A Study of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: Part 2

Today’s post is the second in a series of 15 as I go through Brandy Vencel’s Start Here: A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles. I started this journey on my own back in June, but then in August I found some local moms wanting to join me, so I put on the brakes and launched a Charlotte Mason study group which has now multiplied into two groups. I’m so pleased to have found some local like-minded home educators, but the whole process has taken me away from writing this series. I’m glad to get back in the saddle and blog my way through this study of Mason’s guiding principles, which in no way completely cover all Mason had to say on education but do provide a good place to start – so, let’s start here.


The Battle against Eugenics

In reference to children, Charlotte Mason’s second principle says: “They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” From the outside looking in, it’s easy to get confused with this statement and think that Mason is making a comment in regards to original sin, so let me just clarify. This statement has nothing to do with a person’s “sin nature.” This statement is reactionary against the Eugenics movement that was flourishing at the time in history when Mason was working and writing. Throughout her volumes, Mason expresses value for all children – male and female, upper class and lower class, fully-abled and those with challenges.

The term “eugenics” was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, an English sociologist / anthropologist, after he read Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. (Galton and Darwin were actually half-cousins.) Galton’s assertion that desirable human qualities are hereditary was sort of an elaboration on Darwin’s findings – an elaboration with which Darwin didn’t actually agree – and a year after Darwin’s death his cousin Galton coined the term “eugenics” in his published research.

Although the idea of “selective mating” has been around at least since the time of Plato, the Eugenics movement begun by Galton is what might be called “negative eugenics,” and it involves the sterilization of people thought to be “defective,” such as those with disabilities or entire races. Believe it or not, “negative eugenics” was widely accepted, taught, and funded not just in Europe but also in the United States.

The Eugenics movement was growing in popularity by the end of the 19th century, but it also had many critics. American scientist Lester Frank Ward, English writer G.K. Chesterton, and German-American anthropologist Franz Boaz all published material opposing the movement. Charlotte Mason also staunchly opposed the Eugenics movement, and all of her writings have an undercurrent of reaction against it. Her second principle, in fact, was a direct statement of opposition.

The Battle against Hereditary Determinism

If you know much about Charlotte Mason, you know that her whole world revolved around education, so it’s not surprising that she addressed her distaste for the Eugenics movement by focusing on children. It was common in her day for people to see children as what John Locke would call a “blank slate” or others might refer to as an empty vessel waiting to be filled, but Mason viewed children as “born persons” with the same ability (or greater) to learn as an adult. Mason said a child’s intellect doesn’t evolve. They are born with a full capacity to learn. She also saw that children were not born valuable or non-valuable, but with possibility. The opposing view is what is called Hereditary Determinism, which means a child’s value is based completely on the traits of his or her parents and can be determined even before he or she is born. Mason, a child born out of wedlock in a time when that could ruin a child’s future, would demonstrate with her own life and with the success of her students just how untrue the idea of Hereditary Determinism was.

After Mason asserts that children are born with possibilities, she proceeds to educate us, the parent or educator, through her writings how we can help children strengthen their good tendencies and overcome their bad (which, if you believe in Hereditary Determinism, you would see as impossible).

Accentuate the Positive

The required reading for Principle 2 in the Start Here study guide is Chapter 3 of Mason’s sixth volume, Toward a Philosophy of Education. In this chapter, Mason addresses the well-being of the body, mind, and soul.

For the body: Mason says children must be allowed to exercise their muscles in healthy, relaxed play, which lowers stress. With plenty of exercise, children are much better able to rise to good behavior. This reminds me of how wonderful a sunny, 70-degree day can be for my boys and, conversely, how grouchy and crazy a rainy day can be if we allow ourselves to be stuck inside (and worse, in front of a screen) for hours. Mason saw the calming effects of nature and exercise on her own students. If you doubt this effect, you can read Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. Very convicting.

For the mind: Mason prescribed living books rather than dull textbooks and lectures. She advocating reading aloud above a child’s own reading level – and not just reading anything, but reading books that tell stories. She says that children easily pick up on difficult words and morals in a story, and we as educators should not sermonize, lecture, or over-explain. Do not underestimate your child’s intellect! L6 just finished Term 1 of Year 1 in Ambleside Online. I’ve been reading to him from the book 50 Famous Stories Retold, which tells very short stories of famous historical figures. Today we read Bruce and the Spider, a story about Robert the Bruce of Scotland having been repeatedly defeated in battle by the English but encouraged to try again after watching a particularly resilient spider building a web. When the story ended, I asked for L6’s narration, and he told me his two ideas. First, a person can learn a lot from nature if they sit quietly enough. Second, a person who continues to try is never really defeated. I’m continually amazed at the wisdom that comes from the mouth of children when they are given a feast of ideas through living books!

Under this same section for the mind, Mason also cautions that true curiosity and the love of learning are primary forms (and the only acceptable forms) of motivation. The desire to know is all a child needs to motivate him or her to learn. Secondary forms of motivation include competitiveness, which leads to aggression and/or cheating; prizes, which encourage greed; and approval, which makes a teacher’s acceptance a prize of its own. I’m not saying my kids always have a “desire to learn,” but it’s much better to create that desire through honesty (“You need to know this in order to complete third grade.”) than through manipulation (“Read this book and I’ll give you a dollar.”).

Mason drops some other pearls of wisdom in this section for the mind. She says you can’t program a child to believe a certain way (without manipulation). We can control the input (living books that present a wide feast of ideas), but we cannot (and would not want to) control the outcome. A child’s mind naturally picks and chooses the ideas they glean from living books, and that outcome is unique to each child. The reason we want to direct our children to learn from books rather than from knowledge spouted from their teacher is because each teacher is just one person, but a wide feast of books can introduce children to a host of noble characters.

In addition to providing a wide feast of living ideas through books, Mason says we can encourage the good in a child in other ways. She says that children naturally understand justice and fairness as it relates to their own rights. We as teachers can present them with stories that help them understand that other people have rights that are just as important as their own. We can also demonstrate through living books that each person has a duty to speak truth (justice in word) and display integrity (justice in action). These lessons are best presented through story rather than sermonizing. I could, for example, have my children memorize the definitions for the words “truth” and “integrity,” which would be perfectly boring and likely never taken to heart except the knowledge that “If I tell a lie my mother will not approve” (manipulation of approval). Or, I can read a story to them, like any of the Chronicles of Narnia books, wherein they experience each child’s instance of failing to tell the truth and act with integrity as well as their instance of asking forgiveness, correcting their mistake, and experiencing redemption. Now they understand something of truth and justice – and so do I!

For the Soul: This section is quite short compared to the section on the mind. This is not to say that Mason does not address the soul in her writings but that she doesn’t elaborate right here. Basically, this section says we can help children connect with God by introducing them directly to the Bible and devout writers throughout history.

Mason gives a final thought in chapter 3 of Toward a Philosophy of Education. She says that the goal of education is not self-expression, which can tempt children to focus on themselves (greed) and sensory impulses (lust). Rather, the goal of education is to help a child grow into a useful (not utilitarian) adult – which is, to say, a well-rounded person.

You can read Part 1 of this study here.

Until next Friday (or so).

I’m reading:


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:




2 thoughts on “A Study of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: Part 2

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