In August of 2008 I was privileged to be included as a member of an international team of university-level educators who were funded to do preliminary work on publishable inquiry into the efforts and accomplishments of Charlotte Mason. Our time at the Armitt Museum on the campus of the University of Cumbria in Ambleside, England and our sessions brainstorming various potential research projects on the Parents National Education Union and The House of Education Teachers College got me thinking: why, beyond my own personal enchantment with her methods, would I presume to pitch Charlotte Mason’s way of educating to stakeholders in education today? Do I believe that these premises and practices are truly beneficial to any child, from any family, in any socio-economic class, located anywhere geographically and constrained by any political situation? If I do believe this, how can I make such a claim?
Gross and Godwin (2005) state that educators should take their cues from the successes businesses have enjoyed by identifying, learning from and involving their stakeholders. In an article entitled “Education’s Many Stakeholders”, they define “stakeholders” as “individuals or entities who stand to gain or lose from the success or failure of a system or an organization”. In their online publication at universitybusiness.com, Gross and Godwin identify education’s stakeholders as parents, students, alumni, administrators, employers and communities. I would modify that list to include employers and communities under the term “society,” and I would add to “parents” and “students”, “government” and “religious groups.”
These stakeholders in education have various designs on the outcome of schooling and the purposes of learning, thus affecting how they structure educational institutions, define learning, and understand the nature of the student. These can appear to be mutually exclusive:
• Society wants to educate children in order to insure that its various economical and cultural institutions are perpetuated and expanded. Its values are sheerly pragmatic. Its method is mainly competition, and its aim is to mold students into the next generations of producers and consumers.
• Government wants to educate children to ensure a stable, productive and powerful nation. Its method of operation is also competition in combination with mythic inspiration and moral imperatives of altruism and civil justice.
• Religious groups want to educate children in order to bring them in line with The Wills of various Lords. They operate by brokering shame and absolution.
• Parents want their children to have an education so that they are equipped with skills that will allow them to leave home and flourish (or at least subsist apart from them!) along the lines of their unique potential, thus affirming the parents’ wisdom and sacrifice in raising them.
• Students expect to be educated, so that they have plenty of choices in ways in which to comfortably realize the autonomy they so envied in their parents.
This variety of purposes, definitions and understandings poses potential problems for educators in adjusting their efforts to line up with input from stakeholders. Which input from which stakeholder will set criteria? Gross and Godwin suggest performing a stakeholder analysis by which, once relevant stakeholders are identified, it is then determined which of these have both the greatest interest and the most influence on a given educational institution. Here is where we must go beyond the pragmatics of the business world to look at why our claim regarding Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education is relevant to all those who lay claim to students and have designs on ultimate outcomes in education.
Surprisingly, Charlotte Mason accepted as a given that each of these groups would of course have designs on education and that they are all legitimate. She was not opposed to any one of these groups’ purposes for educating or to the methods they typically employ. She did, however, oppose any scheme that raised up any one of these to the exclusion of any other. She knew that endeavoring to draw a child out was an undertaking that required humility and an extremely light touch because the entity with which she was dealing was in this world, but not of this world; was both material and spiritual; and could not be accounted for entirely by exclusive purposes that too narrowly defined it. This is the essential quality of all human students up against which all stakeholders will ultimately run.
When each of the five North American researchers were questioned one evening in the Bishops’ Room at Rydal Hall as to what they felt Charlotte Mason’s single defining distinctive was, they all referred to her statement, “Children are born persons,” the first and foremost premise from which every other idea in her vision flows. In the above referenced article on why stakeholder analysis might benefit institutions of education, Gross and Godwin include this parallel observation: “The institutions need to focus on the WHOLE student experience. A quality ACADEMIC experience, no matter how thoughtfully conceived, is not enough” (2005) (emphasis mine).
Any educational method–whether it be assembly-line tactics, efforts to indoctrinate, manipulation through guilt and shame, or the gradual granting of privileges when responsibilities are shouldered– when EXCLUSIVELY employed will all fail in the end to result in what is each stake holder’s ultimate aim —members of society, citizens of state, people of faith, and autonomous individuals who are able to fulfill their various specific creaturely functions with initiative, confidence, cooperation and innovation. The one way to achieve this end is to draw out and raise up each student in ways that honor the mystery of their personhood, to track with the reality of what a human actually is: the sort of creature that inhabits both the material world and the spiritual, that possesses a soul as well as a mind, and that requires relationships, interactions, and challenges that allow it to remain as enigmatic a mystery as such a design entails.
If our efforts are based on something so essential, so self-evident, so immune to refutation, how can we not claim that Charlotte Mason’s methods of education are relevant to and can benefit everyone? If we truly begin from that point, then how we educate, with what we educate, for what purposes we educate, and who we educate will not only inevitably take a far more expansive course from what we see around us now, but will offer to all current stakeholders in education not only what they specifically desire, but something far more deeply satisfying and ultimately much more beneficial to humankind.