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What I've Learned from Charlotte Mason [Part 2]

The Principal's Blog
February 6, 2022

Each of Charlotte Mason’s six volumes of her monumental Educational Philosophy series begins with a restatement of the 18 principles that she and her colleagues found most vital in the education of a child. Beginning with the statement, 

The consequence of truth is great; therefore the judgment of it must not be negligent,” 

she continues with truths, principles, and ideas that guided her work with individual children, families and schools. 

She begins with this cornerstone–

Principle #1: Children are born persons. 

This seems so commonsensical. I once wondered why it was necessary to say something so obvious. But in my two decades of being an educator, I have experienced how vital this belief is. In a world where children and adults alike are increasingly dehumanized, treated as resources or worse, it is critical to remind ourselves that we are always working with people just like us. Persons who possess infinite value and potential, who have different limitations than their parents and teachers, but also possessing some capacities that we as the adults have allowed to atrophy. This reminds us what we should always do and always never do when working with a child. This is fully in line with Jesus’ words to his disciples to 

“let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14) 

Principle #2: The are not born either bood or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil. 

This was actually an obstacle for me in my initial exposure to Charlotte’s writings. Eventually, after I spent some time reading several of her books though, I understood what she was saying. In her context about a century ago, the prevailing popular opinion (e.g. not Christian) about children was that they were largely creatures of their families, their potential (and even rights) dictated by the class or type of people they happened to be born into. Children were considered to be predestined to have the same character, life, and fate as their parents. This was especially true of uneducated or criminal parents; such children were regardless as nearly worthless, fit only for hardest, least worthy jobs. 

Charlotte and her friends saw through these cultural lies and held up the office of childhood as one ordained by God, no matter his family situation or station in life. She doesn’t go too deeply into the theological meaning of the ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ allowing those with more experience to explain (as well as avoiding unnecessary controversy with Christians who disagree). 

What she did unequivocally state numerous times, and lived out for over 50 years, was that every child was worth loving, 

every child was worth educating, 

and every child had the capacity to grow into goodness, truth, wisdom, and beauty. 

Principle 6: By the saying, Education Is An Atmosphere, it is not meant that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child environment…’ but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere…and should let him freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies [dumbs down] a child to bring down his world to the ‘child’s’ level. 

This is lived out at a school like RMCA–and can likewise be lived out at home–through striking a balance between coming down to a child’s level while also expecting him or her to rise to a challenge. We desire to work with parents to cultivate within each child a desire to grow, to strive to push himself and not to rest to long on any threshold of mastery or success. We choose to not ‘dumb down’ our approach to a book or subject, nor entertain or otherwise manipulate children with the cheap and easy substitutes for a true education. 

All of this is costly in terms of time, energy, and at times money. But it is a way of showing respect for both the child and educational endeavor. It is worth every moment, every choice, and every penny. 

Principle 10: …a child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather… a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, which which it is prepared to deal, and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does food. 

This Tenth Principle is a wise reminder of the essential nature of what we are doing every day in classes, and that parents can be doing even more deeply at home. This recognizes that a children’s education is essentially about his relationships as informed by ideas, within a variety of studies. It is also a vital statement that any child’s education, no matter the school, is very much a spiritual enterprise. 

At RMCA, we are able to be clear in how this can be an extension of a child’s discipleship, his or her life with Christ. In most other schools, that spiritual direction is essentially oriented toward something else besides the Christian faith. 

Principle 13: Education Is the Science of Relations; that is, a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts; so we must train him upon physical exercises, nature, 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 [loves] that fit our new existence to existing things.’ 

We often summarize an education at RMCA as one that focuses on 

an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.” 

And while that is very true, this principle reminds us that those three elements work together most effectively within the context of relationship. We are beings created for relationships. We start our lives as babies and toddlers yearning for connection with the people, animals, and things around us. Unfortunately, we often ‘outgrow’ that need as adults, enculturated toward relating to reality in ways that accomplish narrow goals but that leave us withered and spent. 

Our desire is to grow with parents to preserve, sustain, and grow a child’s relationships with his studies, ideas, and his own growth. It is the work of a lifetime, but these first few years are so important. 

Principle 15:  The Way of the Will.--

  1. Children should be taught to distinguish between ‘I want’ and “I will.” 
  2. That the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts from that which we desire but do not will. 
  3. That the best way to turn our thoughts is to think of or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting. 
  4. That, after a little rest in this say, the will returns to its work with new vigor. 

This multi-part principle very much concerns the ‘nuts and bolts’ of bringing up children. It directly addresses the many occasions we as parents and teachers daily face in helping a child choose the better over the worse. It contains both very practical ways for a child to own his or her own growth as well as some very deep philosophical understandings of what it means to be human. 

The more that any of us applies this principle in our life, as well as the life of a child, we will see habits form that support enduring character and a life-giving discipleship with the Living God. 

Principle 17: Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of initial ideas. To help them in this choice we should give them principles of conduct and a wide range of the knowledge fitted for them…

This attests to the fact that what has become known as ‘education’ is far from the original (or actual) ideal. We believe that our students have the right and responsibility to know the good and to choose it. That is the true definition of freedom. As opposed to the idea of license–the willful choosing of what one’s passions or desires want–freedom is the ability to choose what one should do, based on one’s understanding of reality and his or her place in it. The fact is that we are not autonomous; we do not own ourselves. Neither are our children our property. All of us are God’s creation, His potential sons and daughters. 

Within that recognition and acceptance of that reality, a primary means and end of education is the ability to accept truth and to reject lies. That doesn’t mean censoring bunches of books or avoiding relationships with people with whom we disagree. It does mean that we increasingly grow in the capacity to firmly hold on to ideas that bring life, and to speak truth into situations where lies or errors are flourishing. All of this assumes that one is growing in humility and the recognition of our own limitations, and the need to sink deep roots into Scripture, the experience of the Church, and the experiences of many generations of people who have gone before us.

Principle 18: We should allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and spiritual life of children, but should teach them that the divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their continual helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.”

This final principle serves as a capstone for the arch of ideas that Mason presents at the beginning of each of her six volumes. It reminds her readers then and now that our time with our children is about eternal ends. All that we do (or don’t do) has a cumulative effect of leading a child to or away from the Living God. This establishes how high the calling is to be a parent, a teacher, a mentor of a child. It is a testament to how each of a child’s studies serves as a way of growing as a whole person–body, mind, and spirit. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy! And that the end of all our studies, all of our education, all of our life, is to know and to be known by God. 

Read one of her books to read about the remaining principles not included here! 

Everything else that Charlotte Mason writes in her 2,000 pages is based on these 18 Principles. We would be wise to consider how they apply to us and how our own bringing up of a child can be informed and supported by them. 

Serving together, 

Mr. Byrd