Who was Charlotte Mason and Why Should I Care?

Perhaps you have heard other homeschool friends mention this name, maybe you’ve seen it on Instagram or Pinterest. Who was this person? And why should you consider her, if you are homeschooling? Maybe you have been homeschooling for a while but you just feel like you are in a rut or a place where you might wanna change things up a little bit, and you just want to know more about the Charlotte Mason Method. 

My background is in elementary education and when I was teaching public school at my church’s library, I found the book, For the Children’s Sake, by Susan Shaffer McCauley. It’s a great introduction to the Charlotte Mason way of learning. Her children actually went to a Charlotte Mason school. I just remember reading that and being so deeply moved by this beautiful picture of how children could learn. I knew that in the constraints of the public-school system, and our testing requirements, it would have been impossible to teach that way, even though my heart was so drawn to it. That was one of the reasons why I left public education. 

From that point I began homeschooling my own children. I had compiled the Living Books and resources we were using into plans, and when a friend of mine suggested I share it with other people I put them on a blog. I was surprised to see that so many other moms wanted to use this beautiful philosophy but did not know how to practically apply it. And so, the curriculum that I created, A Gentle Feast, grew out of what I was doing with my own family.

Who was Charlotte Mason?

To delve into the world surrounding Charlotte Mason I will be quoting from a tribute that was written in The Times after her death on January 20, 1923, which gave a really good overview of her life and her work. 

“Many hundreds of parents and teachers in all parts of the world will join in mourning Ms. Charlotte Mason who died in her sleep at the House of Education Ambleside at noon yesterday. She founded the Parent’s National Education Union so long ago, in 1887, and strove steadily for more than half a century to create a system of education that should form a balanced union of religious belief and literary and scientific thoroughness. Her personal influence was probably more widespread than that of any educationalist of her time. The loyalty which she inspired was more than could be accounted for by the mere weight and force of her educational philosophy. The House of Education, founded by her, rapidly acquired a tradition and a spirit radiating throughout the great system which she evolved of homeschools. With many hundreds of children and governesses, widely separated in space, but one in endeavor. Working through the same syllabuses with the same books, and passing by means of test papers sent to Ambleside for correction, through the same series of grades.

Until almost the last, it was the pride of Ms. Mason’s many disciples that she knew all the children in the Parent’s Union School, looked through their work, and followed their progress. The House of Education has been, incidentally, the only institution that has offered special professional training to the private governess.

Charlotte Marie Shaw Mason was born on January 1, 1842. The daughter of Joshua Mason, a Liverpool merchant. After a home education, she was drawn to teaching work, and after some experience in various schools and in a training college at Trichester, as she began her work as an educational reformer, and eventually founded the union associated with her name.

The principles which she preached and which she had lived to see widely adopted, both in the schools that confessedly carried out her ideas, and in schools that testedly adopted them, were the hunger for knowledge. The use of school life, as a deliberate preparation for the larger interests of life, and the cultivation of a natural and earnest interest in nature and art. She continually preached the oneness of education, and the universal necessity of knowledge. Without knowledge, reason carries a man into the wilderness and rebellion joins company. That is a quotation from a remarkable series of letters on the basis of national strength.

Knowledge, well-balanced, was her panacea for the dangers of revolution. And such knowledge must be universal. It was the due balance on different sides of education which in her view made for national sanity. The Parent’s Union School was founded in 1891, to press for these principles. And by 1918 Ms. Mason’s ideas had permeated some forty elementary schools. A number or preparatory schools adopted the syllabuses in greater or lesser degree and became know as PNEU Schools. A guaranteed appearance that the home point of view would at least not be disregarded. Great praise of the method came from various parts of the country. Bradford, Gloucestershire, and Ms. Mason was satisfied to the last that her scheme of education was making considerable progress in elementary as well as secondary schools. And in private teaching.

Ms. Mason’s publications include Home Education, Parents and Children, School Education, Ourselves, Some Studies in the Formation of Character, The Ambleside Geography Books, The Savior of the World: The Life of Christ, an issue running in six volumes, The Basis of National Strength, and a Liberal Education for All.

Ms. Mason’s work was not dethroned by the various modern developments in the direction of freedom of education. Together with the other educational reformers of today, she saw children, not as little unwilling receptacles for information, but growing creatures struggling towards the light, eager to learn, eager to work, and too often starved of the means to do so.”

Just to recap here, she was born in the mid-1800s and was orphaned. She went to training to become a teacher and started giving these series of lectures which eventually became her first volume, Home Education. Then she founded the Parent’s Union. She created her school in Ambleside, where she trained governesses called the “House of Education.” And then created the Parent’s National Education Union which was where parents would subscribe to get her syllabus. She would send out a 12-week one term syllabus, and it would have the Living Books that they would use per form, which we would consider grades. (These forms would have several grades together, so it’s a little different than what we’re used to.) But it would list the Living Books and the parents would use these. I think that’s one of the reasons why if you’re a homeschooling parent, you should consider Charlotte Mason. She was one of the only, as far as I know, educational reformers and philosophers that was primarily geared towards home education. 

Her school taught governesses to go into homes and to teach the children in those homes. And then later, as, you know, the governesses tended to fade away in the early 1900s, but also as the British Empire was expanding, people in the colonies and throughout the empire, would subscribe to her programs and get the syllabus, and they would teach their children at home as they didn’t have means to have a governess. So, it really was this kind of “grass-roots” homeschooling movement in the late 1800s, which is super cool! And just the staying power of that and the spread of that throughout homeschooling today, just shows how long lasting it is. This is not some little fad homeschool idea where we want to leave public education and create this whole new way of learning. The principles that Charlotte Mason built her philosophy on have been around for hundreds of years! And she also played it out practically, with the children that were going through her syllabi, curriculum, and the teachers that she was training.

She observed children as a teacher herself. And then, as the parents were using her syllabi in their homes, they would do end of term exams. Charlotte Mason would actually go through these exams herself and evaluate how the children were learning. She would write little comments on them, and then she would make her choices as to what books to change out of her curriculum, all of which were based on the student’s responses. So, her curriculum was a living program. 

Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy

It is very important to note that Charlotte Mason’s philosophy was based on children learning at home. Charlotte Mason believed that home was the best place for children to learn. This would be adopted throughout many schools as well. They were practically playing out this philosophy in schools and seeing success throughout England as well. So, it’s been used by many, many children. I frequently get the question “If I use this philosophy will my kids get into college?” I know that’s so important and that’s such a fear of us homeschooling parents. We want our children to be academically successful and successful in life. But really, because of the staying power of this philosophy and how many children have gone through it, I don’t think there’s any fear that this is not a very thorough way of educating our children.

The fact that it is a living education. In The Times obituary, it states that Ms. Mason did not believe that children were “unwilling receptacles for information,” but they were “growing creatures.” And you’ll see that as we dig into her philosophy more, that every subject is taught in a living manner through living books and through experiences. And that the children really are doing the work of their own education and that makes them eager to learn. 

Children are not starved, like she says, she uses this food metaphor a lot. Which is why I named my curriculum “A Gentle Feast.” Charlotte Mason gives this idea that we are providing a feast for our children and we are abundantly giving them rich and deep subjects, where they’re feeding themselves. The mind needs this knowledge, just like our bodies need food. Our children crave it and they will learn best when they are doing that work for themselves. 

Her philosophy also sees education as a preparation for life. It’s not just learning a bunch of information. She talks a lot about the character of a person. The way of the will, the way of reason. She talks a lot about habits. So, it encompasses the whole life of a child and not just academics in one part of their life. And then, the other thing is that this isn’t just a philosophy of education. She really does give a practical method for how to teach every subject and really lays that out very clearly in her volumes. So, you’re not left wondering, oh, what should I do here? What does this mean? And then different people take the philosophy and do things differently, in different ways. No, there is a very thoroughness to the philosophy and the method of teaching that she developed in her volumes as well.

Why should I care?

Coming from some mothers who wrote letters after Charlotte Mason passed away, she was incredibly valuable not only to the students but to generations of mothers.  This first one here is from a mother’s point of view…

“The obituary account of Ms. Mason’s work in the Times took me back to the days when I was a young mother, I started to teach my small boys with the help of the PNEU schools [Parent’s National Education Union] How little I thought when the first PUS papers came, for how many years I should go on with the work. I knew nothing of teaching, and too, had forgotten much of what I learned at school. How could I accomplish such an impossible task? Only by the arrival of the PUS syllabus, term by term. As I look at some of the old books the interviewing years have forgotten, I am back once more in the thought to the days gone by when the children and I were learning together. History was a fascinating subject when taught by Arnold Foster… Elizabeth became a real person as one read Killingworth and Westward Ho. French History, and later on as they grew older, European History, out of different points of view. Geography, such a dull subject in my days, lists of capes and bays, imports and exports, quite another thing as one wandered through Northern Italy, or took part in lion hunting in Africa…

Literature we generally took after lunch. I had old fashioned respect for the value of rest then for the children, and I wish I’d kept a list of books that I read aloud to them then. How many subjects we took, and what a good library we gathered together, and how exciting it was to see the new books that arrived each term. Picture talks with the reproductions of artists of bygone days or modern times, tales of Saint Paul’s cathedral in Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare plays that we read together. What a wide world we lived in though we worked in the depths of the country. In the end of the term examination I, a secretary, took down what my small people happened to remember. As days went on it was rather a comfort that they were able to write down their own answers. And at the end of the week the big envelope went off.

Others will write of Ms. Mason’s work from the point of view of the trained teacher. But how much greater is the debt of a mother who, without any training at all, could teach her children through the method that Ms. Mason had worked out. It was she who made the impossible possible. Who showed us term by term what books to use and how to use them. Who taught us to take the children straight to the fountainhead and let them learn from the books themselves. It was she who realized what home education might become, who changed the whole atmosphere of the homeschool room, who inspired us for our work and gave us the power to carry it out. A pioneer who blazed the trail that many of us followed with keen enjoyment and grateful hearts.”

And then another mother writes…

“The task God has given to mothers must always be the most responsible committed to any human being, that is nothing less than the training for the service of His own children, children whose bodies must be sound and healthy, whose minds must be disciplined and alert, whose souls must learn to grow in the knowledge and love of their Father if they are to fulfill the purpose for which He has sent them here. It was this vision which Ms. Mason saw, and which she gave her life to make real. This ideal, which she held ever before the eyes of those who in dusty ways of daily life, were apt to rest content with the Lord in more a material standard.”

I think these letters just show such a beautiful picture of what these mothers experienced in their homeschooling, and the debt that they had to Ms. Mason for showing them what books to use while also teaching them the method of how to bring about this living education in their homes. I hope this encourages you to take a look a little deeper into Ms. Mason’s works and her readings. It is such an inspiring way to educate your children!