Why Not Charlotte Mason?

Dear Reader,

Thus far we have talked about why we need a reformed Christian philosophy of education, why we need a theology of education, how we should decide on such a theology, and what we can learn from public education in the United States today.

This week and next I’d like to look at two popular approaches to education — the Charlotte Mason method and Christian classical education. [Some would argue that Charlotte Mason is a subset of classical; I am not going to get into that debate as it really doesn’t affect what I am discussing.]

Around the time my oldest (who is now a high school senior) was in third grade, I began to explore the Charlotte Mason approach to education. A lot of what I read initially rang true with me and I began more and more to incorporate that philosophy in our homeschool. More recently, however, as I read even more I have found that I cannot wholeheartedly subscribe to Miss Mason’s approach as there are parts of it which just not in line with my (reformed) theology.

I have written a lot about this, a whole series at the end of last year in fact; I will  not rehash it all today. If you want to get up to speed, the key posts are here and here.

First, the positive — what is there in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education that appeals to the reformed Christian? Charlotte’s approach has been summed up in 20 principles. The first and last of these (in my opinion) serve as a kind of bookends to her method. They are:

“1. Children are born persons.

20. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.”

Simply put, Charlotte recognizes the personhood of the child (see this post for more on what that means) and the role of the Holy Spirit in education (see this one).  These are the ideas which first attracted me to Charlotte’s thought.

Charlotte bases her philosophy on what she calls the divine law — which boils down to special revelation (i.e. the Bible) and general revelation (God’s revelation through creation including what we know through science). In particular she points to what she calls the gospel principles of education. I count this as a positive in that, in contrast to many other approaches to education available to us today, she has a definitively Christian, biblical foundation.

On the negative side, I am not enamored by her interpretation of those passages. I find it plausible but not convincing as I discussed here.

The big negative, however, and the thing that has caused me to abandon Charlotte as my main role model in education and to begin this series, is her second principle which reads:

“2. They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.”

I diverge from most of those who write about Charlotte’s ideas in my understanding of this principle. I maintain that she pretty much meant what it sounds like she meant — children have the possibilities for good and evil in them from birth. This is not just a statement about education but about their spiritual state as well. You can see why I believe that in this post.

This conclusion was disturbing enough but more recently, I ran across a quote in her second volume, Parents and Children, which goes even further. There she says:

“But we live in a redeemed world, and one of the meanings which that unfathomable phrase bears is, that it is the duty of those who have the care of childhood to eradicate each vulgar and hateful trait, to plant and foster the fruits of that kingdom in the children who have been delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace; that is to say, all children born into this redeemed world.” (Parents and Children, p. 65; emphasis added)

This seems to say that all children are born into a state of grace. As I contemplated this idea, I realized that it is pretty foundational to her thinking. She assumes that the child can not just learn but can, when presented with the good, choose it. If you want to read more on all that see (again) this post or this one.

The problem for me as a reformed Christian is– if Charlotte in her method assumes that the child is capable of good, even bases her approach on that assumption, and I do not believe this, how can I apply her philosophy? [I do actually have a partial answer to that question –I consider my children covenant children and as such can expect them to be able to choose the good. The problem is that if I were educating other children I might not be able to assume this. I want a philosophy that I can apply to all children.]

My goal is to begin to develop a philosophy which is biblical from the ground up rather than to take an already existing approach and tweak it. Nonetheless, I think we can learn some things from Charlotte’s approach:

  1. I want a philosophy which acknowledges the personhood of the child.
  2. I want to be able to say something about the role of God the Holy Spirit in education.
  3. I want a philosophy that is built from the divine law, as Charlotte is, but with a better understanding of/treatment of Scripture.
  4. I want a philosophy that acknowledges man’s fallen state.
  5. I haven’t covered this yet but Charlotte’s approach is profoundly practical. It tells me as a parent  how to educate. This is not something I have gotten from most articles on reformed education but it is something that we homeschooling parents ultimately need. I don’t expect to get there soon but we need more than exalted theories; we need boots on the ground how do I get my child to read, add, learn history, etc.

Next time: Why not Christian classical?





21 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by mks on February 11, 2018 at 9:22 am

    I’m hoping to take some time in the next couple of weeks to read through these latest posts and your CM posts. This new series you’re tackling is fascinating and needed. I began to understand CM for the first time about a year ago, and was initially super all-in for the CM route. I have been (re)reading her volumes ever since, and, like you described, the more I read, the more I find statements that cause pause and even deep concern about her view of the nature of people. The section you quoted above from volume two has also troubled me, and most recently, this, from the preface to volume five: “for normal children are persons of good will, with honest desires toward right thinking and right living.” I look forward to reading more of your articles as they are echoing my own thoughts, but also fleshing them out much more. Thank you for sharing your research and thoughts.


    • Thank you for taking the time to comment. I feel to some extent I am betraying the CM community but I am glad I am not entirely alone in my estimation of her words.


  2. Posted by sandrakayehooks on February 11, 2018 at 9:43 am

    What are covenant children?


    • Briefly (as I am on my phone)— it refers to the inclusion of children in the visible church, God’s covenant community. My church is Presbyterian and we baptise children because we view them, as children of believers, as members of the community. Other denominations do likewise of course but don’t necessarily use the same language. As one former pastor said— when the flood comes, you don’t leave your children in the flood but bring them into the ark.


  3. […] which I explore a reformed Christian philosophy of education. Thus far, we are still on the whys. Last time I looked at the Charlotte Mason approach to education. Today I’d like to look at Christian classical. My goal in these couple of posts is to show […]


  4. […] one) and why isn’t what we already have good enough (see these posts on public schooling, the Charlotte Mason method, and Christian classical education)? We have also discussed the how, i.e. How will we know what […]


  5. […] capacity for both faith and sin. But Charlotte, I believe, and I have said before (here, here, and here), goes beyond this and presents something of an idealized child with a capacity for good that is […]


  6. Posted by Joanne Jackson on June 5, 2018 at 12:21 am

    Aren’t all children covered by God? How else would all of the children go up to heaven when Jesus returns in the second coming? Why aren’t all children capable of choosing good? Isn’t that why we are trying to train children up in the way that they should go in the first place? All people are capable of choosing Jesus as their Lord and saviour, I do not understand how you reached your conclusion.


    • So what we have here is a pretty basic theological difference. I believe in what is called reformed theology — reformed as in the Protestant reformation. (It is also called Calvinism though to tie it to Calvin’s belief alone is deceptive.) I would also say that it is biblical theology and that we see it outlines in particular in the book of Romans. It is the theology of Augustine and the Presbyterian churches (historically) as well as the Westminster Confession of faith and other standards. It starts with the idea that God is sovereign. There is nothing He sets Himself to do which He does not accomplish. People, in their natural fallen state, are incapable of choosing or doing good (Mk 10:18; Rom 3:23). When Christ died on the cross, He did not die to maybe save some people who would choose to believe in Him. He died to actually provide real salvation for those whom He chose from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4, 11; 2 Thess 2:13; Rev 13:8). Those whom God so chose He gives the power to believe as well as to do and choose good (Rom 8:28-30). God does not choose everyone; that is His right as our Creator (Prov 16:4; Rom 9:6ff). Children are not a separate category. Just like adults, they are chosen before the foundation of the world or they are not and I do not believe that all children will go to heaven.


  7. […] Mason has been a major influence on my thinking. I feel this needs some explanation as it may seem I have spent quite a lot of time arguing against Charlotte’s ideas. If it’s not inappropriate to make the comparison — Jesus criticized the Pharisees […]


  8. […] do not gel with Mason’s approach. I have blogged on this many times now (see this post and this one, for example) so I will not rehash all the arguments but I believe that when Charlotte states her […]


  9. […] This is a bit of a sidebar to  my current series. I feel like I have discussed this topic many times over, but I am revisiting it for two reasons: I recently got into an online debate about it (I know, I know, stay away from forums) and I ran across some relevant quotes in rereading Charlotte’s second volume, Parents and Children. (Previous posts on this topic can be found here, here,  here, and here.) […]


  10. […] Though we have already seen that Beversluis tried to bridge the gap between the intellectual and the active, in his second essay in this volume, “The Two Sides of Christian Education,” he does so much more explicitly. He presents the debate as one between learning goals and curriculum patterns. Any Christian model, he suggests needs to account for both the subject matter as a fixed thing and for the individuality of the student in his responses to it. [I believe, actually, that Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education,which has largely influenced my own, does this quite well (see here but also some of my objections to it here.] […]


  11. Posted by Andrea on November 26, 2019 at 9:46 am

    For clarity, I appreciate the discussion, and the opportunity to interact on the subject. And I in no way mean to minimize our sinful condition and fallen state. But it doesn’t negate our ability to recognize and act on goodness. Isaiah describes our righteousnesses as filthy rags (64:6), so we must in fact have the capability of righteousnesses, though they could never come close to being enough to remedy our sin and we remain unclean and in need of our savior, Jesus.


  12. Actually I am not sure I did. I don’t see anything before “for clarity.”


  13. […] my series on approaches to homeschooling, I was very much in the Charlotte Mason camp myself. Over time, I have seen some flaws in her philosophy. Cornerstone very much comes off as a curriculum founded on a CM-style philosophy but which is […]


  14. […] philosophy of education. We have discussed why that is necessary and why Christian classical and the Charlotte Mason method fall short, but there are other Christian curricula out there. These often fall into two […]


  15. […] than I would, yet there are many similarities in where we end up that I find quite intriguing. Though I have my differences with her I largely follow the ideas of Charlotte Mason, a late 19th/early 20th-century educator. She was a […]


  16. […] [8] Much debate has focused on Mason’s second principle which says that “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” I have discussed this at length in previous posts so I will not rehash it here. See especially Was Charlotte Mason Reformed,  Is CM’s 2nd Principle Biblical (part 3) and Why Not Charlotte Mason.  […]


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