Why Study Ourselves?

…to be born a human being is like coming into a very great estate; so much in the way of goodness, greatness, heroism, wisdom, and knowledge, is possible to us all.

(Ourselves, p. 9)

People wanting to read Charlotte Mason’s original writings are often daunted by seeing that the Series takes up six volumes of small print. Which one do we read first? Are there key volumes, and (we hope) one or two that can be shelved for much later? Home Education and Philosophy of Education usually get the most votes as places to start. Home Education takes first spot not only for its emphasis on the daily life of the young child, and also for its teaching on habit and its (sometimes forgotten) end portion on the government of “Mansoul” and the Way of the Will. Philosophy ranks second for its orderly examination of Mason’s principles, as well as her late-in-life conclusions about it all. Parents and Children, of course, has much to say about authority and docility, and what parents (and teachers) may do to train children in good character; and Formation of Character has more of the same. School Education has its supporters, especially among those who notice that, again, it is not a random book about curriculum, but an unpacking of the principles.

What’s missing here? Ourselves. If we see that it’s something “to read to the students,” we may assume it is simply a rehash of what may be found in the other books, and so put on the bottom of the pile. Not so! This volume needs to be treated as more than just a treatise on eating what’s on your plate.

We see that we, too, live in a great age and a great country, in which there is plenty of room for heroes; and if these should be heroes in a quiet way, who the world never hears of, that does not make much real difference.

(Book I, p. 37)

School Education and Philosophy of Education analyze what we believe about knowledge (Principles #9-12), the “syllabus” or curriculum (#13), and the practices of narration, a single reading, etc. (#14, 15). Ourselves, on the other hand, is the book of “moral and intellectual self-management” (#16). Mason revives the Mansoul idea begun in Home Education, summarizing her thoughts in Principle 19:

Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.

As some of the other volumes specialize in that “wide range of knowledge,” so Ourselves focuses on the “principles of conduct,” which “should” save us from “loose thinking” and “heedless action.” Mason puts it bluntly on page 143 of Book I: “Nobody is born a Hooligan.” In other words, Ourselves asks us, in that interestingly modern PNEU phrase, to “mix it with brains”; but not only brains, but also heart, and finally soul.

20. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.

Ourselves is the book of Mind, Will, and Conscience. It is the book that speaks most directly to contemporary issues, although in ways that Miss Mason couldn’t have imagined. Shopping addiction, clutter, and materialism? She covered it. Wasting time on mindless games or novels? Idolizing friends? Exposing ourselves (and our children) to media violence and horror? It’s all in there. We are capable, Miss Mason says, of educating the conscience, and of using the power of the individual will to deal with inevitable toxic fumes that blow in our faces or (more dangerously) seep in without being noticed.

“There is no fall of which we are not capable…But let us take courage.”

Notice and think!, Mason begs. Take trouble! Make choices! Care about things! Serve others! Fight for justice!

Would I recommend that someone brand-new to Charlotte Mason begin with this, when there is much to discuss about choosing toys, teaching reading, and rediscovering the joys of mud puddles? No, likely not; Home Education and Philosophy are still the tried-and-true introductions. But for those who are ready for more, I would urge a careful reading of Book I (the first half of the book, in most editions) for its examination of the interaction between the physical, mental and emotional powers that make us “born persons”; and Book II for its “graduate level” work on the Conscience, the Will, and the maturing of our spiritual nature in our “House of Soul.” Ourselves bookends the rest because it is, in the end, about our lives, our selves.