Preferred Paths (new book excerpt)

Step-by-step drawing books were therefore discouraged, although at least one such book was included in curriculum for the primary grades. A contradiction, right there? If you can access an archive of scanned-in books, look for What to Draw and How to Draw It, by the American illustrator Edwin George Lutz. From the back cover:

This is really a remarkable book in which line is made a good reason for form. The youngest child may grasp the magic progress of this way of working and he will draw the picture naturally and well. Instructions are very brief, for the key lines of each object tell their own story and the child is entranced by the results soon gained. There is no stupid tracing, for tracing accomplishes at most only a little muscular control.

“Stupid” is an unpopular word, but it is used here in its Victorian sense of dull, boring, pointless. It’s obvious from the description why this book was felt to be an antidote to the “scales without music” approach. How brilliant…we might even say, how C.M. is it…to let “the key lines of each object tell their own story?” It echoes Charlotte’s insistence that “Every relation must be initiated by its own ‘captain’ idea, sustained upon fitting ideas; and wrought into the material substance of the person by its proper habits” (School Education, p. 71).

Could we apply the same thinking to arithmetic lessons?

Composer studies?

Bible lessons?

Clay modelling?


What we’re looking for is, as Charlotte says, the opposite of a “macadamised” road. I think her objection to such roads was not so much the stuff they were made from (which was, originally, just crushed rock) as, perhaps, their inorganic, industrial nature, and also their tendency to sprawl all over the countryside, as compared to the “old ways,” pathways which had come into being over the centuries to serve the purposes of the people who used them. When Charlotte travelled, she must have been thankful for safe, mud-free roads, and perhaps even for railways; but for a walk through the countryside, the old paths were preferred; and to teach children drawing, the major lines would be just enough. The brush-drawn flower might be rough, and the early narrations might lack detail, but were the children seeing? Were they listening? Were they catching the “main lines,” the “pictures themselves?” That was more important.

Excerpted from a forthcoming book, Ideas Freely Sown: The Matter and Method of Charlotte Mason, by Anne E. White.

On Composition (new book excerpt)

Philosophy of Education, starting on page 195, offers examples of student compositions, written as examination responses. These represent Charlotte Mason’s story-starters, and there are only three, really: Literature. Nature. Current Events. Those three are repeated over and over, and that is “suggestive,” as Charlotte would say. Younger students were expected only to “tell back,” or to notice and reproduce the “major lines”; but the older ones were required to turn their thoughts on spring, or Home Rule in Ireland, or the poems of Tennyson, into blank verse, or ballads, or scenes involving literary characters. That gives us also, and not incidentally, a snapshot of what went on in the day-to-day teaching. The older classes obviously spent a fair amount of time reading or talking or writing about those same three subjects: literature (especially mythology, if we go by the exam responses); nature; and current events. It’s clear that they spent time reading poetry, and learned about meter. And although they did no worksheets aimed at increasing “higher-level thinking skills,” they were nevertheless practicing synthesis and evaluation, and writing like writers, in the same way that the young twig-painters were beginning to paint like painters. Without blobs, without gimmicks.

“Tell it slant”

One question we may ask, from our precarious perch in the twenty-first century, is how literally we can apply this. We can read, receive, participate, enjoy literature spanning centuries…but how do we reproduce? If there is no reason for an adult today to write poetry in the style of Tennyson, can we expect students to find meaning in such an exercise? Or find readers for their work? Writers still want an audience for their serious (or seriously hilarious) writing; but I’m guessing there is little market for a sonnet about the ups and downs of computer companies. Or a ballad about light-rail transit, or plant-based diets. Should we have Jane Austen’s “Mr. Woodhouse” chat about the latest celebrity divorce? Is there any contemporary way to respectfully, insightfully, and beautifully respond to a classic novel, a piano concerto, the buds on a tree, without turning it into the latest equivalent of a rap song? How do we encourage humour, even occasional irreverence, without going too far?

This is an ongoing problem, and one with which writers, teachers, and preachers wanting to reach their audiences have often struggled. Emily Dickinson recommended that we “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” and this may apply even more so now. Students who have grown up with Charlotte Mason’s practices may actually have an advantage over their parents, somewhat like that of third-culture kids: if their early learning experiences have been sufficiently wide and generous; if they have learned to look and listen carefully, and to reproduce the “major lines”; and if they haven’t had their “faculties” pulled to pieces by curriculum checklists, then they may be the ones who can successfully interpret those experiences for the next generation.

Excerpted from a forthcoming book, Ideas Freely Sown: The Matter and Method of Charlotte Mason, by Anne E. White.

New Year’s Day (excerpt from Honest, Simple Souls)

I am not advising any Spartan regimen. It is not permitted to us to inflict hardness in order that the children may learn to endure. Our care is simply to direct their consciousness from their own sensations…At the same time, though the child himself be taught to disregard them, his sensations should be carefully watched by his elders, for they must consider and act upon the danger signals which the child himself must be taught to disregard. But it is usually possible to attend to a child’s sensations without letting him know they have been observed.

Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, pp. 287-288

We are assured here that what may sound harsh is actually a reminder that parents need to keep their eyes open for their children’s needs, without noticeably interfering. In one sense it requires an impossible amount of wisdom and discernment; but it can also be a simple outgrowth of our own will to live without self-obsession and self-importance. It is a form of “masterly inactivity,” that also teaches children to quietly, respectfully, and non-intrusively care in the same way for the needs of others.

And why? The point of not complaining is to allow us to see God’s glory, and we can’t do it if we’re focused on our own circumstances. Classical headmaster Danny Breed once wrote that, “Every lesson is going to go somewhere, and it is going to make much of something” (Circe Institute blog, February 1, 2016). That something, in Charlotte Mason’s words, is meant to be something, or Someone, outside of ourselves. It is not just how we live, but why we live.

In the spirit of the season

Do our New Year’s resolutions allow us to live without excessive self-regard (while still understanding our value as Personsouls)? Do they help us to hear God’s call and see His glory?

Although it is still Christmastide, many people (due to time realities) may be putting away their trees and decorations. Consider keeping out any star-themed ornaments, dishes, etc., for use on Twelfth Night and Epiphany.

Honest, Simple Souls: An Advent Meditation with Charlotte Mason is available for purchase on (or your own country’s version).