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I am beyond excited to be chatting about Charlotte Mason’s first principle with you! This cornerstone of the Charlotte Mason method is so important for understanding the how and why of this exceptional educational philosophy in your home school. Of all the homeschooling methods, this is my favorite and today we will dive into why.
Today we are exploring the potential of a person – a child.
A child is born a person – created in God’s own image. Filled with immense potential and possibility, given liberty to choose their life path, and the ability to choose freedom in Christ. They are born with gifts and attributes that are unique to their purpose in His kingdom! This great recognition of imago dei by Miss Mason is foundational to the entirety of her philosophy and methodology and is precisely why there is no such thing as secular Charlotte Mason.
What an incredible blessing it is to have God’s children lent to us for a little while to be loved, shepherded, and educated.
Our job is not to fill them – they are not empty buckets waiting to be crammed full of teaching – but to train them in the way they should go. We are to cultivate what the Lord has already put there, nurturing and nourishing their minds and bodies with Truth, goodness, and beauty, pruning when necessary, and tending to them with wisdom, gentleness, and kindness. The Holy Spirit takes over and uses the knowledge we plant to help them develop wisdom, the habits we train to help develop their character, and the beauty we share to help them be awed by their Creator.
We are given many wise tips from Miss Mason for this herculean task through her 20 Principles and prolific writings. Understanding the magnitude and meaning of respect for children as persons is the first step to implementing this homeschooling method.
Charlotte Mason’s First Principle
Of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles, the first is the most well known and the most ill-used: Children are born persons.
This lofty ideal sounds lovely rolling off the tongue of mother’s everywhere, but what does it really mean to be born a person and how did Charlotte Mason intend for this to be used?
This guiding principle is not to be considered without also holding to the other 19 Principles. This is not a free-for-all for “child led” learning, friend. I know, I know.
Taken by itself, it may seem that way – so many people tout this one principle and use it as an excuse for what amounts to unschooling “with lots of living books laying around” – but let’s dive a little deeper and look at it in context.
Children are born persons
While there are many opinions when it comes to defining what makes a person a person – Charlotte Mason was referring to the entire personage – mind, body, and soul- that makes up each of us, no matter how humble our beginnings or how old we are, in her explanation of children as persons. She referred to the divine mystery of a person being beyond measurement.
How often do we try to measure our own children, and against what arbitrary “standards”? Part of embracing the beauty of a Charlotte Mason education is that we get to leave behind the shackles of measurement we bore as students of the public education system. We need to embrace that freedom for ourselves and our children!
The mystery of a person is indeed divine, and the extraordinary fascination of history lies in this, that this divine mystery continually surprises us in unexpected places. Like Jacob, we cry, before the sympathy of the savage, the courtesy of the boor: “Behold. God is in this place and I knew it not.” We attempt to define a person, the most commonplace person we know, but he will not submit to bounds: some unexpected beauty of nature breaks out; we find he is not what we thought, and begin to suspect that every person exceeds our power of measurement. – Charlotte Mason, Children are Born Persons, The Parents’ Review, volume 22, June, 1911
Another point Miss Mason makes quite clear is that the child has a complete mind. There is no room for “tabula rasa” in the Charlotte Mason philosophy. Education does not “make” the mind – the ability to learn and process is already there, but we feed that mind with nourishing ideas just like we feed the body with nourishing food. And just like feeding the body a diet of junk food produces a weakened system and often ill health, feeding the mind intellectual junk food (twaddle) will have the same unfortunate outcome.
If we have not proved that a child is born a person with a mind as complete and as beautiful as his beautiful little body, we can at least show that he always has all the mind he requires for his occasions; that is, that his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind. – Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education (Volume 6), page 36
It is not only a child’s intellect but his heart that comes to us thoroughly furnished. Can any of us love like a little child? Father and mother, sisters and brothers, neighbours and friends, “our” cat and “our” dog, the wretchedest old stump of a broken toy, all come in for his lavish tenderness. How generous and grateful he is, how kind and simple, how pitiful and how full of benevolence in the strict sense of goodwill, how loyal and humble, how fair and just! His conscience is on the alert. Is a tale true? Is a person good? —these are the important questions. His conscience chides him when he is naughty, and by degrees as he is trained, his will comes to his aid and he learns to order his life. He is taught to say his prayers, and we elders hardly realize how real his prayers are to a child. – Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education (Volume 6), page 43-44
Now knowing that Miss Mason built her philosophy of education on this cornerstone, we must ask ourselves the following.
How do we respect the personhood and educate the child?
Miss Charlotte Mason can answer this much more eloquently than I.
Education, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen. We must begin with the notion that the business of the body is to grow; and it grows upon food, which food is composed of living cells, each a perfect life in itself. In like manner, though all analogies are misleading and inadequate, the only fit sustenance for the mind is ideas, and an idea too, like the single cell of cellular tissue, appears to go through the stages and functions of a life. We receive it with appetite and some stir of interest. It appears to feed in a curious way. We hear of a new patent cure for the mind or the body, of the new thought of some poet, the new notion of a school of painters; we take in, accept, the idea and for days after every book we read, every person we talk with brings food to the newly entertained notion. ‘Not proven,’ will be the verdict of the casual reader; but if he watch the behaviour of his own mind towards any of the ideas ‘in the air,’ he will find that some such process as I have described takes place; and this process must be considered carefully in the education of children. We may not take things casually as we have done. Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses. (Emphasis added is mine) – Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education (Volume 6), page 39-40
We are cultivating a garden of the mind for them to enjoy, to explore, and to delight in. We carefully select the very best seeds to plant and we tend the soil with nourishment and pruning. But we must practice the wise letting alone of them afterward and avoid what I call “preaching teaching“. They cannot enjoy watching Bee buzz around the zinnias or ponder the tiny wings that keep such a hefty thing afloat if we are standing over them pouring out fact after fact about bees, pollination, zinnias, colors, and care of plants.
We also do not let them “lead” us through their own design of a course of study – they have not the experience or wisdom to know all the great things the world has to offer. There is time enough during their free hours to explore the things that pique their curiosity.
If we neglect to train them in their habits, to expose them to things of beauty, to model for them a life of self-education and dedication – have we done them a service at all? Allowing delight directed learning to take place is not the same as basing your child’s education upon whatever the child wants to learn. We do well when we step into our roll of cultivators with grace and confidence – serving our child and our Lord by teaching well and remembering that education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.
The Greater Immensity of the Little Child
Miss Mason had a great fondness for poetry, and her phrase “the greater immensity of the little child” from her 1911 article on Children are Born Persons was borrowed from the 1804 Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth. It is a lovely piece altogether and we have included it here for your delight, pondering, and mother culture studies.