Friday, November 6, 2015

Discerning an Authentic Charlotte Mason Education

Many of the homeschoolers I have interacted with online are dabblers in Charlotte Mason. I get that. I too was once a dabbler. I can immediately think of two reasons for not pursuing a traditional, authentic CM education.

1) We want to be able to customize the curriculum to fit the needs of the individual child, and an eclectic approach seems like an effective way to accomplish this goal.

2) Laziness.

From my experience, the idea behind the first item is based on an underlying fallacy. For whatever reason, we get the notion in our heads that any "pure" approach to homeschooling is going to be restrictive to our freedom. I like to draw a parallel here with Catholicism. We have rules in our Faith--the teachings of Scripture and Tradition, the interpretation of the Magisterium, dogmas, codes of canon law, an order to the Mass, papal encyclicals, etc... Yet we understand that our freedom depends upon the boundaries, or limits, of our religion. A faithful Catholic does not pick and choose which teachings of Jesus and his Church to obey and which to cast aside. We trust that God wants the best for us, and so we joyfully follow the tenets of our Faith.

Of course, homeschooling style is not so grave a subject as religious belief and practice. But the philosophy and method that we follow in education must be in accordance with Christian principles. It is imperative that our choices be solid and not made willy-nilly, and we must avoid the possibility of serious error as much as possible. Because a CM education is built upon a basis of natural law and is oriented as the "handmaid of Religion", it makes for a happy marriage with the Catholic Faith. While it isn't the only viable option, I have personally found it to be ideal; especially in that it allows for a customization of the child's education as well as providing an already proven path to follow. You need not be a trailblazer.

Now to address the laziness issue. Homeschooling is a lot of work, and a CM education requires much preparation. It's common to get excited about a new idea, read a little bit about it, apply some of the techniques, and then fail to fully follow through. There might be doubt that the approach is rigorous enough, or worry that it is too rigorous. It might be difficult to trust because it is so different from what most of us experienced in school ourselves. We may become distracted by other tantalizing methods and fear that by focusing in on Charlotte Mason, we and our children might miss out on benefits that another way has to offer. The problem is, you can't get the full benefits of a CM education if you don't make the effort to really know what it is and truly apply it. When push comes to shove, simple laziness is often the culprit of our wishy-washy homeschooling ways.

First things first--the philosophy. The method flows from the philosophy, not the other way around. It's like Sacred Tradition and Scripture in this respect. The fullness of Christianity is not found in the Bible only. Likewise, simply applying methods such as narration and copy work do not a CM education make. You have to understand the why behind it.

So how should one begin? I recommend that you read and re-read Charlotte's 21 Principles of Education; meditate on them and understand them as well as you can; and begin to integrate them into your family life. Then read the sixth book in her home education series, A Philosophy of Education, where these principles are fleshed out. She wrote this volume last, after more than 30 years of teaching experience. It is apparent that in the mind of Miss Mason, there was no question as to the success of her method and the solid philosophical foundation upon which it was based.

The next step is to read Volume 1, Home Education, to get into the nitty gritty of how to practically apply CM's ideas with children ages six to nine. Even if your kids are older, do not skip this volume, as it lays down the rails. At the same time, you can read a supplementary work written by a contemporary author, such as Karen Andreola's A Charlotte Mason Companion. Here the reader is provided with the history of CM and a summary of the basic tenets and how they are applied. Karen is responsible for getting the original volumes reprinted and brought to the U.S. from England, so I consider her the best go-to resource. I would also recommend the particularly Catholic CM manual, Real Learning by Elizabeth Foss. It's fine to start with a companion volume such as these to get the ball rolling before you get into CM's own series, but do not stop here.

Continue through Charlotte's volumes. To be blunt, if you aren't going to read CM's own words, you may as well forget the whole thing. When you aren't sure how to proceed in your homeschooling efforts, go back and re-read. In my personal experience, I have found that the only way to stay motivated, inspired, and on task is to go further up and deeper in. The answer is not to seek other methods or to "blend" them with CM. Trust me when I tell you that this will only lead to confusion and inconsistency. You will waste time that you could be spending immersing yourself in Charlotte's own words, not to mention time that could be spent directly with your children. Remember, we aren't seeking the "perfect" method or curriculum, but rather directing our children's minds and hearts toward God. If we follow the guidance of our Savior and turn our will over to him, the only possible result will be excellence.

Once you have put in the time and effort to set your homeschooling on a solid Catholic CM foundation, it will practically flow of its own accord, especially if you use the loop scheduling idea that I recently wrote about. At its heart, a CM education is teaching from rest. I assure you that it is flexible and simple. Get your head out of "curriculum mode" and reoriented toward a living style of learning. What we are talking about here is no less than a paradigm shift. Be gentle with yourself and give it time. Give yourself permission to make mistakes.

This approach is also adaptable to any child's learning style or temperament and any family's needs. It will look a little different in every home, but the common chords will be present. Begin with the basics and gradually add additional subjects. The only way to do it is to actually do it. You will learn how it works and become more comfortable and confident as you go along. A Charlotte Mason education will die on the table if you keep it sequestered as an intimidating, abstract idea in your mind. Choose and mix your ingredients well, and don't take the cake out of the oven half-baked! Only then will you partake of the splendid feast offered.


  1. Thank you, I enjoyed this post
    God bless

    1. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment! Be well, Rita

  2. Agree! I dabled and am now going all in : ) I have read volume 1 and am now working through 6; which would you recommend next?

    1. Thanks for reading, Alexandra! After I read those, I moved on to Vol. 3, based on my child's age (just turned 12). It's basically the next phase of designing your curriculum after the age range of 6 to 9 in Vol. 1. But it's up to you! You will benefit from them all.


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