A Charlotte Mason Education, Character Development, Charlotte Mason, Education as a Life
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The Steadfast Heart by Liz Cottrill

Thirty years ago, I embarked on the  homeschooling journey. I now compare it to attempting to cross an ocean in a rowboat with one oar and no compass. At the time, I thought a good education meant working through the best curriculum and covering “all” the right subjects. Thankfully a friend introduced me to Charlotte Mason fairly early on and I discovered a different approach to learning. Using living books, narration, and nature study opened my eyes to new ideas about education.

But was I “doing it” correctly, were these things enough? Questions and doubts constantly assailed me. It took time for her philosophy to become clearer. Changing to an entirely different perspective on education is a process, and sometimes a slow one in which the teacher becomes the student. The questions and uncertainties I had along the way echo back to me from the hearts of younger mothers who share their fears with me to this day. I can only encourage them that I did not begin to overcome these insecurities until the year I began to read Mason’s own words in the six volume series.

The good thing about reading these living books was that her own voice penetrated my mind and truly took hold. The danger in reading her volumes intently, for me however,  was to become fascinated, absorbed, and preoccupied with the technical aspects, the “how-to’s” of copy work or brush drawing or picture study. I have at times obsessively researched the archives for clues to the exact books she used, timetables she adhered to, examination questions she posed.

But in continuing to read her own thoughts over and over, I was persistently, and gently,  steered back on course to this certainty: that education is not about content, information, and results. Indeed, the voice of Charlotte Mason is ever reminding me that the goal of education is character.

. . . . We too have taught, in season and out of season, that the formation of character is the aim of the educator.” (School Education, p. 98)

Or, from Parents and Children:

As the philosophy which underlies any educational or social scheme is really the vital part of that scheme, it may be well to set forth, however meagrely, some fragments of the thought on which we found our teaching. We believe–

That disposition, intellect, genius, come pretty much by nature.
That character is an achievement, the one practical achievement possible to us for ourselves and for our children.
That all real advance, in family or individual or nation, is along the lines of character.
That, therefore, to direct and assist the evolution of character is the chief office of education. (p. 233)

The humbling realization was that, as the teacher, it is my character that still needs forming. This became most apparent to me as my boys and I began reading her perhaps least emphasized work, Ourselves. That volume was her attempt to help children realize truth about themselves and their place in the world as they approached maturity, to shed light on the importance of knowing themselves in order to take responsibility for their own character development. She made it plain that her aim was not psychology, nor “morbid introspection,” but self-knowledge and self-awareness in light of their place in the divine order of creation, as persons made in the image of God with boundless possibilities to serve their own and future generations for good. In this volume, she describes the allegorical kingdom of Mansoul in order to give a living picture of the power and perplexities, the
problems and possibilities of being persons.

The first couple of times I read it I was intrigued, but by the third time I found that my mentor, Charlotte Mason, had gone beyond blazing a glorious road to education and was actually meddling in my private life. For instance, over the years I have noticed that one of Mason’s themes is loyalty. Her references to this quality glimmer here and there throughout her writings, like silver threads in a tapestry, but in Ourselves, she shines the spotlight directly on it, devoting an entire chapter to loyalty, one of “Love’s lords in waiting” in the House of Heart. And I had to wince quite a bit, even shrink in shame at times, as that pure voice of wisdom spoke to me from another time, a very different time. Or was it?

But perhaps this is not a loyal age. Our tendency is to believe that to think for ourselves and to serve ourselves in the way of advancement or pleasure is our chief business in life. We think that the world was made for us, and not we for the world, and that we are called upon to rule and not to serve. But such thoughts come to us only in our worst moods. Loyalty, whose note is service, asserts itself. We know that we are not our own, and that according to the Loyalty within us do we fulfil ourselves. (Ourselves, p. 118)

I could not dismiss her comments and criticisms as pertaining only to her own era. They hit too close to home. As I read, I felt she was truly describing the world I know, but I recognized that the use of the term “loyalty” is no longer common. One of the writers of her day whom she admired, John Ruskin, put it this way “The noblest word in a catalog of social virtue is loyalty” (The Seven Lamps of Architecture).

In this chapter, Mason straightforwardly addresses loyalty in just about every area of life, and as I examined each closely, I found her perspective to be thought provoking. as I read through her ideas of patriotism and loyalty to our rulers, for example, again, I was tempted to dismiss her thoughts as a bit old-fashioned or out of date. But in more honest contemplation, I had to admit that our own country might suffer from want of this trait. Perhaps our talk radio and cynical blogs disparaging our government’s policies and mocking our inept and decadent leaders shape our thinking more than our loyal nature and behavior influence them for good. Did not our Lord give commands to us to honor the king, obey our rulers, in just as wicked and decadent an age?

She goes on to address loyalty issues one by one pertaining to public opinion, church, community service, employers and employees, family, friendship, – even our own principles and personality. When she
discussed shopping, I had to chuckle at this one:

A man of sixty, who said he had always had his boots from the same bootmaker since he first wore boots, gives us a hint of the sort of Loyalty we owe all round. We miss a great deal of the grace of life by running hither and thither to serve ourselves of the best, so we think, in friends, acquaintances, religions, tradesmen, servants, preachers, prophets. Perhaps there is always more of the best to be had in sticking to that we have got than in looking out continually for a new shop for every sort of ware. The strength, grace, and dignity of a constant mind is the ingathering of Loyalty.” (Ourselves, p. 123)

In our age of consumerism, I was brought up short by this, but when she got to our dealings with others in personal relationships, I had to do the most soul searching. Putting my own experience and interactions on the scale beside her admonitions, I found myself wanting. I suppose it’s natural to wish others to demonstrate perfect
loyalty to us, and easy to return in kind when they do, but what about when friends fail us or are disloyal to us? What do we do when previously trusted friends treat us harshly or unjustly? Is our reaction self-protection, self-preservation? Are our responses based on personal ambitions and rights? Is our concern for our reputation –
or theirs? Do we truly bear all things, believe all things, hope all things? Basically, she asks the simple questions that are at the heart of the Gospel:  do you love your neighbor as yourself?

These are tough questions in the lessons of loyalty in relationships for all of us. Mason was on firm ground, however, as her loyalty to her Lord and his commands for our obedient service were her standard; Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve, was her standard. Basically, she acknowledges that there is perhaps a time when breaks in relationships may be necessary, but, in those cases, do we do so without resentment, gossip, damage to the other person’s reputation? The reminder from scripture is Christ’s own example, the only perfect
friend who was betrayed, insulted, abandoned, treated unjustly, who “while we were yet sinners, died for us.”

In all schooling, tests do come. Loyalty that is returned is no test, but only when our own loyalty is tested do we discover whether ours is real. What do we do when our loyalty to others is met with disloyalty? Charlotte Mason’s loyalty to colleagues and friends was so true, that it is only by meager hints that we conclude that she was also hurt by others. It’s pretty safe to assume that any strong personality who boldly proposes new ideas, is going to be attacked. She wasn’t suggesting we show steadfastness when others are unfaithful without having learned the lesson herself. Her faithfulness was undoubtedly tested. Surely she struggled.

At my first Charlotte Mason Institute conference, I attended a workshop presented by Gladys Schaefer, who mentioned that, when Mason died, only one verse was found to be underlined in her Bible: “This I know:  God is for me” (Ps. 56:9).  This reveals her own character. Her strength and loyalty were grounded in the steadfastness of her Lord, not in that of those around her. In fact, the context of that phrase is in the midst of pain inflicted by enemies and disloyal friends. She knew her work and reputation were entrusted to the One who had given them in the first place. Her loyalty was to Him, thus she could confidently assert:

. . . Christ, our King. Here is a thought to unseal the fountains of love and loyalty, the treasures of faith and imagination, bound up in the child. The very essence of Christianity is personal loyalty, passionate loyalty to our adorable Chief. (Home Education, p. 350)

So, after years of home teaching, I realize that we never come to the end of lessons and tests in the curriculum of character building. Character is our goal, and, as she reminds us, education is a life.

If you would like to listen to Ourselves online you can find out more about it at this link:


© December 2014 by Liz Cottrill


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. Sheila Bice says

    Thank you for this beautiful article, Liz. So well said, so challenging!

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