Let me give a few examples.
Teaching foreign language a certain way is not an end; it’s just a means. A good example is the Gouin method of language acquisition. Charlotte Mason said that language fluency was what we were trying to accomplish, and the purpose for this was laid out clearly in Volume 2:
It is the duty of the nation to maintain relations of brotherly kindness with other nations; therefore it is the duty of every family, as an integral part of the nation, to be able to hold brotherly speech with the families of other nations as opportunities arise; therefore to acquire the speech of neighbouring nations is not only to secure an inlet of knowledge and a means of culture, but is a duty of that higher morality (the morality of the family) which aims at universal brotherhood; therefore every family would do well to cultivate two languages besides the mother tongue, even in the nursery.
Right before this, she says it more concisely: families should learn languages so that they can show courtesy abroad.
Charlotte Mason selected the Gouin method because it was effective — in fact, she believed it to be the most effective she’d encountered. But I think we can safely assume that if we stumbled across a different method which was equal or greater in effectiveness, we could use that one instead, as long as it didn’t contain anything in it which would harm the child’s character.
Charlotte Mason didn’t have children studying languages so that they could experience the Gouin method. Rather, the Gouin method helped children become fluent in languages so that they could practice courtesy to others.
Teaching physical education a certain way is not an end; it’s just a means. You all know I am fond of Swedish Drill. That is why I asked Dawn to start writing here — because I wanted everyone to hear her lovely thoughts on Swedish Drill and physical education. But if we read Charlotte Mason, we find that in Volume 3, she tells us that the goal of physical culture — of physical training — is a serviceable body:
The object of athletics and gymnastics should be kept steadily to the front; enjoyment is good by the way, but is not the end; the end is the preparation of a body, available from crown to toe, for whatever behest ‘the gods’ may lay upon us.
She calls this “the making of heroes” and she explains that the ancient Greeks had a far better view of the body than we do today — that they understood that the end goal of physical training is to be of service to something or someone far greater than yourself.
Swedish Drill is great, and Dawn has completely sold me on its value. But the general category of physical exercise, along with the goal of training for heroism, is the goal we must keep at the forefront of our minds. For our family, this means that karate has stolen the stage for the moment. In the summers, I put them in swimming lessons because heroes can swim.
Charlotte Mason didn’t schedule physical exercises into the school day so that the students could do Swedish Drill. Rather, Swedish Drill was taught because it is a healthy and efficient way of strengthening and training the body in the context of a school, with the ultimate goal being that the body is more serviceable than if it hadn’t done any exercise.
Sticking to the time-tables is not an end; it’s just a means. The schedule is far from the point when it comes to what we’re doing. Did you know that Charlotte Mason never even tells us the details of her schedules in her volumes? We have to go look them up elsewhere.
They are instructive, though. Charlotte Mason gives us many principles for managing a school day, and seeing her time-tables is helpful. It is good to see an example of how those principles might be put into action. Which principles? Well, things like short lessons, alternation of subjects, having set and limited school hours, and the like. Christy would even say it might give us some peace because it’ll show us where we’re trying to do entirely too much!
But it’s easy to start viewing the scheduling system we’re using — any system — as The Boss rather than a tool. I mean, Charlotte Mason did not have schools so that children could be subjected to her time-tables, but sometimes it starts to feel like that in our homes.
You know what? I don’t think Charlotte Mason ever did science for two hours straight, even in the high school years. But my son takes a physical science lab with friends, and it’s two hours long almost every single Monday afternoon. He loves it, his attention does not flag, and he’s more in love with science than ever. I call that a win all around, but if I felt like a slave to the time-tables, I might have been tempted to beat myself up for “compromising” in such a way.
Charlotte Mason’s schools started at nine. They often ran six days per week. They had afternoon activities every day. All of this worked great for her. Your mileage may vary.
I love the time-tables and have used them (in my own way — you can read about how I create blank templates and then use them to plan a whole year if you like) to implement AmblesideOnline effectively. I really couldn’t have taught four separate years at a time without learning a way of thinking about all of this that worked for me.
But notice this: worked for me.
It’s okay if what I do — or what Charlotte Mason did — doesn’t work for you. Charlotte Mason didn’t have a one-room school house, and I assume that you probably do, which means you’re going to have to adjust to fit your family.
Teaching reading a certain way is not an end; it’s just a means. I’ve been asked why the phonics curriculum I developed doesn’t follow the way Charlotte Mason laid out teaching reading. You want to know why? Because I knew how to teach a child to read before I ever encountered Charlotte Mason. I used to joke about old dog and new tricks, but the reality is that the way I teach reading is simple, effective, easy, requires very little time, and the children I’ve worked with over the years enjoyed the process. It’s not for everyone, but it is for me (and some of you — you know who you are!). The bottom line is that it works.
But for years I felt a little insecure about this, as if there was some hidden virtue in how Charlotte Mason taught reading that couldn’t possibly be in my method. And then Anne White shared this quote with me. It’s from a Parents’ Review article written by Elsie Kitching in 1926:
[Charlotte Mason] used to tell her students here, “Teachers must in this, as in all other matters, mix their work with brains,” for children differ, and a method which helps one child may seem a stumbling block to another. A good teacher usually has a method she prefers, and Miss Mason was quite willing to leave it to the teacher as long as the child learnt to read!
As long as the child learned to read. That’s the goal folks.
Charlotte Mason’s method seems to work — my friend Amy wrote a curriculum called Discover Reading that imitates it, and people like it. But you know what? My curriculum also works. Which is sort of the point. It wasn’t ever the box of ivory letters or the cutting up of pages of words — those were means.
Literacy. That was the point.
Which brings us to my point. Let’s not confuse the means with the ends. When we do this, we are completely sabotaging ourselves and our homeschools.
Charlotte Mason believed in the ability of teachers and parents to wisely apply her principles as they saw fit (see the preface to Volume 2, for example). She warned us against systematizing education. And yet it’s so tempting — our world promotes the factory model and we are tempted to believe that we can put the children on the conveyor belt on one end and then Do All The Things Precisely along the way and then out will pop the Properly Educated Child at the end. It’s easier to focus on Doing The Things Precisely (and Mechanically) rather than thoughtfully implementing principles.
Conform our ways to Charlotte Mason’s principles and each family will look a little different as they blossom and grow. But decide on an absolute standard of doing all the details, and that’s a different kind of conformity altogether, and some families will feel stifled while others will feel like failures and yet others will feel smug. And none of it is pretty, and none of it requires the use of our brains.
Remember Charlotte Mason’s exhortation? Mix our work with brains.
With a few solid principles in our pockets, and brains in our heads, we can stop the sabotage. We’re going to do just fine.
Get the weekly digest!
All of the week's content (plus a bit of bonus commentary) in one simple email.