A Journey Through Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles: Principle 2

They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.

Before beginning my study on this principle, it was clear to me that I would need to place this statement in its historical context to properly understand Charlotte Mason’s meaning. On first reading, this statement appears to say something against the doctrine of original sin. I had been told and believed that this was not the case, but until studying this principle this month I had not spent any time investigating for myself.

Mason does not deny the doctrine of original sin. Karen Glass, author of Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition and Know and Tell: The Art of Narration, has written a very helpful article on what it was that Mason was addressing, which I encourage you to read. In my own rudimentary Google searching into the subject I found historical explanations that will help set the context.

In the time of Mason, the beginning of the 20th century, the rise of Darwinism and the theory of evolution through natural selection led to a greater consideration of the role that genes play in the development of psychological as well as physical traits in an individual. The idea, now termed biological or genetic determinism, known then as heredity determinism, became an idea widely disseminated in society. “Most theories of biological determinism viewed undesirable traits as originating in defective genes” (Garland Allen)—that is, that the behavioral, as well as physical characteristics of a person, were solely determined by genetics. Mason saw that many parents and educators began to think that there was no point in trying to instruct a person in morals and right behavior because it was already determined by their genes. A bad egg will breed a bad egg and that was that.

In this principle, Mason argues that this is not the case and that education can contribute a great deal in training a person to right living and thinking. She says,

“There are good and evil tendencies in body and mind, heart and soul; and the hope set before us is that we can foster the good so as to attenuate the evil; that is, on condition that we put education in her true place as the handmaid of religion.” Towards A Philosophy of Education, p.46

As Glass points out in her article, Mason is not making a theological statement. She is commenting on the potential of all children to learn as an argument against the commonly held belief that some children, particularly the poorer classes, did not have any potential.

With this context in view, through my study of this principle, my mind has been occupied with considering the idea of the “possibilities for good.” Specifically, how much potential for ‘good’ do we really have outside of Christ in light of the doctrine of original sin and total depravity; and what role does education have, if any, in the training of good in our children.

The work of justification is the work of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing that education can do, in and of itself, toward the salvation of a person’s soul from being “dead in trespasses and sins” to “alive again in Christ.” Nor is sanctification a work that we alone can do. It is only with the Holy Spirit that we can grow in Christlikeness. Mason does not deny these truths. But she saw from experience that education is a servant to religion, a tool which ought not to be squandered, in leading children toward right thinking and living, and our ultimate hope, toward God. That all children, no matter what their station or economic status in life, no matter if their father is a poor alcoholic or a statesman in good standing, all have the possibility to learn what is good, just as much as they have of what is bad. This is directly related to Principle 1: Children are born persons. God has given all children His image and therefore, as discussed last month, His communicable attributes. He has given the ability to love, to be generous, to show mercy, kindness etc., and a mind with which to learn and grow in knowledge and wisdom.

As Christians, we acknowledge that it is only by God’s grace, common to all, that we can say or do any good. Any good we do in this life is still marred by sin. It is not the perfect good that is found in God alone, but it is a broken good that, by His grace of restraining our sinfulness, many, even non-Christians, achieve to some degree.

John Calvin explains.

“But here it ought to occur to us that amid this corruption of nature there is some place for God’s grace; not such grace as to cleanse it, but to restrain it inwardly… This God by his providence bridles perversity of nature, that it may not break forth into action; but he does not purge it within.” Institutes, p. 292-293.

Education is a tool that God can use to extend that common grace to us and restrain us from being as wicked as our hearts have the potential (and desire) to be.

I labor this point because of a great many discussions I had with my husband this month as I studied this principle. I struggled to articulate to him why Mason was not making an unbiblical statement. And each attempt at an explanation revealed that I did not hold rightly to, or at least could not articulate rightly, a biblical view of the sinful state of man’s heart. My husband took great pains to impress upon me how dire my heart really is without Christ. Yet my brain still wanted to say, “I have the ability in and of myself to be good because I choose to be.” But Jesus disagrees with me.

“No one is good except God alone.” Mark 10:18

Calvin expounds.

“Man’s understanding is pierced by a heavy spear when all the thoughts that proceed from him are mocked as stupid, frivolous, insane, and perverse.” Institutes, p. 290.

No. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, we have no possibility for good. And yet, God, because of His common grace, and out of His mere good pleasure, saw fit to endow to some a special grace that makes possible admirable and heroic actions for the blessing of mankind. These “special graces,” as Calvin calls them, are gifts from God and reflect His image. Education is used by Him as a tool to instruct all in what is right and be a blessing to mankind. Further, that through education some might be lead to know Him. “How are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14). Or, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). By the means of education, He can lead us to humbly accept our fallen state and our need of Him.

“Thus it rests with parents to ease the way of their child by giving him habits of the god [spiritual] life in thought, feeling, and action, and even in spiritual things. We cannot make a child ‘good’; but, in this way, we can lay paths for the good life in the very substance of his brain.  We cannot make him hear the voice of God; but, again, we can make paths where the Lord God may walk in the cool of the evening.” Formation of Character, p. 141-142

If you’d like to join me in studying Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles, get your copy of Start Here and see this post for details.

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