CM on the Goodness (and Badness) of Children

Dear Reader,

I am (re)working my way through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles with the aid of this study guide from Brandy at Afterthoughts Blog. I shared some new thoughts I had had on the first principle, “Children are born persons,” here. Now it is time for that tricky second principle: “Children are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.”

As many have said before, this principle is often a stumbling block because we tend to immediately think of it in theological terms – that Charlotte is saying that children are able to choose between moral good and bad and that therefore they could choose not to sin. The usual response to this is that Charlotte is not talking in theological terms. Ambleside Online says that:

“Principle 2 should not be understood as a theological position on the doctrine of original sin, but as a belief that even poor children who were previously thought incapabale of living honest lives could choose right from wrong.”

AO goes on to pint out that Miss Mason was a member of the Anglican Church which holds to the doctrine of original sin.

Karen Glass also addresses this issue in her article “Why Did She Have to Say That.” She says that to properly understand this statement we must understand its opposite, the idea which Charlotte is here rejecting, namely that children are born with a propensity for either good or evil. This was the idea in Charlotte’s day, that some children were born good but others evil and that these latter had no hope of improvement, intellectually or morally.

Now I think both these interpretations of Charlotte’s position are true to an extent, but I wonder if we absolve her too easily. There seems to have been an assumed equation in Charlotte’s day which she is rejecting. It is a three part equation that says poor=stupid=sinful (and, conversely, rich=intelligent=good). That is, children who were born into poverty were assumed to be uneducatable and incorrigible, meaning literally “untrainable” or unable to be disciplined in a moral sense. Thus many assumed that the children of, for instance, a miner were both unable to be educated and were apt to be morally depraved. Illegitimate children, of which rumor has it Charlotte herself may have been one, were also deemed uneducatable. It is worth noting that if the rumors are true, Charlotte herself had a horse in this race. As much as I love her ideas, we must acknowledge that she may not have approached this issue completely dispassionately. While illegitimacy no doubt often corresponded to poverty as well, we see here the connection between moral degradation and intellectual inferiority.

What I’d like to suggest is that while Charlotte breaks with her time in taking a strong position that all children were educatable, she does not sever the connections completely. In essence she breaks the first half of the equation and says that poor does not mean stupid nor does it mean immoral. But she does not break the tie between education and morality.

I have before my Charlotte’s sixth volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education. It is actually my least favorite; I think something has changed for Charlotte by the time she wrote it. Truth be known, something has changed for the whole world. And that thing is WWI. The Great War, as they called it, really rattled European society. Charlotte’s educational philosophy predates the war but in this sixth volume, we see that she has a new fervor for promoting her ideas which I think the war has engendered. It caused people to see the evil in society and in themselves; they were horrified at the scale of the bloodshed and sought desperately for ways to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again (oh, how little did they know what was coming!). For many, Charlotte among them, education was the answer.

We are all quick to say, when we read this 2nd principle, “Oh, she didn’t mean it theologically,” but the truth is Charlotte herself never makes this distinction; she never says “I don’t mean this theologically.” She never says “But of course I believe in original sin” or “I am not here talking about moral goodness and badness.” Why not? My proposal is that she does not say such things, does not even address the issue and waylay our qualms, because she sees no real distinction. She is still a victim of her times to some extent and to her educational or intellectual goodness still equals moral goodness. Which is to say if a child can choose the good intellectually, then they can recognize and choose the moral good as well. The Bible talks of children being of an age to choose the good and reject the bad. Depending on the conetxt, this can mean various things. I always think of very little ones who will stick everything in their mouths; they are not able to discern what is good to eat and what isn’t. As they grow they learn discernment. So too we hope that chidlren will learn that Dickens is more nourishing than Captain Underpants. This is an intellectual discernment that sees the goodness, the truth, the beauty in one piece of work and the lack therof in another. It is much like how our consciences work – we are to discern what is morally good and true from that which is not. But we modern folks see these as distinct things – one can love Shakespeare but still be a pretty morally depraved person. I’m not sure Charlotte saw that line as we do. So when she, like her contemporaries, saw the depravity fo the human soul on display in the Great War, she turned to education as the answer. If we can feed the next generation on goodness, intellecutal goodness, then we will also bolster moral goodness was the idea.

The section I am reading in that sixth volume begins thus:

“A well-known educationalist has brought heavy charges against us all on the score that we bring up children as ‘children of wrath.’ He probably exaggerates the effect of any such teaching, and the ‘little angel’ theory is fully as mischevious.” ( Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 42)

How can we read this and not think that Charlotte is talking about moral goodness or badness? She goes on to say:

“The fact seems to be that children are like ourselves, not because they have become so, but because they are born so; that is, with tendencies, dispositions, towards good and towards evil, and also with intuitive knowledge as to which is good and which is evil. There are good and evil tendencies in body and mind, heart and soul; and the hope set before us is that we can foster the good so as to attenutate the evil; that is, on condition that we put Educaton in her true place as the handmaid of Religion.” (p. 42; emphasis mine)

Charlotte here equates various kinds of goodness including goodness of the mind and the soul. Furthermore she says that education must serve religion. She assumes that it can serve religion.

Nor was she alone in this belief. In an earlier post on Puritan education I included this quote from Richard Baxter:

“‘Education is God’s ordinary way for the conveyance of his grace and ought no more to be set in opposition to the Spirit than the preaching of the Word.’” (Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints, p.159)

And to quote myself:

The goal of education, for the Puritans, was also a religious one. Ryken says, “Their primary goal was Christian nurture and growth” (p. 161). Indeed, they saw an educated, Bible-reading populace as a foil to Satan himself. (from “Charlotte Mason and the Puritans on Education”)

We have moved away from this idea and I am not sure that is to our benefit. On one hand, I have known quite a lot of very educated people in my day. I am related to a fair number of them. And I can tell you without hesitation that book-learning does not equate to faith or moral goodness (you wouldn’t believe the wife-stealing and such that go on in a university math department). But ignorance doesn’t translate into goodness either, despite what some segments of American society seem to believe.

Remember the terminology Charlotte used? She said education was the handmaid of religion. That seems a good way to think of it. Education saves no one. It will not produce faith where there is none. But at the same time education can serve faith; it can promote spiritual growth.

Our culture tells us that there are no absolutes when it comes to truth, beauty, and goodness. The Bible has a different view. How can we be commanded to consider “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” (Phil. 4:8; NIV)
if these things do not exist? In a Charlotte Mason education, the main role of the teacher is to select materials to put before the student. We do this because we do believe that Shakespeare has more value than Captain Underpants. If you don’t believe some things — whether they be books, music or art — are more valuable than others then this approach is probably not the one for you.

There are two ways I see in which such an education can serve religion. The first is that when we learn to discern one kind of beauty and goodness, we are more apt to recognize another. There is a resonance, if you will, between intellectual goodness and moral goodness. The second is that there is often real moral value in the subject matter. A Charlotte Mason education is all about ideas. When we study Shakespeare’s Macbeth (as we are doing in my homeschool this year), it may be hard to perceive that there is much goodness on display. But there is a lot of truth. We see human nature and we see the powerful effects of sin and guilt. My 15-year-old made the observation that while Macbeth chose to act on the prophecy that he would be king, King David in the Bible did just the opposite. How can we make this connection and see the results in each man’s life and not draw some moral conclusions?

So what can we say about Charlotte’s 2nd principle? I do think she is talking about moral goodness in the sense that she does not distinguish between intellectual and moral goodness. It does not even occur to her to make the distinction. In this I think she goes to far — I don’t think education can save anyone or can change the character of a populace in the way she envisions. But while I am still a good Calvinist and believe wholeheartedly in total depravity and our inability to choose the good without the aid of divine grace, I do think Charlotte has a point — we go to the opposite extreme and segregate our intellectual life from our spiritual life. We need to rediscover that there are absolute standards of beauty and truth and we as believers need to educate ourselves and our children as a means of building up our faith.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Karen on December 1, 2015 at 7:52 am

    I enjoyed reading this, Nebby! I have often wondered about CM’s “position” on inbred sin and her words about children. I’ll be mulling this over. ☺


  2. […] through it. (We can see this even in the writings of my beloved Charlotte Mason; I touched on that here.) The main character in this book, Conway, is a veteran of the War to End All Wars and has been […]


  3. […] And “Fact Check: Did Charlotte Mason Reject Original Sin?” by Art Middlekauff seeks to defend CM against some of her critics. (You can read my own thoughts on Charlotte’s controversial second principle here.) […]


  4. […] we end up coming up with explanations of why she didn’t really mean what she seems to say. I have my own ideas about what Charlotte meant which are a little unorthodox. But my goal today is to see how Charlotte herself explained her ideas and to see how they line up […]


  5. […] “CM on the Goodness (and Badness) of Children” […]


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