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    Educational Philosophy, Mother's Education

    Is Charlotte Mason Classical? {A Follow-up}

    April 19, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]W[/dropcap]e’ve had some good discussion on the first post and Mystie also posted a link to a free talk by Doug Wilson that explains a little more of the history behind the use of Dorothy Sayers’ application of the Trivium to the stages of child development in actual classrooms. He references, coincidentally, Comenius, so it seems we are all talking about the same thing. I think Wilson makes a number of important points worth considering, and if you have time to listen to the talk, I’d recommend it.

    Is Charlotte Mason Classical

    I listened to it partly during naptime yesterday, and finished up while making dinner.

    I have a few more thoughts on this subject now that I’ve enjoyed the comments discussion and listened to Wilson. Unfortunately, it is also getting quite late in the afternoon around here, so bullet points it is.

    • Wilson has done more research than I have, and he agrees with me that when Sayers applied the Trivium to developmental stages, she was doing something new. So my points from yesterday remain standing, which is a relief to my soul.
    • I don’t ascribe to Sayers’ application, but that doesn’t mean that I do not think she is classical. She is as much a classical voice as her heirs and as those who disagree with her. This is a Great Conversation, not a Great Confession.
    • What does bother me, and has bothered me in the past, is when I encounter people who think that because Charlotte Mason does not follow Sayers on this point, she is therefore not classical. This sort of reminds me of people who get upset with Luther because he wasn’t a Calvinist. You see, since Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church when Calvin was just getting out of diapers, no one should really be upset about this. A lot of Calvin’s best contributions came after Luther was dead and gone. The same goes for Mason. Saying that she isn’t a classical educator because she doesn’t follow Sayers {when Sayers was presenting her essay for the first time two decades after Mason’s death} is like saying that no one was a classical educator until Sayers. Which, as we all know, is ridiculous. Sayers certainly didn’t present her essay in a vaccuum, and she never claimed to.
    • One of the reasons it is worth listening to Wilson’s talk is because he talks about how innovative Comenius was for his day, and how Comenius basically introduced the idea of gradation, or prerequisite knowledge. I had never thought about this before, but Wilson makes a good case that one of the reasons classical education was always elitist is because without gradation — without building knowledge from a foundation up — only that top 10% who can learn anywhere and everywhere were going to be able to learn at all. Systematizing knowledge can definitely be overdone, but can we imagine a world where there was no systematizing at all? Where, to use Kelly’s example, there were no phonics? Obviously, only the children who thought naturally in patterns would be able to read … ever.
    • Doug Wilson is very clear in his talk. We cannot both apply the Trivium to developmental stages and not apply the Trivium to developmental stages. But then later he explains that we really can’t ever divide the Trivium up completely, and that it is more of a focus at each stage than a hard and fast division. I feel like even though I adhere to a more traditional form of classicism, I have benefitted from reading Sayers’ essay {at least yearly for many years now, actually} and a couple other neoclassicist books, such as Teaching the Trivium. Kelly made the point that a necessary part of the Great Conversation has been taking the heritage, sifting it, and improving upon it, and both Charlotte Mason as well as Dorothy Sayers have done this in their own way, and I don’t feel the need to make it all exclusive, though I understand that if you are the headmaster of a school, you have to know what you are about.
    • The thing that has concerned me the most is that neoclassicism seems {emphasis on seems — my reading here is sparse, and my assertion is based upon limited experience with friends and acquaintances} to emphasize academics over virtue, and the heart of Christian classical education has always been the latter. I have seen this in both private classical Christian schools, as well as homeschools. To the extent that Sayers’ application takes the focus off of character and virtue and ideas, I think she is a bit dangerous, but when we set her in her context, the entire history of classicism, I think she adds something, rather than takes away. The thing I have appreciated about Mason the most is that she never divided the intellectual from the spiritual. I think this is perhaps her strongest point.

    That is all for now. Perhaps we will have another interesting conversation in the comments? {Hint hint…}

    Note: the definivite book is now out on this subject: Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition by Karen Glass {the very excellent introduction is by David Hicks}. I highly recommend it.

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  • Reply Karen @ Simply September 27, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    “CM called it character, but when she describes it in depth it is evident that she means the goal of education throughout the ages — wisdom, virtue, etc.”

    Yes! Exactly! While I set have aside reading CM’s writings for the time (although I did pick up Volume 5 last night after taking a long break from reading her volumes), all that I have read in her volumes exhibits this focus. Like you said, she may have called it character, but it is still the same focus…wanting to help students develop wisdom and virtue, to see beauty around them whether it’s in creation or in a book, to look for truth…for what’s good. To look at examples of character like with Plutarch…to see what decisions they made and look at whether those were good or bad decisions and what might it have looked like if they had made a different decision.

    So when I think about what I have read regarding the original, traditional classical education, I see CM in that. So it’s like you said with the tent analogy, the broader category is classical and a subcategory in it is CM. It reminds me of what Pam shared in her post “Mother As Students” when she said: “Andrew Pudewa likens classical education to a planet with many different continents. The inhabitants of one continent may emphasize memorization, another literature, while another writing. That’s the beauty of an educational method so much bigger than we are — there’s room to live it out in different ways” (
    Using this illustration, might we say that classical education is the planet and CM is one of the many continents on that planet. Just a thought. 🙂

    I see myself in this classical/charlotte mason sphere. My focus for the last several years has been CM. But this year, understanding more about the classical education, I feel like my focus has broadened, yet still very much CM. Does that make sense? I know I had my frustrations with the CM methodology/philosophy several months ago. But the more I’ve thought about that, the more I think I’ve come to realize it really wasn’t so much CM as it was that maybe *I* was trying to do too much instead of keeping that focus we had in the beginning of slow and steady. Doing too much at once can leave one feeling overwhelmed and thus frustrated. But as we are reminded in the Aesop Fable of the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady is what wins the race. Okay, I probably need to blog about that. 🙂

  • Reply Brandy Vencel September 27, 2014 at 12:34 am

    Grr…I was writing a comment and it totally disappeared. I am reminded of why I switched to ID comments. 🙂

    Let’s see…what did I say? Oh! Someone once told me that when they heard SWB talk and tell about her days, they sounded like CM days to her, so that was interesting.

    And yes! I totally agree on the goal. CM called it character, but when she describes it in depth it is evident that she means the goal of education throughout the ages — wisdom, virtue, etc.

  • Reply Karen September 27, 2014 at 12:17 am

    Well, I can’t say that I can agree or disagree at this point since I feel like I need to learn more about the traditional classical end of these things (grammar, dialectic, etc.). I do appreciate you sharing your thoughts. What I find interesting about The Well-Trained Mind is that I find there are *some* similarities with CM methods. They do incorporate some things like narration.

    And I do think that the goal of traditional classical education of training in wisdom and virtue and seeking the good, true, and beautiful was also a goal of CM.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. I am looking forward to your October 31 days series and listening to your talk. 🙂

  • Reply Karen September 26, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Brandy! I LOVE the camp and tent illustration. What a perfect way to visualize the concept. 🙂

    Can we talk the trivium then? I’d love for you to ramble on about that. 🙂 Like I said, I’m learning about all of this and so I really appreciate being able to talk to others who know about this. What is it that makes you want to not accept the trivium idea of developmental stages of learning?

    When I read The Well-Trained Mind, the way the author explained it did make sense to me. And in The Well-Educated Mind, she comes at it from the idea of using it as stages of dealing with a book and not age-related. I need to read some other resources on the trivium and quadrivium. I think Jennifer Dow has some posts on that on her blog Expanding Wisdom. Like I said, I’m still reading and learning. And so I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 26, 2014 at 11:51 pm

      I feel badly about this, but I am at a distinct disadvantage in this conversation because the only thing I’ve ever read by SWB {except for a couple articles} is SOTW Vol. 4. 🙂 My only experience with neoclassicist writings is blogs, Sayers’ original speech, Teaching the Trivium by the Bluedorns, and some of Doug Wilson’s stuff.

      The idea of using it as stages of dealing with a book sounds similar to an idea conveyed in Teaching the Trivium, where it was applied to dealing with a subject. So first you understand the “grammar” of a subject, which was considered to be the basic vocabulary of the subject, and then you tackled the “logic” — and to be honest I can’t remember how they differentiated that now — and then the “rhetoric.” It’s been so long, but there was definitely this sense of working toward mastery as one worked through the “stages.”

      Here’s the thing: I do not disagree that when we learn, we move from simple to complex, as a general rule. So really my disagreement is, in a sense, semantics. 🙂 I agree the process takes place, but I’m inclined to object to using the Trivium to describe it.

      The main reason has to do with grammar because grammar as an art moves from simple to complex. Quintillian makes it clear that grammar begins with learning the alphabet and ends with reading philosophy and poetry and history and the best literary works of a culture. I guess my objection is mostly over what the mentality of grammar as being “basic” does to the idea of grammar as an art that is a lifelong study.

      Or seeing logic as a stage, at least in Teaching the Trivium, seemed to reduce this to “proper reasoning” where things like fallacies were learned. But logic is a more modern idea and Dialectic is the original idea, and that’s a type of conversation between adults, or between a teacher and his student. So the idea of logic as a stage seems to take away the idea of dialectic as the art of interesting adult conversation.

      My biggest objection is that I think Sayers was joking. 🙂

      What I really need to do is finish formatting my 31 Days posts so that I can start on the project of getting my talk online. I explain it better than I do, if that makes sens. 😉

      By the way, it is okay if you disagree with me. 🙂

  • Reply Karen @ Simply September 23, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    This is been very interesting. I’m tossing around ideas in my mind regarding educational philosophies and methods. It seems that in some circles you can’t put CM and Classical together. But from what I am learning about the traditional classical, including reading your posts :), is that CM was classical. So one could educate using CM and call themselves classical educators. Don’t you think?

    You see, I think that’s where I find myself. 🙂 Schole Sisters has helped me understand more about this root of classical education. And I’ve listened to some things by several people like Andrew Pudewa and Andrew Kern. This focus on wisdom and virtue, seeking the true, the good, the beautiful…that is totally what CM talks about too.

    The trivium. In my mind the trivium makes sense. Many younger children do seem to have a knack for memorization. However, I don’t know how I feel about just memorizing all kinds of things without at least some sort of context. On one hand, I can see how memorizing things can make for easier recall later. On the other, I see CM’s point of learning things within context. CM certainly believed in memorization. 🙂 So I’m just thinking through this whole aspect of the trivium.

    Another thing about the trivium, seeing it as stages of learning no matter the age, I can see this as well.

    I’m just offering up some of my thoughts here. I’m still learning and forming my thoughts on all of this. 🙂

    So if asked, do you say you are a classical charlotte mason educator? 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 26, 2014 at 4:59 pm

      I think some people *do* educate using CM and call themselves classical. Jennifer Dow comes to mind. I call myself a classical/CM homeschooler, yes. I think of CM as being one tent in the classical camp. So classical is the camp I’m in, and CM is the tent I live in. 🙂 But I get out and stroll around the camp, of course. 🙂 Sometimes, people are more familiar with one or the other, so this helps keep conversation going.

      As far as the trivium being developmental stages, I’m still resistant to that. The more I learn about the trivium, the more I have to reject it. But is there *some* truth there? I think so. That is why Dorothy Sayers did that. Hers was a fundraising speech, and it was *funny* in the sense that all things are funny — there is an element of truth. I agree with something Cindy Rollins once wrote, which is that I love Sayers’ speech, but I sort of wish certain people hadn’t read it. 😀

      I have a talk I did this summer that discusses the seven liberal arts (the trivium are the three arts dealing with language). I hope to have it available free online by the end of the year, but we shall see. The laptop I was going to do that project on broke. 🙁

      Anyhow, in the studying I did for that talk, one of the things I started to think is that by focusing on the trivium as developmental stages, we have lost what the trivium actually is. So grammar is the entire body of literature of a culture, historically speaking. The mechanics of writing and phonics and such are included, but that is just the beginning of grammar, which includes history and literature and poetry and more. Dialectic is reasoning within the context of a conversation between co-learners. Rhetoric alone seems to have maintained its original meaning.

      And now I’m rambling. Sorry. 🙂

  • Reply lindafay June 8, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    So glad you made these posts about classical education and CM. Now I don’t have to : ) I’m referring everyone over here.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts June 8, 2012 at 10:01 pm

      Thanks, Linda Fay! And I meant what I said: I am *so* glad you are blogging again. 🙂

  • Reply Kathy April 24, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    LOL, Brandy!

  • Reply Kathy April 23, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    I originally considered a neo-classical approach, but the Trivium repelled me. I liked the rigor, but didn’t care for the division (although admittedly I didn’t study it deeply–I left it before getting that far). I found CM, and found the rigor I wanted without the division. In fact, CM explicitly rejects the division, saying that even the youngest child must be put into contact with living ideas, not dry facts. In my opinion, CM took the essence of a classical approach and corrected some of the flaws. Her approach allows a child of any level to interact with the material in a way that works for *that child* without a teacher having to diagnose that child’s level and script appropriate activities.

    CM teaches both phonics and sight-reading (not look-say, though). She just doesn’t teach phonics in the way we like to (which btw doesn’t work for some students) but instead teaches it through a process of discovery and practicing pattern-recognition. This leads to a more natural method of reading that works for almost all children (and Lorraine can tell you that with just slight modifications and rigorous implementation it works for as close to all children as anything can be said to).

    I don’t think that putting a child in a neoclassical school would do the sort of damage that the typical classroom would do because the typical classroom–even in Christian schools–educated based upon a Darwinian view of man {a la Dewey}, whereas neoclassicism is within the stream of thought that takes into account man’s nature. Anything that works *with* nature is superior to that which works against it or discounts it, right? 🙂

    Would you say the neoclassical method takes into account man’s *actual* nature or some idealized/formalized view of it? (That’s a real question, not snark! lol)

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 23, 2012 at 9:44 pm

      Well, I think it takes into account his actual nature in the sense that it assumes that man has a soul, whereas education a la Dewey and Darwin assumes a mechanistic view of man. So I meant that on a very. simple. level. 🙂

  • Reply Meredith in Aus April 20, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Well, now I simply MUST listen to that ‘other’ Wilson talk, which was obviously not the one I referred to in the first place – I have no idea who Comenius is. Ha! Hmm…I shall have to squish in time for it somewhere.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with regard to the difference between Sayers and CM. Unfortunately for me, I had never heard of CM before reading the WTM and beginning our homeschool journey there. Although, fortunately, that was not my only influence, as we were well and truly working on virtue and character (although I have really come to appreciate CMs way of incorporating it) when we started any formal learning.

    Gradation – (four of) our kids attend a homeschool group each Wednesday where they are age segregated (shock, horror!) BUT there are only 3 groups and the ages vary slightly from year-to-year. Roughly 6-8, 9-11, 12-14/15. This kind of flexible gradation works well.

    The idea of there not being phonics intrigues me a little. I thought it was look-say that was new (although there can be no doubt that we all employ a little look-say from time-to-time). I thought look-say came about (in the 70’s?) because some bright cookie figured that since adults don’t sound out words in order to read, kids didn’t need to either. Or is it just that Greek wasn’t phonetic? Really, not teaching by phonics doesn’t seem possible since the written word is really just transcribing the audible sounds into written symbols.

    Amanda, according to Wilson, Logos produces a disproportionate number of high academic achievers. Knowing what I know about him from other readings, I would say that an awful lot of fun is had whilst learning rigorous material.

    Anyway, must go make my darling a cuppa and sit down to a movie.

    Thanks for all the interesting convo. (That would be me using the dreadful Australian habit of dropping the final syllables of any word and adding the dreaded ‘o’. Awful, isn’t it? Sorry.)

    In Him


    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 20, 2012 at 2:54 pm

      I tweeted Dr. Grant because I thought he had written a book on Comenius, and he replied that he has a book coming out with a chapter on Comenius next year, so I look forward to reviewing that in time!

      The absence of phonics makes sense to me–at least in *American English*–because our spelling wasn’t standardized until 1828 when Noah Webster debuted his dictionary. If they taught them at all prior to that, it would have had to have been very basic sounds only because there was a sense in which there were no hard and fast rules. I think of it as a bell curve. Likely, there were *some* phonics {pre-1828}, and then spelling was standardized and we quickly incorporated the new spelling rules into our reading and writing instruction {1800s}, and then in more recent history “experts” experimented with look-say {mid-1900s}. And the rest is history. I can tell by reading the letters of Abigail Adams that she knew her sounds because she spells phonetically, but she often spells the same word two or three different ways because there were no spelling rules at that time. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 20, 2012 at 2:55 pm

      By the way, I have a friend who moved {with her family} to Sydney about 18 months ago and that was one of the first things she mentioned, that you all shorten so much of what you say! She felt completely lost at first! I love cultural quirks like that. 🙂

  • Reply Amanda April 20, 2012 at 3:40 am

    Listened to and appreciated Wilson’s talk. I’m wondering how you would answer his question about which school you would throw your (upper 10 percent) child into — the neoclassical or medieval? Is it true that a gifted child will thrive academically no matter the structure (or lack thereof) of the school? Sometimes, yes, but not always. The *ill-fitting* structure will do more damage than throwing them into the soup, imo. I am wondering how Logos handles gifted education – do they have gradation within the grades? Is the overall curriculum naturally more stimulating than that of the typical classroom?

    The typical classroom has changed so much since I attended public school, that I’m not sure my own experience applies. It seems the range of needs met gets smaller and smaller, to the exclusion of any child who does not fit precisely into the box.

    But then, this is why I homeschool. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm

      I would put probably put any child into a CM school if I could. 🙂

      I think very few schools are like Logos which, as Meredith explained, incorporates a *lot* of joy. In fact, one of the things I really like about the Wilsons in general is that they are unashamedly joyful. Joy is a facet of wonder, I think, and I have always assumed that wonder was an (the?) antidote to hubris, which has always been a big concern in classical education. In other words: How do we educate rigorously and to a high level without puffing up?

      I think that CM’s focus prevents a lot of hubris in the same way, but I admit that I am partial, and a lot really can be said for our first influences, as well.

      You might find Mason’s chapter on the education of Goethe to be informative. It is found in Part IV of Vol. 5 and you can read it free online here. She explored the ups and downs when it came to a true genius.

      Personally, I think the one-room schoolhouse situation was probably preferable in a lot of ways, too, but I know that most of us live in areas where that is just not going to work outside of homeschooling, and if you homeschool it’s basically what we’re doing anyhow. But when I read through what the early American pioneers were doing, it was actually a very unique combination of a graded course of study while almost completely tailoring it on a personal level. They weren’t afraid to have a child in 4th grade readers and 1st grade maths or whatever. A child studied and moved at a self-directed pace, but because the course of study was defined, it wasn’t like that self-direction left huge gaps. I don’t think it was a perfect system, but I think it had merits worth considering.

      I have a friend who just told me that her 8yo will be starting algebra next year. I was shocked, and I reflected that I would be afraid to do that, because sometimes I still have grades stuck in my head {in a negative sense}, and though I’m comfortable with a child getting a grade or two ahead, a 9yo doing high school math felt like “pressure” or something to me. But I so admired my friend who is not afraid to meet her child exactly where he is. I learned a lot from her that day.

      Anytime you have a *big* school–and most of the public schools in this town are big–it can’t be personal in the ways it needs to be. I think the move to an IEP for every child is an attempt to be personal, but nothing makes up for the naturally personal approach that comes from a small scale.

      All of that to say that I keep coming back to that idea that a child is where he is and the best thing we can do is to meet him there and challenge him to grow rightly. This goes for whether he is behind or advanced. Having some sort of course of study will offer a frame or form for the education. Having free time to pursue depth and interest is good. All of these things seem good to me, regardless of what kind of child we’re talking about. {Hmmm…hope I’m right! 🙂 }

      ps. I don’t think that putting a child in a neoclassical school would do the sort of damage that the typical classroom would do because the typical classroom–even in Christian schools–educated based upon a Darwinian view of man {a la Dewey}, whereas neoclassicism is within the stream of thought that takes into account man’s nature. Anything that works *with* nature is superior to that which works against it or discounts it, right? 🙂

  • Reply Amanda April 20, 2012 at 1:46 am

    Love this, Brandy! I think we feel the same way about Mason and Sayers. I should reread her essay and come back to you.

    I appreciate the point about gradation, especially — it relieves me to realize that one reason graded curriculums don’t work for my kids is because they aren’t *meant to*. We’re not missing out on something; we just don’t need it. We’re “pattern thinkers.” But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a purpose.

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