Idyll Challenge V

Idyll Challenge V

I recently received a text message from a fellow Charlotte Mason educator. “It’s interesting,” she wrote, “to meet another mom who is doing Charlotte Mason and just told me that she has never read any of the 6 volumes.” My friend’s message revealed a common assumption: anyone who is really “doing Charlotte Mason” is also reading the volumes. But is this assumption valid?

Surely we could point to many parents and teachers who are faithfully using living books, hearing narrations, taking nature walks, and making handicrafts, and yet have never read a single page of Home Education. Such educators have every right to say they are using the Charlotte Mason method — and to say it with integrity.

Nevertheless, I think there was something to my friend’s text message — but not from the perspective of rules and requirements. The question, I think, is not so much, “Can I use the Charlotte Mason method without reading the volumes?” The answer to that question is surely yes. The more interesting question, I think, is “If I’m using the Charlotte Mason method, wouldn’t I want to read the volumes?”

After all, what usually draws people to the Charlotte Mason method in the first place? Isn’t it her emphasis on living books? We love her declaration that children “shall be introduced to no subject whatever through compendiums, abstracts, or selections; that the young people shall learn what history is, what literature is, what life is, from the living books of those who know.”[1] That’s what we want for our children!

But if “the living books of those who know” are better than “compendiums, abstracts, or selections,” does that affect anything more than our choice of the books we place in front of our children? Or does it also affect our choice of the books we place in front of ourselves? Does it affect the way we go about learning?

At the 1906 Conference at the House of Education, one attendee observed that “text books and summaries discourage reading, for they appear to give us the fruits of learning without calling us to engage for ourselves in the quest.”[2] Could the same be said about learning the Charlotte Mason method? Could it be that relying solely on summaries, compendiums, abstracts, selections, podcasts, and articles appears “to give us the fruits of learning without calling us to engage for ourselves in the quest”?

Charlotte Mason herself apparently thought so. After publishing the short synopsis of her educational theory in 1904, she stressed that even a thorough familiarity with this summary does not convey a full understanding of her method:

Here follows a short summary of our principles, but it must be remembered that a knowledge of these formulæ is by no means a knowledge of the principles they aim at summing up.[3]

Sylvia Maike is a homeschool mother who wanted to learn the Charlotte Mason method. She decided not to rely on compendiums, abstracts, summaries, or selections. Instead, she decided to read the entire six-volume Home Education Series for herself as part of a reading group called the Idyll Challenge. She fully engaged herself in the quest for knowledge, and as a result she obtained the fruits of learning. But to her surprise, she found something more than that. She explains:

One of my favorite dimensions of participating in the Idyll Challenge has been getting to know Charlotte Mason herself through her books. She has such a clear voice as a writer, with cadences, turns of phrase, favorite words that are all hers. As I read, I began to think of her as a friend, one with whom I sometimes argue, but whom I also love and appreciate, whose wisdom never fails to make me think more deeply. Charlotte Mason’s ideas about education are evergreen, without any doubt; after all, this is a teacher who so saturated herself in Living Books that she was able to write six of them. But beyond the ideas themselves, it is spending time with Charlotte Mason the woman that has changed me for the better. My thinking is clearer, my aspirations higher, my courage stronger, for having taken the two-year journey through her books. I set out to understand a philosophy, but along the way, I gained a dear friend.

Did Sylvia have to read the volumes to start using the Charlotte Mason method? No. Did she have to read the volumes to clarify her thinking, raise her aspirations, and strengthen her courage? Yes. Did she have to read the volumes to get to know Charlotte Mason as a person? Without a doubt.

Sylvia found in Charlotte Mason’s volumes a “wisdom” that never failed to make her “think more deeply.” This wisdom is not reducible to a set of rules about how to conduct narration or dictation lessons. Instead, it is a wisdom of life, which simply cannot be absorbed through summaries or abstracts. As Mason herself explained, “the mind refuses to know anything except what reaches it in more or less literary form.”[4]

Let’s face it. Homeschooling is difficult. Parenting is difficult. Even living as a Christian in our era is difficult. The wisdom we need to face these challenges is in short supply. Haley Struecker discovered where to find it. Her story is compelling:

Several months after graduating from a small private high school in 2014, I married my high school sweetheart, and by the time I was twenty years old, I was in school to be an elementary teacher and pregnant with my firstborn, my darling daughter. None of my friends or family in my generation had any children, and I felt quite lost. Miraculously, a copy of For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay from the local library fell into my hands, and after reading it for a college assignment, I was eager to read Charlotte Mason’s words for myself. With a copy of Home Education in my lap — opened up to the first page of the Preface now so dear to me — the prayer on my lips and in my heart was that the Lord would use her to teach me how to be a mother, something I felt I knew nothing about. As my eyes scanned the Table of Contents, I was hopeful she would have many of the answers to my questions about parenthood, but what I didn’t expect was how she would affect me in my personhood.

Diligence, regularity, punctuality — from the opening pages of her first volume, I could see Charlotte Mason was challenging me to a work I felt ill-equipped for. Yet God, “who began a good work in [me]” and will “bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”, has used the Idyll Challenge reading and discussions to strengthen my faith, grow my understanding of His design for parents and children, and ultimately, to trust that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life & godliness.” Yes, after seven years of studying Charlotte Mason’s works, I certainly have a greater understanding of education as “an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life” in regards to habit training and curriculum, but how Christ has educated me! God’s call to parents that Mason brings so clearly before us in her writings has not only affected who I am as a mother, but who I am as a spouse, as a daughter, as a friend, as a member of the church — as a Christian. Because of the great change He has wrought in me, I have shared Home Education with a young, single woman; I have encouraged a pastor to add Ourselves to his queue of Christian classics; I have loaned my copy of Philosophy of Education to an older woman retired from teaching. Among the six volumes read together in the Idyll Challenge, there truly exists a “liberal education for all.” I have undoubtedly found this group commitment and study to facilitate the most growth in my understanding of Charlotte Mason’s methods, but I heartily encourage any readers or listeners to join the upcoming Idyll Challenge and expect growth in more ways than one!

Haley believes that Charlotte Mason’s wisdom is for everyone, not just for full time home educators or teachers. I have found that Mason’s volumes can clarify the thinking, raise the aspirations, and strengthen the courage of men too. The testimony of my friend David Dangerfield illustrates this well:

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the many things I’ve learned while reading Charlotte Mason’s 6 volumes. I had no idea she knew so much about human development. With a large homeschooled family including adult married children, we’ve learned our fair share from experience. But Miss Mason — without having kids of her own — offers countless priceless insights on child development and education from infancy to adulthood.

Her decades of research and practice distilled in the 6 volumes are gold mines for parents and teachers today. I truly believe she was inspired by the Holy Spirit during her work, and we can all benefit from the wisdom contained within her volumes.

The experiences of Sylvia, Haley, and David help explain why Charlotte Mason educators have always read the volumes. Shortly after Mason’s sixth volume was posthumously published, the PNEU offered a “Reading Course in Child Training and Home Craft for Mothers and Elder Girls.” The announcement read as follows:

The attention of Members is called to this Course, which is open to all Members of the P.N.E.U. and the Parents’ Union School Association. It is designed to include the distinctive teaching of the Union, and therefore the five volumes of the Home Education Series are set for study. These books were specially prepared from time to time by Miss C. M. Mason for the use of the Parents’ National Educational Union. The method of these volumes is a progressive amplification of the principles of the Union… The course also includes Miss Mason’s latest and most important work, An Essay towards a Philosophy of Education

Much of the matter may be familiar, but it is one thing to read a work casually and quite another thing to study it definitely with a view to examination.[5]

While not directly modeled after this reading course, the Idyll Challenge shares its aim of offering a “progressive amplification of the principles” of Charlotte Mason by reading her six volumes in order. We provide a reading schedule that covers the volumes in two years, along with discussion groups that allow you to narrate and discuss what you’re learning. Why two years? Because during her lifetime, Charlotte Mason said to “read [the volumes] through every year or two, so that the truths they embody may become a usual and natural part of your thinking.”[6] We are simply following her advice.

Each Idyll Challenge group meets once per month. Each challenger is required to come to the meeting with his or her own answer to three questions:

  • What is a question you have about this month’s reading?
  • What is one thing you disagree with in this month’s reading?
  • What is one thing you would like to put into practice from this month’s reading?

We always start on time. We finish in exactly 60 minutes, and spend approximately twenty minutes on each question, in the above order. There is no cost to join — but there is a cost to finish: your perseverance and your faithfulness. Also, you can participate in the Idyll Challenge again even if you’ve completed it (or attempted it) one or more times before. One homeschooling father has successfully completed four Idyll Challenges with me!

Why would someone want to repeat the Idyll Challenge? I think Elsie Kitching’s remarks from 1952 give a solid explanation:

It is an intellectual and spiritual adventure to be able to give a year or two to the consecutive reading of the ‘Home Education Series’ in order to get some idea of the wholeness of Charlotte Mason’s thought; to find that the gradual amplification of it passes from volume to volume and is a spur to reading. A mother (C.M.C.) who brought her three children up in the P.U.S., and is now lecturing on its work, wrote the other day: ‘I have just finished reading consecutively Home Education, Parents and Children and School Education; I must say that I felt a good deal shaken… I was quite astonished to find so much that appeared fresh to me; I have never read them through in the same way before, though I have often dipped into them, which is not the same thing.’[7]

Anyone who rereads the volumes is likely also to say, “I was quite astonished to find so much that appeared fresh to me.”

Idyll Challenge V starts on August 1. This time we are offering the following groups:

  • A group for men that will meet on the first Saturday of the month from 9–10 AM Eastern Time, led by me.
  • [UPDATE: Waiting list only] Two groups for men and women that I will be co-leading with Antonella Greco. To be eligible to join one of these groups, you must be personally and directly carrying out lessons using the Charlotte Mason method for at least ten hours per week (in a homeschool, co-op, or school). Each group will meet one Saturday per month from 9–10 AM Eastern Time.
  • [UPDATE: Waiting list only] A group for couples led by Dave and Bethany Stillwell that will meet on the fourth Saturday of the month from 9–10 AM Eastern Time.
  • [UPDATE: Waiting list only] A group for women led by Heather Johnson and Paula Widholm that will meet on the third Tuesday of the month from 7:30-8:30 AM Eastern Time.
  • [UPDATE: Waiting list only] A group for women led by Donna Owen and Kim Shearer that will meet on the last Tuesday of the month from 8–9 AM Eastern Time.
  • [UPDATE: Waiting list only] A new group for men and women in the Asia–Pacific region led by Jo Lloyd and her son, a Charlotte Mason homeschool graduate. This group will meet on the second Thursday of the month from 7–8 PM Australian Eastern Time (Sydney).

Each group is limited to 20 members. Membership will be granted on a first-come first-served basis. To sign-up, fill out the form at this link.

There are six volumes that can clarify your thinking, raise your aspirations, and strengthen your courage. Read them with us.


[1] School Education, p. 247.

[2] The Parents’ Review, vol. 17, p. 546.

[3] Some Suggestions for the School Curriculum of Girls and Boys Under 14, by Charlotte M. Mason (1906), p. 33 (inside back cover), immediately preceding the short synopsis. In The Parents’ Review, volume 61, p. 137, Elsie Kitching attributes this sentence to Charlotte Mason.

[4] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 256.

[5] The Parents’ Review, vol. 37, p. 65.

[6] The Parents’ Review, vol. 23, p. 808.

[7] The Parents’ Review, vol. 63, p. 303.

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