CM on Stages in Education

Dear Reader,

One of the differences between a Charlotte Mason education and a classical education (as we term it today; Charlotte can be called classical depending on how one defines it), it the idea of stages which the child passes through as they grow or learn. Charlotte is big on the idea that even young children can handle and must be given real ideas and not just dry facts. In contrast, classical sees a three stage development in which the first stage, the grammar stage, is all about dry facts and getting the information in there before they can begin to process it in the logic stage and then argue about it in the rhetoric stage. Charlotte would say that it is useless to give facts without a context of ideas because the child makes no connection with them, forms no relationship she would say, and therefore does not make the knowledge really their own.

But Charlotte does at times imply that there are stages of development. I find one such passage in her fifth volume, Formation of Character. She begins by saying that there is some knowledge which all need:

“There is a certain knowledge, no doubt, which it is shameful not to possess, and, wanting which, the mind is as limp, feeble, and incapable as an ill-nourished body.” (p.241)

This sounds a lot like the core knowledge idea which we find in classical education, doesn’t it? This is the idea that there is some body of knowledge which all should obtain.

She goes on to say that there is a prime time in one’s life in which to sow the seeds of this knowledge:

“There is also a time for sowing the seed of this knowledge, an intellectual as well as a natural springtime; and it would be interesting to examine the question, how far it is possible to prosecute any branch of knowledge, the sowing and germination of which had not taken place in early youth.” (p.241)

This idea that children need to be exposed to different areas early on is one of the reasons that a Charlotte mason education is broad and includes things like the arts, because if they are not introduced in youth it can be hard to impossible to acquire a taste for them later.  While I am not sure that classical people make this same exact argument, I think they would agree with the statement that various topics must be introduced early on. One aspect of classical is that it cycles through material every four years so that each topic is visited three times and the base knowledge is built upon with each revisit.

Charlotte then continues:

“It follows that the first three lustres belong to what we call the synthetic stage of education, during which his reading should be wide and varied enough to allow the young scholar to get into living touch with earth-knowledge, history, literature and much besides. These things are necessary for his intellectual life, and are especially necessary to give him material for the second stage of education, the analytic, which, indeed, continues with us to the end. It is in this second stage that the value of the classical and mathematical grind comes in.” (p.241)

I will admit I do not understand all of this quote. I do not know what the “three lustres” are. Perhaps she is referring to the trivium, the first three stages of a classical education (i.e. the grammar, logic and rhetoric stages)? If so, she is really including all of what we usually speak of as a classical education since the later four stages do not usually come until one reaches the college level.

It is notable to me that Charlotte speaks of the student getting in “living touch” with these various areas of study. Knowing Charlotte as I do, I know that she is not referring to a mere knowledge of facts. To be in living touch with them means to have formed relationships with the material, to have interacted with ideas and to have made it one’s own. This is not how modern classical education treats the earliest or grammar stage which is more of a filling the child with facts the meaning of which he will discover later.

Charlotte then goes on to talk about what she calls the “analytic” stage which she says continues through the rest of life. We know that she cannot then just be speaking of the grammar and logic stages since logic would then be superseded by rhetoric. So again I think it is likely that her synthetic stage refers to the whole trivium and the analytic to the four-fold division which comes after is, the quadrivium.

Whether or not Charlotte would equate her analytic stage with the quadrivium, she says of this second stage of education three things:

1. It continues throughout life.

2. It stands upon the foundation of the earlier, synthetic stage.

3. It is when the “classical and mathematical grind” comes in.

I will return to the third point which I think merits some explanation. First, I would like to point out that the whole of one’s early education seems to be the required core for Charlotte. I do not belive she means to give a specific list as in “all children should know the dates 1066 and 1492 and their significance” but that she means that all this early learning , “earth-knowledge, history, literature and much besides”, is the necessary foundation to what comes later. So while it might be technically accurate to say Charlotte believed there was a core of knowledge that all children should have, I don’t believe she means this in the way the Core Knowledge crowd does. She would not say “they need to know the three kinds of rocks and how they are formed” but rather “they need to form relationships with rocks by handling them and reading living books about them.” Her core knowledge is not the sort one could make a check list of.

But to return to our quote, I noted in point three above that the analytic stage is when the classical and mathematical grind comes in. What on earth does this mean?? I am helped a little by the preceding paragraph in which Charlotte, when comparing two characters, Goethe and Arthur Pendennis (the first real, the second fictional and the main character in the novel The History of Pendennis which I am, incidentally, now reading), that Goethe’s genius “might well have been better for the common grind” while Pen’s education would have gone better if he has ever been subjected to “the habit of working under rule and towards an end.” I believe Charlotte is using these two phrases in parallel. Both characters, she is saying, lacked the same thing, rigorous study of topics one might perhaps not always be interested in.

I often think that in a Charlotte Mason education the child should always be at least somewhat interested. There should not be endless busy work. But what I am understanding from this whole section is that there is a time and place for the daily grind to come into education, that there is a time when one must plow away at the books in a way that may not be immediately enjoyable.  I will say, however, that she seems to be saying this time is at the university level; she is not speaking here of the child’s formative years in which the broad foundation is being laid. I think, rather, she is thinking of what comes after which may vary from person to person as they are called to different pursuits.

It is possible that I am misunderstanding this section entirely (feel free to speak up if you have other opinions!). But what I am getting is that Charlotte sees two large stages in education. One, which she calls synthetic  is the time for broad education. It would correspond to the trivium in classical education but I do not believe that she would further subdivide it as they do. The second, which would correspond to the quadrivium, is a time of more focused study and perhaps also of tedious work often which is necessary to gain the skills ans knowledge one pursues.

That’s my take. What do you think?


5 responses to this post.

  1. AO Advisory member Karen Glass explains the concept of “three lustres” in her Poetic Knowledge post here:

    Hope that helps! 🙂


  2. Okay, now my comments. (You will have to forgive me. I bookmarked your post and am only now coming back to it; I know this isn’t your most recent post!)

    I agree with you that she is implying two stages of education: a synthetic–or what I would call poetic, where the student is involved with wholes–and an analytic, where the student is taking the wholes apart. I would venture to say that the seven liberal arts are not in her mind when she is saying this, though. Miss Mason died before Dorothy Sayers gave her fundraising speech where she jokingly correlated the three arts of the Trivium with the development of children, and so she wouldn’t have been familiar with that concept.

    The Quadrivium was not reserved for college until more modern times. Music–or rather Harmony, as it is more aptly translated–was said to be for the very young, for Plato thought they could grow to understand Justice without experiencing it. Comenius believed that Astronomy was best introduced during his Mother School stage, meaning before age 6 or 7. And so on.

    In my opinion, Mason is admitting that there is a time to analyze, to take apart the whole, and that time is for the more mature child, or the child of about 15 years of age and up.

    I like your application here of the “daily grind” and the time coming for hard work in studies. I’m going to have to think about that more… 🙂


  3. Thanks for the comments and the link, Brandy. What you say makes a lot of sense. The choice of 15 as an age when one becomes more analytical is interesting to me. I know a lot of the 16+ yo homeschoolers around here start doing community college classes then and I have heard it said thta boys that age begin to have a hard time learning from their mothers. I am wondering if somewhere around 15 there is a shift and they need a more independent, mature way of learning.


    • I wonder what that looks like if are no good (or affordable) out-of-the-home options for a boy? Do you think there is a way to accommodate that need without an outside school? I’m curious because we aren’t that many years away from that age with our oldest and the junior college has gotten so filled up in the past few years that getting in can be difficult to impossible…


      • Hmmm . . .around here high school kids seem to take community college classes as high schoolers; they don’t need to apply and it doesn’t seem to be a question of them getting in. There are also lots of mroe formal coop options though I tend to be wary of such things. There are online options too or maybe just spending more time with older males, maybe engaging in things thye like to do, whether jobs or hobbies. It’s a good question.


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