A Charlotte Mason Education – Part 1: Foundations

It’s an unusually warm autumn afternoon when we mount bikes and venture to the nearby stream for afternoon art and nature study lessons.  I breathe deep and feel freedom run through my bones. Alex rides on the tandem bike behind me, a true ‘bicycle built for two’, and whoops as we breeze down hills.  We bump over grass and find a deserted picnic table (all the picnic tables are deserted on weekday afternoons) and we lean together and unload art supplies.  We talk about what we see and what to sketch and all this beauty around us.  We discuss what God makes to blossom this time of year.  We are surrounded by tall trees and open air.  We are together.  This is our ‘school’.  Not every day.  But many days.  Beautiful days.  Freedom days.  This is the longing for the fresh and wonderful feeling of a happy, meaningful, and fruitful home education.  

It was the freedom of trusting God, my children, and my instincts that drew me to Charlotte Mason‘s philosophies.

When I discovered the Charlotte Mason philosophy of education, I realized her ideals and methods were what I had hoped and dreamed for our homeschool.  Charlotte was and is an incredibly respected philosopher and educator.  She has profoundly impacted the world of home and school and her students, no matter from what walk of life or ability, excelled.  I was filled with joy, and longing to learn more about these philosophies that have shaped lives in such positive ways.  So, over the past many years, I’ve tried to learn more, and  I’ve worked hard to implement Charlotte’s ideas into our home and learning.

I am in no way an expert on Charlotte Mason or her philosophies.  I want to remain really humble here and express, we are still in progress and I’m learning more every day about what works best in our home and how to use these wonderful methods to bring out the best in all of us!  So many Moms were asking me to share some posts about Charlotte Mason, so after praying and thinking about it – here I am.  I just want to be authentic and share our heart and experiences with this life-giving way of education our children.  My prayer is that other Moms and families can experience the freedom we have found in our homeschool.  So…

Charlotte’s philosophies are in the same breath completely logical and divinely whimsical.

It’s true.  Whimsical because so much of it seems too good to be true.  Too simple to be affective.  No tests.  No fill in the blanks.  No ‘busy work’.  Hours of reading classics and good quality living books and then discussing what we’ve read.  Going about our daily business of life intentionally and joyfully.  Now this was a ‘curriculum’ I can follow!

Charlotte Mason believed a philosophy of education must be made up of far more than simply academics – that education comprised of body, soul, and spirit.  She expressed often the importance of acknowledging children as ‘born persons’ who come out of the womb with their own set of unique gifts, talents, desires, abilities, challenges, and callings.  She believed children had an incredible amount of value in the eyes of God and so should they also in the eyes of man (and Mom)!  This was a unique view for her era in the late 1800s when children were believed best to be seen and not heard. 

This idea of children being ‘born persons’ resonates so deeply with me as a Mom.  I’m sure most of us can relate to the strong desire to embrace and celebrate our children as people, made by God, on purpose, for a purpose.  This is why I feel a boxed education just can’t work.  It can’t bring out the very best in a young child because it ignores the foundational truth of their existence – they are completely unique and have very unique needs in order to flourish.  I believe my job as a Mom is to help them grow to know God and find joy in serving the Lord and others in the specific ways they are gifted and have been called.  

These precious beings we raise are whole people.  And whole people are about so much more than just their academic knowledge.

When we are ‘homeschoolers’, it is the same as saying we are taking on the full responsibility to educate our children.  There is no outside source, we are the source.  When I committed to homeschooling, I knew this.  I was wholly responsible for the education of our children.  And so, naturally, I desired to define just what educating a child actually means
I prefer to use Charlotte Mason’s term of ‘raising up’ a child when seeking this answer.  It’s also a biblical ideal, this raising up business.  So many of Mason’s philosophies and ideas stem from biblical truth as she was a follower of Jesus and believed heavily in the power of God and the Holy Spirit in the home and ‘school’.  Yes!
So, we are raising up children.  Whole children.  Children who have incredible value and eternal worth.  We are not merely filling a brain bucket with knowledge.  We are raising up a whole entire human being who will grow into adulthood right before our very eyes.  It is an enormous and wonderful and completely overwhelming responsibility.  Any parent will admit that truth – homeschooler or any walk of life.

What I love so much about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education is that it focuses on developing the child from the inside out.  We recognize we are facilitating the growth and development of a future adult and we respect and lovingly direct their unique path.   We are putting our trust in them and building a strong relationship with the child.  We are investing in their spiritual health and we are inspiring them to be thinkers, inspirers, and to embrace who they are as unique beings.  We are challenging them to grow and at the same time challenging ourselves with these very same ideals.

“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”

This is Charlotte Mason’s motto that so neatly expresses the soul of her philosophies.  If we can wrap our minds and hearts around this simple sentence, it can completely revolutionize our home and family life right along with our homeschooling experience.  I know this, because I’ve lived it.   I’ve seen the beauty of living out the truth in these eight words – let me briefly give an overview of the fulness of them.

In Charlotte’s world, true academics take up only one third of the whole education of the child.  That’s right – one third. 

 This basic idea of education is life means we walk daily, wide-eyed and open-eared waiting to see something beautiful, something interesting, something worth discussing.  We present our children with ‘things worth seeing’ and, as Charlotte said, “all the thought we offer to our children shall be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do”.   Ideas we present to our children are living ideas that inspire them to think.  Our children also grow to understand that learning never stops and is not contained in a building or a room.  
Their academic schedule is full and rich.  Because Charlotte Mason’s philosophies are often known for being gentle, some people mistake her philosophies as being the same as ‘unschooling’ or even a lazy learning approach.   Nothing could be further from the truth!  Charlotte expected much from her students.  The young child homeschooled using this method is studying classical music, art and art history (including picture study), ancient history, languages (often Latin), memorizing poetry and scripture, engaging in and enjoying advanced classical literature, keeping nature journals, notebooks, and historical timelines, and learning about wide variety of interesting topics that are never watered down or ‘brought to his level’.  This is no ‘whatever’ mentality for learning!
The other two thirds of the education are atmosphere and discipline.  Atmosphere, simply put, is what surrounds the child on a daily basis.  What is family life like?  What kinds of beliefs and values are the parents instilling in the child through home life and daily living?  What are the conscious and subconscious messages being delivered to the child about life, learning, family, home life, and our purpose as human beings?  Charlotte said this about atmosphere: “the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives”.  This means – they are watching and listening, and we are responsible for what they see and hear.  And what they see and hear will shape who they become.  This also means, if our children are in school rather than with us, they are breathing in the atmosphere emanating from their teachers and their peers and the ideas which rule their lives.  One of the huge reasons we have our children under our own roof.
Discipline is where those habits Charlotte often spoke of come in.  Where a child is ‘trained up’ to follow in a positive direction with self-motivation and self-learning.  Many of these habits include things like courtesy, kindness, manners, diligence, patience, attention, memorization, observation, integrity, obedience, self-control… you know, the things we parents need to work on right along with our children!
See, in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, home education becomes a rich, multi-layered concept that begs far more thought than ‘which curriculum should I choose?’.  This is what makes it so appealing to me.  Because it inspires me daily to remember that two thirds of what our children are learning, has nothing to do with whether or not they are excelling at math.  No, it’s far deeper and far richer than that!  Do they love learning?  Are they thinkers?  Are they self-motivated?  Are they learning to be better people – more loving, caring, diligent?  Are they growing in their relationship with and knowledge of God?  Are they surrounded with a family atmosphere of love and acceptance?  Am I reflecting the kind of actions I would hope for them to imitate?
Ah, all of a sudden ‘homeschooling’ just got so much deeper.  Yes, far deeper and so, so rich.
“Education is a discipline – that is, the discipline of the good habits in which the child is trained.  Education is a life, nourished upon ideas; and education is an atmosphere – that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives.”
-Charlotte Mason

This post is not meant in any way to be comprehensive.  I have not gone into great detail here because it is my prayer and plan to unpack many of Charlotte’s philosophies in a personal way over the next several weeks.  We will be looking individually at the idea of education as an atmosphere, discipline, and life in three separate posts.  I am also planning (Lord willing) to cover many topics, such as nature study, language arts, living books, habits, journaling, children’s mottos, and so on.  I am praying this Charlotte Mason series inspires and challenges myself and other home educators in our journey.  I’m also praying we can dig deeper and press harder into Christ Jesus, our Eternal Well.  He is the first step to ‘raising up’ our children with grace, love, and divine purpose.


Some Resources to visit online:

Ambleside Online’s Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles

One Comment

  • Leggio

    Thanks for posting. This philosophy has been what has always worked best for our family too. I got pulled away for a season and our school became dull and boring and a checklist. Yesterday we sat on the back porch eating homemade cookies and reading the Burgess Bird Book. Complete joy in me and my children. They truly thrive in this environment.

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