At one point I was going through all of Charlotte Mason’s original six-volume series on education and posting the things that struck me. That worked out well last year when the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival was going through the sixth volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education, and I was also at that point in my reading (As a side note, I never posted on the fourth volume, Ourselves, which is very different from all the others; I would like to get back to it someday). It really kept me on track. But now I have just a little bit of that sixth volume to finish going through and I am on my own so I have been slacking off. I plan to start remedying that with this post, however.
I picked up my reading about halfway through Towards a Philosophy of Education with the section titled “A Liberal Education in Elementary Schools.” There is a lot of this that I think went over my head. My feeling about this last book as a whole is that Miss Mason is trying to pull everything together and also reacting to the aftermath of WWI and some crises in the educational system of her day. There are references I am not familiar with and just in general a lot of things going on in her head which I don’t feel that I have a good grasp on. Another side note — I often hear people recommend that newbies start with either the first or sixth volumes, but I would recommend against starting with this one. If you are not already familiar with her ideas and used to reading her 19th (or in this case early 20th century) prose, it can be quite daunting.
I think there are ideas here I would like to come back to, especially ones about how we teach values which is also a hot topic on our own day. But I wanted to start my return to Miss Mason’s work with some simpler ideas.
There are two sentences about the materials we select for our children that I underlined as I read through this chapter. The first says:
“By the way, there is no selection of subjects, passages, or episodes on the ground of interest.” (p. 193)
In the spectrum of homeschooling styles, Charlotte Mason’s approach is often characterized as being nearer the child-led end of the spectrum. I suspect I have made such statements myself. But this is not strictly true. CM learning is not teacher directed. Charlotte is very firm that the student must do their own learning and that the teacher’s main job is to spread a feast of good materials. But the CM-style is also not interest-driven. Charlotte advocates for a broad education. This will not doubt include some of the child’s particular interests, but it is not driven by them. In other places she also argue against pursing one’s personal passion to the exclusion of other areas lest one become “eccentric.” It should be noted at the same time, however, that a CM education is to keep the child’s attention. It is not made of boring, dry books. So even if a particular subject is not the child’s passion, it should keep their attention. In other words, we do not pick what to study because the child is interested in it, but we pick materials that are living so that the child will be interested in them.
That brings me to the second sentence I underlined:
“Children cannot answer questions set on the wrong book . . . ” (p. 195)
I have seen this myself with my kids. There are some books they just can’t seem to narrate and others they narrate easily. Now there may be limits to this, especially with a child who has come out of some other method of education and has not has much experience with narration or has been programmed to think all education is boring, but in general I think if a child cannot narrate a book or does not seem to know anything that happened in it, it is probably not the right book for them. And it may be that a given book is a good, living book but just does not capture the interest of that child. The category of living books can be a fuzzy one and what appeals to me may not to you.
To sum up, I guess we can say that in a Charlotte Mason education the teacher has the task of picking books that will appeal to the child on a broad range of topics, but that they do not cater to the child’s interests. Personally, I have altered what we have studied based on my child’s interests, as I am sure many of us have, but just as we do not do unit studies which try so very hard to make everything relate and be interesting and engaging, so we do not focus primarily on engaging or entertaining the child. We pick quality materials that are inherently engaging and a significant burden is left on the child to pay attention and learn by their own power.