This post reviews Hilary Cooper, “Looking Backwards to Move Forwards: Charlotte Mason on History” in Curriculum Journal 23: 1 (2012), pp. 7-18.
Cooper, a member of the education faculty at the University of Cumbria, Carlisle, UK, here uses Charlotte Mason’s views of history education to critique trends in the British government’s approach to the issue.The context for the piece are some recent statements by some government officials to the effect that the standards enshrined in Britain’s National Curriculum for history, which encourage a constructivist approach where students are taught to read sources and think like historians, should be scrapped. Some current leaders want to go back to a time when history inculcated students with a love of England and made them memorize lists of kings and queens and the dates of their reigns.
Cooper is opposed to this proposal. To defend the constructivist approach she appeals to Charlotte Mason. Mason was, like many of these politicians advocating a return to patriotic memorization, in many respects a very conservative person. She was quintessentially Victorian, committed to “patriotism, duty, self-discipline, and Christianity.” (p. 8) But her approach to history instruction was remarkably modern. Through distance learning materials her Parents’ Education Union (founded in 1887) sent to families around the world, through the Parents’ Review magazine, through her House of Education (opened in 1892), and especially through her writings which have been collected in the six volume Original Home Schooling Series, Mason worked to help mothers throughout the British Empire inculcate a love of history in their children.
Cooper has read through all of Mason’s writing and cataloged every mention of history or history instruction. She shares here the results of her survey. Charlotte Mason basically encouraged mothers to do away with the romanticized historical stories that are so often offered to children as well as with the dry and dreary litanies of dates and names one finds in encyclopedic works. She is “particularly critical of history books which have a moral or religious tone.” (p. 10) Instead she wants children to rub shoulders as much as possible with what we nowadays call primary sources–historical artifacts produced by people in the past, be they writings, art, architecture, material culture, or whatever. As Cooper puts it, “a child should first be introduced to a period, not through a modern historian or writer but through writers from that period.” (p. 12)
The goal of this exposure to the actual relics of the past is to help children understand that the past was real, not just some distant entity about which information must be memorized for reasons the student cannot fathom. Mason wants to cultivate an intimate knowledge of the people and places of the past–and not just the kings and queens of England either. She wants children to learn about all social classes and other countries as well.
How best to have children engage these primary sources? Cooper explains three approaches Mason advocated. The first is retelling–children will simply describe historical artifacts in their own words. The second is role play–a child will act out events, make speeches, dress up, and do other imaginative things to bring the past to life. Finally comes drawing–children will create their own interpretations of history by drawing historical characters, events, or cultures in their own way. Together these processes assist children in synthesizing and interpreting the various sources to which they’ve been exposed. Only after all of this is done will second-hand accounts by modern writers seem interesting and important. Mason doesn’t care if this approach means that a child might not know the precise date of a certain battle or coronation. The child will have cultivated a rich historical imagination and a penchant for critical engagement with historic artifacts, much more useful skills.
After summarizing all of this Cooper returns to the comments of politicians and again urges that the nation not change course and revert to a curriculum that, in the words of the Secretary of State for Education, “emphasizes a received narrative of facts and dates” that celebrates how great England has always been. (p.17)
I was interested to read this article because the Charlotte Mason Method is so big in the American homeschooling world. Cooper’s exegesis here captures well why this approach is so interesting to me. The Charlotte Mason approach is very popular among Christian homeschoolers, but it is also quite “progressive” in its pedagogy.
Mason was a late 19th century figure, living in a time when the split between fundamentalism and modernism was not as clear as it has since become. She had no trouble accepting the authority of the Bible and the theory of evolution, for example, nor did she see a sharp contrast between “Biblical” childrearing and child-centered approaches. Much of what she says here about history is very consistent with what later progressive theorists like John Dewey will say, and it sounds a lot like “social studies.” These things are anathema to many conservative Christians today, but they were not to Charlotte Mason.
Cooper’s text here lacks a contextualizing component. We don’t read here much about Mason the late 19th century historical figure. Instead Cooper simply juxtaposes what Mason said then with what these reactionary British politicians are saying now. That might be an effective rhetorical move, but it isn’t really great history. It’s somewhat ironic that an article celebrating Mason’s approach to history uses Mason’s own words in such an ahistorical manner, but that’s what Cooper does.