Upon Right Methods: Desiderius Erasmus and Charlotte Mason

Upon Right Methods: Desiderius Erasmus and Charlotte Mason

Over the past several months, I have seen some classical philosophers tied to the name of Charlotte Mason in an effort to show that her philosophy is based on and part of the classical tradition. This notion puzzled me. I had never noticed Miss Mason mention any of these philosophers as inspiration for her work. I decided to begin reading and researching some of the classical fathers to decide for myself if Mason is truly classical. I have found that, while it is possible to find phrases that seem to be in agreement with Mason’s philosophy, a study of those phrases in context only exposes how much the two ideologies disagree. In this blog post, I will focus the educational writing of Desiderius Erasmus, primarily, Upon the Right Method of Instruction. I will show that a careful reading of his work shows that it cannot be used to prove that Mason is classical. As much as possible, I have allowed Miss Mason to speak for herself. Before beginning, I would also like the reader to note that I am a homeschooling mother, not a scholar. I have no degrees or credentials to recommend me, but I don’t say this to excuse my inadequacies. I say this because in spite of my inadequacies, I believe it is my duty as a capable and thinking person to research and reason out my own opinions.

Who is Erasmus?

Erasmus de Rotterdam was a Renaissance humanist, scholar, and Catholic monk. He was born in 1466 to unwed parents, their union blocked by family and the church, a fact which provided fodder for the cruelty of his classmates in school. Erasmus was of a weak physical constitution, but a studious mind. He attended schools typical of the time, including monastic school, a system he would later speak against because of the poor quality of education. He also witnessed and endured the physical abuse of children, which was common at the time in schools. He spoke out strongly against such beatings in his writings. In his teens he lost both parents and then became an Augustinian monk by age 17. He spent the next 10 years studying and writing in the monastery, gaining some notoriety for his writing. He was then sent to the University of Paris to study Theology, though he primarily focused on the classics and furthered his study of Greek. Enjoying the freedom of studying according to his own interests and resenting the constraints of his life as a monk, he began to take on students to support himself and allow for his own continued education. The rest of his life was spent teaching, studying, writing, and traveling to deepen his understanding of Greek and Latin literature and composition.

The letters and controversy exchanged between Erasmus and Martin Luther are probably what Erasmus is most known for. Despite his agreement with some of Luther’s ideas, Erasmus refused to take a side and criticized both Lutherans and the Catholic Church, but he saw no need to completely do away with the church itself and would not join Martin Luther’s cause. While interesting, this controversy does not concern our subject here and it was not something Erasmus wished to spend his time and energy debating. The real passion of Erasmus and his primary contributions to education and the world were his ideas on Latin and Greek scholarship. Those ideas and their relation to the education of children are what we address here.

Did Mason Read Erasmus?

She certainly did. Erasmus is mentioned twice in the original six volumes. Both times in An Essay Towards A Philosophy of Education. The first quote is here:

We labor under a difficulty in choosing books which has exercised all great thinkers, from Plato to Erasmus, from Erasmus to the anxious heads of school today. . . (Mason, 1925/1954, p.187)

Mason mentions Erasmus here only to show that every educator has had trouble finding the best books and that they all wanted the “best books” for their students. Here is one instance where books are referred to by Erasmus:

As regards the choice of material, it is essential that from the outset the child be made acquainted only with the best that is available. (Woordward, 1904, p. 166)

On that, Mason and Erasmus agree, as do all “great thinkers.” What the best books are is a different matter.

The second time Erasmus is mentioned by Mason (1925/1954) refers to censorship of books:

Plato, we know, determined that the poets in his “Republic” should be well looked after, lest they should write matter to corrupt the morals of youth; aware of what happened in Europe when the flood-gates of knowledge were opened, Erasmus was anxiously solicitous on this score, and it is a little surprising to find that here, Rossetti was on the side of the angels. (p. 340)

Again, Mason (1925/1954) only references Erasmus to shed light upon a common (and continuing) problem among educators who all wish that they could “throw open the world of books to their scholars without fear of the mental and moral smudge left by a single and prurient passage!” (p. 341) Though even here, Mason’s idea of censorship is not comparable to that of Erasmus (or Plato, but that is a different blog post).

So Mason certainly did read Erasmus, and yet, she only found occasion to use his name twice – not even with direct quotes – in her six volumes. Is it right to imply that she was influenced by him when she had clearly read his work, but did not find it worthy of mention? I think not. Let’s take a look at several points in which Mason completely disagrees with him.

What is Knowledge?

Mason and Erasmus had very different views as to what knowledge is and how it is acquired. Erasmus tells us:

All knowledge falls into one of two divisions; the knowledge of “truths” and the knowledge of “words”: and if the former is first in importance, the latter is acquired in order of time. (Woodward, 1904, p. 147)

Erasmus makes a case for “words,” specifically Latin and Greek, through his essay, Upon the Right Method of Instruction. The teaching of “words” was of the utmost importance to the classical educators and scholars. Erasmus tells us:

For I affirm with slight qualification the whole of attainable knowledge lies enclosed within the literary monuments of ancient Greece. This great inheritance I will compare to a limpid spring of whose undefiled waters it behooves all who truly thirst to drink and be restored. (Woodward, 1904, p. 164)

I find it interesting that he uses the metaphor of a spring when Mason (1912) referred to the “poisoned springs of Paganism” (p. 811). I also find it interesting that in these quotes (indeed, in the entire essay), there is no mention of God or the Gospels. Erasmus actually edited and published a Greek Translation of the New Testament in 1516, so the Gospel must have been important to him, and yet, there is a clear disconnect between education and God’s role in it. Even if we assume that the “slight qualification” is the Gospel, it is significant that it does not merit a mention for the sake of itself in Upon the Right Method of Instruction.

Let us see what Mason (1923) has to say on the subject, from an article included in In Memoriam, “Some P.N.E.U. Principles”:

But what then is knowledge? That is a question on which as yet nobody has been able to answer. Our approach to a solution is to adapt Matthew Arnold’s rather inadequate definition of religion*. Knowledge is information touched with emotion: feeling must be stirred, imagination must picture, reason must consider, nay, conscience must pronounce on the information we offer before it becomes mind stuff.

. . .

* “Religion is morality touched with emotion.” (p. 4)

In the same article, she goes on to say:

Matthew Arnold gives us, again, if not a definition, a rough classification of knowledge: Knowledge of God, of man and of the universe, or, as we might put it, Divinity, the Humanities and Science; these three are the natural requirements of every child of man; so his syllabus must needs be wide, well-proportioned and well-balanced. (p. 4)

Here Mason, as she often does, generously gives credit to her mentor, Matthew Arnold. Not only is Mason’s definition of knowledge much more broad than that of Erasmus, but it also includes an understanding of the learner and how knowledge might be acquired beyond the narrow scope of words. In Home Education, Mason (1886/1989a) tells us:

Watch a child standing at gaze at some sight new to him – a plough at work, for instance – and you will see he is as naturally occupied as is a babe at the breast; he is, in fact, taking in the intellectual food which the working faculty of his brain at this period requires. In his early years the child is all eyes; he observes, or, more truly, he perceives calling sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing to his aide, that he may learn all that is discoverable by him about every new thing that comes under his notice. (p. 65)

It is clear that Mason believed that there was more knowledge to be discovered than could be contained in “words,” more “truths” than can be spoken or written of. It also shows that a child, a person, without the ability to use or understand words, could still acquire knowledge proper to him.

The Beginning of Education

Mason believed that education begins at birth with the observations made through the senses, these observations being the “intellectual food” of the child. In order of importance, Mason (1886/1989a) begins with the development of a healthy brain (p. 21) and then an out-of-door life (pp. 43-95).

A Healthy Brain. – What I desire to set before the reader is a method of education based upon natural law. In the first place, we have considered some of the conditions to be observed with a view to keep the brain in healthy working order; for it is upon the possession of an active, duly nourished brain that the possibility of a sound education depends.

Out-of-Door Life. – The consideration of out-of-door life, in developing a method of education, comes second in order; because my object is to show that the chief function of the child – his business in the world during the first six or seven years of his life – is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; that he has an insatiable appetite for knowledge got in this way; and that, therefore, the endeavour of his parents should be to put him in the way of making acquaintance freely with Nature and natural objects; that, in fact, the intellectual education of the young child should lie in the free exercise of perceptive power, because the first stages of mental effort are marked by the extreme activity of this power; and the wisdom of the educator is to follow the lead of Nature in the evolution of the complete human being. (Mason, 1886/1989a, pp. 96-97)

Understanding the beginning of education in this way respects the personhood of the child and allows for a slow and natural progression to formal education.

Erasmus also believes that education begins at birth, but he tells us:

Language thus claims the first place in the order of studies and from the outset should include both Greek and Latin. The argument for this is two-fold. First, that within these two literatures are contained all the knowledge which we recognize as of vital importance to mankind. Secondly, that the natural affinity of the two tongues renders it more profitable to study them side by side than apart. (Woodward, 1904, p. 163)

Erasmus says nothing about the acquisition of knowledge before formal education in this work. I thought that perhaps I was being unfair in my comparison, so I dug a little deeper. Upon reading That Children Should Straightaway from Their Earliest Years be Trained in Sound Virtue and Sound Learning, I was able to find the age at which Erasmus believed lessons should begin. Three years old! (Woodward, 1904, p. 199) I was shocked. That is not where my shock ended. I have quoted several paragraphs from this work, enough for the reader to compare to the way Mason believed the early years should be spent,

And seeing that they must needs be busy about something, what else can be better approved? For how much wiser to amuse their hours with Letters, than to see them frittered away in aimless trifling? (Woodward, 1904, p. 181)

Yet there is no reason why in this early stage of education utility should not go hand in hand with delight. On the method which I have here sketched nothing hinders that a boy learn a pretty story from the ancient poets, or a memorable take from history, just as readily as the stupid and vulgar ballad, or the old wives fairy rubbish such as most children are steeped in nowadays by nurses and serving women. Who can think without shame of the precious time and energy squandered in listening to ridiculous riddles, stories of dreams, of ghosts, witches, fairies, demons; of foolish tales drawn from popular annals; worthless, nay, mischievous stuff of the kind which is poured into children in their nursery days? (Woodward, 1904, p. 214)

Grant, with Quintilian that the boy may acquire in one year after he has passed his fifth birthday as much as he can during the whole of the previous years, is that a reason for sacrificing what you admit to be equivalent to the harvest of a twelvemonth? Nor is the alternative merely that the boy may learn nothing; for he will undoubtedly be learning that which he must later unlearn. The training which I propose will serve to interest and occupy the growing child from the time he can understand and be understood. The youthful mind is ever acquiring something – good or evil. The progress made, slight as it may be, is a saving of labor at a later stage, when the entire time and energy of the pupil are set free, as Quintilian says, for work of greater difficulty. Need I repeat what I have said concerning the aptitude of early childhood to some studies? I cannot indeed, allow that it is a trivial gain that a child should win acquaintance with two languages and learn to read and write. (Woodward, 1904, p. 218)

Can we, in fact, afford to throw away four years of our children’s lives, when we know that the two hardest things to overtake in the world are time lost and learning neglected? (Woodward, 1904, p. 218)

So, Erasmus would not approve of fairy tales, nursery rhymes, or folk songs. He believed the vernacular (common languages) and everything told through them to be vulgar and a waste of time. Admitting that it will take at least twice as long for the child to learn, Erasmus would have the three- or four-year-old child begin lessons, rather than waste time in self-led play and discovery. No “masterly inactivity” under his watch. All that compared to Mason’s (1886/1989a) suggestion:

. . . a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air. And this, not for the gain in bodily health alone– body and soul, heart and mind, are nourished with food convenient for them when the children are let alone, let to live without friction and without stimulus amongst happy influences which incline them to be good. (p.43)

If we now go on to see what Mason says about the start of formal education, we learn that she, once again, has a completely different vision and emphasis, even if we overlook the difference in starting age. The following comes from a section of An Essay Towards A Philosophy of Education, entitled, “The Mind of a School Child”:

It is still true that that which is born of the spirit, is spirit. The way to mind is a quite direct way. Mind must come into contact with mind through the medium of ideas. “What is mind?” says the old conundrum, and the answer still is “No matter.” It is necessary for us who teach to realize that things material have little effect upon mind, because there are still among us schools in which the work is altogether material and technical, whether the teaching is given by means of bars of wood or more scientific apparatus. The mistress of an Elementary School writes, –  “The father of one of my girls said to me yesterday, ‘You have given me some work to do. E. has let me have no rest until I promised to set up my microscope and get pond water to look for monads and other wonders.’” Here we have the right order. That which was born of the spirit, the idea, came first and demanded to confirm and illustrate. (Mason, 1925/1954, p. 37)

The “idea” is missing in this work of Erasmus. The focus on language, language which is not yet learnt by the child, drives a wedge between the child and the books. The teaching is material and technical. An article in The Parents’ Review makes this exact connection:

We are told that Latin and Greek supply a language-study not elsewhere so satisfactorily procurable; that after a school-drilling in Latin and Greek grammar a boy’s mind is in condition to grapple adequately with the difficulties to be met in any subsequent con amore studies, or in practical life. Now I wish to suggest that we are nowadays apt to err on the side of a too mechanical conception of education. The mind, even of a boy, is not a mere machine, but is inextricably intertwined with his heart and feelings; and very naturally revolts against work purely intellectual and dissociated from his human nature and affections. (Millis, 1891, p. 436)

There is no opportunity for ideas when the words are not understood. It is not possible for “mind to come in contact with mind” when mind is trying to make sense of the words. There is no room for ideas, no relationship. Heart and feelings are of no consequence, only the mechanics of two languages which must be learned, compared, analyzed and memorized. Education laid out by Erasmus is not self-education. He suggests none of methods used by Mason. His view of the child would be more appropriately likened to a sack to fill and the role of the teacher is not that of a guide, but that of an intruder that the child comes to depend upon. I will now lay out some of the methods and curricula proposed by Erasmus, contrasted by those employed by Mason and the P.N.E.U. I believe the differences are stark and clear.


I am going to start with narration, because that is where Mason starts. Narration is a key component in Charlotte Mason’s method. There are two sections in Upon the Right Method of Instruction that seem to show that Erasmus also discovered the value of narrating or telling back. These sentences alone are quite convincing; however, when read in context, it is plain to the reader that what he is speaking of is nothing at all like what Mason practiced. First we will look at the quotes which seems supportive, and then look at it again in context.

Lastly, I urge, as undeniably the surest method of acquisition, the practice of teaching what we know: in no other way, can we so certainly learn the difference between what we know and what we think we know; whilst that which we actually know we come to know better. (Woodward, 1904, p. 166)

Convincing. Here is a parallel quote from Mason (1925/1954):

Long ago I was in the habit of hearing this axiom quoted by a philosophical old friend: –  “The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in answer to a question put to the mind itself.” (p. 16)

Let us now look at the quote from Erasmus in context and decide if it still supports narration. The previous quote is in blue and shown where it appears in relation to the following.

That lies in the use of the pen; whatever the form, whether prose or verse, or whatever the theme, write, write, write. Supplement writing by learning by heart. Upon this latter question, memory depends at bottom upon three conditions: thorough understanding of the subject, logical ordering of the contents, repetition to ourselves. Without these we can neither retain securely nor reproduce promptly. Read, then, attentively, read over and over again, test your memory vigorously, and minutely. Verbal memory may with advantage be aided by ocular impressions; thus, for instance we can have charts of geographical facts, genealogical trees, large-typed, tables of rules of syntax and prosody, which we can hang on the walls. Or again, the scholar may make a practice of copying striking quotations at the top of his exercise books. I have know a proverb inscribed upon a ring or a cup, sentences worth remembering painted on a door or a window. These are all devices for adding to our intellectual stores, which, trivial as they may seem individually, have a distinct cumulative value.

Lastly, I urge, as undeniably the surest method of acquisition, the practice of teaching what we know: in no other way, can we so certainly learn the difference between what we know and what we think we know; whilst that which we actually know we come to know better. (Woodward, 1904, pp. 165-166)

Does that sound anything like narration? It sounds only like memory work. Mason seems almost to directly address this type of teaching. The following comes from An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education, immediately before the previous quote by Mason.

He will not be satisfied with the result but he will find that in the act of narrating every power of his mind comes into play, that points and bearings which he had not observed are brought out; that the whole is visualized and brought into relief in an extraordinary way; in fact, that scene or argument has become a part of his personal experience; he knows, he has assimilated what he has read. This is not memory work. In order to memorise, we repeat over and over a passage or a series of points or names with the aid of such clues as we can invent; we do memorise a string of facts or words, and the new possession serves its purpose for a time, but it is not assimilated; its purpose being served, we know it no more. This is memory work by means of which examinations are passed with credit. I will not try to explain (or understand!) this power to memorise; – it has its subsidiary use in education, no doubt, but it must not be put in the place of the prime agent which is attention. (Mason, 1925/1954, p. 16)

What Erasmus proposes is simply memory work. While the method was no doubt useful in an era when books were less common and when much information – facts – needed to be internalized, it is not an integral part of Mason’s vision for education. Despite the appearance of similarity, when Erasmus says “what we know and what we think we know,” he means what we have memorized. There is a difference. Mason’s method is also characterized by a “single careful reading”; conversely, the method described by Erasmus is more like “a mere parrot-like cramming up of contents” (Mason, 1905, p. 180).


All of the memorizing, writing, re-writing, reading, and re-reading must have been as tedious for the children as it sounds because Erasmus, in Upon the Right Method of Instruction, suggests on two occasions some methods of motivation directly opposed by Miss Mason. Again, we hear from Erasmus first:

By degrees devices for increasing fluency may be introduced as, for instance, a game of forfeits and prizes for faults and corrections, the Master choosing the judges from amongst the top boys. (Woodward, 1904, p. 169)

Yet, after all, his chief aim will be to stimulate his pupils by calling attention to the progress made by this one or by the other, thus arousing the spirit of emulation in the class. (Woodward, 1904, p. 173)

So not only does Erasmus encourage the teacher to offer rewards and dole out penalties, he also encourages the teacher to create an atmosphere of competition and rivalry. Once again, Mason spoke out directly against this kind of behavior:

Every child wants to be approved. . . every child wants to know. There they are, those desires, ready to act on occasion and our business is to make due use of this natural provision for the work of education. We do make use of the desires, not wisely, but too well. We run our schools upon emulation, the desire of every child to be first; and not the ablest, but the most pushing, comes to the front. We quicken emulation by the common desire to get and to have, that is, by the impulse of avarice. So we offer prizes, exhibitions, scholarships, every incentive that can be proposed. We cause him to work for our approbation, we play upon his vanity, and the boy does more than he can. What is the harm, we say, when all those springs of action are in the child already? The athlete is beginning to discover that he suffers elsewhere from the undue development of any set of muscles; and the boy whose ambition, or emulation, has been unduly stimulated becomes a flaccid person. But there is a worse evil. We all want knowledge just as much as we want bread. We know it is possible to cure the latter appetite by giving more stimulating food; and the worst of using other spurs to learning is that a natural love of knowledge which should carry us through eager school-days, and give a spice of adventure to the duller days of mature life, is effectually choked; and boys and girls ‘Cram to pass but not to know; they do pass but they don’t know.’ The divine curiosity which should have been an equipment for life hardly survives early schooldays. (Mason, 1925/1954, p. 57)

Doesn’t that sound like a direct response to Erasmus’s advice? I love that Mason uses the same word, emulation. Today we are more likely to use it with the second definition: “ambition or endeavor to equal or excel others (as in achievement),” but I believe that both authors (or the translator in the case of Erasmus’s work) meant the first, though now obsolete, definition: “ambitious or envious rivalry” (Merriam-Webster, 2003). Erasmus believed that getting these words embedded into the brains of children was of the first importance because the letters were the key to knowledge; therefore, any means of imprinting the information was allowable. Mason’s view was so different. She understood that the children already had an appetite for knowledge and that the child already has in him the capacity for his “proper food” (Mason, 1925/1954, p. 26). It is not necessary to coerce the child to learn; we need only not ruin his innate appetite for knowledge.

On one point, I must commend Erasmus. In an era where sadistic abuse of students was the norm, Erasmus spoke out against it. He believed it wrong and unchristian to rule and teach through fear. He says, “Fear is of no real avail in education” (Woodward, 1904, p. 203). Mason undoubtedly agrees on that point; however, Erasmus believed that the love and affection felt by the child for the teacher should be used to the advantage of the teacher for lessons:

Seeing, then, that children in the earliest stage must be beguiled and not driven to learning, the first requisite in the Master is a gentle sympathetic manner, the second a knowledge in wise and attractive methods. . . For a boy is often drawn to a subject first for his master’s sake and, and afterwards for its own. Learning, like many other things, wins our liking for the reason that it is offered to us by one we love. . . Love must be the first influence; followed and completed by a trustful and affectionate respect, which compels obedience far more surely than dread can ever do. (Woodward, 1904, p. 203)

That doesn’t seem so bad. . . or does it? First, let’s take a look at the word “beguiled.” Here are the definitions listed by Merriam-Webster: “to lead by deception,” “hoodwink,” “to while away especially by some agreeable occupation,” “to engage the interest of by or as if by guile. . . to deceive by wiles” (Merriam-Webster, 2003). Yikes! The notion of someone using the love of my children to beguile them into doing his bidding is actually a bit sickening. Miss Mason (1925/1954) again speaks for herself:

For the action of fear as a governing motive we cannot do better than read again our David Copperfield (a great educational treatise) and study ‘Mr. Creakle’ in detail for terrorism in the schoolroom and ‘Mr. Murdstone’ for the same vice in the home. But, – is it through the influence of Dickens? – fear is no longer the acknowledged basis of school discipline; we have methods more subtle than the mere terrors of the law. Love is one of these. The person of winning personality attracts his pupils (or hers) who will do anything for his sake and are fond and eager in all their ways, docile to that point where personality is submerged, and they live on the smiles, perish on the averted looks, of the adored teacher. Parents look on with a smile and think that all is well; but Bob or Mary is losing that growing time which should make a self-dependent, self-ordered person, and is day by day becoming a parasite who can go only as he is carried, the easy prey of fanatic or demagogue. This sort of encroachment upon the love of children offers as a motive, ‘do this for my sake’; wrong is to be avoided lest it grieve the teacher, good is to be done to pleasure him; for this end a boy learns his lessons, behaves properly, shows good will, produces a whole catalogue of schoolboy virtues and yet his character is being undermined. (pp. 81-82)

The various ways Erasmus suggests for the teacher to motivate children directly contradict Mason’s third and fourth principles:

3. The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental; but –
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 any undue play upon any one natural desire. (Mason, 1925/1954, p. xxviiii)


It has already been said that both Mason and Erasmus wished to offer the best books to their students. However, again they disagree, not only on what the “best books” may be for a child, but also what is to be done with them during lessons. According to Erasmus, the “best books” are Greek and Latin literature. That’s it. In the foreword to Vittorino Da Feltre and Other Humanist Educators, by W.H. Woodward, Eugene F. Rice, Jr. puts it this way:

A humanist education, therefore. . . was necessarily classical and literary. Study of letters meant study of Latin letters. Latin, and later Greek, literature was the core of education because, as Erasmus bluntly put it in the sixteenth century, “within these two literatures is contained all the knowledge which we recognize as of vital importance to mankind.” (Rice, 1996, p. xiii)

The philosophy of Charlotte Mason did not take such a narrow view of literature. An article in The Parents’ Review offers insight on this subject:

We are scarcely conscious, I believe, how far classical literature is incommensurate with the spiritual and intellectual needs of our day. . . “It requires no very profound examination to discover that the Greek dramas, often admirable as compositions, are, as exhibitions of human character and human life, far inferior to the English plays of the age of Elizabeth.”* Yet many of our most eminent classics never get beyond the point of culture represented by their classical degree; their education ceased then; their knowledge and sympathies are limited by the hard and fast line that divides classical Latin from all subsequent literature. The modern spirit must be starved by such an exclusively classical diet. It would be indeed strange if, after the incalculable advance in human knowledge and experience during eighteen centuries, we of the nineteenth should find all our intellectual and spiritual needs satisfied by a literature whose canon was closed before St. Paul arrived at the Eternal City.

. . .

* Macaulay, “Moore’s Life of Byron.” (Mills, 1891, p. 437)

The world of literature for a student of the P.N.E.U. was much more broad and varied. Not only that, but the “intellectual and spiritual needs” of the child were considered, and consulted in the selection of books:

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. (Mason, 1905, p. 228)

As to the use of books in the school, Mason begins with narration. The child will gradually grow from telling back the points of the story to offering insight into the behavior of characters and the repercussions of their actions. They will find connections between other subjects studied, think and wonder, analyze and criticize of their own accord. The teacher is not to get between the book and the child:

So much for the right books; the right use of them is another matter. The children must enjoy the book. The ideas it holds must each make that sudden, delightful impact upon their minds, must cause that intellectual stir, which mark the inception of an idea. The teacher’s part in this regard is to see and feel for himself, and then to rouse his pupils by an appreciative look or word; but to beware how he deadens the impression by a flood of talk. Intellectual sympathy is very stimulating; but we have all been in the case of the little girl who said, “Mother, I think I could understand if you did not explain quite so much.” A teacher said of her pupil, “I find it so hard to tell whether she has really grasped a thing or whether she has only got the mechanical hang of it.” Children are imitative monkeys, and it is the ‘mechanical hang’ that is apt to arrive after a douche of explanation.

Children must Labour. – This, of getting ideas out of them, is by no means all we must do with books. ‘In all labour there is profit,’ at any rate in some labour; and the labour of thought is what his book must induce in the child. He must generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the determination rests with him and not with his teacher. (Mason, 1905, pp. 178-179)

As student of Erasmus would not have had the opportunity to “generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate” or labor for himself in any way. Not only was the teacher to point out every literary device used in the work, he was also to point out the moral:

You begin by offering an appreciation of the author, and state what is necessary concerning his life and surroundings, his talent, and the characteristics of his style. You next consider comedy as an example of a particular form of literature, and its interest for the student: the origin and meaning, of the term itself, the varieties of Comedy, and the Terentian prosody. Now you proceed to treat briefly and clearly the argument of the play, taking each situation in due course. Side by side with this you will handle the diction of the writer; noting any conspicuous elegance, or such peculiarities as archaism, novel usage, Graecisms; bringing out anything that is involved or obscure in phrases or sentence-forms; marking, where necessary, derivations and orthography, metaphors and other rhetorical artifices. Parallel passages should next be brought under notice, similarities and contrasts in treatment observed, and direct borrowings traced – no difficult task when we are comparing a Latin poet with his Greek predecessors. The last factor in the lesson consists in the moral applications which it suggests; the story of Orestes and Pylades, or of Tantalus, are obvious examples. (Woordward, 1904, p. 174)

Erasmus then goes on to tell how the story of Alexis and Corydon, from Virgil’s Second Ecologue, should be taught. The teacher should use the lesson to teach why people who are different in temperament and circumstance cannot be friends. From the standpoint of a Christian, that alone is an alarming idea. But as a Mason educator, the notion of pushing a specific moral lesson from a story defeats the purpose of telling that story. Erasmus states:

Now it is as a parable of unstable friendship that the Master should treat this Eclogue. Alexis is of the town; Corydon a countryman; Corydon a shepherd, Alexis a man of society. Alexis cultivated, young, graceful; Corydon rude, crippled, his youth far behind him. Hence the impossibility of a true friendship. The lesson finally left on the mind of the pupil is that it is the prudent part to choose friends among those whose tastes and characters agree with our own. Such methods of treating a classical story, by forcing attention to the moral to be deduced from it, will serve to counteract any harm which a more literal interpretation might possibly convey. After all, it is what a reader brings to a passage rather than what he finds there which is the real source of mischief. (Woodward, 1904, pp. 175-176)

I emphasized the last sentence because that is what I find the most disturbing about this passage. Erasmus is telling us that the individuality of the reader is not to be respected, that the work being read has only one interpretation and it is up to the teacher to deliver this correct message to the student. He does not respect the personhood of the student. He creates a situation where the student doubts or dismisses his own impressions and learns to wait on the understanding of the teacher to direct his own perception. Once again, Mason has almost a direct response to the words of Erasmus:

What of a carefully laid train, all leading in the same direction, to produce perseverance, frankness, courage, any other excellent virtue? The child is even worse off in such a case. That particular virtue becomes detestable; no other virtue is inviting; and he is acquiring no strength to stand alone but waits in all his doings for promptings from without. Perhaps the gravest danger attending this practice is that every suggestion received lays the person open to the next and the next. A due respect for the personality of children and a dread of making them incompetent to conduct their own lives will make us chary of employing a means so dangerous, no matter how good the immediate end. (Mason, 1925/1954, pp. 82-83)

Role of the Teacher

I believe that I have already shown that the teacher, according to the writings of Erasmus, is the intermediary between the student and the books. Not only need the teacher be well-versed in Latin and Greek, but he must also have read and understood all of the classical works in the usual way, in order to impart the agreed upon moral and purpose of each. He must be willing to “beguile” the students to learn in whatever way he deems necessary, through prizes or penalty, emulation or competition. The teacher is there, every step of the way, watching, judging, criticizing, directing, and telling the student exactly what to think about each subject studied. It sounds positively exhausting! The child is not seen as a person in his own right, but is, according to Erasmus:

. . . a rude, unformed creature, which it is your part to fashion so that it may indeed become a man. If this fashioning be neglected you have an animal still; if it be contrived earnestly and wisely, you have, I had almost said, what may prove a being not far from a God. (Woodward, 1904, p. 187)

He says later:

Therefore, bestow especial pains upon his tenderest years, as Vergil teaches. Handle the wax whilst it is soft, mould the clay whilst it is moist, dye the fleece before it gathers stains. (Woodward, 1904, p. 187)

A book review in the Parents’ Review on Erasmus Concerning Education, by H. Woodward, calls attention to this perception of the nature of children:

But the figures by which he describes Natura, the soft wax or clay, the pliant twig, suggest fatal limitations. (Parents’ National Educational Union, 1904, p. 798)

A teacher following Charlotte Mason’s method has the first responsibility of seeing the child as a “born person,” worthy of a banquet of knowledge, no matter his class or condition, with his own set of gifts and challenges. She remembers what Jesus taught, that “in the Divine estimate the child’s estate is higher than ours; that it is ours to ‘become as little children,’ rather than theirs to become as grown men and women” (Mason, 1925/1954, pp. 80-81). She also knows that her role is that of a guide and fellow learner; she is not the imparter or keeper of knowledge; the real teacher is God himself:

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. (Mason, 1989b, p. 273)

In my mind, this scene of a girl and her loving uncle typifies the spirit of instruction in the Charlotte Mason style:

When we were having our lessons together, as he phrased it, we sat at the table side by side, and he taught me as if we were two children finding out together what it all meant. (MacDonald, 1891, p. 26)


The treatise Upon the Right Method of Instruction is only 17 pages. The treatise That Children Should Straightaway from Their Earliest Years be Trained in Sound Virtue and Sound Learning is only 42 pages. Together this is a pittance compared to the more than 2,000 pages of Mason’s original six volumes and all the work of the Parents’ National Education Union. Erasmus did not have a sound understanding of the nature of children, though he did understand how to manipulate the child mind into learning Greek and Latin. He was clearly passionate about the study and literature of those languages, but his interest in teaching children was entirely wrapped up in those classical works. One might call education as he proposed it a unit study of Greek and Latin. All subjects, from virtue to nature study to composition, are all taught around the framework of Greek and Latin literature. Erasmus says as much:

And indeed we may say that a genuine student ought to grasp the meaning and force of every fact or idea that he meets with in his reading, otherwise their literary treatment through epithet, metaphor, or simile will be to him obscure and confused. There is thus no discipline, no field of study, – whether music, architecture, agriculture or war – which may not prove of use to the teacher in expounding the Poets and Orators of antiquity. (Woodward, 1904, p. 168)

There is a place for the study of “letters” in a Charlotte Mason education; it simply isn’t a prominent place and certainly not the central place. The depth and breadth of the study of Greek and Latin should largely be determined by the interest and ability of the child. Mason devotes a section in An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education to explain the weaknesses of an education built upon the study of letters, but also commending the possibilities of a curriculum that includes letters when right methods are combined with an eager learner. I would encourage the reader to peruse the entire section, which is found in pages 307-313 of An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education. Mason speaks clearly for herself on this and so many subjects.

Charlotte Mason freely credits the thinkers who have inspired her. If we trust her philosophy, shouldn’t we trust her testimony? It is no accident that she has not given Erasmus any credit. It is clear that he did not inspire her. Erasmus deserves his distinction in history, but his ideas on the education of children are clearly contradictory to Miss Mason’s. If you want to know more about Mason, study Mason. If you believe Charlotte Mason based her philosophy on the authors of antiquity because of the opinions of classical education proponents, read the ancients for yourself. Read Plato and read Aristotle. Read Erasmus. Compare their writings to Mason’s six volumes and the work of the P.N.E.U. Mason read widely; she read the classical authors and she found them wanting. We owe it to ourselves and our children to have “the Courage of our Opinions” (Mason, 1924, p. 115). Don’t be swayed by second-hand sources, even if they are published. Don’t be swayed by loyalties and don’t be swayed by this blog post. Read, generalize, classify, infer, judge, visualize, discriminate, labor for yourself.


MacDonald, G. (1891). The Flight of the Shadow. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Mason, C. M. (1905). School education. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

Mason, C. (1912).  Three educational idylls. In The parents’ review, vol. 23 (pp. 801-811). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Mason, C. (1923). Some P.N.E.U. Principles. In In memoriam (pp. 4-7). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Mason, C. (1924). Ourselves: Book I, self-knowledge. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. (Original work published 1905)

Mason, C. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education. London: Lowe & Brydone. (Original work published 1925)

Mason, C. (1989a). Home education: Training and educating children under nine. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1886)

Mason, C. (1989b). Parents and children: The role of the parent in the education of the child. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1896)

Merriam-Webster. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Inc.

Millis, J. (1891). Thoughts on classical education. In The parents’ review, vol. 2 (pp. 435-438). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Parents’ National Educational Union (1904). Books. In The parents’ review, vol. 15 (pp. 796-800)

Rice, E. (1996). Foreword. In Vittorino Da Feltre and other humanist educators (pp. vii-xxii). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Woodward, W. (1904). Desiderius Erasmus concerning the aim and method of education. Cambridge: The University Press.

7 Replies to “Upon Right Methods: Desiderius Erasmus and Charlotte Mason”

  1. Thank you for this, Art and Brittany. Very clearly laid out. I appreciate your ongoing efforts to drill down to the bedrock and reveal the very different underlying presuppositions, which inevitably influence methods and attitudes. Thank you for this careful work!

  2. Bravo et Brava!
    “We do not sufficiently rejoice in the wealth that the infinite nature of our God brings to each of us.” (Mason, 1989b, p. 273)
    “If we trust her philosophy, shouldn’t we trust her testimony?”
    Stirred to the point of a standing ovation! Thank you!

  3. Thank you, Brittney and Art, for your pursuit of thoughtful conversation and the grace with which you carry it out. With each article I read here I rejoice -reminded and encouraged to remain tenacious in my research while being mindful of intellectual integrity and the love in my heart.

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