Introducing Charlotte Mason & Her 20 Principles

The following is an edited version of a project I have been working on for a different forum. I thought it could also be worth sharing here.

Introducing Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason was a British educator who lived at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century (1842-1923). Her training was as a teacher. In working with students, she became frustrated with their lack of progress and retention of material and began to develop her own approach which blossomed into a full-blown philosophy of education. 

In her own day, Charlotte Mason established a teacher’s training college and many schools using her philosophy existed and were quite popular. She also ran a kind of correspondence program for those teaching their own children at home. Though her influence died out for a time, it saw a resurgence due to the modern homeschooling movement. Her work is preserved for us in a number of articles and shorter works and above all in her six-volume Home Education series. [1]

Though there is no doubt that Miss Mason both reacted to and made use of what had come before her, [2] she saw her unique contribution as being bound up in what she called her “gospel principles.” At the core of Mason’s philosophy are a respect for the child as a person and a belief in his or her ability to take in the good things which are presented to them. A Charlotte Mason education has been described as the spreading of an intellectual feast — an array of good, living books, fine art, and good music are put before the child and he takes in what he can and will. 

Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles

Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education is encapsulated in her Twenty Principles. [3] These principles can be said to capture the spirit of a Charlotte Mason education. There is a natural progression among them as one principle leads into the next. Our goal today is simply to give an overview of the principles and to explain some of their logic. There is certainly much more that could be said (Charlotte herself took six long volumes to do so).

Charlotte Mason’s first principle is that “children are born persons.” This principle is first not just in order but in importance, forming the foundation of much of what follows. Though our tendency today is to see this principle as a statement of the child’s individuality and uniqueness (which might lead one to a more interest- or child-led philosophy of education), for Mason what this principle meant was that the child was not an empty vessel or a blank slate (popular conceptions at the time) but a fully formed human being sharing all the faculties and abilities of adults. A child, for instance, did not need to be taught to use his senses or to think. 

Charlotte Mason’s second principle says that the child has “possibilities for good and for evil.” This statement is a little more controversial. [4] Suffice it to say, Miss Mason believed that all children — even those her society labeled as inherently defective  — which would have included the children of the poor and illegitimate children — were able to make use of their faculties and to become educated. 

The third principle acknowledges the role of authority and obedience in the teacher-child (or parent-child) relationship, but it is quickly limited by the fourth principle which states that those in authority may not use any means at their disposal. They may not use children’s natural desires — for praise, for love, for success — against them as motivating tools. [5] 

Instead, the fifth principle tells us, we may only use three education instruments. These are summed in the maxim: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” She goes on to expand upon each of these in principles 6 through 8. “Education is an atmosphere  . . .”  is not about creating an environment but about allowing the child to live freely in a natural intellectual atmosphere. [3] At atmosphere may have physical manifestations in things like the artwork that is on the walls and the music that is playing but above all it is about a concern for truth, beauty, and goodness and a love of knowledge for its own sake.

“Education is  . . . a discipline . . . “ speaks to how children are trained. For Mason this is habit-training, a pro-active kind of discipline which seeks to shape the child’s character from an early age, one habit at a time. She eschews physical discipline and employs natural consequences with an emphasis on training and discipleship.

“Education is . . . a life” encapsulates the idea that children need intellectual food. For Mason ideas are the food of the mind. She expands upon this idea in the following principles. In principle 9, she tells us again that the child is not an empty vessel but that he is born with the ability to digest and assimilate intellectual food. In principle 10, she rejects a school popular in her day, the Herbartian school, which was something akin to modern unit studies, because it  essentially predigests the child’s intellectual food for him, making connections that he should make for himself and regurgitating knowledge in discrete chunks. In principle 11 she again states that the child is able to digest his own intellectual food — to assimilate ideas for himself. Knowledge, she says, must not be presented as isolated facts but in context. When we present knowledge to the child within the proper context, he is able to connect with it and to gain the knowledge for himself. Thus in principle 12, we find another famous CM maxim: “Education is the science of relations.” The goal of education is for the child to form relationships with as many things as he can. In order to facilitate this, principle 13 tells us, we much give him a diet that is plentiful and varied, a broad education. 

The latter part of principle 13 tells us that this knowledge must come in a literary form. Books may be fiction or non-fiction, easy or hard, but they must be well-written, living books which contain ideas.

The child takes in the knowledge that is in these living books and assimilates it. They do this by telling back, as principle 14 says. This is narration. In narration the child tells back, either orally or in writing, what they have read or heard. Narration is meant to be work and it is the child’s own work. It is how they “digest” their books, how they get knowledge and ideas from them. 

Principle 15 expresses again that all children are capable of doing this work. It adds that they should narrate after a single reading. Things should not be repeated for them. This builds the habit of attention. 

Principles 16 through 18 deal with the Way of Reason and the Way of the Will. To will, for Mason, is to chose and do that which one should do. It is the opposite of being wilful which is insisting on one’s own desires. For Mason one first accepts a proposition and then uses one’s Reason to defend and justify that proposition. This is why so many are led astray by their reason. The key is to let in the right ideas first and not to give free reign to reason which is fallen can justify evil things as well as good.

Principle 19 continues this thought, that it is so important what ideas and thoughts we let in. The responsibility of children as persons, Mason tells us, is to discern which thoughts to let in and which to exclude.

Finally, principle 20 tells us that children are not alone in this thing called education. Their intellectual life is not distinct from their spiritual life but there is a Divine Helper, God the Holy Spirit, that aids them and whom Mason elsewhere calls the Great Educator.

Looking for more? See this page for all by Charlotte Mason posts listed by topic.

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[1] There have been a number of editions of this series, including some more recent, very well-done ones. They can also be found for free online at Ambleside Online

[2] There is some ongoing debate in CM circles as to whether her approach should be called “classical” or not. Personally I am of the “not classical” school as I discussed in this post.  

[3] There are some slight differences in the number and wording of these principles. You will notice differences in her earlier volumes, but it is customary now to speak of the 20 Principles. These can be found at the beginning of each of her six volumes and online at Ambleside Online

[4] To the best of my knowledge, I am the main holdout in the Charlotte Mason community arguing that when she wrote her second principle Charlotte really did mean that children are capable of both moral good and evil. I have discussed her theology extensively in a number of posts which can be found here.

[5] These are Mason’s “gospel principles.” Looking at the biblical book of Matthew she finds that we may not offend, despise, or hinder children. (Home Education, p. 12) 

[6] It is on this issue of an environment versus an atmosphere that Mason disagrees with her younger contemporary, Maria Montessori. I am planning a more extensive post in which I will discuss the similarities and differences between Mason and Montessori. 

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