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A Brief History of Charlotte Mason

On January 1st, 1842, was born one who accomplished a great service for children, in making possible for them the fullness and freedom of life which is their due--Charlotte Mason, who gave a long life of service to the well-being of the children on whom she based her hopes for the future of the nation and of the world…. Her home life came to an early end: both her parents died, and she was left a young girl without money and with frail health, without relations or influential friends to help her. She decided to become a teacher, and, after taking a course of training, spent the next twenty years in close contact with children and young people under many varying conditions. During these years she was gaining a deep understanding of children and their ways, and her distinctive ideas were taking shape in her mind.

Not till Miss Mason was over forty did she put her teaching before the public in a series of lectures on 'Home Education,' which were later published in book form. The next ten years brought the opportunity to establish on a permanent basis the educational movement which she started. The Parents' National Educational Union was founded in 1888, with its magazine, the Parents' Review, and with the object of uniting parents of all classes, teachers, and others interested in a movement for the better education of children. (The word 'education' Miss Mason always used in its widest sense; not 'schooling ' merely, but the bringing up of children to give the widest scope to all their powers, physical, mental, moral and spiritual.) In order to give practical help in the carrying out of these principles, Miss Mason founded the Parents' Union School (a correspondence school), which in the fifty years of its existence has opened the doors of knowledge to thousands of children working in all types of home and school, in the British Isles and abroad wherever English-speaking people live, its members being drawn from every social class and ranging literally 'from China to Peru.'

But it is not chiefly as a gracious memory of the past that we commemorate Charlotte Mason. What lasting achievements have survived her? Has she any message for a war-stricken world? The organisations which she founded are still carrying on her work with undiminished energy. But behind these outward and visible signs of a movement towards a liberal education for all lie the ideas which have spread far beyond the bounds of any organisation and have made a lasting contribution to educational theory and practice.

Miss Mason's thought is to be found in her books, the Home Education Series and An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education. Her teaching forms a unified body in which details take their place as parts of a living whole, and it is not possible in a short space to do more than indicate one or two of her leading principles, remembering always that what she preached, she practised, and that her ideas have been tested in their applications to generations of children for over fifty years.

She wrote herself, 'The central thought, or rather body of thought, upon which I found, is the somewhat obvious fact that the child is a person with all the possibilities and powers included in personality.'  She has much to say of the respect due to the personality of children, who must not be treated as clay in the hands of their parents and teachers, nor as 'counters to be moved hither and thither according to the whim of the moment.' This conception of the child as an individual with inalienable rights is of the greatest importance in view of the totalitarian claim that the State should exercise supreme rights in the moulding of youth to the shape required. In Miss Mason's view, it is the duty of parents and teachers to call forth the latent possibilities for good inherent in every child, while giving no opportunity for evil possibilities to develop. These possibilities fall under four headings- physical, mental, moral and spiritual.

In the bringing up of children in habits of physical health, Miss Mason laid much stress upon outdoor life and the cultivation of manual skill…..

There is no space even to outline the many other fruitful ideas which form Miss Mason's lasting achievement. Perhaps her message to the men and women of to-day might be summed up as follows:

Children are the nation's most valuable treasure.

A Liberal Education (that is, an education fitting for free men) is possible and necessary for all children.

This education should enable children to enter into their goodly heritage of knowledge; it should fit them in body, mind and soul to play their part as free citizens…, and it should make valid their relationship to God, Whose service is perfect freedom.

(Excerpted from: Madsen, M.S. Weymouth. “Charlotte M. Mason: A Brief Chronicle.” Parents’ Review. Volume 57, pp. 18-20.)

A Short Synopsis of Mason’s Ideas


‘No sooner doth the truth .... come into the soul’s sight, but the soul knows her to be her first and old acquaintance.’

‘The consequence of truth is great; therefore the judgment of it must not be negligent.’

In so far as we hold and profess what is known as P.N.E.U. thought, three duties are before us: (a) To give earnest study to the mastery of the principles of our educational philosophy*; (b) Having mastered these, to apply them ; (c) To make them known. Here follows a short summary of our principles, but it must be remembered that a knowledge of these formulae is by no means a knowledge of the principles they aim at summing up.

1. Children are born persons.

2. They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.

3. The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental; but—

4. These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon, whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.

5. Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments — the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit and the presentation of living ideas. The P.N.E.U. Motto is: ‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline and a life.’

6. When we say that ‘education is an atmosphere,’ we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child's ‘level.’

7. By ‘education is a discipline,’ we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or of body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e. to our habits.

8. In saying that ‘education is a life,’ the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.

9. We hold that the child's mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.

10. Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of Education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher's axiom is ‘what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.’

11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum, taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, the facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that—

12. ‘Education is the Science of Relations,’ that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts; so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about everything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of—

‘Those first-born affinities

That fit our new existence to existing things.’

13. In devising a Syllabus for a normal child, of whatever social class, three points must be considered:

(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.

(b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e. curiosity).

(c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.

14. As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.

15. A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also by questioning, summarising and the like.

Acting upon these and some other points in the behaviour of mind, we find that the educahility of children is enormously greater than has hitherto been supposed, and is but little dependent on such circumstances as heredity and environment.

Nor is the accuracy of this statement limited to clever children or to children of the educated classes: thousands of children in elementary schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behaviour of mind.

16. There are two guides to moral and intellectual self-management to offer to children, which we may call ‘the way of the will’ and ‘the way of the reason.’

17. The way of the will: Children should be taught (a) to distinguish between ‘I want’ and ‘I will.’ (b) That the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts from that which we desire but do not will, (c) That the best way to turn our thoughts is to think of or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting, (d) That after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its work with new vigour. (This adjunct of the will is familiar to us as diversion, whose office it is to ease us for a time from will effort, that we may ' will ' again with added power. The use of suggestion as an aid to the will is to be deprecated, as tending to stultify and stereotype character. It would seem that spontaneity is a condition of development, and that human nature needs the discipline of failure as well as of success.)

18. The way of the reason: We teach children, too, not to ‘lean (too confidently) unto their own understanding’; because the function of reason is to give logical demonstration (a) of mathematical truth, (b) of an initial idea, accepted by the will. In the former case, reason is, practically, an infallible guide, but in the latter it is not always a safe one ; for whether that idea be right or wrong, reason will confirm it by irrefragable proofs.

19. Therefore children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.

20. 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.

* These are set forth at length in the five volumes of the Home Education Series, by Charlotte M. Mason, and in her last volume, An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education, all obtainable from the P.N.E.U. Office, 171 Victoria Street, London, S.W.I. The Home Education Series is so called from the title of the first volume and not as dealing wholly or principally with ‘Home’ as opposed to ‘School’ Education.

(Parents’ Review. Volume 53, pp. 31-33.)

The Educational Manifesto

"Studies serve for Delight, for Ornament, and for Ability."

Every child has a right of entry to several fields of knowledge.

Every normal child has an appetite for such knowledge.

This appetite or desire for knowledge is a sufficient stimulus for all school work, if the knowledge be fitly given.

There are four means of destroying the desire for knowledge:--

(a) Too many oral lessons, which offer knowledge in a diluted form, and do not leave the child free to deal with it.

(b) Lectures, for which the teacher collects, arranges, and illustrates matter from various sources; these often offer knowledge in too condensed and ready prepared a form.

(c) Text-books compressed and recompressed from the big book of the big man.

(d) The use of emulation and ambition as incentives to learning in place of the adequate desire for, and delight in, knowledge.

Children can be most fitly educated on Things and Books. Things, e.g.--

i. Natural obstacles for physical contention, climbing, swimming, walking, etc.

ii. Material to work in––wood, leather, clay, etc.

iii. Natural objects in situ––birds, plants, streams, stones, etc,

iv. Objects of art.

v. Scientific apparatus, etc.

The value of this education by Things is receiving wide recognition, but intellectual education to be derived from Books is still for the most part to seek.

Every scholar of six years old and upwards should study with 'delight' his own, living, books on every subject in a pretty wide curriculum. children between six and eight must for the most part have their books read to them.

This plan has been tried with happy results for the last twelve years in many home schoolrooms, and some other schools.

By means of the free use of books the mechanical difficulties of education––reading, spelling, composition, etc.––disappear, and studies prove themselves to be 'for delight, for ornament, and for ability.'

There is reason to believe that these principles are workable in all schools, Elementary and Secondary; that they tend in the working to simplification, economy, and discipline.

(From Charlotte Mason's School Education, p. 214)

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