March 10, 2010

Great Books versus Charlotte Mason

I have been asked my opinion on whether or not I favor a Great Books program over that of a Charlotte Mason inspired one. This begs the question, which I am not really asked directly: which type of education is better? The Moms who ask me about the differences really want me to tell them that one way is better than the other. This, I am afraid, I cannot do. I see value in both methods, and have actually used both with good success.

Catherine Levinson, in her book, "More Charlotte Mason Education," says that often parents use CM in the early years (K-8) and then switch to a classical model for high school. Her feeling is that they do this out of pressure; the pressure to complete four years and prepare their student for college. They resort to the "core knowledge dump" in an effort to try and control their fears about meeting college standards and requirements. (Note: of course, this is just my take on what she actually said -- I don't have her book in front of me -- and I am recalling the second from faulty memory). I generally agree with her assessment. The emails I receive all are from panic stricken parents who have a child entering 9th grade. Usually it is their first, and they are worried about "doing enough" or completing graduation requirements.

I have put up several articles about high school on my website here:

I am in the process of updating my site, mostly to reflect my modified mindset, and to offer hope and encouragement to parents who are just tackling high school. I am for all intents and purposes at the end of my home school journey. With just one child, I am finishing up high school (next year) and then will officially be retired! LOL!

Over the last six-seven years, I have learned a lot about home schooling through Junior and Senior High School. I have made oodles of mistakes. I have tried a range of curriculum. And, I have figured out by trial-and-error what works for us (as well as what doesn't). My experience is not unique, and of course, my experience is not going to placate any other parent. Hopefully, they might receive some insight, might learn that it is OK to try something and not like it, and that in the end, everything will work out for them and their student.

So back to my post topic: what is the difference between Great Books and Charlotte Mason?

There are some really good articles on the web that discuss the methodologies and philosophical differences between these two approaches (I cannot recall them all, but you can read a couple

I am not an expert, so I won't try and discuss the pros and cons or the real differences between the two methods, but I will say this: they are both educational methods and as such they deliver similar results (when used as designed).

A lot of people confuse educational methods with curriculum, and that really is the crux of the debate. A curriculum is a set of courses and their content, designed by a school or university (Wikipedia).

As an idea, curriculum stems from the Latin word for race course, referring to the course of deeds and experiences through which children grow to become mature adults. A curriculum is prescriptive, and is based on a more general syllabus which merely specifies what topics must be understood and to what level to achieve a particular grade or standard.

A method or philosophy of education is:

Philosophy of education is the philosophical study of the purpose, process, nature and ideals of education. For example, it might study what constitutes upbringing and education, the values and norms revealed through upbringing and educational practices, the limits and legitimization of education as an academic discipline, and the relation between educational theory and practice. From:

In my understanding, the main difference is this: a curriculum is a collection of courses designed by schools or a university. Typically, this is a course of study or a program you follow to achieve a certain level of education (a diploma or a degree). The curriculum includes a syllabus describing the course content and the topics of study as well as any goals for achievement. It will also include a scope and sequence, a set program of courses, ordered to build upon one another, and eventually leading to the degree. If you go to any college website and click on their Programs of Study link, you will find the requirements for each degree along with a course of study (scope and sequence and a syllabus for each course). With these tools, one could simply follow the dots, take a prescribed sequence of courses and if awarded proper credit (grades and units of completed study), graduate with a degree.

The method used to teach each course is not specified necessarily, and is usually left up to the teacher. The teacher may be very logical and Socratic (classical) or may be fluid and free-wheeling. There may be no prescribed method to their course either (been there, done that one). The method is really the way a teacher teaches the course content.

There are a number of well-known teaching methods:

Traditional textbooks - this is the method used by most schools. The curriculum publisher (BJU, Houghton-Mifflin, Pearson, etc.) determines what the content is, and how the teacher in the classroom can best achieve the standards set out by the National Education board. It typically includes a wide-range of support materials, everything from quizzes and tests to CD-Rom/Interactive/Web content. The teacher in the classroom will use all the teaching materials supplied by the publisher to deliver a prescribed course of content to their students.

Classical - the classical method of teaching relies on the Socratic discourse, a set of questions asked by a teacher upon reflection of a specific work of history, art or literature. The Socratic Method (named after Socrates) has been used by teachers for centuries. It relies on logic and reason and asks the student to "think" about the bigger picture (morals, ethics, wisdom, piety, etc.).

The Socratic Method is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas.

Charlotte Mason - this method utilizes living books, narration, and the "science of relations" whereby the student makes their own connection to art or history, without the direct intervention of parent or teacher.

The main difference, IMHO, is that a classical approach is based on wisdom and the questioning of belief. Students are taught from early on to question what they are learning, to look at the subject or topic and then analyze it with great scrutiny. In the upper years, students then use logic to form opinions based on their acceptance or rejection of what they believe. In some ways, this reliance on logic and reasoning can keep students from accepting things that are valid and unknowable (for example, faith is not something one can achieve via logic and reasoning -- though some believe that it is possible, the Bible clearly tells us that faith is a work of the Holy Spirit and not the will of man.) In more modest terms, the reliance on the use of logic can benefit students greatly in upper education, where this type of skill is highly valued. A student that thinks and can critically analyze data will do well at college or university (since this is what they are presently seeking in students).

Students that prefer a more low-key and less rigorous approach will find Charlotte Mason's teaching method easier to digest. Miss Mason believed strongly that the books themselves were the best teacher. In short, the author and/or writer was best left to instruct the student without a lot of intervention by a parent or teacher. In truth, this approach is the best way to read a book, to study a discipline or to learn something new. By relying on your own abilities, the student learns to think independently of a teacher or mentor. They learn to form their own opinions and to develop a personal view of life based on their own experience. It is the highest form of independent thinking and this was something that Charlotte Mason desired greatly in her students. Partly this was due to her distaste for the classical system of education in use in Britain at the time of her life. She felt that students were parroting the answers taught by their teachers, whether right or wrong, and that they were not inductively learning to distinguish between truth and fiction on their own. She wanted her students to be people of great character and believed that by removing the teacher and his or her opinions would allow the student to decide for themselves as to what was right thinking.

In some ways, her thinking was just as faulty as the classical teachers of her time. Her insistence that the teacher stand back and not directly lead the student through difficult concepts meant that the student, often ill-equipped to deal with the deeper level of subjects and themes presented in finer works of art and literature, would draw their own conclusions (which could prove fateful). She relied on the belief that all persons are born good, that they possess fine judgment and that all misconduct and misbelief could be eliminated through habit training. She was an evolutionist in theory, though clearly Christian in her views on God and the Bible. Charlotte Mason believed that man was inherently good, and that he possessed a perfect sense of right and wrong, one tainted by sin at the fall of man in the garden, but no less able to be perfected through appropriate discipline and the formation of good habits. She believed as many of her time did, that man could be saved through the work of the will.

Her belief, while noble, was erroneous in the light of Scripture. Clearly the Bible tells us that as a result of the incident in the garden, all men have sinned and are alienated from their Creator. Moreover, Paul tells us that every part of creation suffered as a result of this sin. The entire world, the universe, and every living thing within it was scarred, damaged, and no longer "good."

Psalm 14:1 For the choir director. A Psalm of David. The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good.

Psalm 53:1 For the choir director; according to Mahalath. A Maskil of David. The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God," They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice; There is no one who does good.

and again in Romans 3:9-19:

What shall we conclude then? Are we any betterb? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

There is a serious issue at heart in Miss Mason's educational philosophy, though her teaching method (her actual technique) is quite good. I have seen many, many parents embrace her philosophy, simply believing that if they eradicate unwanted behaviors from their children, and follow her prescribed curriculum, that their children will turn out to be Rhodes Scholars and highly educated and articulate people. The problem, of course, is that knowledge without proper application is simply arrogance and foolishness. Knowledge in and of itself produces nothing of value. The Bible tells us that wisdom is what we are to seek, wisdom that comes from a heart turned toward God and a mind that is one with Christ. True wisdom is found only in the fear and awe of God.

Though I will concede that Charlotte Mason believed in the virtue of wisdom and strongly upheld her belief in character training, her actual approach was that of works and not faith. I do not believe that Miss Mason was a born-again Christian. She was, as many of her contemporaries, someone who believed with the will, someone who accepted the belief is God as their Christian duty and lived by the rightness of that decision. She worked hard to bring about educational reform and to make education accessible to all children. Her efforts are noble and grand. Her belief in a personal, triune God, was not that of Spirit, but was of mental ascent.

I do not condemn her, just simply believe that she was a product of her century. She was born and lived during a time of great growth in knowledge. Her science of relations was foundational for many reasons. She simply believed in the betterment of humankind, a kin to Darwin and the other social evolutionists of her time. She wanted man to be better, and believed that proper education was the means to do so. She assumed that Christianity would be a part of that process. Her one true fault -- she placed far greater emphasis on the nature of the will, the belief in evolution and that man could be made good through a sharpening of his character and based on the formation of good habits.

I have digressed from my original post, but felt that it was necessary to state my views on these two methods. I am not persuaded to fall solely into either camp because I know that the true state of man is just as David wrote:

There is no one who does good.

Yes, David...there is no one who does good. Even with the proper training in habits, even with the removal of the teacher from the lessons, even with the reliance upon self-education. There is no one who does good.

The answer lays within the heart of man. Without a proper heart adjustment, all knowledge is futile. All who seek the wisdom of the world (of Plato and Socrates) will find that it is simply a puff in the wind. Parents who are seeking to educate their children, should first and foremost teach them the truth contained in the Holy Scriptures. A firm foundation in the Word of God will serve them far better than any classical or Charlotte Mason education. Secondly, parents seeking a good education for their children need only seek out that which works best for their particular situation and learning style. There are so many "curriculums" on the market today, that a home schooling parent can choose (or not choose!) from a rainbow of approaches. Find one that you like, one that you can afford, and one that meets the needs of your student. If your student is bent towards classical, by all means go that way. If they are more interested in hands-on (lapbooking and such), go that way. Take heed of Proverbs 22:6:

Train up a child in the way he should go [and in keeping with his individual gift or bent], and when he is old he will not depart from it.

My advice: do not force your child to learn in a way that goes against his or her natural bent. Instead, find a method that works with your child. There are oodles out there, so take your time and explore them. Try on different ones and see which suits you and your child best.

As far as the difference between Classical and Charlotte Mason -- in theory and practice -- the only difference is in application. They both will deliver excellent results (so long as you remember your goal as parent -- teach your children about God first and do not believe that anything short of a turned heart towards Jesus -- will bring about the ultimate reward.)

It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. ~2 John 1:4


Pam said...

Excellent and enlightening. Thank you for the reminder to keep the ultimate focus on God, and never man.

Anonymous said...

From Vol. 4

One thing we must hold fast––a clear conception of what is meant by Christianity. It is not 'being good' or serving our fellows: many who do not own the sovereignty of Christ are better than we who do. But the Christian is aware of Jesus as an ever-present Saviour, at hand in all his dangers and necessities; of Christ as the King whose he is and whom he serves, who rules his destinies and apportions his duties. It is a great thing to be owned, and Jesus Christ owns us. He is our Chief, whom we delight to honour and serve; and He is our Saviour, who
delivers us, our Friend who cherishes us, our King who blesses us with His dominion. Christianity would only appear to be possible when there is a full recognition of the divinity of Christ.

Let us cry with St Augustine:––

"Take my heart! for l cannot give it thee:
Keep it! for I cannot keep it for Thee."