Today’s Charlotte Mason myth is that students in the PNEU schools spent little time on math and science. Charlotte Mason is better known for her ideas about the study of history, and as a champion of a liberal arts education. While she promoted nature study, and long walks outdoors, she seems to have little to say about math and the “hard” sciences. How much “STEM” education did her students receive?
The quick way to examine this idea is to look at a representative schedule from the PNEU schools and compare time spent in each subject area. But that’s too simple, and possibly misleading. It may be more instructive to look at her ideas about what constitutes a “fit” area of study. If education is a banquet, what dishes should we bring to the feast? And what may have led to this idea that a Charlotte Mason education is long on history and short on science?
According to one schedule, Mason spent at least 18% of her students’ time on math and science in the younger years, and up to 27% in the upper forms, although in Form IV-VI the time spent was just 25% of school time. In Form III, about 8th grade, she (and most other schools, including in the U.S.) added 45 minutes per week of “Physiology” which we now call “Health,” which is arguably a science course. In math, she covered arithmetic, algebra (starting in Form IV), and Euclidean geometry — all of which are the math topics required for high schoolers to graduate today. Science topics started with natural history, and went on in later forms to include physical geography (earth science), geology, astronomy, and botany. We know from PNEU writing and sample exams that physics and chemistry were covered as well. Science was integrated through all the grades, up to the last forms. Added to all of this were weekly nature study walks, which were not to be structured per se, but which lent themselves to discovery and further study.
Science and math are regularly included in Mason’s curricula. Principle 12 of her 20 Principles states:
‘Education is the science of relations’ means that children have minds capable of making their own connections with knowledge and experiences, so we make sure the child learns about nature, science and art, knows how to make things, reads many living books and that they are physically fit.
In her complete curriculum description in Volume 6, Mason organizes her subjects into three broad areas: Knowledge of God, Knowledge of Man, and Knowledge of the Universe. Math and science fall into the latter category. She wouldn’t dream of a curriculum that excluded those topics:
Therefore we do not feel it is lawful in the early days of a child’s life to select certain subjects for his education to the exclusion of others; to say he shall not learn Latin, for example, or shall not learn Science; but we endeavor that he shall have relations of pleasure and intimacy established with as many as possible of the interests proper to him; not learning a slight or incomplete smattering about this or that subject, but plunging into vital knowledge, with a great field before him which in all his life he will not be able to explore.School Education, p. 223
Even Mathematics, a subject she says
appeal[s] only to a small percentage of a class or school, and, for the rest, however intelligent, its problems are baffling to the endPhilosophy of Education, p. 151
shouldn’t be neglected.
We remember how instructive and impressive Ruskin is on the thesis that ‘two and two make four’ and cannot by any possibility that the universe affords be made to make five or three. From this point of view, of immutable law, children should approach Mathematics; they should see how impressive is Euclid’s ‘Which is absurd,’ just as absurd as would be the statements of a man who said that his apples always fell upwards, and for the same reason.
Still, 18-27% of a student’s time doesn’t seem like much in our era, where high school students spend 30% of their time on math and science, and there are science curricula written for younger and younger ages. In 1908, however, Mason was quite in line with her contemporaries. The Committee of Ten remarked in their report on U.S. secondary school studies in 1894 that they found it appalling that students had no scientific knowledge whatsoever by the time they entered high school (“their minds are blank”). Their recommendation: a specific course involving the “study of natural phenomenon through experiments” for 40-45 minutes a day up until 8th grade. They admit in their report that such a course of action could be costly in terms of teacher time, expertise and materials. In other words, it probably didn’t happen often. In my quick survey of curricula in the U.S. in 1900, I found that schools were doing nature study and nothing more for science up through the 8th grade.
In other words “More science and math!” has been a rallying cry for over a hundred years in education. Charlotte Mason was not impressed. “But education should be a science of proportion,” she wrote,
and any one subject that assumes undue importance does so at the expense of other subjects which a child’s mind should deal with.Philosophy of Education, p. 231
Mathematics is one out of many studies which make for education, a study by no means accessible to everyone. Therefore it should not monopolize undue time, nor should persons be hindered from useful careers by the fact that they show no great proficiency in studies which are in favor with examiners …Philosophy of Education, p. 152
However, it is also true that Mason invested the time to ensure her teachers were capable of teaching science. According to one student teacher writing about her experiences in In Memorium, they spent 3 to 4 hours a week learning the sciences they would go on to teach, using the same methods: a combination of nature walks, lecture, experiment, and reading from the best books they had available at the time.
Should a contemporary Charlotte Mason education, then, reflect the early 20th century or should we increase the amount of science and math studied? I’d like to conclude with a quote by Sir Philip Magnus that Mason included when speaking of the schools of the future:
In future the main function of education will be to train our hands and our sense organs and intellectual faculties, so that we may be placed in a position of advantage for seeking knowledge … The scope of the lessons will be enlarged.School Education, p. 233
If one function of education is to give our children the ability to seek knowledge for themselves, then books are certainly their primary source and we treasure them insofar as they convey what others have accomplished. But where books leave off, we must be able to satisfy our hunger to know in other ways. The tools and methods of science — mathematics, experimentation, and observation — must not be denied to a generation eager to know more about the world around them.
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