Reading Charlotte Mason ~ Home Education Preface

Charlotte Mason opens her monumental work with the following words:

“The educational outlook is rather misty and depressing both at home and abroad. That science should be a staple of education, that the teaching of Latin, of modern languages, of mathematics, must be reformed, that nature and handicrafts should be pressed into service for the training of the eye and hand, that boys and girls must learn to write English and therefore must know something of history and literature; and, on the other hand, that education must be made more technical and utilitarian––these, and such as these, are the cries of expedience with which we take the field. But we have no unifying principle, no definite aim; in fact, no philosophy of education. As a stream can rise no higher than its source, so it is probable that no educational effort can rise above the whole scheme of thought which gives it birth; and perhaps this is the reason of all the fallings from us, vanishings, failures, and disappointments which mark our educational records.”

Every time I read these words, I feel like they could have just as easily been written yesterday as over a hundred years ago. We have, with the passing of more than one generation, not made coherent progress towards any of these goals, and in many cases we have moved away from them. Science has become a focal point in our society, and yet we teach children science as a body of facts rather than a process for acquiring knowledge. Latin, modern languages, and math have all indeed been reformed, but not actually improved, and many schools push the same ineffective methods alluded to by Charlotte. The nasty battle between those who think that children need to play in fresh air and those who think that they need to pass standardized tests has been intensifying as of late, with no resolution in sight. The reality of our world and culture places screens and video games as a contender for time that children used to spend making things with their hands, even in the upper classes. That children can manipulate computing devices more powerful than those used to send man to the moon, but cannot write legibly, is the strange state of affairs in which we now find ourselves.

Charlotte Mason proposes that what we need is a unifying philosophy of education. The wisdom of her stance is evident in the way that individuals come to very different conclusions about how to educate based on what they believe about why we educate. Someone who sees education as a means to an end, as the training of a worker, will have no patience for Latin. When would it be used? Someone who sees education as the growing of the mind may equally discard vocational training as not vital. I believe, as Charlotte did, that all of these things are important, as a part of what it means to be human. The auto mechanic has just as much right to knowledge of the divine as the professor, and the professor could very much benefit from knowing how to execute manual labor efficiently. When we reduce people to one-dimensional roles, we rob them of part of their humanity.

In her 20 principles of education, which she put at the beginning of each book in the Home Education Series, Charlotte says first that “Children are born persons.” This is such a simple and yet profound statement, and I think that this is the very best way to begin any philosophy of education. Encapsulated in this phrase is the idea that we must recognize the self in others. Many woes in our society stem from the ease with which we are able to ignore the person-hood of another. Those who are different, those with whom we disagree, those who do things that we find atrocious—they are people, also. They are image-bearers of God, just as we are. If we could find a way to begin with the common base of being human, then the variety of expression of that humanity would become a cause for celebration rather than tension and war.

The foundation of Charlotte’s philosophy is rooted in Christianity. Education is, first and foremost, knowledge of the divine. It can be difficult for people who come from other religious traditions to look beyond the specifics of her lived religion. But those who look a little deeper will find that her ideas are so firmly rooted in what it means to be human that they are applicable in any religious context. The atheists will perhaps have the most difficulty with her work. Without some faith in the divine, it is impossible to see the divine in the world. In her 16th principle, Charlotte makes plain the way in which reason can deceive us:

The Way of the Reason.––We should teach children, too, not to ‘lean’ (too confidently) ‘unto their own understanding,’ because of the function of reason is, to give logical demonstration (a) of mathematical truth; and (b) of an initial idea, accepted by the will. In the former case reason is, perhaps, an infallible guide, but in the second it is not always a safe one, for whether that initial idea be right or wrong, reason will confirm it by irrefragable proofs.”

I see many people, both theists and atheists, falling into the trap of relying on reason as the basis for all that is good. Reason is not good in and of itself, however, and can lead us to evil just as surely. Because of this, it is of utmost importance that we temper reason with emotion, with history, and with morality. If we do not, we will be able to justify any evil act.

Education following the philosophy of Charlotte Mason, then, is an education in humanity, morality, and utility. I find this combination unique and beautiful.