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Upon a Basis of Natural Law

       -Charlotte Mason's Philosophy of Education 


With a Foreword from Marianna Bartold

 Foreword - As the founder of Keeping It Catholic, as the publisher of the magazine (now out of print) credited below, and as the Catholic author who later researched and revealed in great detail the anti-Catholic philosophy of Charlotte Mason in my Keeping It Catholic Home Education Guide, Volume I, it is imperative that I explain why the following article appears on the Keeping It Catholic website.

First, I wish to say that the following article, "Upon a Basis of Natural Law: Charlotte Mason's Philosophy of Education" was published in my magazine, The Catholic Family's Magnificat, but it was a mistake on my part to allow it. To say this is not a judgment call on anyone, especially the article's author; it's simply an admission that I, as a publisher, made an error in judgment because I was ignorant of Charlotte Mason. My specialty was English, and so (at the time) I was not very familiar with the likes of so-called "educators" and alleged "great" thinkers and philosophers like Dewey, Locke, Ruskin, etc. If I knew then what I know now, I would have immediately recognized that the following article is a waving Red Flag.

In early 1994 (the year the following article was published), I had not even heard the name of Charlotte Mason (aka "CM"). When approached by the article's author (at that time, a recent convert to Catholicism), I made the usual "publisher" inquiries. Since I knew nothing of the subject matter, and since I took my job to ensure Magnificat's Catholic content very seriously, I had my doubts. (It was my "sensus Catholicus" warning me that something was seriously amiss, but I didn't know it.) My first inclination was to refuse the article; and to this day, I regret that I did not stick with that inclination. For that decision, I profusely apologize to all those who may have thought I had, at any time, endorsed Charlotte Mason. Such was never the case. My usual rule of thumb has always been the old standby maxim, "When in doubt, don't." With the 1994 "CM" article, I didn't follow that rule.

When I expressed my doubts to the author, she assured me that Charlotte Mason's educational philosophy was based upon "natural law" and a love of classical books - and so her method should be a "refreshing" breath of air for Catholics. That sounded "reasonable" and a bit compelling. But she was mistaken - and so was I for publishing the article.

Of course, I did not realize my mistake until five years later, when I began a thorough study of Charlotte Mason. In the years between, I had studied many Church documents (pre- and post-Vatican II). It was only after reading Charlotte Mason's works that I understood the true nature of the CM philosophy - one of cleverly extolled heresy hidden behind a facade known as the "gentle art" of learning.

As a a result, I have decided to keep the article, "Upon a Basis of Natural Law: Charlotte Mason's Philosophy of Education" on the KIC site as an example of how we can be lead astray, even by a "love of learning." How do we know this to be true? Instructed by Our Lady , St. Ignatius of Loyola in turn taught that the devil can take any one of our good inclinations (for example, even the simple desire to "do good") and then search for a small "chink" in our armor with which to injure us. He only needs one chink.

So, for example, if we "love" books and we "love to learn," the devil himself can use that tendency to mislead us. When it comes to Charlotte Mason, the danger is the attractiveness with which with her philosophy and methods are made to appear. (Bet that apple in Eden looked good, too!)

After all, the persuasiveness of heretical thought is its apparent ease, and Charlotte Mason makes homeschooling very easy. In fact, its ease is in opposition to the revelation made by Fr. John Hardon, S.J., who often said, "In case you don't know it, when you choose Catholic homeschooling, you choose the Cross."

[Sadly, since first publishing this update in 2004, unkind and even malicious remarks have been made by other Catholic homeschoolers on the Net, who favor the heretical Charlotte Mason in lieu of the Church's doctrine on education. Unfortunately, in order to defend their Protestant and liberal-minded (but long-deceased) mentor, these same Catholic individuals have gone so far as to scoff at and cunningly reinterpret the comparison made by the now-deceased Fr. Hardon between homeschooling and the Cross. How so?  With artful statements about Our Lord's "joy" upon the Cross which, at the least, expose their ignorance of the interior life and, at the worse, border on blasphemy. Such are the fruits of "New Church," leaving too many Catholics infected with modernism to wrongly think themselves free to create "new paradigms," embark on spiritual "journeys" of discovery to "seek the Truth" (although Truth is found in God's Divine Revelation within both Tradition and Scripture) or engage in endless "dialogs" to acquire a  "deeper understanding" of novelties and heresies. As one can see, "New Church" and its adherents are fond of buzz words and phrases, and both are willing to accept anything at face value except the Truth of the Church's doctrinal teachings.  I am sure Fr. Hardon would forgive them their coy insults; let us do the same and ask God to have mercy on them for their irreverent remarks about Our Lord's Cross and against Our Lord's priests. To continue...]

Let us ponder that truth for a moment  (that is, Fr. Hardon's words: "In case you don't know it, when you choose Catholic homeschooling, you choose the Cross")  and compare the Cross (the narrow road to heaven, of which Our Lord spoke, and upon which lies that same Cross that He asks us to pick up and then follow Him) to the "wide" road, decorated with the deadly flowers of heresy.

Whether or not Charlotte Mason realized her great error is now irrelevant. What does matter is her legacy of heresy and whether or not living Catholic parents and teachers will choose to follow her "ideas" - or the Church's teachings on education. As the Church has taught for 2,000 years, the wide and easy road is always the path to perdition. We have been warned.

To ironically borrow a favorite "CM-type" phrase - it is "for the children's sake" that I earnestly alert other Catholic parents who desire to be obedient to God and His One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that the Charlotte Mason philosophy and pedagogy of education is replete with heretical ideas and the "methods" with which to enforce them.

In the event the gentle reader requires more information after perusing the persuasive article below, included on this site is an excerpt from one of my books, providing a overview addressing the moral impossibility of "Catholicizing" Charlotte Mason.)


In the love of Christ and His Virgin Mother,

Marianna Bartold
The Keeping It Catholic Home Education Guides and founder of the Keeping It Catholic Network


The Original Article: Upon a Basis of Natural Law
~by L. Reynolds
This article (not including the Foreword above) originally appeared in the premiere issue of The Catholic Family's Magnificat! Magazine. Copyright 1994. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

Having been pointed toward Charlotte Mason 23 years ago, and having benefited from her influence for that length of time, it is pleasing to me to see her name appearing regularly these days in homeschool literature. Her works are being republished and made available to more people.


Miss Mason had a prophet's vision. Rightly are her books considered seminal - although for many years they seemed almost totally forgotten and therefore without effect. Educational pioneers contemporary with her, like Dewey and Montessori, are well known.


However, it is only since the homeschool movement caught on that she is finally extending her influence beyond the bounds of England. It's worth taking a look at her ideas from the Catholic homeschooler's point of view.


For those who have not yet encountered her, Miss Mason was an Englishwoman active in the late 19th and 20th century. She established an approach to education much influenced by her experience teaching children in private homes. She founded a training college for teachers, which included those who should work with parents instructing their own children. She wrote books and started a journal as practical help for parents. She lectured, and she left a flourishing work behind her, called the parents' National Educational Union. For Catholics, keenly aware that the responsibility of educating children rests primarily with the parent, there could hardly be a more sympathetic educator.


In the first place, Charlotte Mason's view of human relation and of the task of education flows from her Christian views. She was a devout Anglican Church woman. In contrast with humanistic thinkers like Dewy, she understood the adults' part in education to be a mirror the the divine initiative of God toward man: authority, operating with a deep respect for the free will of the person; parental authority, always derived from God's authority and responsible to Him. She saw that a child's ultimate freedom depends on his learning to obey the rightful authority of his parents.


"Education is the science of relations," she started. She was eager to put children in relation to "living ideas." Hand in hand with (and fundamental to the training of the intellect) goes the training of the will. For this all important and delicate task she offered a multitude of wise and practical suggestions.


In a synopsis of her principles, she begins with the axiom, "children are born persons." Her keen sense of this personhood of the child runs through every page she wrote. Because we respect the child's soul, we take pains to engage his will freely and to train him in habits of obedience.


Miss Mason loved truth in all its forms and knew that all truth comes from God. "The medieval Church," she notes, "recognized this great truth...(that) the 'Captain Figures,' the inventors, as it were, of grammar and music, astronomy and geometry, arithmetic an logic, all spoke that which was in them under the direct outpouring of the Holy Spirit, even though none of them had any such revelation of the true God as we recognized."


Citing the prayer of St. Chrysostom, "Grant us in this world knowledge of Thy truth," she observed that "by degrees, children get that knowledge from God...and all other knowledge which they obtain gathers round and illuminates this. " Miss Mason is a mentor that Catholic parents can respect and with whom they can share a common base.


Like John Henry Newman, she fought for the value of a liberal arts education. All children, she insisted, were born with an appetite to learn. Our job is to bring them into relation with their rightful inheritance of knowledge. If this is an arduous task, some of its rewards are also immediate.


Children fed "living ideas" from "living books" will delight in their nourishing fare. Learning is give and take; the adult must observe and encourage the unique affinities emerging in each child. Miss Mason campaigned to extend this liberal arts education, including literature, history, and art, for children in the mining towns and also for adults with limited formal schooling. Her favoring setting for learning, however, was the home.


In the home setting, the simplicity and flexibility of her methods shine. Provide living books and ensure a child's understanding by combining reading with narration. This means the child is to tell, in his own words, what he has heard or read. As he becomes able, the child does this in written form. No rereading of a book to do this, according to Miss Mason, thus the memory and the intellect are forced to grow. Allow for plenty of time spent in firsthand nature observation when possible, as well as opportunities for physical and manual development.

Three Classical Keys


Miss Mason speaks on her important "Three instruments of education" in the following paragraphs:


On atmosphere:
"Our motto is 'education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.' 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' specially 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.' "
On education as a discipline:
"By this formula we mean the discipline of habits definitely and thoughtfully whether habits of mind or body." (Among the habits she indicates as important are attention, "fitting and ready expression," obedience, good will and impersonal outlook; right-thinking and right-judging; neatness and order.)


On education as life:
"The mind...lives, grows, and is nourished upon ideas only. 'What is an idea?' We all know how an idea "strikes,' 'seizes,' 'catches hold of,' 'impresses' us and at least, if it be big enough, 'possesses us.' Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer...our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs. Urgency on our part annoys him."


Do these last words means that Miss Mason didn't care what ideas took hold in a young person's life? No, she was very concerned about "right-thinking" and right-thinking was to be attained through a process of presenting ideas to the reasoning mind of the child - in an atmosphere of love, respect, and order which would nourish that conversation.


She held that "children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests 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."


Because Miss Mason wanted children to be exposed to the riches of our culture - and without excessive imposition of the parents' personal prejudices - she urged parents to distinguish between mere opinions they might hold and essential convictions on matters. Educating one's children, incidentally, educates the parent in self-knowledge and self-restraint!


As to the form in which ideas could best be presented, Miss Mason made it clear that children were not prepared to handle "a naked generalization," but rather wanted "an idea clothed upon with fact, history, and story." Thus, "much and varied humane reading, as well as human thought expressed in the forms of art, is not a luxury, a tidbit, to be given to children now and then, but their very bread of life."


As a good Victorian, Miss Mason often refers to Coleridge, Dickens, the Greek tragedians, Macaulay, Ruskin, and all the poets, thinkers, and first order historians one might expect of her generations. She's not imposing a set list (although she makes numerous curriculum suggestions related to the educational subject matter under discussion in her day); she is just illustrating her ideas from a world of discourse that sounds quaint to modern ears, except when we do not feel entirely put to shame by the precision of its thought and the richness of its acquaintance!


We may be able to bring many a technical addition and sophisticated insight to Charlotte Mason's methods, based on the developed work of child psychology. And, of course, we can sift and add to her book list. Except for "practical sagacity" (as one commentator termed it), she is hard to surpass.


What Charlotte Mason Overlooked

As to her principles - let their sanity probe ours. Springing from her Christian world view, intellectual development is wedded to moral and spiritual development. Physical development has a fundamental interrelated place, too.

Happily, she spoke into a society in which an appreciation for objective truth in moral and spiritual realism could still be assumed.

Catholics looking at Miss Mason's Anglican perspective will recognize one thing she overlooked. And that is an understanding of the value of the Magisterium in helping us to discern truth in relation to faith and morals.

However, her principles of education, far from undermining the Catholic view of Tradition, will be found to support it, as we present the "living ideas" of our Faith in the context of lived out truth. Charlotte Mason consciously built upon natural law.


Having referred to Charlotte Mason's practical wisdom,without illustrating it in specific detail, I encourage homeschooling readers, as yet unfamiliar with her thought, to peruse any of her books, perhaps starting with her book Home Education. This is the first of her series of six volumes. The preface she wrote to its Fourth Edition explains that she is suggesting to parents and teachers "a method of education resting upon a basis of natural law."

In her personalist emphasis, Miss Mason anticipates Pope John Paul II. In her home orientation, she places learning in a context divinely purposed. For Miss Mason, human potential was always to be guided into a great and heavenly purpose. This is one of the chief differences of emphasis between her and Maria Montessori -- with whom on other points she shares many insights.


Among a thousand and one stimulating ideas that are currently floating around the homeschool movement, those of Charlotte Mason are especially freshing and restful.

Why? Partly, because they are spoken with the voice of one who lived two or three generations back . They do not pressure us with the false immediacy of the present. What is of permanent value in her thought speaks out in clear tones. It reminds parents of the tools already in their hands. Her philosophy is coherent as Christianity is coherent. Her voices is of one who reverses and discerns and offers us the experience of a lifetime. She rightly wins our confidence, confiding in truth - and truth is restful.


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"Like all revolutionaries, (Charlotte) Mason held tradition in contempt..."

-Marianna Bartold,  KIC Home Education Guide, Volume I:
The Foundations

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