The Beginning and End of Charlotte Mason

Dear Reader,

What is at the core of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy? What is its heart? I have been pondering this question recently. Of course, Charlotte was a real person so I am sure there is one right answer to this. I hope to ask her some dayūüėČ

But for us here now who can’t talk to Miss Mason what we have is six thick volumes of dense, old-fashioned language. Charlotte herself summed up her philosophy in Twenty Principles, but even this is a lot to take in at once.

Depending on our own backgrounds and needs we may all come away from Charlotte’s works with slightly different understandings of what she was all about. There are right and wrong answers. If you tell me “Charlotte would have loved unit studies,” I can show you from her writings that she would not. But saying, succinctly, what she is all about is¬† a more difficult task.

This is my attempt to say what, for me, the core of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is —

I see Charlotte’s first and twentieth principles as two bookends that hold her philosophy of education together. If you can’t recite them by heart, here they are:

“1. Children are born persons.

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.” (“CM’s 20 Principles” from Ambleside Online)

Taking these two together, I see the two most important things anyone can know: who we are and who God is. If you get those two right, all else will fall into place. I have said before that I find Charlotte’s philosophy very biblical, and this is why: because she has these two elements in place.

The first¬†principle is so short that it is enigmatic. It’s a bit like saying “Man is made in the image of God.” (In fact, I’d say it’s an awful lot like that.) We can say it and we can agree on it, but we can still mean very different things. And putting it into practical application is a whole ‘nother can of worms. Here is how I understand it: Children, from birth (actually before birth, but, again that’s another issue) are persons. They are not blank slates or blocks of clay or something else that evolves into adult people. They have things to learn, yes, but they are just as much persons as you or I. Though few parents today actually say that their kids are blank slates, they often act as if they get to mold and shape their children as they will or as if children are preparing for a life which will come some day. They are not preparing life; they are living it. To Christian parents I would say especially: your kids are not preparing to have relationships with God; they have them now. They already stand before Him and have their own relationship with Him. Don’t take the burden for their salvation or holiness on yourself; let Him work in their lives.They are, just as much as you are, sinners made in the image of God. We tend to fall off to one side or the other, either emphasizing their sin natures to much or extolling them as perfect, innocent¬†beings. They are neither sinful beasts nor perfect angels. They are what you are. That is what “children are boen persons”means.

Which brings me to the 20th principle. Dividing religion from life, the spirit from the body, is a very modern, western concept. The work of educating our children is akin to the work of saving and sanctifying them: it is God’s work, not ours. In fact, I would go so far as to say that their education is just one aspect of their sanctification (I think I fall in line with the Puritans in this). The Holy Spirit, for Charlotte Mason, is the Great Educator. We can step back because He is there doing the job. A corollary of this is that all truth is God’s truth (both Charlotte Mason and John Calvin said this). Christians may be tempted to put the Bible on a pedestal and to turn to it for answers on all questions. I firmly believe that the Scriptures are the only infallible rule for faith and life (think about this: only modifies infallible in this statement). But they are not the only rule or guide. All truth belongs to God, whether we find it in nature or C.S. Lewis or Darwin.

What is at the heart of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy? It is what we find at the beginning and the end: children are people —¬†we must respect their personhood — and as people, God is working in them just as He is in you.



Two Articles: Bored Kids and Homeschooling

Dear Reader,

I ran across these two articles in my feed today:

The Homeschool Math Gap: the Data from Coalition for Responsible Home Education (2 September, 2014)

Why our children are so bored at school, cannot wait, get easily frustrated and have no real friends? from Your OT (May 16, 2016)

The first article, from CRHE, cites statistics, contrary to those w usually like to cite, showing that perhaps homeschooled students actually do do worse on standardized tests, particularly in math, and that they are less likely to choose majors in math and science. The article suggests that this may be due to teaching styles and , frankly, the inability of homeschooling parents to teach math.

I think it’s good for us to hear honest feedback on homeschooling. I do question a lot of aspects of the numbers and the article itself. Homeschoolers are to some degree a self-selected bunch. We are more likely to be those for whom traditional schools don’t work so perhaps it should not surprise us that homeschoolers have a harder time meeting traditional school’s criteria. Maybe homeschoolers are just worse at testing. I know mine probably are, because we have done very little of it. But testing isn’t life. Which brings us to the next point: this article is good in some ways in how it analyzed the data, but it never asks or answers the question of how success is measured. Maybe homeschoolers do worse in STEM subjects because they are more creative. Maybe they are drawn to the humanities and arts because they don’t have STEM shoved down their throats as the definition of success (pet peeve of mine here; can you tell?). Maybe homeschoolers do in the end have less worldly success. But maybe they are happier. Maybe they know who they are.

I think the CRHE article is important. I think it is good for homeschoolers to read. But I also think we need to start by knowing what success means for us and then ask if we are achieving it. What we don’t need to do is read some statistics in SAT scores and then panic.

The second article, from Your OT, is not about homeschooling., and I think we need to take it with caution as well. We can’t¬†assume that it doesn’t apply to us¬†because we homeschool. We too can give our kids too much technology and¬†overindulge them. But I loved this bit:

“We created an artificial fun world for our children. There are no dull moments. The moment it becomes quiet, we run to entertain them again because otherwise we feel that we are not doing our parenting duty. We live in two separate worlds. They have their ‚Äúfun ‚Äúworld and we have our ‚Äúwork‚ÄĚ world. Why aren‚Äôt children helping us in the kitchen or with laundry? Why don‚Äôt they tidy up their toys? This is basic monotonous work that trains the brain to be workable and function under ‚Äúboredom‚ÄĚ which is the same ‚Äúmuscle‚ÄĚ that is required to be eventually teachable at school. ¬†When they come to school and it is time for printing, their answer is ‚ÄúI can‚Äôt. It is too hard. Too boring‚ÄĚ Why? Because the workable ‚Äúmuscle‚ÄĚ is not getting trained through endless fun. It gets trained through work.”

It’s not that I don’t think school work should be enjoyable, but it is not our job to make it entertaining. In fact, this approach will often, as the article says, backfire. Because then they can’t do anything that isn’t entertaining. (See this recent blog post on more on that.)

That’s what I’ve been reading. How about you?


Geography Study Idea

Dear Reader,

My 14-year-old did this on her own so I can’t really take any credit, but I thought it would be a wonderful idea for geography study.


What she did is draw our state (Massachusetts). She did this by hand just looking at a picture. Though we have never done this in school, this part is actually just what Charlotte Mason would do — have kids learn to draw maps freehand. Then she looked up facts about the state and added things in zentangle fashion. If you look around, you should be able to see in this our state flower and state bird, a sport invented in MA, the state flag and more. You can also then use this page as a coloring page. If you’d like to color her image or print it out for inspiration, I just ask that you do to her blog,, to do so. Look for the “free adult coloring pages” link.


Thoughts on Education from To Kill a Mockingbird

Dear Reader,

One test of a good book is whether you can read it multiple times and get different things out of it. I am rereading To Kill a Mockingbird which I hadn’t looked at since I was in school. My perception going in was the stereotype —¬†“this book is about race.” I’m finding now that it is very little about race (at least half way in). But I am loving what it says about education.

The story is apparently set in the early days of John Dewey’s educational philosophy. The two main kid characters, Jem and Scout, are a bit confused and call it “the Dewey Decimal System.” Scout’s pretty young teacher Miss Caroline is an afficiando of this new, revolutionary way of teaching kids. This method involves a lot of flashcards but few books (though Miss Caroline does start the day by reading the first graders a storybook none of them like). It is also a professional way of teaching, meaning it should be left to professionals. Scout is reprimanded for having learned to read from her father who though he never went to school is a lawyer.

In the words of Scout —

“The remainder of my school days were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts ¬†to teach me Group Dynamics. What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school-wide by the end of¬†my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other teaching techniques. I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything – at least, what one didn’t know the other did . . . I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.” (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, pp. 32-33)

There is a great argument for homeschooling here, but the value of being at home is also in how we can teach. Let’s not just recreate what the schools do. I love the talk of Projects and Units. And I am so glad I have left these things behind. I also love the detail that between the two brothers they knew everything. It was not that one child necessarily got everything. They each got what they needed out of their education.


How Should Christians Decide Who to Vote for?

Dear Reader,

Have you had any political arguments this year? Have you had someone tell you you are not a true Christian because of who you may or may not vote for? I am not going to tell you if you should vote or for whom you should vote. What I want to talk about today is how we decide.

For too long Christians have been able to muddle along without too much thought on this issue. We have compromised our values. We have learned to separate a candidate’s personal life and character from his public office. We have voted on issues without carefully considering the people for whom we are voting. This election cycle it all seems to be coming to a head. Because we have not considered the principles behind how we vote, we find ourselves faced with choices that appall us and we, as a community, don’t know how to navigate these waters.

A lot of what I am going to say comes from a book I have been reading, Messiah the Prince: The Mediatorial Dominion of Jesus Christ by William Symington. This book was originally¬†published in 1879. There is a more¬†modern and easier to read follow-up, Messiah the Prince Revisited by J.K. Wall. I have both. Wall does a good job of boiling down what Symington has to say, but if you really want to understand the arguments I think you need to read Symington. If you find his language inaccessible, read Wall first but then go back to Symington for the fleshed-out version. Symginton’s books discusses Christ’s kingship over the church and over the nations and the relationship between them. For our purposes today, we are just interested in chapter 7, “The Mediatorial Dominion over the Nations.”

In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul tells us, “¬†And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17; ESV). We are not Christians only on Sundays. We are not Christians only at church. We are to act and speak¬†in a way that brings glory to God every day of the week; at home and at work; with family, and friends, and neighbors. If every part of our lives if subject to Christ, then when we enter the ballot box we must also consider what Christ would have us do. Honestly, I think most of us still get this. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t beat each other up for doing the “un-Christian” thing. Here is how Symington puts it:

“But the choice od representative, it should be borne in mind, is a civil right, the exercise of which involves, to a great extent, the welfare of the nation. It is not the individual himself alone that suffers from an improper use of this privilege, but the community at large. It is, consequently, of immense moment, that he exercise it, not from passion, fancy, or prejudice, but under the guidance of sound Christian principle . . . Never can the circumstance occur which will warrant him to say, Now I mat drop the Christian and act the civilian or the man. It is not in matters of an ecclesiastical nature merely that he is to act as a Christian. He must conduct himself as a Christian at all times . . .” (Messiah the Prince, pp. 167-68)

The Bible actually has quite a lot to say on what makes a good ruler. These instructions, both the explicit and the implicit, are for both the rulers and for their people. “God,” Symington says, “has given [the people] in his Word a supreme rule of direction, in which the character of civil rules is described, and only such as seem to them to be possessed of this character are they at liberty to appoint” (Messiah the Prince, p. 164). In other words, if God says “appoint wise rulers” (see, for instance, Exod. 18:21; Deut. 1:13),¬†we¬†are disobeying Him¬†when we¬†appoint unwise ones. ¬†Indeed to have a foolish ruler is a curse upon a nation (Eccl. 10:16).

What then are the qualifications for a ruler? Symington puts them in three categories: natural, moral, and religious (pp. 164-65). We seem to have jettisoned them in reverse order. First we said it doesn’t matter if a¬†candidate is Christian. Then we overlooked his personal moral failings, and perhaps even his public ones. Now¬†some even disregard natural qualifications (or the lack thereof).

Does a candidate need to be a Christian in order for us to vote for him? Symington would say yes, that is the first but not the only qualification. This election cycle has me wanting to agree with him. Perhaps it is an overreaction to want to push the line back that far. But my point here is that we have let the line slip. We have said that it doesn’t matter if a man cheats on his wife; that is personal and doesn’t affect his political role. Then what if he cheats on his personal income taxes? What if he¬†is deceitful in his public role? Even this we as a society seem ready to overlook.

King David was one of the best Israel ever had. He was a man after God’s own heart. But his personal sin (adultery with Bathsheba) became a professional sin (sending his own general, Uriah,¬†to his death) and ultimately led¬†to a plague upon his people.


The Purpose of Education, and Life

Dear Reader,

My local Charlotte Mason group is discussing “Education is the Science of Relations” this week. As I prepare for that (I’m leading this time), I am struck once again but just how biblical Charlotte’s philosophy was. There are points at which I know she and I would disagree theologically,¬†but again and again I find that her view of children and of education dovetails perfectly with what I find in the Scriptures.

I also love that ideas matter so much to her. Education is not just something we do to fill kids’ time. For Charlotte, education is life. And the purpose of education is really the purpose of life. What is that purpose?

“I have set before the reader the proposition that a human being comes into the world, not to develop his faculties nor to acquire knowledge, nor even to earn his living, but to establish certain relations . . . ” (School Education, p. 69)

The first and foremost of the relations we are to establish is with our Creator. In other words, we are put here in order to get to know God, to form a relationship with Him. This is our primary call, but subsidiary to it are two other categories of relationships: relations with creation, that which God has made, and with people, our fellow creatures whom we are called to love and serve. This is the purpose of life so it is also the purpose of education.

There are three categories then in the curriculum Charlotte proposes: elemental relations, by which she means relations with the physical world; human relations, all things which help us know ourselves and our fellow man better; and relations to God. All areas of study should fit into one of these of else who should question why we are studying them. This program leads to a very broad education, but I don’t want to take time now to discuss what each area is. Chapter 8 of School Education is where you will find Charlotte’s lists of subjects.

Too many “Christian” curricula are still concerned with very worldly goals. We speak of¬†virtue and service and our Christian nation (it’s not, but that’s another post), of being a good steward and supporting one’s family, but we miss the true goal. These are all good things of course, but anything that causes us to shift focus ultimately takes us off course. Here’s what Charlotte says:

” . . . when our ideal for ourselves and for out children becomes limited to prosperity and comfort, we get these, very likely, for ourselves and for them, but we get no more.” (p. 65)

What should our goal be? Only this: To know God. And education should serve this goal:

“When we consider that the setting up of relations, moral and intellectual, is our chief concern in life, and that the function of education is to put the child in the way of the relations proper to him . . . ” (p. 62)

Education is not apart from life. It does not even prepare us for life as if the work we have to do comes later and childhood is only an introductory period. Education is life because, on the one hand, God is already working in our children from birth and before and they are called to follow Him as much as we are and, on the other, the process does not stop when we graduate or reach a certain age.


On Voting for Stupid People

Dear Reader,

I’ve been on vacation and haven’t had time to write a lot so I thought I’d just share a quote from one of the books I’ve been reading. Draw your own conclusions.

“Both the Bible and common sense discourage us from choosing people who are not smart to rule over us.” (J.K. Wall Messiah the Prince Revisited, p. 121)



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