Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Charlotte Mason's Beliefs - a disclaimer

Back in the fall of 2006, when I first started really reading books both about and by Charlotte Mason, a friend from church cautioned me. "She had some reeeeaaaaalllly weird doctrine" was the warning. This particular friend had been drawn to CM's ideas at one point, but ultimately tossed the whole kit and caboodle aside when it became very apparent that Charlotte was not at all a Reformed Baptist. But, of course, I already knew that much. I had not expected her to be.

Charlotte Mason was an Anglican in Victorian England. Obviously, the Anglican church then and now differs from my own personal beliefs (pretty much summed up here). So, the question arises - and it is a legitimate question - how in the world can a Christian hold to the truth of Scripture (in the doctrines of grace) and yet still give Charlotte Mason's method a second look? The answer sounds trite, but please understand that I'm serious. How can it be done? It must be approached very carefully.

But, why mess with it at all? Why not just "toss it" and buy a handy, boxed curriculum with better doctrine?

Because her methods, where they stand apart from occasional doctrinal error, are exceptionally sane, logical, and effective. In my estimation, Charlotte Mason comes closer to getting to the heart of what real education is all about for the early years more than any other system, approach, or curriculum I have seen yet. When she writes about education, it's as though all you knew in your heart of hearts about learning is laid out for you.

And, besides, I believe her doctrine isn't as bad off as it first seems. I think part of what seems to be incorrect or inconsistent doctrine may really be attributed to a lack of clear understanding on the part of the reader. Many readers get all up in arms when they first read of Miss Mason referring to children as "good". It takes some digging to get to her real meaning. It also takes a serious consideration of the time and place in which she lived. I believe that Miss Mason did not deny the existence of a sinful nature nor did she deny the power of sin within the child. She was combating a prevalent thought in her day. Namely, that certain children were born "good" while others were born "bad", and that state was mostly determined by their social and economic status. So, we can't just read her writings at face value and dump them because she seems difficult, at best, to understand theologically.

Even if she is totally off track in her doctrine, though, and even if she's got a truly unbiblical view of the spiritual state of children (which I do not think she has), what does that mean for us? Hang with me here for a minute, y'all - I think we have to really take a hard look at some assumptions.

Firstly, let's ask "Do we have to adopt Charlotte's doctrine to follow Charlotte's methods?" Absolutely not! Let's just pretend for a moment that we are completely clear on some of CM's fuzzy points. Let's imagine that we know for certain that she believed children to be born without original sin and to be inherently good. Yikes, right? What does that mean for us, considering her methods? Does it mean that, since Mason believed my oldest daughter was born without sin I should clearly think differently of my daughter's spiritual state now that we are "doing Charlotte Mason"? Do I now find myself saying things like, "Sweetheart, go discover all the wisdom and knowledge that is yours internally. Go relish all of the goodness naturally in you that has not yet been tainted by the world and those wretched bad habits!"? This idea is out of the question for me, and not a danger toward which I am easily tempted. "Oh," some will say, "but the real danger lies in the subtleties. Bad doctrine will touch absolutely everything in her books". To this I say, God has given us brains, sisters. And we have the responsibility to pray for wisdom in all areas of life and to think - biblically. If I cannot discern dangerous doctrine well enough to reject it, the issue runs far deeper and is far more serious than any homeschooling method. The child of God must read everything watchfully, begging God for discernment. If any of Charlotte's suggestions seem "off" to me, if they contradict the Scriptures at all, then I must drop them right then and there. She was just a woman - completely fallible - and I fully expect some mistakes in her philosophy. I cannot read her in any other way.

Secondly, let's ask "Is there nothing to be gained from someone with a few errors in doctrine"? I believe that God, in His common grace to even the unsaved, gives them gifts and unique abilities. I believe that He gives them these gifts and abilities for His own glory and for the benefit of His sheep. Does your car mechanic have to be a 5-pointer to fix your transmission? Nope, but that working transmission sure is a blessing. Does your pediatrician need to be a believer to give you a helpful diagnosis? Nope, but you are certainly thankful to know what is wrong now. I've never heard anyone ask about Susan Wise Bauer's doctrinal statement, and I don't think I've ever heard that Dorothy Sayers professed Christ at all - are their contributions to the current homeschool movement beneficial anyway? Are we blessed by C.S. Lewis' books? He was Anglican, ya know, with some rather muddled views of his own ;) So, let's ask it again now. Do we possibly have something valuable to learn from Charlotte Mason - a woman with 60 years of experience teaching children and hundreds upon hundreds of former students attesting to her extraordinary worth as a woman and educator - even though she has some doctrinal issues?

As you know, I have been blessed by many of her insights, and my answer to this question is "yes!". We have much to gain.

Thirdly, and lastly, let's ask "Does implementing Charlotte Mason's method in our home learning require us to follow every part of that method"? CM said that for "the programme" (as it was called in her schools) to really produce the excellent results for which it was known, it had to be followed completely. Every part left out could be expected to weaken the end result. That may be so. I have not yet come across a part of the programme that violates my conscience, but if I should someday meet up with a CM practice with which I disagree wholeheartedly, again, there is no way I'm going to accept what I believe may compromise the Word of God and the spiritual lives of my family. So, if I must drop part of the programme, let my children be academically inferior to Charlotte's students at the end of the day! Excellent education is our goal, but it is not our highest goal. There are elements in a CM education that we may leave out, and there are things she advises against that we will most definitely add in. Our version of CM will be strongly influenced by the truths to which we hold so dearly :)

There you have it! :) My official Charlotte Mason disclaimer. I admit, you do have to eat the meat and throw away a few of the small bones with this method. BUT, Miss Mason offers so much wisdom, grace, and truth regarding education that the meat is plentiful and exceptionally worth it.