When people start to learn about the Charlotte Mason philosophy, they often feel overwhelmed. There is so much to learn, and each aspect seems richer and more intense than the next. I also think it can be overwhelming because people just want a system: a set of rules, a spelled-out curriculum that tells them exactly what to do. During my first year of teaching at an Ambleside school, I constantly asked the principal and other teachers if every action I did or word I said aligned with Charlotte Mason. I wanted to know what was okay and what wasn’t. I wanted a set of rules. Finally, my principal told me: “Why don’t you start reading the volumes so you can decide for yourself?” Up until then, I had only read the professional development materials that I received from my school. I didn’t take the time to really get to know what this philosophy was all about. And because of my public school background, I was treating it like a system. But the Charlotte Mason philosophy is a method, not a system.
What is a method?
Dictionary.com defines a method as
Method a Way to an End- Method implies two things– a way to an end, and step-by-step progress in that way. Further, the following of a method implies an idea, a mental image, of the end or object to be arrived at. What do you propose that education shall effect in and for your child? Again, method is natural; easy, yielding, unobtrusive, simple as the ways of Nature herself; yet, watchful, careful, all-pervading, all-compelling. Method, with the end of education in view, presses the most unlikely matters into service to bring about that end; but with no more tiresome mechanism than the sun employs when it makes the wind to blow and the waters to flow only by shining.” Home Education, page 8.
That’s such a beautiful picture of education. A natural, simple approach, unobtrusive to a child’s God-given personality. It’s all-pervading: it doesn’t end when the book is closed and the pencils are put away. It’s all-compelling: little seeds of curiosity grow and bloom into full-fledged ideas. Is this the kind of education you had growing up? Not me. But I want my children to have it.
What is a system?
A ‘system of education’ is an alluring fancy; more so, on some counts, than a method, because it is pledged to more definite calcuable results. By means of a system certain developments may be brought about through the observance of given rules. Shorthand, dancing, how to pass examinations, how to become a good accountant, or a woman of society, may all be learned upon systems. System- the observing of rules until the habit of doing certain things, of behaving in certain ways, is confirmed, and, therefore, the art is acquired– is so successful in achieving precise results, that it is no wonder there should be endless attempts to straighten the whole field of education to the limits of a system.” Home Education, page 9.
Charlotte Mason’s definition of a system accurately describes the ways schools are set up today. A few years ago, the idea that schools were set up like factories started buzzing through staff meetings and principal’s offices all over the nation. The setup of modern public schools originated during the industrial revolution, so students were viewed as another product leaving the factory. They come in on a conveyor belt (AP or standard tracks), the product is formed (by learning math, reading, and writing) and then checked for quality (standardized testing). There is little flexibility and attention to a child’s individuality. Fortunately, this set-up is changing, but whenever there are high-volumes to handle, systems are easier than methods because:
Methods are harder to monitor than systems. Since there is no step-by-step process to follow, it’s difficult to step into a classroom once and take a snapshot of what’s occurring.
Methods are harder to implement. You can’t standardize a method.
(*Note* This analogy was meant to illustrate a system, not insult the hard work that public school teachers do!)
Do You Use the Charlotte Mason Philosophy as a Method or a System?
I realize that when I write about the Charlotte Mason philosophy, I write about the character forming aspect more than I write about the educational aspects. Charlotte Mason believed that the development of character was the chief function of education. That’s the “end of education in view.” There’s not a test of good character at the end. But what I often see is how much people focus on the curriculum, the living texts, the lesson plans. We tend to reduce this method into a system because that’s what we want: an easy set of rules to follow. Otherwise it seems too abstract and it’s hard to know if we’re using the philosophy “correctly.”
We need not aspire to complete and exhaustive code of educational laws.” Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, chapter 12
This method will look different for everyone. That’s the beauty of a method that offers flexibility and works with the laws of Nature. My view of living texts might be different than yours, and my take on habit training is probably a little different than others’. This method not only honors a child’s individuality, but a parent educator’s as well.
Philosophy of Life
There is no living soul who does not develop his own philosophy of life.” Parents and Children, chapter 13
As I read and learn more and more about a Charlotte Mason education, my systemic approaches of teaching are lessening. The ideas I’ve learned from Charlotte Mason are shaping my interactions with my children, Creation, and God. Everyday, we either actively pursue philosophy that is right and true, or we pick it up from the norms of society.
If you are like me and are a more systemic thinker, I encourage you to keep learning and studying, to let these living ideas shape you and your family for the better.
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