Charlottle Mason & Classical Education
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Charlotte Mason &
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.
Englands 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 childs natural short attention
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 Masons, 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 childs 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 Masons 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 Gods 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.