The Argument for a Classical Mason That Proves Too Much

The Argument for a Classical Mason That Proves Too Much

Charlotte Mason writes that “education is nothing or it is everything — a consuming fire in the bones” (V:145). My experience as a homeschooling father has brought me close to that flame. This fire drives regular parents like me to delve into educational theory, even though we have not obtained the relevant scholarly credentials. I have an online friend who has also experienced that fire and has energetically researched educational theory. Neither of us are officially Charlotte Mason scholars, but we are both seekers of truth. As fellow pilgrims striving to provide the best for our children, we have started a dialog about education. We share a common commitment to respectfulness, integrity, and truth.

I posed several questions to my friend and she wrote a thoughtful reply here. I would like to comment on her article. The discussion begins with certain preliminaries. The first is:

1. The definition of classical education

My friend offers a definition of classical education in the words of David Hicks: “the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.” She also notes that the core of classical education “is to develop character and virtue, teaching children to think and act rightly.”

The problem with this definition is that it proves too much. My friend offered several theories of education that are not properly considered classical:

  • Maturational Theory (Gesell)
  • Psychology-Based Learning (Descartes, Kant, Darwin)
  • Progressive Learning (Piaget, Locke, Dewey)

The problem is that many of these methods do include as a goal “the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.”

For example, Locke wrote, “To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.” He also insists that home education should prioritize the development of virtue:

A young man before he leaves the shelter of his father’s house, and the guard of a tutor, should be fortify’d with resolution, and made acquainted with men, to secure his virtues, lest he should be led into some ruinous course, or fatal precipice, before he is sufficiently acquainted with the dangers of conversation, and his steadiness enough not to yield to every temptation.

Piaget also saw education as the only instrument for encouraging right behavior. He wrote, “seule l’éducation est apte à sauver nos sociétés d’une dissolution possible, violente ou graduelle” (only only education is capable of saving our societies from possible dissolution, violent or gradual). He insisted that the purpose of education was to create “men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers” — other words, habituated to do good things based on the knowledge obtained through education.

As a third example, Dewey had much to say about virtue. Basing his understanding of virtue on Aristotle, Dewey writes:

The formula was well stated by Aristotle. The doer of the moral deed must know what he is doing; secondly, he must choose it, and choose it for itself, and thirdly, the act must be the expression of a formed and stable character. In other words, the act must be voluntary.

Dewey explains the journey virtue in a manner that resonates with the classical dialectic:

It is in the quality of becoming that virtue resides. We set up this and that end to be reached, but the end is growth itself. To make an end a final goal is but to arrest growth.

He believed that education was linked to action, and that education should habituate people to “listen to the voice of reason,” putting their knowledge into action.

Other examples besides those listed by my friend could be cited. Consider Pestalozzi, who believed that a key role of education was to help individuals move beyond their “animal state” and conform to the standards of society and the “divine spark” within them.

This brief survey shows that it is too broad to define classical education as “the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.” Such a definition admits not only Charlotte Mason; it also admits Pestalozzi, Locke, Piaget, Dewey, and essentially any thinker who believes that education includes character development.

2. Narrowing the criteria — Plato

Perhaps in tacit recognition that her definition of classical education is too broad, my friend offers an additional criterion: references to Plato. She notes that Mason references Plato in her writings, including the “Platonic axiom, ‘Knowledge is virtue.’” The problem again is that this proves too much. If Mason is classical because she quotes Plato favorably, then so is Dewey. In fact, Dewey was so closely aligned with classical Greek thinkers that Alvin Johnson referred to him as the “latest of the Greek philosophers,” and Dewey himself wrote: “nothing could be more helpful to present philosophizing than a ‘Back to Plato movement.’” Dewey told a class to place his thought “with the revival of Greek philosophy.”

Dewey’s favorable references to classical Greek philosophers include both Plato and Aristotle. John Herman Randall, Jr. said that Dewey may be seen as “an Aristotelian more Aristotelian than Aristotle himself.” Referencing  Plato, Dewey cites the exact same axiom as Mason: “Plato’s conviction that knowledge and action are one does not fail him at any point in the scale of insight.” This raises the obvious question. If both Dewey and Mason favorably note Plato’s axiom that knowledge is virtue, why is Mason considered classical but Dewey is not?

The reality is that Mason’s references to Plato are superficial at best. It is not proper to say that Mason looks to Plato for a definition of virtue. Rather, she cites him as supporting evidence for her broader case that knowledge influences behavior. She cites Plato with the same casual touch as with Voltaire:

“The human race has lost its title deeds,” said Voltaire, and mankind has been going about ever since seeking to recover them; education is still at sea and Voltaire’s epigram holds good. (VI:156)

Does this favorable reference mean that Mason accept’s Voltaire’s definition of humanity’s “title deeds”? Does this mean that Mason should thus be classified with Voltaire as an Enlightenment thinker?

Dewey’s references to Plato and Mason’s references Voltaire show that mere quotations and allusions do not make one a classical educator. Rather, what is important is the intention by which one quotes the classical philosophers. Compare Mason to Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, for example. In their slim volume The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain make 112 references to Plato alone across 169 pages. Thus, an average of two-thirds of the pages in their book have a reference to Plato. By contrast, Mason makes 31 references to Plato across her six volumes (2084 pages). Clark and Jain reference Plato 45 times more frequently than Mason.

Mason references Plato casually as a subject of lessons, an example of a historical figure, and a source of the pithy statement that “knowledge is virtue.” By contrast, Clark and Jain cite Plato with reverence as a trusted authority in educational practice and theory. My friend quotes Karen Glass’s claim that Mason “links her ideas with the ideas of the classical past, but intentionally brings them into the present.” But this claim by Glass is not substantiated, as I have demonstrated in my review of Consider This.

3. Narrowing the criteria further — Liberal Arts

Again, perhaps tacitly recognizing that quoting Plato does not make a thinker classical, my friend offers another criterion:

A classical curriculum, in my opinion, will proceed according to the description given in Clark and Jain’s book “The Liberal Arts Tradition.” This begins with a groundwork of piety, and proceeds into gymnastic and music education. From there, school age children are taught the trivium and quadrivium (simultaneously). After that, they are ready for natural and moral philosophy and then finally theology.

This criterion does start to get closer to the hallmark of a classical education. But Clark and Jain’s description of the curriculum does not match Mason’s in any way. Mason does not advocate a sequence even remotely similar to the piety / gymnastic-music / trivium-quadrivium / philosophy / theology sequence of Clark and Jain. Mason’s strong conviction that children are born “persons” leads her to reject sequences that relegate certain types of knowledge to certain phases of learning. I provide more detail about the difference between a classical curriculum and Mason’s curriculum in my article on Norms & Nobility.

By linking a classical education to the liberal arts sequence of Clark and Jain, my friend has offered a criterion that removes Mason from the classical tradition.

4. A criterion that matters — the language of reception

Unfortunately my friend does not state the most obvious criterion that can be used to identify a classical educator. The definition of the classical tradition offered by Grafton, Most, and Settis is “the reception of classical Graeco-Roman antiquity in all its dimensions in later cultures.” The key word there is “reception.” When an educational philosopher self-conciously and explicitly receives classical Graeco-Roman ideals for recovery and application to the present, that thinker may be considered classical. Examples of these are manifold:

  • Thomas Aquinas and other medievals explicitly cited classical thinkers for their reception of the trivium and the quadrivium as the basis for curriculum.
  • Dorothy Sayers explicitly called upon educators to look to the classical tradition and recover “the lost tools of learning.”
  • David Hicks wrote, “I have tried to be faithful in presenting what I believe would be an ancient’s insight into our modern dilemma.”
  • Clark and Jain wrote, “The recovery of wisdom in natural science therefore requires both an appropriation of all seven of the liberal arts and a recovery of the four causes espoused in the Aristotelian tradition.”
  • Christopher Perrin wrote, “Continuing in this trajectory of recovering the tradition and applying it to contemporary contexts, we seek to enlarge upon our predecessors’ visions for a classical liberal arts education.”
  • Karen Glass wrote, “we can reignite the spark of the classical tradition in the twenty-first century.”

We know that these educational theorists are classical because they say they are. They explicitly and self-consciously advocate the recovery or reception of some or all of the classical model of education into the present. But it is a simple fact of history that Charlotte Mason did not do this.

Many classical educators recognize this. For example, Aimee Natal cautions classical educators against adopting Mason’s ideas. Similarly, after a lengthy dialog with me, Christopher Perrin acknowledged:

Reading [Mason] again with your ideas in mind has enabled me to see more clearly some of the ways she departed from the classical tradition–and I have you to thank for that! You have helped to see, for example, a greater dependency on the nascent psychology of her time than I had recognized before.

I also want to give you credit when you emphasize that CM’s philosophy of education was distinct and new. That is important to note and not lose in this conversation. It was distinct and new in several respects, but not in every respect…

I think next week we could both agree on elements in CM that are “never before seen”…

By contrast, those who seek to submerge Mason into the classical tradition face an interesting challenge. They must assert that they are better at classifying Mason than she was herself. They must deny her testimony that she based her ideas on the Gospels, science, and observation. They must reject her self-classification as a “progressive.” They must discount her statement that her method is “no mere patch on an old garment; it covers the whole scope of Education in every respect.” In short, they must assert that Mason is qualified to guide their own practice of education, but is not qualified to determine how her thinking fits within the classical tradition.

History repeats itself. There were voices in the PNEU that sought to align with tradition. Lady Isabel Margesson wrote that the PNEU offered ideas that were “of course, understood by the gifted few, the wisest and best parents and teachers from Plato downwards.” But Mason separated from Lady Isabel over this point. Mason divided over unity with the broad arc of classical education. Classical educators today are free to borrow techniques and ideas from Mason as they wish. But they cannot change history.

7 Replies to “The Argument for a Classical Mason That Proves Too Much”

  1. You said, “Classical educators today are free to borrow techniques and ideas from Mason as they wish. But they cannot change history.” What sort of description or name for an educator operating this way would you suggest? How could a classical educator borrowing CM’s methods properly describe themselves?

    1. Dear Jess,

      Thank you for raising this excellent question. Perhaps we can reason through it together. Suppose a classical educator wished to borrow certain techniques and ideas from Maria Montessori. How might such an educator best describe himself or herself?


    1. Dear Jess,

      I too am specifically interested in the answer relative to Mason, and that is what I am working towards. I propose the use of reasoning by analogy. Is there a reason not to use such an approach, which was favored by Aristotle and other classical thinkers?


  2. Hi,

    Reasoning by analogy might work for you, but I actually have never studied Aristotle (although I am intrigued by the tiny amount I know of Socrates’ life, I have not yet studied the ancient philosophers… Mason’s volumes keep me busy enough), and I’m barely familiar with Montessori, so I doubt I’d be very good at working toward an answer that way.

    I was just stumped at the time I wrote the question, because I’ve seen so much back and forth between CM and classical camps. I have a friend interested in taking the best of classical, unit studies, and Charlotte Mason, and blending them, so when I read this article, that last quote caught my eye. I guess those who blend styles might just simply say they embrace an eclectic style of teaching, now that I think more about it. What do you think of, in the case of the article quote, that person who blends styles saying they are a “classical Charlotte Mason” homeschooler, or in my friend’s case, specifying “classical Charlotte Mason unit studies.” Would those be appropriate descriptions?

    1. Dear Jess,

      Thank you for sharing this extra context about your question. Personally I would not use the phrase “classical Charlotte Mason homeschooler” or “classical Charlotte Mason unit studies.” The reason is because, grammatically, classical would be modifying Charlotte Mason, and Charlotte Mason would be modifying either homeschooler or unit studies, respectively. These imply relationships that don’t exist. I would probably recommend something like, “a homeschooler that uses a blend of classical and Charlotte Mason,” or “unit studies that draw from classical and Charlotte Mason,” or perhaps, “classical- and Charlotte Mason- influenced unit studies.” Although I think I like your first answer best — “eclectic.”


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