Charlotte Mason: Classical, Progressive or Unique? An Appetite for Knowledge

My understanding of the liberal arts was completely transformed by this paragraph in Karen Glass’ book Know and Tell: The Art of Narration. In it she says

An art is not an artistic pursuit. The historical seven liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) were called “arts” and not “sciences” for a reason. In the ancient world, a “science” represented a body of knowledge to be acquired. An art is not a body of knowledge; it is something to be practiced. An art is something that you do. This is why even in contemporary usage we speak of “practicing” law or “practicing” medicine. It is necessary to acquire some knowledge in order to be a lawyer or a doctor, of course, but when knowing is expressed by doing, it becomes an art. (p. 11)

Mason referred to some of the liberal arts-grammar and math in particular-as her “disciplinary subjects,” which caused her to categorize the Classical trivium and quadrivium in an altogether different manner. Mason overall had less interest in the liberal arts except as a tool to access the knowledge inherent in the “sciences.” It was content that she cared about; she felt that children hungered after content, not so much skill sets, whether they be liberal or utilitarian. She divided her subjects by areas of knowledge: Knowledge of God (Theology and doctrine), Knowledge of Man (Humanities), and Knowledge of the World (Natural Sciences) rather than into the classical trivium and quadrivium. She acknowledged grammar as a necessary subject area for teaching, but because she felt that grammar studies were a fairly abstract look at language (Knowledge of Man), she would not teach it any sooner than age 9. She also criticized the teaching of formal logic, noting that logic is the handmaid of an idea that is already accepted as true. Good logic can support bad conclusions.

The students’ relationship to knowledge differs between educators. There had been a traditionalist view that may or may not be associated with Classical education, a view that suggests that a child’s mind is empty until you fill it with facts, and that the mind is unable to process these facts adequately until the volume reaches some critical level.  Mason criticized Herbart, a progressive, for holding this view. Some educators in the classical camp believe that rote memorization is a valid way to provide the child with knowledge he or she requires. Mason, like educators both classical and progressive, believed that facts required context – their “informing ideas.” Mason would reject the notion that the trivium of the linguistic arts: grammar, dialectic (logic) and rhetoric, represents stages of a child’s development as articulated by Sayers in 1947. Grammar was a subject, not a stage and not including rote memorization – and should not be taught early (although, to be fair to the neoclassicists, Sayer’s age of education started at age 9). Rather, students are learning grammar up until graduation and children are capable of the basics of rhetoric from the moment they learn to speak.

Mason believed not only that children hungered for knowledge, but also that they were inherently capable of handling knowledge. They were capable of “thinking skills,” thinking is as natural to a child as digesting. Children can compare and contrast, characterize, summarize, determine the most important points of an argument, relate new knowledge to old. Educators do not give children these “faculties,” they exercise the faculties already there. Children learn to walk by walking; they learn to think by having something to think about. Classical educators, and most modern educators, tend to be more direct in teaching these skills.

So how does one impart knowledge? I can find 5 methods: Didactic, Mimetic, Diegetic, Socratic, and Praxis.

Didactic teaching is simply the presentation of the facts, ideas or their analysis in its theoretical form. The teacher teaches, the students listen and take notes. Or the text presents and organizes the facts and ideas for the students to memorize and/or utilize to solve problems. This is typically associated with Classical education. There are many variations on this method, and it will always have a place in education. However, it is almost universally vilified as a dull and ultimately ineffective way to learn from a progressive perspective. Mason felt that the view of the mind as a receptacle encouraged much didactic teaching, where even the progressives focus on merely improving their methods to be more entertaining, connecting more dots for the students, providing “much teaching with little knowledge…’what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.'”

Mimetic teaching might refer to the student’s exact reproduction of what was introduced didactically, or it might refer to a style of teaching that presents examples of a type, and allows students to draw generalizations between them. The latter is how Circe Institute presents Classical mimetic teaching. Mimesis, in the Greek, refer to theatrical and visual arts – creating a representation or image of what is to be communicated. Mason’s nature studies were mimetic, using art as a tool for observation. The student-artist reproduced the natural world using watercolor or colored pencil. Mason also relied on the magic of mimesis to teach grammar and writing skills by having them reproduce passages by great writers, and by giving them writing exercises in the style of a great writer.

I use the term Diegetic to describe Charlotte Mason’s preferred pedagogy. Diegesis is contrasted with mimesis in Greek. While mimesis means “to represent” or “to imitate,” diegesis means to “give an account of” to “narrate” or to explain. Mason uses this as her signature method, only instead of the teacher it is the student who is required to narrate, give an account of, or explain the text that he or she just read. Further, her preferred teaching media could be described as diegetic. Mason believed that information and ideas should be presented in literary form, and narrative was her favored literary device. Mason believed that children taught from the best books available on a subject, from well written narrative by authors with firsthand experience in their subjects, grew to become adults who would continue to educate themselves. Storytelling is a teaching method as old as language, so it is fair to say that narration is, in fact, a Classical method.

Socratic teaching, broadly speaking, is found in all three models. Both Classical and progressive teachers consider the Socratic method to be a form of questioning that allows students to use debate and dialog to extract deeper meanings from literature and primary source documents, particularly when ascertaining the meaning of broad terms such as virtue or when determining cause and effect. Mason approved of Socratic questioning in its narrower sense – when helping students arrive at moral convictions.

Praxis is a Greek word that means “reflective action,” a useful term for learning-by-doing. I borrow the term to cover inquiry based science, constructivism, and problem solving as tools. These activities characterize the approach most favored by progressive educators, also called “experiential learning.” Praxis already has meaning in the educational world. Paolo Freire uses it to refer to social action as education, and as such it takes on a somewhat Marxist flavor. Interestingly, Aristotle also refers to praxis as reflective moral action and he, too, used it in the context of education. Mason approved of experiential learning to the extent that it puts the child in relationship to his or her world, but not to the extent that a child becomes a technician.

Just as Classical education escapes clear definition, so does what could be considered “progressive,” “modern” or even “post modern.” Charlotte Mason, on the other hand, has a clearly defined philosophy and pedagogy that is unique in some ways, classical in others, and has both prefigured and drawn from the progressives. Even when Mason was inspired to create a unique program, drawn from her own experience and perhaps the whisperings of the Holy Spirit, she used her wide reading of the Classics to stand on broad shoulders. This gave her the perspective to see farther ahead than most of her progressive contemporaries.

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Charlotte Mason: Classical, Progressive, or Unique? A Science of Relations

I have been handed a marvelous opportunity. With no teaching credential other than self study, homeschool, a fabulous liberal arts college education, and a smattering of volunteer classroom experience, I am substitute teaching at a small Classical school in the heart of Seattle.

As part of the interview process for an ongoing position, the headmaster has asked me to give him my take on how my beloved Charlotte Mason method compares to, and fits in with, the Classical method. This has been a matter of no small debate within the Charlotte Mason community since Karen Glass, one of the founding Advisory members of Ambleside Online wrote Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition. 

Was Mason a Classical educator? Glass makes a persuasive case in the affirmative, particularly if you take the view that Classical education encompasses more than the views expressed by Dorothy Sayers in her 1947 essay The Lost Tools of Learning and Susan Wise Bauer’s 1999 book The Well Trained Mind. Glass reaches farther back, to the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle before Christ, and of Quintilian and Augustine after Christ.

Because this school’s approach encompasses the ideals of education embodied in the 4th Century B.C. works of Plato, and the 5th Century A.D. works of St. Augustine of Hippo, and the 19th Century works of John Milton Gregory, along with the 20th and 21st century works above; because educational philosophy encompasses ideas that DO require a Master’s in Ed. to adequately cover; and because Classical education as practiced today has modernized certain ancient practices and then borrowed Greek terminology to describe them, it is perhaps more helpful to take a nuanced look and to consider aspects of educational pedagogies along a continuum from Classical to Progressive.

Progressivism is also a fairly large category of education, covering the mid-19th Century to the present, and including a fair number of practices that are not followed by all schools considering themselves “progressive.”

Mason was not a progressive. She shared in the educational reform efforts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries of a number of famous progressive educators, but much of her writing refutes their ideology and some of their more lamentable methods (object lessons, unit studies that drove children’s interests into the ground). But she does borrow from them. In some ways, her philosophy represents a step in the progressive direction, while in other ways she revives Classical practices that even the traditional educators of her day had abandoned. You could say that she keeps the best of the Classical ideal, but builds on it in a way that acknowledges the successes of her contemporaries and the fledgling field of psychology.

Take, as a beginning, the overall aim of education. The goal of the Classical educator is to mold the ideal man, a man of wisdom and virtue, pursuing Truth that is both knowable and accessible to fit the man for moral action. Classicists unabashedly seek to inculcate behavioral norms. Christian Classicists use the Bible as the standard for moral development and as the primary source of Truth, against which all truths are measured. The Progressive educators, at the other extreme, sought to make men (and women) that were useful to society. Like the sophists who were contemporaries of Plato, some believe that truth is not knowable, that truth is relative to personal experience. It is, at its worst, very utilitarian, but it is not without its own norms. Ideals of tolerance, empathy, and social activism are preached in the progressive classroom to this day, but these norms are arrived at by social consensus, not revelation.

There is no doubt that Mason was a Christian and believed that education could help mold men and women of character. “I am, I can, I ought, I will” – the motto of her schools – envisions educated persons who are sure of their identity, of their abilities, of their duty, and of their choices. However, she built upon the Classical aim in a very important way with this declaration, which became her 12th Principle:

We consider that education is the science of relations or, more fully, that education considers what relations are proper to a human being, and in what way that these several relations can best be established; that a human being comes into the world with a capacity for many relations… (School Education, p66)

This understanding of education as the science of relations meant that Mason believed students formed relationships with ideas, relationships between ideas, relationships with the subjects of books and through their experience of the natural world, and finally she believed that knowledge was a bridge to form relationships between peoples. This idea informed Mason’s pedagogy in some unique ways. Glass calls this sort of learning-by-relationship “synthetic,” as opposed to the analytical learning that takes place in many classical and neoclassical classrooms.   I believe, however, that for Charlotte Mason there is more to this sort of learning than the whole vs. parts dichotomy. When you develop relationships, you invest in them emotionally. You start to care.

“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”

So if you have a relationship with nature as a result of spending many hours in the woods, learning the names of trees, watching patiently for your first glimpse of the pileated woodpecker you know to live there but you have never seen, it matters to you if some developer is going to come to that wood and mow it down. If you have spent time learning about the language and culture of your neighboring country, you will think twice before going to war with that nation. This is why Mason emphasized learning modern languages in addition to Latin.  Mason’s emphasis on relationship seems to me to be absolutely unique to her philosophy, the beginnings of the kind of formal empathy training I started to see in Seattle schools in the last decade.

“I think we should have a great educational revolution once we ceased to regard ourselves as assortments of so-called faculties and realized ourselves as persons whose great business it is to get in touch with other persons of all sorts and conditions, of all countries and climes, of all times, past and present.” (School Education, pp 82-83)

Classical and Progressive education differ in their view of the teacher’s relationship to the student. Progressive educators are more willing to share their authority with students: sharing their first names, allowing children to vote on the subjects studied, activities, and even disciplinary tactics. At its most extreme, progressivism tended to regard the child as more pure than adults and in danger of corruption by the adult world. In the Classical classroom, all authority rests with the teacher, and Mason affirms that this is so. Like Classical educators both past and present, she believed that God deputed parents and teachers to hold authority over students. Mason’s teachers had control over their classrooms, over their curriculum, their resources, and their students’ learning activities.

However, while most classical educators put the teacher in the position of imparting knowledge through lecture and presentation, with the child acting as a parrot to reproduce this knowledge, Mason took the progressive view in envisioning the teacher as facilitator (“guide, philosopher and friend”). She had little use for a teacher’s involved explanation of a text, nor did she have use for a teacher’s barrage of analytical questions to test comprehension. Although she allows that some disciplinary subjects are teacher dependent (such as math), any area of knowledge that can be imparted through literary form is the province of books, and the teacher is not to stand in the way of the relationship a child forms with the ideas he or she encounters. Rather, she expected her students to articulate this new knowledge through the process of narration. Likewise, Mason expected that children would form relationships with the world around them, acquiring knowledge through observation and experience before subjecting it to analysis. She allowed the student to filter this knowledge through their own minds, knowing that children have the capacity to work on knowledge and digest it for themselves.