The Sources of Charlotte Mason’s Theory of Education

The Sources of Charlotte Mason’s Theory of Education

In other articles I have shown that Charlotte Mason looked to the Gospels, the discoveries science, and her personal observations of children to guide the development of her theory of education (see this article and this article). In those articles, I supply evidence from Mason’s own testimony about how she developed her theory. In this article, I show how Mason explains the development of each of her 20 principles using these three authorities. These 20 principles comprise the synopsis of her theory of education.

To show this development, I draw primarily from three foundational documents of Charlotte Mason:

  1. The “Code of Education in the Gospels,” first published in the 1886 edition of Home Education. Found in pages 12-20 of the contemporary edition, this “code” lays out “the three educational laws of the New Testament” uncovered by Mason, “which, when separately examined, appear to … cover all the help we can give the children and all the harm we can save them from — that is, whatever is included in training up a child in the way he should go” (I:12).
  2. The “Draft-Proof” of 1888, the pamphlet which “give[s] the various steps by which the P.N.E.U. and its activities came into being” (PR34:392).
  3. The “Narrative” of Towards a Philosophy of Education pages 9-17. This narrative is Mason’s autobiographical account of how she developed her theory of education. It is introduced with the words, “Let me trace as far as I can recall them the steps by which I arrived at some of the conclusions upon which we are acting” (VI:9).

Where necessary, I have drawn on other documents to show the foundational source that Mason cited for the development of a specific principle. Note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis. Mason elaborated on each principles to a great extent, and her elaborations contain many nuances informed by multiple sources. Furthermore, Mason saw a unity between the three primary sources. For Mason, God reveals Himself in both the Holy Scriptures and in the real world of science and observation. Both are sources of truth and, when properly understood, are incapable of contradiction.
I precede each supporting evidence with one of the three authorities Mason selected to underpin her theory of education: the Gospels, the discoveries of science, and her personal observations of children.

Where Mason Says She Discovered the Principle
1. Children are born persons.

Gospels: The Code of Education in the Gospels: “‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ ‘Except ye become as little children ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.’ ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ ‘And He called a little child, and set him in the midst.’ Here is the Divine estimate of the child’s estate. It is worth while for parents to ponder every utterance in the Gospels about these children, divesting themselves of the notion that these sayings belong, in the first place, to the grown up people who have become as little children” (I:12). Mason greatly elaborated on this principle, for example in this document.

Observations: The Narrative: “I began under the guidance of these Anglo-Indian children to take the measure of a person and soon to suspect that children are more than we, their elders, except that their ignorance is illimitable” (VI:10).

2. They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.
Gospels: “There is in human nature an aversion to God. Whether it be, according to the Article, that ‘original sin which is the natural fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam,’…” (IV:179-180). Here Mason quotes the Anglican Articles of Religion, which reference Romans chapter 5, which contains St. Paul’s reflections on the Gospel of Christ.
Science: “Physicians and physiologists tell us that new-born children start fair. A child is not born with tuberculosis, for example, if with a tendency which it is our business to counteract. In the same way all possibilities for good are contained in his moral and intellectual outfit, hindered it may be by a corresponding tendency to evil for every such potentiality” (VI:47).
3. The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental; but —
Gospels. “Autocracy is defined as independent or self-derived power. Authority, on the other hand, we may qualify as not being self-derived and not independent. The centurion in the Gospels says: ‘I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, “Go, and he goeth”; to another, “Come, and he Cometh” ; and to my servant, “Do this, and he doeth it.”’
Here we have the powers and the limitations of authority. The centurion is set under authority, or, as we say, authorised, and, for that reason, he is able to say to one, ‘go,’ to another, ‘come’ and to a third, ‘do this,  in the calm certainty that all will be done as he says, because he holds his position for this very purpose — to secure that such and such things shall be accomplished. He himself is a servant with definite tasks, though they are the tasks of authority. This, too, is the position that Our Lord assumes; He says: ‘I came not to do mine own will, but the will of Him that sent me.’ That is His commission and the standing order of His life, and for this reason He spake as one having authority, knowing Himself to be commissioned and supported” (PR8:324-325).
“The person who is vested with authority, on the contrary, requires no rigours of the law to bolster him up, because Authority is behind him; and before him, the corresponding principle of Docility” (PR8:192).
4. These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.
Gospels: The 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.
So run the three educational laws of the New Testament, which, when separately examined, appear to me to cover all the help we can give the children and all the harm we can save them from — that is, whatever is included in training up a child in the way he should go. Let us look upon these three great laws as prohibitive, in order to clear the ground for the consideration of a method of education; for if we once settle with ourselves what we may not do, we are greatly helped to see what we may do, and must do. But, as a matter of fact, the positive is included in the negative, what we are bound to do for the child in what we are forbidden to do to his hurt” (I:12-13).
5. 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.”
Aggregation of principles 6-8. See also The Draft-Proof:  “‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life’ covers the question from the three conceivable points of view. Subjectively, in the child, education is a life; objectively as affecting the child, education is a discipline; relatively, if we may introduce a third term, as regards the environment of the child, education is an atmosphere.”
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.
Gospels: The Code of Education in the Gospels: “stultifying” (I:16) the child falls under the category of “Offending the Children” (I:13-16) which is one of the laws in the code of education in the Gospels.
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.
Science: The Draft-Proof: “We find that we can work definitely towards the formation of character; that the habits of the good life, of the alert intelligence, which we take pains to form in the child, are, somehow, registered in the very substance of his brain; and that the habits of the child are, as it were, so many little hammers beating out by slow degrees the cliaracter of the man. Therefore we set ourselves to form a habit in the same matter-of-fact steady way that we set about teaching the multiplication table; expecting the thing to be done and done with for life.”
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.
Observations: The Narrative: “From this point it was not difficult to go on to the perception that, whether in taking or rejecting, the mind was functioning for its own nourishment; that the mind, in fact, requires sustenance as does the body, in order that it increase and be strong; but because the mind is not to be measured or weighed but is spiritual, so its sustenance must be spiritual too, must, in fact, be ideas…” (VI:10).
9. 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.

Observations: The Narrative: “I soon perceived that children were well equipped to deal with ideas, and that explanations, questionings, amplifications, are unnecessary and wearisome. Children have a natural appetite for knowledge which is informed with thought. They bring imagination, judgment, and the various so-called ‘faculties,’ to bear upon a new idea pretty much as the gastric juices act upon a food ration” (VI:10-11).

Gospels: “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 [John 6:35, John 6:48], the Water of Life [Revelation 22:17], the Word by which man lives [Matthew 4:4], the ‘meat to eat which ye know not of’ [John 4:32], 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,’ [John 6:60] nor a dark saying, that we must sustain our spiritual selves upon Him, even as our bodies upon bread” (II:246). This is elaborated upon extensively in Scale How Meditations and The Saviour of the World, Mason’s two commentaries on the Gospels.

10. 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.”
Observations: The Narrative: “…the whole intellectual apparatus of the teacher, his power of vivid presentation, apt illustration, able summing up, subtle questioning, all these were hindrances and intervened between children and the right nutriment duly served; this, on the other hand, they received with the sort of avidity and simplicity with which a healthy child eats his dinner” (VI:11).
11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that, —
Observations: The Narrative: “Then arose the question,— Cannot people get on with little knowledge? Is it really necessary after all? My child-friends supplied the answer: their insatiable curiosity shewed me that the wide world and its history was barely enough to satisfy a child who had not been made apathetic by spiritual malnutrition. What, then, is knowledge?— was the next question that occurred; a question which the intellectual labour of ages has not settled; but perhaps this is enough to go on with;— that only becomes knowledge to a person which he has assimilated, which his mind has acted upon. Children’s aptitude for knowledge and their eagerness for it made for the conclusion that the field of a child’s knowledge may not be artificially restricted, that he has a right to and necessity for as much and as varied know ledge as he is able to receive; and that the limitations in his curriculum should depend only upon the age at which he must leave school; in a word, a common curriculum (up to the age of say, fourteen or fifteen) appears to be due to all children” (VI:11-12).
12. “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.”
Observations: The Narrative: “For this reason we owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; and the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books” (VI:12).
13. In devising a Syllabus for a normal child, of whatever social class, three points must be considered:—
(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.
(b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity).
(c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.
Observations: The Narrative: “As for the question of literary form, many circumstances and considerations which it would take too long to describe brought me to perceive that delight in literary form is native to us all until we are ‘educated’ out of it” (VI:13).
“My personal addition is that attention is unfailing, prompt and steady when matter is presented suitable to a child’s intellectual requirements, if the presentation be made with the conciseness, directness, and simplicity proper to literature” (VI:17).
14. 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.
Observations: The Narrative: “Having observed these, and some other points in the behaviour of mind, it remained to apply the conclusions to which I had come to a test curriculum for schools and families. Oral teaching was to a great extent ruled out; a large number of books on many subjects were set for reading in morning school-hours; so much work was set that there was only time for a single reading; all reading was tested by a narration of the whole or a given passage, whether orally or in writing. Children working on these lines know months after that which they have read and are remarkable for their power of concentration (attention); they have little trouble with spelling or composition and become well-informed, intelligent persons” (VI:15) .
15. 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, summarising, and the like.
Acting upon these and some other points in the behaviour of mind, we find that the educability of children is enormously greater than has hitherto been supposed, and is but little dependent on such circumstances as heredity and environment.
Nor is the accuracy of this statement limited to clever children or to children of the educated classes: thousands of children in Elementary Schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behaviour of mind.

Observations: The Narrative: “It is difficult to explain how I came to a solution of a puzzling problem,— how to secure attention. Much observation of children, various incidents from one’s general reading, the recollection of my own childhood and the consideration of my present habits of mind brought me to the recognition of certain laws of the mind, by working in accordance with which the steady attention of children of any age and any class in society is insured, week in, week out,— attention, not affected by distracting circumstances. It is not a matter of ‘personal magnetism,’ for hundreds of teachers of very varying quality, working in home schoolrooms and in Elementary and Secondary Schools on this method, 1 secure it without effort; neither does it rest upon the ‘doctrine of interest’; no doubt the scholars are interested, sometimes delighted; but they are interested in a great variety of matters and their attention does not flag in the ‘dull parts’”  (VI:13).

Science: The Narrative: “Our more advanced psychologists come to our support here; they, too, predicate ‘instead of a congerie of faculties, a single subjective activity, attention;’ and again, there is ‘one common factor in all psychical activity, that is attention’” (VI:17).

16. There are two guides to moral and intellectual self-management to offer to children, which we may call ‘the way of the will’ and ‘the way of the reason.’
Aggregation of principles 17-19.
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. (This adjunct of the will is familiar to us as diversion, whose office it is to ease us for a time from will effort, that we may ‘will’ again with added power. The use of suggestion as an aid to the will is to be deprecated, as tending to stultify and stereotype character. It would seem that spontaneity is a condition of development, and that human nature needs the discipline of failure as well as of success.)
Science: “‘I am, I can, I ought, I will,’ are (as has been recently well said) the only firm foundation-stones on which we can base our attempt to climb into a higher sphere of existence.” William B. Carpenter, Principles of Mental Physiology, p. 376. Mason believed that Carpenter’s scientific discoveries had the power to revolutionize education.
18. 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.
Science: The Draft-Proof: “In a word, our much boasted ‘infallible reason’ — is it not the involuntary thought which follows the initial idea upon necessary, logical lines; Given, the starting idea, and the conclusion may be predicated almost to a certainty. We get into the way of thinking such and such manner of thoughts, and of coming to such and such conclusions, ever further and further removed from the starting-point, but on the same lines. There is structural adaptation in the brain tissue to the manner of thoughts we think—a place and a way for them to run in.”
19. Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.
Science: “She sought to show that Reason works with no volition of its own and that an idea accepted by the Will will be confirmed by Reason whether that idea be right or wrong. Therefore the chief responsibility is the acceptance or rejection of ideas” (PR 31:77).
20. 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.
Gospels: “… 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 [John 16:12-15]” (II:245).

Mason does not reach back to the classical tradition in attempt to recover a method from the past and restore it to the present. Rather, she insists that all the sources required to develop a method of education are alive in the present: the living Word of God, the manifest discoveries of science, and the living, breathing children before our very eyes.

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