Home Education

31 Days of Charlotte Mason: Children are Born Persons (Day 2)

October 2, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

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:

Children are born persons.

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.


Click here to go to the 31 Days of Charlotte Mason series directory.

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21 Comments

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  • Reply Rebecca Dolores October 3, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    I’m also very excited about this series! I’ve already shared it with friends so I hope they check it out! I wish I had enough knowledge to contribute something but I am excited to see some great members at the forum on the lineup for such interesting topics! I’ll be following along!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 4, 2013 at 2:59 am

      You know you are invited, right Rebecca? If anything on the lists strikes your fancy, you let me know. If not, maybe I’ll be crazy enough to do something similar again next year! 🙂

  • Reply Nelleke Plouffe October 2, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    I’m so glad to be following this series. I’ve just started reading Charlotte Mason’s “Home Education” and am enjoying it greatly. I’ll be sharing this with interested friends!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 3, 2013 at 3:51 am

      Welcome to the world of CM, Nelleke! I’m so glad you’re enjoying Miss Mason’s first volume. 🙂

  • Reply Sarah October 2, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Great post! You know, one of the things that makes me scratch my head is the scores of homeschoolers who discuss and promote “Charlotte Mason style Unit Studies.” There isn’t such a thing, as CM was quite opposed to unit studies. It all goes back to the principle that education is a science of relations. Anyway, very good post and I’m looking forward to the next!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 3, 2013 at 3:49 am

      I must say that I try to ignored those when I see them. The few times I’ve tried to mention the conflict, I’ve been quickly thrown under the bus. 🙁 It does seem like people are questioning it a bit more now than they were a few years ago, so I’m encouraged.

  • Reply Anonymous October 2, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Brandy,
    I am so excited for the series as I anticipate this will be a place I send people again and again who are inquiring, “What is CM?” Thank you in advance!
    Warmly,
    Julie in St. Louis

  • Reply Jen October 2, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Such good stuff.

    I’m trying to think through what it means when one’s philosophical anthropology doesn’t exactly match up with one’s pedagogy, however. I’m thinking specifically about the Christian international school that serves the mission community in our part of the world, as I have been asked (as a nonparent/staff member) to serve on a committee evaluating the school’s philosophy. I think that their anthropology is sound and probably similar to my own (children are created in the image of God, ultimately we want students who embrace truth and are ‘lifelong learners’), and yet they attempt to use conventional, modern teaching methods to achieve this goal – textbooks, teachers who should be ‘experts’, heavy use of high-stakes testing, the utilitarian goal of preparing the students for the ‘next level of education’, etc, etc. Quite honestly, I think most educators in this setting have just really never thought about it – I know that the years I taught in a similar setting, I never did – not so much that they are intentionally being inconsistent by using methods that don’t necessarily line up with their fundamental worldview. At the same time, I’m not really sure how to address it tactfully should an opportunity come up in a committee meeting.

    OK, I’m rambling now…this just touched on something that I’ve been thinking about lately. What I really should do is go find out what my 3 year old is doing….

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 2, 2013 at 4:08 pm

      I completely understand! Most Christian schools (and churches) do NOT build their practices via their anthropology, and so there is a disconnect. For example, the vast majority of Sunday School curriculum is unit study style. The vast majority of curriculum designers, however, have no clue who Herbart was, what he believed, or why that would be in conflict with a Christian view of the child.

      I *do* think that going through your anthropology, and then critiquing practices in light of it, might be a good first step. Even better is to design the practices — or discover {historically} the practices — which are logically consequent, and then forget whatever was done before!

    • Reply Celeste October 3, 2013 at 12:14 am

      Since you mentioned religious education in light of the anthropology of the particular Faith–this is something I have been bothered by in modern Catholic education materials, which so often are “dumbed down” and just don’t reflect the Church’s teaching on the human person (which I consider very much in line with CM). Thankfully, I’m able to pull from religious ed materials from the beginning on the 1900s and earlier, which are MUCH more in line with a CM education in that they present the Faith in a way I consider respectful of the personhood of the child. And it’s not just a problem for children’s materials: the modern Catholic liturgy (and the ways in which it is often celebrated to seem “relevant”) often does not reflect these kinds of essential principles. Thankfully our family has the opportunity to go to the Traditonal Latin Mass, which I have found to be richer and more in keeping with a line of educational thinking that raises the person to the matter rather than reducing the matter to the person. I have always been annoyed by the seeming disconnect, which you’re noting too–I think you can find it across the board.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 3, 2013 at 3:48 am

      It really seems to be everywhere, doesn’t it? I feel like a lately I’m seeing a lot of the churches — and your church is one — that held out so much longer than the rest, now starting to try and be “cool” and “appealing” and it is so sad to me because that is exactly what I loved and appreciated in the first place!

    • Reply Jen October 3, 2013 at 1:58 pm

      I think part of the problem too is that there is a hang-up with thinking that we have to use conventional methods because kids won’t be adequately prepared for “the world” if we don’t – I think perhaps that is true everywhere, but seems to be taken to an extreme in MK (missionary kid) education. The whole purpose behind the establishment of MK schools in the first place is to keep parents from leaving the mission field due to the fact that there aren’t ‘adequate’ educational options for their children, or because they can’t focus on their ‘ministry’ because of the ‘burden’ of homeschooling. So they replicate what the world does, adding a Christian veneer to it, in order to keep jittery parents happy. I’m in a position where I am being asked to do some consulting type stuff (like sitting on this committee), and feel kind of overwhelmed at knowing how and where to gently probe people to think through some of these things. Where does one even begin? I’m just me, after all. (That’s mostly a rhetorical question.) At least now I think I’ve figured out just what it is that has been bothering me about the approach of Christian schools and churches that use more ‘conventional’ methods – I never could quite put my finger on it before, but that quote from Jamie Smith hit the nail on the head. (I think I need to read that book, if my stack of books in progress ever starts to shrink….)

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 4, 2013 at 2:57 am

      I am really enjoying the book from Jamie Smith, but just to warn you: he relies much more on philosophy than Scripture, and I’ve heard various reviews on the book as a whole. A lot of what he says early on, however, sounds like CM…to the point where I was disappointed that she did not appear in the index! 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 5, 2013 at 4:35 pm

      Okay, Jen, I know that you weren’t necessarily looking for advice, but I came across something in my reading this morning in Smith’s book that might help. I would consider the idea of children being born person to be a sort of “first cause” of our practices. In your conversations with others this may o ly take you so far. Something else to consider would be final causes, what Smith calls the telos. What is the final goal of education? My guess is that you divergence from the mission school is a divergence at the point of telos, and as long as that is the case, you will not see eye to eye.

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