Having looked briefly at what Charlotte Mason included in her curriculum for Citizenship in Part I, followed by magnanimous citizens as the outcome of education in Part II, let us now talk about the moral development of students and how Citizenship as well as the rest of her curriculum contributes to this.
As with each of the subjects in a relational education, Mason did not separate Citizenship from moral living; indeed, we sometimes find the subject of Citizenship called “Every Day Morals” in the upper forms. This is no accident. If we look at the Preface to Volume 5, Formation of Character, Mason (1906/1989) shares some interesting advice:
I have used the current phrase “formation of character” because it is current, and therefore convenient; but, to show that I recognise the fallacy it contains, I venture to quote the following (very inadequate) definition: “His character—the efflorescence of the man wherein the fruit of his life is a-preparing-character is original disposition, modified, directed, expanded by education, by circumstances; later, by self-control and self-culture; above all, by the supreme agency of the Holy Spirit, even when that agency is little suspected and as little solicited”; that is to say, character is not the outcome of a formative educational process; but inherent tendencies are played upon, more or less incidentally, and the outcome is character. (Preface)
She then goes on to say:
I should like to urge that this incidental play of education and circumstances upon personality is our only legitimate course. We may not make character our conscious objective. Provide a child with what he needs in the way of instruction, opportunity, and wholesome occupation, and his character will take care of itself. (Preface)
In his excellent book, Tending the Heart of Virtue – How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination, Vigen Guroian states:
Much of what passes for moral education fails to nurture the moral imagination. Yet, only a pedagogy that awakens and enlivens the moral imagination will persuade the child or the student that courage is the ultimate test of good character, that honesty is essential for trust and harmony among persons, and that humility and magnanimous spirit are goods greater than the prizes won by selfishness, pride or the unscrupulous exercise of position and power. (p. 24)
A Sweet Example
In so many ways, Mason’s educational model is truly a pedagogy that “awakens and enlivens the moral imagination.” Here is one example of many from my family. While they are growing up, some children may make daily or weekly comments about how certain stories have touched their moral imagination. Others might mention things only once a year or so. When my oldest son was about 10, he was sitting in the kitchen staring out the window. He is one of those children that seldom shares his thoughts. I was doing some sort of cleaning up and I asked him what he was thinking. He simply said, “I can’t believe he gave him the strap from his skate. And the race, really.” And then he walked up the stairs. I looked down and saw his just-finished book of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates on the table. Did I call him back and ask him what he meant by that? I could have, but that was one of the few moments with that child in which I witnessed his moral imagination at work. I did nothing to intrude upon him or the moment.
When talking about a child’s moral life and Mason’s curriculum, one must acknowledge the importance of engaging, living books. But much more is needed for the formation of magnanimous citizens. N.T. Wright shares what he calls “The Virtuous Circle” in his book After You Believe – Why Christian Character Matters. Here he discusses how we should live as Christians in the church and how virtue can be developed. (Refer to his book for a more in-depth explanation.) I will apply Wright’s idea to Mason’s paradigm and suggest that all these elements support and work towards developing the moral life of students.
Since it is a circle, there is no beginning or end; think of it as a continuous journey through life. Let us briefly examine each of the points on Wright’s “Virtuous Circle” in light of Mason’s model.
Mason had a deep reverence for the Scriptures. All ages had daily Bible lessons, while 7–12 grade students read her poetic commentary on the Scriptures, The Saviour of the World. She said, “Bible teaching should be as the warp in and out of which the child weaves other knowledge and other thought.” She said further:
Bible-teaching, for example, is perhaps the most valuable instrument of education, not only moral and spiritual, but intellectual. The Bible is the “classics” of the children and the unlearned, the finest classic literature in the world. Some of our greatest orators and best writers owe their moving power to the fact that their minds are stored with the exquisite phraseology and imagery of the Scriptures. Now the Parents’ Review School requires a good deal of Bible study. (Mason, 1892/1893)
Mason believed in awakening the child’s moral imagination through living books. Knowledge must come in literary form; excellent stories strengthen the moral imagination. Mason (1905/1989) writes:
There is no nice shade of conduct which is not described or exemplified in the vast treasure-house of literature. History and biography are full of instruction in righteousness; but what is properly called literature, that is, poetry, essays, the drama, and novels, is perhaps the most useful for our moral instruction, because the authors bring their insight to bear in a way they would hesitate to employ when writing about actual persons. (p. 9)
A child learns lessons from the heroes he meets in his stories, the people he is with day in and day out, and examples from the Bible. The child is always watching and learning from honest struggles and selfless living found in both his books as well as the people around him. Professor Laurie (1900), frequent contributor to The Parents’ Review, talks about readings from history and how the examples there will influence students:
By the study of past greatness, moreover, we learn to strive to be worthy of our forefathers, and, by the understanding of the causes which have so often led mankind astray, we learn to understand better the questions which arise in our own time, and to act during the brief period assigned to us on the stage of life with circumspection and under a sense of responsibility to those who are to succeed us.
Community is key to a relational education. Whether that community is a church, school, or a learning cooperative, being around like-minded people can be a support for the teachers and the students. Mason often talks about the importance to a child of his “school chums.” As the young student matures, his concern and involvement should expand to include his city and state and the civic responsibilities those entail. Through this the student should learn that he is part of something bigger and realize that his actions may have effects on those around him. As magnanimous citizens, it is important that rights (inward-focus) and duties (outward-focus) are in their proper place. Teachers strive for their students “to have their eyes opened that they may see the rights of others as clearly as their own.” (Mason, 1906/1989 p. 206)
Practices and routines are those frameworks from which relationships can be built. Examples include: eating meals together, taking the time to pray before we eat, routinely being polite by saying “Thank you,” or “You’re welcome.” Dozens of habits such as truthfulness, attentiveness, narration, understanding and mastering the way of the will and the way of reason, are practices important to the moral fiber of all children.
To each of the above categories we could add many more examples and explanations, but what should be stressed is the whole, the application of Mason’s entire philosophy that helps form character and the moral life. Certainly Mason’s (1925/1989) educational credo comes through loud and clear here—“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline and a life …and the science of relations” (p. xxix).
Qualities in the Children
After many years of successfully implementing her methods in schools, Mason (1923) posed the question, “What are the qualities that go to make a good citizen and how far does a P.N.E.U. child exhibit them?” (p. 009). She tells us that P.N.E.U. children exhibit a certain “hall mark by which they may be known, a mark composed of many markings” (p. 010). The list of qualities and behaviors they attain that comprise good citizenship include:
“You all know how straight your children are about their examinations; how free they are from shifty ways, they know or they don’t know, and are quite simple about it….Is not this attitude which we sum up roughly as integrity what we want in our citizens of all classes?” (p. 010)
- Absence of self-consciousness, self-conceit, vanity, display
“Again, the absence of self-consciousness, self-conceit, vanity, display, has been noticed in these, who are simply average P.N.E.U. children.” (p. 010)
- Puts his duties before his rights
“These are qualities that should make a citizen put his duties before his rights; and, once more, should not such citizens be an asset to any nation?” (p. 010)
- Unconscious obedience
- Singleness of purpose and motive
“Which augurs well for their future as citizens, and promises another kind of purity about which we are all a little anxious, which is best ensured by a well nourished and active mind, for Satan finds some mischief still for idle minds to do.” (p. 010)
- Instant absolute attention and concentration
“Think what it would be to the head of a house or a factory, a ship or a department, to be sure of fixed intelligent attention being given to every instruction! We all serve in one way or another, but the capacity to serve is dependent on the habit of concentration.” (p. 010)
- Knowledge of laws, administration, and constitution
“A good citizen must know about the laws of his country, the means of administration, how the constitution has developed; these things he must learn from a pretty wide reading of history—English, European, French, Ancient,—the stirring tales of services rendered to their several countries by great citizens throughout the ages.” (p. 011)
“A village hall or public room and the Carnegie Library are all that citizens brought up in our schools require to make them in every sense, mental, moral and physical, self-supporting.” (p. 012)
The Art of Becoming Magnanimous Citizens
The above list may seem a bit far-reaching today, but the holistic approach to Mason’s method described in this essay outlines a better and more hopeful way to approach Citizenship. If we focus on magnanimity as a goal of education and examine virtue and morality as an ongoing compendium that is undergirded with support from the church and community (something Mason was able to achieve), we see how she obtained these lofty goals for her students. Might we offer our children the same? Can we afford not to? Let us consider Citizenship as a part of Mason’s whole paradigm and embrace what she called “the art of becoming magnanimous citizens” (Mason, 1925/1989, p. 194).
 “The Virtuous Circle” image used with permission of N.T. Wright, PhD.
Gurioan, V. (1998). Tending the heart of virtue: how classic stories awaken a child’s moral imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Laurie, S.S. (1900). Instruction in history and citizenship. The Parents’ Review, 11, Retrieved from: http://www.ambleside
Mason, C.M. (1892). The home school. The Parents’ Review, Retrieved from: https://www.amblesideonline.org/PR/PR
Mason, C. M. (1989). Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1905)
Mason, C. M. (1989). Formation of character. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1906)
Mason, C.M. (1923). In memoriam. Retrieved from: http://www.amblesideonline.org/CM/InMemoriamI.html
Mason, C. M. (1989). A philosophy of education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1925)
Wright, N. (2010). After you believe: why Christian character matters. New York: Harper One.
This edited article was first published in June 2015 by the Charlotte Mason Institute in Essays on the Life and Work of Charlotte Mason, Volume 2 under the title “Citizenship in the Curriculum: Mason, Magnanimity, and the Moral Life” published by Riverbend Press.