With great interest, I have been reading Art Middlekauf’s ruminations on ‘What would Charlotte Mason Do?’ if she were alive today. The short answer is that she would undoubtedly deplore the mechanistic technological revolution of the twenty-first century while celebrating the rise of ‘Mason Education’ in Christian schools and home-schoolrooms in America, England and elsewhere. After the early years of setting up the PNEU (1887/90) Charlotte Mason was far more confident in returning to her early career as a teacher and teacher trainer, than as parent educator for the higher classes. While her liberal principles of love and respect for each individual child, whether boy or girl, with different gifts and needs, and her stress on the importance of exploration, discovery, play and wide reading in developing the imagination and moral sense still hold good today, there would be much in the unimaginable contemporary social changes and scientific and technological advances to perplex a quintessentially Victorian outlook.
After the PNEU Executive Committee accepted Charlotte Mason’s core educational philosophy, set out in the 1904 Short Synopsis of Educational Theory, skillfully backed by Mrs Henrietta Franklin, her philosophical approach was firmly established, subject only to a few revisions, such as the inclusion of Narration as a core method of learning. The acknowledged Founder no longer wished to hide behind the PNEU. She told Mrs Franklin that, without claiming to have made ‘this body of thought any more than Columbus made America’, the time had come to attach her own name to it:
“To one man is given the idea of a new button….to one woman the perception of a new substance, to another woman, this woman- the perception of a beautiful, expansive, efficient and sufficient philosophy of education….I am getting old and in feeble health and am no longer able to go about winning adherents by guile. Therefore, will you think me bold if I say I must have disciples……There is no other school of educational thought which even professes to have an adequate philosophy of education (1) ” (my emphasis).
Her success in winning devoted, hardworking disciples to the ‘astonishing consistency in the details of Mason’s method across long spans of time’ was remarkable in view of the rise of alternative educational theories. After 1961 her philosophy was no longer taught at the Charlotte Mason College (2). However, while all the teachers and governesses may have received the same books and programmes, l for each age group of children from Elsie Kitching’s Ambleside Parents Union School office and while the principles may have been upheld, the interpretation may have markedly varied in the different settings: the home schoolrooms in Britain and overseas, the private PNEU schools and the large classes in the state elementary schools, after Mrs Steinthal launched the’ liberal educational for all, movement from 1914 onwards. Benefiting from the publicity generated by this Movement, Mrs Franklin would work tirelessly to develop private PNEU schools for the upper and middle-classes.
How then had Charlotte Mason discovered her ‘body of thought’? Was it rooted in the classical tradition as claimed by some today, for example, in a rather inaccurate Wikipedia entry?
Before we reach back to Charlotte Mason’s early education and training, it is salutary to recall that she founded the PEU in 1887 with Mrs Lienie Steinthal to reform upper class upbringing and education on the lines set out in her definitive work Home Education, A Course of Lectures to Ladies (1886) which had been delivered to ladies attached to St Mark’s parish in the elegant suburb of Manningham in Bradford. The lectures offered solutions to contemporary anxieties about family life, women’s education and child upbringing. Mary Sumner (1828-1921) the upper-class founder of the Anglican Mothers’ Union (1876/1885) had already taken it upon herself to address these concerns.
Mrs Sumner also sought to reform Christian home education and upbringing in all social classes, first through parish mothers’ meetings from 1876 and then by founding the national Anglican Mothers’ Union in 1885 at the Congress in Portsmouth, chaired by Bishop Harold Browne, her daughter Louisa’s father-in-law. Wealth, class and Church connections gave her the essential backing which Charlotte Mason had to win for herself in founding the PNEU a few years later.
I was pleased to discover Mrs Sumner’s respect for Charlotte Mason’s comparable perspective, when I read Sue Anderson-Faithful’s thesis on Mary Sumner, published as a book by the Lutterworth Press in February 2018. Entitled Mary Sumner, Religion, Mission, Education and Womanhood 1876-1921, Sue Faithful Anderson describes how Mary Sumner drew upon the ideas for creative yet disciplined Christian upbringing from Charlotte Mason’s book, Home Education, which led to the launch of the PNEU as a national Society in 1890 (3).
Mary Sumner appreciated Charlotte’s reference to Pestalozzi’s assertion that ‘The Mother is Qualified by the Creator himself to become the primary agent in the development of the child and what is demanded of her is – thinking love (4).’
Like the MU, the PNEU (1887/1890), supported by educationists and church leaders, sought to enable parents, notably mothers, to bring up and educate their children in accordance with principles set out in Home Education (1886). By 1891, Charlotte Mason would be training governesses in Ambleside to aid parents in this task as well as running the Mothers Education Courses by correspondence. The move into school education, developed from the Parents’ Review School programmes, was initiated in 1894 by Mrs Franklin. As a mother, she believed children needed companions of their own age. Moreover, the need for the governesses in training to teach in the small Beehive practising school happily returned Charlotte Mason to draw upon her earlier experiences as a school teacher, college lecturer and supervisor.
Readers may also be interested to learn that Anne Summers’ new book, Christian and Jewish Women in Britain 1880-1840, Living with Difference, Palgrave Macmillan (2017) devotes Chapter 7 to analysing the close friendship between Charlotte Mason and Netta Franklin, a Jewish matriarch, entitled ‘We Fell in love with each other at First Sight.’ Albeit a practising Anglican from her pupil-teacher years, Charlotte Mason’s Irish Quaker and Catholic background may have instilled in her the freedom to respect people from different religions. As a Jew, Mrs Franklin effectively opposed any suggestion of an amalgamation with the MU, in the early 1900s.
To return to Art’s questioning of Charlotte Mason’s classical educational credentials, there is no evidence that she was immersed in any classical tradition. She was trained as a Pestalozzian infant school teacher; in contrast public schoolmasters had no teacher training. As a pupil-teacher in Birkenhead, Charlotte was prepared for entry to the Home and Colonial Pestalozzian teacher training by the Mistress, Miss Stephens, who had been trained there herself. Charlotte demonstrated Pestalozzian love for all children and followed his principle of encouraging them to use their own efforts to acquire knowledge as well as to distinguish between instruction and education, which Pestalozzi (1746-1827) held should proceed by organic development of all their moral, intellectual and physical abilities (5). Pestalozzi, a romantic follower of Rousseau, believed that human nature was essentially good and that all human beings, whether rich or poor had the ability to learn. There should be no corporal punishment. Everyone had the right to education and it was the duty of Society to arrange this. Here was a very different atmosphere from the British public schools, where the masters drummed Latin and Greek into the future rulers of the British Empire.
Charlotte added the Victorian upper-class liberal educational perspective to her Pestalozzian ideals as she rose step by step, learning from mentors such as Mr Dunning at the Ho & Co, the Rev’d William Read, her parish priest in Worthing and her College friend Lizzie Groveham in Bradford. Admiring the freedom of Victorian higher-class homes, furnished with libraries of enticing books enhancing the home education of fortunate women, such as her Worthing friend, Miss Branders, Charlotte set herself against the especially prepared childish environments, recommended by Froebel and Montessori, arguing that children are born persons. However, she was not without a reverence for classical education. Oscar Browning, introduced her to Plato’s Republic after they met in 1889 which she read with delight. She also enabled her Ambleside governess students to be taught some Latin and a smattering of Greek. And students and children alike had to study citizenship by reading Plutarch’s Lives! Indeed, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster was initially uplifted to humanity by reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s Lives (6).
As I was walking up the hill to post a letter I met a neighbour who said she had been reading an interesting article by Deborah Walsh in the genealogical journal Who do you think you are? (May 2018) She kindly sent the article to me. The Armitt volunteers have been studiously re-examining the 60 or more boxes containing the Charlotte Mason archive and listing all uncatalogued documents. A letter was found, which Deborah wrote ‘was the single document that for all of us made sense of the whole archive, and the profound importance of Charlotte Mason’s work.’ If Charlotte read this letter, sent when the Liberal Education for All movement was at its height in the State School sector, she would have rejoiced that her philosophy was serving the poor children that Pestalozzi had cared for so deeply. Classical education would scarcely have suited them. This letter, now copied and dated 29.11.22, reached Miss Elsie Kitching’s Parents’ Union School office at Ambleside from GF Husband, the new headmaster of Lower East Street Boys’ School at Middlesbrough in northern Yorkshire. His school had been working on the PUS programmes of work for the past year. Mr Husband wrote:
“We are approaching the conclusion of our third term’s attempt to carry out P.N.E.U. methods and whilst I know you already have some measure of the effect of these methods in Elementary Schools I think further testimony may be of interest.
This is a slum school, two hundred yards from the river and docks, surrounded by the lowest type of brothel, “doss” house, drinking bar and furthest removed of any school in Middlesbrough from green fields and lanes.
Most of the children are unshod, ill-clad, under-fed and live in over-crowded rooms- very often unfurnished – without conveniences for the ordinary decencies of life. There is an entire lack of discipline- mental, moral, physical- in the home and surroundings. In the schools there is much repression and excessive corporal punishment. (I often wonder of you realise the tawdry and soulless sham that passes for education in many urban elementary schools) and this school is no exception.
The day I took charge (2nd May 1921) there was an uproar in the street. A boy had been severely punished and had slipped out of school and roused the neighbourhood. A semi-drunken slut rushed into the school” to twist the ……..teacher’s…..neck” Daily squabbles with parents about punishments were taken by the staff as a matter of course.
Now teachers and scholars are bright and eager in their work. Irregularity and unpunctuality are reduced to a minimum and there is no corporal punishment. The work to the scholar is becoming a much more important thing than the teacher is.
And there you have what is to me one of the most important feature of the P.N.E.U. methods- they compel the teacher to study the child- in setting this task and discovering the why of that failure: and with this study “all the other graces follow in their proper places (7).”
Thus, Mr Husband ratified Charlotte Mason’s Pestalozzian conviction that her educational methods were suited to children of all social classes, including the poorest. Received six weeks before she died, this letter would have gladdened Charlotte Mason’s heart.
1. Mason letters to Franklin and the PNEU Executive Committee,15 January 1904, CM50 cmc393 cited in M.A. Coombs, ‘Charlotte Mason Hidden Heritage and Educational Influence’ pp213-214 with note on p. 303.
2. Art Middlekauf (http:/Charlottemasonpoetry.org./Author/Amiddlek/27.3.2018 unpub. P 5/13-6/13.
3. Sue Anderson-Faithful, Thesis 2014 University of Winchester ‘Mary Sumner, Religion, Mission, Education and Womanhood 1876-1921’; see Ch. 3.
4. Ibid p 217; Mason, Home Education (1899).
5. Coombs, Hidden Heritage op.cit pp.83-84.
6. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Oxford World Classics, reissued 2008, p. 127.
7. ‘Gem from the Archive,’ by Deborah Walsh in “Who Do You think You Are,’ May 2018.
© 2018 Margaret Coombs