Type “child-led education” into your online search engine and what do you see? Page after page of articles, blogs, reference works all touting the benefits of allowing a child to determine the direction and intensity of their own education based on their individual interests. And at first glance, it may appear that some of the basic tenets of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy tend in this direction as well. Isn’t her very first principle “Children are born persons” and didn’t she say, “there is no education but self-education?” Let’s go to the source and read CM’s own words on this topic.
The starting point for CM (and the place she first diverged from other educators) was her belief that the child is a person — not a receptacle to be filled, not a tablet to be inscribed, but a person who wants to learn and has the ability to do so. It’s her first of 20 Principles, so it must be important. But when Charlotte wrote of the “child” and the God-given capacity of his mind, she wasn’t talking about individual children but the collective “child” and the humanity of his personhood.
What does that mean for us as home educators? We are surrounded by oh-so-individual children who have different educational needs, goals, interests, predispositions. Isn’t one of the beauties of homeschooling that we can tailor-make the education to fit the child? I’m not sure Charlotte Mason would agree. She had a set curriculum for all her students: Some were attending CM schools, some were studying at home with their parents, some were working-class students and could only attend classes one day each week — but they all followed a set program of study. The individual child did not determine his individual studies, but his afternoons were free to indulge individual interests and pursue individual goals.
Understanding and embracing the personhood of a child also implies a shift in responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student. Charlotte Mason says,
A person is not built up from without but from within, that is, he is living, and all external educational appliances and activities which are intended to mould his character are decorative and not vital,Philosophy of Education, p. 23
… life is sustained on that which is taken in by the organism, not by that which is applied from without.Philosophy of Education, p. 24
CM describes her own curriculum as
securing that children should be in a position of less dependence on their teacher than they then were; in other words, that their education should be largely self-education.Philosophy of Education p. 28
It is cliched but true: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Assimilating knowledge is the child’s responsibility.
Yet we as teachers are not absolved of responsibility. According to CM,
Our business is to give him mind-stuff, and both quality and quantity are essential. Naturally, each of us possesses this mind-stuff only in limited measure, but we know where to procure it; for the best thought the world possesses is stored in books; we must open books to children, the best books; our own concern is abundant provision and orderly serving.Philosophy of Education, p. 26
So how do we go about that “orderly serving?” How do we find “the best thought the world possesses,” the “best books?” May I humbly suggest a good, long look at AmblesideOnline? It is a free curriculum guide and booklist designed to follow CM’s method of homeschooling, and it has been the answer to those questions for many. Further, Charlotte Mason says,
I am afraid that some knowledge of the theory we advance is necessary to the open-minded teacher who would give our practices a trial, because every detail of schoolroom work is the outcome of certain principles.Philosophy of Education, p. 31
It takes time and dedication on the part of the parent/teacher to read and understand Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, and then slowly begin to implement her methodology. To aid us in this endeavor, AmblesideOnline also has free versions of CM’s 6 volumes, and the AO forum provides a place to discuss and grow with fellow travelers on this amazing educational journey.
As we better understand our role as teacher, Charlotte Mason issues a final warning:
… I believe that all children bring with them much capacity which is not recognized by their teachers, chiefly intellectual capacity, (always in advance of motor power), which we are apt to drown in deluges of explanation, or dissipate in futile labours in which there is no advance.Philosophy of Education, p. 31
It is the teacher’s responsibility to spread the feast of learning, and then hold our tongues (literally, if necessary) so we do not impose ourselves and our opinions between the child and the living text. We can discuss and explain where necessary, but we must not manipulate the child’s take-away to mirror our own. A hard principle to practice, but so vital.
While a Charlotte Mason education is not “child-led” as that popular phrase is understood today, neither is it teacher-led. Instead, CM teaches us that an individual’s education is Holy Spirit led — another key distinctive of her philosophy. Charlotte Mason believed with the Florentines of the Middle Ages in
… ‘the teaching power of the Spirit of God,’ believed not only that the seven Liberal Arts were fully under the direct outpouring of the Holy Ghost, but that every fruitful idea, every original conception, be it in geometry, or grammar, or music, was directly derived from a Divine source.Philosophy of Education, p. 323
She called this her Great Recognition:
… that God, the Holy Spirit is Himself, personally, the imparter of knowledge, instructor of youth, the inspirer of genius, …
What a revolution should we have in our methods of education if we could once conceive that dry-as-dust subjects like grammar and arithmetic should come to children, living with the life of the Holy Spirit, who, we are told, ‘shall teach you all things’.School Education, p. 118
If we trust the Triune God for our child’s salvation, how much more can we trust the mediating work of the Holy Spirit in their education? As we spread a feast of living ideas, committing ourselves and our children daily to the Lord, they will learn what they need to know to fulfill God’s future for them.
A Charlotte Mason education is not child-led nor teacher-led, but Spirit-led. Therein is much comfort and joy!
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