Educational Philosophy, Home Education

Myth: A Charlotte Mason education is gentle.

October 17, 2014 by Brandy Vencel

Once upon a time, I was in a group conversation where someone asked for the best word or phrase to describe a Charlotte Mason education, and one answer thrown out was “gentle.” I have to admit that I shuddered a little. We’ve already covered the myth that CM doesn’t work for boys. Later in the series, we’ll talk about a corresponding myth that CM doesn’t work for high school.

You know what the connecting thought is between these two myths? That a CM education is gentle.

When I shared the images for this series with Pam, she said it was the first time she’d ever seen a CM graphic that wasn’t all covered with pink and lace doilies.

It’s not because I think education should be harsh. It’s just that, to me, gentle smacks of pink, doilies, über femininity … and ease. It makes me think: not challenging, not stretching, and therefore not growing.

Is This Really a Myth?

Like a number of the myths in this series, the truth is that it depends. It depends upon your definitions of terms. Let’s think about that first.

Google defines gentle as:

1. (of a person) mild in temperament or behavior; kind or tender.
“he was a gentle, sensitive man”

That’s very nice, and I do believe a Charlotte Mason mama must be kind and tender. But we’re not talking about people; we’re talking about education.

The Free Dictionary’s second definition for gentle is:

2. Not harsh or severe; mild and soft: a gentle scolding; a gentle tapping at the window.

See that there? While a Charlotte Mason education isn’t harsh or severe, “mild and soft” aren’t what I think of when I think of a good education. How about you?

Did Charlotte Mason Really Say Her Method Was Gentle?

That’s the real way to bust this myth, isn’t it? To ask what Miss Mason said?

Well, I went through all of the digital versions of her works over at AmblesideOnline. This, by the way, is the easiest way to do a CM word search.

I’m just saying.

Miss Mason does mention producing gentlemen quite a bit. She also says that authority is gentle. Parents are to act in the force of gentleness.

The goal of a Charlotte Mason education, it could be argued, is to produce a gentle character, in the sense that it is ennobling.

But does she ever use gentle to describe education? No.

Perhaps the closest she comes is in School Education, where she writes:

But, supposing that ‘Education is an atmosphere’ brings a fresh and vigorous thought to our minds, suppose that it means to us, for our children, sunshine and green fields, pleasant rooms and good pictures, schools where learning is taken in by the gentle act of inspiration, followed by the expiration of all that which is not wanted, where charming teachers compose the children by a half-mesmeric effluence which inclines them to do as others do, be as others are, — suppose that all this is included in our notion of ‘Education is an atmosphere,’ may we not sit at our ease and believe that all is well, and that the whole of education has been accomplished?

School Education, p. 149

The problem is that this is a negative example to Miss Mason, and she says it produces inanity.

That’s not good.

What is a CM Education?

Well, here are some of the things Miss Mason says about it:

And this is just from School Education! Miss Mason says a lot of things, but she never says that education is gentle. After digging around a little, the best I can guess is that the idea that a Charlotte Mason education is “gentle” comes from the title of a book by Karen Andreola, A Charlotte Mason Companion: Personal Reflections on The Gentle Art of Learning. I have never read this book, though I have only ever heard good things about it, but the point remains that this idea of a CM education as gentle comes from reading secondary sources as opposed to primary sources.

Why Does This Matter? And Aren’t You Just Being Mean?

If you personally like calling a Charlotte Mason education “gentle,” I’m not going to argue with you, as long as you realize that this isn’t Miss Mason’s opinion. What you do need to realize is that there is a certain portion of the population that is  going to never, ever want to look into a Charlotte Mason education because of this term.

And that is the reason I wanted to bust the myth. I want people to hear what Miss Mason has to say, and I don’t want our word choice to get in the way.

I have to say that when I first started reading about Miss Mason, and I saw an example of crocheting on a pink tablecloth, I thought that there was no way that I’d be doing this with my son. Thankfully, I got past that, read Miss Mason’s own words, and realized that she was serious about education.

You know what else I read? The lists of attainments for ages six and twelve. These are amazing. My own twelve-year-old does not quite add up, and I like that. I like that Miss Mason has encouraged us to attempt to embody something high and rich and … well … challenging.

“Gentle” might be really appealing when we are mothering tender preschoolers, but as someone trying to head into the high school years and persevere, “gentle” doesn’t cut it.

I want to climb a mountain. I want to conquer something. I want us to look back and say that all the little days added up to something Great.

And that’s why I had to touch the untouchable subject of gentleness. It really is a myth. And, at the risk of putting a song in your head, we just might need to let it go.

[W]e perceive that the great work of education is to inspire children with vitalising ideas as to every relation of life, every department of knowledge, every subject of thought; and to give deliberate care to the formation of those habits of the good life which are the outcome of vitalising ideas.

School Education, p. 173

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2 Comments

  • Reply Busted: 31 Days of CM Myths | Afterthoughts August 24, 2019 at 3:18 pm

    […] Myth 16: A Charlotte Mason education is gentle. […]

  • Reply Alissa February 23, 2017 at 11:06 am

    This was great. The word gentle came to my mind too, perhaps because of that book title.

    Thank you for sharing the list of formidable achievements. One thing I really don’t understand is how a child of six will achieve some of them if formal education doesn’t begin until six? The lost includes reading and copying “in print” as well as recitation and memory work including in French. This sounds like much more than just outdoor play!

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