Parents and Education, by Charlotte Mason

Parents and Education, by Charlotte Mason

Editor’s Note: In 1887, the year after the publication of Home Education, Charlotte Mason was invited to lecture at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. According to Elsie Kitching, Mason’s topic was “Home Education in its bearing on Technical Education.” Kitching found the summary of the lecture in the British Association records and shared some excerpts in the 1952 Parents’ Review:

It is well established that the tissues, as muscular tissue, form themselves according to the modes of action required of them. Hence the importance of not allowing the child in any posture which should lead to malformation or disease. But what we are less prepared to admit is, that new brain-tissue is supposed to “grow to” any habit of thought in force during the time of growth—“thought” including every exercise of mind and soul… At last, perhaps, the time has come for organised persistent efforts to bring the principles of a rational, scientific education home to every parent.[1]

One may search in vain in the published work of Charlotte Mason to find these exact sentences and phrases. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what Mason said to that audience of scientists, fresh on the heels of the publication of her wildly successful Home Education?

In 2016, Linda Fern was studying Charlotte Mason’s handwritten documents in the Digital Collection. She found a fascinating document which she painstakingly transcribed with the assistance of Antonella Greco. The manuscript was undated, but the handwriting was Mason’s, and she signed her name at the end. What was this document? When was it written? Who was it for?

Two clues have surfaced for the identification of this document:

1. In the opening paragraph, she notes that “A great deal is being said just now about technical education,” and also references “the bringing up children get at home.” So the paper seems to be about “Home Education in its bearing on Technical Education.”

2. The penultimate paragraph includes this striking statement:

… at last, perhaps, the time has come for organised, persistent efforts to bring the principles of a rational scientific education home to every parent…

This unique sentence matches perfectly the excerpt from Mason’s lecture to the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Thanks to the painstaking work of Linda and Antonella, we no longer have to wonder what Mason said to those scientists. Why did Mason believe she was about to revolutionize education? And even society itself? Imagine yourself sitting with the British Association, contemplating the promise of the advancement of science. To your surprise, an enterprising educationalist steps to the lectern to speak. What goes through your mind as you hear these words for the first time? And what bearing might these words have to parents more than a century later?

Parents and ‘Education’

By Charlotte M. Mason

It is curious to consider the attitude taken up by parents in general on the subject of education. For the last quarter of a century or more, ‘Education’ has, in one form or other, been pretty constantly and pretty prominently before us. The air has long been full of a confused noise of many words, but the din has been, for the most part, in the several camps of the Schoolmasters and their allies, the parents standing round to see fair play. Then, when the conflict of opinion issues in something definite, the ‘Modern Side,’ the High School for Girls, the KinderGarten, the Universities’ Local Examinations, parents come in to give the new thing very hearty and unfailing support, provided it commend itself to their common sense. But they do not make the first move. They have a right to expect that fitting education shall, somehow, be provided for their children, and they are willing to pay for it. For this way of looking at the matter implies two poorer notions: first; that ‘Education’ belongs to the school or to the professional teacher, and has little to do with the bringing up children get at home; and next, that, while it may be necessary to study the laws of mind and of body to get at right principles of education for the school, home bringing up is another matter, and wants no more than the light of nature and common sense, and is successful according as parents have more or less of the latter quality. A great deal is being said just now about technical education. The reform demanded is, that the children in elementary schools should have their muscles trained to the use of tools not that they should be turned out bunglers at a given handicraft. Now this demand, so understood, marks an educational advance, a recognition of the principle which underlies the possibility of all education—that the human frame—brain as well as muscle—grows to the uses it is earliest put to. It is hardly possible to get beyond the ground covered by this so simple sounding axiom; in other words, it is hardly possible to overstate the possibilities of education. Anything may be made of a child by those who first get him into their hands. The good natured parent does not hail this news with unmixed joy. The responsibility of efforts to which the human nature is averse is being shifted from the shoulders of the schoolmaster to his own. He is inclined to take an optimist view. ‘I don’t see,’ he says, ‘but what if you leave out the criminal classes and that sort of thing, the world goes on very well. Our children are good and pleasant; our friends are good and pleasant; there are infinitely many good and pleasant and able people in the world; what more would you have?’ And you think of the pleasant people you know, and answer, What more indeed! Perhaps it is an impertinence to think of mending a system which has produced so much that is good. But then, you look at home—to find yourself compassed about with infirmities, you look abroad, in almost every family there is a spoilt life, and you hardly know a person without some defect of heart or intellect or temper which makes him a little burdensome to himself and a little trying to his friends. It is because of the infirmities and not the sins of others that it is difficult to live at peace; and it is, commonly, our own infirmities, and not our sins, that are our stumbling blocks. Now, in the light of advancing science, it is not too much to say that every infirmity of the flesh and spirit is, more or less, the result of defective education. Is a woman sullen, peevish, indolent, like her father or mother before her? That is the fault of her education; she was born with a tendency to sullenness, sure, but a tendency only becomes a temper as the result of an indulged habit—and that such a habit should have been allowed to grow on the child is an instance of defective education. Has a man a large brain and a narrow chest? We have recently been told on good authority that the width of the chest of the newborn infant varies only with the size of the child; that is, children are not born with narrow chests: therefore, the narrow chest, and the attendant low vitality, is a consequence of defective education. It is needless to go on: setting aside cases of congenital disease—and even here education may do infinitely much—it rests with parents in great measure to work out the salvation of their children, though with fear and trembling, for there are mysteries of sin and temptation beyond the scope of education. There is no room to doubt that his education, such as it was, has been the making of every man, such as he is; and that, not so much his school education, as the bringing up he got at home. And it is not…

Editor’s Note: At this point there is a break in the text. A certain number of pages are missing from the archive. At some point later in the lecture, Mason continues:

… sense, and that peculiar natural aptitude bestowed by the Creator which few will deny to the parent. Like other serious callings, that of the parent requires the preparation of careful study: the problem of education is not to be worked by rule of thumb. To quote Mr. Spencer again, “Some acquaintance with the principles of physiology and the elementary works of psychology is indispensable for the right bringing up of children.” “Indispensable:”—if so, the parent who has not laid himself out diligently to gain some acquaintance with the principles of these two sciences cannot conceivably turn out his children at their very best; at the most, he can but guide himself by hearsay, and his treatment of his children is empirical uncertainty. But let parents get insight into the principles of education as based upon natural law, and they go to work with the courage, confidence and consistency which carry success. What is more, “the labour we delight in physics pain;” we delight in doing what we know how to do; and the task of education, from being a burden and a puzzle, becomes the engrossing and delightful occupation of the parent’s life.

But what, practically, is education, and, on what conditions does educability depend? We are all agreed that education, even intellectual education, means something more than the requisition of knowledge; we know, too, that there is an education of the feelings, of the will, of the physical powers—in fact, the idea of education spreads about us and above us, vast and nebulous, hardly to be taken in by the mind, much less to be expressed in a sentence or two; the notion is too big for us; it is impracticable; so we just let it go, and fall back on the old idea that education is synonymous with ‘Schooling.’ The aim of education is easier to define: it is the turning out of a human being at his absolute best, every tendency to evil repressed, and every capacity for good that is in him developed into a power.

Education is chameleon-like, and many descriptions are true of it. Let me offer a definition which is very far from being exhaustive but, yet, in practical working, will be found to cover the whole ground. It is an aspect of the subject which shews how indispensable to the parent is some scientific knowledge, and also opens up a field of definite, practical work with assured results, and these so great as to be like the return of a pound for the outlay of a penny.


Editor’s Note: At this point there is a second break in the text. The next three pages are missing from the archive. Mason continues as follows:

Pending the development of the will, which arrives at maturity, if ever, only with the maturing of the man is—

Habit is the instrument put into the hands of the educator where with to supplement the weak will of the child, and to enable him to make with ease and pleasure good and necessary efforts to which human nature is averse. Do a thing a hundred times in succession, without lapses, and it becomes as easy to do it as not; do it a thousand, or so, times, and it becomes your nature, a habit which you must do violence to yourself to break through. Were it not that life is made easy to all of us by persistent habits, the labour of decision on all trifling matters of daily living—of the bath, the toilet, the table, the common avocations—would wear us out.

Now this enormous force of habit bridges the otherwise impassable gulf between the spontaneous development of human nature and the ordered action of the self-disciplined human being. It is possible to form in the child the habit of doing or saying, even of thinking or feeling, that which he should do or say, think or feel. It is possible (with certain sad limitations) to form in him the habits of vigorous health, of a good life, of an alert intelligence, and, thereby, to ease his way and spare him much of struggle and disappointment; of the childish despair and self-disgust which causes many a child to give up early the effort to Christ life, to ‘be good’ as a thing beyond his power.

But this theory of habit as a chief instrument in education will raise a question. It will be objected that to make so much of a mechanical force, a mere trick of doing things, as it were, is to undervalue both human effort and the divine grace, which alone is capable of conquering the inertia of human nature and urging it into active goodness. On the contrary, education after this sort requires strenuous human effort, with careful thought as to the directions,—physical, mental, moral—in which lines of habit shall be laid down, so that the course of the child shall be easy as that of a locomotive upon its lines. Here we have no diminution of effort—and we know that aid from above attends human effort—heaven helps those who help themselves—but the labour is transferred from the feeble, overweighted child to the stronger, more capable parents. And again, education upon these lines has the sanction of Divine law and the blessing due to obedience. Common experience found out long ago that Use is second nature. In the last generation more than our own, the importance of bringing up a child in good habits was insisted on. But it is within living memory that physiologists have shewn the ground of this theory of habit; that there is physical cause why the repetition of an action, or the recurrence of a line of thought, should tend to make that all in that line of thought easy, natural, necessary.

It is well established that the tissues, or muscular tissue, which are ever in a state of reparation and growth, form themselves according to the modes of action required of them. It is for this reason that children should learn to ride, to dance, to swim, every form of activity which demands a training of the muscles, at an early age: the fact being that muscles and joints have not merely to conform themselves to new uses, but to grow to a modified pattern; and this growth and adaptation take place with the greatest facility in early youth.

Ms. Wall and her Aunt Molly are not reputable examples, but this bit of their experience is worth knowing; they found out that the hand keeps through life the pattern and the habits it is trained to in childhood. But, practically, everyone knows that the body, and every part of the body, accommodates itself very readily to the uses it is put to; and we are careful in not allowing children in any posture, any habit of body which should lead to malformation or disease. What we are less prepared to admit is that the same principle holds good in the delicate organ by means of which we think and feel, love and worship. That is, just as a new muscular growth adapts itself to any new exercise required of it—so new brain tissue is supposed to ‘grow to’ any habit of thought in force during the time of growth thought including every exercise of mind and soul. To express in the words of an able physiologist what is pretty generally received by men of science—“The cerebrum of man grows to the modes of thoughts in which it is habitually exercised.”

It is unnecessary to dwell upon these physiological facts. What we would urge is the enormous practical import of this doctrine of habit. If the very conformation of the child’s brain depends in no small measure upon the habits which his parents allow, and, if the habits of the child ensue in the character of the man, then it follows that this theory of habit becomes the natural basis of a scientific scheme of education. This is how it works: a child shows a resentful temper: it is taken for granted in his family that he is a resentful child, that it is a thing not to be helped; today, tomorrow, this week, next week, one moody fit follows another at longer or shorter intervals. Every time the ugly thoughts of the resentful child are repeated, they make their mark, in ways hardly yet recognised in the nervous substance of the cerebrum; more, this nervous tissue is in a state of incessant and most active growth, and just as the new muscular tissue in the hand of Wall adapted itself to the form and uses of a wedge, so the new tissue in the cerebrum of the resentful child is adapted and prepared for ugly thoughts. This is why each new fit prepares the way for the next, and makes the next the more inevitable. The other side of the medal is, this parent, aware of this extraordinary cooperation of physical and spiritual forces will avert the first or the second and every following threatened fit of resentment as they would avert the possibility if the child was born with a sullen tendency no doubt, but the nervous tissue which, so to speak, registered that tendency, is dissipated in the course of the rapid decay and reparation which is forever going on in the brain substance: the new tissue bears no such register, and the child, who would have become, under the first regime, a sour resentful man, grows up sweet natured and pleasant to his belongings.

Perhaps I should apologise for urging here what I have spoken of elsewhere, the part ‘habit’ plays in education, But it seems to me that the time has come for a new departure, to be taken by parents at first hand, and then this theory of habit must be our point of departure, and know, of course, that all education implies the forming of good habits; that, for instance, the beautiful scheme devised by Froebel to aid and direct the evolution of the complete human being, establishes habits of well-doing and well-being in every direction.

In the most thoughtful schemes of education hitherto formulated, the direct object is the development of the child’s faculties; the forming of habits is incidental. Now, it is well to put the first thing foremost, and make the establishing of habits our immediate object: and for this amongst other reasons; what we have formed with care and labour we shall guard with jealousy, and will not allow the child to drop out of those good ways with which we have endeavoured to set him on his way in life. Good habits, like other valuables, do not take care of themselves: a policeman, within or without, must needs have them under his eye, though happily, he need do no more. Further, let me urge, it is by giving him the contrary good habit that you correct the besetting weakness of the individual child. It is parents alone who can give the incessant care necessary for a systematic training in the habits of health, of the alert intelligence, of the good life, and of spiritual activity. If parents could but be got to believe in the omnipotence of habit and in the ease with which a habit is formed, we should live to see a moral revolution, a kingdom of heaven amongst men. Lastly, the laws of habit appear to me precisely the only scientific basis we have for education. Of the development of the intellect, the will, the conscience, and of that within us which apprehends God—whether we are to call these organs, faculties, functions—there is much to be said and thought and acted out. But here we must go a good deal upon analogy. That which is fed and works thrives: that which is starved and let lie idle pines, and in time, perishes,—is an axiom which appears to cover the mysterious hardly tracked out regions we carry within us. At any rate, it is a practical principle that lies in a nutshell. But in the first place, let us get our feet on the obvious scientific basis that offers itself—this doctrine of habit.

You will perceive that we are inviting parents not only to study and apply principles already widely taught but to advance a new school of thought in the subject of education. Physiologists have long urged the importance of their discoveries to the practical educator, but the latter has hardly yet taken hold, either as a theory or practice of facts which should give definiteness and assured success to his labours in a degree hitherto undreamed of. That remains for the Education of the Future. I am afraid even to indicate the measure of the human being thus to be evolved; but let me say this, from the Christian point of view; it seems to me that we live infinitely below our possibilities as redeemed beings, not so much, for lack of purpose, prayer and effort, as from defects of education—defects to be remedied only by constantly recurring miracles from above, of the nature of that wrought on the withered hand. Education is not a substitute for the grace of God, but, we may well believe, it is a necessary and appointed handmaid in developing the complete Christian character.

If children are to be educated in any complete sense, it must be by their parents; and surely there need be no shyness in proposing the serious study of education to parents as a necessary preparation for their work. Nobody expects that the principles of a science will be imparted to him by special revelation, and that is what the claim of a parent to bring up his children by the light of nature amounts to in these days of advanced research. We make our appeal to parents with full faith in that parental enthusiasm which will yet carry the science of education forward with bounds and leaps towards perfection. Considering all that uninstructed parental love and care effect, who will predict the results when scientific insight is brought to the aid of the parental feeling? The fact is, there has been some tendency to overlook parents in the matter of education. The schoolmaster and schoolmistress are appealed to as the person with whom the future of the child rests, and very successful efforts are made to give these just and liberal views of education. But at last, perhaps, the time has come for organised, persistent efforts to bring the principles of a rational scientific education home to every parent according to his degree in simpler lines for the young artisan and his wife, in more scientific, for the more highly educated. And who is to venture to do this for parents, who, experimentally at any rate, have more knowledge of children than anyone else can lay claim to. In the first place, ample scientific knowledge, as well as experience, is theirs, but how are the stores of the few to be made available for the many? Parents, themselves, no doubt. The thing is, to bring parents into association for mutual improvement. Some have much to give, but all have something; and every crumb of observation, experience and research should be of use.

Meantime, the question is, how are parents to be reached, and what practical course is open to them with a view to further their own education in the principles of education? The immediate answer, though a very insufficient one, is our Parents Educational Union.[2]

Editor’s Note: To access a scan of the original handwritten document, please click here.


[1]The Parents’ Review, volume 63, p. 307.

[2]The fact that the phrase “Parents Educational Union” is used, instead of the later “Parents’ National Educational Union” confirms the early date of this manuscript (prior to 1890).

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