Who Was Charlotte Mason?

Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) was a British educator, teacher trainer, author, and lecturer who invested her life in improving the quality of education in England at the turn of the twentieth century.  Mason spent many years teaching children and thinking about how to design a model of education that fit what she observed to be true:  that children are born persons--able to deal with ideas and knowledge, not "empty vessels" to be filled with facts.  She rejected the idea born out of the industrial age that the purpose of education is to fit children for a career or prepare them for examinations.  Instead, she viewed education as a way of living.  She insisted that children, as Image-bearers, deserve the very best in literature, art, music, contemporary science, and mathematic concepts as well as an intimate knowledge of nature through close contact with Creation.  Her revolutionary methods led to a shift from utilitarian education to education of a child upon living ideas.

At the age of 50, Mason moved to Ambleside in the beautiful Lake District of Northern England and established the House of Education,  a training school for governesses and others working with young children.  She worked from 1892 until her death in 1923 to educate parents, as the primary educators of their children, through lectures and through her six books entitled The Home Education Series.  Mason developed a broad, liberal curriculum that was used in home schools belonging to the Parent's National Education Union (PNEU) and in the various Parents Union Schools (PUS) across the United Kingdom and British Empire.  Her House of Education and accompanying Practicing School are now part of the University of Cumbria.

Mason's work carried on after her death, and the PNEU existed into the 1960s.  In 1984, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay sparked a renewed interest in Charlotte Mason's ideas, especially in America, through the publication of her book For the Children's Sake.  Since that time, Mason's work has been brought into many schools and home schools around the world.


What is a Charlotte Mason Philosophy?

One cannot fully grasp the philosophy of Charlotte Mason without reading through her written works.  However, a humble explanation of her key thoughts are presented here as a brief overview.  Mason's philosophy of education is best summarized by the twenty principles given at the beginning of each book in her six volume series.  Two key mottos taken from those principles are "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life" and "Education is the science of relations".  She believed that children are born persons with all their capacity and should be respected, revered and not hindered.  She believed that the child's mind is the instrument of his education--his education does not produce his mind.  Children are born with reason and a will and should be taught the Way of the Will and the Way of the Reason.  Her motto for students was "I am, I can, I ought, I will." 

Education is an Atmosphere -  Atmosphere should reflect the acceptance that children are born persons. Mason states, "When we say that education is an atmosphere we do not mean that a child should be isolated in a 'child environment' specially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere both as regards persons and things and should let him live freely among his proper conditions." Thus the atmosphere should be natural, not contrived.   It should include real relations, not artificial.  The atmosphere should be one of truth and sincerity and where a common pursuit of the love of knowledge by parents, teachers and children reflects the intellectual life and moral health of the environment. 

Education is a Discipline - Mason states, "By this formula we mean the discipline of habits formed definitely and thoughtfully whether habits of mind or of body."  She believed that habit training was a powerful force in helping children to take charge of their own education (self-education).  Mason specifically encouraged a child's learning the habits of attention, perfect execution, obedience, truthfulness, an even temper, neatness, kindness, order, respect, recall, punctuation, gentleness, and cleanliness, among others.

Education Is a Life - Mason writes, that life "...requires sustenance, regular, ordered and fitting...We know that food is to the body what fuel is to the steam-engine, the sole source of energy...the mind too works only as it is fed...the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body."  She goes on to say, "Education is a Life. That life is sustained on ideas.  Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food...our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs." 

Education is the Science of Relations - Charlotte Mason believed in giving the child "a full and generous curriculum...taking care that...facts are not presented without their informing ideas."  Out of this comes her principle that:--"'Education is the Science of Relations'; that is, a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts:  so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of--'Those first-born affinities that fit our new existence to existing things.'"  Mason thus created a liberal arts curriculum based on "the three sorts of knowledge proper to a child": the Knowledge of God, the Knowledge of Man and the Knowledge of the Universe.


What is the Charlotte Mason Method?

Charlotte Mason used several methods working together to carry out her educational philosophy, some of which we will briefly discuss here.  Again, the details and correct use of these methods is best understood through reading Mason's works.  As mentioned above, Mason created a broad, liberal arts curriculum for her students.  Mason believed that the Knowledge of God is the primary knowledge and most important.  The Knowledge of Man includes a chronological study of history, literature aligned with the time period being studied in history, citizenship, composition, languages, art, music, and poetry.  The Knowledge of the Universe includes the study of natural history: nature study, nature lore, object lessons and special studies; the sciences, geography, mathematics, physical development and handicrafts. Mason believed that a child should have first-hand exposure to great and noble ideas through living books in each subject area and through the masterpieces of great artists, composers and poets, all of which come from Creator God.  Living Books are those books usually written by one person with a passion for the topic, that uses rich language, and has the ability to write in an engaging, literary style while communicating great ideas rather than mere facts.  Mason only used textbooks when they were the best books she could find to meet her criterion.  Through the method of habit training, students use their habit of attention for the reading of a living book.  It is through this habit of attention the student takes in the ideas from just one reading of the passage from the living book.  Knowledge takes place through the assimilation of the these ideas which is accomplished by the act of narrationNarration requires the power of attention to attend to the ideas from the reading and synthesize and organize the material in his mind. Narration is the telling back what has been read by the student in his own words.  Narrations can be oral, drawn, written, acted out or expressed in a number of creative ways.  Charlotte Mason advocated for short and varied lessons.   Younger students lessons should last no more than twenty minutes, while older students lessons become progressively longer based on their power of attention.  Varied lessons allow for kept interest and use of different brain functions as not to exhaust the student and allow for a taking in of the broad and generous curriculum. 

Charlotte Mason believed in a liberal education for all.  She states, "...a liberal education is like justice, religion, liberty, fresh air, the natural birthright of every child."