Is a Charlotte Mason Education Rigorous?
Charlotte Mason's Rigorous 'Curriculum'
Academic rigor is buzzword that educators (parents and professionals alike) use and hear quite frequently - whether it's regarding curriculum options or lesson planning, the question that's often asked is, "Is it rigorous enough?" A common misconception about Charlotte Mason is that her educational philosophy lacks academic rigor. Yet, if we look at what Charlotte's students were actually doing in her P.N.E.U. schools the caliber of student work exceeds the many (if not most) of today's traditional classrooms. Charlotte Mason provides extensive examples of curriculum, exams, and student answers in the appendices of her volumes. For example, here are a few (of the 21) different objectives listed in School Education that demonstrate, "the six years' work––from [ages] six to twelve... that result[s] in the power of the pupils...
(g) In Arithmetic, they should have some knowledge of vulgar and decimal fractions, percentage, household accounts, etc. (i) Of Elementary Latin Grammar; should read fables and easy tales, and, say, one or two books of 'Caesar.' (j) They should have some power of understanding spoken French, and be able to speak a little; and to read an easy French book without a dictionary. (k) In German, much the same as in French, but less progress. (o) They should have some knowledge of English Grammar. (q) They should have learned a good deal of Scripture and of Poetry, and should have read some Literature."¹
A Different Take on Curriculum
When deciding on a curriculum for our students, we might express a desire for something "rigorous"; but what does that actually mean? Does rigor simply mean hard? If so, what makes a curriculum "hard" - is it the number of exercises? The amount of homework? Or the number of minutes required to complete the assignment? Charlotte Mason would probably argue that, despite our good intentions, we're simply asking the wrong questions.
If we look at the "curriculum" Charlotte Mason implemented, it doesn't take long to realize that much of her curriculum was focused on using the best books available; and while creating a rigorous curriculum was never her end-goal, it is a natural outcome of implementing her methodology. However, even Miss Mason herself was leery of compiling a list of such books for fear that they would be used legalistically. When it comes to choosing books, she says this, "which are the right books?––a point upon which I should not wish to play Sir Oracle. The 'hundred best books for the schoolroom' may be put down on a list, but not by me. I venture to propose one or two principles in the matter of school-books, and shall leave the far more difficult part, the application of those principles, to the reader."²
She goes on to say, "I think we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book; and this for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like the idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated...Again, as I have already said, ideas must reach us directly from the mind of the thinker, and it is chiefly by means of the books they have written that we get into touch with the best minds."³ In other words, even if we have the right books for our "curriculum", we still run the risk of undermining our students' abilities by relying too much on heavy handed lectures, instead of letting the books speak for themselves. Even the best books improperly used won't provide a rigorous curriculum. This is why even modern CM curriculums (such as AmblesideOnline) caution against simply using the booklists without an understanding of Charlotte Mason's methods.
Miss Mason elaborates on the importance of limiting lectures when she states, "Having found the right book, let the master give the book the lead and be content himself with a second place. The lecture must be subordinated to the book...Do teachers always realise the paralysing and stupefying effect that a flood of talk has upon the mind?...We cannot do without the oral lesson––to introduce, to illustrate, to amplify, to sum up. My stipulation is that oral lessons should be few and far between, and that the child who has to walk through life,––and has to find his intellectual life in books or go without,––shall not be first taught to go upon crutches."⁴
She quotes Thomas Carlyle to further contrast the difference between relying on oral lectures and letting the student do the work of his own education by means of living books: "'Too much faith is commonly placed in oral lessons and lectures; to be poured into like a bucket,' as says Carlyle, 'is not exhilarating to any soul'; neither is it exhilarating to have every difficulty explained to weariness, or to have the explanation teased out of one by questions...Oral lessons have their occasional use, and when they are fitly given it is the children who ask the questions....We find...that in working through a considerable book, which may take two or three years to master, the interest of boys and girls is well sustained to the end; they develop an intelligent curiosity as to causes and consequences, and are in fact educating themselves."⁵
This invariably means, when it comes to curriculum, we can't (and shouldn't try) to be beholden to whatever comes in the physical box, nor should we try and fit our children neatly inside a metaphorical box. That's not to say we shouldn't use a boxed curriculum - but we certainly shouldn't be a slave to it. In pirates' code, curriculum is more of a guideline, and we ought to hold loosely to any plans we make to implement said curriculum while doing our best to remember our students are born persons.
Simply put, Charlotte Mason's students didn't have homework. In her final volume, Charlotte writes, "All intellectual work is done in the hours of morning school, and the afternoons are given to field nature studies, drawing, handicrafts, etc. Notwithstanding these limitations the children produce a surprising amount of good intellectual work. No homework is required."⁶
In her fifth volume, She explains "There is promise that a certain strain will, by-and-by, be taken off home life by the removal of homework or evening 'preparation' from the school curriculum. Teachers will gradually discover that if they let their pupils work from fitting books in the three or four school hours, more ground will be covered in less time, and the occasion for home tasks (or evening work in schools) will disappear."⁷ Charlotte Mason believed quality trumped quantity. It wasn't more repetition or practice that students need, but rather using fitting books that teach more than any extra work in the form of homework could ever provide.
Most children dread exams. They dread studying for them in an attempt to "prove" they've retained certain facts. Modern exams have a fairly negative connotation. Charlotte Mason described her exams in a very different light. She wrote, "The children's answers... show that literature has become a living power in the minds of these young people."⁸ Wow. A living power. In the same volume, she states, "Examination papers representing tens of thousands of children working in Elementary Schools, Secondary Schools and home schoolrooms have just passed under my eye. How the children have revelled in knowledge! and how good and interesting all their answers are! How well they spell on the whole and how well they write! We do not need the testimony of their teachers that the work of the term has been joyous; the verve with which the children tell what they know proves the fact."⁹
Imagine if our students had that kind of exam experience! Charlotte Mason's students were eager to share what they had learned. They were eager because their exam experience allowed them to expound the ideas that had made a lasting impression on their personhood. When choosing the subject that forms III and IV (and even earlier) students should write about for an exam, Charlotte Mason says, "...the point to be considered is that the subject be one on which, to quote again Jane Austen's expression, the imagination of the children has been 'warmed.'"¹⁰
We'll end with this longer quote from Charlotte regarding the exams:
"In these early years, while there are no examinations ahead, and the children may yet go leisurely, let them get the spirit of history into them by reading, at least, one old Chronicle written by a man who saw and knew something of what he wrote about, and did not get it at second-hand. These old books are easier and pleasanter reading than most modern works on history, because the writers know little of the 'dignity of history'; they purl along pleasantly as a forest brook, tell you 'all about it,' stir your heart with the story of a great event, amuse you with pageants and shows, make you intimate with the great people, and friendly with the lowly. They are just the right thing for the children whose eager souls want to get at the living people behind the words of the history book, caring nothing at all about progress, or statutes, or about anything but the persons, for whose action history is, to the child's mind, no more than a convenient stage. A child who has been carried through a single old chronicler in this way has a better foundation for all historical training than if he knew all the dates and names and facts that ever were crammed for examination."¹¹
There's no doubt that implementing a Charlotte Mason's methods can provide a rigorous education to our students - especially by today's standards. After reviewing the schedules and timetables that Miss Mason kept, the argument could even be made that her students were more well-read than most of today's college graduates! However, in the end, no amount of curriculum, homework and exams can guarantee our students get a rigorous education. But maybe rigor isn't be the goal. Hyper-focusing on rigor is not going to make up for all the ways in which our culture's educational system simply falls short. What if we instead aimed for something better? What if we aimed for shaping the hearts of our children through providing a rich feast of living ideas that is broad, full, and generous? Choosing to prioritize these things over rigor is going to pay dividends for generations to come.
¹,²,³,⁴,⁵ Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 302, 178, 178, 230, 228,
⁶,⁸,⁹,¹⁰ Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 9, 185, 45, 194
⁷ Charlotte Mason, Formation of Character, p. 95.
¹¹ Charlotte Mason, Home Education, 283.