The Story of Charlotte Mason

"The Story of Charlotte Mason", by Essex Cholmondeley. This is the popular 1960 biography, recently republished. Order it from

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Each visit you should see a different quote from Essex Cholmondeley's book. Come back soon!

Chapter 6, p 114-118


Miss Mason describes her writings in the Parents' Review as 'sustaining the union from year to year.' Her thought, she says, is 'every bit . . . in Home Education, but unfolded and unfolded until the last pamphlet.' The body of the dragonfly, freed from its nymph, unfolds in the sun and air towards its special purpose and function. In the same way a body of thought can expand towards a perfect whole. During the years 1908-13 a series of papers and pamphlets reveal an important unfolding of Miss Mason's thought. The first of these papers was written in answer to a request from Sir Michael Sadler of the Education Department. The first International Congress on Moral Education was to take place in London that autumn, with Sir Michael as president. For the title of his presidential address he chose 'Moral instruction direct and indirect,' and he issued a questionnaire on the subject to friends and colleagues in the educational world, inviting them to give their views. Miss Mason answered the questions from her own long experience of children and students. She had found that to teach morals either directly or indirectly may have disappointing results. She had therefore sought for what she called 'a third position' and had tried it out in the Parents' Union School. Growing persons must build up their own principles of right and wrong, and in order that they may do so they need two things. They must gain the insight into human behaviour and human nature which can come through much reading in literature, history, biography, Scripture. With this they should be given some form of map or chart of human nature, with all


its great possibilities for good and evil. Miss Mason filled in the answers to the questionnaire and wrote a paper to accompany it; she writes:

I enclose a paper on moral instruction direct and indirect. I venture to make it a little longer than you allow, because it seems to me that there is a third position besides direct and indirect instruction which I have tried to sketch out.
Allow me to send you the two little books on this subject I have prepared for the use of schools. I do not know of any others treating the subject from the same standpoint that could be so used.

These books were the two volumes of Ourselves which had been published in 1905 after having been used by both children and students during the course of their writing.
A few quotations from Miss Mason's paper will indicate her position. After outlining her experience both with teachers in training and with children in the Parents' Union School she writes:

As a result of experience in these two fields my general impression is that morality is not to be expected from the uneducated,1 and I would add that there can be no intelligent morality without much intelligent occupation with what is called the humanities. It seems to me that intellectual inanition during school life is the cause of many of the moral defects we deplore. For example: (a) loose opinions, (b) lax principles, (c) certain evils in schools, (d) want of finality in judgment and decision, (e) unworthy or frivolous pursuits in after life, (f) shirking of responsibility, etc. etc. Also it appears to me that our educational advances are rather in the way of improved methods of teaching than in that of affording the scholar a wider field of such knowledge as should tend to the gradual and unconscious formation of principles and opinions. Direct moral teaching cannot supply the place of wide and intelligent culture. It may supplement such culture by offering the young scholar a scheme of the powers and possibilities for good or evil which make up human nature, into which he will naturally fit the results of his reading and reflection ; but the conclusions which follow should be his own and derived from pretty wide reading, especially of history and literature.

{footnote 1 inserted by me} 'Cf. 'We neglect mind . . . our fault, our exceeding great fault, is that we keep our own minds and the minds of our children shamefully under-fed.' cThe Basis of National Strength.')

The curricula of the Parents' Union School are drawn up on such lines that a child of any age shall be a well-read person for his age, and I have prepared in Ourselves, our Souls and Bodies, Parts I and II, a scheme of direct instruction which should make a young person definitely aware of what it is in him, as a human being, to be and do and what causes of failure will present themselves to him. I find that the two, the liberal curricula and the direct teaching, work together very well.

Many instances follow of children's sayings which show the moral efficiency of a wide curriculum based on the best books and with very little oral teaching! Plutarch's Lives (North's translation) I find invaluable. . . . I quote these instances of moral alertness on the part of children because so far as I am concerned there is no personal influence in question. I merely set the work for the given term and the children occupy themselves with it. I believe that the fact of working on a given curriculum produces a sort of intellectual and moral aloofness on the part of the teacher, which is wholesome for the children as tending to give room for the development of personality, and it is necessary to be a person, before one can become a moral person.
Manual work, field work, duties and responsibilities in house and classroom, the personality of teachers, all afford invaluable moral training. The disappointing thing is that the ensuing moral habits are apt to be rather local in character. The virtue of the schoolroom are sometimes confined to the schoolroom. For this reason I think that training in character depends rather upon intellectual work in literature, history, etc., and that in the teaching of such subjects ethical instruction should, on the whole, be left to take care of itself. As for definite religious teaching, I think its aim should be that indicated in St. John's Gospel, ch. xvii, v.3. Ethical teaching flows naturally from the study of the gospels as also from that of the Old Testament and of the Epistles. To sum up, I am inclined to think that it is a mistake to differentiate between moral and intellectual education: that children of all classes up to the age of, say, fourteen or fifteen should have a very liberal curriculum, not by way of information, but by way of living thought which they get directly from the best books: that this should be a common curriculum in order that all schoolmasters and schoolmistresses should be able to count on children of a given age having read a certain number of books when they enter the school; not only because we should have a common standard in education but because it is impossible for teachers to give time and labour necessary to the arranging of such a curriculum or to preparing the examination papers founded upon it. Besides this liberal culture, I think that children from the ages of twelve or fourteen should read some such work as Ourselves to form a framework for the ethical code which they will derive from their study of the humanities.

The notes which Miss Mason published in the Parents' Review this same year under the title 'Moral direction, direct and indirect' give a complete outline of Ourselves:

Possibly we fail to give effective moral training based upon Christian principles because our teaching is scrappy. . . . The point of view it seems well to take is, that all beautiful and noble possibilities are present in varying degree in everyone, but that each person is subject to assault and hindrance in various ways of which he should be aware. . . an ordered presentation of the possibilities that lie in human nature, and of the risks that attend these possibilities, can hardly fail to have an enlightening and stimulating effect. . .. What we want to see is a sort of panorama of human nature.
It is convenient to approach this difficult subject of moral instruction by using a classification with which every child is familiar: if we treat of the House of Body, the House of Mind, the House of Heart and the House of Soul, we open the door to thought and supply ordered knowledge of a kind which appeals particularly to young people.

Each of these houses Miss Mason describes shortly. This first course in moral instruction is concerned with self-know-ledge; the second course for young people of fifteen to eighteen deals with self-direction (conscience, the will and the capacities of the soul with its disabilities).

To conclude, I should like to enforce one or two points. Moral instruction is a very delicate matter, chiefly because, in attempting to give it, we are in danger of invading that liberty of the individual which every child is on the watch to safeguard. What we may offer is sanction, motive, knowledge, opportunity, the sense of power and, by way of incidental stimuli, a wide range of reading in the humanities.... A person is a whole and must move in all directions from impulses moving the whole.... Bearing of fruit is the natural result of a secret growth and should not be overmuch ordered.

The chapter continues from this point with "Opinions and Principles".


Here is another quote about examinations (from pg 136, also chap 7 or part 1 'A Liberal Education for All'):

A teacher of eight-year-old children sent Mr Household a description of a first P.U.S. examination (as usual, no revision of the term's work had been made):
Miss Mason's scheme is at present one of great surprises. We did not take any examination at the end of the summer term, and many sighs were uttered and great dread felt when we heard we were taking the Christmas examination. The feelings of utter helplessness and chaos grew worse as the dreaded Monday morning came. There was no relief when the questions came, many of which were on the first lessons of the term. The teacher stood before the class and gave out the first examination, a history question on the first story told in the last week of August. For a moment or two there was a blank, then one by one the children pulled themselves together, and gathered up from the backs of their memories with most wonderful results. Hardly a tiny detail was missing by the time they had finished. After the first plunge the teacher breathed and each examination was waited for with greater and greater serenity.


Fresco / Morals / Exams


A portion of Chapter 3


VII. The Visit to Florence

The winter of 1893 brought with it a long period of illness for Miss Mason. Shortly after Miss Kitching's arrival the news came of the death of Miss Brandreth. She had been a close friend for many years, the one who perceived most clearly the central fact of Miss Mason's life. 'From the first of my knowing you,' she had written, 'the rest to me was your taking life, each and all of its daily perils, as sent, and continually attended to by the sender.' Her death was a severe bereavement and may have contributed to Miss Mason's illness, for it came at a time when there was much work and responsibility to shoulder. A rest of three months was necessary. Miss Scholefield, one of Miss Mason's students at the Bishop Otter College, took over the House of Education while Mrs. Steinthal conducted the affairs of the Parents' Union School and edited the Parents' Review. This was heavy work, to which she brought great insight and ability. Mrs. Steinthal had become one of the organizing secretaries of the P.N.E.U., able to help and advise parents from her own experience in teaching her children in the P.U.S. Later she was to give much time to making Miss Mason's teaching more widely known in different fields of work, both as member of the Yorkshire Ladies' Council of Education and as organizing secretary of the Mothers' Union in the Diocese of Ripon. An artist, Mrs. Steinthal carried on for years a Saturday morning art class for elementary school-teachers in Bradford, and it was among the member of this class that she found the pioneer for the first P.N.E.U. state school in 1913.
It was during the spring of this year that Miss Mason visited Italy with Mrs. Firth and her daughter. Two year before Julia Firth had been introduced to her in a letter. 'She and Ruskin were friends of long standing; she translated Ulric for him and was deeply read in all his ethical and educational thinking.' Miss Mason shared her deep interest in pictures and her conviction that delight in art should be open to all. She held that 'the power of appreciating art and producing to some extent an interpretation of what one sees is as universal as intelligence, imagination, nay speech, the power of producing words. But there must be knowledge, and ,in the first place, not technical knowledge of how to produce, but some reverent knowledge of what has been produce.' (footnote here - An Essay towards a Philosophy of Education.)
Mrs. Firth could give this knowledge. From 1892 to 1908 the students were invited weekly to her home in Ambleside. There they learned to look at and to delight in reproductions of great masters, sometimes as many as twenty-eight by one artist, while Mrs. Firth would read most beautifully Ruskin's comments on the pictures. Miss Mason often went with the students, and when in 1893 she visited Florence with Mrs. Firth, Ruskin's teaching was in the minds of both. Dr. Helen Webb describes how she came across them standing by Giotto's tower: 'Together we studied his beautiful medallions. I shall always especially associate with them that of the woman weaving on the loom which Ruskin copied when he revived hand weaving in the Lake Country.'
During this visit to Florence Charlotte received a deep and living impression of the frescoes on the wall of the Spanish Chapel attached to the Church of Santa Maria Novella. In Parents and children she devotes a chapter to them, calling it 'The Great Recognition.' These frescoes by Simone Memmi and Taddeo Gaddi (footnote here – At present considered to be the work of the Florentine artist Andrea di Bonaiuta.) show the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the mind of men. Within His light are the Apostles and the prophets, and below, centrally enthroned, sits St. Thomas Aquinas. Above him float the figures of the seven virtues. In a row at the foot of the picture, beautiful in dignity and alertness, sit the fourteen 'knowledges' or sciences, accompanied by their greatest exponents.
Miss Mason follows Ruskin's interpretation of the frescoes (footnote here - Mornings in Florence.) describing them as 'a harmonious and ennobling scheme of education and philosophy.' Then turning to the figures of the sciences her thought goes out to the many relationships and activities of human life in the past and in her own times. Above all she thinks of 'the intellectual life, the development of which in children is the aim of our subjects and methods of instruction.' Education, she sees, is at present divided into 'religious' and 'secular' and so is common thought which makes education secular, entirely limited to the uses of this visible world.

{this next portion is set off in smaller text - Charlotte's own words I believe in a longer quote but there was no reference as to where it came from originally -could it be a continuation from _Parents and Children_ quote above?}

The great recognition that God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself personally the imparter of knowledge, the instructor of youth, the inspirer of genius, is a conception so far lost to us that we should think it distinctly irreverent to conceive of the divine teaching as co-operating with ours in a child's arithmetic lesson, for example. But the Florentine mind of the Middle Ages went further that this. It believed, not only that the seven liberal arts were fully under the direct outpouring of the Holy Ghost, but that every fruitful idea, every original conception, whether in Euclid, or grammar, or music, was a direct inspirations from the Holy Spirit, without any thought at all as to whether the person so inspired named himself by the name of God, or recognized whence his inspiration came. All these seven figures [under the liberal sciences] are those of persons whom we would roughly class as pagans and whom we might be lightly inclined to consider as outside the pale of divine inspiration. It is truly difficult to grasp the amazing boldness of this scheme of the education of the world which Florence accepted in simple faith.
This is the key to the whole education of each boy and girl. Practical discernment and knowledge of everyday matters, the discovery of the secrets of nature, the great inventions, every conception of beauty or truth and their expression—all have one history, each must have been a great idea when it first made a stir in the mind of the man, woman or child who conceived it. {end small set type}

What practical bearing has the recognition of the power of the Holy Spirit for parents and teachers? By co-operation, His light can be present in the course, say of a grammar lesson.

{smaller type again - a continuation of above after a comment by the author, I assume}
The immediate point is that the teaching of grammar, without pedantry and without verbiage, is, we venture to believe, accompanied by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit…. We are told that the Spirit is life…. Let all the thought we off our children be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do; given the vitalizing idea children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea…. Let their books be living books, the best that can be found in liberal supply and variety…. No neat system is of any use…. Let the teacher remember the necessity of keeping alive in thought; it is only so far as he is intellectually alive that he can be effective in the wonderful process we glibly call education.

Naming the college the House of Education, Charlotte built this 'great recognition' deep into the foundations of the students' life and training there. It formed the special teaching of Whitsunday afternoon. A reproduction of the frescoes had its place in a central position for all to live with. The students called it the 'creed picture,' coming slowly to understand how not only every increase in knowledge and power came by the Divine Spirit, but also the way of using the things and opportunities of daily life—the way to handle a microscope, the moment to choose for a word of praise or rebuke in school. Charlotte Mason showed that this recognition resolves the discords in each person's life between claims of the intellect, of the aesthetic sense, and of religion: 'There is space for free development in all directions and this free and joyous development, whether of intellect or heart, is recognized as a Godward movement. Various activities with unity of aim bring harmony and peace into our lives.'
--- from pages 48-52 of _The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondeley c1960

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