Towards a Defense of Charlotte Mason

Jan 10, 2012

In 2006 I attended my first Circe Conference in Memphis, TN. It was called A Contemplation of Knowledge. I expected the conference to inspire me to work harder and to rebuke me for not trying hard enough, as most conferences do. I knew I was failing as a homeschool mom and I just needed a bit of turbo boost to fail harder. You see, for the 20 years prior to the conference I had educated my children using ideas I read in Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children's Sake and The Original Charlotte Mason Homeschooling Series.

Often, over the years, I tried to steer away from that path but always my heart, and the ideas I was gleaning in other places, confirmed that I was indeed on the path to true education. Often, in implementing Charlotte’s ideas I found the best resources in the classical education market. And, in fact, I had had a lifelong interest in the liberal arts. My father attended Cincinnati’s Walnut Hills, a classical school for street urchins, and he used to say that he learned more in two years at Walnut Hills than the entire rest of his education. I grew up under the live oaks at the liberal arts college of Stetson University where my dad coached baseball and taught. In the course of his recruiting you frequently heard him wax eloquent on the need for the liberal arts. And so it had never occurred to me that there might be a divide between the heart of a Charlotte Mason education and the true heart of classical education.

And then classical education became popular. With that popularity came all kinds of confusion. Definitions abounded. Dorothy Sayers’s inspiring, off-the-cuff essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, was trotted out and whole catalogs built around random sentences from her essay began to appear. In fact, many people looked at classical education as merely a push to return back-to-basics. To some, classical education literally meant “really hard” and to others it meant memorizing information as 'poll parrots'.

And so, feeling like I was going to a classical conference having missed the classical boat, I arrived ready to be straightened out, burdened by my own frustrations. It never happened. Session by session I heard the very things Charlotte Mason said, on which I had staked my children’s education. From Andrew Kern’s opening session, to James Daniels’ discussion of leisure, to James Taylor’s beautiful articulation of poetic knowledge, to Vigen Guroian’s timely discussion of the liberal arts in the university, I was affirmed over and over again, as if each session took a burden out of my pack and flung it into the sea. Two days in I was buoyant; floating from the realization that I had, if fact, bet on the right horse, put my eggs in the right basket, all of them. When I returned home to blog about the conference I called it the marriage of Charlotte Mason to Wendell Berry.

From that day to this I have never  wavered in my conviction that Charlotte Mason’s ideals were, in fact, the same ideas buried deeply in the principles of a truly classical education. Andrew Kern’ s definition of classical education: "Classical education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the seven liberal arts and the four sciences,” can be found perfectly, practically implemented in Charlottle Mason’s own PUO schools and the homes of many families following her ideas today. Books such as Poetic Knowledge by James Taylor, Tending the Heart of Virtue by Vigen Guroian, Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper, and others popular among classical educators, all say essentially what Charlotte said so long ago. First Paidea Prize winner, and author of Norms and Nobility, David Hicks, freely acknowledges his debt to Charlotte Mason.

Sadly, this fact is not widely recognized today. After Charlotte’s Original Series was republished, many other books touting Charlotte Mason's philosophy  hit the market. Often those books gave the impression that a Charlotte Mason education led one tiptoeing through the tulips most of the day, sighing after the elusive butterfly of love. This could not be further from the truth. These days we are hardly prepared for the breadth and depth of all that was accomplished in Charlotte’s schools. You can find many examples of her schedules in her books School Education and Towards a Philosophy of Education. The schedules, and more particularly the ideas behind them, are breathtaking.

I must note one difference between a "classical education" and a "Charlotte Mason education" and here we may find the key to the problem. There is nothing elite about a CM education. Its first distinction is that ALL children are born persons and can be educated this way with some success. This kind of education is not only for Ivy League prep schools, Middle Class Christian schools and dedicated homeschools, it is also viable for those back corners of our society that long ago lost the idea of any kind of education. It is education for ALL and that makes it truly classical and truly Christian.

In Charlotte’s philosophy, living ideas were for human children (and adults). It was never acceptable to teach a child something without meaning (such as lists of facts). Memorization is for the heart and mind and soul, not just the intellect. To divorce a subject from its meaning was the error of modernity, a mad quest to produce more in less time. The classical authors and educators from antiquity until now were not searching for efficiency and it is puzzling that modern classical educators have missed this point. Let's  just blame it on Descartes.

Charlotte Mason's works are a wonderful place to truly recover the lost tools of learning.

You can read more on the classical side of Charlotte Mason in this article by Karen Glass, longtime Ambleside Online Board Member.

Cindy Rollins

Cindy Rollins

Cindy Rollins is a homeschooling mom of 9 (8 boys and 1 girl) who attended Stetson University and Toccoa Falls College.She is a freelance writer with monthly columns in the Chattanooga Esprit and Knoxville Smoke Signals. For many years now she has blogged through her efforts to  homeschool under the classical principles of Charlotte Mason at Ordo-Amoris.  She continues to follow her heart's desire to encourage and serve homeschooling moms with a special concern for those raising sons. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee with her husband Tim and however many children happen to be home.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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Thank you for sharing! I'm always puzzled (and a bit saddened) by the hard line that some draw between CM and classical. I've heard speakers refer to the two as "either" and "or'... However, through years of homeschooling, listening to various speakers, reading, etc... I'm convinced that there are more commonalities than differences between the two schools of thought. As in so many other areas of life, we'd be well advised to look for similarities, not differences - and to look to learn from one another rather than feel threatened by perceived differences. Great books, lotso time to talk through and explore life, hours playing and enjoying nature, and opportunities to fall in love with all that is beautiful (art, music, etc.). This is the heart of our schooling. So very grateful.

This is timely and quite fun for me. I"m working on the third edition of Classical Education, which I hope will come out this spring, and I will be inserting a section on Charlotte Mason, showing how very "classical" she really is.

Two reasons leap out:

One, because she believes that children are persons. Personhood is an entirely Christian idea, one that nobody had any notion of prior to the discussions of the person of Christ and his two natures. The person is not a mere individual and he is not a mere unit of society. He transcends analysis and is made in the image of a transcendent creator. CM got that better than almost any other published educator in the history of the human race.

Two, because she understood that since children are persons, they have souls, and she understood, again better than almost anybody ever has expressed it, that souls feed on living ideas. Facts are awesome, but they have no meaning apart from their meaning. And the meaning of facts is found in the ideas they incarnate.

We do a disservice to our children and, I would venture to suggest, our God, when we neglect the personhood of children so that we can make them easier to manage and then deprive them of the truth, goodness, and beauty on which their eternal souls feed.

Cindy, thanks for posting - and all of you, thank you for the excellent and insightful responses!

A new day is coming. Tomorrow.

Andrew and Cindy, thank you for this! I feel like I am straddling 'classical' and 'CM' right now. I know that CM *is* classical, but keep forgetting as I try to practically apply it in my home... after seven years of studying CM's original works! I feel the lack in my own education.

"The meaning of facts is found in the ideas they incarnate." This statement brought to mind an analogy. Like a person's soul in his physical body, ideas are housed in facts. If we extend the analogy, then discarding facts altogether would be educational gnosticism. They are not as important as ideas (the 'soul' of a thing being of utmost importance), but 'material' things do matter.

Obviously, I am thinking on the other side of the spectrum... of those of us that disparage the learning of facts rather than simply keeping it in its place. I see this in the CM community. Many of us are so eager to throw off the chains of bondage that we unwittingly stray into licentiousness. In the classical community, I suppose the opposite reaction occurs. Balance, balance.

Like, like, like!!!! The more I have read about classical education and Charlotte Mason's ideas over the years, the more I have been convinced that you are right. Listening to Circe's conference lectures has just added to my conviction. Thank you for writing about it so faithfully, Cindy. I appreciate the encouragement to keep walking this path with my children.

Theories about learning should be distinguished from theories about teaching and theories about the nature of knowledge and the human knower. They should all strive toward consistency with each other in accounting for personhood in all of its complexity. This is what has so attracts me to Charlotte Mason. Her anthropology, ontology, pedagogy, and epistemology line up with what we can see to be true about human knowers in a God-created, albeit fallen, world on which grace has been poured out and continues to be applied through the Holy Spirit. While I see that the content of a CM education and a classical one are virtually the same, I've always preferred the humility with which Mason put forth her ideas and offered her practices. I see hubris in classical pedagogical practices of sorting and ranking students, and determining what all students should know and how they should show it. Agendas or aims seem between the two seem to differ as well--CM's being to redeem the world, ragged and tattered and beautiful as it is, through love and care; and classical being to raise up a Christian elite to create a superior parallel world that will gradually take over the existing one.


There is a "like" button! =)

It's at the bottom of the post.

Just the other day a friend once again referred to the CM method as "less than" compared to classical, implying it was a "touchy feely" method not requiring the hard work of a truly classical approach. There's such a strong belief among many classical schoolers that CM is for the less motivated. I've just learned to keep my mouth shut. Thank you for this encouragement.

If there were a "like" button, I'd "like this. I wish this fundamental fact about Charlotte Mason and classical education were more widely understood.

"The marriage of Charlotte Mason to Wendell Berry" has always seemed ideal to me. Great article, I was thinking "oh I see--yes, that's it exactly!" the whole time. I especially like how you talk about a living subject as one which retains its meaning--and thus, ultimately, its connection with its Maker.

And yes, blame it all on Descartes. Thankfully CM found her roots in a pre-Cartesian system...

I think this just might be my favorite article EVER.

You came home and blogged about it, and <i>I still remember what you wrote!</i> I ate it up, like i had been starving my whole life, and someone had finally given me bread. That year, I read Wendell Berry, and Charlotte Mason's works. And we began to classically educate the CM way. I love this post!

I confess that I was put off, back in the day, by the (mistaken) impression that a Charlotte Mason education would have my sons tiptoeing through tulips. I was already worried that I had ruined them by insisting on making our own coonskin caps and grinding our own cornmeal. That fad was short-lived in our home (thankfully!) but I wish I had known you back then Cindy. Whoever thinks that CM is for sissies hasn't met your guys!

How embarrassing to have missed it! (I don't "like" things as a general rule.)

Duly noted and "liked"!

i love the the fact that an education following cm is not simply 'tiptoeing through the tulips' though I like tulips and therein is a great subject for nature study :)

i have found that the attempt at applying cm is actually more rigorous in our homeschool (probably than many of the so called 'classical' curriculum choices would have been - circe institute aside, of course ;), simply because it incorporates teaching the 'whole person'. this is such an immeasurably huge task. may God help us.

amy in peru

I agree with Lynn Bruce. I think this was so well written and explained, I am almost speechless. You hit the nail on the head Cindy. I want to link this into the discussion that I caused to go crazy on the LTW yahoo group, but I really think that I need to leave Andrew's comment as the closing statement on that thread. It is hard to explain CM and Classical and you did it brilliantly.

Thank you for clarifying this: "I must note one difference between a 'classical education' and a 'Charlotte Mason education' and here we may find the key to the problem. There is nothing elite about a CM education. Its first distinction is that ALL children are born persons and can be educated this way with some success. " I am reading Climbing Parnassus right now and was shocked to find out that at the heart of a true classical education in its "original" roots was an elitism. I surely do not see that coming from Circe. I think that the Christian element of "all people were created in the image of God" is a crucial difference and I am glad you suggested it. Circe has done a great job at redeeming that pitfall of the classical education. I think one of my favorite things about CM, is that she emphasizes the respect of individuality and the personhood of each human being.

Well said Katie. As you probably know, I am wrestling with the same thing. I love your analogy and will be chewing on that. Email me on this if you have anymore thoughts about the facts/ideas being bound together as "one" per se.