Recently I did a post on what it means to be “pure CM.” My conclusion was that, while there are some good, practical reasons to make sure we adhere diligently to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, the most significant argument its proponents make is that what Charlotte’s philosophy is derived from immutable divine law.
In evaluating whether this claim is true, I’d like to borrow a phrase we use in our church membership vows: “as being agreeable to, and founded upon, the Scriptures.” There is no philosophy of education as such laid out in Scripture — if it were so, we wouldn’t need Charlotte’s work. Nor do I think any mere human being is going to be right all the time. But are her ideas substantially “agreeable to” and “founded upon” the Scriptures? This is the question I would like to try to tackle.
The Question before us and How to Approach it
Before jumping in, let’s clarify a few terms. By divine law I mean all of God’s revelation to us which includes both His special revelation, which we find in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and His general revelation which is revealed to us in His Creation. The latter may at times be readily apparent but often requires more diligent effort to discern. Science, both experiment and experience, is one of the tools by which we do so.
My object is to judge whether Charlotte’s ideas are “founded upon and agreeable to the Scriptures.” To “be founded upon” the Scriptures is to find an absolute basis in the Scriptures. To be “agreeable to” is to be in line with biblical principles. Those ideas which Miss Mason takes from special revelation we should expect to be “founded in the Scriptures.” That is, they should be clearly discernable from the Scriptures. Those ideas which she discerns from general revelation, including from her own experience and the science of the time, should be “agreeable to the Scriptures;” there must be nothing in Scripture which contradicts them, but they may not themselves be directly discernable from Scripture.
There are two directions from which we may approach the question before us: we can start with the Bible and see if Charlotte Mason’s philosophy falls into place with what it has to say or we can start with what Charlotte has to say and see if her statements have a biblical basis. Since my goal at the moment is to evaluate Charlotte’s philosophy rather than to formulate a biblical philosophy of education, I am going to opt for the latter (I am hoping this will also narrow the field as it gives me specific principles to test). While Charlotte was quite a prolific writer, she herself sums up her philosophy in 20 principles. These would seem to be a logical starting place. There may be many other claims Charlotte makes, and we could spend volumes perhaps examining all she has to say, but if these 20 do not have a good, biblical basis then there is not much point looking beyond them.
Diving Right in: Principle 1
Charlotte Mason’s first principle seems simple enough: “Children are born persons.” Yet there is a lot implied in these four words and much has been written on them. I’d like to begin with how Charlotte herself explained this principle. Briefly:
“A child is a Person with the spiritual requirements and capabilities of a person.” (Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 18)
We see here the two aspects of Charlotte’s own definition: that children are spiritual creatures and that they share the capabilities of their elders.
The child is “a ‘living soul,’ a fully developed, full-grown soul” and as such “has one appetite, for the things of God; breathes one air, the breath, the Spirit of God; has one desire, for the knowledge of God; one only joy, in the face of God . . . The direct action of the soul is all Godward, with a reflex action towards men. The speech of the soul is prayer and praise, the right hand of the soul is faith, the light of the soul is love, the love of God shed abroad upon it” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pp. 342-343). Thus children are capable of relationship with their Creator apart from adult intervention:
“The most fatal way of despising the child falls under the third educational law of the Gospels; it is to overlook and make light of his natural relationship with Almighty God. . . . This mischief lies in that same foolish undervaluing of the children, in the notion that the child can have no spiritual life until it please his elders to kindle the flame.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pp. 19-20)
And not just capable of such a relationship, the child has a desire for God:
“The fundamental idea is, that children are persons and are therefore moved by the same springs of conduct as their elders. Among these is the Desire of Knowledge, knowledge-hunger being natural to everybody. History, Geography . . . Science . . . Art . . . Ethics . . . and Religion, for, like those men we heard of at the Front, we all ‘want God.'” (Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education., pp. 13-14)
While the child as spiritual being is paramount in her thinking, the abilities of the child are not limited to the spiritual realm. In the first volume of her Home Education series, Miss Mason speaks of children as sharers of the common human desires — for knowledge, society, and esteem — and affections — “joy and grief, love and resentment, benevolence, sympathy, fear, and much else” (Home Education, pp. 100-101). In her final volume, she expands upon the desire for knowledge:
“If we have not proved that a child is born a person with a mind as complete and as beautiful as his beautiful little body, we can at least show that he always has all the mind he requires for his occasions; that is, that his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind. (Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 36)
The mind, she tells us, means curiosity, imagination, reason, and conscience (Towards a Philosophy of Education, pp. 36-37). All these are present from birth. This Charlotte demonstrates through experience and observation, noting all that a child learns in their first three years. In contradiction to ideas of her time, she argues that the child is not “‘a huge oyster'” to be molded (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 33) but:
“a person with a mind as complete and as beautiful as his beautiful little body, we can at least show that he always has all the mind he requires for his occasions; that is, that his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 36)
These then are the propositions wrapped up in Charlotte’s first principle:
- Children are spiritual beings.
- They are capable of relationship with their Creator and even have a God-ward desire.
- They have mind, including reason, will, imagination, and creativity.
- They have a conscience, an inborn sense of right and wrong.
Before looking at what the Bible has to say, I’d like to say a few words about what I didn’t find. I went into this with one phrase in my mind: “made in the image of God.” I have seen many writers use this phrase to explain Charlotte’s first principle. I have done so myself. And I can’t say, given the volume of her writings, that Charlotte herself does not use this phrase, but in the works I looked at she did not. She uses the language we associate with the image of God and even quotes Augustine who had quite a lot to say on the image of God, but her primary point does not seem to be that the child embodies the image of God. I don’t doubt that she would agree it is so, but her point here is not to show the divine in the child so much as to show the human in him, to show that he lacks nothing that is present in his elders.
Children in the Bible
Having examined Charlotte’s first principle in her own words, the question now before us is: “Is this principle ‘founded on and agreeable to’ the Scriptures?” In order to say that this principle if biblical we would like to demonstrate that children are spiritual beings who are capable of a relationship with their Creator and that they have a mind which is capable of various functions including reason and discerning right from wrong (i.e. a conscience).
The Hebrew Bible uses four main designations for children of various ages: there are babes and infants (from the Hebrew root ‘ll), little ones (Hebrew taph), children (Hebrew yeled), and youths (Hebrew na’ar). The various terms are not always clearly distinguished, but we can make some general observations about each.
Youths are teens and young adults, as in Isaiah 40:8-9 where “youths” and “young men” are used in parallel. They are capable of real work as servants (Gen. 22:19; Ruth 2:15) and armor-bearers (Judg. 9:54; I Sam. 14:1). Joshua is a “young man” when he begins to serve as Moses’ assistant (Exod. 33:11). Those who spy out the land are “young men” as well (Josh. 6:23). David is a “youth” when he battles Goliath (I Sam. 17:33) and evinces a strong show of faith. One in youth is capable both of sin (Gen. 8:21; Ps. 25:7) and of faith (Ps. 71:5), though youth is also still a time of tenderness and inexperience (I Chr. 22:5, 29:1; II Chr. 13:7). The Bible does not give us a clear line at which this stage of life begins (they are not so concerned as we are to label teens, tweens, etc.) but I think it is significant that Jesus at age 12 stays in the Temple and argues with the teachers, showing His intellectual maturity at that age (Luke 12:41ff).
Moving down the scale, yeled “child” seems to be used fairly loosely, referring at times to a weaned child (Gen. 21:8; I Kgs. 17:21) and at others to what is clearly a baby (Exod. 2:6; 2 Sam. 12:16). They are included in both the mourning (Ezra 10:1) and the rejoicing of the community (Neh. 12:43). A child is the object of training and discipline (Prov. 22:6; 23:13; 29:15) and is called to holiness:
“Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright.” (Prov. 20:11)
“Little ones,” from the Hebrew taph, seem to be those who need care. The root seems to mean “to trip” or “to take tiny steps” so “toddler” could be a good translation of this term. It often overlaps with yeled. “Little ones” are paired often with women and the elderly, and even with cattle (Gen. 34:29; 43:8; 45:19; 46:5; 47:24; 50:8, 21; Num. 32:24, 26; Judg. 18:21). Like women, they are not counted (Exod. 12:37). Even they, however, are included in the assembly of the people (Josh. 8:35; II Chr. 20:13) and are required to keep the Law (Deut. 31:12). The New Testament also indicates that children are included in the covenant community (Acts 2:39).
The Hebrew root ‘ll gives us a collection of words translated variously as “babes,” “infants,” and “sucklings.” What is clear of these children is that they are still nursing (which may have gone on for quite some time in that culture). Psalm 8 is a well-known passage which seems to speak of infants giving praise to God:
“From the mouths of babies and infants you ordained strength.” (Psalm 8:2; my translation)
When Jesus quotes this Psalm, it is praise which comes from the babies’ mouths:
““‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?“” (Matt. 21:16)
My own interpretation of this Psalm would be that, whether it refers to praise or to strength, that it is using the infants somewhat ironically. Just as Jesus would say that God could raise up sons of Abraham even from the stones — rocks being nothing like living sons–, the psalmist here says that strength could come even from infants, those known to be least strong. (If we understand the term to be “praise” the idea is the same for infants do not speak and “praise” as such cannot come form their mouths ordinarily.)
Nonetheless, the Bible makes it clear that God’s involvement with children is from birth and even before:
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Ps. 139:13; cf. Jer. 1:5-7)
John the Baptist shows some evidence of faith even in the womb:
“And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.” (Luke 1:41a)
Timothy too is said to have known the Scriptures “from infancy”:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:14-15)
A number of New Testament passages seem to speak of the faith of children. Charlotte, in her exposition of what she calls the gospel principles of education, points to Matthew 19:14:
“But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.'” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)
She uses this verse to argue that we must not prevent children from coming to God. In its context, this verse is quite literal; the disciples were physically preventing children from approaching.
Another well-known passage is found in the previous chapter:
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.'” (Matt. 18:1-6)
In its context — the disciples are disputing over who of them is the greatest — Jesus praises the humility of children. Though I do not think it is the main purpose of the passage, I do think this passage tells us that children are capable faith. The second paragraph tells us something interesting too — children can sin. We don’t immediately think of the negative, but to have a relationship with God can be good or bad; we may be in relationship with Him or we may offend Him.
Matthew 11 seems to imply that children are capable of understanding the things of God:
“At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.'” (Matt.11:25; cf. Luke 10:21)
In Matthew’s gospel, this prayer of Jesus comes right after His condemnation of the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida; in Luke there is an intervening passage in which the 72 return rejoicing that they have cast out devils and Jesus tells them to rejoice instead that their names are written in the Book of Life. The context seems to indicate that these are not literal children but that those who are like children — the uneducated and perhaps the not-too-bright — will understand. As in Psalm 8, the use is ironic; God allows children to understand what those who should know more and better do not. Similarly, in Romans 2:20, Paul uses children in parallel to the blind and foolish who are in need of instruction and guidance. In other words, children are used in these passages not because of their knowledge but because of their habitual lack of knowledge.
What conclusions can we draw from all these Bible verses about children? Here’s what I see:
- The Bible does not give us an age at which one goes from being a child to an adult but it does seem to distinguish between children — including children, babes and little ones–, and youths. The latter, while inexperienced, are essentially adults. Teens and young adults would likely be called youths.
- Children (all those below teens) seem to be lumped together; the terms used for them are not clearly distinguished. They are assumed to be ignorant or foolish and in need of instruction and discipline.
- Nonetheless, they are counted among God’s people and at important points (such a covenant renewal ceremonies) are included in the assembly of God’s people.
- Children are also called to follow the Law and to holiness. They can also sin.
I hope I have established here a basic format which I can follow in future posts. The claim of Charlotte Mason’s adherents is that her philosophy is worth following and preserving because it is based on God’s immutable word; these posts are my attempt to see if this claim holds up. My goal then is to examine Miss Mason’s ideas, and in particular her 20 Principles as the most concise and accurate embodiment of those ideas, to see if they are “founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures.”
In this post I have presented Charlotte’s first principle, looked at how she herself explained it, and then presented Bible verses which seem to speak to the same question, in this case the nature and abilities of children. My children and husband watch a lot of Mythbusters in which an idea or claim is tested to see if it holds up; their always end by saying whether a myth has been confirmed, busted, or something in between, so I’d like to follow their lead and do the same for CM’s principles.
In this case, when she said “Children are born persons,” Charlotte Mason was claiming that they are spiritual beings capable of relationship with God and with all the capabilities of a mind including, among others, reason and conscience. In the Bible verses we looked at we saw that children are included among the community of God’s people, that they can sin, that they are held to the Law, and that they are capable of faith. I am stamping this principle CONFIRMED. The Bible does not speak specifically to some of the finer points about whether children are creative or how much they can reason but the biggest claims Charlotte makes in her first principle are clearly shown in the Scriptures.
Until next time,