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    Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy

    At School with Charlotte: Climbing the Ladder (Part I)

    September 2, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    In the last chapter, Charlotte explained to us the “bottom rungs” of the Ladder of Relationships — the rungs which babies climb. If you recall, she declares that education is the “science of relations” and that we, as the teachers, are to facilitate this relationship-making. Charlotte urges us to consider “the relationships which we may initiate for the child.” The Ladder of Relationships, then, is a helpful tool, teaching us which relationships are most important at which ages and stages.

    What ladder? Charlotte Mason's ladder of relationships, leading us from babyhood to adulthood, through all the sciences, and ultimately to God Himself.

    In this chapter, we learn of the rungs for children. She specifically references up to the ages of twelve or fourteen — or even older, if possible. We can consider the rungs for babies to be fitting up to the age of nine (if we take her first volume as a guide), and then the rungs for children to be fitting from ages seven or nine up until the teen years. Yes, there is some overlap. I suppose it is natural for the transition not to be absolute but gradual, and for individual children to spend more or less time on the bottom rungs depending on their own needs.

    Today, we’ll go through some of the relationships, and we’ll finish up in Part II at a later date.

    The Sciences

    Here Charlotte lists geology, mineralogy, physical geography, botany, natural history, biology, astronomy, and so on. But are these relationships to be like those with which most of us, given our Darwinian (naturalistic materialist) educations, had with such subjects? Not at all.

    [T]he whole circle of the sciences is, as it were, set with gates ajar in order that a child may go forth furnished, not with scientific knowledge, but with, what Huxley calls, common information, so that he may feel for objects on the earth and in the heavens the sort of proprietary interest which the son of an old house has in its heirlooms.

    What a beautiful picture!

    Dynamic Relationships

    The child must explore with his body. He must run and walk and climb. For those overprotective mothers out there, it is very important that he fall down, that he learn the limits of physics. (Okay. Charlotte didn’t say that. But I did, because it’s true.) She suggests that he learn to use an oar and sail a boat. He must skate and swim and slide.

    This is an elemental relationship for the lack of which nothing compensates.

    Power over Material

    This is handicrafts, folks. The child begins with simple tools — scissors and glue, perhaps — but he works up to real ability using real materials. He should be able to make things — furniture, dinner, clothes, something leather, and so on.

    Intimacy with Animals

    He should know the animals in house and garden well. The relationship should be intelligent (knowing, with understanding) as well as kind. I do wonder if Charlotte would shake her head at our multitude of accidental frog deaths this past summer.

    Human Relationships

    I found it interesting that Charlotte not only touched on the child’s relationship with those around him in his immediate geography, but his relationship to humans past and future. She speaks not only of love, service, authority, obedience, etcetera, but also history, literature, archaeology, art, languages, and travel.

    Awakening Idea

    The point it not to fill the student to the brim with information and facts, to have him pass tests and appear “smart” to those outside the school. The point is to awaken the child’s interest and intelligence. We do this with ideas. Every lasting relation of the child’s begins with the lighting of a single flame which Charlotte calls the “awakening idea.” This is the idea that wakes the child up to a subject, to a part of the world in which he lives. She mentions by way of example formative conversations with men who have traveled and seen interesting people and places.


    Charlotte tells us that our intelligence is only limited by our interest. As an example, she holds up language. If we saw language as a means of knowing people in whom we are interested, it wouldn’t be so hard for us. At least, this is what she proposes. We reject dusty textbooks written in such a way as to kill — completely and unalterably — interest in the subject forever. But the modern classroom has also done this (or, at least, some of them have), and replaced the textbooks with entertainment. To be interested is to be drawn intellectually into a subject, to be motivated to learn more. To be entertained is to be amused. Generally, entertainment is a passing fancy, and our appearance of interest depends upon the ability of someone outside of ourselves to draw our attention. So we must not entertain the children, but rather get them interested. This is a quiet work which requires a grasp of ideas rather than methods.

    A Moment for Criticism

    Here, Charlotte pauses at her position upon the ladder, and she surveys her culture. She looks at it critically, and finds it wanting in a few areas. First, she thinks we do not view our purpose correctly. If we saw ourselves (in our educating) as being about the business of getting in touch with other persons of all types and in all climates and from all ages, then we would be impassioned, humble, reverent, wise. But she fears for her culture:

    We talk of lost ideals, but perhaps they are not lost, only changed; when our ideal for ourselves and for our children becomes limited to prosperity and comfort, we get these, very likely, for ourselves and for them, but we get no more.

    In addition, she sees her culture’s view of man, and realizes that duty has no place in it:

    Persons who are no more than a ‘state of consciousness’ cannot be expected to take up moral responsibilities, except such as appeal to them at the moment. Duty, in the sense of relations imposed by authority and due to our fellows, does not fall within the scope of present-day psychology.

    She seems to see a waning of Biblical instruction, and she doubts that the current child-citizens are being instructed in their duties using the Ten Commandments, and the wise teachings of Solomon and Paul and Christ.

    The ethical teaching is “casual,” she says. Books with an obvious moral are rejected. There is no organized method of instilling morals — and therefore duty  — into the children. Without duty, there is no brotherhood of mankind, no solidarity of the race.

    More in Part II

    Charlotte is about to start climbing the ladder again, so this is a good place to break until next time. For now, I think we see that Charlotte is completely distinct from the modern school, which is in the business of producing workers for the “global economy.” The reason Charlotte talks so much about people and duty — about relationships — is that she is in a different business. She is using the Humanities in the traditional sense, humanizing — making more human — the children she comes in contact with.

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  • Reply At School with Charlotte: Climbing the Ladder (Part 2) | Afterthoughts September 1, 2019 at 6:40 pm

    […] Part I, we dealt with all of the relations between the child and the “world of matter” (as […]

  • Reply Kristine September 3, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    I loved the part on the awakening of ideas: “The point it not to fill the student to the brim with information and facts, to have him pass tests and appear ‘smart’ to those outside the school. The point is to awaken the child’s interest and intelligence.”
    And we do this with ideas! This is such a key point, and so different from the standards-based education public school students are receiving today.
    Thanks for summing things up so beautifully, Brandy.

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