Modern Interpretations and Their Impact
Despite what we know about Charlotte Mason, based on her own writings and the writings of members of the PNEU, there is much we still don't understand. There are still questions and more than one way we might interpret something she has written. These questions and ambiguities are sometime ignored in modern interpretations of her work, sometimes only partially addressed and sometimes interpreted differently. As a result, the message is wrongly focused and delivered, leading to a new but incomplete understanding. What role does modern interpretations of Charlotte Mason's ideas and methods play in how educators today characterize and define them?
For a long time a Charlotte Mason curriculum was considered a light and gentle approach to learning. Educators, unfamiliar with her own writings and work, came to define her ideas and methods based on the books written with this very interpretation. The emphasis was on short lessons, a later introduction to grammar and science conducted through nature walks and sketchbooks. While many educators were drawn to her methods when their children were young, they very often began to pull away for many different reasons, but with one very particular reason holding significant weight. As their children grew older, the need for more structure and definition with regard to learning began to take hold. A light and gentle approach was not giving their children the education they desired for them to have. They left this approach looking for more. Other families found that such ideas and methods as picture study, nature study and living books added an element of beauty and wonder that they felt the traditional neo-classical approach lacked. They kept these elements giving balance to their approach. What was misunderstood? In brief, short lessons are not defined by specific time limits for all ages. These time allotments adjust with the age of the child. The emphasis is not just on keeping a lesson brief in time, but in moving on when the children can no longer give appropriate attention. Other aspects which have weight is in preparing the lesson, giving children appropriate approaches to gaining their attention and in varying lesson types from ones which require significant attention to those which require less. This is just a short summary on what could be a larger article on just short lessons. Correcting the other misunderstood examples of a later introduction to grammar and the way science was conducted would take even longer. These are just three of many examples wrongly interpreted by these books and this "gentle" approach, requiring corrections to keep families from leaving the Charlotte Mason method.
Also, we have the website and group known as Ambleside Online, who became know as the purest interpretation of Charlotte Mason's work. We do owe this group a great deal with regard to public knowledge and awareness of her work. Their free website offers more than their own interpretation of CM and their own curriculum. It also makes her original writings available and offers a very large number of the PNEU articles, painstakingly retyped, for the public too. We are all much indebted to the original hosts of this website. But as with anything, there are advantages and disadvantages. The original hosts, while working hard to stay true to CM, also added their own interpretations to her work. This is absolutely their prerogative and is something that is done with probably every curriculum which models itself after Ms. Mason, including this one. I cannot express any censure with this site, as I began my journey with CM using AO. But, I can now, as a more experienced educator and as one who has read a great deal more of Charlotte Mason, step away from this interpretation and see its flaws for what they are. In fact, it only took me a couple of years before I began to do this and it was at this time that I began writing my own curriculum. I deliberately chose to make adjustments to my curriculum that I felt were off-track with the way that AO chose to interpret them. But, this interpretation gained followers who added their own perspectives. As these followers became well-known, they spread this "face" of CM, giving newcomers the false impression that this was the only way to use and understand her ideas. Group mentality looks for cohesion with its ideas and its followers, keeping flexibility out. Many families turned away from CM because of this. AO failed to recognize that they too had added their own color to her approach. There cannot be a pure form of Charlotte Mason unless she herself comes back to the living.
As of late, there has been offered a new variation of Charlotte Mason's work: classical. Naturally there followed much debate over this and for some the debate still continues. On one side, many feel that Charlotte Mason's work is of her own and not one to be placed under existing categories. On the other side, many feel that Charlotte Mason's work lines up very neatly with the core ideas of a classical education. Much confusion abounds, as the very definition of classical education varies. The general idea seems to be that it is important to recognize that those who feel that CM's ideas and core tenets match well with those of a classical education are not talking about today's modern version of classical, neo-classical, but of an earlier version, which was based on ideas from educators from the Renaissance.
I'm very grateful for the new variation of CM as it much more closely aligns with what I believe is what Ms. Mason would have meant for us to follow. I'm relieved as well as it pulls away from the wrongly applied label that it was a "gentle" approach. But, we should be careful. In our haste to feel that we have finally unraveled her approach, we can often lean too far in the other direction.
Interestingly, AO, which began as the pure interpretation of Ms. Mason, has lately begun to lean more towards the classical approach. Many followers feel frustration over these mixed messages. Why must they follow a rigid book list and methods, but yet many of the new leaders who contribute do not? These same leaders contribute or use the products of other well-known classical sites as well; products which are not aligned with a Charlotte Mason education. So, is this group still the pure interpretation of CM or has it moved away from this label. Or do they believe this label is more pure than the original? If so, then the rigidity of the book list and methods should be updated. It's really not fair to censor one exchange of a book for another from the book list, as this is strictly discouraged, but yet embrace the very obvious flexibility of book choices and methods upheld by its newest board advisors.
Where on the spectrum does this curriculum fall? I'm not entirely sure that I want to be pegged in one specific place. As I learn more about Charlotte Mason's ideas, I will then continue to adapt to my new knowledge. And as I have always been upfront about, I add my own core tenets and methods to my curriculum. This will never entirely be a CM education: it will be well-aligned with her ideas but will always stay true to my own. If it helps to give a general idea of where this curriculum falls, then I would have to say that it leans more classical then not. I believe that children deserve the very best opportunities to develop and grow their minds and that it is up to us, their teachers, to do all that we can to provide this for them.
How are the effects to these interpretations determined? They are often determined by how well the interpretations are marketed. Blogs, websites and books depict through beautiful photographs and art an atmosphere of living and learning that reaches out and draws people to them. These gain and hold the attention and favor of educators and their families. If you look beyond the showy surface, will you find depth and truth beneath it? Sometimes the very best work is either uncovered by ourselves or is wrapped up in plain paper.