Charlotte Mason


British Educational Reformer and Pioneer

“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”

Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) was a British reformer and pioneer in the field of education. Her concept of living books and real life experience,” as a foundation for educating shaped many of the schools of Great Britain at the turn of the century. She founded the Parent’s National Education Union (PNEU) in 1887 and established the “House of Education,” a teacher training college in Ambleside in 1892. There were schools, individuals, parents, and others who adopted her principles of education. Image courtesy of the Armitt Trust.

Beside the legacy of the students themselves, she left behind a six-volume set of books covering all aspects of her educational ideas. It also covers pertinent issues of moral, intellectual and physical development. Her biography, The Story of Charlotte Mason (Child Light, Ltd., 2000) has been reissued. She herself did not want a biography, “I do not wish my life to be written, it is the work that matters; it will live.”

Miss Mason’s early training was at a time when educators were just beginning to recognize each child was an individual with worth and value. Her contemporaries were such leading lights as literary giants William Wordsworth and William Coleridge, social reformer John Ruskin, and educational reformer Maria Montessori. The “kindergarten movement” was sweeping the country. Through those early years of training, she was forming her own unique ideas.

After a long apprenticeship learning from and observing children, Miss Mason began to lecture. She found an immediate audience for her ideas. From the 1870s onward, she worked tirelessly to inspire others to use her ideas. In 1887, encouraged by the reception to Home Education, she set about to make a “ground plan of education—a common possession” (Cholmondley, p.v.). As a result, schools were formed devoted to her principles, and teachers were trained at the “House of Education,” and then went into employment in the English public school system. Ultimately, her influence became worldwide as PNEU developed curriculum for British and American families around the globe.

Though her methods were widely assimilated both in Britain and in the United States (e.g., the whole language movement of recent years is an echo of her work) the Christian principles on which they were founded were left behind. Her many books and methods of teacher training were forgotten primarily because they were openly Christian in viewpoint. By the mid-twentieth century, education had become the increasingly secular, and her extraordinarily effective methods of education began to be overlooked in favor of more “progressive” forms.

The 1960s could still find some Charlotte Mason schools in England. In 1984 Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, in her book For the Children’s Sake (Crossway Books), introduced readers to Miss Mason’s ideas on educating the whole child—body, soul and spirit—as well as her ideas on character development. The homeschooling movement was then gaining momentum, and Miss Mason’s ideas were welcomed. Karen and Dean Andreola were introduced to the Mason method while living in England. Thanks to them, the entire six-volume set of Mason’s work has been reissued (Tyndale House, 1989).

Since that time, appreciation for Miss Mason’s work has steadily gained momentum in the United States. There are seven elementary schools using the Charlotte Mason method and thousands of parents homeschool their children using her ideas. Organizations have sprung up to further the work of Miss Mason: the Charlotte Mason Foundation, the Charlotte Mason Education Foundation, and the Charlotte Mason Schools International.

Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles

The only fit sustenance for the mind is ideas... Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science... - Charlotte Mason

“No sooner doth the truth. . .come into the soul’s sight, but the soul knows her to be her first and old acquaintance.”

“The consequence of truth is great; therefore the judgment of it must not be negligent.”

  1. Children are born persons.
  2. They are not both either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.
  3. The principles of authority on the one hand and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary, and fundamental; but—
  4. These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.
  5. Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments—the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. The P.N.E.U. Motto is: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.
  6. When we say that “education is an atmosphere,” we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child’s level.
  7. By “education is a discipline,” we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e., to our habits.
  8. In saying that “education is a life,” the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.
  9. We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.
  10. Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher’s axiom is, “what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.”
  11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that,—
  12. “Education is the Science of Relations”; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him make valid as many as may be of— “Those first-born affinities that fit our new existence to existing things.
  13. In devising syllabus for a normal child, of whatever social class, three points must be considered:

(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.
(b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity)
(c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.

  1. As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.
  2. A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarizing and the like.

Nor is the accuracy of this statement limited to clever children or to children of the educated classes: thousands of children in Elementary Schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behavior of mind.

  1. There are two guides to moral and intellectual self-management to offer to children, which we may call ‘the way of the will’ and ‘the way of the reason.’
  2. The way of the will: Children should be taught, (a) to distinguish between ‘I want’ and ‘I will.’ (b) That the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts from that which we desire but do not will. (c) That the best way to turn our thoughts is to think of or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting. (d) That after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its work with new vigor. (This adjunct of the will is familiar to us ad diversion, whose office it is to ease us for a time from will effort, that we may ‘will’ again with added power. The use of suggestion as an aid to the will is to be deprecated, as tending to stultify and stereotype character. It would seem that spontaneity is a condition of development, and that human nature needs the discipline of failure as well as success.)
  3. The way of reason: We teach children too, not to ‘lean (too confidently) to their own understanding’; because the function of reason is to give logical demonstration (a) of mathematical truth, (b) of an initial idea, accepted by the will. In the former case, reason is, practically, an infallible guide, but in the latter, it is not always a safe one; for, whether that idea be right or wrong, reason will confirm it by irrefragable proofs.
  4. Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rest on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.
  5. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.

From Philosophy of Education, Volume 6 of the Home Education Series