This myth, like a lot of the other myths in this series, originates from taking Charlotte Mason’s words out of context. So, let’s look first at what she said.
The fatal mistake is in the notion that he must learn ‘outlines,’ or a baby edition of the whole history of England, or of Rome, just as he must cover the geography of all the world. Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period.Home Education, pp. 280-281
This, from Miss Mason’s first volume. Unfortunately, individual families, and even curricula, run with this quote and design entire history courses made up of nothing but biographies )and sometimes poorly written ones at that_.
The key to understanding what Miss Mason was trying to do, however, is to keep in mind the whole. This idea of “lingering pleasantly over the history of a single man” is one of many ideas Miss Mason had about history. In this same chapter of the volume, for example, she also suggests the use of primary sources:
… the principle being, that, whenever practicable, the child should get his first notions of a given period, not from the modern historian, the commentator and reviewer, but from the original sources of history, the writings of contemporaries. The mother must, however, exercise discrimination in her choice of early ‘Chronicles,’ as all are not equally reliable.Home Education, pp. 285-286
Miss Mason names, among other works, the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England and Asser’s Life of King Alfred (both of which, incidentally, are assigned in Ambleside Online’s Year Seven).
As Miss Mason goes on to discuss the choosing of history books, it is interesting that biographies are not first on her list. Instead, her emphasis is upon tales:
Mr York Powell has, perhaps more than others, hit upon the right teaching for the young children I have in view. In the preface to his Old Stories from British History, he says: — “The writer has chosen such stories as he thought would amuse and please his readers, and give them at the same time some knowledge of the lives and thoughts of their forefathers. To this end he has not written solely of great folk — kings and queens and generals — but also of plain people and children, ay, and birds and beasts too”; and we get the tale of King Lear and of Cuculain, and of King Canute and the poet Otter, of Havelock and Ubba, and many more, all brave and glorious stories; indeed, Mr York Powell gives us a perfect treasure-trove in his two little volumes of Old Stories and Sketches from British History, which are the better for our purpose, because children can read them for themselves so soon as they are able to read at all. These tales, written in good and simple English, and with a certain charm of style, lend themselves admirably to narration.Home Education, p. 288
This is all fine and well, but Miss Mason’s first volume, Home Education, is about educating young children. Perhaps building a history curriculum around biographies is for older children?
Again, we must look at what Miss Mason actually wrote. In her final volume, Philosophy of Education, Miss Mason explains what students were actually doing in her schools. Her Form II (grades 4-6) students, for example:
They use a more difficult book than in IA, an interesting and well-written history of England of which they read some fifty pages or so in a term. IIA read in addition and by way of illustration the chapters dealing with the social life of the period in a volume, treating of social life in England. We introduce children as early as possible to the contemporary history of other countries as the study of English history alone is apt to lead to a certain insular and arrogant habit of mind.Philosophy of Education, pp. 174-175
In Form III (about grades 7-8):
In Form III children continue the same history of England as in II, the same French history and the same British Museum Book, going on with their ‘Book of Centuries.’ To this they add about twenty to thirty pages a term from a little book on Indian History, a subject which interests them greatly.
Slight studies of the history of other parts of the British Empire are included under ‘Geography.’Philosophy of Education, p. 176
In Form IV (about grades 8-9):
In Form IV the children are promoted to Gardiner’s Student’s History of England, clear and able, but somewhat stiffer than that they have hitherto been engaged upon, together with Mr. and Mrs. Quennell’s History of Everyday Things in England (which is used in Form III also). Form IV is introduced to outlines of European history. The British Museum for Children and ‘Book of Centuries’ are continued.Philosophy of Education, p. 176
And in forms V and VI (about grades 10-12):
The history studies of Forms V and VI (ages 15 to 18) are more advanced and more copious and depend for illustration upon readings in the literature of the period. Green’s Shorter History of the English People is the textbook in English history, amplified, for example, by Macaulay’s Essays on Frederick the Great and the Austrian Succession, on Pitt and Clive. For the same period we use an American history of Western Europe and a very admirable history of France, well-translated from the original of M. Duruy. Possibly Madame de Staël’s L’Allemagne or some other historical work of equal calibre may occur in their reading of French. It is not possible to continue the study of Greek and Roman history in detail but an admirably written survey informed with enthusiasm is afforded by Professor de Burgh’s The Legacy of the Ancient World.Philosophy of Education, pp. 176-177
Does all of this diminish the importance of biographies? Of course not! The continuous use of Plutarch starting in Year Four definitely “lingers pleasantly over the history of a single man” and acts as a sort of biography. In looking through the PNEU Programmes, we see the occasional biography assigned, as well as history books that, like the wonderful books by Genevieve Foster, use the life and times of one man as the doorway to an entire era.
But to say that biographies — a focus on an individual person — is the primary means of teaching and learning history in a Charlotte Mason education is inaccurate. We do not see this in Miss Mason’s writings, nor in the records of her practices.
And this, by the way, is a good thing. Miss Mason prided herself on having a history program that was more efficient than others, and therefore graduated students with superior history knowledge:
Now the method I am advocating has this advantage; it multiplies time. Each school period is quadrupled in time value and we find that we get through a surprising amount of history in a thorough way, in about the same time that in most schools affords no more than a skeleton of English History only. We know that young people are enormously interested in the subject and give concentrated attention if we give them the right books. We are aware that our own discursive talk is usually a waste of time and a strain on the scholars’ attention, so we (of the P.N.E.U.) confine ourselves to affording two things, — knowledge, and a keen sympathy in the interest roused by that knowledge.Philosophy of Education, p. 171
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