Charlotte Mason’s (1842-1923) educational philosophy and especially her ideas for educational practice have been increasingly discussed in the last two decades. Conferences, blogs, websites, books, discussion groups, curricula, databases, and schools continue to be founded and inspired by Mason’s design for education. Many adherents and enquirers frequently cite inspiration in the first and final of the volumes in her educational series while the fourth volume is less commonly featured. Why might this be the case?
In the preface to this fourth volume, Ourselves, Our Souls and Bodies, Mason (1905) states that “this volume is intended as an appeal to the young to make the most of themselves, because of the vast possibilities that are in them and of the law of God which constrains them” (p. xx). Mason optimistically prefaces this volume with the suggestion that “if only half a dozen children in each … school got an idea of what is possible to them and what they should aim at, some elevation of character throughout the nation should be manifest in a single generation” (p. xx). With such bold foundational confidence in the potential of the ideas stored within this book, surely it is surprising that more is not made of this volume.
The volume is divided into two books (initially published separately), the first titled Self-Knowledge and the second Self-Direction; the first, Mason tells the reader in the preface, is designed for those under sixteen (especially “to intelligent children of eight or nine upwards” [p. xliv]) and the second for “young people of any age” (p. xx). The front matter includes a dedication: “To the members (past and present) of the House of Education this little book is affectionately inscribed, in the belief that they will make its teaching their own, and will disseminate it as they are able”. Nevertheless the first of the two books in Ourselves is the only of Mason’s educational volumes directly written for an elementary and secondary level student audience. Thus set apart by audience as it is from the other volumes in this series, this volume would appear to promise even further unique and instructive insights into Mason’s educational philosophy.
Thus inspired by the curious neglect of this piece of Mason’s writing, in the last month, a small group has huddled itself against the winds of another Canadian winter and begun meeting to discuss this potentially promising volume. In our affectionately-named book discussion group, Friday Nights with Ourselves, we’ve lifted several themes and insights from our initial survey of the text and have also noted a number of questions which we imagine may stimulate further analysis and conversation. Several are shared here.
Title. First we observed that although it is not the case in the 1989 reprints of this volume, the title “Ourselves, Our Souls and Bodies” is quoted on the first page of the second edition (1905) as originating in the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church. Indeed these words are part of the Eucharistic Prayer just before the Breaking of the Bread during the Holy Communion:
And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all
others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him. (The Episcopal Church, 1979, p. 336)
Although Coombs (2009, 2010) has demonstrated that Mason’s faith background is more eclectic than recently imagined, the influence of the Anglican liturgy is clear in the selection of the title of this book.
A further consideration, before we leave discussion of the title Mason gave to this volume, is the title given in its 1989 reprint, Ourselves: Improving Character and Conscience. Although one could argue that this may well be an apt title for the book, the origin of the use of this new title is not clear. In which edition was it first used? Who selected the new subtitle? Why was use of the original subtitle discontinued?
Purpose. As we overviewed the contents of Ourselves we found Laurio’s (2004) summary of the book provided a helpful at-a-glance outline, a précis, a reminder, of what was to come in our readings. Book I, Self-Knowledge, covers the body, mind and heart, while Book II, Self-Direction, deals with conscience, will and soul. Yet before delving into the contents of the chapters, we asked what type of book is this? In the preface Mason offers that “the book [dealing with Self-Knowledge] should give some help in the formation of character” (p. xx) and that the book dealing with Self-Direction is a “carefully considered ground-plan of human nature…rest[ing] upon intuitive morality, as sanctioned by the authority of Revelation” (p. xxi). Mason is concerned with the “narrow utilitarian” (p. xx) nature of both moral and intellectual education in her times. Thus in this volume she will expand on “systems of morality formulated by authoritative writers upon ethics…to include latent capacity for every kind of goodness in all normal human beings…[and] the capacity of [persons] for relations with the divine” (p. xxi).
Still, we continued to wonder, is this, then, an ethics manuscript? A character formation manual? A character education curriculum? A philosophy document? A morality guide? An early psychology text? Mason hints at the answer in the Introduction (p. xliii). She wants a book (and does not know of any) to recommend to parents to help their children in the conduct of life that isn’t precisely ethical or religious. She claims that she can’t yet turn to psychology, so she will still rely on the ancient guide of philosophy and common intuition. As we move along in this discussion group we will be sure to consider other comparable works of this time period and compare them in their content and their approach to Mason’s Ourselves. One further and obvious point of comparison, given the current educational context of our group, will be the Ontario Ministry of Education’s (2008) recent K-12 curriculum initiative on character development.
Approach. To achieve her goal, “the allusions and excerpts which illustrate the text have been carefully chosen from sources that fall within everybody’s reading, because the object is rather to arrest the attention of the reader, and fix it, for example, upon the teaching of Scott and Plutarch, than to suggest unknown sources of edification [as] we are all too well content to let alone that of which we do not already know something” (p. xxii). We couldn’t help but be charmed by the integrity of Mason’s philosophy of education, that is, that ideas taught will be conveyed through literary garb, an approach central in her design for education and one that she promises to use in this volume.
Introduction. The Introduction to the volume (p. xxxix-xliv), a piece that is placed before both Book I and Book II, offers the framework of the view of the person that Mason will address in this text. She proposes a “dual self”, an “objective self” and a “subjective self”, “… a self who reverences and a self who is reverenced, a self who knows and a self who is known, a self who controls and self who is controlled” (p. xxxix), “an unsatisfactory self…[and], the other, the self of great and beautiful possibilities” (p.xli). Mason invites the reader to consider for a moment the human soul as a vast estate which it rests with us to realise. By soul, I mean all that we are, including even the visible presentment of us, all our powers of thinking, knowing, loving, judging, appreciating, willing, achieving…that the soul of a [person] is infinitely great, beautiful, and precious in itself we do not venture to think; partly because religion, for the most part, teaches a self-abasement and effacement contrary to the spirit and the teaching of Christ. (p. xli)
Mason concludes this Introduction with suggesting parents may want to use the volume in “Sunday talks” to encourage children “with the thought that our relations with God embrace the whole of our lives” (p. xliv).
Book I. Introductory Chapters. When we finally began discussing the three introductory chapters in Book I, we noted the continued, prevalent and dominant use of metaphor, and in particular, the allusions to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that permeated the Introductory chapters of Book I. Here Mason describes an enticing kingdom (in the Introduction she had called it an “estate”) beautiful, joyful, and peaceful, governed with order. Then when government loses its strength, she describes a variety of perils, darknesses, and destructions that come over the kingdom. She concludes the Introductory (pp. 1-10) with overviewing the officers of government and the enemies of government.
As we moved through each of the allusions we wondered if she had specific ideas, people, themes in mind to which the allegories pointed. While it was fun to embark down this path, and stimulated all manner of conversation, it is hard to determine for certain if any were indeed what Mason might have had in mind. Still, she makes her point. Persons have great capacity for good, for noble actions, for wisdom and for goodness but in order for these to emerge and find increasing fulfillment “self-reverence, self-knowledge, and self-control” (p. xxxix), in short, self-government is necessary. As much as the allegories proved a stimulating approach for engaging the reader in her central argument, we were most disengaged by the name Mason gave her kingdom. Would an updated name for the kingdom described give it more twenty-first century traction? Or was the whole exercise simply an outdated approach to introducing the topic of self-knowledge, of character education?
Book I. Part I. Chapters 1-3. At this point in our first Friday Night with Ourselves several hours had passed and with all the prefacing and “introductioning” we’d been through, we found we had only reached page 10 of the book. We hurried through the next three chapters of Book I to page 20. Perhaps we were too hungry, too thirsty or too restless (to build on the first physical bodily enemies about which Mason warns) by this point in the evening but again it was clear she was slowly and carefully unfolding what we were becoming to see as her central thesis for this book: In the development of their whole selves, children and adolescents might well be encouraged to consider the full potential that resides within them and deeply consider and take responsibility for the ways in which their potential may be most fully developed and nurtured.
As winter slowly melts into spring this year, Friday Nights with Ourselves promises moments of friendship and laughter touched with opportunity to expand our understanding Mason’s design for education.
Coombs, M. (2010). Joshua Mason Junior (1805-1846): The lively half-brother that Charlotte Mason never knew. L’Umile Pianta: The Official Publication of the Charlotte Mason College Association. (Spring).
Coombs, M. (2009). The Thirteen Child of Joshua Mason. L’Umile Pianta: The Official Publication of the Charlotte Mason College Association. (Autumn).
Laurio, L.N. (2004). Summary of ‘Ourselves’: Volume 4 of the Charlotte Mason Series. Retrieved February 3, 2012 at internet: http://www.amblesideonline.org/CMM/Summary4.html.
Mason, C.M. (1905). Ourselves, Our Souls and Bodies: Book I. Self-Knowledge. Book II. Self-Direction. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd.
Ontario. (2008). Finding Common Ground: Character Development in Ontario Schools, K-12. Toronto: Ministry of Education.
The Episcopal Church. (1979). The Holy Eucharist: Rite One. In Common Book of Prayer. Retrieved February 20, 2012 at internet: http://www.bcponline.org/HE/he1.html#Eucharistic%20Prayer.