The Source of Miss Mason’s Teaching

The Source of Miss Mason’s Teaching

What was Charlotte Mason’s source for her philosophy of education? It is a question that I have discussed and debated at length over the past several years. And it is a question which does not seem yet to be settled to everyone’s satisfaction within the Charlotte Mason community. Answers seem to fall into three general categories:

  1. Some answer that Charlotte Mason looked to the classical tradition and sought to revive classical education within her era. Those who answer this way tend to classify Mason as classical.
  2. Others answer that Charlotte Mason was influenced by reformers who were either her contemporaries or recent predecessors. Those who answer this way tend to classify Mason as progressive.
  3. Finally, some answer that Charlotte Mason invented a unique philosophy that cannot be traced to any predominant source. Those who answer this way tend to classify Mason as sui generis (“constituting a class alone: unique”).[1]

As for the first answer, we can all agree that Mason was familiar with some important thinkers in the classical tradition. However, familiarity does not mean dependence. In fact, Dr. John Thorley, the last principal of the Charlotte Mason College, offers a convincing rejection of the first position when he writes:

Charlotte Mason herself, though she was undoubtedly aware of the classical and medieval educationists, as far as I can see never specifically says that she is basing her ideas on theirs.[2]

Indeed, Thorley’s statement aligns almost perfectly with Mason’s own testimony. I see little reason to doubt the veracity of Mason’s own self-reflection:

Looking for guidance to the literature of education, I learned much from various sources, though I failed to find what seemed to me an authoritative guide, that is, one whose thought embraced the possibilities contained in the human nature of a child, and, at the same time, measured the scope of education.[3]

So if Mason did not find her “authoritative guide” for education in the classical tradition, did she find her source in the progressive educational reformers of her day? In other words, is the second answer correct? In 1894, a member of the PNEU Executive Committee stated that the objects of the PNEU were as follows:

… to assist all who are interested in children to understand the principles and methods of the “new” education as set forth by [Johann] Pestalozzi [1746–1827], Herbert Spencer [1820–1903], and [Friedrich] Froebel [1782–1852], and other educational philosophers…[4]

The “new” education referred to in the statement is summarized by Jacques Barzun in his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence:

The most inspired, Friedrich Froebel, follows Rousseau in the now universal belief that true education is an unfolding of the person, the development of native gifts through the free but guided activity of the self.[5]

Froebel’s progressive ideas, following the tradition of Rousseau, were anything but classical. In fact, Barzun indicates that his ideas about education were so radical that they were “prohibited in Russia as subversive.”[6] If the source of Mason’s method was the teaching of Pestalozzi, Spencer, and Froebel, then presumably she would have embraced this Executive Committee member’s summary of the object of the PNEU.

But that is not what happened. In fact, Mason was so opposed to the statement that she sought legal advice on how to suppress it. In a letter to PNEU members, she explained her position as follows:

Within our own time the science of Education has been absolutely revolutionised, not by educationalists, but by Physiologists, who have made the brain their specialty. Any real education depends upon the possibility of setting up good records, obliterating evil records, in the physical substance of the brain.

These records, whether physical, moral, mental, or spiritual, we recognise by the Habit, which is the outward and visible sign of each.

The doctrine of Heredity, the physiological culture of Habit, the potency of the Idea which initiates the evolution of every habit, these are the factors of education we have to deal with, and this is the new wine which cannot be put into old bottles.

We delight to honour the names of the older educationalists to whom we owe so much in the way of suggestion and inspiration, but it is manifestly impossible that these should have indicated the principles and methods of that science of education which is yet in its infancy, which is, perhaps, the divine revelation given to our own day and which opens most glorious prospects for the elevation of the race.[7]

In this emphatic 1894 statement, Mason distanced herself from progressives such as Pestalozzi, Spencer, and Froebel. This would seem to rule out the second possibility, that they were her source. But Mason did not separate her ideas from theirs by reaching back to the classical thinkers. Rather, she reached forward to a “science of education” which she said “is yet in its infancy.” Mason claimed to be one of the first stewards of a new “revelation” given for the “elevation” of humanity.

That certainly seems to point to the third answer: that Mason developed a brand-new philosophy — or at least she thought she did. In her mind at least, then, she was sui generis.

And yet something gives me pause. In Towards a Philosophy of Education, she famously said of her “system of educational theory” that “Some of it is new, much of it is old.”[8] The new is presumably “the principles and methods of that science of education which is yet in its infancy,” of which she spoke in her 1894 letter. As for the old, I suspected that she was also referring to a “divine revelation,” but this time not one from her era, but from nineteen centuries before.

My clue was found in the early pages of Home Education: in 1886, Charlotte Mason claimed to have discovered a “a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ.”[9] She spent many pages expositing this code and explaining how to teach in accordance with it. But was this code laid down by Christ a mere appendage to Mason’s philosophy, or was it foundational? Agnes Drury answered that question in a remarkable letter to House of Education alumnae in 1914:

The experience of a number of years must have taught many what I am just beginning to realize, that Miss Mason’s claim that she offers a philosophy of education accounts for the unity, the permanence, the universal application, and indeed the success of the principles in which she has trained us. Let us hope that they are becoming, as she wishes, “a usual and natural part of our thinking.” But her thought is so very much condensed that in order to realize the scope of her sayings we must ponder over them, though to students who are accustomed to her mode of expression her meaning should be plainer than to the rest of the world.

Of no book is this more true than of The Saviour of the World. But that it should repay study is shown by Miss Mason’s statement in the April Review, that “it goes to the root of P.N.E.U. thought.” She has herself told us that she has drawn her philosophy from the Gospels, where we may study and note “the development of that consummate philosophy which meets every occasion of our lives, all demands of the intellect, every uneasiness of the soul.”[10]

We don’t need to search any further for Mason’s source! She told her inner circle at the House of Education that she drew her philosophy from the Gospels. Not just one side principle here and there, but the whole thing — all carefully formulated and formalized in light of the “science of education … yet in its infancy” in her day. Armed with this insight, I wrote two articles which show how Mason’s principles may be traced to the Gospels and to science:

But is that all we have to go on? Mason’s reference to a “code of education in the Gospels,” and Agnes Drury’s casual reference to an idea that was common knowledge among House of Education insiders? Plus my own analysis?

Well, no. Just recently I stumbled across Ellen A. Parish’s article entitled “Miss Mason’s Message.” I was startled to discover in this article the interpretive key to understanding Drury’s remark. Drury had claimed that in The Saviour of the World, Mason’s poetic commentary on the Gospels, we have the source of Mason’s philosophy. Parish goes on to show us precisely how:

Searching for the source of Miss Mason’s teaching let us begin with the P.N.E.U. Motto and see how far the adoption of it is warranted by the study of the Life of Jesus. We must read carefully and take time to give the intellectual labour necessary to show us how Miss Mason’s teaching philosophy grew and by the few examples given we shall see how those of us who did not know our Founder personally, may get into closest touch with her thought and teaching…[11]

Parish then goes on to provide excerpts from Mason’s own poems, each mapped to a cardinal principle in her philosophy. It is our Rosetta Stone! But just like the enormous artifact in the British Museum, our Rosetta Stone has a few cracks and missing parts. For example, in one case Parish’s article references a page number in The Saviour of the World that doesn’t exist (presumably an error in production). And the poems she embeds in her article are not exactly self-explanatory. But the depth of insight it promises is too rich to pass by. So let’s roll up our sleeves and see how much we can understand.

Education is an Atmosphere

Principle 5 of Charlotte Mason’s Twenty Principles says:

Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments—the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. The P.N.E.U. Motto is: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”[12]

According to Parish, all three instruments find their foundation in the Gospels. First we have atmosphere, Principle 6:

When we say that “education is an atmosphere,” we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the ‘child’s’ level.[13]

Parish suggests that this principle may be explained by Mason’s poem entitled “In the Light.” This poem was first published in the December 1902 issue of The Parents’ Review,[14] but it was probably written many years before that. According to Essex Cholmondeley, the poem is among those contained in a notebook that “can probably be dated 1871.”[15] That would of course be many years before Mason ever uttered the words “education is an atmosphere,” and the fact that Mason published the poem in 1902 indicates that she had been treasuring the ideas of the poem for all that time. Mason then included the poem in volume 5 of The Saviour of the World in 1911.[16] Parish further highlighted the significance of this poem by publishing it yet again in a Parents’ Review article in 1930.[17]

Charlotte Mason placed the poem in The Saviour of the World in a section dealing with the verse John 8:12:

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (ESV)

The poem contains eight stanzas and captures a dialog between two souls. The first soul is outside the light; the second is “In the Light.” Parish includes stanzas 1, 2, and 5 in her article “Miss Mason’s Message”:

“How fair thou art, O soul! how still a grace

Mantles thy face!

What pure cool chambers do thine eyes reveal!
Sure dwells in thee some luminous mystery?”
“As yon dull orb that yet so shines to thee,

I do but stand

In the Light.”

What seest thou, O soul, where thou dost stand?

“A shifting sand

Where vile things stir and live—pride, envy, strife,
Malice and anger, all that prey on love—
Lo, these within me doth the Light reprove!

Yet fain I stand

In the Light.”

“This the whole cheer, poor soul, light brings to Thee?

“Nay, One I see—

In heaven, in earth, but One: none may rehearse,
Nor any comprehend save them who see,
The healing of the Vision: He shines on me; —

Wherefore I stand

In the Light!”

In stanza 1, the first soul admires the second soul and hypothesizes that there is a “luminous” mystery in her. The second soul replies that there is no mystery; she simply stands “in the light.” In other words, her perceived grace and fairness come not from a light inside of her, but rather from a light in which she dwells.

In stanza two, the first soul asks the second soul what she sees. She says she sees many vices within herself, all of which are reproved by the light. But despite this sense of conviction, she remains in the light. She is not like those whom Jesus describes in John 3:20:

For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (ESV)

Though she is aware of her own wickedness, she still enters the light.

In stanza three, omitted by Parish, the first soul asks the second soul how she can stand to see these bad things in herself. The second soul replies that though it is bad, she has help. She simply tells God, “I am vile,” and then suddenly she is blameless in the light (cf. 1 John 1:5–9).

In stanza four, omitted by Parish, the first soul asks the second soul what else she sees. She replies that she sees a foe who hurls darts at her! The first soul is stunned and asks how she escapes. The second soul replies that One with a shield protects her; He doesn’t allow the missiles to hit anyone who stands in the light.

In stanza five, the first soul asks if she has now heard the sum of all the good that the light brings. The second soul says, “Nay,” that she also sees the One. She explains that no person can understand how healing is this Vision of God who hasn’t experienced it herself.

In stanza six, omitted by Parish, the first soul asks what else the second soul can tell her. The second soul says that in the light she is able to see the path she is supposed to walk on. She explains that it is a tricky path that she never would have found herself, nor would she have been able to keep on herself, back when she was in the dark.

Sadly, Parish also omits the final two stanzas, which are the most beautiful and moving of the poem. The second soul goes on to explain that she sees many other souls in this same light; it shines on everyone, but many of the souls don’t realize it. She says she wishes she could be in communion with all of them so they could all stand in the light together.

In the final stanza, the first soul expresses her desire to come join the second in the light. But she faces a serious barrier: she feels that she is too vile to enter in. The second soul beautifully replies that the fact that she is aware of her own vileness means that the darkness has gone away. Her awareness of her own sin is the gift of God; she need only confess and love, and she will find herself in the light.

This emotionally powerful and theologically rich poem shows we do not earn our way into Christ’s kingdom by our own merit and works. Rather, we enter as we make a true confession of our own unworthiness. It is a radical call for spiritual simplicity and authenticity, and a renunciation of spiritual pride and hypocrisy.

What does this have to do with atmosphere? Everything. Mason says that we do not create a “‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared.” In other words, we reject anything artificial or insincere. We “take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things,” because these natural things are what stand “in the light.” As parents and teachers, we do not pretend to be what we are not. We acknowledge that any “luminous mystery” we may appear to have comes from without, from our Savior. And we invite all souls to join us in the light, which requires one simple step: that we acknowledge the truth about who we are, and who Christ is.

Education is a Discipline

The second instrument of education is discipline. Mason summarizes this in Principle 7:

By “education is a discipline,” we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e., to our habits.[18]

Although Mason cites “physiologists” as the experts in this matter, Parish shows us that Mason’s deeper foundation for this principle rests in the Gospels. To understand why, we need to turn to Chapter 15 of Parents and Children, entitled “Is it Possible?” In this chapter, Mason asks the challenging question:

Is it possible that a man can emerge altogether out of his old self and become a new creature, with new aims, new thoughts, even new habits? That such renovation is possible is the old contention of Christianity.[19]

Mason realizes that Jesus said it was possible to be born again (John 3:3). But she also recognizes serious objections to this “old contention of Christianity.” She cites that there are “laws” against this assertion, including the laws of heredity, habit, and unconscious cerebration. She summarizes these laws in the first part of the chapter:

And what of a scheme whose first condition is the regeneration of the vicious—vicious, not only by inherited propensity, and by unbroken inveterate habit, but reduced to that state of, shall we say, inevitable viciousness—when ‘unconscious cerebration,’ with untiring activity, goes to the emanation of vicious imaginations? All these things are against us.[20]

“All these things are against us,” meaning, against this concept of regeneration. And yet Parish quotes a poem by Mason to show why she still believes the Gospel message. The poem Parish chooses is called “Of Isolation”, part of a short set of three poems entitled “The Disciple in the Wilderness.” The poems are based on the three temptations of Christ (Luke 4:1–13). The third poem relates to the third temptation:

And [the devil] took [Jesus] to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here…” (Luke 4:9, ESV)

Mason’s poem universalizes this third temptation with the following lines:

If from some pinnacle he hurl
Health, fame, and fortune, in a whirl

Stanzas 1–7 of the poem wrestle with the idea that God’s sovereignty eclipses human freedom. If God is all-powerful and has created each person’s nature, then what can any person do except live out what inevitably flows from that nature? She is echoing the “laws” which say that “all things are against us,” against a belief in regeneration. But in stanza 8, Mason shows the problematic implications of that line of reasoning:

Thou poor, proud soul, how ready, thou,
To make escape from God, show how

The fault is His when thou dost ill!

Were there no evil, where were good?
What praise for progress unwithstood?

If good compelled man, what of will?

If we can do nothing but fatalistically live out our nature, then God is responsible for all of our poor choices. It is God’s fault if we sin.

Then Mason launches into the three final stanzas. These are the stanzas quoted by Parish in her article:

Only those valiant souls who choose
To take the good, the ill refuse,

Nor pleasures seek, nor pains evade,

Are worthy to follow where He leads,
By waters cool, through flowery meads

Where innocent voices fill the glade!

Thou cri’st that “nature fixes fate,
No man becomes or good or great,

Save as his nature makes him strong”:

To will is all God asks of thee;
Impulse, strength, scope, He granteth free;

But man must choose, or right, or wrong!

Else men were puppets in a play
Moved hither, thither, every way

Without or strength to strive, or choice;

Perchance for this, the Accuser’s hour
To test the souls of men with power:—

For good or evil, is thy voice?

The key tie to “education is a discipline” is in the second of the quoted stanzas. Here the objection to regeneration is forcefully stated:

… “nature fixes fate,
No man becomes or good or great,

Save as his nature makes him strong”

Mason’s response is a triumphant celebration of the freedom we have received from God. This celebration is confirmed by science as Mason explains towards the end of Chapter 15 of Parents and Children:

Conversion is entirely within the divine scheme of things, even if we choose to limit our vision of that scheme to the ‘few, faint, and feeble’ flashes which Science is as yet able to throw upon the mysteries of being.[21]

Mason accepts her principle that “Education is a discipline” on the promise of Christ in the Gospel. She was delighted to find that science confirmed its reality, as she wrote, “Is not physiology hurrying up with the announcement that to every man it is permitted to mould and modify his own brain?”[22]

Education is a Life

The third instrument of education is life. Mason summarizes this in Principle 8:

In saying that “education is a life,” the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.[23]

Mason calls education a “life” because she believes that education should provide the food of the spiritual life, which are ideas. She defines idea in Home Education:

An idea is more than an image or a picture; it is, so to speak, a spiritual germ endowed with vital force—with power, that is, to grow, and to produce after its kind. It is the very nature of an idea to grow: as the vegetable germ secretes that it lives by, so, fairly implant an idea in the child’s mind, and it will secrete its own food, grow, and bear fruit in the form of a succession of kindred ideas.[24]

While the principles “education is a discipline” and “education is a life” are closely related, an important difference is that the former is largely physical in nature, whereas the latter is exclusively spiritual. Mason explains as follows:

The functions of education may be roughly defined as twofold: (a) the formation of habits [principle 7]; (b) the presentation of ideas [principle 8]. The first depends far more largely than we recognise on physiological processes. The second is purely spiritual in origin, method, and result.[25]

The notion that ideas which are spiritual in nature could impact neurons which are physical in nature raises a pressing metaphysical question. Mason expresses it as follows:

The crux of modern thought, as indeed of all profound thought, is, Is it conceivable that the spiritual should have any manner of impact upon the material?[26]

According to Parish, Mason resolves this metaphysical question by turning to the revelation of truth in the Gospels. Parish shows how the principle “education is a life” links to Scripture by quoting these verses from Mason:

So God hath made us, that for every man
Are many chances of being born anew
Into a life still higher than the first:
What if were one great chance for every soul
Of highest birth creature of dust may know?
What if were some amazing thought, compelling,
That no man could pass by were it once brought
Within the focus of his narrowed vision;
A thought for wise and foolish, vile and pure,
That sudden, certain, should transform a man,
Give him new birth, within an air unbreathed
In all his grovelling days! Why, here, a lever,
With arm to lift the world to higher plane!
To make this weary, travel-stained, poor Earth
A place for angels to go to and fro,
A paradise of God!

These verses are an excerpt from Mason’s poem entitled “Nicodemus and the New Birth.” The poem is an exposition of the familiar passage in John 3:1–15. In the verses selected by Parish, Mason highlights the power of an “amazing thought” which could “transform another man.” In other words, the power of an idea to take root in a person’s mind and “bear fruit in the form of a succession of kindred ideas.” But in the preceding verses, Mason directly addresses the metaphysical question:

That, when thou hear’st it, know the voice of the Spirit;
But think not thou to measure what He doth
By rule that metes out things of sight and touch;
There be two kingdoms with two several laws,
Both of the Father, governed by His word;
But law of the one ruleth not things of the other.

In these verses, Mason asserts that there are “two kingdoms” which operate under completely separate laws. One is the domain of the physical and the other is the domain of the spiritual. Both are created and governed by God, and although they are very different, there are points where they intersect:

All thoughts revolve round that engrossing thought;
The tissues of his mortal brain take shape
From thoughts that run among them, none knows how;
Behold, a new man, new thoughts, new hopes, desires!—
A man may oft lay finger on the place
Where new thought seized him, made him painter, poet.

When a living idea inspires a mind, the thoughts that ensue begin to shape the neural networks of the brain. Entities from the spiritual realm impact the physical realm. “Is it conceivable?” Mason asks. What basis might we have to believe in such a phenomenon? “Every problem,” writes Mason, “from the education of a little child to the doctrine of the Incarnation, turns upon this point.”[27] That profound sentence answers the question. God is spirit (John 4:24), and yet the Word became flesh (John 1:14). Every living lesson, then, is a little incarnation, as the Word, the source of all living ideas, again becomes flesh, in the neural networks of His child.

The Work of Learning

After summarizing the “three educational instruments,” Mason’s Twenty Principles go on to describe the work of learning. Principle 10 warns of the danger of the teacher doing the work instead of the child:

Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of Education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher’s axiom is “what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.”[28]

One common way that a teacher may usurp the role of the child is to explain too much. Parish points to the Gospels as Mason’s source for this idea. She writes, “Again the fallacy of explaining every difficulty is exposed in Vol. III., p. 47 and Vol. III., p. 85.”[29] Although Parish does not actually include an excerpt from these poems in her article, she is clearly referring to “Of teaching by parables” (on p. 47) and “Have ye understood?” (on p. 85).

Mason’s poem “Of teaching by parables” is based on Matthew 13:10–17 and the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, when Jesus’ disciples ask, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Mason poetically paraphrases Christ’s reply:

Think not a man may learn
The mysteries of the Kingdom in short speech
To dullest, plain.

In other words, the role of the teacher is not to order and prepare the text until it is so simple that it may be absorbed by osmosis into the unthinking child. Rather, the teacher is to present the whole text for the child to chew on and ultimately to digest.

In the second poem cited by Parish, “Have ye understood?,” Mason continues the theme:

So every heavenly aspect, shrouded, shines
Through a dark saying few might comprehend!

When Mason reflects on Christ’s use of parables, she observes:

Here we have a method exactly contrary to all usual methods of teaching. In a general way, the teacher labours to make what he has to say plain to the dullest; and, indeed, we are impatient and fretful under poem or apologue, the meaning of which is not clear at the first glance. That is, we choose that all labour shall be on the part of the teacher, and none upon that of the learner.[30]

Mason’s model, however, is not “all usual methods of teaching.” She doesn’t look to classical or modern approaches. Rather, she looks to Christ’s approach. And from Him she learns:

Whatever we get in this way is soon lost—‘lightly come, lightly go’;—for knowledge is only to be had at the cost of labour of mind.[31]

And from Miss Mason’s poems, Ellen Parish learned it too.

Education is the Science of Relations

Charlotte Mason’s twelfth principle introduces a phrase famously associated with her method:

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.”[32]

The principle asserts that the child is born with aptitudes and abilities that equip him for self-education. Parish points to Mason’s poem “What is truth?” for a Gospel source for this idea. This poem is included in Volume 5 just after Mason explores Christ’s words about truth in John 8:45–47. However, the title of the poem clearly evokes John 18:38, when Pilate asks “What is truth?” The poem begins:

Nay, what is truth? the cynic lightly cried;
But not to him the Incarnate Truth replied:

Who sees the light must have an eye;

Who music hears must bring an ear;

The seeing may things fair espy;

To the hearing, harmonies appear:

Who truth discerneth, he too hath a test,
A talisman of virtue in his breast.[33]

In response to an inquiry about truth, Mason points out that light, music, harmony, and truth all presuppose persons with senses to apprehend such things. The poem closes with these lines:

As though that simple man would say, “The light
Is its own evidence for men with sight!”[34]

Mason’s twelfth principle asserts the presence of “first-born affinities [t]hat fit our new existence to existing things.”[35] As teachers, we assume our children are born with sight.


In the fourteenth principle, Mason shares her view of the role of narration:

As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.[36]

In addition to telling and writing, Mason explains that there is a third way that knowledge can be reproduced. I call it narration of the heart:

This is one of the pleasant things a child will love to do; and here we have meditation, not in its initial stage, but in perfection; because this act of mental narration has the curious effect of bringing before the mind’s eye the persons and the action of the tale, somewhat as they would appear in a cinemetograph; and, with the progress of the story and the action of the figures, come into the mind the ideas proper to it—you meditate in the fullest sense of the word.[37]

Parish suggests that Mason found the basis for her principle of narration through her own meditation on the Gospels. Parish provides a list of pages from volume 1 of The Saviour of the World to support her claim:

When we come to P.N.E.U. method of which one of the outstanding features is the use of Narration, we find our authority for it in Vol. I., pp. 61 and 62; pp. 84 and 85; p. 808.[38]

Pages 61–62 refer to the poem “Christ grows up in Galilee,” and pages 84–85 refer to “The Three Last Temptations.” The mention of p. 808 must sadly be a typographical error. No volume by Mason has 808 pages, and it leaves us wishing we knew what additional poem Parish wanted to bring to our notice.

In “Christ grows up in Galilee,” Mason contemplates the kind of education Christ must have received as a child. In First Century Nazareth, there was no trivium or quadrivium, but there was the Word of God:

Letters, too, learned He, though not in the Schools:
The Scriptures of His people, every jot,
He knew by conning through laborious years,
A patient Scholar—spared no labour here:
And all the weary glosses on the text,
These, too, He knew; how, else, to separate
Wheat from the chaff in the full day to come?
We, His disciples, may conceive in part
How full the joy to find on written page
That very Word whose echoes in His heart
With more distinctness heard He day by day!
With what high filial rapture would He trace
His Father’s gradual working towards that end
Now given to Him to accomplish! How would grow
Conviction in Him, that He, indeed, the Son,
Come to reveal the Father, His brethren, save!
How would the mountains draw Him, ere the dawn
Had flushed their summits, to go forth to God,
And, laying His bared soul before His Father,
Wait dew of promise, of purpose, the strong meat,
To fortify the fragile frame of man—
His flagging mind, his weak, unstable heart,
That they the immanence of High God sustain,
He, very God!

In this stunning passage, Mason envisions the boy Christ reading and meditating on Scripture as His young human life unfolds. Parish sees in this poetic passage the pious thought that Jesus Christ thought, spoke, and wrote the words of Scripture, and that this formed the basis, if not the extent, of His entire education.

Parish also points to the example of Christ in the poem “The Three Last Temptations.” She focuses our attention on these lines:

“Man shall not live by bread alone,” His answer,
“But by each word that issues from God’s mouth.”
Silenced, the Accuser pondered a new thing:—
“Shall words sustain—mere breath support a life?”
The word, the breath of God, he knew was life;
A spirit, he might gauge this spirit-law.

The question points to the heart of education: “Shall words sustain—mere breath support a life?” According to Charlotte Mason, the answer is a firm yes. According to her ninth principle, spiritual words sustain the spiritual organism:

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.[39]

And so the Gospel poems which sanction Principle 14 also sanction Principle 9.

The Way of the Will

The final principle related to Parish’s article is Mason’s Principle 17:

The way of the will: Children should be taught, (a) to distinguish between ‘I want’ and ‘I will.’ (b) That the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts from that which we desire but do not will. (c) That the best way to turn our thoughts is to think of or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting. (d) That after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its work with new vigour.[40]

Anyone who has read some or all of Mason’s Home Education Series knows how central the concept of the will is to Mason’s thinking. Of all the many aspects of the will that she discusses in the volumes, the one she focuses on in Principle 17 is how the will is strengthened. While Christendom has been aware of the importance of the will for centuries, Mason felt that her specific angle on strengthening the will was new. She explains in Towards a Philosophy of Education:

But suppose an unworthy idea present itself at the postern, supported by public opinion, by reason, for which even conscience finds pleas? The will soon wearies of opposition, and what is to be done? Fight it out? That is what the mediæval Church did with those ideas which it rightly regarded as temptations; the lash, the hair shirt, the stone couch, the emaciated frame told of these not too successful Armageddons.[41]

According to Mason, the traditional way to strengthen the will is simply to fight it out. But in contrast to these “Armageddons,” in Home Education she proposes a deceptively simple alternative:

… we need not be surprised if great moral results are brought about by what seem inadequate means; and a little bit of nursery experience will show better than much talking what is possible to the will. A baby falls, gets a bad bump, and cries piteously. The experienced nurse does not “kiss the place to make it well,” or show any pity for the child’s trouble—that would make matters worse; the more she pities, the more he sobs. She hastens to ‘change his thoughts,’ so she says; she carries him to the window to see the horses, gives him his pet picture-book, his dearest toy, and the child pulls himself up in the middle of a sob, though he is really badly hurt. Now this, of the knowing nurse, is precisely the part the will plays towards the man. It is by force of will that a man can ‘change his thoughts,’ transfer his attention from one subject of thought to another, and that, with a shock of mental force of which he is distinctly conscious. And this is enough to save a man and to make a man, this power of making himself think only of those things which he has beforehand decided that it is good to think upon.[42]

Where did Mason come up with this simple alternative to “the lash, the hair shirt, the stone couch”? For the answer, Parish points us to Mason’s poem entitled “Willing and knowing.”[43] It is found on page 51 of volume 5 of The Saviour of the World, and begins by quoting John 7:17 from the English Revised Version:

If any man willeth to do his will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it be of God, or whether I speak from myself.

This verse is obviously significant for Mason, as she also uses it to close her chapter on “Will and Wilfulness” in Ourselves.[44] Parish quotes the entire poem in her article:

Working the Work, willing the Will!—Thou art
A Teacher of mysteries! ’tis of Thy might
We’re able, O our Lord, to get by heart
These lessons of Thy setting, in despite

Of all that heavy dulness ’tis Thy task
To lighten with Thy glorious countenance;
Till th’ inert will drop from us a mask,
And, quickened, wake we, as man out of trance.

For what the secret, then, of willing well?
To keep the single eye, to think on Thee,—
Till seeing Christ, our lightened heart shall swell
To that vast measure, His Humility!—

Then of Thy doctrine we in truth shall know
When all our will is—in Thy way to go![45]

The poem, as with Mason’s philosophy of the will, has many nuances. But the link to Principle 17 is found in these words:

And, quickened, wake we, as man out of trance.

The definition of quicken is “to cause to be enlivened: stimulate.”[46] Once the will is “quickened,” it can return “to its work with new vigour.”[47] What quickens our will? What wakes us out of a trance? Not a cataclysmic battle, but a simple changing of the thoughts. Principle 17 says to think of some “different thing, entertaining or interesting.” In Mason’s poem she points to the most interesting thing of all — Christ, the Son of God:

To keep the single eye, to think on Thee,—
Till seeing Christ, our lightened heart shall swell
To that vast measure, His Humility!

Now although Parish points to the Gospels as Mason’s basis for her doctrine of the will, it must be acknowledged that Mason’s ideas were profoundly influenced by the neuroscience of her day. In particular, she acknowledged a special indebtedness to the writings of physiologist William B. Carpenter. Many of Mason’s statements about will, attention, habit, and memory find direct precedents in his book Principles of Mental Physiology, even to the smallest detail. For example, when Mason speaks of the nurse helping the hurt child to change his thoughts, she seems to have taken this specific illustration from Carpenter:

[The hysterical condition] is often fostered, from a very early date, by the habit in which injudicious Parents and Nurses indulge, of fixing the Child’s attention on any little hurt or ache, instead of withdrawing it by the counter-attraction of some object of interest.[48]

One might say then that Parish misunderstood her mentor and that Miss Mason’s true source for the way of the will was the emerging science of mental physiology. But that would assume a dichotomy that did not exist in Mason’s mind. For her, true science always aligns with the Holy Scriptures. Mason could accept Carpenter’s solution precisely because she found confirmation in the sacred Word. Mason herself explains:

But his commandment is exceeding broad; becomes broader year by year with every revelation of science; and we had need gird up the loins of our mind to keep pace with this current revelation. We shall be at pains, too, to keep ourselves in that attitude of expectant attention wherein we shall be enabled to perceive the unity and continuity of this revelation with that of the written word of God. For perhaps it is only as we are able to receive the two, and harmonise the two in a willing and obedient heart, that we shall enter on the heritage of glad and holy living which is the will of God for us.[49]

Mason expected to find unity and continuity between neuroscience and the Bible. Her Gospel-based poems reveal what she found.


Charlotte Mason acknowledged that truth can be found outside the Bible. She referred often to a fresco in Florence which she interpreted as follows:

But the Florentine mind of the Middle Ages went further than this: it believed, not only that the seven Liberal Arts were fully under the direct outpouring of the Holy Ghost, but that every fruitful idea, every original conception, whether in Euclid, or grammar, or music, was a direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit, without any thought at all as to whether the person so inspired named himself by the name of God, or recognised whence his inspiration came. All of these seven figures are those of persons whom we should roughly class as pagans, and whom we might be lightly inclined to consider as outside the pale of the divine inspiration.[50]

Although these “pagans” were not studying their Bibles, even so they discovered truth about grammar, arithmetic, music, and logic. Mason believed that they were receiving their true ideas from the Holy Spirit Himself, even though they did not know Him or His voice. But when it came to the question of how to teach and disciple our children, Mason was not so quick to trust the pagans. Their “‘few, faint and feeble’ rays of illumination”[51] failed to yield “an authoritative guide, that is, one whose thought embraced the possibilities contained in the human nature of a child, and, at the same time, measured the scope of education.”[52] Her stance anticipated theologian N. T. Wright’s statement:

And however much a generous reading of the ancient non-Jewish world may discern in it several true signposts pointing toward what in retrospect turns out to be true, that is no excuse for exchanging the full biblical truth for the damaged signpost.[53]

Parish knew that Mason had enough of damaged signposts. Instead, she sat at the feet of the One who said, “Let the little children come to me.”[54] She dedicated her life to developing a philosophy of education based on His life and teaching, and she did it for the children’s sake.


[1] Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (2003).

[2]A Book Review by Dr. John Thorley.”

[3] Home Education, p. 99.

[4] “Ambleside” Circular issued by Charlotte Mason, dated July 9, 1894, p. 2. Filed as Box CM51, File CMC439, Item 1. Scan available in the digital collection.

[5] Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, p. 487.

[6] Ibid., p. 488.

[7] “Ambleside” Circular, pp. 3–4.

[8] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 27.

[9] Home Education, p. 12.

[10]How Past Students Can Keep in Touch,” Agnes C. Drury, L’Umile Pianta, May, 1914, p. 64.

[11] “Miss Mason’s Message,” Ellen A. Parish, In Memoriam, p. 61.

[12] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxix.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Parents’ Review, vol. 13, pp. 913–914.

[15] The Story of Charlotte Mason, pp. 179, 183.

[16] The Saviour of the World, Vol. V: The Great Controversy, pp. 100–102, Poem XXXVIII.

[17] The Parents’ Review, vol. 41, pp. 713–714.

[18] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxix.

[19] Parents and Children, p. 153.

[20] Ibid., pp. 157–158.

[21] Ibid., p. 162.

[22] Formation of Character, p. 154.

[23] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxix.

[24] Home Education, p. 173.

[25] Parents and Children, p. 125.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxx.

[29] “Miss Mason’s Message,” Ellen A. Parish, In Memoriam, p. 65.

[30] Ourselves, Book II, p. 80.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxx.

[33] The Saviour of the World, Vol. V: The Great Controversy, p. 120, Poem XLV.

[34] Ibid., p. 122.

[35] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxx.

[36] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxx.

[37]Meditation,” Charlotte Mason, p. 708.

[38] “Miss Mason’s Message,” Ellen A. Parish, In Memoriam, p. 65.

[39] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxx.

[40] Ibid., p. p. xxxi.

[41] Ibid., p. 136.

[42] Home Education, p. 324.

[43] “Miss Mason’s Message,” Ellen A. Parish, In Memoriam, pp. 64–65.

[44] Ourselves, Book II, p. 136.

[45] “Miss Mason’s Message,” Ellen A. Parish, In Memoriam, pp. 64–65.

[46] Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

[47] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxxi.

[48] Principles of Mental Physiology, p. 153.

[49] Parents and Children, p. 21.

[50] Parents and Children, p. 271.

[51] School Education, p. 102.

[52] Home Education, p. 99.

[53] The Day the Revolution Began, Kindle location 2094.

[54] Matthew 19:14, NIV.

One Reply to “The Source of Miss Mason’s Teaching”

  1. In 2018, I started to frame my reading of Mason’s volumes, her 20 principles, the PNEU motto, and the children’s motto with the question I posed to myself, “How do these relate? Which of these elements is she addressing here?” It is a sublime science of relations.

    I awkwardly aligned the concepts very linearly:
    Despise not. –> Education is a life. –> I ought, I will.
    Offend not. –> Education is a discipline. –> I can.
    Hinder not. –> Education is an atmosphere. –> I am.

    I see spaghetti lines crossing because they are all related. But her starting and ending points are very clear and very clearly different from the progressive pedagogues predating her and the classical pedagogues as well. She starts with the soul created by God and due the knowledge of its Creator and ends with the soul’s need to have a developed will practiced in exercising discernment in accepting and rejecting ideas.

    I’m not well read in other pedagogies, but I have yet to hear of one that trains teachers and parents to disciple students for Kingdom living.