Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?
— I Corinthians 1:12-13
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet…
— Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene IIWould CM be opposed to the CM movement? I jotted this in the margin of my copy of The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Chomondeley in the spring of 2014. It’s a question I’ve circled round to a number of times since then. I see so many good things in the Charlotte Mason community. Please don’t mistake this for complaining.
You knew that was coming, right?
Mystie once said that she used to call herself a classical unschooler, even though the term was wildly inaccurate, because it evoked the right imagery. She was classical, she said, because she believed that content mattered — that the curriculum mattered. But she was an unschooler because she was casual, because she didn’t want people thinking she was a humorless Gradgrind, drilling away at kindergarten memory work.
I, on the other hand, have been calling myself classically Charlotte Mason for a long time. I didn’t realize how long until I was digging through the archives a couple weeks ago looking for something. Um. I guess I’ve almost always called myself that, or some version of it. So ten years? And I think I was trying to do the same as Mystie — pick a name that felt right. For me, adding the classical meant I wasn’t limiting myself to Charlotte Mason. I could read other books. I didn’t just want to live out Charlotte Mason’s philosophy in my home; I wanted to actually be like her. So I added the classical. The reading of everything. The taking of wisdom wherever you find it. The absolute joy in moving forward by reading from both the present as well as the past.
But my daily life? Well, it looks like Charlotte Mason’s schools, for the most part. Except the part where the children narrate upside on the couch and the governess folds laundry. I’m pretty sure that’s an addition.
Let me tell you a story. I’m putting a cast of characters in here so that you can reference it if you have trouble following all the people.
Once upon a time, in 1894, Charlotte Mason had a legal battle that would cause her to hire an attorney, define her organization going forward, and result in multiple resignations from people in her organization. To say it was a Big Deal would be an understatement.
I think it’s instructive to know what happened, so I’ll explain it as concisely as I can.
In 1893, Charlotte Mason traveled to Florence, Italy and saw the fresco which inspired her somewhat famous Great Recognition. I mention this only because it tells us in which direction she was moving and where her mind must have been. When a person moves, sometimes others don’t move with her. Or, in this case, they also move, but in an entirely different direction. The natural result of this is a break.
And that’s exactly what happened.
The Lady Isabel Margesson, who had been deeply involved in helping lead and steer the PNEU, had taken some liberties. Perhaps she felt she had more power and authority than she really had? In her book Hidden Heritage and Educational Influence, Margaret Coombs explained that while Miss Mason was away in Florence seeking to restore her health, Lady Isabel had been helping to edit Parents’ Review while she was gone in addition to her usual duties as honorary secretary of one of the PNEU branches. Perhaps this emboldened her?
We don’t really know.
What we do know is that at some point, Lady Isabel had actually attempted to change Rule 3 which contained the Objects of the PNEU itself. You might be wondering how this could be important. Well, imagine that while your senior pastor and Elder Board are away on a three-month trip, one of the deacons up and changes part of the statement of faith. Might this be a problem?
It’s like that.
At some point, while Miss Mason was attempting to recover her health, Lady Isabel attempted to change part of the PNEU’s mission, and she formally published her changes in a leaflet that was circulated. In a letter that Miss Mason later wrote to Dr. Schofield, there is a postscript that seems to imply that Lady Isabel did this on her own, without consulting the executive committee of the PNEU.
Obviously, this was a big no-no. But the question arises as to what she was attempting to change.
Charlotte Mason’s complaint to Dr. Schofield was clear:
[T]he Froebel people have got hold of Lady Isabel and are endeavouring to use her…
On July 9, 1894, Charlotte Mason wrote a letter that included instructions from her legal counsel. In it, she included a side by side comparison of the original Objects of Rule 3 with Lady Isabel’s changes:
Okay, so that’s quite a bit different. What part upset Miss Mason? All of it? Some of it?
Well, I’m sure that technically all of it did, but there was a certain part Miss Mason focused on. Her letter later says:
[T]he “Objects” were designed to cover all earnest Educational effort, while care was taken to avoid limitations which would hinder the advance of science; especially that most serious of all hindrances, the docketing of the Union with any given name or names.
In confidentiality, Miss Mason wrote to Dr. Schofield in regard to Lady Isabel, and also Miss Forsyth:
[T]hey both cling to Froebel as a mystic who has said the last word on Education. In fact, I think they rank him with Wagner and Ibsen amongst the “Eternities and immensities.”
Margaret Coombs quotes another letter from Miss Mason:
Lady Isabel Margesson and some other members left us in June 1894 because we could not receive their amendment pledging us to the ‘New’ Education as set forth by Pestalozzi, Herbert Spencer, and Froebel and other educational philosophers … [T]he PNEU was designed as a tacit protest against the fundamental principles of the philosophers mentioned …
It seems Lady Isabel was trying to marry Charlotte Mason’s philosophy to the educational philosophers of the day, and Miss Mason would have none of it!
By August of 1894, Lady Isabel had written her resignation letter. In it, she declared she was resigning because:
[It] would be an almost impossible position to hold and would surely be undesirable to continue to spread the principles of the “New Education” as those of the Union when I had been obliged to withdraw from the Centre on account of those principles.
At the Annual Meeting in 1894, a paper called PNEU Principles was read aloud. It was written by Charlotte Mason and later published in Parents’ Review in order that it might be read by all of the PNEU members. Here, she makes her relationship to the so-called New Education clear:
We lay no claim to original ideas or methods. We cannot choose but profit by the work of the great educators. Such men as Locke and Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel, have left us an inheritance of educational thought which we must needs enter upon.
Our work as a Society is chiefly selective, but not entirely so. We are progressive. We take what former thinkers have left us, and go on from there.
In addition to Lady Isabel, a number of other people resigned that summer. I assume it was all of those who called themselves by the name of Froebel and the others.
And so Charlotte Mason’s work went on.
The Lessons We Learn
The issue is clear: Lady Isabel tried to align the PNEU’s mission with that of the Froebel Society, which sought to popularize the teachings of Froebel and others mentioned above. These men are sometimes called the “fathers of modern education.” Of course, modern education wouldn’t be complete without Dewey’s application of secular Darwinism to the classroom, but that is another post for another day. Needless to say, I can imagine Charlotte Mason’s concern!
I find her critique interesting, though — that when we put a person’s name on what we’re doing, we limit ourselves to that one thinker. Remember her criticism of Lady Isabel and Miss Forsyth? That they considered Froebel a “mystic who has said the last word on Education?”
I think Charlotte Mason realized that there was no last word on Education. She will go down in history among the greats, of course, and rightfully so. But I doubt she was so prideful as to think she had the last word on it any more than Froebel did.
So what does this mean?
Well, on the one hand, you can give your children a wonderful, beautiful education if all you ever read is Charlotte Mason. And I think the work of groups like AmblesideOnline, who, on their Facebook page, seek to answer all questions with a view to what Charlotte Mason would have done or what she wrote definitely have their value. After all, if Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is everything, then it’s nothing.
But I see an insulation in the Charlotte Mason community, and it concerns me sometimes. Do you remember who Charlotte Mason was? This amazing thinker and voracious reader who wasn’t afraid to think for herself — and wasn’t afraid to let others do so, either? And do you remember the Great Recognition? That here we see the breadth of the thoughts of God — that all of the seven liberal arts come from Him and therefore we needn’t be afraid of them being “secular?”
Perhaps the danger is in allowing Miss Mason to be raised up as an idol in our midst.
We are of Christ.
Not of Paul, not of Apollos, not of Cephas. And, while we love Charlotte Mason, not of her, either. Lack of education isn’t the chief problem in the world, Charlotte Mason is not our messiah, her philosophy is not our Gospel, and the Charlotte Mason community (as glorious as it is) is no replacement for the Church.
I believe Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles to be true. Yes. That’s why I wrote a study guide for them. I adhere to them, and judge many things by them. I love them. But I don’t think we need to limit ourselves to Charlotte Mason, nor is 20 the sum total of truth.
I love how Charlotte Mason ends her paper. It’s essentially how she closed the controversy, and I think it’s instructive for all of us:
All sound educational thought is of its nature universal and not the property of any society, not even P.N.E.U. Of this we are very sure, that if we succeed in bringing educational ideas into more just relations with each other, or in any way advance educational truth, none will more eagerly avail themselves of any ray of new light we have to offer than the enthusiastic highly-trained Kindergarten teacher, who is full of the inspiration of Froebel, the poet-prophet of education — name which we also delight to honour, though we do not call ourselves after his or any other because we are altogether catholic in spirit and choose to be eclectics in education, free to take of the best whenever we find it, as a bee ranges from flower to flower, but having our own definite ideas on the lines of which we advance.
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