Charlotte Mason: Educational Theories Defined Part 6


I have to confess that when I learned the time period of Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), I felt strangely in context.

Let me explain, I do not study late 19th or early 20th century English history, but I have been watching a lot of this TV show (of which I do not whole-heartedly approve of season 1 episode 1, but that is a conversation for another time).

While enjoying the story lines, it has broken my heart to watch women hand off their children to nursemaids and then to governesses from there to raise, train, and guide their children. The interactions between the child and parent looked strangely different than the interactions normal for my environment in 2015. Thanks, in part, to the philosophy and work of Charlotte Mason; her emphasis on training parents whether they keep their children at home for their education or not.

Charlotte Mason committed her life to training teachers, parents, and children. In all my research, I have found no preferential treatment of any category of persons. At every age, stage, and environment she believed education was happening. (4, page 8)

“This broad view of true education as the sum of all life meant that Charlotte Mason first turned her attention to the parents. She believed that they had the most interesting and valuable vocation that exists among mankind…Charlotte Mason never spoke of education as merely taking place behind the walls of the schoolroom. She saw the home as the basic educational environment.”  – Susan Schaeffer Macaulay: For the Children’s Sake

Charlotte Mason was educated at home by her parents, and after their deaths she was trained and certified as a teacher. (1) During this period, there were two main philosophies about the purpose of education: “education for all” or a “liberal education.” (2) Mason believed that a liberal education should be broad in scope, living in nature, and available to all regardless of social status. (1) The other philosophy was the promotion of education in order to produce a working class. The easiest way to produce a society of working citizens was to make a one-size-fits-all or industrial model to education. (2)

Her philosophy gave birth to theory and Home Education was written. Her principles were written to help parents better understand and raise their children. (1)

“Her views were shaped by her teaching experiences, not the other way around.” – Susan Schaeffer Macaulay For the Children’s Sake

Mason’s philosophy was influenced by studying brain research available in her time and on her own experience as a teacher. She believed that every child is born a person, not good or bad but capable of both. (1,3)

Mason wrote a 6 volume educational series titled Home Education, a geography series titled The Ambleside Geography Books, and created a periodical called the Parent’s Review which she edited and maintained. She also wrote 5 additional titles: Parents and Children, School Education, Ourselves, Formation of Character, and Towards a Philosophy of Education. (1)

Two definitions of education, two principles and one motto summarize the fundamentals of Mason’s thought:

  • “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life”
  • “Education is the science of relations”
  • She believed that children were born persons and should also be taught the two principles:
    • The Way of the Will
    • The Way of Reason
  • Her motto for students was “I am, I can, I ought, I will.” (1)


There are two non-negotiables in a Charlotte Mason education. 

  1. Habit Training
  2. Living Books

First, her focus on habit and human nature is intriguing to me because it captures the heart of the personal discipline that I hope to exemplify for my children.

She believed that academics should wait while habit-training was attended to first. (6)

She was loving in the presentation of a good habit to a child, recommending that the mother “never lets the matter be a cause of friction between herself and the child, taking the line of his friendly ally to help him.” (5, vol 1. page 123) She is also firm in her focus on habit training (which is as much parent training as it is child training) cautioning the mother never to let the child “slip” in any area they have been instructed to create good habits. Lest the child do well for so long that when the occasional slip happens and the mother allows for it without calling the child to correct their behavior – “The mother’s mis-timed easiness has lost for her every foot of the ground she had gained.” (5, vol. 1 page 124)

The effort of decision, we have seen, is the greatest effort of life; not the doing of the thing, but the making up of one’s mind as to which thing to do first. It is commonly this sort of mental indolence, born of indecision, which leads to dawdling habits. (5, vol 1. page 119)

The second non-negotiable to a Charlotte Mason’s style of teaching is the use of living books. Living books are works of literature, either fiction or non-fiction, that breathe life into the reader. The story comes alive and so does the reader.

Living books are usually written in narrative or story form by one author who has a passion for his topic. A living book makes the subject “come alive.” And the students were required to tell back, or narrate, in their own words what was read in the living book, in order to secure it in their minds. (7)

Educators who do not approve of the Charlotte Mason approach – an atmosphere, a discipline, a life – base their disapproval on what they believe education is useful for. If one believes that education is only useful in securing employment, then to develop relationships will not be a priority.

Charlotte Mason’s reply could be this quote from her work Home Education:

“If a human being were a machine, education could do more for him than to set him in action in prescribed ways, and the work of the educator would be simply to adopt a good working system or set of systems. But the educator has to deal with a self-acting, self-developing being, and his business is to guide, and assist in, the production of the latent good in that being, the dissipation of the latent evil, the preparation of the child to take his place in the world at his best, with every capacity for good that is in him developed into a power. Though system is highly useful as an instrument of education, a ‘system of education’ is mischievous, as producing only mechanical action instead of the vital growth and movement of a living being.” (5, vol 1 page 10)


“In fact, an educational system that says,…‘There. Now you are educated. This piece of paper says so,’ is doing me a gross disfavor. The truly educated person has only had many doors of interest opened. He knows that life will not be long enough to follow everything through fully.” – Susan Schaeffer Macaulay For the Children’s Sake

Finally, Charlotte Mason believed in a living education:

“A living education empowers students to author lives that are full and free, rich in relationship to God, self, others, ideas, work, and creation. It puts a primacy on formation and not mere information, providing the tools needed to live well in all aspects of life, spiritual and intellectual, personal and professional, present and future.” (8)

Charlotte Mason inspires every person to love learning for a lifetime. What she did and how she did it has been the study of many respected educators in recent years. In the 1980’s, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay wrote For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School drawing attention to Mason’s philosophy and brought about the revival of the Charlotte Mason education which is still growing in influence today.

This is theory #6 in the series on Educational Theories Defined. To see the index, click here.


  1. Wikipedia: Charlotte Mason 
  2. The History of Education in England: Chapter 3
  3. Towards a Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason
  4. For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay
  5. Home Education by Charlotte Mason
  6. Simple Homeschool’s Post: 7 Characteristics of a Charlotte Mason Education
  7. What is the Charlotte Mason Method by Simply Charlotte Mason
  8. Ambleside Schools: About Us
I hope you’ve enjoyed this part of the series: Educational Theories Defined. You can find the rest of the theories listed and linked by clicking here. Also, there are affiliate links in this post. They are set apart by underlining. If you would like to know more about these links, check out my disclosure policy or contact me. Thanks for reading!

Now is the time to plan. Check out this resource:A Simple Homeschool Planner

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s