A Charlotte Mason Education, Homeschooling, Philosophy
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Why Homeschool a la Charlotte Mason? by Mary C. Gildersleeve

It was a little over 10 years ago that my life completely changed:   not only had my husband and I decided to homeschool my older two children (who had been in parochial schools), but I had also discovered a way of homeschooling that perfectly fit my family, my faith and my philosophies!  I had discovered Charlotte Mason and her method of education that grew into the unique and successful education pedagogy under the umbrella, Parents’ Union School.  Realizing that parents are in fact the first teachers of all children, she established the Parents National Education Union, writing a monthly newsletter (Parents’ Review) filled with tips and tricks and techniques for best-practice education.

Mason, a spinster and self-taught educational theory expert, grew up in late-Victorian England in the Lakes District (1842-1923).  She was an only child whose parents taught her at home until the age of 16 (when her mother died; her father died a year later).  Mason went on to earn a First Class Certificate in teaching and spent her next 10 years teaching.  While teaching, she began to formulate her own system of a “liberal” education – a wide and general education system that looked at the whole child, that sought to be more than filling-a-vaccuum with twaddle and tedium and instead sought to fill the child with a love of learning.

Mason’s life-work. as synthesized in her six-volume series, The Original Home Schooling Series, sparked  wonder and thrill in me.  I wanted this education for my children.  I wanted to show them how to love learning … to be more than test-taking automatons.  I wanted to create an education that was “an atmosphere, a discipline, a life” through living books, exposure to great and noble ideas and the use of art, music and poetry.

Mason’s methods are particularly suited for the home-educated family.  She advocated establishing “education as an atmosphere, a discipline, a life”; of creating a three-part system:

  • One third atmosphere:  this means that all surrounding the student – from the pictures on the wall to the books on the shelf to the music in the background – be non-twaddle.  That the student’s environment is one of the good, the true and the beautiful.  Being at home, the home-educated student can be immersed in the good, the true and the beautiful 24/7.
  • One-third discipline:  cultivating in each student a habit of character, good habits that will transcend the schoolroom and allow the student to be a worthy citizen of the world.  Her motto:  “I am, I Can, I Ought, and I Will” is the primary focus of any CM classroom/homeschool.  This is a motto that can be easily reinforced when the student is home-educated:  good character is not a 9-3 life-style.
  • One-third life:  that education is constantly changing and that the student must be “in” the world; all subjects should be taught as living thought, not dry facts and figures.  Thus, academic subjects should be only one third of the overall “school day”.  In the classroom, teachers must teach to the test, getting their students to pass the state-mandated curriculum.  In the home, the parent-teacher can interrupt the schedule for worthy field trips, start a unit study on an appropriate topic, and just generally imbue the home-school with loving, living AND learning.

As I mentioned, her philosophy is particularly suited to the homeschool – we can make table-time lessons short (15-20 minutes for the younger children and slowly increasing as the student grows and matures) while maintaining a sense of wonder and beauty.  A portion of each day should be spent outside  (Mason advocated daily walks, rain or shine) focused on the beauty of God’s creation and learning about the immense interconnectedness of it all.  Nature study, with the keeping of a natural journal, are a large piece of this “outside time”.  The arts should also be included in each day … with time spent celebrating the classics as well as well-done modern art, music and literature.  Another aspect is “masterly inactivity” – where the teacher gives all the tools necessary for the lesson and sits back and allows the student to do their best.

There are some CM homeschoolers who advocate teaching CM-style as if still in the Victorian era – reading and learning and memorizing the same books, science and poetry that CM had her students do.  I disagree with this for my homeschool:  I think CM would have embraced the technology of today.  She would have loved the Internet and the ability of “virtual field trips to distant museums”; of  Googling great art and studying the masters of yesterday and today; of visiting the different cultures through the media available:  cable television, Skype and the world-wide web.

The CM-method celebrates the human person:

  • the God-given free will of the child
  • the natural inclination to investigate and wonder
  • the desire to create and imitate the good, the true and the beautiful
  • the inherent desire to have boundaries which slowly give way to self-education and self-direction
  • the need to “own” our knowledge through narrating (either orally or written) our understanding, rather than choosing the answer from options
  • the understanding that education is more than 9-3, desk-learning; that education is a 24/7 life-style that matures as we mature.

My homeschool is not perfect.  There are days when living books take a backseat to a math worksheet or a spelling test.  But after ten years of this “work in progress”, I see the great benefit of CM’s philosophy, a philosophy that fits well with my family, my Catholic faith (and the embracing of the good, the true, and the beautiful), and my desire to raise well-rounded, thinking human beings who will be a benefit to society when they come of age.

Here are some of the myriad resources I used and continue to reference over these many years:

Mary Gildersleeve is a hand-knits designer, free lance writer and homeschool teacher living in a small rural county about an hour south-west of Washington, D.C.  She earned an MBA from the College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA) and a BA in Print Journalism from Gonzaga University (Spokane, Washington).  She has two published books:  Great Yarns for the Close Knit Family: over two dozen original hand-knit designs inspired by a dozen fantastic family read-alouds and In His Image: Nurturing Creativity in the Heart of Your Home.  She is married, has 5 children (10-23 yrs) and keeps busy homeschooling her younger three children, working on the computer, writing articles, and knitting…knitting…knitting .  For more information, her website is www.marygildersleeve.com


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Dear Mary

    I do agree that Charlotte Mason’s ideas apply especially well to homeschooling, after she was impressed by the abilities of her friend Miss Brandreth’s Anglo-Indian nephews and niece, whom she helped to teach in Worthing. But Charlotte Mason did not grow up in the Lake district. Both her parents were probably Irish and she was most likely born in Bangor, North Wales. We have no confirmation that her parents educated her at home, but as her father was a Quaker it was quite usual practice for Quaker daughters to be home educated. She must have been sent to school at some point as she studied as a pupil teacher in Birkenhead from the age of 13 & trained for one year at the Home and Colonial Training College in London where she was immersed in Pestalozzi’s teaching which influenced her later ideas. Having left college a year early, she was coached for her Certificate by the Revd. William Read in Worthing ,who was also keen on science. She readily absorbed new ideas throughout her life up to and after her move to Ambleside in 1891 which influenced her thinking and, as you know, read or was read to all the time. She even mentions Marx in ” A Essay” but I do not see her as a modernist – she loved the Victorian values and I think she would have got Elsie Kitching to send her emails!!

    Margaret Coombs

  2. Miss Mason is such a blessing in so many ways, isn’t she?

    I disagree, though, that she would have fully embraced modern technology, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, movies *were* around when she was writing and thinking, and she’s pretty clear that she disapproves of them in Vol. 6. I mean, she even questioned the use of *pictures* at times because they present a threat to the imagination!

    But beyond this, I think she would have read Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman and even newer books like The Shallows; she would have read the scientific studies about the effect of blue light (from basically any digital screen from a TV to a computer to a cell phone to an iPod and on and on) on brain health, specifically alpha waves…and I think she would have decided that a child with a book and their imagination was still the best way, not for Victorians in pink and lace, but for *humans*. I’m not saying she wouldn’t have adored the occasional foray into the world of Google Earth during a geography lesson (she did say pictures were corrective to our imperfect imaginations), but…I’m just not sure she would have embraced it with the relish which you imply.

    Of course, we can all only speculate as she is not with us, but that is what I think…

  3. This is an interesting post. I must say that I take offense somewhat at your characterization of homeschoolers who opt to use many of the same books that Charlotte Mason used, as if we are somehow holding our families back. I opt to use many of the same books when newer books simply cannot hold a candle to those of old. I certainly wouldn’t eschew the original Shakespeare for a modern version. And why not continue to read Plutarch’s Lives or Aesop’s Fables? These are ‘old books.’ Has the excellence of these books or other classic literature somehow diminished simply due to time?

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