I have been getting out of my little bubble recently and reading more from different sources and schools of thought about Charlotte Mason (CM) and her educational philosophy. As I have, I have come to the somewhat sad realization that there are differences and disputes in the CM world. (It is a bit like realizing that there are different Protestant denominations.)
My recent posts on the different CM curricula (here and here) are the fruit of this realization as I try to wrap my head around what the real distinctions are. In those posts, I tried to just present what each source had to say for itself, without my interpretation or commentary, and without judgment as to which is closest to Charlotte’s original ideas.
One phrase I have seen thrown around is “pure CM” or “purely CM.” Everyone I have read is very gracious but it is hard to hear one curricula or approach called “purely CM” without taking it as an implied judgment on others.
There have been two contributions recently to the debate on what it means to be “purely CM” (I have no idea if they planned this; it seems too coordinated to have been mere coincidence). Art Middlekauff has written an article at Charlotte Mason Poetry entitled “Towards an Authentic Interpretation” in which he discusses how we can determine if something is “pure CM.” And the ladies from A Delectable Education have a new podcast is which they discuss what it means to be “pure CM” and why it is important. Middlekauff looks mainly at the criteria we use — how do we know if a given practice is true to Charlotte’s intentions? The short answer to this, and I think it is a good one, is that if Charlotte did something or if her close (both in time and in relationship) followers did it, then it can merit the label “pure CM” (he uses the word “authentic”). If, however, we only find it mentioned in later sources, even PNEU sources, it does not get the coveted designation.
The ladies at ADE — Emily Kiser, Liz Cottrill, and Nicole Williams — seem to be responding in their podcast to a pejorative use of the term. Apparently they have been accused of being “CM purists,” that is, of being too harsh or strict in what they call CM. Their object is two-fold: to explain why it is important to try to adhere as closely as possible to CM’s methods and to draw a distinction between being “purely CM” and “perfectly CM.” With regard to the first, I will not rehash their arguments but I will say that, in my own homeschooling journey, I too have found that the more I make an effort to stick to Charlotte’s methods, the more I am rewarded with positive results. Having said that one should try to follow CM’s ideas as closely as possible, the folks at ADE make a point to say that, nonetheless, “pure CM” is a goal we aim for and which many, if not all, of us still struggle to achieve.
In large part, I like what both Middlekauff and ADE have to say. I do feel, though, this niggling sense that there is something below the surface which we are not addressing. So this post is my attempt to work out (through writing) what it means to be “pure CM” and why we should care, if indeed we should care at all.
To begin, I think we need to consider what sorts of things Charlotte Mason actually had to say and where she got her ides from. Charlotte’s philosophy of education is really more of a philosophy of life. It works on many levels; it is not just about education. In the practical details, Charlotte discusses everything from nutrition and exercise to the knowledge of God and man to interior decorating. The topics she covers are so all-encompassing because her thought is all-encompassing. What she gives us is not just a way to teach, or even an approach to child-rearing, but a theory about how we work and who we are. As she is a theist (and, of course, a Christian), one might even call it a theology.
Charlotte’s essential ideas — the basis on which her philosophy rests — come from two sources: special revelation and general revelation. In this she is very much in line with orthodox Christian thought.We know about God and His Creation from the specific things He has told us in His Word, the Bible, and from the information we can gather from His works, that is creation. She speaks of both “the three educational laws of the New Testament” (Home Education, p. 12) and of “a method of education based upon Natural Law” (p. 8), by which she means those which we discern from Nature itself. At times, Charlotte also says her ideas rest on scientific principles. By this we must understand science as that knowledge which we gain through an examination of Nature. It is often proven by testing, in Charlotte’s case by her experience as a teacher “in the field.” Such knowledge fits under the broader heading of “general revelation” though it may not be so easily acquired but requires some effort to obtain.
Perhaps because her wisdom comes from these two sources, the one directly revealed and the other discerned, we find that the sorts of things Charlotte has to tell us range from broad statements about God and man to practical details for daily teaching. On one hand, she tells us that “Children are born Persons” and that “The Holy Spirit is the Great Educator.” On the other, she tells us that early lessons must be no more than 10 minutes long, that spelling should be learned through dictation, or that lessons in grammar must not proceed proficiency in reading. As we begin to ask what it means to be purely CM and why it matters, we need to keep in mind that there are these very different kinds of statements that Charlotte makes.
The ADE podcast gives us two reasons why we should care about what is “purely CM.” On one level, it is a matter of terminology. There is a concern in the CM community at large, which the ADE talk makes clear, that the term “Charlotte Mason” be kept pure, that is, clearly defined. In modern terms, we might say we don’t want the Charlotte Mason brand to be diluted. If too many other things come to be attached to the name, then it eventually ceases to mean anything. I think we see this with “classical education.” It is used to mean so many things, that it soon means nothing. Because the Charlotte Mason method originates with one person, we have a certain leg up in this area. We can go back to the original person, or her writings at least, and say what is and isn’t “CM.” This is where Art Middlekauff’s article, mentioned above, comes in useful; it gives us guidelines for determining what is “authentic” CM and what is not.
The second reason ADE gives us for speaking of “pure CM” has to do with the nature of her approach. They say it much better than I can (and you should listen to the podcast linked above to hear them do so), but, simply put, the CM method is a unified whole. More perhaps than other approaches to education, it is designed in such a way that its parts all work together. When we tamper too much with it, we lose its benefits. This is good as far as it goes and I don’t think it is too controversial, at least within CM circles.
Thus far we have been on a fairly practical level, discussing how we implement the Cm method, but we have not discussed an even more basic question: Why we would even want to listen to a hundred-year-old educator from Britain? Middlekauff in his article provides an answer:
“Mason claimed that she developed a theory of education that conforms to divine law, that is, the way things are. And unlike the theories of man, divine law never changes. To the extent to which Mason succeeded in her aim, her method is as relevant today as it was a century ago. And if we wish to benefit from the results of her method, we must seek to understand and apply it authentically.
… The quest for an authentic interpretation begins with the recognition that in Mason’s twenty principles, she has summarized a method of education that conforms with divine law.” (“Towards an Authentic Interpretation,” from Charlotte Mason Poetry)
Middlekauff here goes well beyond what we have said; it is not just about keeping clear terminology or adhering to a unified method. It is vital to keep Mason’s theories pure, he says, because they are true. They are “the way things are” and are in accordance with unchangeable divine law.
The clause “to the extent to which Mason succeeded in her aim” is key. Mason claims, as I discussed above, to get her ideas from divine revelation which, as Middlekauff says, is immutable. If she has succeeded, then what we have are not just the theories of one woman but divine principles.
I am teetering here on the edge of some really big questions that can not easily be answered in one post. Simply put, we may ask: Has Mason succeeded in her aim? Are her ideas an accurate reflection of divine law? To truly answer this question we would need to break it down. Mason looked at both special and general revelation. She dealt with both big, broad principles about human nature and particular theories about how education happens. The former may be tested against God’s special revelation, that is Scripture. We may ask, for instance, if God’s Word tells us that children are indeed “born persons” and if the Holy Spirit is the source of wisdom (to both of these I would answer yes, and I have discussed in the past why I do think CM’s approach is biblical). But we should not expect Scripture to tell us much about the practical details. These things Charlotte derived not from special but from general revelation. They are the fruit of her experience and knowledge.
When it comes to evaluating Charlotte’s work and theories, then, we must distinguish between those propositions which we may hold up to the light of Scripture and those upon which the Bible offers us no particular insight. These latter we may still test but through more mundane means. It may be that more recent scholarship confirms or denies Charlotte’s methods (and I think it often does, in trying to build something new, come back to the principles Charlotte espoused 100 years ago; see this post). In practice, I think we homeschooling parents turn not to the educational research of our day but to our own experience: Do Charlotte’s ideas resonate with us? Do they seem to reflect our own instincts and experiences? Do her methods work for us? Do our children thrive with them?
There is a bit of a chicken and egg problem here. We may come into this endeavor with certain notions of what will work, but at some point we must trust Charlotte enough to apply her methods in order to see that they do indeed bear fruit. But to even begin to trust her with something as vital as our children’s education, we must first have some sense that this is the right path and that there is at least some measure of truth to what she says. This is perhaps why so many of us come to CM’s ideas bit by bit. We try a little, we find it works well for us, so we try a bit more, adding on piece by piece until we decide to commit fully to her philosophy.
What then does it matter what is “pure CM”? Middlekauff’s answer is simple even as it opens a giant can of worms: It matters because she is right. If Charlotte’s ideas do indeed reflect unchangeable divine law, then we should not expect substantial changes or improvements and we should care very much what is “pure CM.”
I’d like to end for now with a different question than that which we started with. I began by asking: What does it means to be “pure CM”? Middlekauff has given us very good criteria with which to answer this question but it leads to another: Why should we care what is authentic? To that ADE gives two good answers. But Middlekauff again alludes to something even bigger: Was Charlotte Mason right? Can she lay any claim to having put before us the immutable divine law as regards education? I am not prepared to fully answer that question in this post. Personally, Charlotte’s ideas resonate with me as reflecting both the broader ideas I see in Scripture and my own observations of how learning works. I don’t intend to spend much time defending the practical details – the use of living books, how we learn spelling, and such. I would like, for my own benefit, to spend more time looking at all the Scriptures have to say about the big ideas – the nature of children, the role of the Holy Spirit in education, and even, where applicable, how learning works. You can be sure I will blog about anything I find 😉