Do Charlotte Mason’s Ideas Still Work?

Do Charlotte Mason’s Ideas Still Work?

“When Miss Mason was alive, for example, children were instinctively more obedient and respectful than they are today.”[1]

As I have studied Charlotte Mason’s volumes with dozens of men and women over the past six years as part of the Idyll Challenge, I have noticed an occasional but recurring theme. Sooner or later, someone inevitably says something along the lines of, “Yes, but things are different now.” My fellow readers will acknowledge the inspirational beauty of the picture of education that Miss Mason presents. But then in some way or another, they will question whether this idyllic picture is compatible with today’s world.

A representative example is narration. Charlotte Mason makes this beautiful and lofty claim:

Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth. ‘Let him narrate’; and the child narrates, fluently, copiously, in ordered sequence, with fit and graphic details, with a just choice of words, without verbosity or tautology, so soon as he can speak with ease.[2]

The inspired parent trusts Mason’s words and with eager anticipation awaits her first narration. She graces her child with a smile and invokes the creative fiat. “Let him narrate.” And then there is nothing. Only silence. And a sense that something in the world has changed since Charlotte Mason’s day.

Marian Wallace Ney was a mother and a teacher who wrestled with the same question. She was born the same year that Mason died, and she lived until 1991. Her life in some ways feels like a connecting bridge between our modern world and the Victorian world of Miss Mason. She wrote several articles for the PNEU Journal in the 1960s, and in many ways, her writings give the impression that she is more a part of our world than of Mason’s. In her article “Discipline in the Home Schoolroom” from 1966, she writes:

Discipline in the home schoolroom, especially for boys, is a problem which raises an immediate question. Have boys changed so much since Miss Mason’s day, or is it society which is different? The answer to this question is most important in dealing with the particular boy or boys because the home teacher must decide at the very beginning whether to cope with the boy in the boy or with society in the boy.[3]

Ney’s experience as a homeschool parent is different from most of ours in that she was a professional schoolteacher before teaching her own children at home. She describes her experiences as a teacher before discovering Charlotte Mason:

One of my first teaching assignments [was] at a fashionable New York school … Since then I have taught in public schools in the Appalachians and in private schools in several states, including Florida.[4]

In my own teaching experience … I was led rather reluctantly to the conclusion that it was almost always society I was opposing in trying to deal with boys in terms of authority and discipline.[5]

In 1954, Ney discovered Charlotte Mason.[6] She soon discovered the uniqueness of Mason’s end-to-end philosophy:

The philosophy of Charlotte Mason is not only a lofty one, presented with great literary style, but a philosophy whose principles support the most practical efforts.[7]

Though already a professional teacher, she “commenced the Study Course of the PNEU in preparation for removing [her] own children from the private schools.”[8] She passed with “First Class Honours,”[9] then began teaching her children at home. In the PNEU Journal, she shared an inspiring description of her 1960s American home schoolroom in which she taught children from other families as well. It portrays an ideal that many Charlotte Mason educators would still like to capture in their homes today:

I taught the children, therefore, in my dining-room, where my own children did their PNEU lessons in the mornings. The table itself would always rivet a boy’s attention, as it was made by my husband of gun-stock walnut in a simple Mission style, and is held together by brass screws. It has no intimidating veneer to be wary of, so that one is comfortable dining, writing, painting, or sewing and cutting on it. On the walls were Audubon prints, which the children found provocative and engrossing. The pupil and I would sit on a bench at one side of the table, with our backs to the old wardrobe in which shelves had been put to hold all the PNEU books; the Carden readers and workbooks[10] were on the table before us. It meant a great deal to the children to come into a house where work was considered fun, and much of what they saw was made at home.[11]

Compared to what Ney had been able to offer her students in public and private schools, her Charlotte Mason homeschool served a banquet of almost limitless delight. She described it as follows:

The privilege that PNEU children enjoy in regard to the scope of the curriculum is great—surely one of the greatest privileges one could imagine for a child. It provides a great feast of such variety that the appetite is never jaded. It is, in fact, such a wholesome and vitalizing diet that were PNEU to become more widespread throughout America, a generation of little T.V. zombies might even be brought back to life. It is with the most extraordinary gratitude that I prepare the lesson plans for tomorrow—for each school day is like a Thanksgiving dinner of knowledge, with the double enjoyment of sharing the children’s delight, each with his own new knowledge.

Among the many great contributions which Miss Mason’s philosophy has made to liberate children from the prison-like fare of mediocre, conventional and thoughtless education, perhaps the most welcome difference to the children is the wonderful variety and extent of the curriculum. ‘What do we have today?’ is the eager question.

Miss Mason’s great respect for the child ‘as a person’ led her to believe that we must, by providing a wide curriculum, allow the child to establish as directly as possible as many relations as possible. In her day, the world had only recently changed, and was still changing, from that in which it was feasible and practical to train (or educate) the child in the path of his forebears; a gentleman’s son was educated to be a gentleman, and the clerk’s son to be a clerk, and the tradesmen’s sons to be tradesmen.[12] ‘Now’, says Miss Mason, ‘we must deal with a child of man, who has a natural desire to know the history of his race and of his nation, what men thought in the past and are thinking now … the best thoughts of the best minds taking form as literature … as the inhabitant of a world full of beauty and interest, the features of which he must recognize and know how to name, and a world too, and a universe, whose every function of every part is ordered by laws which he must begin to know.’ We would wish to see children acquire, and Miss Mason quotes Shelley, ‘understanding that grows bright gazing on many truths’. This quote from Shelley particularly remains in one’s mind, for it is so perfect a description of what the PNEU teacher notices daily.

The curriculum in most schools, except those which are specifically Church schools, includes no allowance for establishment of an enduring relation to God. This relation, for which children have a strong desire, is given the position of first consideration by Miss Mason and the lessons are so planned that the child finds himself moving with confidence in this world of religion cloaked in great literature. Narration comes easily, the previous lesson is easily recalled, and the coming passages eagerly anticipated. The difference between the Old and New Testament gives a different tone to the days when we have one, or the other. At least to me, but I feel sure that it does to the children, too, and the comparison of those two worlds, half-conscious though it may be, surely increases their knowledge of each. A teacher (at least this one) is awe-struck at the nine-year-old’s understanding of Christ’s point in St. Luke, Chapter 9, vv. 57–62, that worldly concerns would impede the religious life; paradox provides, not a knotty problem, but a reasonable humour to the child-mind.

Miss Mason realized that without a good general knowledge of history, without a sound feeling for the past, man is politically and personally unsound. The very well-considered programme in this subject which a child enjoys who enjoys the privilege of PNEU for all his school days must surely be a very profound personal advantage… The tales of Rome and Greece which are provided give perspective and moral standards to the young mind which are very apparent. Naturally, in a political sense, it is very true that ‘a rational well-considered patriotism depends on a pretty copious reading of history’.

Miss Mason writes in copious detail of the benefits and methods to be used in providing the necessary mind-food of various subjects. Literature, citizenship, geography, foreign languages, mathematics, art, and science are all discussed at length to the great profit of the teacher. I find it very helpful, as well as pleasurable to browse in the pages on Curriculum, and in our classroom experience I find many delightful instances of proof of the value of the wide curriculum.[13]

Ney’s children responded to the wonderful homeschool banquet. Well, her daughters at least:

[My son’s] sisters love their lessons and regard PNEU as a privilege and a release from the prison of ordinary school. They have risen above the envy and scorn of neighbours in this close community and wear their uniforms with quiet pride; and face less scorn and more envy as time goes on.[14]

And yet all was not well in her idyllic Charlotte Mason homeschool. She had a problem with her son:

But this small boy who won’t learn! There is the problem, and all the methods I used with success as a professional teacher with other children seem to be of no avail. His problem isn’t as great, to begin with; and in the second place, he knows more of what I know; and, most important, he is my son and so I do not have real distance. What was startling and effective with other children does not work here.[15]

Ney found that working with her own son was quite different from working with other people’s children as a professional teacher:

The children [I worked with in schools] more or less saved themselves because they learned to use their own wills—not too difficult a thing to suggest to someone else’s child.[16]

Ney faced nothing less than a crisis of faith in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. Were Mason’s ideas outdated? Or could they somehow still work in 20th Century America? Ney writes:

I am sure that many other mothers with home schoolrooms share this difficulty, and I am also sure that most of them are aware of Miss Mason’s writings on authority and discipline, so I am not going to recapitulate that common fund of knowledge and inspiration for all of us. I think it is important, though, for those who have home schoolrooms to apply Miss Mason’s teachings within a possible framework of response rather than to try to make them fit clearly impossible situations. When Miss Mason was alive, for example, children were instinctively more obedient and respectful than they are today. She wrote with the children of that day in mind—one wonders what she would say if she saw today’s delinquents in whom disrespect and contempt have become a religion! (As W. H. Auden wondered, in the preface to the modern edition of Henry James’ The American Scene, how the latter would have reacted to a drum majorette!) This is not to say that Miss Mason’s work needs updating. On the contrary, it is always contemporary, accurate, pertinent and helpful. But no more than anyone else in her time could she have seen the near-complete breakdown of common amenities and the average child actually encouraged to become rude and silly. (The recent best seller here, Up the Down Staircase, while superficially amused at the confusion in education, ends on a note of high admiration for the completely undisciplined child.)

In many cases, the child is punished by society if he is not rude and dedicated to ignorance! (The very act of setting up a home schoolroom is anti-social, in the sense that its constructive aims are at odds with the modern commandment to overindulge the material wants of the young, but leave their spiritual wants unheeded. Parents dissent from this at their own risk.) Although the United States enjoys the dubious distinction of being the world leader in terms of youthful disrespect among its young for discipline and authority, it is almost as bad everywhere else. Teachers of home schoolrooms in the deepest bush will find that their children’s playmates are full of this disrespect and will, in turn, communicate it to their children, particularly the boys, if they play together.

It is a far deeper defiance than the old-fashioned reluctance of the ‘real boy’ to study, and because the PNEU home schoolroom is a serious business, the boy is far more conscious of the difference between what he is asked to do inside the schoolroom and what is au courant in the boy’s world outside. I try to keep this sense of difference in mind at all times with my own son, and to maintain an inflexible opposition, not to him, of course, but to the society which demands of him that he be lazy and self-indulgent, and which often speaks and acts through him.[17]

Having determined “to apply Miss Mason’s teachings within a possible framework of response rather than to try to make them fit clearly impossible situations,” Ney proceeded to address her challenges with her son as follows:

Going from that basic generality to specific problems, I find that his craving is not to find thought, but to avoid it. He loves Tales, History and Arithmetic, and he reads easily, but he would not write his lessons out willingly, or even narrate as I knew he was able to. If I had never taught professionally, and had not been familiar with the fact that boys have more difficulties than girls with their work, I would have been much more concerned with his academic future. And I am sure that boys are more irritated by comparing themselves with enthusiastic and able sisters than with relatively unknown girls in a large classroom.

In order to shift this atmosphere, I devoted more time to Tales and Stories during lesson time and took one academic subject at a time for evening reading: Geography, or even History or Animal Stories. It seemed to alleviate the embarrassment of classroom narration and placed the matter in a new light. Then we were reading for pleasure only, and, in addition, his sisters were elsewhere. After a week or so, each subject was moved back to lesson time and remained there comfortably. Narration has not been a problem since.[18]

As Ney applied Miss Mason’s principles, her son began to narrate. After this success, she opened her homeschool to children outside of her family who were in need of remedial instruction in reading. These children too were reluctant narrators, but Ney describes how they came over time to narrate freely:

Narration, I knew, was the real key which would unlock the powers of effort, but even that was scarcely to be expected in such cases of atrophy of the imagination. There were no images in the mind to relate (or what there were were too horrible to relate) and we had to outweigh the horrors and let in images upon which the child could exercise his own powers. ‘Images’ in such serious instances could be taken literally, and after reading to the child I allowed him to look as long as he liked at one or two of the lovely folios we have each term to study. ‘Children require no pictures excepting the pictures of great artists’, said Miss Mason, and indeed I found that these children required them greatly. Narration began here, and after the visual images could be told, the aural ones came easily…

I was convinced, as all the ‘testing’ teachers were not, that the needed faculties were there in the child, that if the starved mind were nourished with proper food it would regain its natural ability to function… When a plausible image was presented, with the greatness of art, the mind responded. Narration began with the simple enthusiasm for the pictures; the child finally had some knowledge upon which the mind could act. He at last had something to express.[19]

Although encouraged by such wonderful results, Ney still lamented that she had not discovered Mason’s ideas until she had been a mother for many years. It is a lament that many of us can relate to. But Ney was not paralyzed by her regret. Instead, she resolved to apply Mason’s ideas to the best of her ability as long as she had children in her home:

Turning to Miss Mason for further help, most of us will find that since we were not given her books as wedding presents, we did not realize the almost sacred duty of forming habits to ease our children’s way. And in most cases, it is habit which we must look to as the plug for the hole in the dyke. To form habits, one must begin as low as possible, for we are, most of us, beginning late. Household chores are a safer level to fight on than lessons… I have found that with real belief in the principles of Authority, our children are generally happier and more obedient, for we all understand what we are free to do and what we are not free to do…

… I know that his lack of proper habits since babyhood are my fault, but I see no reason not to undo the error, insofar as possible. But I do not forget, either, that he is caught between my attempt at order and the world’s bland disorder as enunciated by his playmates, a difficult position for a small boy and one which requires great tact and understanding if he is to choose order and suffer his companions’ teasing. In the very simplest terms, I feel sure that the day he empties all eight waste baskets without being told, he will be responsible to himself.

As Miss Mason wrote (and it is not possible to improve on the perfection of her style in the original presentation): ‘And that Heaven of the mind, is it not continual expansion in ordered freedom? And that restless, burning, inflammatory hell, does it not come of continual chafing against natural and righteous order?’ Such words give this mother and home teacher—and many others, I hope—courage … to change a lesson time, or whatever must be done to achieve that order and calm those blue eyes, up to and including a steadfast opposition to the always avaricious exterior disorder which would claim him.[20]

Do Mason’s ideas still work today? When we think of how the world has changed, and when we see children reluctant to narrate and to embrace living lessons, it may be tempting to answer in the negative. But Marian Ney shows us that Mason’s philosophy does not need updating. “On the contrary,” she writes, “it is always contemporary, accurate, pertinent and helpful.”[21] But Ney did not stop at a superficial implementation of Charlotte Mason practices. Instead, she labored to uncover the underlying principles and to discover how to apply them in her home. In so doing, she helped her own children, and the children of other families, to narrate fluently. But she did more than this. She also set an example for us today. A mother born in Miss Mason’s last year of life proved that her ideas can work in a 1960s American homeschool. Six decades later, we can see these same ideas work wonders yet again.


[1]Discipline in the Home Schoolroom,” M. Ney, PNEU Journal, Vol. 1, p. 68.

[2] Home Education, p. 231.

[3]Discipline in the Home Schoolroom,” p. 66.

[4] Ibid., pp. 66–67.

[5] Ibid., p. 66.

[6] Charlotte Mason: A Pioneer of Sane Education, M. Ney, front matter.

[7]Applying Miss Mason’s Principles to Remedial Reading,” M. Ney, PNEU Journal, Vol. 3, p. 68.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Charlotte Mason: A Pioneer of Sane Education, front matter.

[10] On pp. 68–69 of the article “Applying Miss Mason’s Principles to Remedial Reading,” Ney writes, “I had to handle the excellent materials of the Carden Reading Method at all levels, but these children were in need of another sort of help first. All were damaged by society, by the problems of their parents, or the depressing atmosphere of the classroom.” This context suggests that Ney used the Carden readers and workbooks with the children of other parents and perhaps not with her own children.

[11]Applying Miss Mason’s Principles to Remedial Reading,” p. 69.

[12] Ney’s original footnote cites Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 157.

[13] “Discipline in the Home Schoolroom, Stage II,” M. Ney, PNEU Journal, Vol. 2, pp. 133–134.

[14]Discipline in the Home Schoolroom,” p. 67.

[15] Ibid., pp. 67–68.

[16] Ibid., p. 67.

[17] Ibid., p. 68.

[18] Ibid., pp. 68–69.

[19]Applying Miss Mason’s Principles to Remedial Reading,” pp. 69–70.

[20]Discipline in the Home Schoolroom,” p. 69.

[21] Ibid., p. 68.

2 Replies to “Do Charlotte Mason’s Ideas Still Work?”

  1. This is so encouraging. Great ideas to think about, especially at this time of year as we are thinking about what direction to take for next year’s school plans. Thank you Art.

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