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 day😉
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.