A common stereotype about homeschoolers is that we are all conservative Christians; thus, most homeschool programs have been developed with Christians in mind as the primary users. Those of us, like my family, that do not belong to that stereotype often find ourselves in the position of adapting.*
While Charlotte Mason was certainly a very liberal-minded educator who emphasized character development above all, there is no doubt that she was a Christian educator, first and foremost. In her essays on education, she writes that the knowledge of God is “the chief end of education.” In her review of Felix Adler’s The Moral Instruction of Children, she is critical of secular morality. She did not believe that morality could come from within the individual, but that a greater authority was required. She writes,
“Where does the concept of ought get its intimidating sense of majesty? It’s not true that humans have some inborn sense of ought. In fact, the notion that they do is responsible for a lot of evil. It’s a common belief today that it’s okay to do whatever a person thinks is right. People say that all a person can do is what he believes is right within his own heart. But even the slightest familiarity with history shows that every persecution, and most outrages, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Thugee cult have resulted from the kind of ought that comes from within, from a person or individual’s own voice. Trying to deal with morals without regarding the authority of morality is working backwards, like walking around the perimeter and never reaching the center, instead of starting from the center and working out. ”
This argument is still commonly used as an anchor for belief in God by Christians today. Without jumping into this debate, I will simply share that the UU church has a religious education program for adults that includes a unit on ethics with activities that can be completed individually or with a group for those who may be interested in this question.
When I was considering this educational path for my children, I first had to wrestle with the foundation of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. What if the “chief end of education” for me isn’t the knowledge of God, as described by the Christian church? I couldn’t just leave her ideas behind because I agreed with so many of them. She was so thorough, and I felt that she was right that education should not be put together so haphazardly, but should have a common thread tying it all together. That got me wondering what the chief end of education is for me and for those, like me, who do not necessarily tie our life’s purpose or ethics to the presence of a higher power.
An answer didn’t come to me right away. I kept meditating on it, and even though I didn’t resolve the question, my gut instinct told me to jump in anyway. “Live your way into the answers,” I had read in Rilke’s poetry, so that is what we did!
We started reading the books on the Ambleside Online schedule with very few changes. I found that many of the book choices didn’t need to be adapted. We read the selections “as is”. Pilgrim’s Progress is a good example because it is an allegory for the Christian journey through life. This was one of my daughter’s favorite books, and why shouldn’t it be? Can’t we all have faith that our lives and the suffering experienced are not meaningless; that in the end there can be peace and joy and acceptance in a literal or figurative Celestial City? Isn’t it true that there are many distractions along the way that might pull us away from staying committed to our path, showing love and compassion, or fighting for what is right? Don’t many of us experience the release of our burdens at the foot of the literal or figurative cross of suffering?
Unless I, as her parent and teacher, tried to turn the story into a conversion experience, the book didn’t need to be experienced that way, and it wasn’t. That is because what Charlotte Mason called “living books” are not necessarily “Christian-only” books. They are books that have a universal appeal. That is what is so wonderful about them. They are dealing with human questions at their core, and our children relate to those questions, regardless of the religious bent of the author.
The heart of our homeschool education is not the same as Mason’s, but it is in the spirit of her idea. I want my children to embrace and live out the UU’s seven principles, which provide a vision for what Bunyan calls “the Celestial City”, but right here on Earth. The curriculum decisions that I make along the way get tested against these principles. Yes, I have found the need to make additions or substitutions and/or edit selections along the way, but I have a system for making those decisions beyond my own personal whims.
Charlotte Mason didn’t think that every child needed to be trained for professional work as a mathematician, scientist, doctor, writer, or other distinguished career, but she did believe that every child should be provided with a liberal and inspirational education. For parents who may be interested in a homeschool approach that emphasizes character development, this is the best that I have found, and I hope that you will continue to explore Mason’s ideas along with me.
*There are many websites and blogs dedicated to putting together a completely secular homeschool. There are also resources for secular Charlotte Mason homeschoolers, such as Build Your Library and the secular CM Facebook group. I didn’t want to make my own program from scratch, though. I wanted to benefit from the wisdom of others, especially those who have been educating according to Mason’s philosophy for years. So, I chose to use Ambleside Online as our foundation, and I am happy I did because I think their program is the most thoroughly researched CM curriculum, and it is the most complete. Simply Charlotte Mason has a number of helpful blog posts and resources, but they are not as easily adaptable for non-Christian families because of the way the history rotation is designed to coordinate with the Bible. Ambleside Online has opportunities for parents to read Mason’s volumes in group book studies, along with an active moderated forum where detailed questions can be answered by the advisory and other members. It is hard to beat that kind of one-on-one coaching and support. So, there is my shameless plug for a great resource that is 100% free!