Is Charlotte Mason Classical?
The question of whether or not Charlotte Mason is classical is frequently asked in the CM circles, and the answer varies, depending on who you ask and how they define classical education. In order understand why this is important, we need to learn some of the history behind the modern classical movement.
What is Classical Education?
Classical education in the traditional sense began somewhere around 400 BC with the Greeks. Influential thinkers of the time included Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. Intellectual pursuits and philosophical theories on education began to take shape and be discussed in ways they never had before. A culture shift toward valuing education of the whole person - body and mind was beginning to take root. Students during this time were given a broad education in the seven liberal arts (the trivium: grammar, rhetoric, and logic and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, must, and astronmy) This is also when higher education became formalized and valued.
Often we hear words like virtue, truth, beauty, goodness associated with this educational time period. Students were given a rich, broad and rigorous education in a variety of subjects. Education wasn't a system by which students were expected to cram for exams or regurgitate useless information. Many valuable contributions to math and science were made during the time of Classical Greece. Things like the hippocratic oath, socratic-style seminars, and the heliocentric system (model of planets in which the planets revolve around the sun) originated during this era and are still in use today! Immense value was placed on logic and rhetoric. Also during this time period, theatre became hugely popular and art - in particular Greek sculptors created "figures in stone and bronze [that] have become some of the most recognizable pieces of art ever produced by any civilization."¹
Modern Classical Education Movement
The modern classical education movement began around the time Dorothy Sayers gave her famous Lost Tools of Learning speech at the 1947 graduation ceremony at Oxford University. This was the first time that the trivium was delineated into specific ages and stages that we typically associate with classical education today (often referred to as neo-classical). In this modern interpretation of the trivium, the grammar stage is when young children memorize lots of facts, with the idea being these facts will act as "pegs" on which to hang later learning. You can read more about the other two stages of the trivium here.
Dorothy Sayers said this about the grammar stage, "What that material actually is, is only of secondary importance; but it is as well that anything and everything which can usefully be committed to memory should be memorised at this period, whether it is immediately intelligible or not." This is in stark contrast with Charlotte Mason's principle regarding the Science of Relations and her belief that children's minds should be fed upon living ideas. While Charlotte Mason may not have agreed with everything Sayers presented in her speech, both women certainly agreed that the educational system towards the latter half of the 20th century was in dire need of reform.
Inspired by the ideas Sayers presented, in 1981 (the same year that David Hicks published his treatise on education - Norms and Nobility) Douglas Wilson opened a classical school and a decade later published his book, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, in which he calls for a resurgence classical education as a way to regain the moral and intellectual foundation he believes today's educational system lacks. From there, Wilson helped found the The Association of Classical Christian Schools in 1994. And just a few years later, in 1997, Leigh Bortins formed the beginnings of what would eventually become Classical Conversations.
The reality is there are a number of groups and individuals who have contributed to the neo-classical movement that gained popularity at the end of the 20th century. This timeline provides a high overview of some of the influential educators and books that have impacted the field of education, specifically as it relates to classical education. While it may not be possible to pinpoint the renewed interest in classical education to a singular person or event, having a broad idea of how education has evolved over time and led us to where we are today can be helpful in honing our own educational philosophy.
Charlotte Mason's Thoughts on Classical Educators
So what did Charlotte Mason think of classical education? The truth is, Charlotte Mason herself never claims to be a proponent of classical education. However, she does pull much of her methodology and philosophy from the great thinkers associated with the classical period. In her sixth volume she writes, "I have attempted to unfold a system of educational theory which seems to me able to meet any rational demand, even that severest criterion set up by Plato; it is able to 'run the gauntlet of objections, and is ready to disprove them, not by appeals to opinion, but to absolute truth.' Some of it is new, much of it is old. [emphasis mine]"² In other words, Charlotte Mason agreed with many of the ideas that are rooted in the classical tradition, but she also had some ideas that were uniquely her own.
In her second volume entitled, Parents and Children Charlotte Mason refers to a well-known Ancient Greek aphorism. She states ,"It is time we reverted to the teaching of Socrates. 'Know thyself,' exhorted the wise man, in season and out of season; and it will be well with us when we understand that to acquaint a child with himself––what he is as a human being––is a great part of education." Later on in the same volume, she reminds us the importance of virtue in education when she says "Plato hints at some such thought in his contention that knowledge and virtue are fundamentally identical, and that if virtue be divine in its origin, so must knowledge be also."³
It is evident that Charlotte Mason agreed with ultimate goal of classical education as the cultivation of a love of virtue with an emphasis on character. When describing Plato's educational aim, she quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the famous English poet, philosopher and theologian: "He [Plato] desired not to assist in storing the passive mind with the various sorts of knowledge most in request, as if the human soul were a mere repository or banqueting room, but to place it in such relations of circumstance as should gradually excite its vegetating and germinating powers to produce new fruits of thought, new conceptions and imaginations and ideas."⁴
The quote that follows is lengthy, but deserves our attention as it gives us a small view into Charlotte Mason's ideas regarding classical education. She says, "It follows that the first three lustres [a lustre is French for "five years;" three lustres is 15 years] belong to what we may call the synthetic stage of education, during which his reading should be wide and varied enough to allow the young scholar to get into living touch with earth-knowledge, history, literature, and much besides. These things are necessary for his intellectual life, and are especially necessary to give him material for the second stage of his education, the analytic, which, indeed, continues with us to the end. It is in this second stage that the value of the classical and mathematical grind comes in [emphasis mine]. It produces a certain sanity of judgment, and therefore a certain capacity for affairs, an ability for the examination of questions, which are rather the distinguishing marks of the public schoolman,––not merely the university man, that is another matter, but the man who has ground through that Greek play which both Pen and the young Goethe contrived to get out of. Whatever be the faults of the public school, it is not a manufactory of 'cranks'; and the danger of a transition period like the present is that it may produce a crop of these persons of unbalanced judgment and undisciplined will."⁵
Why it Matters?
So is Charlotte Mason classical? And does it matter? The answer is maybe. When it comes to traditional classical education, it seems Charlotte Mason agrees with many of the principles and objectives. Yet, much of her philosophy doesn't fit within the framework on which the neo-classical model is based. It seems like a better question may be how does our educational philosophy uphold our family values? Followed by: how are our decisions (big and little) being informed by our educational philosophy? We should take time and be diligent to seek prayer and wisdom in whatever educational avenue we pursue.
As parents, we are ultimately the ones responsible for shepherding our children's education and this isn't something that we should take lightly. Choosing a school, or methodology, and more importantly - defining our personal educational philosophy, is an important component of discipling our children. Let's be intentional every step of the way.
² Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 6.
³ Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, p. 243, & 272.
⁴ Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 126.
⁵ Charlotte Mason, Formation of Character, p. 381.