Charlotte Mason: the Intersection of Her Theology and Her Philosophy of Education

Dear Reader,

Note: I am developing something of a series on Charlotte Mason’s theology. You might also want to check out:

Charlotte Mason, Anglicanism, and You

Was Charlotte Mason Reformed?

Was Charlotte Mason Arminian?

Charlotte Mason’s Theology: The Scale How Meditations

———————————————————————————————————-

I recently wrote on Charlotte Mason’s theology, and particularly her soteriology (i.e. theology of salvation) as delineated in her Scale How Meditations (edited by Benjamin Bernier, Lulu.com, 2011; see link above for that post). These meditations, which are on the first part of the Gospel of John, also highlight some interesting connections between Mason’s theology and her philosophy of education. Having read them, I have a new appreciation for how the one led to the other. Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry has also written recently on The Scale How Meditations [1]. He observes that “the Gospels were at the heart of her philosophy” and that “the key ideas of the Sunday meditations were none other than the key tenets of Mason’s philosophy of education.”

The question before us today is how Mason’s theology influenced her approach to education and how we, as reformed Christians who may not share her exact theology, can incorporate her educational ideas.

Mason’s Philosophy and Theology

The key theme that tuns through both Mason’s theology and her philosophy of education is that of ideas. Ideas for Mason are the stuff of education as well as  the beginning and end of faith.

If you know her educational philosophy, you will know that for Mason ideas are the food of the mind. In her motto “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life,” ideas are the “life” part of the equation. They are living things which are passed from mind to mind  — often through “living” books but also through art and other media as well as personal contacts. Like food, ideas must be digested. In education this is usually done through the work of narration which requires the student to interact with what he has read (or heard or seen) in a unique and personal way. Thus a relationship is built with the material (“education is the science of relations”). The end goal is for the student to have relationships with as many things as possible.

All these elements we can see in Mason’s theology as well. We can look at the “food” of faith, how we digest the things of God, and what the end goal is.

Ideas as sustenance

For Mason, God in Christ is the source of “all that nourishes men in body, soul, and spirit” (p. 170). Just as our daily bread ultimately comes from Him, so too He is the source of the nourishment of our minds. And the mind, for Mason, feeds on ideas, ideas that are communicated through books and poetry and art and music. When discussing a Charlotte Mason education, we often say that she saw no distinction between sacred and secular, and here we find the justification for that claim: all is of God because it all ultimately comes from Him.

These ideas that we consume are powerful things. It is through ideas that we are “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (p. 35; cf. Rom. 12:2).

“We know that a great idea seizes hold of a man, has power to modify the tissues of the material organ by means of which he thinks, has power to alter the whole course of his life.” (p. 95)

Mason speaks of the power of ideas to alter the life and career of the poet, painter, and philanthropist, but also of their power in our spiritual life. For Mason, it is by acceptance of an idea that we are saved:

” . . . that master thought which should have the power to subdue the hearts of all mankind — the idea of Christ lifted up upon the cross, as presented to the soul of each man with overpowering and all subduing force by the intimate Spirit of our God . . .” (p. 95) 

Thus in both our intellectual and spiritual lives, it is the ideas we take in which nourish and transform us.

Ideas must be digested

As our physical food must be digested, so ideas must be incorporated into our being. This is an active process which requires some volition on our part. In education, the work of ingesting the ideas we get from our books (and art and music) is done through the process of narration. Karen Glass explains the value of narration:

“As the mind works on the material it has read or heard, and the child tells it back, the knowledge is being digested — becoming a part of the child’s own experience and self.” [2]

In our spiritual life, it is not enough to hear a sermon or to read a passage of Scripture, again we must do some work or the ideas we encounter will simply wash over us and their power will not be realized. This process Mason calls meditation:

“Indeed, this spiritual process [meditation] is analogous to that of digestion. It is not what we read or what we hear that sustains us, but what we appropriate; what we take home to our minds and ruminate upon, — reading a passage over and over, or dwelling, again and again upon a thought, rejoicing in a ‘fresh thought of God’ as a thing to be thankful for, a quickening influence to make us alive and active when a palsy of deadness and staleness  appears to be creeping over us. We all have a spiritual life to sustain and we all need the periodic nourishment of new, or newly put, thoughts of God.” (p. 36)

In Middlekauff’s words: “Here Mason explicitly equates meditation with “mental narration,” an act that is by definition an act of solitude. I like to call it “narration of the heart.”” [3]

We may note as well that for Mason this act of incorporating ideas through narration or meditation is a thing of the mind, not the emotions:

” . . . an idea received by the mind works itself out in the life, whereas a mere wave of emotion passes without a mark.” (p. 141)

” . . .we must believe with our understanding, with our reason; the things of religion must be received by the mind before they can be felt by the heart . . . ” (p. 142)

Ideas produce abundant life

So we see that ideas, properly digested, are the sustenance of one’s mental and spiritual life. We can extend the analogy further: just as bread gives life to the body so ideas give life to the mind. Mason connects the life-giving power of ideas to the full life which Christ promises His disciples when He says: “‘I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.'” This abundant life is one of those now-and-not-yet things; it is fulfilled both in this world and in the next.

In this world, an abundant life, for Mason, is one filled with interests and relationships:

“It is not difficult to distinguish between ‘eternal’ life and that life of the hour with which men seek to full the void when the eternal life is not theirs. Eternal life is like the life of God, because it is the life of God. It is outgoing, generous, always giving, never grasping and seeking: nature and art, literature and history, all men every where, — these are its interests; these offer the wide field for its expansion.” (pp. 134-35)

The good things we create in this world do not pass away but are as “treasures” stored up for the next:

“No heroic impulse, no inspiring thought, no conception of beauty, no act of service to each other, no single thing instinct with the life of Christ, shall be lost; but all this ‘treasure laid up in Heaven will go to the fulfilling and enriching of the broader, deeper life.'” (p. 175)

Thus the good things of this life are continued into the next. Our resurrected life will also be characterized by the same things, by productive work and a variety of interests:

“We shall all hear the voice of the Son of man, and shall come forth, ‘they that have done good unto the resurrection of life’ to the fulfillment of all aspirations, the unlimited expansion of interests, to work, perhaps, which shall be without labour, and which shall accomplish its intent, to fullness of love and of light an [sic] of joy.” (p. 137)

Analysis

Middlekauff sees The Scale How Meditations as the key to understanding Mason’s philosophy of education:

“But the links in the chain of Mason’s reasoning from the Scriptures to the volumes is not always self-evident. Why did Mason say that children are born persons? Why did she believe knowledge is so important? What makes nature study so special? We can guess at the answers when we guess at Mason’s sources. But in the Scale How Meditations, the guesswork is taken away. She reveals the core Scriptural principles from which the rest are drawn.” [4]

While we have by no means exhausted Mason’s thought in her Meditations, we have seen that ideas are a key concept which ties together her theology and her philosophy of education. There is little separation in her thought between the mind and the spirit, between the intellectual life and the religious life. The same processes are at work in both. The idea of Christ is for Mason necessary to salvation, but other ideas, while less vital,  are also spiritual in nature. They all come from God and they all nourish both mind and spirit.

There is a lot here to appeal to the reformed mind, but there are perhaps also some areas of concern. 

The role of God

One of the things that first attracted me to Mason’s philosophy was the role of God in it — we place truth before children but we have no power to make them accept it; that is His work. Mason’s 20th principles sum up her philosophy of education. The final one, one might say the culmination of them, reads as follows: 

“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.” [5]

Note that education here is the work of the “Divine Spirit” (i.e. the Holy Spirit) whom Mason elsewhere calls the Great Educator.

As we have seen, Mason in the Meditations ascribes power to man to will his own salvation. Yet in her educational philosophy, God is the prime Actor. I find this discrepancy a bit odd, but the important thing for our purposes is that Mason in her philosophy of education espouses a good reformed principle — that God is the Prime Mover and the source of knowledge

The role of sin

For any given subject we are trying to teach, we may expect some children to “get it” and some not to. Mason’s philosophy allows for individual variation in this acknowledging that not every child is going to take in every idea. Having said which, there are still going to be times when students just don’t seem to be learning much of anything or connecting with the material in any way. We see the same thing in our spiritual lives. Obviously not everyone accepts that one great idea, the idea of Christ, as Mason puts it.  So we may ask whose fault is it when people don’t “get it,” whether in the intellectual or the spiritual realm?

The blame for human failings can either fall on our environments, things external to our selves, or on the individual, things internal to the person. Under the category of environment, we may include other people, perhaps teachers or parents, or circumstances, a lack of access to the proper materials or to necessary information, for example. If we lay the blame on the person, we are speaking of more internal causes, things inherent to one’s nature.

Mason seems to place externally. If a child does not develop interests, it is the fault of the teacher and/or the educational program:

“When governess or nurse, aunt or uncle, even mother or father, fails to get hold of children, it is usually because he or she is a person of unsimple character.” (p. 21) [6]

The flip-side of this is to say that given the right education any child will develop in the ideal way. In the spiritual realm, we would say that if the gospel is just presented in the right way, if the person’s circumstances do not interfere, then they will come to faith which is indeed what Mason says:

“The reason why any soul of man is not subdued before the love of Christ is that the idea has never been presented at all or that the presentation has been poor and inadequate.” (p. 95)

What I don’t see in Mason, either in her theology or her philosophy, is a discussion of the effects of sin. I do not doubt that Mason believed in Original Sin — this is a point of discussion often in CM circles so I think it is worth noting — but Original Sin can mean many things in the many different Christian traditions [7]. The question before us is what goes wrong when someone doesn’t “digest” a good idea that they should have taken in. The reformed answer is that the fault lies in the individual whose nature has been corrupted by the effects of the Fall. Man no longer responds as he should to the things of God, whether those that relate directly to faith or those that are of a more peripheral nature. The cause of our failings is not external but internal. 

Here then we see a clear difference between Mason’s thought and traditional reformed theology. This lack of consideration for the effects fo the Fall is, I think, the major deficiency in Mason’s thought. [8]

Personhood

In both her theology and her philosophy of education, Mason acknowledges the capacity of even the youngest children to respond to the things of God. Her first principle reads simply: “Children are born persons.” Mason does not withhold ideas, which as we have seen are the sustenance of the mind, even from young children. So too in her theology, she says, “no thought is too deep for any human being if it is only put in the right way” (p. 112). Since ideas are of God for Mason her offering of them even to young children and her confidence that they can accept them shows that she sees them as persons, as beings able to having a relationship with their Creator [9].

Man: body & soul, heart & mind

I am intrigued by Mason’s emphasis on the mind as paramount to both faith and learning. This is in sharp contrast to most modern approaches to education which focus very much on the physical. I am convinced that this emphasis in the latter comes from an evolutionary mindset that assumes only the material world and does not take into account the spiritual. With young children in particular, modern approaches emphasize things like “sensory-motor” learning in which everything is believed to be learned through bodily sensations and experiences. Mason does not ignore the hands-on element in her approach to education, but true knowledge, for her, comes through the mind. There may be temptation here to fall too far the other way and to discount the body altogether (this is the gnostic mistake), but I do not think Mason goes that far. 

As we have seen Mason emphasizes the role of the mind in faith. To believe for her is an act of the will and faith is an intellectual acceptance of an idea (though not without practical outcomes in one’s life). I am a little torn in how to understand this idea. On the one hand, there is much that can go wrong when faith comes from a very emotional place and I agree with Mason that what comes by “waves of emotion” (p. 141) will tend to pass quickly. On the other hand, I think when we separate the heart and the mind we make a false, unbiblical distinction. I have argued that the two are really one in biblical language. Though Mason does not talk much about the role of the emotions, I think we mischaracterize her if we take this to mean that she discounts them altogether. In truth her approach to education relies greatly on feeling as both the motivation for and the end of education. It is through interest that the child is first drawn in and producing relationships, making the child care, is the aim of education. These are perhaps not transitory emotions that sweep one away, but they are feelings, and so we may say the heart is not neglected in Mason’s philosophy. 

The Interplay of the Intellectual and Spiritual

For Mason man’s intellectual and spiritual lives are closely linked. Experientially, we often find this to be true. I think many believers have had the experience that studying some aspect of God’s Creation deepens their faith. Indeed, this is the purpose of general revelation, that we may know our Creator (cf. Rom. 1:20). [10] Yet we must also use some caution here. As with so many things in the Christian life we must be careful not to overcorrect. In this area the danger is that we exalt the intellectual to such a degree that it supplants the spiritual. Intellectual knowledge can easily become the primary goal and special revelation with its message of salvation is pushed to the background. This is, for example, what we see in Transcendentalism, an exaltation of general revelation (nature) as a source of knowledge but a dismissal of special revelation and with it the need for salvation.  

Conclusions

As we look at the big ideas or trends in Mason’s thought, overall I am impressed by how much lines up with reformed theology. There are a lot of potential pitfalls here, places where one can easily slide off too far in one direction or the other, but I do not think Mason does so.  She manages to steer a middle course, acknowledging man’s physical nature and his spiritual side, balancing the emotional and the intellectual, and incorporating both intellectual and spiritual knowledge. Her emphasis on the personhood of the child I find to be quite biblical. While I am less enamored of her (Arminian) theology, in her philosophy of education, Mason acknowledges God as the Great Educator and Prime Mover. He is the source of all knowledge and it is He, not the teacher and not even the student, who acts in the process of education. The one big flaw in Mason’s ideology is in her lack of acknowledgment of man’s sinful nature and its effects on his ability to discern good and to know. This omission is a big one and I don’t think we can ignore it. It has implications for how we educate that need to be worked through. 

Nebby

[1] Middlekauff, Art. “The Story of the Scale How Meditations,Charlotte Mason Poetry (August 25, 2020).

[2] Karen Glass. Know and Tell (2018) p. 20. 

[3] Middlekauff, “The Story of . . .”

[4] Ibid.

[5] “CM’s 20 Principles,” Ambleside Online. These principles are also given at the beginning of most of the volumes of her home education series (there is some variation, especially in earlier volumes). 

[6] Being of “unsimple character” perhaps needs some explanation. Mason discusses this idea a bit. The short answer, as far as I understand it, would be that to be of simple character is to be single-minded in the good sense of having one (godly) devotion. 

[7] For some discussion of this, see this post on Original Sin. 

[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 ReformedIs CM’s 2nd Principle Biblical (part 3) and Why Not Charlotte Mason. 

[9] For more on the biblical view of the child see this post

[10] That this is not the case for the non-elect is the fault of their fallen natures but does not negate the purpose of general revelation.

One response to this post.

  1. […] How can they support him after he said that? Sermon: What’s the Point of the Good Life? Intersection of Charlotte Mason’s theology and philosophy of education Kousa Dogwood – here and here. Song: The Secret Place (R.C. […]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s