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.


One thought on “Charlotte Mason: Classical, Progressive or Unique? An Appetite for Knowledge

  1. Love this so much!! You’ve done a wonderful job really getting to the point of how CM’s version of classical education differs from Dorothy Sayer’s and I appreciated your outline of the 5 different methods of imparting knowledge. The more I learn about Charlotte Mason, the more I love her and her clearly defined philosophy!


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