Why I Like Charlotte Mason
by Kathy Ward
(1998? date confirmation desired)

Is it possible to weave together an unschooling lifestyle and a deep appreciation for the ideas of Charlotte Mason? I think it is.

Nearly fifteen years ago when we first began homeschooling our oldest son, after I'd already explored the writings of A.S. Neill, then John Holt and Maria Montessori, I found the nineteenth century writings of Charlotte Mason (sometimes referred to as the English Maria Montessori). Each of these educational writers helped form the foundation of the unschooling philosophy I strongly believe in. Each of these educational philosophers would no doubt disagree with certain points made by the others and I know that I don't agree on all points with every one of them either—but I've been able to piece together my own theories about education with ideas from all of them as the backbone of my own educational philosophy.

The main thing that drew me to all of them was their respect for the personhood of the child. The level of respect for children that both Charlotte Mason and John Holt showed was unusual and even suspect in Charlotte Mason's time; in John Holt's time serious concern for the thoughts and natural pursuits of children was (is) still often disregarded and children continue to be led along educational (and other) paths that are not suitable, let alone pleasant, for them. The amount of opposition to parents in the last 30 years who have chosen to bring their kids out of compulsory education and into the fresh air and freedom of home education ought to testify to the fact that American society is not yet taking the children seriously. Not even as seriously as Charlotte Mason did a century ago and John Holt did a quarter century ago.

Here are some quotes from John Holt and Charlotte Mason, separated by a century and on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean, but kindred thinkers in how they look at children and how they learn and thrive:

  • “We must assist the child to educate himself on Nature’s lines, and we must take care not to supplant and crowd out Nature and her methods with that which we call education." CM

  • "All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted." JH

  • "What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out." JH, in Teach Your Own

  • "If we have not proved that a child is born a person with a mind as complete and beautiful as his little body, we can at least show that he always has all the mind he requires for these occasions; that is, that his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind." CM

  • "Any child who can spend an hour or two a day, or more if he wants, with adults that he likes, who are interested in the world and like to talk about it, will on most days learn far more from their talk than he would learn in a week of school." JH

  • "Object-lessons should be incidental; and this is where the family enjoys a great advantage over the school. The child who finds that wonderful and beautiful object, a “paper” wasp’s nest…has his lesson on the spot from father or mother.” CM

  • "...children are by nature and from birth very curious about the world around them...much more eager to learn, and much better at learning than most of us adults." JH

  • "People would be busy doing interesting things that mattered. Doing them, they would grow more informed, competent, and wise. They would learn about the world from living in it, working in it, and changing it, and from knowing a wide variety of people who were doing the same." JH

  • "We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty rewards—gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A's on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean's lists or Phi Beta Kappa keys—in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else." JH

  • "Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortresses be an old armchair; and in these affairs the elders must neither meddle nor make." CM

  • "We can best understand learning as growth, an expanding of ourselves into the world around us. We can also see that there is no difference between living and learning, that living is learning, that it is impossible, and misleading, and harmful to think of them as being separate." JH

  • "Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas." CM
I guess I'd say that John Holt and Charlotte Mason and their ideas have served me as inspiration and the concept of unschooling has served me as a framework upon which to hang all of those ideas. Listening to my children carefully, striving to respect them and to really show that respect, taking them seriously in every way that I am able form the mainstay of my parenting and educational philosophies.

Sometimes I get frustrated with arguments and debates that center on who's an unschooler or who follows this way or that way more perfectly, debates about whether an unschooler might decide to use textbooks to learn or might decide to take a class to further her own education. A certain amount of this kind of discussion really is good and it helps us to define what we think and whether our ideas are good ideas. But in the realm of homeschooling I think that each learner is really the expert on what works for him or for her and that those parents who are facilitating their kids' education would do well to remember this and to give full weight to their learner's preference and a little less weight to experts "out there" who want to tell them how it ought to be done! There *is* a place for expertise in the ways that people learn, there are people whose ideas are better than other ideas, there are a lot of adept and/or experienced brains to pick when it comes to what works and what's good, but still when all is said and done—it's the child who knows best what engages her mind, what brings her joy, what helps her to learn the things she's trying to learn!

I'll leave you with a powerful statement and two very important questions from John Holt:

"I believe that we learn best when we, not others, are deciding what we are going to try to learn, and when, and how, and for what reasons or purposes; when we, not others, are in the end choosing the people, materials, and experiences from which and with which we will be learning; when we, not others, are judging how easily or quickly or how well we are learning, and when we have learned enough; and above all when we feel the wholeness and openness of the world around us, and our own freedom and power and competence in it. What then do we do about it? How can we create or help create these conditions for learning?"

~ John Holt, from What Do I Do Monday

One last thought...

One thing I love entirely as much as thinking, talking, and debating about religion and spiritual issues is science. Charlotte Mason was the one who gave me the idea that I could play with science all day every day with my kids and not shortchange them. :-)

Something that impressed me right off in Charlotte Mason's writings was her conviction that being outside was good for children and that learning from nature was not only fun but that nature was a far more effective teacher than any textbook or lecture. I'd always seen that this was true in my own life and in the lives of my children; when I was a student myself I'd often wondered why my own teachers didn't get it— why they didn't let us out of the classroom more often to explore the world around us. As a kid I knew that I learned immeasurably from nature!

Being outside on our homestead was something that we did without thinking about it—it was just a part of daily life, but since we've moved to town we've noticed that people seem to stay cloistered inside their homes a lot! Some days we've felt like the only people crazy enough to venture outside on a blustery day or a day that isn't unseasonably warm! Since we've moved I've thought about Charlotte Mason and her insistence that getting children outside *every day* is a good thing, even in the sometimes wet, cold weather of her native England. Some of her contemporaries must have thought she was a little "off," maybe in the same way that our new neighbors may be speculating on the eccentricity of the new huge homeschooling family in their midst, who are apt to be outside any hour of any day, even in the wind and rain and who are out at night under the stars searching for their favorite constellations and looking for planets and other features in the night skies. :-)

The focus in Charlotte Mason's writings upon offering children, in addition to many hands-on learning opportunities—real books—works that are beautiful, eloquent, challenging, inspiring, books that take the reader seriously—has always appealed to our family. Helping children become familiar with real artwork and music and the real endeavors of science and showing them what scientists do and what it means in our lives and in the world, showing them that math is not just drills and paperwork but that it's patterns and rythm and contains beauty and mystery and that math and science both are fascinating windows into what the universe is and how it hangs together and how it came to be and where it's heading—all of this has been affirmed to me in the writings of John Holt and Charlotte Mason, both have encouraged me to stay the course. Both have helped me step out of a stifling schoolish pattern. Really my kids have taught me the most about how this kind of education works, but until I learned how to listen to my own kids and until I really learned to trust them with their own learning, I am grateful that I was able to rely upon the ideas of thinkers like this.

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