In her recent essay “’Knowledge as the Necessary Food of the Mind:’ Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy of Education’ found in Women, Education, and Agency edited by Spence, Aiston and Meikle, NY:Routledge, 2010. Stephanie Spencer footnotes that
“In 1936 a ‘gathering’ of 400 teachers, pupils, and parents was held at Ambleside. The event was widely reported and it was noted that 40,000 children were studying with Mason’s methods. The Schoolmistress 29 April 1936 reported that it (sic) was “surely the biggest school in the world,” and it literally does cover the whole world, House of Education students may be found today in Africa (south, east, west, and Uganda), Australia, Canada, India and Ceylon, New Zealand, USA, and South America, China, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Egypt, Japan, Newfoundland, Sumatra, Madagascar, Malacca, Switzerland, Italy Holland, Germany, France, Portugal, and Rumania” (sic). AMA CM23
That was 1936, nine years before the death of Hitler and the end of WWII. Wonder with me just when Mason’s ideas may have first drifted onto the continent. I will leave the actual dates and facts to the historians among us. We know Mason travelled to Germany at times and certainly the comparison of their education system to England’s was a natural enough and prevalent subject for even early P.N.E.U writings given the political and intellectual climate. Could P.N.E.U. ideas have affected a little boy born in 1906 and growing up in Breslau?
This boy was one of 8 beloved children growing up in a rambling three story house with large gardens where the children “dug caves, climbed trees and put up tents.” The outbuildings and even a room in the house contained a “zoo for children’s pets” and natural history collections. The girls had a room just for a doll’s house, the boys a first floor room for a workshop.
The parents of this boy were from distinguished lines, intelligent and well connected. The father held a chair in Psychiatry and Neurology in Breslau and the mother was trained as a teacher in the Royal Provincial School College gaining her certificate in 1896. They had a governess but mother herself taught the children.
“She was openly distrustful of the German public schools and their Prussian educational methods. She subscribed to the maxim that Germans had their backs broken twice, once at school and once in the military; she wasn’t about to entrust her children to the care of others less sensitive than she during their early years.” (9)
This boy had little in the way of church instruction for children but “daily life was filled with Bible reading and hymn singing all of it led by (mother). Her reverence for the Scriptures was such that she read Bible stories to her children from the actual Bible text and not from a children’s retelling. Still, sometimes she used an illustrated Bible, explaining the pictures as she went.” (12)
This boy had a “deeply musical family” and enjoyed musical evenings every Saturday night with Schubert, Brahms, and Beethoven. Folksongs were a big part of their home culture. And he became quite an astonishing pianist.
Gardening, hiking, skating and ball games amused the family out of doors. They took annual trips to the sea. In the evenings they “did play readings with different parts.”(19)
This boy lived in a home filled with artistic treasures—portraits, landscapes, and etchings.
This boy “spent long hours reading under the rowan trees in the meadow.” That he should be reading Schiller at the age of 11 was “taken for granted.” (37) On his shelf were Pinocchio, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the great classic poets and Heroes of Everyday “moved him very much.” (19)
This boy’s favourite book, the one he “parted with hours before his execution” (19) was Plutarch’s Lives.
This boy was none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer!
In his biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (Nashville: Nelson, 2010) Eric Metaxas writes “Bonhoeffer’s childhood seems something from a turn-of-the-century illustration by the Swedish artist Carl Larsson.” (25)
It could be that Metaxas has no reference point for a P.N.E.U education. It could be that Frau Bonhoeffer taught in the same atmosphere as Mason and the ideas were just “in the air.” Who knows, but one thought arises: there is no telling what kind of wonders may occur when we feed children’s minds and treat them in this “reasonable way.” (Philosophy of Education 261)
© Laurie Bestvater 2011