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Charlotte Mason: A Liberal Education for All - not an Elitist Education by Scott Cottrill

02 Jul 2017 7:15 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

About a year ago, a discussion was opened on the comparison of Charlotte Mason’s educational method and philosophy with that of Classical Education. During the ensuing months, there have been scores of comments, some intellectually stimulating and some on more of an emotional level. There is at least one area that has not been addressed that in my opinion needs to be. I believe that at their fundamental core, CM and CE are vastly different in who they seek to educate, which is one more reason why they are not the same. I will seek to demonstrate this assertion.

I think all would agree that Classical Education, no matter which variety, has its roots in the methods and philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Their goal was not to educate the masses in ancient Greece but to train up philosopher kings who would rule society. When the Romans took over as the predominant ruling culture, they often took as slaves, educated Greeks, who were then to be tutors for their own young men. Of course, these young men were the sons of the wealthy nobility.

After the ascendancy of the church and progressing into the Middle Ages, classical methodology continued, but it was for the training of young men who were of noble birth or destined to be leaders in the church. Education was not for the masses. This model continued as the predominant philosophy, for the most part, until the 17th or 18th century. There is no exact time when classical began to fade in its importance, but certainly Rousseau brought a challenge to its preeminence and the walls began to crumble. Nevertheless, Classical Education did continue in the “public schools” (private or independent schools) of Great Britain, where the upper classes continued to be educated and groomed to lead the nation and through Britain’s domination, the world. Paralleling the growth of government, capitalism became stronger, and the elite also oversaw commerce as the captains of industry.

Author David Hicks in Norms and Nobility writes the following: “The popular mind associates the idea of a classical education with the narrow and elitist schools of Victorian England. In fact, these schools perverted classical education by teaching in precept and in example a hereditary aristocratic ideal intended to serve the ambitions of Empire and to preserve the status quo.” (p. 17)

On page 36 Hicks quotes Matthew Arnold in a positive light:

Rigorous teachers seized my youth,

And purged its faith and trimmed its fire,

Showed me the high, white star of Truth,

There bad[e] me gaze and there aspire.

These "rigorous teachers" that Arnold and, by extension, Hicks speak of favorably are none other than the Victorian school masters who dominated British public school education, the very ones that Hicks earlier asserts on page 17 corrupted classical education. Nonetheless, these teachers were and are representative of Classical Education. Not only were their methods primarily didactic, but their audiences were the elite children (usually between 11 and 18 years of age) of the rich and aristocratic. They also were primarily male students. Although it can be argued that this was simply a sign of the times, it nevertheless represents the true roots of Classical Education. The methods were not carried into the schools that taught the poor, nor were girls allowed to benefit from their methods.

In chapter one of his book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, Douglas Wilson describes why he chose Classical Education as the model for his own children’s education. It was a direct reaction to the failure of the [American] public school system to adequately train and compete with the educational systems of the rest of the developed world. The failure of the U.S. to compete internationally in literacy and mathematics led him and two other families to start their own Classical School, Logos Academy. For him, after reading Dorothy Sayers’ essay The Lost Tools of Learning, he saw the classics as the only viable way to educate children and to instill a Christian worldview. Of note is the recurrent theme of putting learning into the child/student, not inspiring the child to learn for himself or herself. While not specifically directed at training up an elitist cadre of classically educated Christians to rule the world, his opening three examples to illustrate the problem are telling—a young man filling out a job application who cannot understand the instructions, a young mother who dropped out of school in the tenth grade who cannot read street signs, and a business executive who is frustrated by the high cost of remedial education to bring his work force up to speed. The apparent solution was to make students smarter.

The problems present in the American educational system are self-evident and none of us would deny that measures such as “Outcome Based Education”, “No Child Left Behind”, SOLs, and “teaching to the test” are evidence of the continued failure to raise literate young people. However, it is a straw man fallacy to say that Classical Education is the only approach that offers a solution. Furthermore, I do not wish to confuse “elite” with “excellence” in education. There is nothing wrong with wanting children to learn the classics or to achieve academic excellence, but is filling students with more knowledge the same thing as instilling a love of learning?  

Just to be clear, let me offer a definition of “elite”, one taken from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:

1a singular or plural in construction:  the choice part:  cream the elite of the entertainment world b singular or plural in construction:  the best of a class superachievers who dominate the computer elite — Marilyn Chase, c singular or plural in construction:  the socially superior part of society how the French-speaking elite … was changing — Economist, d:  a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence members of the ruling elite

Definition “d” deems to best fit the present discussion, although “c” certainly gets at the concept as well.

My wife and I have been home educators for over 30 years. During that time, we have explored and used virtually every curriculum category that is available. For me, as the father, I confess that for most of the early years, I looked on proudly as my wife did the lion’s share of the work and I wrote the checks for the curricula. I told everyone who would listen about our homeschool and just how much smarter our children were than public school-educated kids. In the late 1990’s, we acquired a copy of the Well-Trained Mind, and for a season, I was convinced that Classical Education would make my children smarter and brighter, and who would one day be fit to rule the world! Of course, I am engaging in a little hyperbole, but the point I want to make is this—I was drawn to Classical Education because of its perceived elitist position in educational circles.

David Hicks observes that,

Education in ancient times was aimed at a small elite, and classical education has never shaken the charge of being elitist. Its ideals are often said to be irrelevant to the conditions and requirements of life in an industrial democracy. A number of notable classical scholars…have complicated the issue by using Plato’s critique of democracy to support their case for the recognition and formation of educated elites. Democracy’s stampeding masses will destroy themselves and trample down their beloved liberties – so the argument goes – if they are not led by an elite of learned men and women.  These scholars build their argument for educating small elites on the same footing of social and political exigency as those who think all classical education an aristocratic impertinence.  (Norms and Nobility, p. 78)

I am aware that my charges of elitism are generalized and there are exceptions. I will go so far as to provide two of them. In an article that Cindy Rollins wrote for CiRCE Institute in 2012, she described a classical school that her own father attended in Cincinnati that was aimed at “street urchins” and the fact that the two years he spent there were the greatest influence on his life.  Another example is one that received a lot of attention in the 1970’s. An inner-city Chicago woman named Marva Collins started a private academy (Westside Preparatory School) that targeted young inner city black students.  She utilized a classical curriculum with the result that their graduation rate was almost 100% and most of her students went on to college, something unheard of in that community.  Other examples undoubtedly exist as well. But the exceptions do not negate the principle that CE has historically been aimed at an elite body who would be prepared to one day govern the rest of society.

In that same article, Cindy Rollins described the difference between CM and Classical Education:

I must note one difference between a ‘classical education’ and a ‘Charlotte Mason education’ and here we may find the key to the problem. There is nothing elite about a CM education. Its first distinction is that ALL children are born persons and can be educated this way with some success. This kind of education is not only for Ivy League prep schools, middle class Christian schools and dedicated homeschools, it is also viable for those back corners of our society that long ago lost the idea of any kind of education. It is education for ALL and that makes it truly classical and truly Christian.

Following are the words of Charlotte Mason herself, which she wrote in the preface to volume 6:

I am unwilling to close what is probably the last preface I shall be called upon to write without a very grateful recognition of the co-operation of those friends who are working with me in what seems to us a great cause. The Parents' National Educational Union has fulfilled its mission, as declared in its first prospectus, nobly and generously. ‘The Union exists for the benefit of parents and teachers [and children] of all classes; . . . .’ ( Mason, 1989A, p. xxviii.)

Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is perhaps best summarized in her 20-principle Short Synopsis found in the beginning of volume 6.  Principle #15 states:

Acting upon these and some other points in the behavior of the mind, we find that the educability of children is enormously greater than has hitherto been supposed, and is but little dependent on such circumstances as heredity and environment. Nor is the accuracy of this statement limited to clever children or to children of the educated classes; thousands of children in Elementary Schools respond freely to this method, which is based on the behavior of the mind. (Mason, 1989A, pp. xxx-xxxi)

For Charlotte Mason, the principles that she formulated were universal, intended for students of all classes. Her hallmark was “A Liberal Education for all.” It is well documented how her educational system was taken into the lower-class schools with the amazing result that the students flourished and grew to love knowledge as much as the upper-class students. On page 246 of volume 6 she makes the following statement:

I have ventured to speak of the laws of the mind, or spirit, but indeed we can only make guesses here and there and follow with diffidence such light as we get from the teachings of the wise and from general experience, because peculiar experience is apt to be misleading; therefore, when I learned that long-tried principles and methods were capable of application to the whole of a class of forty children in the school of a mining village, I felt assured that we were following laws whose observance results in education of a satisfying kind. (Mason, 1989A)

The appreciation for art and nature study by these lower-class children, heretofore reserved for upper class children was astounding. Take this example:

It has come to us of the Parents’ Union School to discover great avidity for knowledge in children of all ages and of every class, together with an equally, remarkable power of attention, retention, and intellectual reaction upon the pabulum consumed.  The power which comes into play in the first place, is of course, attention, and every child of every age, even the so-called ‘backward’ child seems to have unlimited power of attention which acts without mark, prize, place, praise or blame. (Mason, 1989A, pp. 254 -255)

Charlotte Mason, like CE, was committed to changing the world. The difference was that she did so from the ground up rather than from the top down. Her intent was to spread a love of learning through a love of God, rather than promoting some vague sense of virtue and then hoping it would become Christianized in the student.

In Mason's 5th volume on page 213 she wrote:

Moreover, it is not the sort of thing that the training of the schools commonly aims at; to turn out men and women with enough exact knowledge for the occasions of life, and with wits on the alert for chances of promotion, that is what most schools pretend to, and, indeed, do, accomplish. The contention of scholars is, that a classical education does more, turns out man with intellects cultivated and trained, who are awake to every refinement of thought, and yet ready for action. But the press and hurry of our times and the clamor for useful knowledge are driving classical culture out of the field; and parents will have to make up their minds, not only that they must supplement the moral training of the school, but must supply the intellectual culture, without which knowledge may be power, but is not pleasure, nor the means of pleasure. (Mason, 1989B)

Even in Charlotte Mason’s day, she saw the elitist bent of Classical Education, to prepare children to succeed and armed with specific knowledge to be promoted to successful and prominent positions. She saw the irony that in drilling the facts of CE into students that we were driving “classical culture” out of them.  Charlotte Mason’s method gave the student a feast from which they can choose for themselves what they wish to learn, and to do so with passion. 

My contention is that whichever form of CE one chooses there is a fundamental goal of training the brightest minds to gain entry into the best colleges and universities and to achieve leadership positions in business and government as a means of changing the world—from the top-down.  Historically, only the elite were allowed to govern and classicists have always believed that their children should be trained to be that ruling class.  They have done this because fundamentally their approach is rooted in the classicists such as Plato, Socrates, and the medieval church, who believed that education was only for the rich, the privileged, and the elite.

For Charlotte Mason, education was finding the myriad associations between objects and ideas in God’s created world.  Making those associations is not something a teacher can do for students but must be made by the children themselves.  That association can be made whether the child aspires to become a politician or a tradesman, a business professional or a stay-at-home wife and mother.  Charlotte Mason’s approach is for everyone, and society benefits because all are raised to a higher plane.  Each person grows to their capacity, recognizing that while all persons are different, at the same time they are all children of God with a unique place and position in God’s Kingdom.

Classical Education cannot escape the accusation that at its core, it is an elitist philosophy while Charlotte Mason is all-inclusive.  There is one note of caution that I must interject, and that is the danger that we who are advocates of Charlotte Mason’s methodology, would become ensnared with the same pride and even arrogance that we accuse others of having.  It is a gift that Charlotte’s works have been rediscovered and that we are able to share in the renaissance of her ideas in our own time.


Hicks, D. (1999).  Norms and nobility:  A treatise on education.  Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Mason, C. M. (1989A).  An essay towards a philosophy of education.  Wheaton, IL:  Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1925)

Mason, C. M. (1989B).  Formation of character.  Charlotte Mason Research and Supply.  (Original work published in 1925).

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.  Retrieved from:  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/elite.

Rollins. C. (January 10, 2012).  Towards a defense of Charlotte Mason. Article. Retrieved from:  https://www.circeinstitute.org/blog/towards-defense-charlotte-mason

© 2017 by Scott Cottrill


  • 04 Jul 2017 11:48 AM | Anonymous member
    Very well said! Thanks for all your time in research. This is so helpful.
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  • 08 Jul 2017 12:38 PM | Anonymous member
    You may also enjoy the rest of David Hicks' book Norms and Nobility. He has a superb chapter titled Ennobling the Masses. Much of my talk, Educating the Freeborn, comes from my own personal experiences using Charlotte Mason's ideas and David's Christian Classical ideals for everyman. Traditionally, ALL formal education was elite. Isn't wonderful that an elite education is available to everyone now as Charlotte purposed?
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  • 18 Jul 2017 8:21 PM | Anonymous member
    Scott, thank you for this post!
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  • 18 Jul 2017 8:27 PM | Anonymous member
    Thank you Scott, for this thoughtful and well-written article. It is an important contribution to an honest assessment of the various philosophies of education in circulation today.
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