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.




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