Self-Education: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

Who’s doing the most work in your home school: the teacher or the student?

Picture with me a mother attempting to feed a baby, who is sitting in a high chair. Do you have that scene in your imagination? Now, let’s picture that scene in two different ways.

First, imagine that the mother is holding some preprocessed peas in a jar and wants to get the “pea mush” from the jar into the baby. The baby is not crazy about this idea. In fact, he clamps his mouth shut tight. So what does the mother do? She tries to make it fun. You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all seen mothers waving the spoon and making the noises to try to convince the baby that the peas are coming on an airplane (“zoom!”) or on a train (“Chug, chug, chug. Open your mouth. Chug, chug, woo-wooo!”). You’ve probably witnessed that scene before. Maybe you’ve been the parent in that scene.

All right, now let’s picture the scene in a different way. Imagine that the mother grabs a ripe banana, peels it, cuts it into small pieces, and puts the pieces on the tray of the high chair. Then she sits down to watch what the child does, to encourage him in his efforts, and possibly to eat her own lunch or snack.

Do you see the difference between those two scenes? Who was doing the work in the first scenario—the one with the preprocessed food and the entertaining airplane noises? The parent was doing most of the work. 

Who was doing the work in the second scenario—the one with the pieces of banana? The child. The mother presented the food in a way that was appropriate for that child, but then she allowed the child to feed himself.

Those two scenarios can be applied in education too. We are in the middle of a discussion on the core values of Charlotte Mason, and the most recent values that we have looked at compare feeding the body to feeding the mind. Just as physical life is sustained and fueled by food, mental life is sustained and fueled by ideas. Just as your child’s body takes in food and digests it and assimilates it for nourishment, so your child’s mind takes in ideas and digests and assimilates them for nourishment. 

The core value we want to look at today focuses on the question: How are you feeding your child’s mind? Who’s doing the work: you or your child?

It’s easy to feel like, as the teacher, it’s your job to somehow make knowledge entertaining and fun and slip it into your child’s mind when he’s not looking. But that is not the Charlotte Mason way. 

It is not your job to spoon-feed predigested mental food. It is not your job to present enticing morsels of information in exactly the right order and explain to the child how they are all connected. No, that is laying the stress of education on the teacher rather than where it belongs: on the student. 

Charlotte Mason held that “the children, not the teachers, are the responsible persons; they do the work by self-effort” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 6).

The emphasis is not on the teacher’s actions; the emphasis is on the child’s efforts. Are we saying that the teacher doesn’t have any responsibility? No, we’re saying that sometimes we teachers can get confused about what our responsibility is.

It is not your job to be the fountain head of all knowledge. 

“Let them learn from first-hand sources of information––really good books, the best going, on the subject they are engaged upon. Let them get at the books themselves, and do not let them be flooded with a warm diluent at the lips of their teacher. The teacher’s business is to indicate, stimulate, direct and constrain to the acquirement of knowledge, but by no means to be the fountain-head and source of all knowledge in his or her own person” (School Education, p. 162).

You, as the teacher, are to indicate—“Suzy, here is the book (with worthy ideas) that we’re going to read for history.”

To stimulate—“In today’s chapter you’re going to hear how one person discovered a life-saving idea in the midst of a mess.”

To direct—“Now listen carefully, so you can tell me the story when we’re done.”

To constrain—“Suzy, please choose to direct your attention here.” Remember the core values of authority and obedience that we’ve talked about in the past. Those are part of your responsibility as the teacher too.

It is not your job to predigest the food by connecting all of the mental dots yourself and then explaining to your child how everything fits together. When you take on that job, you are robbing your child of doing that “mental digestion” for himself. The knowledge is not his own possession; it’s secondhand, predigested food. All he’s doing is opening his mouth for the spoon-feeding.

Teachers in Charlotte’s day were doing that too. She described how they “draw together a mass of those ideas which themselves will combine in the mind into which they effect an entrance, and, behold the thing is done: the teacher has done it; he has selected the ideas, shewn the correlation of each with the other and the work is complete!” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 114).

But “the teacher has done it,” not the student. It’s not the teacher’s job to spoon-feed preprocessed knowledge. To avoid that tendency, you have to trust that your student is capable of doing the work himself. We talked back at the very beginning of this series about how the way you educate will be based on what you believe about education. If you believe that your child’s mind is just a sac, a container, or a receptacle into which you dump information and facts, then you are going to place the stress of education on the teacher to do the necessary filling or dumping into that container. But if you believe that your child’s mind is a living organism—just as the body is a living organism—and that it has an appetite for knowledge and the capability of digesting it and assimilating it, then you will view education as something the student must do for himself. 

And Charlotte reassured us that “The ideas required for the sustenance of children are to be found mainly in books of literary quality; given these the mind does for itself the sorting, arranging, selecting, rejecting, classifying . . .” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 117).

She also said, “The teachers give sympathy and occasionally elucidate, sum up or enlarge, but the actual work is done by the scholars” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 6).

Here are more descriptions of your responsibility as the teacher:

To give sympathy—Now let’s clarify this one. Charlotte did not mean, “Oh you poor child, I’m so sorry you have to narrate to me.” No, rather she talked a lot about mental sympathy, as in a special understanding between two people. Something they have in common. You share in the joy of learning with your child. You build a strong relationship around what you have learned together as well as a mutual desire for knowledge. That’s giving sympathy.

Teachers also “occasionally elucidate, sum up or enlarge.”—To elucidate is to explain or to make something clear. But notice, it’s not your job to explain everything; you elucidate occasionally. You don’t rob your child of the experience of thinking for himself and digging for his own treasure, as it were. The same with summarizing or expounding, enlarging, upon a topic. 

In fact, Charlotte said, “The less parents and teachers talk-in and expound their rations of knowledge and thought to the children they are educating, the better for the children. Peptonised [or predigested] food for a healthy stomach does not tend to a vigorous digestion. Children must be allowed to ruminate, must be left alone with their own thoughts. They will ask for help if they want it” (School Education, p. 162).

You offer appropriate ideas and allow the student to do the work by self-effort, just as in our little mental picture a few moments ago, the parent offered the child healthful food presented in a way that was appropriate for him and then allowed him to do the work that his body is designed for: taking the nourishment in, digesting it, and growing from it. 

When you can do that, your role shifts from “Fountainhead of All Knowledge” and “Force-feeder of Mental Tidbits” to “Fellow Learner, Companion, and Guide” to the wonderful feast of ideas that are awaiting all of us.

“The teacher who allows his scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere instrument of forcible intellectual feeding” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 32).

Self-education. The students do the work. That’s a core value of Charlotte Mason.


Let’s look at two specific applications of that core value of self-education.

1. Be careful not to carry your child.

It’s only natural, when you see your child struggling, to want to jump in and rescue him. But doing the work for him or pointing to the answer or telling him what to do next only alleviates your discomfort. Carrying your child doesn’t help him learn to walk on his own. I realize that we’ve switched metaphors now: we’re no longer talking about feeding, we’re talking about walking. But the principle is the same: “the children, not the teachers, are the responsible persons; they do the work by self-effort.”

Charlotte used this walking analogy especially for two subjects that are very skill-based: math and reading. In both of those subjects, progress depends on a solid grasp of a concept and then building upon that concept. It’s like climbing a mountain. You can’t reach the upper heights until you’ve conquered the lower paths. 

Yet how often do we try to carry the child along on the trail, because he’s not progressing as quickly as we think he should?

Charlotte said, “Do not offer him a crutch: it is in his own power he must go” (Home Education, p. 261).

In skill-based subjects especially, we must be careful to allow the student to do the work himself.

And more than just allowing the student to do the work at his own pace, Charlotte used the word “content.”

“The teacher must be content to proceed very slowly, securing the ground under her feet as she goes” (Home Education, p. 204).

Not anxious. 

Not pushy. 


Does that mean we don’t care? That we don’t help the child at all? No, we can certainly scaffold or spotlight as the child needs it; but our goal is that the child will eventually be able to walk that part of the path on his own . . . when he’s ready. 

The trick is to get to that point of being content to “proceed very slowly” as needed, to convince yourself that it’s not about checking off the list of assignments; it’s about learning, growing, and gaining knowledge. It’s about respecting the child enough to let him focus on one particular idea until he’s got it. Which brings us to the second application . . .

2. Teach the child, not the curriculum.

Let’s go back to the feeding picture. Remember, your job as the teacher is to give your child the food that is appropriate for him at that time. You wouldn’t slap a T-bone steak down on your baby’s high chair tray. Even if someone told you to do that, you would know that it’s not what is best for your child at that time.

And you need to do the same with curriculum. The curriculum writers don’t know your child the way you do. Perhaps your child is ready for more challenging food in one particular subject. Great! Give him the more advanced books for that. Or maybe your child isn’t yet ready to advance up the hill in this other subject. Fine! Stay where you are for now until he’s ready to move on.

Adjust the curriculum to fit your student, don’t try to force your student to fit the curriculum. If it is a Charlotte Mason curriculum, all of the ideas in it will be nourishing and healthful. It’s not about how fast can your child eat the mental food; it’s about spreading the feast and allowing your child to take what he is ready for, to assimilate it, and digest it so he can grow.

This is our goal when describing students who have been given a Charlotte Mason education: “their minds had been fed on this richer diet and they had been allowed to deal with it each in his own individual way” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 140).

Respect your child enough to let him experience the satisfaction of working for personal knowledge—in his own individual way, at his own individual pace. 

The children do the work by self-effort. That’s self-education.

One comment

  1. Excellent reminders. Very timely as we just moved cross country. You have armed me once again with confidently knowing exactly what I/we need to do next .

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