Who was Charlotte Mason?

As Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) is a name that many people are unfamiliar with, here are four things you might be interested to know about her.

She was a highly experienced teacher: After being orphaned at the age of 16, Charlotte, needing to find her own way in the world, attended teacher training college in London where she earned a first class certificate. She began by teaching for 10 years at The Davison School in Worthing, one of the first infant schools in the country and she went on to “pioneer” the school at secondary level.

The broad experience she gained in these early years in the classroom gave her the opportunity and the impetus to reflect on her own training and practise and to begin to form some deep convictions about the nature of children and how to teach in a way that reflected that.

By the end of her career she had over 50 years of teaching experience, having overseen the implementation of her ideas and methods in a network of schools under the umbrella of the PNEU (Parents’ National Education Union), as well as set up a teacher training college in Ambleside. (The site is now owned by the University of Cumbria where a new Charlotte Mason building bears witness to her influence, as does the Armitt Library where her original writings are stored.)

She was a visionary who believed in equal access to the best education for all:  In Charlotte’s day, education was restricted by social class. The lower class would receive vocational training in a trade, whilst training in fine arts and literature was kept for the richer members of society. She wanted to make a clear distinction between education and vocational training because she recognised that what people wanted and needed was an “education which shall qualify their children for life rather than for earning a living.”

Because she read so widely, she was familiar with the latest scientific research into craniums which, contrary to previously held beliefs, showed that “what we learn is physically imprinted in our brains, meaning that upper-class craniums held identical matter to lower-class ones. If brains showed the physical effects of education, then it didn’t matter what you were born with or what your early experiences were; anyone could learn, change and grow. Mason called this discovery of the physiological basis of habit formation “the charter of our liberties”, meaning that no individual was a slave to his genealogy. She got excited when she thought about the educational possibilities that could go beyond just one child or one group, to something that could rock the world.”
(Anne E. White, “Minds More Awake” p.15)

These convictions led to her vision of “a liberal education for all”. By “liberal” she meant generous – the broadening of a person’s knowledge and experience through exposure to the best in science, art, literature, music and other domains of human knowledge and endeavour.

When she said “for all” we must remember she was also working at a time when formal education had hitherto been largely limited to the male population. She herself founded schools for girls, as well as boys, and trained women as teachers.

She was both an idealist and a pragmatist:“So heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use” is not a criticism we could ever throw at Charlotte Mason. She paid careful attention to the many scientific and educational theories of her day. She was clear thinking and able to distinguish what she believed to be the best parts of each and to reject those ideas which were incompatible with a high view of personhood. She was a philosopher and thinker, and yet her ideas always found fruition in straight forward practical methods which could be put into practise by any teacher who was willing to listen and learn. Her method was uncomplicated and simply articulated, an attribute which would appeal to any teacher overwhelmed by new fads or initiatives. But it was also backed up by years of evidence and experience born out by those who taught and were taught at the PNEU schools. In her final book she expresses her delight and excitement in seeing the results of fifty years of reflective practise evidenced in the life of the pupils of PNEU schools. More evidence is recorded in the Parents’ Review articles but is also being recognised today by those who adopt her methods in different parts of the world, either in schools or at home. Children are, by nature, hungry to know and to learn, and we will see the evidence of this fact if we will take the time to consider how best to feed their minds and to cultivate this thirst for knowledge.

Her ideas are relevant now as much as then: Because Charlotte’s methods were so deeply rooted in an understanding of human nature, then, if she is right in her conclusions, the ideas can be applied to any time in history.They can also help us when considering some of the key points being debated in education today.
My hope is that I have interested you enough to take a little more time to reflect with me as I explore some of her ideas in this blog.

Reference List:

Consider This,” by Karen Glass

Minds More Awake“, by Anne E. White