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Towards a Defense of Charlotte Mason

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.

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