CHARLOTTE MASON AND CLASSICAL EDUCATION
By Pam Geyer
There is a lot of talk in the home schooling community these days about classical education. In particular, the book The Well-Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer is very popular. And much of what classical educators advocate coincides with my personal beliefs on what constitutes a quality education. Having worked through the issue of structured academics versus unschooling in the early days of our home schooling adventure, I particularly appreciated this quote from The Well-Trained Mind:
“Classical education is diametrically opposed to ‘unschooling,’ which is immensely popular among many home schoolers. ‘Unschooling’ is child-centered. It assumes that the child will learn all that she needs to know by following her natural impulses, and that any learning that is ‘imposed’ on the child by an authority figure will prove unproductive.
“Classical education is knowledge-focused, not child-focused. It attempts to teach knowledge in a way that awakens the child’s interest, but the child’s interest is not the sole determining factor in whether or not a subject should be followed. How does a child know whether something will interest and excite her unless she works at unfamiliar (and perhaps intimidating) material?
“Unschoolers also tend to denigrate ‘book’ learning in favor of ‘real’ learning. Many unschoolers claim that the day-to-day realities of family life provide plenty of opportunities for learning. For these unschoolers, taking care of the house, grocery shopping, cooking, car repair, working in the family business, writing thank-you notes, and so on provide enough opportunity for children to learn real-life sills without ‘doing school’ in a formal way.
“While this may be true, a child’s education shouldn’t be limited to ‘real-life skills.’ Classically educated children should be able to cook, write thank-you notes, and tie their shoes. They also know where their country came from, how to construct a logical argument, and what puella means.” (pp. 584-5)
Even Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association is convinced of the value of a classical education. In his book The Future of Home Schooling, he says:
“There is little question that home schooled children are doing very well indeed compared to their public school counterparts. But, as parents, we should not be satisfied with doing better than a system that, on average, has totally failed to deliver quality academics in a safe atmosphere. We want our children to achieve both academically and morally at the highest levels rather than merely being better than the competition. It is this yearning in the hearts of successful parents that is going to lead many home schoolers in the next five to ten years to include the main components of classical education into their children’s education.” (p. 7)
What I have come to understand is that a Charlotte Mason education is consistent in many points with a classical education. Like classical educators, Charlotte Mason felt that the purpose of education was to develop virtue or character in the student, and that this is done in part through exposure to the very finest literature and books. Furthermore, in both a Charlotte Mason education and a classical education, teaching is done in consideration of the child’s developmental level and the stages of learning. In addition, both approaches emphasize growth in knowledge rather than merely “covering” subjects. In both, the student is expected to approach his studies purposefully, and the standard is excellence.
However, a Charlotte Mason education differs from classical education in other ways. In the first place, classical education emphasizes rote memory work in all subjects, whereas Charlotte Mason felt that there was little point to rote memorization. As we all know, lists of names and dates are quickly forgotten; in Charlotte Mason’s experience, only quality literature, read with focus and then narrated (or told back) in the child’s own words, would be remembered. She even called narration “the act of knowing.” She did encourage some memorization—passages of Scripture, uplifting poetry, etc.—and of course sometimes it is useful to have certain facts immediately at our disposal--the books of the Bible and multiplication facts come to mind, for example. But as a rule, Charlotte Mason taught that narration was more useful than memorization in the development of understanding and knowledge.
Second, classical education and stresses academics even for the very youngest students—reading, extensive writing, and formal grammar study from first grade on. But Charlotte Mason felt that childhood was too precious to spend engaged in long hours of tedious study. To be sure, she felt that the morning hours should be devoted to formal learning. However, this came in the form of short lessons—no more than fifteen minutes per subject for the very young—and preferably alternating a “painstaking” subject (like a math exercise) with a “thinking” subject (like reading a chapter from a history book). But she firmly believed that the afternoons should be kept free for nature study, art and music, handicrafts, and delight-directed study. She further believed that children should be allowed to spend much time outdoors, every day in all kinds of weather, and that formal composition and formal grammar study should be delayed until the age of 9 or 10. Of course, her technique of narration, along with a couple of other simple language arts techniques, provides experience with and preparation for composition and grammar study later on.
Third, many classical educators feel that it is necessary to move the schooling outside of the home to “schools of like minds,” especially during the high school years, as they do not believe that parents not qualified to instruct at the higher levels. But Charlotte Mason fully advocated parental authority and responsibility, and believed that self-education—reading the great works written by the great thinkers of the past--would provide a quality education, second to none.
Finally, classical education emphasizes the teaching of formal logic over the teaching of God’s word. Charlotte Mason, of course, stressed the importance of reading Scripture and allowing it to be the standard by which to measure fallacy and truth. It is important to note that the ancients always fell short of attaining their ideals; in their despair, some even committed suicide. Without Christ, there is no hope! I do believe that there is a place for the study of formal logic. But it is also possible to construct a very logical argument which leads to a wrong conclusion, especially where issues of morality are concerned. This is the very premise for formal debate! By using the Bible as the final authority in determining truth, such error is avoided.
In my opinion, the classical method as interpreted in The Well-Trained Mind and elsewhere (Veritas Academy, Logos School, etc.) is overly demanding and strenuous. If my goal were to focus wholly on academics, they might provide a means to that end. However, that is not all I am trying to accomplish.
It is clear to me that Charlotte Mason was, in fact, a classical educator. But her primary aims were to instill in children good habits and a love of learning. I believe that we have a duty to educate our children in knowledge, but that we also have a commandment from God to train them in righteousness. The Charlotte Mason method keeps that focus in mind. That is what I appreciate most about Charlotte Mason and her approach to education!
Copyright 2000 by Pam Geyer
All Rights Reserved