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    Educational Philosophy

    The Use and Misuse of Charlotte Mason’s First Principle

    April 20, 2015 by Brandy Vencel

    Children are born persons.
    Charlotte Mason’s First Principle of Education

    Philosophy is a lot like theology: much can go wrong by simply emphasizing one part to the exclusion of others. In theology, we might elevate one attribute of God — justice, but not love. Or grace, but never holiness. The same sort of mistake is often made in regard to Charlotte Mason’s principles.

    The Use and Misuse of Charlotte Mason's First Principle

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    One of the mistakes I’ve encountered over the years is a focus on the personhood of the child to the exclusion of the rest of the 20 Principles. When the first principle is isolated from its original meaning and its context, we get all sorts of practices and beliefs by which Miss Mason herself would have been dismayed.

    In Charlotte Mason’s sixth volume, she starts off by marveling at this thing we call a child. Here is a wonder of wonders! Here is something God hath wrought. We bow down in reverence — not before the child, but before the God who makes such things.

    She then begins to explain what she means by the use of the word “person.” I think this is very important because in America, especially, we tend to think that the words “person” and “individual” are interchangeable. We think of personhood in terms of what makes us distinct from others. While I do believe that each child is born with his own bent that we must respect, Miss Mason is really focusing on what a person is in the universal sense — what the child has in common with the brotherhood of all mankind.

    Here are some examples Miss Mason gives:

    She goes on to emphasize that these things are still true, even if the child is from the slums. The book Left Back has helped me understand the significance of this statement. In Miss Mason’s time, even Americans began to believe that there was something of a hereditary class system — that the poor or black or non-English speaking children were not as capable — that their minds were not fully furnished.

    Even Miss Mason did not always believe as she believed at the end of her life. Certainly she came a long ways from the classism we see in her earlier writing, and this change was likely the result of her working with poor children and discovering for herself that the elite thinkers of her day were wrong, and the poor were equally human (albeit often lacking in vocabulary).

    Her emphasis, as I said, was upon how children are a part of the human race — on what we all have in common. It was never upon the differences. In fact, she once wrote:

    Introspection is morbid or diseased when the person imagines that all which he finds within him is peculiar to him as an individual. To know what is common to all men is a sound cure for unhealthy self-contemplation.

    What is the Proper Use of Charlotte Mason’s First Principle

    Here we are talking only about educational applications. This principle can be applied in areas like parenting, but I couldn’t possibly be exhaustive. I’m confining myself here to the applications Miss Mason herself makes, which I see as primarily two things.

    First, children are to have their minds properly fed. Every day, we are to offer them truth, goodness, and beauty, and not in small portions. This is their birthright as little humans — as our fellow humans.

    Second, we are never, ever to manipulate them. Her principles tell us that because they are human, we have only three educational tools: atmosphere, discipline, and life — the atmosphere of living ideas, the discipline of habit, and a generous (life-giving) curriculum. We cannot use other tools which coerce and are therefore inherently disrespectful.

    On Misuse of Charlotte Mason’s First Principle

    I cannot tell you how often I have heard a certain notion — something along the lines of, “Because I agree with Charlotte Mason that children are born persons, our curriculum is child-led.”

    No no no no no.

    I don’t know how else to put this, so I’ve decided to take the blunt route.

    This is a misuse of the first principle.

    Before I tell you why, I will give a couple caveats. Miss Mason was not controlling about her students’ free time, and school hours were relatively short. There was time in which the child could be self-directed. I am not saying here that children should never have time of their own to pursue their own interests. (I ascribe to the Don’t Look Theory of Parenting, as you know.)

    Miss Mason believed there was a curriculum for humans. I’m not saying that she thought her booklist was the Only Booklist in the World. But generally — science, math, art, music, literature, history — these were the things for mankind.

    At one point she even says:

    [A] common curriculum (up to the age of say, fourteen or fifteen) appears to be due to all children.

    She doesn’t mean here that she believes in ridiculous notions like Common Core, but that all children deserve a broad and generous curriculum. The children do not get to choose, to self-limit due to their own ignorance. Instead, we offer them a feast. Some of them gobble all of it up, and others are extremely picky eaters. But all come to the same table.

    The meal analogy sometimes falls apart because picky eaters might have an allergy. I will, however, assure you that no children have died of anaphylactic shock due to a math lesson.

    This doesn’t mean we don’t approach them as persons. They are individuals. In teaching my daughters to narrate, for example, both of them had their own struggles. One needed to be taught to lengthen her telling. The other needed to learn to be concise. It would have been silly of me to work with both of them on the same thing when they so obviously had their own peculiar weaknesses.

    But persons.

    Persons are made in the divine image. And also, they are fallen and imperfect. This combination means that while they are are born to think the thoughts of God after him — to glory in math and astronomy and art and literature — they will also have their struggles.

    There will be times when they do not love rightly.

    I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. When I do not love math, I am the one who is wrong. As a teacher, we may be called to go to great lengths to try and woo our students. Children’s individual tastes do not determine the curriculum. The nature of children as persons — as part of the human race and born to a great heritage — does.

    Want to study Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles for yourself?

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  • Reply 100 Benefits of a Charlotte Mason Education - My Little Robins July 14, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    […] The principle “Children are born persons” will shape how you view and interact with your children. See a great article that explains what this idea does and doesn’t mean from Brandy at Afterthoughts Blog. […]

  • Reply How to Make Them Care | Afterthoughts February 9, 2018 at 5:00 pm

    […] children are born, they are persons, yes, but they are persons of limited knowledge and experience. They don’t know what they don’t know. More importantly, they can’t love what […]

  • Reply Graham November 10, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    Well said. Thanks for calling us to provide our children with a daily feast of truth, beauty, and goodness!

  • Reply 100 Benefits of a Charlotte Mason Education (and Giveaway!) - My Little Robins November 20, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    […] The principle “Children are born persons” will shape how you view and interact with your children. See a great article that explains what this idea does and doesn’t mean from Brandy at Afterthoughts Blog. […]

  • Reply April 21st, Gratitude – Silvia Cachia November 6, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    […] As a result of this crisis in our lessons, I’m mindful and always correcting the way I address my daughters. I’m committed to stop my habitual tendency to use manipulation while at lessons, to remember they are persons. […]

  • Reply Cheryl Floyd November 13, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    I love this! There are two fantastic entries in, My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers on “Personality” and “Individuality”.

    They speak to what you are referencing: the difference between persons, personality, and individuality. I read and re-read these entries as I contemplate who, how, and what God has made us. They are especially great for conversations with children entering dialectical/logical maturity. 😉

    I’d love to hear what you think if you get a chance to read them.

  • Reply Ideas Worth Sharing: On Learning, Practicing, Autism, Entrepreneurship, and Dressing Well • Doing What Matters with Janice Campbell May 15, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    […] The Use and Misuse of Charlotte Mason’s First Principle at Afterthoughts: There are so many good points in this post; it is a must-read. The lines that ring true-blue for me: “All children deserve a broad and generous curriculum. The children do not get to choose, to self-limit due to their own ignorance. Instead, we offer them a feast. Some of them gobble all of it up, and others are extremely picky eaters. But all come to the same table.” […]

  • Reply Barbara April 25, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    Spot on and well said.

  • Reply Harmony Moore April 22, 2015 at 7:43 am

    “Her emphasis, as I said, was upon how children are a part of the human race — on what we all have in common. It was never upon the differences.”

    This is so thought provoking!

    I am so thankful for the time and thought you put into your posts, Brandy. Oftentimes it’s too much for me to take in–lol. But I’m always glad when I slow down and let myself really ponder.

  • Reply Carol April 22, 2015 at 3:20 am

    Brandy, like what you said about ‘person’ as opposed to ‘individual.’ A child-led approach does seem to be common amongst many who call themselves CM educators.

  • Reply Jeannette April 21, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    Beautifully expressed Brandy! I too look forward to more.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 21, 2015 at 8:52 pm

      Oh, thank you! ♥

  • Reply Mariel April 21, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    “I will, however, assure you that no children have died of anaphylactic shock due to a math lesson.”


    I am fascinated by the historical context in which Charlotte Mason developed her philosophy of education. Your post made me go digging. In the teaching credential program, we learned about educational psychology, but it was only skimmed the surface. The child as oyster vs. the child as person debate, the developmentalists vs. the anti-developmentalists, is so intriguing. Thank you! 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 21, 2015 at 8:52 pm

      Yes! The oyster! CM actually refers to that one, I think. It really *is* interesting, isn’t it? One thing that has struck me is that it’s like we’re still having the same exact conversation now, 100 years later. That is sort of surreal.

  • Reply silvia April 21, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    This was beautiful to read, so wisely written. Such a blessing.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 21, 2015 at 12:56 pm

      Thank you, Silvia. 🙂 ♥

      • Reply silvia April 21, 2015 at 6:08 pm

        Brandy… will you write yet a second post on children are persons? What it means in how we should then teach them, what we ought to do, and ought not to do in the way we deliver this feast to them.
        You hinted a bit when you said you teach to their weaknesses, but this has been my stumbling stone… I have not until now truly remember to have this principle present during our lessons. I have let the curriculum and a badly taken information I gather from reading what others do, shape an idol in my mind and blind me to the beautiful persons my girls are. (You know, the comparing, the ideals of where to take them that are noble in themselves but that one, in her pride, allows them to dictate your life and produce angst, or contempt… well, it looks like I have a post to write myself, huh! (I also hinted in my latest post, but you do this so magisterially that it’s so easy for me to ask, lol).

        • Reply silvia April 21, 2015 at 6:10 pm

          “remembered” (argghhh), every.single.comment I make has spelling mistakes! why? sigh.

          • Brandy Vencel April 21, 2015 at 8:50 pm

            So I can laugh when you are frustrated? 😉

            I will think about writing a post on that…it’ll take some pondering. I don’t know off the top of my head what to say about it, but I will pray for inspiration. 🙂

        • Reply Harmony Moore April 22, 2015 at 7:44 am

          Silvia, I want to read the post when you have it written! 😉

  • Reply Paola Collazo April 21, 2015 at 7:53 am

    Thanks! I hope you write about the other 19 as well. I know other sites have as well, but I enjoy your eloquence and humor.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 21, 2015 at 8:26 am

      Thanks, Paola! 🙂

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