Charlotte Mason lived in an exciting time. There was a lot of progress being made in the scientific realm and also in the area of biblical scholarship. I use the word “progress” somewhat loosely, because in both of these areas there can be much debate as to whether the advancements were indeed advances or merely misguided notions.
In the scientific realm, evolution was the exciting new idea of the day. When Charlotte was writing her six volume series on home education, Darwin’s Origin of the Species had been out less than 50 years.
Perhaps less familiar to many of you are the changes that were being made in biblical scholarship. The 1800s saw much work in the archaeology of the Ancient Near East (today’s Middle East). Often these discoveries related to cultures that neighbored ancient Israel. They give us more perspective on the habits and customs of the day as well as further historical evidence about events the Old Testament mentions.
Looking at the biblical text itself, the end of the 1800s saw the full development of the documentary hypothesis, the idea that the Pentateuch in particular was composed of four different sources known as J, E, P and D. This sort of critical analysis of the biblical text would have been at its height in Charlotte’s time.
And how did Miss Mason deal with all these changes in thought? Her attitude seems to have been one of cautious acceptance. She says in her second volume, Parents and Children:
“Children should be taught Bible history with every elucidation which modern research makes possible. But they should not be taught to think of the inscriptions on Assyrian monuments, for example, as proofs of the truth of the Bible records, but rather as illustrations of those records; though they are, and cannot but be, subsidiary proofs.” [p. 29]
In other words, make use of the scholarship, but do so with a grain of salt. Do not let your faith depend on scholarship which changes over time.
Similarly, in the realm of science, her approach seems to have been to accept current theories provisionally. She says that children should be taught that contemporary authorities are fallible [p.30]. Though she praises scientists as heroes to whom a child should look up, she also says that:
“Indeed, it would seem to be the part of wisdom to wait half a century before fitting the discovery of today into the general scheme of things.” [p.30]
For myself, I wonder if 50 years are enough to separate out the good ideas from the bad. But the point is well made, that one should accept new concepts as they appear (one thinks of the idea of global warming today) provisionally, always keeping in the back of one’s mind the notion that some such theories prove to be wrong or at least faulty over time.
But I think one of the biggest points we can take from Charlotte Mason’s writing on science and scholarship is that we need not be afraid of science and the like. In our times, we tend to see a divide between people of science and people of faith, but Charlotte did not see it this way. All wisdom, in her view, comes from God even if it comes through unbelieving people. We should approach it with skepticism, yes, but we should not be afraid of it.