Why I love the Charlotte Mason Philosophy of Education

When I decided to home school and started seriously searching the internet for a place to start, I stumbled across something called the Charlotte Mason Philosophy of Education.  Curious, I read more, and each new point I read resonated within me.

As I read, I  remembered the “Foundations of Education” class I was required to take during my first year of college as an Elementary Education Major.

We were told in that class that there were 2 main philosophies of education: the whole child approach, and the essentialism approach.  The whole child approach views the child as a whole and seeks to educate all aspects of his life.  The essentialism approach is the “back to basics” approach, the “reading, writing, and arithmetic” view of education.  We quickly glossed over these ideas in class without reading anything written by any of the originators of these philosophies.  In fact, the whole conversation was quickly simplified into a discussion of whether to teach a child to read with solely phonics instruction or to use a “whole language” approach.

As I read quotes from Charlotte Mason’s writings on home schooling blogs, I felt angry!   How could it be that these great ideas had been excluded from my education on education?  A quick internet search taught me that in the educational world, none of the accepted 4 (not 2) philosophies of education even come close to comprehending the kind of whole child education Charlotte Mason taught at her schools for teachers or in her writings for parents.  Just feast your eyes on these beautiful and true ideas:

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

“We do not merely give a religious education because that would seem to imply the possibility of some other education, a secular education, for example. But we hold that all education is divine, that every good gift of knowledge and insight comes from above, that … the Holy Spirit is the supreme educator of mankind…”

“The only fit sustenance for the mind is ideas…Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science…”

“For the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body; there are no organs for the assimilation of the one more than of the other.”

“Self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature.”

We spread an abundant and delicate feast in the programmes and each small guest assimilates what he can.  All sit down to the same feast, and each one gets according to his needs and powers…..Our business is to give him mind stuff, and both quality and quantity are essential. 

“We are all meant to be naturalists, each in his own degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.”

“An observant child should be put in the way of things worth observing.”

“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”


Charlotte Mason formulated her philosophy of education over more than 40 years of teaching and observing children.  Near the end of her life, she distilled this philosophy into 20 tenants.  Each rang true to me as I read them.  I’ve listed them below for your and my benefit.  But it was primarily two of her ideas that sank into my heart and convinced me even before I had read the whole list.

One, that children are born persons.  They are not a less-than human thing that will someday turn into a person after we have poured knowledge into them.  The child is a person and we must educate that whole person, not just his mind.

“I know you may bring a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. What I complain of is that we do not bring our horse to the water. We give him miserable little text-books, mere compendiums of facts, which he is to learn off and say and produce at an examination; or we give him various knowledge in the form of warm diluents, prepared by his teacher with perhaps some grains of living thought to the gallon. And all the time we have books, books teeming with ideas fresh from the minds of thinkers upon every subject to which we can wish to introduce children.” Charlotte Mason

Two, that education is best gotten from personal experience and reading living books instead of memorizing facts from dry textbooks.  Since I love reading and learned most of what I know from reading, I like this method!  It means that I get to sit down with my children and together we get to read the best books.  What a joy each school day will be!

“None of us can be proof against the influences that proceed from the persons he associates with. Wherefore, in books and men, let us look out for the best society, that which yields a bracing and wholesome influence. We all know the person for whose company we are the better, though the talk is only about fishing or embroidery.” ― Charlotte M. Mason

Charlotte Mason’s  Educational Philosophy

  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



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