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Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition


I can clearly remember when I first discovered Classical Education. As the recipient of a full scholarship for prospective teachers, I had intensely studied educational philosophy and methodology for four years in college. However, it wasn’t until after I graduated college that I finally encountered the pedagogy of the ancients. I recall hearing a radio advertisement for a local Classical school that piqued my interest and caused me to begin my research. I remember thinking, “Classical Education? What in the world is THAT?” It wasn’t long before I was drinking deeply from the well of Dorothy Sayers, Susan Wise Bauer, and the Trivium as developmental stages. Shortly after I began my research, I also discovered the CiRCE Institute and Andrew Kern, with their focus on Christian Classical Education as a means to cultivate wisdom and virtue. It was then that I felt as if I had finally come “home.” After years of immersion in the dry, progressive ideas of modern education, it seemed as if I had finally discovered a philosophy of education that could quench my thirst for Truth. I knew that when I had my own children, I would be giving them a Classical Christian education at home.

I cannot recall at all, however, when I first learned of Charlotte Mason. I am sure that it was a link within a link within a link on the Internet somewhere that I first encountered her name. When I read about how she was a 19th Century educator who had labored to recover sound educational ideas and practices in response to the Progressive English schools of her time, I felt as if I had encountered a kindred spirit. I began perusing blogs that advocated for a Charlotte Mason philosophy of education. I bought and devoured her six-volume Original Homeschooling Series. I began to collect books from the Ambleside Online reading lists.

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At no point in my research did it ever occur to me that Mason’s ideas and practices were at odds with a true Christian Classical Education, so I was shocked when I began homeschooling my oldest son and encountered so many people who proclaimed that the two philosophies were in conflict.  I had difficulty communicating why I felt that Charlotte Mason’s ideas were not counter to traditional Christian Classical Educational philosophy, and I began to wonder if I was missing something. There were so many arguments from the various “camps” that I began to doubt my own intuition that Charlotte Mason and Christian Classical Education were just two sides of the same ancient coin. Instead of trusting my instincts, the ones that told me I could draw from one philosophy without compromising the other, I became confused.  I was excited, then, when I found Karen Glass’ book, Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition. I was hopeful that Glass could explain what I believed intuitively but could not articulate—that a Charlotte Mason education IS, in fact, a Classical Christian Education.

Karen Glass is a founder of Ambleside Online and has homeschooled her children for over twenty years. She uses her personal experience and her many years of study of educational history and philosophy to make the case that Charlotte Mason actually developed her philosophy of education by harvesting from the traditions of the Classical past.

In this concise but rich little book, Glass does an excellent job of explaining how, although ancient educators did not always agree on the method, they did agree on the purpose of education, which was the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through the pursuance of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Like the ancients, Mason was also explicit in her advocacy for a moral education. Glass states that

“[Mason] defined virtue in much the same way [the Ancients] did, as the actions that result from acquiring wisdom.”

In that sense, Glass makes the case that Classical Education and a Charlotte Mason education have the same overarching goal: the formation of character and right actions by means of right thinking.

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Glass traces the history of education and the major shifts in pedagogical thinking, and quotes frequently from the writings of ancient educators like Plato, Aristotle, Quintilian, and Augustine. She shows how Mason was steeped in these classical works and how Classical thinkers directly influenced the development of her philosophy of education.  She contrasts the methodology of modern, progressive education, and convincingly demonstrates how Mason was firmly camped in the principles and methodology of Classical Education.

Glass does make important distinctions between some of the methods advocated by a few modern Classical Educators and the methodology of the ancient educators. She respectfully calls into question some of the practices that are often implemented without full understanding of the underlying Classical principles. But, overall, she makes a convincing case that a bridge does not need to be built between Classical Education and Charlotte Mason’s philosophy; they are already standing firmly on the same ground.  I came away from the book solidly convinced that Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education was a modern application of thoroughly Classical principles.

It is typical in these times to see homeschool parents segregate into various camps depending on educational practices and methodology. Whether one is Classical, Charlotte Mason, eclectic, traditional school-at-home, or an unschooler, it seems to be common practice to stand firmly on “our way” and be suspicious (or outright acrimonious) toward those who adhere to a different philosophy. Glass’ book is a breath of fresh air in a conversation that is sometimes polluted with vitriol. Instead of focusing on the differences, Consider This does exactly as the title suggests: it asks us to consider the rich educational traditions that we have in common, and the ways in which they have evolved and influenced our modern day philosophies.  Regardless of the educational camp in which you may find yourself, this book is one that will enlighten and encourage you as you labor to cultivate wisdom and virtue in your students.

 

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4 thoughts on “Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition

  1. Yes!! I read this rich little book last year and had much the same reaction. I’d always considered myself to be planted firmly in the Classical camp but found myself still drawn very much to Charlotte Mason’s ideas. This book showed me why, and introduced me to CM’s feast of educational philosophy.

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    1. Thank you, Erin! Isn’t it always encouraging to find that our instincts were correct? I love that you used the word “feast,” because that is exactly what I feel that a Charlotte Mason (or Christian Classical) Education truly is! I feel so blessed to have discovered this path after years in the wasteland! Thank you for your encouragement! (Jaime)

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  2. I’m still thinking about what I think about these matters and I’m pretty new to this discussion…
    but I did have a question. You say
    “In that sense, Glass makes the case that Classical Education and a Charlotte Mason education have the same overarching goal: the formation of character and right actions by means of right thinking.”

    Yet, I was reading volume 3 and what CM has to say seems to go farther and beyond what the classical tradition has to offer at this point. And i wonder if it isn’t the most important distinction, despite other commonalities, because the it does concern precisely what the Gospel means. The Gospel isn’t “do better, try harder, obey more, have more virtues.” And I think CM does a really grace-full job of putting these virtues in their place–they come once our heart has been transformed through personal joy in knowing God as our father, and that our sins have been forgiven in Christ.

    P. 136:
    “Candour, fortitude, temperance, patience, meekness, courage, generosity, indeed the whole role of the virtues, would be stimulating subjects for thought and teaching, offering ample illustrations. One caution I should like to offer. A child’s whole notion of religion is ‘being good.’ It is well that he should know that being good is not his whole duty to God, although it is so much of it; that the relationship of love and personal service, which he owes as a child to his Father, as a subject to his King, is even more than the ‘being good’ which gives our Almighty Father such pleasure in His children.

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    1. Thank you, Julie, for your thoughtful comment! I admit that I have wrestled with similar questions and the conclusion that I, personally, have come to is that there may be two important distinctions to be made. Of course, I am still constantly working all of this out so I may be totally wrong; I have so very much to learn! But the first distinction, in my opinion, is that there is a difference between the ancient Classical education (of the Greeks) and Christian Classical Education. The education of the Greeks was intended to form the heart of the student; there is no doubt that their aim was to produce truly virtuous men. But, as you rightly pointed out, that is an outcome that can only ultimately be achieved by the work of the Holy Spirit in a heart that is surrendered to Christ. Glass does comment on this in the Afterward when she says “The ancient educators knew that their system ultimately failed to make truly good men. Quintilian said, ‘there has never been a wise man.’” (p. 126) At this point in history, we are blessed to have a source of knowledge that the Greeks did not have: revelation. And through this revelation we can comprehend what was beyond their grasp: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Although when we think of “classical education” we (rightly) often think of the pagans, there is a rich history of Classical educators who were born on this side of the Gospel and rightly ordered their teaching on the understanding that Christ is the source and end of true wisdom. The Liberal Arts Tradition by Clark and Jain is a short, but incredible resource for understanding how the Seven Liberal Arts of a distinctly Christian Classical Education were grounded in piety and governed by theology. It’s a fantastic read that I highly recommend. Glass DOES include the earliest Christian Classical Educators, such as Augustine and Erasmus, in her distinction of “Classical educators” and, in that sense, I think it was a much easier for her to come to the conclusion that they and Charlotte Mason were, essentially, cut from the same cloth.

      I have also come to the belief that there is a distinct difference between virtue and holiness. I do believe that the traditional, ancient, classical education of the pagans could and did produce virtuous men. There were (and still are) many pagans that could be called “good men.” But, as Christians, we don’t desire our students to be good men; we long for them to become HOLY men. And that is solely the work of the Holy Spirit alone. A favorite author of mine, Sally Clarkson, talks about how it is our responsibility to tend the soil. We cultivate the ground of our children’s hearts as a gardener does in preparation for planting. But, labor as we might, we cannot make anything grow. And so we pray. But we DO cultivate the soil. Andrew Kern has a fantastic talk about Wisdom, Virtue, and Holiness in Episode 4 of Ask Andrew on the CiRCE podcast network. It helped me in this distinction very much.

      I’m so grateful for your comment and how it made me think and clarify in my own mind the differences as I understand them. I will be thinking more on this for days to come!

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