What is Education?


Tell it and you will know it. AKA: Narration. It’s a trademark characteristic of the Mason method. I wanted somewhere where I could narrate, or rather just directly stash, all the key insights into what ‘education’ is as I read Mason’s works. Maybe then I will begin to know it.

Obviously my life has been consumed, for the last 2 years, with contemplating Education. I have always loved Philosophy but thought that the very familiar idea of education hardly warranted deeper consideration.

Now I find the very foundations of what I thought education was or is has been shaken, or maybe, coloured in. It is has been given a more vibrant presence in my life, a fuller depiction. Below you will find my summary of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education as I have read from the latest book in her series that I have at my beside- School Education (all page references below are from that book).

For those who homeschool I do believe that it is critical to have a philosophy of education. Otherwise, it would be like deciding to enter a swimming race and having no idea of what strokes to use or being without a stratagem for how to proceed and ultimately finish.

Charlotte Mason agreed that one adopts a philosophy whether one knows it or not, and to make sure that such a philosophy was backed up scientifically:

We do say that some educational theory which shall include the whole nature of man and the results of scientific research, in the same or a greater degree, is necessary. (65)

Jacques-Louis David , 1748 – 1825, THE DEATH OF SOCRATES

While she was not always aligned with the classical fathers in her understanding of education, she did agree with Socrates in one thing – that education was about ‘knowing thyself’ – but in that pursuit- not to adopt every educational fad that comes along.

We must not turn the cold shoulder to philosophy. Education is no more than applied philosophy––our effort to train children according to the wisdom that is in us; and not according to the last novelty in educational ideas. ‘Man, know thyself,’ is a counsel which we might render, ‘Child, know thyself, and thy relations to God and man and nature’; and to give their children this sort of preparation for life it is necessary that parents should know something of the laws of mind and of the source of knowledge. (118)

Mason does provide many definitions but provides one that she returns to again and again. I think our modern system adopts it in principle, if not always in action:

We consider that education is the science of relations, or more fully, that education considers what relations are proper to a human being, and in what ways these several relations can best be established; that a human being comes into the world with capacity for many relations; and that we, for our part, have two chief concerns––first, to put him in the way of forming these relations by presenting the right idea at the right time, and by forming the right habit upon the right idea; and, secondly, by not getting in the way and so preventing the establishment of the very relations we seek to form.(66)

This “not getting in the way” reference warrants its own post. It is a caution to parents to “not meddle” with their children’s learning. More to come….

I have set before the reader the proposition that a human being comes into the world, not to develop his faculties nor to acquire knowledge, nor even to earn his living, but to establish certain relations; which relations are to him the means of immeasurable expansion and fulness of living. We have touched upon two groups of these relations––his relations to the universe of matter and to the world of men. (90)

Mason took this relation-seeking in one more direction:

To complete his education, I think there is but one more relation to be considered––his relation to Almighty God. (90)

Mason was a Christian, but even with these references, I think the secular system can learn much from Mason.

What must we do? Just pack in content and information into the child. By no means! What is information without wisdom? And what is wisdom but the careful and considerate relating of things to each other in their proper way and in the correct order.

What, then, have we to do for the child? Plainly we have not to develop the person; he is there already, with, possibly, every power that will serve him in his passage through life. Some day we shall be told that the very word education is a misnomer belonging to the stage of thought when the drawing forth of ‘faculties’ was supposed to be a teacher’s business. We shall have some fit new word meaning, perhaps, ‘applied wisdom,’ for wisdom is the science of relations and the thing we have to do for a young human being is to put him in touch, so far as we can, with all the relations proper to him. (75)

Mason felt that mainly ideas, levered by habit and discipline, was the key to developing good character- ultimately an end goal of Education.

We hold with him entirely as to the importance of great formative ideas in the education of children, but we add to our ideas, habits, and we labour to form habits upon a physical basis. Character is the result not merely of the great ideas which are given to us, but of the habits which we labour to form upon those ideas. We recognise both principles, and the result is a wide range of possibilities in education, practical methods, and a definite aim. We labour to produce a human being at his best physically, mentally, morally, and spiritually, with the enthusiasms of religion, of the good life, of nature, knowledge, art, and manual work; and we do not labour in the dark. (99)

Millet, THE SOWER, 1814-1875

She was also known for the great motto adopted by all Parent’s Union schools (Mason schools):

Some of my readers will know the Parents’ Union motto, ‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life,’ especially well in the neat diagrammatic form in which it appears on the covers of our Library books. (149)

‘Atmosphere’ is a reference to what a child encounters just naturally going about living – her home, her friends, her things, nature, books, family. These encounters educate us. Unschoolers and delight-driven learners often place great emphasis on this and Mason says, indeed that it is tremendously valuable. But beware;

Suppose that all this is included in our notion of ‘Education is an atmosphere,’ may we not sit at our ease and believe that all is well, and that the whole of education has been accomplished? No; because though we cannot live without air, neither can we live upon air, and children brought up upon ‘environment’ soon begin to show signs of inanition; they have little or no healthy curiosity, power of attention, or of effort; what is worse, they lose spontaneity and initiative; they expect life to drop into them like drops into a rain-tub, without effort or intention on their part (150)

Education as a a ‘Discipline’ most simply, to my mind, means those habits of attention and otherwise that help us continue in our work in the best way.

Education is a “life”….well that will have a post all of its own as well.

But what so we often treat as “education”? Mason bemoaned this in her own time;

What do we do? We consider the matter carefully; we say the boy will make a jumble of it if he is taught more than one or two sciences. We ask our friends––’What sciences will tell best in examinations?’ and, ‘Which are most easily learned?’ We discover which are the best text-books in the smallest compass. The boy learns up his text, listens to lectures, makes diagrams, watches demonstrations. Behold! he has learned a science and is able to produce facts and figures, for a time any way, in connection with some one class of natural phenomena; but of tender intimacy with Nature herself he has acquired none. Let me sketch what seems to me the better way for the child. (76)

Leonardo da Vinci. VITRUVIAN MAN, 1490

What does she suggest?

The father of Plutarch had him learn his Homer that he might get heroic ideas of life. Had the boy been put through his Homer as a classical grind, as a machine for the development of faculty, a pedant would have come out, and not a man of the world in touch with life at many points, capable of bringing men and affairs to the touchstone of a sane and generous mind. It seems to me that this notion of the discipline which should develop ‘faculty’ has tended to produce rather one-sided men, with the limitations which belong to abnormal development. An artist told me the other day that the condition of successful art is absorption in art, that the painter must think pictures, paint pictures, nothing but pictures. But when art was great, men were not mere artists. Quentin Matsys wrought in iron and painted pictures and did many things besides. Michael Angelo wrote sonnets, designed buildings, painted pictures; marble was by no means his only vehicle of expression. Leonardo wrote treatises, planned canals, played instruments of music, did a hundred things, and all exquisitely. But then, the idea of the development of faculty, and the consequent discipline, had not occurred to these great men or their guardians. (152)

Instead of subject experts (though her method of learning will give the world many a great expert) she suggested of first importance –the well-rounded child.

We are more exacting than the Jesuits. They are content to have a child till he is seven; but we want him till he is twelve or fourteen, if we may not have him longer. You may do what you like with him afterwards. Given this period for the establishing of relations, we may undertake to prepare for the world a man, vital and vigorous, full of living interests, available and serviceable. I think we may warrant him even to pass examinations, because he will know how to put living interest into the dullest tasks.(79)

Unlike the strict classical educationalist, a child is not simply a blank vessel to fill and learn from those “who know” and to stay for the most part in the three R’s.

Another elemental relationship, which every child should be taught and encouraged to set up, is that of power over material. Every child makes sand castles, mud-pies, paper boats, and he or she should go on to work in clay, wood, brass, iron, leather, dress-stuffs, food-stuffs, furnishing-stuffs. He should be able to make with his hands and should take delight in making.(80)

Carl Larson, THE CARPTENTER’S SHOP, 1853-1919

And while she placed emphasis on learning from books (not because she thought words necessarily imparted knowledge better than people (though she does allude to this occasionally) but rather that books gave the student access to so many more people through the whole of written history. It is the human relationship that she is after.

Perhaps the main part of a child’s education should be concerned with the great human relationships, relationships of love and service, of authority and obedience, of reverence and pity and neighbourly kindness; relationships to kin and friend and neighbour, to ’cause’ and country and kind, to the past and the present. History, literature, archeology, art, languages, whether ancient or modern, travel and tales of travel; all of these are in one way or other the record or the expression of persons; and we who are persons are interested in all persons, for we are all one flesh, we are all of one spirit, and whatever any of us does or suffers is interesting to the rest. If we will approach them with living thought, living books, if we will only awaken in them the sense of personal relation, there are thousands of boys and girls to-day capable of becoming apostles, saviours, great orientalists who will draw the East and the West together, great archeologists who will make the past alive for us and make us aware in our souls of men who lived thousands of years ago. (80-81)

Mason often had to emphasize that bookish learning is not the the goal, but the the means to…

Relations with each other as Human Beings.––But the subject of our relations with each other as human beings is inexhaustible, and I can do no more than indicate a point here and there, and state again my conviction that a system of education should have for its aim, not the mastery of certain ‘subjects,’ but the establishment of these relations in as many directions as circumstances will allow. (88)

These “books and things” help get the student embrace the fullness of what it is to be human. But books alone do not ensure the child gets to this fullness. Art Middlekauff, from Charlotte Mason Poetry illustrates in one his great podcasts that Stalin received what might be considered a typically well rounded Education, a blend of classical and experiential learning that should have opened his heart to humanity, but it didn’t. But perhaps for Stalin, he reduced the expectations of his education to subject mastery and performance prowess.

Instead, Mason writes,

The Full Human Life.––I think we should have a great educational revolution once we ceased to regard ourselves as assortments of so-called faculties and realised ourselves as persons whose great business it is to get in touch with other persons of all sorts and conditions, of all countries and climes, of all times, past and present. History would become entrancing, literature, a magic mirror for the discovery of other minds, the study of sociology, a duty and a delight. We should tend to become responsive and wise, humble and reverent, recognising the duties and the joys of the full human life. We cannot, of course, overtake such a programme of work, but we can keep it in view; and, I suppose, every life is moulded upon its ideal. We talk of lost ideals, but perhaps they are not lost, only changed; when our ideal for ourselves and for our children becomes limited to prosperity and comfort, we get these, very likely, for ourselves and for them, but we get no more. (83)

And so now we see what we are after for our children and for ourselves:

We begin to see what we want. Children make large demands upon us. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. Thou hast set my feet in a large room; should be the glad cry of every intelligent soul. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking––the strain would be too great––but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. We cannot give the children these interests; we prefer that they should never say they have learned botany or conchology, geology or astronomy. 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? (171)

Tissot, HIDE AND SEEK, 1877

What does it mean to have our feet set in a large room? Magnanimity. Wikipedia says this is is the virtue of being great of mind and heart. Amy Snell explores this in depth in her talk “Cultivating Magnanimity” from the CMEC retreat 2019. Suffice it to say we want our children, and ourselves, to continually grow and expand outward and inward so that their presence touches the world however small or big that community is for them. Our current system attempts to capture this with “growth mindset” but I think it only scratches the surface.

While I have mainly been quoting from Mason’s book School Education, here the great lady sums it up in her last book A Philosophy of Education:

The introduction of the methods I advocate has a curious effect on a whole family… The whole household thinks of and figures to itself great things, for nothing is so catching as knowledge and that fine temper of mind that knowledge brings with it. Children so taught are delightful companions because they have large interests and worthy thoughts; they have much to talk about and such casual talk benefits society. The fine sense, like an atmosphere, of things worth knowing and worth living for, this it is which produces magnanimous citizens, and we feel that Milton was right in claiming magnanimity as the proper outcome of education. (p.267-268)

It’s not just about being able to have ‘polite conversation’. This alone is not the goal we are after. They ought to learn…

With great interest something about themselves, mind and body, heart and soul, because they feel it is well to know what they have it in them to give… (Ibid., p. 187)

Ah, there’s the rub.

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