By the time she wrote her sixth and final volume, Charlotte Mason had twenty principles which, together, constituted her philosophy of education. I’m not going to touch on every single one of them during this series, so if you’d like to read more about them, you can check out the information over at Ambleside Online.
Today, we’re going to briefly discuss her first principle:
There is a reason why this is her first principle.
David Hicks, in his fabulous books Norms and Nobility, wrote:
[E]ducation at every level reflects man’s primary assumptions about himself and his world.
Jamie Smith says basically the same thing in Desiring the Kingdom:
[B]ehind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology.p. 27
That second one is a ten dollar sentence, but all he really means is that we teach differently depending on what we believe about our students. This is why it’s so important to discuss what children are (and what education is) before we start hashing out curricula and methodologies.
Miss Mason had seen the birth of, for example, the unit study. She spends a number of pages discussing it, because it concerns her. She does worry about the outcome of such an education, but first and foremost, her objection is philosophical. The unit study attempts to connect everything together for the child because it is based upon the philosophy of Herbart, who did not believe that children were born persons. Persons are born thinking and wondering and able to know. Instead, Herbart believed children were born with a need for someone outside of them (a teacher) to connect everything together into what he called an “apperception mass” — something like a long, linked chain — so that when an idea happened to slip into this little sub-person’s brain, it would bring the whole chain with it.
When Charlotte Mason says children are born persons, she’s stating her “philosophical anthropology” —what she believes about students, in contrast to what other people believed about students.
What does it mean that they are born persons? First and foremost, children are just like you and me. Oh, of course they are less mature, and know less than we do. But they are equally human. This doesn’t just mean equal in value; it means more than that. It actually implies something about the process of learning.
Namely, it shifts the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student.
The child is born with a thirst to know, with an ability to know, and with a will to know. He’s not a blank slate for the teacher to write upon, nor an empty sack for the teacher to fill up. The teacher does not have to link a chain for him — which is viewed by Miss Mason as something not unlike pre-chewing his food for him — but rather she’s the chef who prepares the feast. She brings out the books and ideas, lays them upon the table, and invites the child to eat.
But she does not chew his food. Nay, she does not lift his fork!
As a homeschool mom, this takes a huge burden off of my back. Instead of thinking that the child’s learning is all my responsibility, I can know that it is the child’s responsibility. I can know that, in fact, no teacher has ever forced a child to learn something.
Knowledge is that which we know; and the learner knows only by a definite act of knowing which he performs for himself.Vol. 6, p. 254
A Charlotte Mason education is not only effective, it is very simple to carry out in the context of the home schoolroom. It does not require great feats of teaching. It does not require me to constantly try and attract my children’s attention through entertaining means. I don’t need to read silly books that are purported to appeal to children. I don’t need to talk down to them.
As Miss Mason once wrote:
We need not labour to get children to learn their lessons; that, if we would believe it, is a matter which nature takes care of. Let the lessons be of the right sort and children will learn them with delight.Vol. 6, p. 99
What are the right sort of lessons? We’ll get there. We have 31 whole days, after all.
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