Charlotte Mason and Homeschooling:

Dear Reader,

I got in trouble in an online forum recently for saying that Charlotte Mason “was not particularly in favor of home learning though the PNEU did have a correspondence course for those who needed to do so where they would send parents the materials” (my exact words). The other side maintains that “CM was most definitely a proponent of home education–for whichever families were able to do that” and that “all of her recommendations for curriculum and school are assuming a homeschool environment first.” She does say that this was not an issue as such at the time and with that I definitely agree. I told her I would think about the rest of it and so I have been.

To a certain extent, I think this is an example of just what CM talks about — we get an idea and then we find evidence to support it. I had in my head an idea and so when I read CM’s works, I tended to see that idea reflected.  This idea came from something I now only vaguely recall reading. I have some recollection of having read in the murky past that she first developed a program for schools and then added the correspondence course for those, like missionaries, who could not put their kids in regular schools for one reason or another. I was confirmed in this idea, as I first read through her volumes, by some passages from volume 5 in which Charlotte seems to prefer a school environment. I remember vividly reading such passages for the first time because I did not like them or the implication that Charlotte was not pro-homeschooling. Nonetheless, the idea that she favored  a school environment stuck with me.

So which is it — was Charlotte Mason in favor of schooling at home or did she tend to a more traditional school set-up? (Charlotte would not have use the word “homeschooling” but does use terms like “home education” and “school education.”)  This post is not going to answer the question but only to begin the process by asking how we should look at it and what questions we should ask.

The situation in Charlotte’s day was not the same as in ours and we can’t expect her to have our concerns or to use the language we do. We often come to homeschooling with something of a chip on our shoulders because we are making a counter-cultural choice (albeit less and less so every year). If we do choose a brick-and-mortar school for our children, we do not have many choices. Yes, there are public and private and religious schools as well as charters of various stripes, but for the most part they all follow the same basic trends — classes segregated by age, textbooks, tests, etc. You might have a Montessori or Waldorf school in your area, especially for the younger grades; you are less likely to have a Charlotte Mason method school available to you.

In Charlotte Mason’s day the situation was surprisingly similar, but not precisely so. Schooling was compulsory by her day though poorly enforced (see “The 1870 Education Act“). Most children who were educated would have attended traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Christina de Bellaigue has written a wonderful little article on educational choices in Charlotte’s day. She sees a mish-mash of educational options with parents cobbling together the best program they can from available resources:

“Rather than seeking to set up dichotomies between home and school and between formal and informal education, it is more fruitful to think in terms of the individuals experiencing a range of educational environments and influences along a spectrum of formal to informal.” (Christina  de Bellaigue, “Home Education in Historical Perspective” from The Oxford Historian, electronic edition volume 1, p. 22)

Educating children at home, which would have been the only option available to many, had declined for a time, but by Charlotte’s day was again on the rise as parents balked against the educational institutions of their day and sought to be more involved in their children’s education:

” Even in the 1880s and 1890s, however, as my work on Charlotte Mason demonstrates, significant numbers of elite parents were drawing on eighteenth-century models to educate their children at home, choosing something other than the dominant public-school model.” (de Bellaigue, p. 21)

In my own experience — and this is bolstered by much anecdotal evidence from other homeschoolers — there is more of a dichotomy today. Though homeschoolers may, as in Charlotte’s day, cobble together variety of resources, homeschooling itself is seen as a rejection of the traditional school system, both by its proponents and often by the homeschoolers themselves. This view, I think, arises from a disconnect between home and school and between the role of parent and that of teacher in our own day. As the position of teacher has become more institutionalized, with specialized training and professional certifications, the idea that education happens in the home as well has retreated. When Charlotte addressed parents, she spoke not just of academics but of habit-training, hygiene, and moral training. Education was see as more comprehensive which also allowed more of a place for parents:

“Exploring the history of domestic learning also emphasizes the narrowness of twenty-first century conceptions of education. As Crone comments, the domestic curriculum could be usefully defined to include ‘learning to crawl or speak, developing an awareness and later knowledge of identity and community, and cultivating and expanding the imaginative faculties’. Similarly, home education might be defined to include occupational training. Charlotte Mason’s conception of the educational work done by parents was also broad, incorporating the training of habit and character, nutritional choices, physical education, as well as activities more conventionally defined as educational.” (de Bellaigue, p. 22)

The first conclusion we can draw, then, is that Charlotte would not have said: “School education is better than and should replace home education when possible.” She would not have seen  these as either/or choices as we tend to. School education in her mind could never do more than complement home education. Because her view of education was more comprehensive and because using a hodge-podge of resources was not abnormal, she never would have said that education should be wholly outsourced to the schools; there would always be a home component.

Rather than asking “home education or school education” then, we should ask: Assuming the availability of good schools, is it better to educate exclusively at home or to make use of the schools? Of course, many would not have had access to “good” schools, but we can imagine a situation in which a parent lives near a school using Charlotte’s own methods; should that parent make use of the schools or is home education still preferable? We can ask some related questions as well: Are there subjects or areas which are better covered in a school setting? Are there benefits to school education which cannot be duplicated at home?

These are harder questions to answer — for any of us. There are homeschoolers today who think that homeschooling is the only way to go, there are others who only choose it as their last resort, and, of course, there are a wide variety of opinions in the middle. Most of us, I hope, can see that there are pros and cons on both sides. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages.   In an ideal world, perhaps, we would have the flexibility to pick the best of each.

Acknowledging these difficulties, I’d like to ask just this question: For the child of 7 or 8 and up (that is, definitely of school age) and looking at academic subjects (math, history, language, science, the arts) would Charlotte say these things are better learned in a home or a school environment? I define the question this way because formal education would not have started until age 7 or 8 and because Charlotte, and many others in her day,  would  have always acknowledged some role for the parent, at least in less academic subjects such as moral education.

I don’t think Charlotte herself is going to give a clear answer to this question. It is possible somewhere in her history someone came to her and said, “One of your schools is right down the street from me, but I really like teaching my own kids at home. What should I do?” But, to the best of my knowledge, we don’t have her answer to such a direct question. All we can do is look at what she has to say about the pros and cons of each situation.

I am not going to take the time to answer this question right now, mainly because it would make for a very long post, but were I to do so (and I may in a future post) my main recourse would be to the second, third, fifth and sixth volumes of Charlotte’s Original Home Education Series. The first volume, Home Education, starts with a wonderful tribute to the power and influence of the  parent but it is focused on children up through age 6 which is before our purview. The fourth volume, Ourselves, is about personal character and does not address education as such at all.



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