A Study of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: Part 1

As most of you know, our family uses the Ambleside Online curriculum for our homeschool. Although it is possible to treat the AO curriculum as a booklist, the AO advisory board strongly encourages AO users to study Mason’s philosophy of education to get the full benefits of the curriculum. I began my CM journey roughly three years ago by reading Leslie Laurio’s Charlotte Mason Summaries, which is described by the author as a condensed “Readers Digest” version that gives chapter-by-chapter summaries of all six of Mason’s volumes. For those who are new to the CM philosophy, it is constructed on the published materials of Ms. Mason, those being:

  • Volume 1: Home Education – six lectures by Mason about the raising of young children (up to age 9)
  • Volume 2: Parents and Children – a collection of 26 articles from the Parent’s Review magazines to encourage and instruct parents
  • Volume 3: School Education – Mason’s thoughts about teaching children ages 9-12
  • Volume 4: Ourselves – Mason’s character curriculum written to children – consists of two books – Book 1 for ages 12-16; Book 2 for high school ages
  • Volume 5: Formation of Character – stand-alone chapters to encourage parents and help troubleshoot
  • Volume 6: A Philosophy of Education – Mason’s final book written after years of seeing her philosophy put into practice – includes the final version of her 20 Principles

Mason also published some poetry. And, there are many writings published about her, including a tribute written by former students, co-workers, and friends on the event of her death in 1923. In the grand scheme of history, Charlotte Mason did not live all that long ago, but she did live before my time as well as on a different continent, so the writings she left behind in addition to the entire movement of CM education (including the Ambleside Online community as well as other CM groups) are what I have to go on for my own philosophy of education.

Thankfully, out of that CM community, I have come into contact with Brandy Vencel. Brandy’s blog Afterthoughts is the first CM blog I began reading (about three years ago), and it has consistently been my favorite. One reason for this is because she uses the AO curriculum and her kids are just a few years older than mine. Another reason is her consistency and dedication to staying on topic. I also enjoy her personality. Brandy has written a study guide for Mason’s 20 Principles, and I have always intended to go through it. That day has finally come.

So, today’s post is a first in a series of 15 as I go through Brandy Vencel’s Start Here: A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles. She has organized this study of Mason’s principles through the reading of two sources: For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macauley and Charlotte Mason’s Volumes. The study is designed both for a book club setting as well as for individual study. In addition to the assigned reading of Macauley and Mason, Brandy offers several blog post links for optional reading and a link to the ongoing AO forum discussion of the study. In short, this study is not only affordable but also as deep as you want to take it. I highly recommend it!

Okay, so for Part 1 of the study, we are discussing Mason’s first Principle: Children are born persons.


The Value of Children

After reading both assignments (Macauley and Towards a Philosophy of Education), the overarching theme here is that human life – specifically that of a child – is valuable. There has probably always been a temptation to see children as less human than their adult counterparts. Perhaps this comes from a utilitarian perspective: Young children can’t “earn their keep” so they are less valuable. The same can be said of the very old, but this is a dangerous fallacy. People are more than their utility.

In the second chapter of Mason’s Volume 6, Towards a Philosophy of Education, she discusses this first principle by differentiating between the brain and the mind. The brain is an organ, a physical part of the body, and we care for our brain in the same way that we care for the whole body – rest, good food, water, exercise. In contrast, the mind is a spiritual component of a person, and we feed and exercise the mind with ideas. Even before the beginning of formal education, even very young children have a mind ready to learn.

Consider all the things even a toddler “knows” even if he or she can’t yet articulate it. In the first two years of life, children grow more intellectually than any following two years span of time. They learn concepts like soft, hard, wet, dry, hot, cold, stable, unstable, near, and far. They also learn body movement like how to run, jump, climb, sit, stand, skate, dance, and more. Before children have the words to express them, they even know properties of matter like colors, size, solid and liquid, etc.. And, perhaps most astonishingly, they learn language – or in some cases, multiple languages.

No two years of life are quite like our first two. If this doesn’t proved that a child is born a person (not a lump of clay) “with a mind as complete and as beautiful as his beautiful little body,”I don’t know what does. A child’s brain is the instrument by which his or her mind receives education — similar to how a piano is an instrument with which to make music. The piano is not the music, it is the instrument. Education does not produce a child’s mind because the mind is already there and active.

A Child’s Depth of Knowledge

In addition to the sheer quantity of knowledge children learn in their first two years, they also learn quite deep subjects. A child is able to comprehend as much of the infinite and the unseen (God, the universe) as his or her elders – just in his or her own way, and perhaps without all the stumbling blocks of an adult. Even before they talk, children are capable of reasoning, and often when they do begin speaking we hear about the ideas they have been pondering. This reminds me of our middle son L5 who often thinks an idea through in his head before he speaks it out loud. By the time he expresses his thought, the idea is so fully formed that to disagree with him is a major affront. In fact, there are times that he claims I’m not listening to him (which is obviously possible) when I’m pretty sure he didn’t actually say anything aloud, but he thought it through so thoroughly in his head that he thinks he was talking aloud.

Children also form a conscious at a very young age, and they quickly know the difference between right and wrong. That’s not to say they know to obey. You might make your child comply with the rules, but he or she must choose to obey. Children are also born with a deep capacity to love. Children love to love – their family, their pets, and their toys (even after they are tattered from years of being dragged around). To think that a child is without a fully formed mind is to be ignorant of what a mind is.

Ideas, Food for the Mind

A body is meant to grow and to do so it must feed upon food. Food itself is composed of living cells, and each of those cells is alive. The mind must also be fed. The mind feeds upon ideas, and just like each cell, those ideas have lives of their own. We hear of the idea, we take it in or accept it, and then everything we do seems to prove or disprove the idea.

Our job as teachers is to give children the great ideas of life, religion, history, science, etc. We don’t give them bare facts. We let the facts come naturally along with the ideas. Mason said, “Education, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen.” We must have enough confidence in our children to allow them to digest the ideas and learn the facts as they come instead of pre-digesting the ideas for them. We shouldn’t be telling them what to think or how to analyze a story. Sometimes even illustrations in a book limit a child’s imagination.

The parts of the mind – such as reason, imagination, reflection, judgment – work together as a team. When children are given an idea, all of these parts of the mind work together. Just as when learning a foreign language, the best method is immersion. As teachers, we must immerse children in ideas through a quality source – a living book.

Equality Among the Classes

Every person, no matter their class or social group – needs a generous education (one that’s full of ideas). Every child needs to experience what it’s like to have a mind well fed. Mind food is not something only to be given to the upper class. All people need to know how to feed their minds. In fact, I personally feel that the problem with today’s youth (children, adolescents/tweens, teens, and young adults) is that they have idle minds. They have never been taught to love ideas. They’ve never learned to appreciate truth and beauty through music, art, literature, theology, science (the music of the spheres). They have no idea what to do with their leisure time, and their minds are so starving for ideas that they are foundering.

Ideas can transport a person from their current circumstances. A person of limited income can travel the world through ideas. A person with a physical disability can experience a full range of motion through ideas. A person in an abusive situation can experience relationship through ideas. But, an “education” wherein children are given facts instead of ideas does not prepare the child for life. It may prepare him or her for a test, but after that test is finished the child will dump the facts and never encounter the idea.

Motivation for Learning

Children hunger for knowledge, not just information. When their minds are fed ideas, they will be self-motivated to learn. Practically speaking, this often means we teachers need to be more child-focused (not to be confused with child-led or child-centered) in our education. Give the children ideas, teach them to order their affections (to love the lovely in life), and let them take responsibility for their own education. You cannot make a child learn. You can only facilitate the learning by feeding their minds ideas.

Until we meet again next Friday, be well.

I’m reading:


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:




4 thoughts on “A Study of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: Part 1

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