A Response to a Few Questions: Art Middlekauff edition

I have a new CM pal. Pen pal. Keyboard pal. Mr. Middlekauff and I have a CM disagreement or two playing out in the blogosphere, and my response was too long to leave in his comments (I blame you, Art, because you asked such intriguing questions!). I originally commented on his blog post Charlotte Mason Meets Dorothy Sayers. My comment was off the cuff, but I stand by it. In response, Art asked me several questions (four with multiple sub-questions). The following is my response to Mr. Middlekauff’s questions. Hope my readers enjoy. Art, this is for you!


Let me begin this half of our dialogue by stating my limitations. I am not an official Charlotte Mason scholar. I’m a homeschool mother who has researched CM and classical methods in my spare time (you might imagine how much of that I get with three sons). I have chosen to blog about my journey through education philosophy and practice, and I draw knowledge from both primary sources (like Mason) and secondary sources (like Karen Glass, Karen Andreola, Cindy Rollins, and Brandy Vencel, to name a few). I am definitely still learning and growing, and I reserve the right to be “in process.” That said, I would like to address your questions.

Question One

First, what evidence do I have that Mason’s primary motivation behind her first principle (“Children are born Persons”) is to respond “to prevailing psychology of her day (hereditary determinism, ‘blank slate’)”?

Actually, I was just reading about this with my local CM study group this month. Technically, we had moved on to the second principle, “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil,” but the principles flow together a lot. We discussed a blog post by Karen Glass titled “Why did she have to say that?” (As a blog, it was published in 2014, but it had been written as an email as early as 1999).  In this blog post, Glass stresses that Mason’s ideas must be viewed in historical context. Glass points out that Mason was writing at a time when modern science was fixated on evolution, and related ideas were spilling over into child psychology. The term Glass uses is “hereditary determinism,” which is not a term Mason uses directly, although she describes it perfectly. Glass quotes Mason in Parents and Children (p. 22-23):

If heredity means so much [in giving a child his character]–if, as would seem at the first glance, the child comes into the world with his character ready-made–what remains for the parents to do but to enable him to work out his own salvation without let or hindrance of their making, upon the lines of his individuality? 

I don’t believe the idea of the child being a “born person” is a huge deviation from the classical tradition, but it is certainly an idea for which Mason is known. And let me just interject, in case anyone reading assumes that her focus on defining “a child” means that the CM philosophy is “child centered,” that Mason’s philosophy is not child-centered in the way that indicates it follows the whims of the student. Rather, Mason’s methods ensure that a child is an active participant in his or her own education – not just a vessel to be filled. In that way, Mason’s methods are also not teacher-centered. It seems to me that Mason’s stand on the topic of a child as a “born person” is at most an addendum to the classical tradition that she saw fit to add based on how she perceived children were being treated.

In response to your sub-question – in Mason’s landmark essay entitled “Concerning Children as Person,” why does Mason say this idea will “revers[e] our attitude towards children not only in a few particulars, but completely”? I do believe she wanted a complete reversal of how children were viewed. Later in the same essay, Mason says:

What we call “science” is too much with us. We must either reverence or despise children; and while we regard them as incomplete and undeveloped beings, who will one day arrive at the completeness of man, rather than as weak and ignorant persons, whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own, we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly or even tenderly we commit the offence.

I think Mason is referring to the “science” of her day – the same science that would usher in the genocide of WWI just one generation later. Charles Darwin’s work first appeared in 1859. By 1883, Darwin’s cousin Frances Galton coined the term Eugenics referring to “more suitable races.” Galton called for planned breeding among what he considered the “good” of the human population and suggested various ways to discourage / prevent breeding among “defective” individuals.

I think when Mason published “Parents and Children” in 1896 (a collection of previously written articles and essays), she was working to reverse society’s attitude towards children in general but also towards children who were not necessarily “well bred.” Interestingly enough, Mason, herself, as a child born out of wed lock in 19th century England, fell into that second category. In chapter 4 of “Parents and Children” Mason did directly dispute the role of heredity:

We are taught, for example, that “heredity” is by no means the simple and direct transmission, from parent or remote ancestor, to child of power and proclivity, virtue and defect; and we breathe freer, because we had begun to suspect that if this were so, it would mean to most of us an inheritance of exaggerated defects: imbecility, insanity, congenital disease––are they utterly removed from any one of us?

Question Two

Allow me to now move on to your second question: If Mason’s methods are “completely in line with the classical tradition,” then why was she considered by her contemporaries to have introduced a “revolution in method?”

My opinion that Mason’s methods are in line with the classical tradition because she advocates a liberal education, which mirrors the subjects considered part of the Trivium (language arts) and the Quadrivium (mathematical arts) as well as a moral education. Additionally, Mason was both familiar with and drew knowledge from the classical past – both Aristotle and Plato. She incorporates their ideas in her own philosophy and even based her definition of virtue (actions that result from acquired wisdom) on their definitions. In Philosophy of Education, Mason says:

We are aware that good life implies cultivated intelligence, that, according to the Platonic axiom, “Knowledge is virtue,” even though there be many exceptions to the rule.

No, Mason never uses the classical terms in her writings, but her methods are rife with classical ideas. Karen Glass in her book “Consider This” draws many comparisons between Mason and the classical tradition. In her book introduction, Glass says, “[Mason] links her ideas with the ideas of the classical past, but intentionally brings them into the present.” The major difference between historical classic education and Mason’s philosophy is that education in the classic era was intended only for the elite while Mason called for education for all. More on that in a minute.

Perhaps most prominent comparison in Glass’ book is the idea of synthetic thinking – what Mason referred to when she said education is the science of relations. Synthetic thinking is what James Taylor called “poetic knowledge.” It’s the knowledge of how the world is interconnected, and implies not only knowing how ideas are related but also forming a relationship with those ideas.

Interestingly, just one generation before Dorothy Sayers delivered her lecture “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Mason was already expressing a similar sentiment – education reform. Sayers ends her 1947 lecture with this summary: “For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.” Masons sixth and final volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education, published in 1923, does a lot of summarizing of Mason’s earlier thoughts. Her words are so similar that it’s striking: “Self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature.” Both were calling for a reform.

In your noted blog post, A Revolution in Methods, you draw out examples of how Mason identifies herself as a revolutionary, but as my answer to your first question indicates, Mason was revolting against the modern view of children and how that view was affecting modern education. The class system in England at the time was determining – from birth – which children were worthy of a liberal education and which would be forced into child labor and receive virtually no education. We can all picture (fictional, though drawn from life) little Oliver Twist going from workhouse to the undertaker’s shop and finally landing in with Fagin the criminal. Mason’s ideas where revolutionary because she believed that all children deserved an education in the Liberal Arts (language and mathematics) and that society would be all the better for it.

Question Three

In response to your third question, do I have a citation where authors Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain give the opinion that Mason’s methods are “completely in line with the classical tradition?” – the answer is no. Short of rereading their book “The Liberal Arts Tradition” this week, I do not remember them specifying anything about Charlotte Mason. But, let’s answer this more fully in your fourth question.

Question Four

Question 4a: What is my definition of “classical education?” To begin to answer that, I’m going to defer to David Hicks, “Norms and Nobility:”

The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.

The core of classical education is to develop character and virtue, teaching children to think and act rightly. (As you may guess, I see Hicks as more in line with Mason than your other mentioned blog post suggests you do.)

Question 4b: What essential attributes must a theory of education possess in order to be considered classical? A classical curriculum, in my opinion, will proceed according to the description given in Clark and Jain’s book “The Liberal Arts Tradition.” This begins with a groundwork of piety, and proceeds into gymnastic and music education. From there, school age children are taught the trivium and quadrivium (simultaneously). After that, they are ready for natural and moral philosophy and then finally theology.

I think a person with a full understanding of Mason’s intentions can easily see that even though she did not choose to align her vocabulary with classical terms (e.g. trivium), her methods and philosophy are in line with the classical tradition. In School Education, she said:

Our thinking is not a separate thing from our conduct and our prayers, or even from our bodily well-being. Man is not several entities. He is one spirit (visibly expressed in bodily form), with many powers. He can work and love and pray and live righteously, but all these are the outcome of the manner of thoughts he thinks.

Question 4c: What are examples of attributes that a theory of education could have that would disqualify it from being considered classical? I think a theory of education would be disqualified from the classical tradition if it did not primarily focus on teaching character and virtue. Modern attributes of non-classical practice might include fact-cramming, teaching to pass a test, utilitarian learning (confusing school with job training), excessive rote memorization (yes, I said it!), spoon-feeding morals, ignoring fine arts in favor of STEM, ignoring STEM in favor of ultra-competitive sports, ignoring any one of the seven liberal arts in favor of the other, the teaching of subjects in a vacuum without unity of knowledge, denying the fact that all knowledge comes from a single source of divine outpouring.

Question 4d: What are examples of theories of education produced prior to 1925 that I would say are not properly considered classical? Oh, my. I’m running out of steam and time (Did I mention I have three kids?). Let me just rattle a few off. Maturational Theory (Gesell), Psychology-Based Learning (Descartes, Kant, Darwin), Progressive Learning (Piaget, Locke, Dewey). Although I doubt anyone would mistake these for classical. Perhaps that’s more your target. I must admit I’m not well versed in non-classical methods unless you count the jumbled up mess that was my own education experience.

Well, that’s it, folks. Mr. Middlekauff, I thank you for your interest in my thoughts. Blog followers, thanks for reading what must feel like a conversation caught in mid-sentence. Until next Friday (or so).

I’m reading:


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:




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