[This is part of my series on different homeschooling styles. Read about unit studies and unschooling. Still to come are classical education, Thomas Jefferson education, Montessori, Waldorf, and perhaps more.]
It occurred to me that in my series on different homeschool styles, I hadn’t scheduled in a post specifically on the Charlotte Mason method. This is the approach I take and I cannot help myself from comparing all the others to it, but I should answer my questions about it too.
The four questions I am trying to answer for each are:
1. What do they assume about how learning works?
2. How do they view children?
3. How do they view human nature?
4. What do they believe is the goal of education?
Charlotte Mason’s approach is very definitely a philosophy so it has a lot to say in terms of the how and why of learning (in some other approaches one has to read between the lines to discern these). Two of Miss Mason’s most famous quotes are:
“Education is the science of relations.”
“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”
And beyond these there are Charlotte’s 20 principles to help elucidate her position.
Principle number 13 expands upon the first quote:
“‘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.'”
And put in more modern language by Ambleside Online:
“‘Education is the science of relations’ means that children have minds capable of making their own connections with knowledge and experiences, so we make sure the child learns about nature, science and art, knows how to make things, reads many living books and that they are physically fit.”
There are two key points in here: first, that children are educated when they form relationships with the materials before them, and second, that teachers and parents do not so much teach as help children form these relationships. It is ultimately something they must do for themselves. Good books and pictures and music are put before the child but it is up to them to interact with and absorb this material, to make it part of their being. And this is why narration is such a big part of Charlotte’s approach. Narration is the tool whereby one processes and integrates the material for oneself.
In principle five, we find,
“Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments–the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.”
This is further elaborated in principles 6 through 8. “Education is an atmosphere” means that children should interact with real things, real books for instance and not summaries dumbed down to their level.
“Education is a discipline” alludes to the use of habit training. Miss Mason alleges that we all have habits, paths our minds and actions tend to run in. If we do not deliberately cultivate good habits, we will fall into bad ones by default.
“Education is a life” means that ideas are the central food of the mind and spirit. Education is not a separate part of life but is always being done. The mind needs to eat just as the body does and what it feeds on is living ideas, not dry facts.
And what I think is really one of the key concepts for me in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is found in principle number twenty. It is that there is no real distinction between the intellectual and the spiritual. It is God’s Holy Spirit that works in the mind and teaches us all things. He is the Giver of all wisdom though we may call the subjects secular. Principle 20 reads:
“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.”
To sum up, I would say that in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy education is the mind feeding upon the ideas found in quality materials. This ingestion is just as necessary to the mind as food is to the body. The result of our consumption of such nourishment is that we form relationships with the things we study.
This then gets us to the fourth question above, the goal of education. Here Charlotte is quite clear:
“Our aim in education is to give children vital interests in as many directions as possible –to set their feet in a large room.” [School Education, p. 166]
It is the number of relationships a child forms that matters in this approach. What these relationships are will vary from individual to individual. There is no set core curriculum which one is expected to learn. Rather it is a very individualistic approach because it depends not upon the teacher, whose job is to lay out good materials and then to get out of the way, but upon the student. Elsewhere she says that what matters in the end is not how much one knows but how much they care.
Which brings us to Charlotte Mason’s view of the child. Her first principle is “Children are born persons.” I have discussed this previously in my post on the biblical nature of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. To me this principle gets to the fact that we are all made in the image of God and that even the tiniest baby has his or her own standing before the Creator. We are complete people; all our faculties are there from birth and do not need to be developed. So it is that Charlotte can say that even the youngest children do their own learning. They have capable minds which can form relationships with what is set before them.
I have also written on the second principle: “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” This is one I have struggled with. But in the end, I think I take it not so much as a theological statement about our innate goodness or badness, but as an expression of confidence in every child’s ability to learn, no matter how humble their circumstances.
So how does Charlotte Mason view children? As inherently valuable and innately able to learn.
And what does this say for her view of human nature as a whole? I think it is clear that Charlotte values individuals. She places a high price on the uniqueness of each of us. She does not ignore the sinfulness which is in us; this is addressed largely in her sections on habit training. But overall, her view is a very positive one which expects much from each person and respects each one’s distinct personality.