Rediscovering Charlotte Mason in Ambleside
Updated: Aug 15
Tucked away in the Lake District of northern England is the small town called Ambleside. Quaint stone buildings welcome you with notes of blue slate found in the nearby mountains of Langdale. The whole area is a symphony of green, stone walls, babbling brooks, fells, and grazing sheep. No wonder author William Wordsworth made Grasmere (a few miles north) his home and incorporated her beauty into his writings. What better location to found and implement a new but rather old philosophy of education? This approach is what Charlotte Mason did over 100 years ago.
We had to pinch ourselves over-and-over again, not just in disbelief that we were where Miss Mason walked and lived, but rather because we lost all feeling to our backside from the dorm beds! We were grateful for the affordability of our accommodations and the opportunity to experience a bit of the "college life" since neither of us had one.
The centennial conference, hosted by Cumbria University, resides on the property where Mason had her school. Their involvement became crystal clear to us after the second day. After experiencing this sobering realization, we enjoyed the rest of the conference that best represented Miss Mason's life and work.
Each day had panels of speakers to address how a Mason education looks in a 21st century classroom. One gentleman named Jason Fletcher of Heritage School (the only Charlotte Mason school in England, mind you) shared that more than ever, the next generation needs a Mason education to ground them in what he called the crisis of a Social Revolution. He stressed the value of words over images, balance and quantity, and a culture of delay. We must build an alternative sense of being of what is real in a world of artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
Carroll Smith, founder of the Charlotte Mason Institute, spoke about how the universe is more about language than mass. He stated that narration is the central function of inference and memory. He called it a fundamental human capacity that is innate in children. One book he referenced was Acts of Meaning by Jerome S. Bruner. Bruner outlines four components of a narrative's effectiveness. The first is human or self-agency. This is the moral stance of a student. Over time, the child finds their own voice. The second is human order or daily practice or habits. The third is part of human canon and finally, human voice or perspective. This houses the stories told from a point of view, be it active or passive.
The final speaker who spoke to ideas more aligned with Miss Mason was Lisa Cadora, a CM researcher and curriculum developer. She shared the epistemology of how we must get back to the whole. She quoted Wordsworth's "We murder to dissect," and Mason's, "We reduce knowledge to what we count and not what counts."
These ideas of what is real and how we anchor our children in words, how we are all in search of meaning through the natural medium of verse, and how we address the whole child rather than the sum of their parts is essential to creating living and thinking human beings.
We experienced spiritual dissonance when a few speakers presented a diluted version of Mason's emphasis on the holy scriptures as her source of truth. In the early hours of the morning the next day, the search was on to contest this subtle yet jolting contradiction. Mason said, "All truth is God's truth and all ideas are thus spiritual in origin, God, the Holy Spirit, is Himself the supreme Educator of mankind. She also said, "The most fatal way of despising the child falls under the third educational law of the Gospels; it is to overlook and make light of his natural relationship with the Almighty God." These words provided the reassurance and validation that we were not mistaken about her authenticity.
Improving and reforming education is a marathon that will take courage, faith, heart, patience, and discipline. Obama's 4 billion dollar "Race to the Top" reform has been more of a swift plunge to the bottom. As bad as Covid was for our psychological well-being, it was the a necessary test of adversity to spark the brushfire of change. Millions of families have withdrawn their children from government schools, and those numbers will only continue to grow. Mason said, "It is not what we read or what we hear that sustains us, but what we appropriate; what we take home to our minds and ruminate on."
We see Roots not only as an alternative to what is presently available, but an attempt to present a fullness of living and what Mason refers to as the chief end of education, which is the principal knowledge of God.