A Narration of Reconsidering Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition

This week I was able to read an enlightening post by a fellow Charlotte Mason educator that I very much appreciated. You may have heard of Art Middlekauff’s detailed post on the Charlotte Mason Institute blog to Karen Glass’s book, Consider This. (Art’s post is now available on the Charlotte Mason Poetry blog.)

You may have even read Art’s post. If that is the case, I’ll bet this little narration won’t be of much interest to you!

As I read Art’s post, I was convinced of its importance in the Mason community, and at the same time was concerned that many who might wish to understand the issues might not take the time to read the whole thing…because it was pretty long. 

I had to read this post in several sittings, as I kept being interrupted by my 37 children. (Just kidding, there are only seven.)

As I read, I realized I’d like to offer a sort of summary of Art’s major points to anyone who might not take the time to read his whole post, but wanted to know the content. (Sort of the “Idiot’s Guide” to Art’s post.) Please be warned, I am not the scholarly sort, so my simple mind will need to present this in simple ways!

One of my main reasons for wanting to offer this summary was because I realized that a defense of the truth was involved. The truth of what Charlotte was saying. The truth of her premise that the highest goal in education was not virtue, as Karen Glass said, but actually the knowledge of God. I also recognized truth in Mason’s overarching philosophy – that the Holy Spirit is the giver of all knowledge, and how that differs from the foundations of classical education.

Now, as we know, Truth is worth doing a little digging to find. Art has done quite a bit of research to find this truth. I appreciate that this was a respectful, rational, and truthful post. We can have a different conversation over truth where things are kept in the rational realm, vs reacting emotionally. One of the quite rational things about this post is the amount of time that passed from the time Glass’s book was published, till the time this blog post came out. To me this speaks of thoughtful, careful consideration of the issues, as well as patience to see how the Charlotte Mason community would receive the book.

I realize that I am not likely to convince readers of the truth of certain issues, I am only hoping to make Art’s post accessible to those who might be in a bit of a rush!

“The consequence of truth is great; therefore the judgement of it must not be negligent”.


Art began his post by reminding us all of what Charlotte based her philosophy upon:

“The teachings of Christ, the discoveries of science, and the behaviors of children.”

This was very simple.

It is helpful that Art has since reminded us that while she may have used many references to the classics to illustrate or explain her philosophy, those were not what she used to base her philosophy upon.

Art goes on to say that there was a boom in the classical homeschool movement, but because of all the curriculum and variations available, it has become much more complicated to pinpoint just what a classical education is, exactly. Because so many are defining a classical education, and because those definitions do not all exactly agree with each other, many ideas come into play, and we can hodge podge it all together, creating a ‘Charlotte Mason Classical’ approach without really knowing what we’re saying! (My words, not Art’s. He said that much more intelligently.)

Art says that of course “it’s natural that some would ask how Charlotte Mason’s philosophy compares to the classical model”.

He then points to the fact that Glass’s book “advances the striking thesis that not only is a Charlotte Mason education similar to the classical model, but in fact it is a ‘particular implementation’ of a ‘classical education’ “. Art says that “Glass makes the claim that Charlotte Mason’s method should be classified as just one of the many diverse approaches that fall under the general label of classical”. 

Then it gets interesting. In an unemotional and respectful tone, Art explains:

“Unfortunately, Glass’s book misrepresents the source, purpose, and ideal of Charlotte Mason’s method. In doing so Glass creates a hybrid model of education that is faithful neither to the classical model, nor to Charlotte Mason’s ideas”.

He says that the purpose of his paper is to show that

“Charlotte Mason’s method is not merely a ‘particular implementation’ of a ‘classical education.’ Rather, Mason introduced a distinctly new philosophy of education that is a dramatic departure from the classical tradition”.

I agree with some who think these are bold statements. Truth is often bold. I believe that Art is attempting to get to the truth here.

He goes on to have seven points in which he shows that Charlotte Mason was intentional about explaining how she arrived at her philosophy, and that it was not built on the classical model.

Art’s first point covers “The Source of Charlotte Mason’s Educational Theory”, explaining that “[Glass’s] narrative contradicts Mason’s own testimony of how she developed her theory”.

Art reminds us that Charlotte cites her “primary source of her educational theory” being the “Code of Education in the Gospels”. (This can be found in Home Education, page 12.)

He says that “at the close of her career, Mason provided her own extended narrative of how she discovered and developed her theory of education”. (This is found in Volume 6, An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education, pages 9-17.)

(Art is very thorough, so I am attempting to skim his findings, you will probably want to check it out for yourself!) From his research, Art is able to firmly state:

“From the beginning to the end, not a single classical source is mentioned in Mason’s own narrative of the development of her educational theory.” (Emphasis added)

Just as a reminder, if right now you are thinking to yourself, “I KNOW Charlotte referenced people of the past all over her volumes”, you are correct. And Art is attempting to make the distinction that she used examples of the past to illustrate and explain how to use her philosophy, but NOT when she was DEVELOPING her philosophy.

Art goes on to show where Karen has misrepresented Charlotte, and he says “the reader (of Consider This) is led to assume that Mason discovered her principles of education from the classical tradition”.

Now. To make things more clear for us, Art used charts. I will not attempt to explain those tables, you’d need to go look for yourself. (!)

Next we are shown Karen’s attempt to prove that Charlotte discovered her philosophy from the “classical world”, but Art shows us that Charlotte’s “discoveries were made from her own firsthand interaction with children”.

“Mason repeatedly emphasized the newness of her theory. She would not do this if she were trying to resurrect ideas from the classical past.”

-Art Middlekauff

Art ends this point with something I personally found very interesting.

Charlotte stated that “our whole superstructure rests upon…a Christian basis…” But “Glass relegates a discussion of Mason’s faith to an Appendix”. Glass also mentioned that Mason brought a “Christian perspective (emphasis added – by Art) to her philosophy of education”, implying that “Mason began with classical sources and then made some modifications or adjustments based on Christian ideas. This dramatically contradicts Mason’s own testimony that she had discovered a ‘Code of Education in the Gospels'”.

Art’s point number two goes on to describe “the uniqueness of Charlotte Mason’s educational theory”.

For the sake of brevity, I will only quote Art one time from this section!

“Given that Mason explicitly stated that her foundation was the Gospel of Christ and her own experience as a teacher, it should not be surprising to find that her discoveries were frequently at odds with the classical tradition.”

Okay, now point three gets a little tricky…it is called “A Hybrid Model that is not Classical”. Art says:

“Glass describes a model of education that includes elements from Charlotte Mason’s theory and from the classical tradition. The result is a hybrid that is not compatible with either. Glass herself provides many examples of how Mason contradicts the classical tradition. These examples serve to undermine and ultimately falsify her own thesis…”


Hmm. You see…

Based on his quotes in this section, Art provides us with the sense that:

“Glass does not seem to consider the possibility that a Mason education might be different from or better than a classical education.”

Point four is “A Hybrid Model that is Not Faithful to Charlotte Mason”

And this gets long. Important, but long.

I will tell you that Art carefully explains where Karen and Charlotte miss each other in a thorough discussion of their differences surrounding Charlotte’s principles 1, 2, 3, 9, 12, 15, 18, and 20.

If you aren’t familiar with these principles, they are found at the beginning of each of Charlotte’s six volumes.

The specific principles that Art chose to discuss seemed to be where much confusion reigned. Glass and Mason seemed to have opposing views, so Art went into great detail to clear some of that up for us.

The discussion of principles 1-3 was of particular interest to me, as there tends to be a lot of confusion surrounding them. I will briefly remind you of what they are in case you’d like to go read it for yourself!

#1 Children are born persons, #2, [Children] are not born either good or bad (as there is much confusion over this, I would encourage you to read Art’s words on this.) #3, The principle of authority and obedience – Karen brought up the importance of teaching children humility, but Charlotte says many times that children already greatly possess that quality much more than us adults do!

I cannot begin to explain this section to you in a nutshell, as this 4th point was 10 printer pages long! I will share with you something that struck me at the end of this section right before table #3, which in my opinion, was the most helpful chart.

When discussing Charlotte’s 20th principle, “The Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirit”, Art says:

“Of course the idea that the Holy Spirit is the personal educator of each individual child presupposes the New Testament revelation about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. These revealed truths were unknown to the classical world. Hence it is not surprising that Glass neglected to mention this important aspect of Mason’s theory of education in her book.”

Point five might be my favorite. It is a discussion of “The Purpose of Education”. There is an important distinction between the highest purpose of a classical education, and a Charlotte Mason education.

Art says that “Glass repeatedly states that the purpose of education is virtue-right behavior…she also asserts that…’all areas of education were brought into service for this single goal – to teach children to think and act rightly’…Glass is clear that the aim of education is ‘most importantly – bringing that knowledge to bear on actual conduct'”.

And then we have this:

“Glass attempts to show that Mason also believed that the purpose of education is right action. Quoting Mason, she writes that ‘[the formation of character is] the ultimate object of education’. The problem with this quotation is that the full context of Mason’s statement is: ‘Suppose the parent see that the formation of character is the ultimate object of education’ (emphasis added). In other words, the sentence is hypothetical, and not a definitive statement of Mason’s official statement on the goal of education.” (You can find this in Volume 2, Parents and Children, page 83.)

(I’m spending more time on this point for you, because I think this really matters. If the end goal in education is different, certainly our methods will reflect that!)

Art shows us that actually, Charlotte found her “inspiration in the Gospel”:

“For Mason, the goal of education is not the achievement of virtue but rather the knowledge of and intimacy with God.”

Art carefully reminds us that “Mason is very clear that action is subordinate to knowing Christ in a personal way.” (And yes, he has quotes to back himself up…sadly I don’t have the space for all of them here!) Art’s conclusion to those quotes was “Virtue is good, but is secondary to the knowledge of God. Even habit formation is, in its highest form, about knowing God, not changing outward behavior.” (You can find this in School Education – Volume 3 p.141.)

“To keep a child in this habit of the thought of God – so that to lose it, for even a little while, is like coming home after an absence and finding his mother out – is a very delicate part of a parent’s work.”

-Charlotte Mason

And one of my favorite lines in this whole post? Art concludes this point with this:

“While the goal of a classical education may be virtue, the goal of a Charlotte Mason education is the knowledge of God.”

Alrighty…on to point six, called “Synthetic Thinking”.

This is a discussion of what Glass calls “Synthetic thinking”, and Art shows that Karen has picked up an idea that does not seem to reflect Charlotte’s intentions. “Glass defines [synthetic thinking] as follows: ‘Seeing the universe as a wholeness, and understanding that all things are connected to all other things, and ultimately to God, and to yourself, might be called synthetic thinking’. But Mason never challenges her students to ‘understand that all things are connected to all other things’. Therefore it is not surprising that Mason does not use the phrase synthetic thinking.”

The discussion then turns to analyzing information, and Art agrees that “Mason does state that the mind ‘absorbs facts only as those facts are connected with the living ideas upon which they hang’, (You can find this in Volume 6, p. 20.) but of course this is vastly different from discovering a path to connect ‘all things’ to ‘all other things’.  (emphasis added)

Art says that “According to Mason, since children are born persons, they can self-educate and derive spiritual nourishment when they consume knowledge directly. Training children to analyze before consuming interrupts this process and erodes curiosity. The irony is that intentionally pushing children towards synthetic thinking has just the same side effect as pushing them towards analytical thinking – it pushes children to think about what they are consuming, instead of just consuming. When consuming a great piece of literature, children should not do a synthetic study of how the ideas connect to other categories of knowledge. Rather, they should just consume the ideas, and their natural ability to learn will “digest” those ideas.”

Although he was much more thorough, in my condensed version, this statement sums things up pretty well:

“Through Glass’s extensive and detailed treatment of synthetic thinking, she has developed a new model for education which may have precedent in the classical tradition, but it has little to do with Charlotte Mason’s ideas.”

There is much discussion of Glass’s model of Synthetic Thinking, and what she brings up as Mason’s Synthetic Stage. But Art concludes with this thought:

“A comparison of Glass’s model of synthetic thinking to Mason’s model of a synthetic stage indicates that Glass has developed a model of education that is different from Mason’s. Whatever merits this model may have, it is foreign to Charlotte Mason’s theory of education.”

And finally, point seven is Art’s conclusion.

He shares with us that his post shows that “Glass is performing eisegesis (interpreting texts in such a way that it introduces one’s own presuppositions). The evidence shows that Glass is advocating ‘classical ideas’ using Charlotte Mason’s vocabulary.” (I’m probably the only one who had never heard of eisegesis…thank goodness he defined it for me!)

Lastly, Art reminds us that Charlotte has inspired us with this new method of education “by preaching the educational code found in the Gospels, and by observing the beautiful mystery of the human being. Mason did not achieve this by repackaging ideas from the Greek and Roman past.”

Thank you Art, for your time and effort to help us gain some understanding of the differences between a Classical and a Charlotte Mason education!

2 thoughts on “A Narration of Reconsidering Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition

  1. Mary, I very much enjoyed your written narration of Art’s article. I did make time to read his article when it was published (it took me that evening and the following morning) and have followed the subsequent discussion, texting back and forth with my sister to discuss certain points and it has been good to hear another (your) voice.


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