Was Charlotte Mason a Classical Educator?

In my small, specialized world of classical and Charlotte Mason homeschooling, a lively debate has taken form over the last year. A book had been written, and then a critique, and the ensuing conversations have created two “camps” in the previously-homogeneous crowd of Charlotte Mason educators. What are those two views?

One, that Charlotte Mason was really a classical educator whose goal was to restore and apply the deeper principles of classical education and two, that Mason was a pioneer, and sought to provide a very different alternative to classical education, which she viewed as inferior.

It is sad that the little world of CM education has become divided, and yet the increased attention to CM’s actual writings, and the evaluation of why we do what we do, have been a silver lining. Here is my own little spin on the debate, and the story of how I came to my conclusion.

My assumptions

I was introduced to Charlotte Mason slowly, from inside the neo-classical movement. My first read on homeschooling was the Well Trained Mind, and this is how we began the early years of education in our home. I joined the online community, and it wasn’t long until I heard mentions of CM. A lot homeschoolers felt her pull; including many who once called themselves “classical.” But for a long time, CM just seemed a collection of methods to me; I couldn’t quite put my finger on an overarching philosophy. I read a book or two on the subject, but they didn’t really help a deeper understanding. CM looked to me like “classical lite,” a more child-friendly approach to the classical subjects. So if you had asked me at this point if CM was “classical,” I’d have said yes, a subset of classical. After all, CM herself was immersed in the era of classical education. How could she NOT be classical?

Reading Consider This

I decided to try a boxed CM curriculum for awhile. It looked magnificent from a planning perspective. But three years into it, firstborn son and I were burnt out. I had been learning to simplify life, and my crosshairs now focused on education. The Circe Institute and Christopher Perrin’s lectures were a breath of fresh air at this time, both of whom identified as classical. I guess CM was not going to work in our home; we were classical after all.

While attending a Circe conference, I came across the book Consider This. This book was written to demonstrate the classical roots of a CM education. Mystified that the “teaching from rest” establishment of Circe would recommend a manic (I thought) CM education, I bought the book and read it through.

My review of the book can be found here. I greatly enjoyed it, and finally began to understand CM ed as a coherent whole. However, I found myself actually less convinced that CM was classical than before I had read the book. The connections just felt too forced and tenuous. You can read those uncertainties in my review.

Middlekauff article

About a year later, a local CM homeschooler sent a link to an article which she described as “a scathing review” of Consider This. Her introduction piqued my interest and I started to read the lengthy article. I was fascinated that it was written by a man. It is rare to find someone with a keen interest in Charlotte Mason education who is not a female.

The article carefully put together a case for CM NOT being a classical educator. The author was a CM purist, and probably a bit more faithful to her teachings than I felt the need to be, but he made good points and strengthened my doubts about the premise of Consider This. Also, it began to appear that CM’s writings were pretty cherry-picked for CT. Of course they have to be somewhat to present a concise overview of her philosophy, but there were some main themes that were quite glossed over. One major example was CM’s many claims that her views were new, and that she considered herself a pioneer.

Another significant point was brought up in the many comments after the article. CM’s training was not at a classical school! On the contrary, she went to a relatively new, progressive school which greatly impacted her views on children and education. Her earlier education was done at home.

Hirsch article: Classical vs. Romantic education

One of the great difficulties of defining someone as being classical or not is that classical education itself is not well-defined. It took place over hundreds of years and in many different locations. Everyone you talk to has a different definition of classical education.

While I was reading the Middlekauff article, I began to think about a different article I had read a few years earlier. It was written by E. D. Hirsch and described the difference that the Romantic movement had made in the arena of education.

Romanticism glorified nature and the natural state of things. Before the Romantic era, education was teacher-centered. The teacher set the content, the pace, the method, and was the main conduit of information. The student was viewed as raw material in an imperfect state who greatly needed what the teacher had to offer.

Then the Romantics came along and suggested a child-centered education. They emphasized the importance of a child’s person, their natural ability to learn, and the need for the teacher to adapt to the child’s modes of learning. If ever there was a definition for what is classical and what is not, I think that this is it. Of course, there is much more to the classical tradition, but this definition fits all the different views. It is the common denominator.

Now consider these quotes (among others) by CM:

The notion of supplementing Nature from the cradle is a dangerous one. A little guiding, a little restraining, much reverent watching, Nature asks of us; but beyond that, it is the wisdom of parents to leave children as much as may be to Nature. . . (Mason, 1886, 186)

. . . we are still far from fully recognising that our part in the education of children should be thoughtfully subordinated to that played by Nature herself. (Mason, 1896, 193)

 

Caldecott book: Mason’s place in history

Right after I finished the Middlekauff article I began a book about education and the Trivium called Beauty in the Word. I couldn’t believe my ears (eyes) when Caldecott, the author, began the book by describing the tension between what he called the “Romantic” and “Classical” tendencies. His analysis of the two perspectives perfectly echoed what I had read by Hirsch. He traced the romantic movement in education back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

“Rousseau himself . . . believed in the natural goodness and value of the child, wanted education to be adapted to each new developmental stage, and placed great emphasis on the importance of the child’s activity or active involvement in the process.” (Caldecott, Beauty in the Word, 20)

Caldecott then goes on with a short history of a number of reformers who brought these ideas to education; one of them was Charlotte Mason. I now clearly saw the similarities to her fellow pioneers such as Rudolf Steiner (founder of Waldorf education) and Maria Montessori (founder of Montessori education).

It was the progressives who were the ones to call for an education for all, male and female, rich and poor. Classical educators called their subjects the “liberal arts” (liberal meaning “free”), for they were for wealthy freemen who did not have to work. Classical ed has always been considered an elite education, and I think that aura still remains around the label, making it desirable even today.

Conclusion

I am not a Charlotte Mason expert, but at this point it looks to me that not only was she NOT classical, she was progressive! Especially considering the era in which she lived. In most classical/CM circles, such a pronouncement would be a slam, but I do not mean it that way at all. I do not consider Progressive automatically “evil” and Classical automatically “good.” When most people hear “Progressive Education,” they think of what exists in our public schools today. But that is progressivism mixed with relativism and utilitarianism and a lot of federal government.

Education is an art as well as a science, and I really think the best education is a blend of Classical and Progressive.

And there is one more thing I would like to point out. The debate on whether CM ed is classical is really a bit moot. Classical education was traditionally aimed toward young adults. CM education was developed for children. Some may point out that she had high school levels, but she herself said the usefulness of the “classical grind” began around 15 years of age. In another place she said she wanted students until they were 12 or 14. So don’t feel you have to choose between the two. CM ed is a wonderful fit for grades 1-8, and you can still have a classical education (however you define that) in high school or college.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what our methodology is called. We are to educate the child in front of us. Glean wisdom where you can and find what works for him. Labels, like curriculum, are good servants but bad masters.

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