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Classical Christian
Classical Education
at Home

Christine Miller

Classical Christian
Homeschooling FAQ:
Charlottle Mason & Classical Education

This page last revised:
February 2003


Charlotte Mason &
Classical Education

Christine Miller

Charlotte Mason was an educator in Victorian England, at a time when the only method in use in England was the classical method. Therefore there are some strong similarities between Charlotte Mason and Classical Education. For instance, they both focus on including great literature in the curriculum. They both have a strong focus on the academic foundation of grammar, history, and mathematics. But to understand the differences, one must understand how classical education was implemented as a matter of course in Victorian England.

England’s own literature provides a clue. In the works of Charles Dickens and other Victorian writers, the picture is presented of schools which resemble more military camps, teachers strict to the point of cruelty, rote memorization and drill which crowds out all love of learning or joy of discovery. Long hours were spent at desk and over books. The phrase, "Children should be seen and not heard" was common of this time, and indicates how adults and society as a whole often viewed children. All these factors rolled together made school a dreaded chore for most children.

However, did children learn what the schoolmasters set out to teach them, chore though it was? Yes, indeed. The literacy level of those days far outstrips our own on both sides of the pond. Unlike so many today, those completing a basic education could make their verbs agree with their nouns, and their pronouns with their antecedents. Logic and Latin were unquestioned core components of both public and private school curriculum.

In spite of that, education needed reforming, no question. Charlotte Mason sought to restore the joy of childhood to children, even in education, and she revolutionized education and the way children were viewed by society in the process. It is not my belief that she quibbled with the subject matter taught to children. They did need to learn grammar, Latin, and logic, they did need to read great literature and so on. But she sought to change the way these subjects were taught to children.

She saw that children spent long hours at their desk working on their lessons, all the while fidgeting and longing to be playing. To rectify this, she introduced studying many subjects in each day for short periods of time. This was an attempt to match the material to be taught with a child’s natural short attention span.

She saw that teachers often treated children cruelly in their quest to help them develop self-discipline, and she saw that society dismissed them. To rectify this, she introduced the concept central to her method, that children are persons. Elevating them to the same status as their parents and teachers, to the status of human beings, caused children to be treated with much more respect, and validated what they had to say as something worth listening to.

She saw that lessons presented in a sterile, rote-learning way snuffed out the joy of discovery and the love of learning for children. To rectify this, she introduced a different way of presenting lessons, which might be called guided discovery. Lessons became interesting again, the joy of discovery was restored to children, and the natural curiosity and love of learning which is common to all children, was preserved for them.

Though no fault of Miss Mason’s, the school as play approach has swung the pendulum to the other extreme. Classical education and the teaching of Latin and Logic was dropped from the curriculum. Memorizing important facts is no longer encouraged. Even knowing how to spell properly and how to construct grammatically correct sentences is dismissed by a sector of professional educators! Now some educational methods even advocate that the joy of discovery and the love of learning is the most important factor in a child’s education, and so abandon a certain body of knowledge to be learned altogether, and encourage children to choose their own curriculum.

If the Victorian style of schooling was one end of the pendulum, the school as play philosophy is the other end. In this as in so many areas, balance is required. Children can learn a set body of knowledge without education being like a military camp. Children can experience the joy of discovery (especially in science, art, music, and even Latin and Greek!) without abandoning a curriculum standard. Children can even memorize their math facts and their spelling rules and history dates as part of competitions and games. And doing a few minutes of drill every day will not make their whole educational experience a drudge, but not only will it help them remember and recall important information, it will help them learn that in life we do the things we must as well as the things we want.

It is common sense to have shorter subjects and more play the younger a child is, but to help children mature, it is necessary to help them develop a sustained attention span, to help them grow into being able to study a single subject for a sustained time period. Teaching 20 subjects every day for blocks of 10 or 20 minutes each should not be practiced through the teen years. By the time children begin dialectic stage work, they ought to be able to sit still and concentrate for a reasonable length of time on a single subject. It stands to reason that the answer is not to teach 20 subjects a day for increasingly longer time periods, but as time for each subject is increased, the number of subjects studied ought to be decreased.

I do agree with C. S. Lewis, that we ought to be teaching far fewer subjects, and teaching them far better. The core of classical education is the study of Language: grammar, logic, and rhetoric; the language of Mathematics; and the single sstudy of Western Civilization in a wide variety of manifestations (Latin and Greek, literature, history, and Bible mainly, as well as science, art, music, philosophy, government and so on as time is found or made for them). Thus classical education departs from Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of many subjects for short periods of time.

Of course, no child ought to ever be treated disrespectfully, and this change which Miss Mason advocated need not be altered. However, as parents we need a proper view of children. Not the romantic view in which childhood is idealized as the most innocent and good natured of times, because as anyone with children knows, children have a natural tendency to sin. They also dwell in a natural state of foolishness and selfishness, out of which they must be led (the Latin meaning of “education” is “a leading out of”). Children must always be treated with respect as human beings created in God’s image, and fellow heirs of life, and must be given unconditional love and affection. But parents must also be wise; if they love their children, they must be consistent to develop virtuous character in them through imposing self-discipline on them from the outside until they learn to be self-disciplined from the inside.

The Classical Christian Homeschooling approach to education takes from the best of both worlds, the world of school as play, the joy of discovery, as well as the world of the classical curriculum and academic rigor. It recognizes the importance of Language and Latin for producing truly well-educated children, while tailoring how those lessons are presented to children in their different stages. The teaching method, much more like Charlotte Mason in the elementary years, tries to retain the joy of learning strength of Charlotte Mason, while focusing the lessons on the strength of classical education, the core, the tools of learning. However, as a child matures, the method of teaching -- dialectic and rhetoric -- matures with him.

Important Links:

The Charlotte Mason Method

A Charlotte Mason Education

Charlotte Mason and Classical Education by Susan Wise Bauer

Aimee’s Education Page

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