Charlotte Mason & Other Philosophies of Education

Charlotte Mason Relative to other Philosophies of Education

In trying to grasp Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, it can be helpful to compare and contrast it to other popular approaches. 

CM and Unschooling

What they have in common: A view of the child as a person (CM’s 1st principle) and a belief in his or her innate ability to learn without having to be taught to think or to use or develop his/her faculties (principle 11). Education is (largely) self-education.

Where they differ: Unschooling assumes a natural goodness that enables the child to gravitate towards and choose what is good and needful for him. CM says that children have possibilities for good and evil and may not naturally choose what is good (principle 2). Therefore the work of the teacher is largely in placing good things before the child. 

Bottom line: Unschooling is child-led in the choice of materials but in CM the teacher chooses the materials. In both the child does the work of education, taking in what he can and will from what is before him. 

CM and Unit Studies:

The modern unit studies approach is akin to Herbartianism, a philosophy popular in CM’s day which she discusses and rejects in her 10th principle.

Where they differ:  In unit studies, the teacher groups subjects together and presents them to the child in that form. For example, in a unit on amphibians, a child might read Frog and Toad books for literature, study frogs and toads for science, studying the plagues of Egypt (and particularly the second one) for history, and count frogs for math. CM believed strongly in making connections across subject areas but thought that the child needed to make these connections for himself (principle 12) and not have them spoon-fed by the teacher. Unit studies essentially have the teacher doing the work that the child needs to be doing. CM often uses the analogy of a feast for education so we might say that unit studies pre-digest the student’s food for him. 

Furthermore, there is often an assumption behind unit studies that they will encourage education by making the subject matter fun and interesting for the child. CM believed that education is inherently interesting and that we do children a disservice when we try to dress it up and make it entertaining. Using the food analogy again, if we always hide the child’s veggies in his brownies, he never learns to appreciate the flavor of veggies in their own right. 

Bottom line: Some take CM’s avoidance of unit studies to an extreme and never allow subjects to naturally overlap but it is not anti-CM to allow one’s geography or artist study to be on the same period as one’s history. The important thing is not to make the connections for the child. 

CM and Montessori

CM and Montessori worked at the same time (though Mason was older). CM knew Montessori’s work and wrote against it. Because they reacted against some of the same societal trends, from our modern perspective they perhaps have more in common than they realized. For a much longer discussion, see CM vs Montessori, A Comparison of Principles.

Where they agreed: CM and Montessori both reject the Victorian models which precede them and in particular the idea of the child as a blank slate or an empty vessel that needs to be filled. They both rejected the use of rewards and grades as motivating factors in education (principle 4). They were both teachers who observed what went on in their classrooms and adjusted their educational models to fit what they saw working or not working. Both seek to some degree to educate the “whole child.” The role of the teacher also differs. In CM the teacher primarily selects materials and the child is trusted to incorporate or ingest them according to his innate abilities. In Montessori the teacher seems hands-off compared to traditional schools but in reality is quite involved in directing and shaping activity. 

Where they disagreed: Montessori saw her ideas a coming from science while Mason saw her unique contribution as coming from her “gospel principles.” Montessori’s use of environment is often compared to CM’s atmosphere (principle 6), but the two are fairly different. Montessori’s environment is very much a physical thing. For Mason an atmosphere is intellectual above all else. Montessori always begins with the physical which in her philosophy precedes the intellectual. Mason gives ideas, the food of the mind, to even young children. Montessori encourages long chunks of uninterrupted time (three hours) while Mason keeps lessons short to maintain attention. 

Bottom line:  In practice Montessori education often begins with young children while Mason’s did not begin formal education till age 6 so much of what they may have done in the early years may have been similar, or at least more similar than they are given credit for. A Montessori education also becomes more intellectual and book-based as the child ages so in that way again narrows the gap between them. But there are some fundamental differences in the theory behind these two that play out over time. Above all Mason is focused on the spiritual and intellectual and Montessori on the physical first and then the intellectual. 

CM and Waldorf

Waldorf is a philosophy of education created by Rudolf Steiner circa 1919. Though he would have overlapped with Mason, there is no indication (that I know of) that they knew each other’s work. 

What they have in common: An interest in educating the “whole child” and a large role for the arts. 

Where they differ: Like Montessori, Waldorf sees the physical as preceding the intellectual. Waldorf makes heavy use of imitation, especially in the early years, through the use of story songs and finger play which Mason does not seem to discuss or use at all.  Waldorf teaches subjects in chunks before moving on to the next topic. CM teaches many subjects at once, keeping each lesson short. Steiner believed that children develop – even evolve — through various stages from willing to feeling to thinking while Mason sees even young children as fully equipped to deal with intellectual matter. 

CM and Classical

There is some debate in CM circles as to whether Mason should be included under the heading “classical.” Karen Glass on one side argues that CM is classical while Art Middlekauff on the other argues she is not (see also my take on CM and classical here). Complicating the discussion is the fact that classical is a widely used term these days that does not have just one meaning. We will look today at CM relative to that variety of modern classical education evidenced by Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning,” The Well-Trained Mind, and Douglas Wilson

What they have in common: A use of good books, especially older books and some techniques like narration. Both encourage the study of ancient languages and the reading of older sources like Plutarch. Both have some level of acceptance of the idea that there is a common body of knowledge which each child should be presented with. 

Where they differ:  Though they may overlap in books and methods, yet these things are often used or applied in different ways. CM tends to have more books going at once but to read them more slowly. Narration is done differently as well and towards different ends. Modern classical education is based on three stages — grammar, logic, and rhetoric — through which the child advances (see also: stages in classical and CM). Mason has nothing equivalent but believes even young children are equipped to take in ideas (principle 9) and not just facts. In fact, she argues very much against the memorization of facts for their own sake (principle 11). Though both accept that there is some core body of knowledge, classical presents the knowledge and expects all children to learn it while Mason presents knowledge but acknowledges that not every child will take in the same things but each will get what he can and what he needs from it.  In terms of goals, there is some degree of overlap but classical speaks more of inculcating virtues while Mason speaks more of the relations that the child forms with what he studies (principle 12). 

3 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for doing this! My husband and I have been talking about this a lot, particularly differing views of humanity and sin within educational models (he was brainstorming for a ThM paper, while I was wishing I was taking the class so had time blocked out to write on this subject, so I appreciate you having done so so I can refer to your writing instead of having to write it myself!).


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  3. […] Charlotte Mason & Other Philosophies of Education […]


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