09 January 2012

Charlotte Mason on secular studies

Charlotte Mason is one of those "names" in education, like Maria Montessori. I first heard of her when my friend quoted her that it is better for a child to practice writing a few perfect "m"s than to write a whole page of sloppy ones.
I am waiting for someone to make a systematic analysis of what in Charlotte Mason's approach to education is compatible with Torah and what is not. But, I don't think it's going to happen. She appears to have had some influence in turn-of-the-century England; but nowadays she is largely unknown to all but homeschoolers.
Her theology is incompatible with Torah; her analysis of character development is something I am not qualified to evaluate; but here are some of the tenets of a Charlotte Mason approach to secular studies:

-"Never be within doors when you can rightly be without" - preschool children especially.
-Training preschool children in the habits of sustained attention, close observation, and faithful description.
-One of the first areas of study for preschool children, therefore, is nature study, performed outdoors (while Baby soaks up his Vitamin D) --- the other is foreign language; [and these, of course, along with my friends and I used to call (after Dr. Pangloss) philometaphysicotheologocosmolosophololololoardoanthrosociopsychomusarology, which to Charlotte Mason was more like "theology and character", but which in Judaism is infinitely more complex - Rav Hirsch calls it "Divine anthropology" - and which therefore, as indicated above, is beyond the scope of this post.]
-"Living books" - teaching language and history by reading to one's children, and eventually by having them read on their own, original sources, especially biography: not textbooks or children's adaptations - and even fiction read for leisure should be well-written and rich in ideas.
-Similarly, geography is to be acquired from travel accounts, not from textbooks.
-Narration: children read a passage only once (no "cramming" allowed), and then narrate what they have read. This is so that they pay attention to what they read, and reflect on it enough to put it into their own words. Good composition comes from good reading and so is not harped upon much as a separate subject.
-Short and varied lessons - to maintain the habit of sustained attention: when a lesson lasts ten or thirty minutes, and is both preceded and followed by something totally different, you can't space out for part of it. Charlotte Mason homeschoolers are notorious for managing to fit a graduate-school-level education into a few hours a day over twelve years, and spending the afternoons on extra-curriculars.
-Art instruction is what I would call right-brained, and handicrafts are useful, not just for the sake of doing projects -- teaching children to do dry-brush sketching ("nature journals" are one of the props of a CM education) or to cane chairs, not to poke popsicle sticks into a flowerpot. Examples of art, like nature, are studied with emphasis on close, appreciative observation.
-Math starts with manipulatives - but there are no fancy manipulatives in any subject; you have to use your imagination.
-Grammar and music are pretty much the same as anywhere else.

Charlotte Mason differs from Montessori in that the latter creates a child-sized environment, whereas CM makes use of an adult-sized world.

There is relevant material in Vol. VII of Rav Hirsch's Collected Writings, of course - especially pp. 112-117. But it is too scary to paraphrase a wee bit of Rav Hirsch in a blog, especially in so trifling a post, when he has an entire OCEAN under his words. Look it up in your friendly local kollel library.


  1. You may or may not appreciate my blog. I am a Christian who is using the Charlotte Mason method. I'm trying to "unpack" its many tenets step by disjointed step. I am also half Jewish on my dad's side (which doesn't count!)



    1. Thanks! When I get to a working computer I'll check it out.

      I don't know whether it'd be of interest to you, but I have another post analyzing Charlotte Mason here: http://ajewintherain.blogspot.ca/2012/08/judaism-and-charlotte-mason.html