Self-Direction: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

An education that views the child as a whole person must focus on both academics and character, self-education and self-direction.

In the last few core values posts, we’ve been talking about some tools that our children can use for self-education. Through literary-style books, the habit of full attention, and the practice of narration, our children can learn for themselves. They are not dependent on us to spoon feed them; they can do the work and gain personal knowledge of God, of the universe, and of their fellow man. That’s self-education.

But there is one more area in which our children need to be set up for success in life. We’ve mentioned in previous posts that there are four areas of knowledge that we focus on. I just mentioned the first three: knowledge of God, of the universe, and of our fellow man. But do you remember the fourth area of knowledge that our children need? This is the knowledge that we’re going to focus on for the next few posts: knowledge of self.

Charlotte believed that our children need to be equipped and practiced in self-education and self-direction. Education that views the child as a whole person must focus on both academics and character. Self-education and self-direction or self-management—Charlotte used both terms to describe the process of learning how to govern yourself from the inside out.

You see, when our children are young, they are persons, yes, but they don’t understand all that is involved in being a person. They don’t comprehend how their minds, wills, emotions, and desires operate inside and spill out in their actions. So one of our jobs as an educator is to help them gain knowledge of themselves and to grow in governing themselves as they are ready to comprehend those ideas and take on those responsibilities.

We don’t sit a six-year-old down and try to explain all of the intricacies of moral and intellectual self-management. In this area of knowledge especially, we need to offer what is fitting for each child as he is ready for it. It’s a gradual process to guide a child into self-direction.

Charlotte had a wonderful way of talking about the inner life of self: She used the picture of a country or a kingdom called “Mansoul.” Now, this idea wasn’t original with her; she picked it up from John Bunyan. You probably recognize him as the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. But he also wrote a book called The Holy War in which he did a fantastic job of picturing the struggles and decisions we all have in our minds and hearts, that inner country he called Mansoul. (The original version of the book is available free online, but I really like the version in modern English edited by Delores Kimball.)

Let me give you a little tour of the country of Mansoul as Charlotte outlined it for us, so you can start to picture what the knowledge of self involves. And as I walk through this tour, think about how it would help your child to gain knowledge of himself and grow in managing himself in each of these areas.

Charlotte began by painting the picture of all of the wonderful resources and possibilities inherent in being a person. You remember that we talked about possibilities as a core value. Well, to present the concept of self-direction, Charlotte introduced another idea. She said, 

If Mansoul has infinite resources and glorious possibilities, it has also perils, any one of which may bring devastation and ruin. None of these perils is inevitable, because Mansoul is a kingdom under an established government.

Ourselves, Book 2, p. 2

There’s your self-management or self-direction. The kingdom of Mansoul is under government. Charlotte divided that government of Mansoul into four houses, or departments: the House of Body, the House of Mind, the House of Heart, and the House of Soul. 

She described how the officials in each house of Mansoul can serve us well or can turn into an enemy. For example, in the House of Body we have the appetites of hunger and thirst, restlessness and rest, and the sexual appetite (which she discretely alluded to in a discussion on chastity). Then there are the senses that serve those appetites: taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing. We can use those senses as good servants to enhance the joy and beauty of Mansoul; or we can allow them to become lazy, good-for-nothing servants that don’t help us at all; or we can let them take over as bad masters that bring unworthy ideas into the country. As Charlotte put it,

The House of Body is, we have seen, sustained by the Appetites; but ruined when any one of these appetites obtains sole control. The five Senses are, as it were, pages running between body and mind, and ministering to both.

Ourselves, Book 2, p. 2

So take, for example, the appetite of hunger. It’s a helpful appetite that reminds us to supply fuel for our bodies, and the sense of taste ministers to that appetite. But if we allow that appetite to take control—with no self-management, no self-direction—rather than fulfilling its job in a helpful way, it can bring illness and physical issues into our lives. That’s just one example among many that she gives for the different appetites and senses serving them.

In the House of Mind “there is Intellect, waiting to apprehend knowledge of many sorts; Imagination, taking impressions, living pictures of the glories of the past and the behaviour of the remote; there is the Aesthetic [Beauty] Sense, whose motto is, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,’ ready to appropriate every thing of beauty, whether picture, poem, wind-flower, or starry heavens—a possession of joy for ever. Reason is there, eager to discern causes and consequences, to know the why and the wherefore of every fact that comes before the mind; and lest, with all these powers, Mind should become an uninhabited house, with rusty hinges and cobwebbed panes, there are certain Desires which bestir us to feed the mind, in much the same way as our Appetites clamour for the food of the body”  (Ourselves, Book 2, p. 2). Those desires are the desire for approval, for excelling, for wealth and power and status, and for knowledge. 

And just as in the House of Body, all of those functions of the mind can be a help to Mansoul or a hindrance. For example, if Imagination is allowed to take control, it can lead to unrealistic fears. The Beauty Sense can become prejudiced and exclusive, rejecting any person who doesn’t fit the ideal. The desire for approval can lead to actions that go against your convictions and principles. You get the idea. Each of those inhabitants of the House of Mind needs direction in order to continue serving us well.

In the House of Heart are love and justice, each of which can affect Mansoul in a variety of ways. Charlotte talked about how love can be demonstrated in sympathy, in kindness, in generosity, in gratitude, in courage; and about showing justice to the character of other persons, offering justice in word by telling the truth, and demonstrating justice in actions by living a life of integrity. All of those areas need self-management. 

In the House of Soul is the knowledge of God, and Charlotte laid out how that knowledge is first and foremost and how our souls respond in prayer, thanksgiving, praise, and faith.

But over those four houses of government are two governing powers: Conscience and Will. Conscience is the counselor to all four houses, but conscience needs to be instructed, itself, so it will offer good counsel. Will is the prime minister, the highest (but One) of the powers of Mansoul; so it’s important to understand how the will works. 

No power of Mansoul acts by itself and of itself; and some little study of the ‘way of the will’—which has the ordering of every other power—may help us to understand the functions of what we have called the prime minister in the kingdom of Mansoul.

Ourselves, Book 2, p. 4

Are you getting the picture of this beautiful inner country with its various houses of government? It’s a great way to teach children about self-knowledge and self-direction. Charlotte thought it was honoring to God to help our children understand this inner country of Mansoul and how it can be managed for good. She wrote, “We may believe that the Creator is honoured by our attempt to know something of the powers and the perils belonging to that human nature with which He has endowed us” (Ourselves, Book 2, p. 4).

So we teach our children bits and pieces of this Knowledge of Self as they are ready for it through the years, and then when they are older, we can walk them through this wonderful grand tour of the country of Mansoul and show them how all the pieces fit together. You’ll find that tour in the volume called Ourselves. Inside that volume are two books that Charlotte wrote for students. The first is called Self-Knowledge, and the second is Self-Direction

I encourage you to read through those books and get familiar with the ideas in them so you understand what is included in the knowledge of self and management of self, and you can make those ideas part of the atmosphere of your home.

You see, the idea of self-direction is all about learning how to govern your kingdom of Mansoul well and become the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. We can make sure our children know chemistry and algebra and who fought whom in the second world war and how to spell chrysanthemum, but if we don’t teach them how to make wise choices in everyday life, how to manage their natural appetites and desires well, we aren’t educating the whole person. Self-education and self-direction—they’re both necessary to set our children up for success in life.

Charlotte recommended that we start teaching our children pieces of the Knowledge of Self beginning when they are about eight or nine years old—line upon line, precept upon precept, little by little. Then when they are older, go ahead and read through those two books with them and discuss the country of Mansoul and how it is governed. We have youth editions available for both Self-Knowledge and Self-Direction that break the books down into short readings and include narration prompts and helpful definitions and explanations. We recommend working your way through each book slowly, spreading it over two years. Do what works for your student, but our official recommendation is to read and discuss Self-Knowledge during grades 7 and 8, then move on to Self-Direction during grades 9 and 10.

Now, over the next couple of core values posts, we’re going to dive into two of these important parts of self-direction and look at them more closely. Charlotte said,

There are two guides to moral and intellectual self-management to offer to children, which we may call ‘the way of the will’ and ‘the way of the reason.’

A Philosophy of Education, p. xxxi

So next time we will talk about the way of the will—what the will is, what it does, what weakens it, and what strengthens it.

One comment

  1. Very well written article, thanks. It is very important to control yourself. I advise everyone to read it

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