good habits in my children. However, the rest that we gain when we take the time while our children are young to instill good habits cannot be measured. Freedom should be commensurate with responsibility, and we give our children a gift that will serve them their entire lives when we teach them while they are young to have self-control and good habits.

You can find resources such The Chore and Routine Pack from The Peaceful Press to help with habit formation, or simply write a list of habits you want to work on, as well as practical steps to develop them, and perhaps a verse or two to reinforce the habit as you work on it.

Life

The other third of this equation is the presentation of living ideas, thus the Charlotte Mason maxim, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.” Charlotte Mason said:

Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food.[9]

She goes on to say that we should give children a generous curriculum of ideas through presenting books and art and music. Therefore we present information to our children primarily through living books and experiences as opposed to workbooks or textbooks. Living books can also be defined as great literature. Because we are using engaging books, our children more readily relate to the stories that are being read, and more readily retain the core information. It isn’t just information that we are passing on. As we present our children with books about heroic deeds and people, we begin to inspire our children toward heroic deeds themselves. In The Playful Pioneers we read through The Little House on the Prairie books, and there are so many noble ideas that are communicated in these books. For instance, when we read about Pa giving away his shoe money to help buy a church bell, we are inspired to give sacrificially towards a good cause. Or when we read about how quickly Laura and Mary obeyed their Ma’s instructions to lie down while crossing the flooded river, we can easily see how important obedience was to their survival in that situation. Living books don’t just form a great vocabulary in your children; they form a world view — they highlight to our children good and evil, and a noble way of living.

Karen Andreola says that the test of literature must be that it brings us truth, nobility, and beauty. There are modern books that do all three, but what living books are not, and what should be avoided, are books that promote a hopeless worldview. Truth alone will not cultivate in our children the hope that they need to be light-bringers in a troubled world. Nobility and beauty are those elements that will cultivate in our children a heavenly perspective on life.

This idea of presenting a feast of ideas is not limited to just literature. In fact, the most important book to teach our children from is the Bible. Charlotte Mason said:

Of the three sorts of knowledge proper to a child,—the knowledge of God, of man, and of the universe,—the knowledge of God ranks first in importance, is indispensable, and most happy-making.[10]

This means that daily reading from the Bible, as well as memorization of Bible verses, should be a top priority. As we give our children a divine education, we present the Bible to them, but we also help them see God in many other aspects of education. We infuse our schooling with an awareness of God. Children in the early grades of a Charlotte Mason school read daily from a whole variety of books including poetry, historical fiction and biography, fairy tales and fables, and books of natural history and geography. You can find lists of books that are recommended in each grade through the many amazing Charlotte Mason resources available and The Peaceful Press has free book lists on our website as well.

Narration, simply the art of retelling, leads to many opportunities to point out the goodness of God to my children as we relate the circumstances in stories that we read to our own lives. As we read living books together, including the Bible, our discussions become hope-filled as we see the hand of God in the thread of history. Composition then is easily taught using your narrations as a guide. As your children read and listen to great books being read, they are being taught by the masters how to communicate beautifully through written words. Much as a painter begins by copying the masters before he creates his own original compositions, our children are being taught how to create soul-stirring and God-glorifying writing by first reading and copying from this type of writing. Karen Andreola says, “A good writing style is the result of the regular use of narration and whole books over a period of years.”[11]

We first start out with oral narration, along with copying sections of our readings, and as our children develop, we begin to have them write longer retellings. In A Charlotte Mason Companion, they don’t even introduce grammar until the fourth grade, so that the early years focus solely on reading great books, including the Bible, copying and narrating from those books, and memorizing passages, especially Bible and poetry passages. With such rich literature, this eliminates the need for a separate vocabulary program. When you are reading aloud to your child from living books, and they are reading, they will naturally pick up a wide vocabulary. If your child asks the meaning of a word, or you come across an unfamiliar word, by all means look it up, but much is taught naturally by reading, and this deep understanding of words is going to be a huge key to eventual college success, but more importantly this expanded vocabulary gives them more ways to express the work of God in the world around them. So the basic core of a Charlotte Mason education is presenting ideas through reading living books and narration. Because you aren’t busy with a lot of workbooks and twaddle, you then have time to delve deeply into history, nature study, and the arts, and this is how a Charlotte Mason education can really awaken your child to the presence of God in the world.

In a Charlotte Mason education, history is taught primarily through reading stories about famous historical figures and events. As we read books such as The Matchlock Gun or Sarah Witcher’s Story, we are transported to these places. Those books spark other studies revolving around the geography of the place or other people groups that were encountered in the books. We can further cement these ideas through narration, adding notes on a timeline, or writing down favorite quotes in a commonplace book. As we expose our children to the thread of history from Genesis to the present time, we are exposing our children to the faithfulness of God. While good people may go through hard times, God is always present and always working things out for our good and his glory. We give our children a deep sense of the faithfulness of God as we share the stories of people such as Abraham, Joseph, David, Solomon, Jesus, Paul, Joan of Arc, Julian of Norwich, King Richard the Lionheart, Isaac Newton, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Anne Hutchinson, Florence Nightingale, Amy Carmichael, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Ernest Shackleton, and Corrie ten Boom. These are flawed people, yet they are people who trusted God to the best of their ability and whose actions exhibited bravery and trust. As we teach history through living, hopeful books, we give our children the inspiration they need to be brave and hopeful people.

Science, too, is another way to show our children that earth is crammed with heaven, observed through direct interaction with nature and nature’s God. One of our favorite life science episodes was when we lived in Mexico and brought home a hermit crab from one of our beach nature walks. We were reading Pagoo by Holling C. Holling at the time, which makes the sea life come alive for young children, while simultaneously watching a little hermit crab molt and find a new shell before we returned it to its tidal home. We also journaled our observations in a nature notebook. This time spent outdoors was a natural and vital part of our life and provided our children not only with a variety of experiences and education about nature, but also with an increased appreciation for God through his marvelous handiwork. John James Audubon said this about his own experiences in nature:

My father generally accompanied my steps, procured birds and flowers for me with great eagerness,—pointed out the elegant movements of the former, the beauty and softness of their plumage, … and the always perfect forms and splendid attire of the latter. [He] would then speak of the departure and return of birds with the seasons, would describe their haunts, and, more wonderful than all, their change of livery; thus exciting me to study them, and to raise my mind toward their great Creator.[12]

This is just another of the ways that we are showing our children that earth is crammed with heaven in a Charlotte Mason education. Charlotte recommended that time spent in nature happened every day. In a Charlotte Mason homeschool, you would spend the morning on reading, writing and math, and then a large part of the afternoon would be spent in free play outside. As your children play outside, you can take some time to point out to them seasonal changes, weather, creatures, plants, or other nature observations, which could be the basis of an entry in your nature journals.

Some mothers feel worried that without workbook pages to prove you are learning, you will fall behind. But you don’t need to worry about holes, or about not covering enough ground. You aren’t a servant to a scope and sequence, and if you take a moment to think about it, you know that your child is always learning. So instead of fretting away this glorious opportunity, you can present your child with an overview of history from a godly perspective, with beautiful art and music that promotes reflection, and with time to paint or practice an instrument, or dance, or just sit by a creek and enjoy God’s amazing creation.

Happily, these creative pursuits such as art, music, and handcrafts are an essential part of a Charlotte Mason education as well. Ian Morgan Cron writes:

… the object of all great art is beauty, and it makes us nostalgic for God. Whether we consider ourselves people of faith or not, art arouses in us … a ‘universal desire for redemption.’[13]

Art and music should not be pushed aside in our efforts to “cover the basics.” Through picture study, we present to our children prints of the great works of art so that they learn to see and observe and to tune their hearts to heaven. Charlotte Mason said:

[Art] is of the spirit, and in ways of the spirit must we make our attempt. We recognise that the power of appreciating art and of producing to some extent an interpretation of what one sees is as universal as intelligence, imagination, nay, speech, the power of producing words. But there must be knowledge and, in the first place, not the technical knowledge of how to produce, but some reverent knowledge of what has been produced…[14]

So we present to our children prints of the great works of art so that they learn to see and observe and to tune their hearts to heaven. Charlotte Mason quoted Browning to make her point:

“For, don’t you mark, we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see.”[15]

So a bird or a flower that you may not have noticed in passing will suddenly stand out to you when you have seen it painted. We begin to have greater appreciation for what we see with our own eyes when we see how artists have perceived these things, and these perceptions turn our hearts toward heaven. Great art is another of those signposts of heaven, and in a Charlotte Mason homeschool, we keep favorite works of art accessible to our children in the form of prints, or even postcards or memory games. We familiarize our children with beauty.

Much like art, great music is another way that we give our children an awareness of God. As we present to our children classical composers and inspired modern music artists, we are giving them a glimpse of the heart of God. This kind of music doesn’t turn us away from God or cause us to anesthetize the pain that we encounter in our daily lives, but it points us to God. As C.S. Lewis said:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing… For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.[16]

Conclusion

So as we diverge from a utilitarian form of schooling, one that Ivan Illich describes as simply “the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is,”[17] what are the results that we can hope for? We can hope that our children will learn to read well and communicate well from absorbing the best of written communication. We can hope that our children will not only have the math skills required to navigate society but will also have a sense of admiration and respect of absolute truth that is reflected in mathematical principles. We can hope that our children will have a hopeful worldview that makes them believe that they can have an impact for good on the world as countless historical personages have had. We can hope that our children will have encounters with God as they observe both His creation in nature, and the creative artistry of great artists and composers. We can hope that through this divine education of an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life, our children will learn to love and follow God.

This isn’t some whimsical, feeble hope; it’s the secure hope described by Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —[18]

It’s hope that sings in the gale and the storm. It’s the unabashed hope that empowers our children to be those people who take off their shoes, in awe of the presence and beauty of God in their world.

Endnotes

[1] Aurora Leigh.
[2] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxxi.
[3] Home Education, p. 352.
[4] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 5.
[5] Ibid., pp. 5–6.
[6] The Works of John Ruskin, vol. 18, pp. 435–436.
[7] Parents and Children, p. 36.
[8] Home Education, p. 136.
[9] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 109.
[10] Ibid., p. 158.
[11] A Charlotte Mason Companion, p. 144.
[12] Ornithological Biography, p. vi.
[13] Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale, p. 109.
[14] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 214.
[15] Ibid., p. 215.
[16] The Weight of Glory, pp. 30–31.
[17] Deschooling Society, p. 163.
[18] “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.”

Jennifer Pepito is a homeschool mom of 25 years and the founder of The Peaceful Press, a company committed to providing families with curriculum that promotes connection between parents and children. Her efforts to give her own seven children a Charlotte Mason inspired education led her to create affordable and life-giving curriculum for others. Her resources have been used by thousands of families and earned rave reviews. Jennifer’s writing has been featured in several online and print journals, including Wild + Free, Commonplace Quarterly, and Home Educating Family. She also speaks at conferences and retreats, including the Wild + Free conference, Christian Home Educators Association, Teach Them Diligently, and Arise.

©2021 Jennifer Pepito

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