Reconsidering Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition

Reconsidering Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition

This article first appeared on the Charlotte Mason Institute blog.

El artículo está disponible en español.

I am a homeschooling father who discovered Charlotte Mason while searching for a way to home educate my children. I am neither a scholar nor an educationalist. But I am a person who has experienced a genuine awakening as a result of engaging with Charlotte Mason’s ideas. As such I have a strong desire to make Charlotte Mason’s message available to everyone. I am personally committed to showing respect for all people, and I believe that this can be done while also being faithful to the pursuit of truth. I ask the reader to join me in respecting others while at the same time evaluating evidence, interpretations, and ideas.

In 1885, Charlotte Mason introduced a new theory of education which changed the course of education in her native England and throughout the world. According to Mason’s own testimony, she based this theory of education on the teachings of Christ, the discoveries of science, and the behaviors of children. While Mason’s influence on education in England has dwindled over the years, the modern homeschool movement in America has launched a dramatic rebirth of interest in Charlotte Mason’s ideas. This renaissance began with the publication of For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay in 1984.

The homeschool movement in America also resulted in a rebirth of interest in various models of education described as classical. Over the years, a wide variety of curricula and approaches have adopted the label classical, making it difficult to identify what is precisely meant by this term. However, a common thread appears to be that a classical theory of education is one that finds its roots in the ancient world of Greece and Rome (Glass, 2014a, p. 2). Since the growth of interest in Mason’s method has paralleled the growth of interest in the classical methods, it is natural that some would ask how Charlotte Mason’s philosophy compares to the classical model.

In 2014, Karen Glass published a book entitled Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition. In this book, Glass (2014a) advances the striking thesis that not only is a Charlotte Mason education similar to the classical model, but in fact it is a “particular implementation” of a “classical education” (p. 125). By writing this, Glass makes the claim that Charlotte Mason’s method should be classified as just one of the many diverse approaches that fall under the general label of classical.

Unfortunately, Glass’s book misrepresents the source, purpose, and ideas of Charlotte Mason’s method. In doing so, Glass creates a hybrid model of education that is faithful neither to the classical model nor to Charlotte Mason’s ideas. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that Charlotte Mason’s method is not merely a “particular implementation” of a “classical education.” Rather, Mason introduced a distinctly new philosophy of education that is a dramatic departure from the classical tradition.

I. The Source of Charlotte Mason’s Educational Theory

Glass (2014a) constructs a narrative in which Mason became “dissatisfied by the general trends of education in her time” (p. 8). In order to counter these trends, she “went looking into the past and drew an older conception of education into the present” (p. 8). Drawing primarily on the classical tradition, she allegedly “developed a fresh presentation for some very old ideas. Having put those ideas into practice and found them effective, she began to speak and later write with confidence about what she had learned” (p. 8).

However, this narrative contradicts Mason’s own testimony of how she developed her theory. Mason first presented her theory of education in a series of lectures to mothers to support a building project for St. Mark’s Church in Manningham (Bernier, 2009, p. 41). In the first lecture, which was to become the beginning of her first published work and the foundation of all her future writings, she named the primary source of her educational theory:

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 not—DESPISE not—HINDER not—one of these little ones. (Mason, 1989a, p. 12)

Mason (1896) indicates that psychology was her secondary source for these lectures:

The extraordinary leverage which some knowledge of the principles of physiological-psychology gives to those who have the bringing-up of children, had already been brought home to the writer in giving lectures on education to ladies preparing to teach in elementary schools. (p. 50)

She did not hint at any classical source for these lectures or for the method she developed.

At the close of her career, Mason provided her own extended narrative of how she discovered and developed her theory of education. She provides this testimony in pages 9–17 of An Essay Towards A Philosophy of Education (A Philosophy of Education, 1954). The sources Mason carefully enumerated are listed in Table 1.

Table 1: Mason’s (1954) own enumeration of the sources of her theory

Source Derived Principles
Direct observation of children ● “children are more than we, their elders, except that their ignorance is illimitable” (p. 10)

● “the mind of a child takes or rejects according to its needs” (p. 10)

● “children [are] well equipped to deal with ideas, and that explanations, questionings, amplifications, are unnecessary and wearisome” (pp. 10–11)

● “the wide world and its history [is] barely enough to satisfy a child who [has] not been made apathetic by spiritual malnutrition” (p. 12)

“The Scottish school of philosophers” (perhaps a reference to Enlightenment-era philosopher Francis Hutcheson who lived from 1694 to 1745) ● “Desire of Knowledge (Curiosity) [is] the chief instrument of education” (p. 11)
Mason’s personal reflection and logical deduction from previous principles ● “a common curriculum (up to the age of say, fourteen or fifteen) appears to be due to all children” (p. 12)

● “the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books” (p. 12)

● “We must read in order to know or we do not know by reading” (p. 13)

Mason’s own “circumstances and consideration” ● The value of “literary form” (p. 13)
Contemporary psychologists ● “how to secure attention” (p. 17)

From the beginning to the end, not a single classical source is mentioned in Mason’s own narrative of the development of her educational theory.

Nevertheless, Glass (2014a) insists Charlotte Mason was directed by “her desire to be inspired and guided by the principles of the past” (p. 2). Glass claims that Mason’s primary source was the classical tradition: “Charlotte Mason consciously places her methods and philosophy within this classical tradition. She, and those who worked with her in the PNEU, deliberately looked to educational philosophies from the past to shape their contemporary practices” (p. 81). This claim is reiterated on p. 122: “[Mason] read and understood the educational writings of the classical authors. From them, she gleaned the vital principles of the classical ideal and suggestions about how to realize that ideal in practice.”

On p. 123, Glass (2014a) quotes the following passage by Charlotte Mason from L’Umile Pianta:

If you picked up a bracelet lying by the way it would be no credit to you. It is precisely the case with us. These principles are picked up, found, a find which is no one’s property; they belong to all who have wit enough to take them. (Mason, 1922, p. 14)

Glass (2014a) suggests that Mason found these principles in the classical tradition when she interprets this passage as follows:

Each of us who have chosen to educate in the classical tradition are among those who have had the wit to lay hold of universal principles that are more valuable than any jewelry. We are the torch-bearers, passing on the light to the next generation of children whom it is our privilege to educate. The circle of the classical ideals—the pursuit of virtue, humility, and a synthetic approach to knowledge whereby affections become actions—is a bracelet that still lies by the wayside and may be claimed by any willing teacher. These things are no one’s property—belonging neither to me, nor to Charlotte Mason, nor to the torch-bearers of the past such as Quintilian or Erasmus. They belong to all of us—may we use them wisely and well, and succeed in passing them on to the next generation of learners. (p. 123)

The reader is led to assume that Mason discovered her principles of education from the classical tradition.

In reality, however, the full context of the L’Umile Pianta article quoted by Glass (2014a) on p. 123 actually falsifies Glass’s interpretation. Glass herself quotes the preceding sentence: “We … are working on principles not worked on before” (Mason, 1922). How can one assert that these principles were borrowed from the classical tradition if they were “not worked on before”? For the elimination of doubt, Mason (1922) proceeds on the very next page to “summarise briefly the principles underlying the method” (p. 15). These are the very “principles” that she says were “picked up, found” (p. 14):

  1. “We believe the child is a person. From the first he shows his mind and individuality… His affections, sense of love and justice, are there from the beginning, and the fact that a baby can blush when reproved shows the moral sense of a person. Enormous provision is made in every child for the individuality of a person.” (p. 15)
  2. “The body requires regular meals, daily food; so does the mind; as in the body the complete processes of assimilation and digestion go on without our knowledge, so do the similar processes of the mind work.” (p. 15)
  3. “It is an error to suppose that the mind lives on exercise.” (p. 15)
  4. “As the mouth opens to receive food, the mind opens to receive intellectual food. Before food enters the mouth, the palate must be titillated and appealed to, to set the juices flowing, the food must smell pleasant and have an agreeable taste. All test books and cram books and extracts fail in this respect and do not feed the mind.” (p. 16)
  5. “It is natural to children not to lose attention; they do not need to pick it up.” (p. 16)
  6. “Quantity, quality and variety are the three things to bear in mind as to the food for the mind.” (p. 17)

These principles closely align with those listed in Table 1 and which Mason says she derived from direct observation, personal reflection, and psychology. These principles are completely unrelated to the principles that Glass (2014a) claims were derived from the classical tradition — “the pursuit of virtue, humility, and a synthetic approach to knowledge whereby affections become actions” (p. 123). Indeed, Mason (1922) closes her article by saying, “We are missionaries and pioneers” (p. 17). A pioneer explores new regions, not regions covered by the classical past.

Unfortunately, Glass (2014a) misrepresents what Mason meant when she said she made educational “discoveries.” Glass implies that Mason made these discoveries from classical sources: “She herself said that she and her colleagues had ‘discovered’ them, because they represent universal truths about education that have their roots in the classical world.” (p. 9, emphasis added) However, the context in Mason’s A Philosophy of Education (1954) makes it clear that her “discoveries” were made from her own firsthand interaction with children: “One limitation I did discover in the minds of these little people… But I was beginning to make discoveries; … I soon perceived that children were well equipped to deal with ideas…” (p. 10, emphasis added). Note that in this case, the discovery is made from a perception, or observation, of children, not from a classical author. Mason (1954) writes that “One discovers a thing because it is there” (p. 27) again implying the idea of observation of something occurring in the present.

Mason (1954) describes another discovery that she made:

The service that some of us (of the P.N.E.U.) believe we have done in the cause of education is to discover that all children, even backward children, are aware of their needs and pathetically eager for the food they require… (p. 62, emphasis added)

This discovery was not made by reading classical authors but rather by bringing living education to “backward children”. This is related to another discovery that occurred in the active practice of teaching: “This infinite power of attention in every child (and grown-up), our discovery, is one P.N.E.U. principle which puts education on a new footing, and promises the latter-day Renaissance we all long to see” (Mason, 1923, p. 4). Mason encountered many challenging situations and was able to devise solutions that worked because they were rooted in human nature, not in classical sources. She describes this process in A Philosophy of Education (1954): “We have discovered a working answer to these two conundrums. I say discovered, and not invented…” (p. 14).

Mason repeatedly emphasized the newness of her theory. She would not do this if she were trying to resurrect ideas from the classical past. For example, Mason (1954) writes that “we have chanced to light on unknown tracts in the region of educational thought” (p. 8, emphasis added). On the same page she writes, “I have enumerated some of the points in which our work is exceptional in the hope of convincing the reader that unusual work carried on successfully in hundreds of schoolrooms—home and other—is based on principles hitherto unrecognized” (emphasis added). If the principles were previously unknown and unrecognized, how could they be classical?

Even when Glass admits that Mason is declaring a principle as “new,” she does not accept Mason’s own testimony to this fact. For example, Glass (2014a) notes that Mason considered the idea that “mind [is] a living, spiritual organism that must feed upon ideas” to be “a discovery of the twentieth century” (p. 72). But Glass overrules Mason’s statement and asserts instead that the “concept of ‘ideas’ and ‘ideals’ at the center of education can be traced back to Plato” (p. 72). Therefore, instead of allowing for Mason to have an original idea, she asserts that Mason “may well have gleaned her metaphor from reading older educators” (p. 72). Here we have Glass determining that Mason is classical, in spite of whatever Mason may have to say to the contrary.

But Glass notwithstanding, Mason (1896) explicitly rules out a classical basis for her theory of education when she indicates that, providentially, it could not have been developed before her time:

How could we, with sincere deference and humility, offer to parents the help of those few principles which seemed a very gospel of education, a gospel, so far depending upon current scientific discovery, that only within the last decade or two has it been an open book.

Mason found scientific answers in the present, not in the past.

Mason also repeatedly emphasizes the Christian basis of her theory. For example, Mason (1893) writes that “… our readers are aware that our whole superstructure rests upon a religious, or more precisely upon a Christian basis…” (p. 662). Nevertheless, Glass (2014a) relegates a discussion of Mason’s Christian faith to an Appendix. On page 125, she writes that “Charlotte Mason brought a Christian perspective to her philosophy of education” (emphasis added). Glass thus implies that Mason began with classical sources, and then made some modifications or adjustments based on Christian ideas. This dramatically contradicts Mason’s (1989a) own testimony that she had discovered a “Code of Education in the Gospels” (p. 12).

Glass (2014a, p. 1) notes that Mason wrote regarding her own methods that “Some of it is new, much of it is old” (Mason, 1954, p. 27). But not all that is old is classical. The Gospels are old. Glass does not provide evidence to demonstrate that the “old” elements of Mason’s theory were drawn from classical sources.

II. The Uniqueness of Charlotte Mason’s Educational Theory

Glass (2014a) claims that Mason’s educational theory is a “particular implementation” of a “classical education” (p. 125). She writes, “We might consider Charlotte Mason an early advocate for a return to the classical ideals” (p. 90). By contrast, Mason’s (1896) actual claim was that she had discovered and documented a unique and revolutionary method of education with absolutely no historical precedent:

Life is more intense, more difficult, more exhausting for us than it was for our fathers; it will probably be more difficult still for our children than for ourselves. How timely, then, and how truly, as we say, providential, that, just at this juncture of difficult living, certain simple, definite clues to the art of living should have been put into our hands! Is it presumptuous to hope that new light has been vouchsafed to us in these days, in response to our more earnest endeavours, our more passionate cravings for “more light and fuller.” (p. 51)

Remarkably, Mason wrote that her method of education “will some day (not in [her] lifetime) be seen to be one of the greatest things that has happened in the world” (as cited by Kitching, 1923, p. 388). She could not say that, if her method was only “a particular implementation” of a theory that came before.

Mason (1954) emphasizes the uniqueness of her method when she writes, “there happens to be no other comprehensive theory in the field which is in line with modern thought” (p. 32). Mason (1923) also explains that “The P.N.E.U. have taken pains to master a distinctive philosophy of education which some of us believe will do great things for many thousands of children and their homes” (p. 2, emphasis added). Mason (2000) goes as far as to claim that her theory is “revolutionary” (p. 221), something she is hardly likely to do if she were merely an “advocate for a return to the classical ideals:”

I believe that the first article of a valid 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 … 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. (p. 221, emphasis added)

Bernier (2009) describes this as an unprecedented and thoroughly Christian philosophy and theology of education:

Mason’s radical claims and challenging proposal for her discovery and the evaluation of the claims of her work as a truly new educational philosophy able to respond to the needs of the English nation were essentially ignored. The philosophical claims and the evidence to validate them which were the fruit of her life work were not debated, they were neither accepted nor rejected. The implications of her work have yet to be assessed either by secular or religious authorities; Her work has yet to be acknowledged as a substantial and original contribution to the theory of Christian education thoroughly developed from an Anglican perspective. (p. 191, emphasis added)

Given that Mason explicitly stated that her foundation was the Gospel of Christ and her own experience as a teacher, it should not be surprising to find that her discoveries were frequently at odds with the classical tradition.

III. A Hybrid Model That is Not Classical

Glass (2014a) describes a model of education that includes elements from Charlotte Mason’s theory and from the classical tradition. The result is a hybrid that is not compatible with either. Glass (2014a) herself provides many examples of how Mason contradicts the classical tradition. These examples serve to undermine and ultimately falsify her own thesis and are enumerated in Table 2.

Table 2: Mason contradicting the classical tradition in Glass (2014a)

Mason’s Idea How it contradicts the classical tradition
The role of philosophy On page 23, Glass (2014a) quotes Mason (1989c) as saying: “The functions which Plutarch claims for philosophy we ascribe to religion, and by so doing, we place life on a higher level. There is this fundamental difference between the two: while philosophy instructs, religion both instructs and enables” (p. 385). This shows Mason contrasting herself from the classical tradition, rather than aligning herself with it. According to Mason, the classical tradition offered philosophy. But Mason’s model of education replaces philosophy with religion, and by so doing enables life on a “higher level” than that available to the classical teachers.
Education for all Glass (2014a) explains that the classical tradition advocates education only for the select few: “Plato prescribed his best educational plan for the elite—the ‘guardians’ who would be the rulers in his proposed Republic—and left the education of the rest to consist largely of training in necessary skills” (p. 57). Glass (2014a) correctly notes that this sentiment is obviously antithetical to Mason’s committed goal of a liberal education for all:

In this [John Amos Comenius] was out of step with most classical educators, but Charlotte Mason joined him in desiring to set forth a method of education which would provide ‘a liberal education for all.’ This is not a traditional feature of classical education, but it does make her educational methods more approachable for the average teacher who wants to partake of the classical tradition. (p. 58)

This admission raises the logical question: How does something that is “not a traditional feature of classical education” enable one to partake of “the classical tradition”?

Nature study One of the most well-known distinctives of Charlotte Mason is her emphasis on nature study. It is a core practice in her model, from school-age children to teachers in training. But Glass (2014a) acknowledges that this has no precedent in the classical tradition. She writes, “The Greek philosophers, if they paid attention to the natural world, did not find it a matter for firsthand exploration” (p. 100).
History Charlotte Mason (1954) wrote, “Next in order to religious knowledge, history is the pivot upon which our curriculum turns” (p. 273). This indicates the foundational importance of history in her model of education. But Glass (2014a) points out that “History was not a traditional part of classical education” (p. 99). Again Mason radically departs from the classical precedent.

Glass (2014a) excuses some of Mason’s departures from the classical model by saying, “it must be remembered that her work is intended mostly for school children. It is not a fully-realized scheme of classical subjects” (p. 59). This statement admits that Mason’s work is not a “scheme of classical subjects” and hence not fully “classical.” Even so, it is incorrect to claim that Mason’s work is intended “mostly for school children.” Under Charlotte Mason, the PNEU developed curriculum for school and home for children through the age of 18 (Parents National Education Union, 1932). This extended to the students attending the practicing school for teachers enrolled in Mason’s House of Education. Mason (1954) writes that the practicing school comprised “ages of scholars from six to eighteen” (p. 15).

Given that Glass (2014a) herself furnishes so many ways that Mason is out of step with the classical tradition, why does she insist that Mason represents a “particular implementation” of a classical education (p. 125)? Why would she say not to “criticize [Mason] too sharply for avoiding certain conventional approaches to classical education” (p. 59)? The reason appears to be that Glass (2014a) betrays an a priori commitment to the preeminence of the classical tradition. This may be demonstrated from several examples from her book.

First, she assumes that her readers believe in the preeminent value of the classical tradition when she writes, “As present-day educators interested in classical education…” (p. 20). Glass (2014a) reinforces this notion by writing, “If we want to share in the tradition of classical educators…” (p. 20). Again this statement points towards Glass’s (2014a) belief in the superiority of a classical education, because her readers would only value participation in that tradition if they already believed it was preferable.

Two additional quotes from Glass (2014a) that indicate her commitment to the classical tradition while hybridizing Mason into that tradition:

  • “Those of us who want to revive a vital education according to the classical ideal in our own times…” (p. 60)
  • “… the degree to which we have faithfully followed her guidelines is the degree to which we have educated our children according to the classical ideal.” (p. 81)

These statements demonstrate Glass’s (2014a) belief that a “vital education” is a classical education, and that to “faithfully” follow Mason is to implement a classical education. Glass (2014a) does not seem to consider the possibility that a Mason education might be different from or better than a classical education. A classical education is simply assumed to be the best. She again assumes that her readers share this same a priori commitment when she writes, “As we educate children in the classical tradition…” (p. 121). Glass (2014a) acknowledges this commitment explicitly when she writes: “We who share the goals of the classical tradition should insist that every method of education which would call itself ‘classical’ be based upon this ideal…” (p. 47). But what if this ideal is not what Charlotte Mason is committed to?

IV. A Hybrid Model That is Not Faithful to Charlotte Mason

In order to support her thesis that Charlotte Mason is a “particular implementation” (p. 125) of a classical education, Glass (2014a) is forced to interpret and present Mason’s ideas in a way that undermines or distorts their original intent. Each one of these ideas will be treated individually and then summarized in Table 3.

Principle 1. “Children are born persons

Mason famously begins all of her books with her first principle, “Children are born persons.” This phrase has become almost synonymous with Charlotte Mason. Students of Charlotte Mason have always assumed that this was a core and foundational principle to Mason’s philosophy of education. Glass (2014a) disagrees: “… if she were alive today, she might choose slightly different points to emphasize…” (p. 12) This remarkable statement does not allow Mason to speak for herself. Instead of taking Mason at her word that her first principle is foundational, Glass (2014a) suggests that it was a relative point made only due to her cultural context.

According to Glass (2014a), Mason selected her first principle “in order to make a distinction between her methods and others based on faulty ideas of man” (pp. 12–13). Specifically, Glass (2014a) says that Mason put forth her first principle in opposition to a “prominent, scientific” idea that “drove the philosophy of her time” (p. 13). That scientific idea was that “at birth children were … not yet capable of thoughts and feelings that belong to a person” (p. 13). By contrast, Mason insists that “children are … from the very beginning, complete persons who deserve to be respected” (p. 14).

Indeed, Mason does assert that children are born persons, and to that extent Glass (2014a) is correct. However, Mason’s writings reveal that she implies much more than that by her first principle. This is clearly shown in her 13-page definitive essay entitled “Children as ‘Persons’” (2000). In this essay she characterizes the personhood of the child as a great mystery:

… we [wrongly] 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… We do not realize what Carlyle calls ‘the mystery of a person,’ and therefore, we do not see that the possibility of high intellectual attainments, amazing mechanical works, rests with persons of any nation. (p. 221, emphasis added)

Let us consider a child as he is, 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. (p. 225)

According to Mason (1954), because children are persons, all education is essentially self-education:

… we are profoundly sceptical as to the effect of all or any of these activities upon character and conduct. A person is not built up from without but within, that is, he is living, and all external educational appliances and activities which are intended to mould his character are decorative and not vital.

This sounds like a stale truism; but, let us consider a few corollaries of the notion that ‘a child is a person,’ and that a person is, primarily, living. Now no external application is capable of nourishing life or promoting growth; baths of wine, wrappings of velvet have no effect upon physical life except as they may hinder it; life is sustained on that which is taken in by the organism, not by that which is applied from without. (pp. 23–24)

Because children are persons, they have individuality. Mason (1922) writes, “We believe the child is a person. From the first he shows his mind and individuality… Enormous provision is made in every child for the individuality of a person” (p. 15). According to Mason (2000), because children are persons, they defy systems and formulas. They are spiritual organisms whose proper food is knowledge. They have God-given rights. They have great potentialities. And most importantly, they have direct access to God:

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.’ (p. 232)

For Mason (2000), her first principle is simply not an incidental detail that had to be emphasized for a specific historical context. It is not some stepping stone towards a higher philosophical idea. Rather, it is the timeless “first article of a valid educational creed” (p. 221). According to Mason (2000), “by the time … 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” (p. 221, emphasis added).

Why would Glass (2014a) claim that Mason asserted her first principle merely to challenge the scientific idea that “at birth children were … not yet capable of thoughts and feelings that belong to a person” (p. 13)? One can only assume that the extra implications of the first principle were not outlined by Glass because they are not found in the classical tradition.

Principle 2. “[Children] are not born either good or bad”

Mason’s (1954) second principle is that “[children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil” (p. xxix). Glass (2014a) claims that Mason emphasized this second principle also to challenge a scientific idea: “The new determinism, based on ideas about biology and heredity, supposed that a person was born good or born bad, and that education could not change his nature” (p. 14):

… but when we see from popular literature alone just how pervasive the idea of inherited nature (determinism) was, it is easier to understand why [Mason] felt the need to be explicit about it, because there is a vital educational principle at stake. If you believe that a child is born ‘bad,’ and no education will change his nature, you might very well leave him alone to reap the consequences as they come, and the sooner he is out of the way the better. (pp. 15–16)

… [Mason] had to reject the premise that character is inborn, and so her second principle is very precise—although somewhat obscure to current readers, because hereditary determinism is not widely discussed today, although remnants of it do affect contemporary thinking. (p. 16)

Glass’s (2014b) blog goes as far as to claim that this second principle is not in any way a theological statement:

When we read Charlotte Mason’s statement that children are not born ‘either good or bad’, it is easy to imagine that she is making a theological statement. But, in fact, she is not addressing the sin nature or spiritual condition of the child.

It is hard to imagine how a statement by a Christian writer about good and evil could be said to not be theological. In fact, Mason’s exposition of her second principle in chapter 3 of A Philosophy of Education (entitled “The Good and Evil Nature of a Child”) focuses on theology and says nothing about hereditary determinism. There is no evidence that Mason was trying to counter the notion that “some children are born good and other children are born bad.” Rather, Mason (1954) is trying to counter the twin errors that “all children are born all good” and “all children are born all bad”:

A well-known educationalist has brought heavy charges against us all on the score that we bring up children as ‘children of wrath.’ He probably exaggerates the effect of any such teaching, and the ‘little angel’ theory is fully as mischievous. (p. 46)

Later in this chapter, Mason writes that “in every child there are tendencies to greediness, restlessness, sloth, impurity” (p. 48). How could a statement about an inborn tendency to “impurity” not be considered to be a theological statement? It strains credulity to suggest that Mason was trying to counter a scientific assertion that “greediness” only affected lower-class people with tainted genes.

The theological nature of the second principle is also demonstrated by an early advocate of Mason’s writings. The Ven. Richard Frederick Lefevre Blunt (1890) wrote in The Parents’ Review:

There are two methods of training children in the things of God, two lines of thought to support these methods, perhaps two classes of Christians who sympathize exclusively with one or the other. Each represents one side of the truth; our danger is lest we exaggerate the one and pass by the other. There is the tendency in some minds to overstate the effects of the Fall, in others to overlook the Fall in the Redemption. Some teachers ignore altogether the intuitive impulses of the child towards good; others exaggerate them. Some would “esteem it the height of enthusiasm to look for any religion except as the result of direct teaching,” others would trust entirely to what has been called “the devout intuition of the human mind,” and would only preserve the child from moral taint. The one class read the Lord’s command as if he said, “Make little children like yourselves,” forgetting that he really said, “Become yourselves like little children”; while the other would forget that we are bidden to “train up a child in the away he should go,” and the principle which underlies it, that Divine grace is no substitute for human action. The representative of the former is to be found in Locke; of the latter in Wordsworth. In a word, the one class believe exclusively in tuition, the other in intuition.

Now the course of wisdom lies here, as elsewhere, not in a safe via media, but in a due recognition of both truths. If “grace is not tied to means,” God’s work cannot be limited by ours. With our aid, or without our aid, He is always seeking to form in each of His children His Divine image. It is His work apart from us that we are to further, as well as His work through us which we are to accomplish. In fact, we are not to treat a child as if he were a block of marble which we are to hew into a statue, but as a plant of God’s planting which we are to nourish and develop. So He bids us work and bids us pray, filled with reverence for Him and love for His little ones. (pp. 723–724)

Archdeacon Blunt has captured the intention behind Mason’s second principle. Mason is not emphasizing the Fall at the expense of Redemption, or the Redemption at the expense of the Fall, or a safe “via media.” Instead, Mason (1954) shows that by asserting the complete truth that all children are born with both good and bad elements, we can build a more healthy view of education:

We are no longer solely occupied in what an Irish woman called ‘saving yer dirty sowl.’ Our religion is becoming more magnanimous and more responsible and it is time that a like change should take place in our educational thought. (p. 46)

It is true that Mason discusses hereditary determinism in Parents and Children. But she does so only briefly and without any mention of her second principle. Instead, Mason (1989b) explains that habit (instilled during the process of education) has the power to overcome negative propensities: “The child’s future depends not upon his lineage so much as upon his bringing-up, for education is stronger than nature” (p. 159). By contrast, her explicit exposition of the second principle in chapter 3 of A Philosophy of Education (1954) is filled with theological language:

There are good and evil tendencies in body and mind, heart and soul; and the hope set before us is that we can foster the good so as to attenuate the evil; that is, on condition that we put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion. The community, the nation, the race, are now taking their due place in our religious thought. (p. 46)

It is the context within Mason’s own writing that makes it “easy to imagine that she is making a theological statement.” And if we let Mason speak for herself, we find that she is speaking of theology and religion.

It is not clear why Glass shies away from the obvious theological nature of Mason’s second principle. Perhaps it is because the overtly Christian meaning of the statement does not mesh well with pre-Christian classical ideas.

Principle 3. “The principles of authority … and of obedience”

Mason’s (1954) third principle is, “The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental.” Glass (2014a) derives a definition of humility from this principle, defining humility as “docility before just authority, not a false humility, which is only pride turned inside-out” (p. 126). She also connects humility to this principle when she writes, “Charlotte Mason also examined humility within the context of the principles of authority and docility” (p. 29).

The problem with this claim is that the chapter in Mason’s Philosophy of Education (1954) on authority and docility does not mention humility. In fact, the chapter states just the opposite: “… the drawback to an indirect method of securing this result [of an ordered freedom] is that … children fail to learn that habit of’ ‘proud subjection and dignified obedience’…” (p. 70).

Glass (2014a) insists that the teacher must provide “Lessons in Humility” (p. 27). Glass (2014a) introduces this topic on page 28 by supplying a warning from Mason (1989b): “The note of childhood is, before all things, humility” (p. 282). But this quote does not support the idea of “lessons in humility.” Mason’s point is that the child is a natural model of humility. The context (Parents and Children, page 282) says, “A child is humble” (emphasis added). It is the “note of childhood”, because it is exhibited by children, not taught to children.

Again, Glass (2014a) quotes Mason without the full context: “There is no reference to above or below in the humble soul, which is equally humble before an infant, a primrose, a worm, a beggar, a prince” (as cited pp. 28–29). She omits the very next sentence: “This, if we think of it, is the state natural to children” (Mason, 1989b, p. 283). Glass (2014a) insists that training in humility is essential: “we must find a way to instill this attitude in ourselves and in our pupils” (p. 30). By contrast, Mason (2000) envisions humility as the child’s natural estate. Rather than trying to instill humility into the child, we should give the child “many delightful things to think of” (p. 230). According to Mason (2000), we should “find out ways to give [the child] all his rights, and he … will not allow himself to be troubled with himself” (p. 230).

Glass (2014a) says that humility “is actually the little secret of classical education” (p. 30), but insists that a child must know his “ignorance” (p. 29) and avoid “intellectual pride” (p. 30), a phrase that Mason never uses. Rather, Mason insists, “Humility does not think much or little of itself; it does not think of itself at all. It is a negative rather than a positive quality, being an absence of self-consciousness rather than the presence of any distinctive virtue” (p. 284).

By incorrectly linking humility with Mason’s third principle, Glass gives the impression that Mason advocates lessons in humility. Glass lays out a view of humility that may harmonize with a classical model, but it has little to do with Charlotte Mason’s ideas.

Furthermore, by linking humility with the third principle, Glass neglects to mention Mason’s deep Christian theology of authority. Mason (1905) wrote that one of the “Three principles which underlie the educational thought of … The Parents’ National Educational Union…” is “The recognition of authority as a fundamental principle” (p. 126). But for Mason, authority is always grounded in the person of God. Mason (1905) writes:

It is in their early years at home that children should be taught to realise that duty can exist only as that which we owe to God; that the law of God is exceeding broad and encompasses us as the air we breathe, only more so, for it reaches to our secret thoughts; and this is not a hardship but a delight.

Mason’s third principle is fundamentally about understanding the authority of God, not about being humble enough to be a good learner.

Principle 9. “The mind is … a spiritual organism”

Mason’s (1954) ninth principle is:

We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs. (p. xxx)

Glass (2014a) admits that, “This perception of the mind as a living, spiritual organism that must feed upon ideas seems to be one that is truly Charlotte’s own rather than borrowed from the past” (p. 72). Glass’s only other comment on this principle is that the “concept of ‘ideas’ and ‘ideals’ at the center of education can be traced back to Plato,” and that Mason “may well have gleaned her metaphor from reading older educators” (p. 72).

But in order for Glass to claim this, she must completely ignore Mason’s educational catechism (found in Parents and Children). It is not surprising that Glass’s book never mentions this catechism. In this catechism especially, Mason (1989b) casts aside all notions of a classical system in favor of the powerful Person of Jesus Christ:

Does this doctrine of ideas as the spiritual food needful to sustain the immaterial life throw any light on the doctrines of the Christian religion? Yes; the Bread of Life, the Water of Life, the Word by which man lives, the ‘meat to eat which ye know not of,’ and much more, cease to be figurative expressions, except that we must use the same words to name the corporeal and the incorporeal sustenance of man. We understand, moreover, how ideas emanating from our Lord and Saviour, which are of His essence, are the spiritual meat and drink of His believing people. We find it no longer a ‘hard saying,’ nor a dark saying, that we must sustain our spiritual selves upon Him, even as our bodies upon bread. (p. 246)

The idea of education as “nourishment” is in fact novel to Mason, and precisely because its origin is in Christ, a Person unknown to the classical sources. In Mason’s (2011) theology, the soul ultimately feeds not on words or ideas but on Christ Himself:

But life, like the tabernacle in the wilderness, has its three courts. There is the outer court where living things blossom and bear fruit, eat and drink, and sleep and play; and this life is holy, and disease and fever do not extinguish, but liberate, the principle of life. There is the Holy place where not all living beings walk but only mankind, because men are able to think and love; this life also is sustained upon Christ, who is our life. Within, there is the Holy of Holies, where man communicates with God and consciously receives in Christ the life of his spirit. (p. 165)

Here we find definitive proof that Mason built her philosophy of education not upon the ideas of men but upon the Gospel of Christ. Such a philosophy is decidedly not “classical” — it transcends “classical” as surely as Christ transcends the world.

Principle 12. “Education is the Science of Relations”

Mason’s (1954) twelfth principle is:

Education is the Science of Relations;” that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of—

           “Those first-born affinities
“That fit our new existence to existing things.” (p. xxx)

Mason (1954) further elaborates: “‘Education is the Science of Relations,’ is the principle which regulates their curriculum; that is, a child goes to school with many aptitudes which he should put into effect” (p. 31). The measure of whether a child has put an “aptitude into effect” is not “how much does [he] know? … but how much does he care?”

John Muir Laws (2016) gives a modern account of how the science of relations works in practice:

I painted nearly three thousand watercolors of the plants and animals I encountered. By the time I was done drawing a plant, I felt I had forged a relationship with it. It felt wrong to pick a plant, draw it, and leave it wilting by the side of the trail. Instead I would sit beside it, draw it to scale, add my watercolor, and then stand up and fluff up the grasses where I had been sitting. (p. 2, emphasis added)

Through nature study, Laws put his aptitude into effect. He developed a relationship with the flowers of God’s creation. At the end of this process, he knew a lot; but more importantly, he cared even more.

Mason (1905) protects herself from misinterpretation when she writes:

What is education after all? An answer lies in the phrase—Education is the Science of Relations. I do not use this phrase, let me say once more, in the Herbartian sense—that things are related to each other, and we must be careful to pack the right things in together, so that, having got into the brain of a boy, each thing may fasten on its cousins, and together they may make a strong clique or ‘apperception mass.’ What we are concerned with is the fact that we personally have relations with all that there is in the present, all that there has been in the past, and all that there will be in the future—with all above us and all about us—and that fulness of living, expansion, expression, and serviceableness, for each of us, depend upon how far we apprehend these relationships and how many of them we lay hold of. (pp. 185–186)

Mason leaves no room for doubt. The “relations” are between the student and the fields of knowledge. The “relations” are not between one field of knowledge and another.

Glass (2014a), however, claims that the science of relations refers to the unity of knowledge:

If we can grasp the vision of wholeness that synthetic thinking offers, if we can shake off the chains of analysis-first that our modern education has imposed upon us, we will better appreciate Charlotte Mason’s unifying premise that “education is the science of relations.” We will place her among the long tradition of classical educators who saw and understood knowledge as a whole, and most importantly, we may learn from her how to revive synthetic thinking in our own educational endeavors. (pp. 40–41)

But Mason never uses the phrase science of relations to describe the connections between one field of knowledge and another. Glass is confusing Mason’s stress on a diverse and comprehensive curriculum with the idea of the interconnectedness of all knowledge. In other words, while Mason is calling for a curriculum with a comprehensive list of subjects, Glass misrepresents this by claiming that Mason is asserting that all these subjects are interconnected and that education is ultimately about discovering these interconnections. Glass (2014a) claims, “[Charlotte Mason] made it part of her philosophy to revive the older habit of learning to develop real relationships with knowledge and understand it as whole” (p. 36). While the first part of the statement is undoubtedly true (“learning to develop relationships with knowledge”), the second part is unsubstantiated.

Glass (2014a) asserts the following: “The classical educators understood that knowledge was a matter of connections. They did not analyze or dismantle knowledge, but strove always to present a unified understanding of the world” (p. 39, emphasis added). While that may be true of some classical authors, Mason does not explicitly advocate a “unified understanding of the world.” Instead, Mason illustrates the significant differences between the various fields of knowledge. For example, in Ourselves (1924), Mason describes each field of knowledge as a different land that is traversed in a different way (pp. 35–44). For example, whereas Imagination is indispensable for “journeys with travellers in the ways of Science” (p. 36), “Reason is [the] chosen comrade” for travelers in the land of Mathematics. Mathematics is “a Mountainous Land” (p. 38), but in the land of Philosophy, the traveler “does not find the same firm foothold as he whose way leads him through the Principality of Mathematics” (p. 39). Mason’s science of relations is learning how to visit each field of knowledge; not how to find some way to correlate each field of knowledge to another.

Glass (2014a) points out the danger of specialization. She writes that “all too often, an expert in one narrow field is unacquainted with the relationship between his specialty and other areas of knowledge” (p. 39, emphasis added). Mason did point out the danger of specialization. But Mason’s solution is not to figure out the relationship between the specialty and other areas of knowledge. Rather, her solution is to connect the knower to more kinds of knowledge. Mason (1954) explains it as follows:

It is even possible for a person to go into any one of the great fields of thought and to work therein with delight until he become incapable of finding his way into any other such field. We know how Darwin lost himself in science until he could not read poetry, find pleasure in pictures, think upon things divine; he was unable to turn his mind out of the course in which it had run for most of his life. In the great (and ungoverned) age of the Renaissance, the time when great things were done, great pictures painted, great buildings raised, great discoveries made, the same man was a painter, an architect, a goldsmith and a master of much knowledge besides; and all that he did he did well, all that he knew was part of his daily thought and enjoyment. (pp. 53–54)

Nothing in Mason’s writings connects the idea of the science of relations to the idea of a relationship between various fields of knowledge.

For Glass (2014a), “‘Education is the science of relations’ is the exact opposite of ‘fragmentation’” (p. 114). But for Mason, “Education is the science of relations” is the exact opposite of apathy and ignorance. For the child to experience life, he or she must form personal connections with a wide range of knowledge. What is at stake is not synthesis, but life.

Principle 15: “Children have naturally great power of attention”

Mason’s (1954) fifteenth principle is: “A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarizing, and the like” (p. xxx). As indicated previously, the power of attention was one of Mason’s key discoveries which led to the formulation of her theory of education. Glass (2014a) only makes two passing references to the habit of attention (pp. 67, 105). Presumably this is because the habit of attention is not an important idea in the classical model.

Because Glass (2014a) does not focus on the habit of attention, she incorrectly identifies pride as the reason that Mason discourages the use of prizes:

Pride in our intellectual achievements, hubris, is a death knell to the kind of real education that produces virtue, and children are susceptible to being drawn into this kind of pride, as are their parents. Our educational system of grades, prizes, contests, tests and ‘My child is an honor student’ bumper stickers has a tendency to make educational efforts more a matter of performing well than of achieving wisdom. (p. 26, emphasis added)

In fact, Mason (1954) objected to prizes not because of pride but because it was not a good motivator: “Marks, prizes, places, rewards, punishments, praise, blame, or other inducements are not necessary to secure attention, which is voluntary, immediate and surprisingly perfect” (p. 7).

Mason’s discussion on prizes has nothing to do with preferring bumper stickers to wisdom. Rather, it is all about igniting “the Desire of Knowledge, knowledge-hunger being natural to everybody” (Mason, 1954, p. 14). Mason’s virtuous cycle is how the desire for knowledge strengthens the habit of attention, a concept that Glass does not attempt to connect to the classical tradition.

Principle 18. “The way of reason”

Mason’s (1954) eighteenth principle is:

The way of reason: We teach children, too, not to ‘lean (too confidently) to their own understanding’; because the function of reason is to give logical demonstration (a) of mathematical truth, (b) of an initial idea, accepted by the will. In the former case, reason is, practically, an infallible guide, but in the latter, it is not always a safe one; for, whether that idea be right or wrong, reason will confirm it by irrefragable proofs. (p. xxxi)

Glass (2014a) acknowledges that this principle is not emphasized by the classical sources. “This second function of reason is not widely considered, but Charlotte draws attention to it by way of warning,” she writes (p. 77). Interestingly, other theologians do find this principle, but they find it in the Anglican reformers, not in the classical thinkers. For example, Dr. Ashley Null (2001) states, “According to [Anglican reformer Thomas] Cranmer’s anthropology, what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” Contrary to Glass’s (2014a) thesis, we see again that Mason derives her key ideas from the Gospel tradition, not from the pre-Christian classical thinkers.

Principle 20. “the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits”

Mason’s (1954) twentieth and final principle is:

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. (p. xxxi)

When Mason proclaims that the Holy Spirit is the child’s Continual Helper, she is especially referring to the activity of learning. For Mason, the Divine Spirit is an active agent in all education. This is the truth behind what Mason refers to as the Great Recognition. Mason (1989b) declared that God Himself is our personal teacher:

‘God doth Instruct.’—In the things of science, in the things of art, in the things of practical everyday life, his God doth instruct him and doth teach him, her God doth instruct her and doth teach her. Let this be the mother’s key to the whole of the education of each boy and each girl; not of her children; the Divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child. Because He is infinite, the whole world is not too great a school for this indefatigable Teacher, and because He is infinite, He is able to give the whole of his infinite attention for the whole time to each one of his multitudinous pupils. We do not sufficiently rejoice in the wealth that the infinite nature of our God brings to each of us. (p. 273)

Glass (2014a) discusses the Great Recognition, but assigns it a different meaning. Glass claims that the Great Recognition is an assertion that all knowledge is interconnected. In doing so, she omits the point about the personal activity and agency of the Holy Spirit in the education of every individual child. Commenting on the Great Recognition, found on p. 271 of Mason’s Parents and Children, Glass (2014a) writes, “This understanding … of the interconnectedness and wholeness of knowledge…” (p. 33). Glass (2014a) describes God as the source of knowledge, but not as the personal teacher: “Firenze’s fresco that showed how the liberal arts could be considered outpourings of divine knowledge” (p. 113).

This redefinition of the Great Recognition by Glass (2014a) effectively eliminates an essential (and non-classical element) of Mason’s method. Mason repeatedly asserts the indispensable role of the Holy Spirit in the act of learning. For example, in her educational catechism, Mason (1989b) writes:

The Supreme Educator.—Then the spiritual sustenance of ideas is derived directly or indirectly from other human beings?

No; and here is the great recognition which the educator is called upon to make. God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself the Supreme Educator of mankind.


He openeth man’s ear morning by morning, to hear so much of the best as the man is able to hear.

In things Natural and Spiritual.—Are the ideas suggested by the Holy Spirit confined to the sphere of the religious life?

No; Coleridge, speaking of Columbus and the discovery of America, ascribes the origin of great inventions and discoveries to the fact that ‘certain ideas of the natural world are presented to minds already prepared to receive them by a higher Power than Nature herself.’

Is there any teaching in the Bible to support this view?

Yes; very much. Isaiah, for example, says that the ploughman knows how to carry on the successive operations of husbandry, ‘for his God doth instruct him and doth teach him.’ (pp. 245–246)

Mason (1989b) believes that God is the personal teacher even of technical matters such as grammar:

We recognise this in what we call spiritual things, meaning the things that have to do more especially with our approaches to God; but the new thing to us is, that grammar, for example, may be taught in such a way as to invite and obtain the co-operation of the Divine Teacher, or in such a way as to exclude His illuminating presence from the schoolroom. We do not mean that spiritual virtues may be exhibited by the teacher, and encouraged in the child in the course of a grammar lesson; this is no doubt true, and is to be remembered; but perhaps the immediate point is that the teaching of grammar by its guiding ideas and simple principles, the true, direct, and humble teaching of grammar; without pedantry and without verbiage, is, we may venture to believe, accompanied by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, of whom is all knowledge. (p. 274)

Since Glass (2014a) ignores this aspect of the personal agency of the Holy Spirit, she classifies grammar as a lifeless study: “… but ‘grammar’ as a scientific analysis of language has lost the living heart that made the study worthwhile in the pursuit of the classical ideal” (p. 54).

Furthermore, Glass (2014a) misses the connection between living books and the Great Recognition. Mason (1989b) writes, “We are told that the Spirit is life; therefore, that which is dead, dry as dust, mere bare bones, can have no affinity with Him, can do no other than smother and deaden his vitalising influences” (p. 277). Here Mason lays out the theological justification for the concept of living books. Glass (2014a) defines living books by describing their inherent attributes: “Simply put, a living book is one that conveys living ideas. It should be of the highest literary quality and should present its subject in a way that engages both the mind and the heart of the reader” (p. 97).

By contrast, Mason (1905) writes that living books are books that cooperate with the Holy Spirit. An expert cannot predict whether or not a book will turn out to be living. The only definitive test is how the book is actually received:

A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. The expert is not the person to choose; the children themselves are the experts in this case. A single page will elicit a verdict; but the unhappy thing is, this verdict is not betrayed; it is acted upon in the opening or closing of the door of the mind. (p. 228)

Of course the idea that the Holy Spirit is the personal educator of each individual child presupposes the New Testament revelation about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. These revealed truths were unknown to the classical world. Hence it is not surprising that Glass (2014a) neglected to mention this important aspect of Mason’s theory of education in her book.

Table 3: Summary of Glass’s misinterpretations of Mason’s principles

Principle Glass’s Emphasis Mason’s Emphasis
1. Children are born persons Opposition to the scientific idea that at birth children were not yet capable of thoughts and feelings that belong to a person. Because children are persons, they defy systems and formulas. They are spiritual organisms.
2. Children are not born either good or bad Opposition to the scientific idea of hereditary determinism. We can foster the good so as to attenuate the evil, on condition that we put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion.
3. The principles of authority and of obedience The importance of instilling humility. All authority is derived from God.
9. The mind is a spiritual organism The concept of ideas at the center of education can be traced back to Plato. Ideas emanating from our Lord and Saviour, which are of His essence, are the spiritual meat and drink of His believing people.
12. Education is the Science of Relations The importance of finding links between all fields of knowledge. The measure of whether a child has put an aptitude into effect is not how much does he know, but how much does he care?
15. Children have naturally great power of attention Prizes encourage pride. Prizes are not needed to secure attention, which is voluntary, immediate and surprisingly perfect.
18. The way of reason No classical precedent. Precedent found in Christian theology.
20. The Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits Understanding the interconnectedness and wholeness of knowledge. The Holy Spirit is the Supreme Educator who works individually with each single child.

V. The Purpose of Education

Glass (2014a) repeatedly states that the purpose of education is virtue — right behavior. For example, she quotes David Hicks as saying, “The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows” (as cited on p. 18). She also asserts that in the classical model, “education was intended to result in right action,” and “all areas of education were brought into service for this single goal—to teach children to think and act rightly” (p. 19, emphasis added). Glass (2014a) is clear that the aim of education is “most importantly—bringing that knowledge to bear on actual conduct” (p. 20, emphasis added).

According to Glass (2014a), this motivation for the classical educators includes all types of academic study: “They pursued all areas of knowledge—even arithmetic or grammar—as a part of the process that would lead to wisdom, and ultimately, character and virtue” (p. 23, emphasis added). Glass (2014a) attempts to show that Mason also believed that the purpose of education is right action. Quoting Mason, she writes that “[the formation of character is] the ultimate object of education” (as cited on p. 24). The problem with this quotation is that the full context of Mason’s (1989b) statement is: “Suppose the parent see that the formation of character is the ultimate object of education” (p. 83, emphasis added). In other words, the sentence is hypothetical and not a definitive statement of Mason’s official statement on the goal of education.

Glass (2014a) also cites Mason’s focus on habit formation (her seventh principle) as evidence that Mason saw right action as the primary goal of education: “So we find that even the discipline of habit serves to further the classical ideal by ordering the affections and paving the way for a virtuous life” (p. 69). However, Mason never refers to a “classical ideal” in her discussion of habit. And in Mason’s model, habit is about more than right action, or virtue, as will be seen shortly.

In actual fact, Charlotte Mason transcends this belief that action is the ultimate goal of education. Finding her inspiration in the Gospel, Mason (1905) lays out the true, grace-filled goal of education: “… the culmination of all education … is that personal knowledge of and intimacy with God in which our being finds its fullest perfection” (p. 95). For Mason, the goal of education is not the achievement of virtue but rather the knowledge of and intimacy with God. Christ defied the classical teachers when He revealed that God is eminently knowable, and to know Him is eternal life (John 17:3).

Mason (2011) is very clear that action is subordinate to knowing Christ in a personal way:

Christianity is not merely the following of Christ, but is chiefly, the knowledge of Christ, to be attained by a constant, devout contemplation of the Divine Life. Hence, the primary importance of meditation for the Christian soul. We cannot grow into the likeness of that which is unknown to us, and we cannot know except by that process of reflective contemplation which we name meditation. (p. 18)

Mason (1954) cited the prayer of St. Chrysostom as another way of expressing the true goal of education:

By degrees children get that knowledge of God which is the object of the final daily prayer in our beautiful liturgy—the prayer of St Chrysostom—‘Grant us in this world knowledge of Thy truth,’ and all other knowledge which they obtain gathers round and illuminates this. (p. 64)

Mason (2011) further elaborates on this prayer:

Day by day we are taught to pray, by way of summing up all our requirements in this life, for “knowledge of Thy truth”—the prayer in the Liturgy which seems to summarise most fully our Lord’s teaching. But our practice hardly keeps pace with our prayer; we are apt to put two or three legitimate desires before what should be our primary aspiration; to have good—the cult of prosperity—is the prayer and effort of the natural man; to be good—the cult of sanctity—is the desire of the spiritually-minded; to do good—the cult of philanthropy—sums up the “religion of humanity”: these things we should have, be and do, but we are becoming aware that there is a further duty which we may not leave undone. (pp. v–vi)

Virtue is good, but it is secondary to the knowledge of God.

Even habit formation is, in its highest form, about knowing God, not changing outward behavior. The greatest habit of all for Mason is described in School Education (1905):

To keep a child in this habit of the thought of God—so that to lose it, for even a little while, is like coming home after an absence and finding his mother out—is a very delicate part of a parent’s work. (p. 141)

Indeed, the thought of God, not virtue, is what sustains the life of the child:

It is not what we read or what we hear that sustains us, but what we appropriate; what we take home to our minds and ruminate upon,—reading a passage over and over, or dwelling, again and again upon a thought, rejoicing in a ‘fresh thought of God’ as a thing to be thankful for, a quickening influence to make us alive and active when a palsy of deadness and staleness appears to be creeping over us. We all have a spiritual life to sustain and we all need the periodic nourishment of new, or newly put, thoughts of God. (Mason, 2011, p. 36)

In summary, Mason is careful to place all discussion about virtue in its proper place relative to the knowledge of God. For example, Mason (1905) writes:

One caution I should like to offer. A child’s whole notion of religion is ‘being good.’ It is well that he should know that being good is not his whole duty to God, although it is so much of it; that the relationship of love and personal service, which he owes as a child to his Father, as a subject to his King, is even more than the ‘being good’ which gives our Almighty Father such pleasure in His children. (p. 136)

While the goal of a classical education may be virtue, the goal of a Charlotte Mason education is the knowledge of God.

VI. Synthetic Thinking

Glass (2014a) uses the phrase “synthetic thinking” 47 times in her book. (She uses the word synthetic more than 100 times.) Glass (2014a) writes that one reason she chose the term “synthetic thinking” is because Mason used the word synthetic (p. 33). However, in all of her writings, Mason never uses the phrase “synthetic thinking.” In fact, she only uses the word synthetic in four distinct sentences across the entire extent of her published writings. Those sentences are listed in Table 4.

Table 4: Mason’s use of the word “synthetic”

Reference Phrase Meaning
Mason, 1989c,
p. 341
“The boy’s synthetic mind found the Juden-Deutsch fragmentary and unsatisfactory. He must needs add Hebrew to his list of languages, and his father succeeded in securing lessons from Dr Albrecht, the Rector of the Gymnasium.” (emphasis added) The boy (Goethe) wanted to learn the pure Hebrew language rather than a German-Hebrew hybrid.
Mason, 1954,
p. 166
(this identical sentence is repeated in other works by Mason)
“We are at present in a phase of religious thought, Christian and pseudo-Christian, when a synthetic study of the life and teaching of Christ may well be of use.” A study of the Gospels is needed that treats individual passages in the context of the overall Gospel narratives.
Mason, 1989c,
p. 380
“the first three lustres belong to what we may call the synthetic stage of education” There exists a “synthetic stage” of education.
Mason, 1989c,
p. 385
“the two stages of education, synthetic and analytic, coalesce”

Mason refers only to a synthetic mind, a synthetic study, and a synthetic stage. Neither phrase aligns closely with synthetic thinking, so we have to turn to Glass (2014a) for a definition of this phrase. Glass (2014a) defines the phrase as follows: “Seeing the universe as a wholeness, and understanding that all things are connected to all other things, and ultimately to God, and to yourself, might be called synthetic thinking” (p. 33). But Mason never challenges her students to understand “that all things are connected to all other things.” Therefore it is not surprising that Mason does not use the phrase synthetic thinking.

Mason (1954) does state that the mind “absorbs facts only as these are connected with the living ideas upon which they hang” (p. 20). But of course this is vastly different from discovering a path to connect “all things” to “all other things”. Furthermore, Mason describes this as the normal state for how the mind absorbs facts. It is certainly not a learned skill, such as learning to think “synthetically” as opposed to “analytically.”

Glass (2014a) says that the opposite of synthetic thinking is analytical thinking (p. 34). Mason never uses this phrase either. However, Mason does use the word analyse, and sometimes treats it as synonymous with criticise (Mason, 1954, p. 166). Mason (1989c) indicates that children should simply consume knowledge and not analyze it first:

Let us who teach spend time in the endeavour to lay proper and abundant nutriment before the young, rather than in leading them to criticise and examine every morsel of knowledge that comes their way. Who could live if every mouthful of bodily food were held up on a fork for critical examination before it be eaten? (p. 295)

According to Mason, since children are born persons, they can self-educate and derive spiritual nourishment when they consume knowledge directly. Training children to analyze before consuming interrupts this process and erodes curiosity. The irony is that intentionally pushing children towards synthetic thinking has just the same side effect as pushing them towards analytical thinking — it pushes children to think about what they are consuming, instead of just consuming. When consuming a great piece of literature, children should not do a synthetic study of how the ideas connect to other categories of knowledge. Rather, they should just consume the ideas, and their natural ability to learn will “digest” those ideas. Through Glass’s extensive and detailed treatment of synthetic thinking, she has developed a new model for education which may have precedent in the classical tradition, but it has little to do with Charlotte Mason’s ideas.

What, then, of Mason’s use of the word synthetic? The first two references in Table 4 can be understood with the straightforward definition of the word. Since Goethe had a synthetic mind, he wanted to understand Hebrew, not just the Juden-Deutsch dialect. Furthermore, since most commentaries exposit individual passages, there is a need for a synthetic study which shows how portions of the Gospel narratives relate to the others.

But what does Mason (1989c) mean by a “synthetic stage of education”? Mason introduces this concept with the following passage:

It follows that the first three lustres belong to what we may call the synthetic stage of education, during which his reading should be wide and varied enough to allow the young scholar to get into living touch with earth-knowledge, history, literature, and much besides. These things are necessary for his intellectual life, and are especially necessary to give him material for the second stage of his education, the analytic, which, indeed, continues with us to the end. It is in this second stage that the value of the classical and mathematical grind comes in. (pp. 380–381)

To understand this passage, we must begin by clarifying the phrase “the first three lustres.” According to The Free Dictionary, the word lustre simply means “a period of five years.” It is used exactly the same way as the word decade. For example, “Lawn tennis in its first decade or perhaps its first three lustres: sporting and social” (Patridge, 1973, p. 5174). Note how decade and lustre are used interchangeably in this sentence. “Three lustres” is just an idiomatic way of saying “fifteen years.” Mason’s paragraph could be modernized as follows:

It follows that the first [fifteen years of the child’s life] belong to what we may call the synthetic stage of education, during which [the child’s] reading should be wide and varied enough to allow the young scholar to get into living touch with earth-knowledge, history, literature, and much besides. These things are necessary for his intellectual life, and are especially necessary to give him material for the second stage of his education, the analytic, which, indeed, continues [from age 15 on to the end of his life].

It is important to note that “three lustres” does not mean “three phases.” It simply means fifteen years.

It is fascinating to see how Mason (1989c) describes the two stages. The “synthetic stage” is characterized by reading that is “wide and varied” (p. 380). However, this reading is orderly, definite, and purposeful:

If we perceive that knowledge, like bread, is necessary food, we see also that it must be taken in set portions, fitly combined, duly served, and at due intervals, in order to induce the digestive processes without which, knowledge, like meat, gives us labour rather than strength. In other words, desultory reading affords entertainment, and perhaps an occasional stimulus to thought. Casual reading—that is, vague reading round a subject without the effort to know—is not in much better case: if we are to read and grow thereby, we must read to know, that is, our reading must be study—orderly, definite, purposeful. (p. 382)

The “analytic stage” is characterized by technical activities such as Greek translation, mathematical drills, and exam preparation (Mason, 1989c, p. 381). However, in this stage, “the student is well nourished by the continued habit of wide reading” (p. 382). Neither stage is characterized by a particular style of thought, “synthetic” or otherwise. The two stages are illustrated in Table 5.

Table 5: Comparison of Mason’s (1989c) synthetic and analytic stages

Stage Synthetic Characteristics Analytic Characteristics
Synthetic Wide reading Discipline: orderly, definite, and purposeful
Analytic Wide reading Discipline: classical and mathematical grind

Table 5 illustrates Mason’s startling conclusion: the stages are really one and the same. Hence Mason (1989c) concludes her discussion on the two stages by saying, “In this way, what I have called the two stages of education, synthetic and analytic, coalesce; the wide reading tends to discipline, and in the disciplinary or analytic stage the mind of the student is well nourished by the continued habit of wide reading” (p. 382). The stages coalesce because children are born persons. Nourishment and discipline are necessary for persons of all ages. After all, education is both a discipline and a life.

In her discussion of the coalescing stages, Mason certainly does not stipulate that a child must meet some developmental requirement before he or she can advance from one stage to the next. In particular, she does not specify a requirement to acquire skill in a particular style of thinking. Nevertheless, Glass (2014a) insists: “Once the unity of all knowledge is comprehended and many relationships formed, we are able to employ analytical thinking without harming those relationships” (p. 40, emphasis added). Glass (2014a) develops this concept without supplying adequate supporting evidence from Mason’s writing.

In fact, Mason’s approach to curriculum seems to contradict Glass’s (2014a) model. Glass (2014a) writes: “… the mere division of our schools into ‘subjects’ such as history (or the more modern social studies) and biology and geology, and so on, contributes to the disconnected approach analysis brings to knowledge…” (p. 38) But we know that Mason divided her school program into subjects such as history and biology. In doing so, she violated the very principle that Glass (2014a) advocates and attempts to attribute to Mason.

A comparison of Glass’s model of synthetic thinking to Mason’s model of a synthetic stage indicates that Glass has developed a model of education that is different from Mason’s. Whatever merits this model may have, it is foreign to Charlotte Mason’s theory of education.

VII. Conclusion

This paper demonstrates that Glass (2014a) is performing eisegesis (interpreting texts in such a way that it introduces one’s own presuppositions). The evidence shows that Glass is advocating “classical ideas” using Charlotte Mason’s vocabulary. A final example of this is when Glass (2014a) attempts to find support in Mason’s writings for her “closed circle” (p. 47):


The problem with associating this “closed circle” with Charlotte Mason is that when we look at Mason’s writings, we find a different conception of the goal (the knowledge of God, not virtue), a different conception of the science of relations (the relationship of the child to many fields of knowledge, not the unity of knowledge), and a different conception of humility (the absence of self-consciousness, not the removal of intellectual pride).

From lowly beginnings, Charlotte Mason burst onto the scene in England and launched an educational renaissance. She codified principles “hitherto unrecognized” and showed the world that “the souls of all children are waiting for the call of knowledge to awaken them to delightful living” (Mason, 1954, p. xxv). In my own life, Charlotte Mason’s ideas burst from the page and enabled me to build living relationships with nature, music, art, literature, and the Triune God. Charlotte Mason achieved this by preaching the educational code found in the Gospels, and by observing the beautiful mystery of the human being. Mason did not achieve this by repackaging ideas from the Greek and Roman past.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matthew 9:17, RSV, 1971). Mason’s own testimony is that she offered the world new wine in the form of her philosophy of education. Let us not attempt to fit that wine into the old wineskins of the classical model. Let us open fresh wineskins, so that the wine may be preserved.


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Glass, K. (2014b). Why did she have to say that? Retrieved from

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8 Replies to “Reconsidering Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition”

  1. Wow. This is a very detailed critique. I’d love to know how Karen Glass would respond to your ideas. I recently loaned my CC-loving sister-in-law my copy of Consider This. She so desperately wants to understand the differences between Classical Conversations and Charlotte Mason. Now I’m wondering if that book is the best resource for her to truly understand how CC and CM are different.

    1. John,

      Surprisingly, the original does indeed say “test books.” Interestingly, the paragraph also appears in a 1921 letter from Charlotte Mason published in the 1951 Parents’ Review. In that version it does say “text-books.”


  2. Thanks, Art! That’s really interesting. My guess, then, is that it was meant to be “text-books” but that the typo wasn’t caught until 1951. But if not … what would the “test books” to which Mason objected be?

    1. There is a bit of a wrinkle. The 1951 Parents’ Review article is said to be taken from a 1921 letter by Charlotte Mason to a former student. On the other hand, “Our Principles” appeared in the June 1922 L’Umile Pianta. “Our Principles” is made up of 12 paragraphs, whereas the letter has only 5. The 5 paragraphs in the letter generally match “Our Principles,” except the final paragraph which omits some of the loftiest language of the article (“We have a great charge to keep…”). So it seems likely that Mason expanded on her 1921 letter for L’Umile Pianta. I do suspect that the original intent was “text-book,” but I’m not sure where in the propagation of the text the error occurred.

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