Topical CM Series

Charlotte Mason's ideas are too important not to be understood and implemented in the 21st century, but her Victorian style of writing sometimes prevents parents from attempting to read her books. This is an imperfect attempt to make Charlotte's words accessible to modern parents. You may read these, print them out, share them freely--but they are copyrighted to me, so please don't post or publish them without asking.
~L. N. Laurio

The Charlotte Mason Series in Modern English Arranged Topically


Volume 3, School Education Education, pg 148-150

A Motto

Some of you already know the Parents' Union motto: 'Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life,' because there's a neat diagram of it on the covers of our library books. They say that a society is destined to live by its motto. One respected educationalist wrote this to me about public education: 'Now, more than ever, we need the kind of educational perspective that's expressed in the memorable words of the Parents' Review motto.' An inspiring motto always has power, but living upon our motto's good reputation, and living up to it, and in it are two different things. I believe that the Parents' Union has a lot of continual thinking and challenging living ahead if it wants to interpret and illustrate those 'memorable words' to the world. Fortunately, we're a courageous bunch. We have some determined intentions, and we're passionate about them. Those who set a goal with the best determination, and who expend effort for the best, will see the best as a result.

How the 1800's Implemented the Principle of 'Education is an Atmosphere'

Meanwhile, we sometimes make mistakes by taking one part and acting as if it were the whole, and sometimes even by focusing on a small part of a part and mistaking that for the whole. Of the three phrases in the motto, the first, 'education is an atmosphere,' tends to be our favorite because it's the most inviting for the permissive non-intervening part of our human nature. And we lose something by thinking that 'atmosphere' is the same as 'environment,' and thinking that the word itself holds some kind of magic key. The word 'atmosphere' is symbolic, but a symbol means more to us than the word that's used. When we think of everything surrounding the child as 'atmosphere,' then our considerations will expand even to the air a child breathes, to make sure it's fresh, clean and invigorating, and that the child breathes it in deeply and correctly. If we use the more literal word, 'environment,' our concept will be more limited.

Results of Permissive Non-intervention

But when we think of an education as an atmosphere, we get a fresh, dynamic concept in our minds. If we imagine that it means sunshine, green fields, pleasant rooms, good pictures, gentle inspiration used to get children to learn their lessons, eliminating everything that we feel isn't needed, charming, smiling teachers mesmerizing the children into complying to be like everyone else, then it's easy for us to sit back, satisfied that everything is going great and all of education is being accomplished. But it's not. Although it's true that we can't live without air, it's just as true that we can't live on air alone. Children raised on the concept of 'environment' soon start showing signs of laziness. They have very little curiosity, if they have any at all, no ability to focus their attention or their effort, and, worst of all, they lose their spontaneity and initiative. They expect life to come and drop itself into them like raindrops dripping into a tub, without any effort or intention on their part.


The notion that education is covered by environment, or maybe even by atmosphere, has been popular for the past generation or two, and it seems to have left its mark on our public and private lives. We're more interested in having things done for us than in doing things for others. We're not interested in directing our own lives one way or the other, we'd rather have our lives managed for us. A schedule of appointments and events dictates what to do now, and what to do next. We crave exciting entertainment, like parades and thrilling movies. Even Shakespeare plays have become such spectacular displays that Shakespeare's dialogues are lost in the show. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with these things, but our desire to escape from boredom reflects our one-sided view of education--the view that education is all about atmosphere.

Volume 3, School Education Education, pg 182

I don't need to emphasize what kind of educational tools we should use. We know that 'Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.' By that, we mean that parents and teachers should know how to make the best use of a child's circumstances (atmosphere) in order to advance a solid education; they should cultivate his self-discipline by training him to have the kind of habits that will make his life run smoothly (discipline), and they should nourish his mind with ideas, since that's the kind of mental food that develops their personalities (life).

Volume 3, School Education Education, pg 216-217

The following suggestions have come about in the administering of the Parents' National Educational Union, so it might be helpful to say again that the first priority for the PNEU during its first ten years was impressing the definition of Education on its members, as expressed in our motto, 'Education is an Atmosphere, a Discipline, a Life.' What we mean by this is that parents and teachers should understand how to make the most practical use of a child's circumstances (atmosphere), they should help him develop the kinds of habits that will make his life better (discipline), and they should feed his mind with the food of intellectual life--ideas. We believe that these three are the only tools that are authorized in raising children. It might be easier to play on their sensitivities, emotions, desires and passions, but the result will be disastrous. Since habits, ideas and circumstances are external, it's okay to help each other make the most of them that we can. But it's forbidden to directly meddle with the personality of anyone else. It's wrong to play on a child's vanity, fears, affection, ambition, or anything else that helps make him who he is. Most people are sincere about raising children, but we tend to take control of more than we're entitled to by not recognizing that we're limited to working only with the outward covering of personality.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 93-98

1.--Education is an Atmosphere

Principle 5. The only means a teacher may use to educate children are the child's natural environment, the training of good habits and exposure to living ideas and concepts. This is what CM's motto "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life" means.
Principle 6. "Education is an atmosphere" doesn't mean that we should create an artificial environment for children, but that we use the opportunities in the environment he already lives in to educate him. Children learn from real things in the real world.
(The fifth and sixth of Charlotte Mason's 20 Principles.)

Since we can't motivate with intimidation, misguided affection, prompting with subtle suggestions, deliberately using our influence to pressure children, playing on any one of a child's natural drives, or competition, we are limited. We aren't free to use any and all means to reach our desired goal of educating the child. There are only three means left to us. If we study them carefully, we'll see that they really are broader and fuller than they sound. Let's consider the first of these: atmosphere. For over ten years, we've put our confidence in providing the perfect environment to maximize learning. Some claim that the right environment accounts for nine tenths of a child's education, instead of one third. The theory goes, that if a child is raised in the perfect environment, its influence will be subtle, but those first impressions will be permanent. And the result will be an educated child. Schools can include Latin, math, or whatever else is in the official curriculum, but that's less important because the child's real education came in through osmosis. Selecting the best color scheme, the most harmonious sounds, beautiful objects, and considerate people will make a child grow up sweet, reasonable, and in harmony with his world.

'Peter's nursery was like a dream, a perfect place for his little soul to blossom. His walls were warm and cream-colored, and his father had decorated them with the most charming pictures of trotting and jumping ponies, dancing dogs and cats, leaping lambs, and carnival animals. There was a beautiful brass fireplace guard. All the tables had rounded corners so he wouldn't fall and get hurt on them while learning to walk. The floor was a soft cork carpet where Peter could play with his toys. There was a red hearth rug for him to crawl on. There were scales right in the nursery to weigh him every week, and a growth chart to check his progress. There was nothing casual about Peter's early years.'

That's what H.G. Wells wrote in his book about education, Joan and Peter [1918]. It's an accurate depiction of how parents try to prepare the perfect environment so that their children will be well-educated. Parents make great sacrifices to provide the most educational atmosphere. One couple spent more than they could afford on a statue to put at the top of their staircase so that their son's mind would be broadened by seeing beauty every time he went upstairs. This sort of thing has been going on since the 1880's or so. As usual, Germany surpassed everyone else in this, as she does everything she passes on to the rest of the world. Probably all the highly educated youths of Europe were raised like this. And the result is the kind of neo-Georgian youths we read about in Punch magazine who have an air of weariness, superiority and smug self-satisfaction. Indian scientist Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose concluded this about nervous impulse in plants:

'A plant protected from the outside elements by glass may look healthy and thriving, but its higher nervous system is stunted. When a series of electric shocks is delivered on this barren, overfed plant, the shocks themselves create nervous channels and deteriorate the plant even more. In life, it's the shocks of adversity that mature a person, not sheltering the person from life.'

We thought that the realities of the recent war inflicted enough blows, but current education still duly administers the 'beneficial' blows of adversity to students. Maybe overzealous teachers and parents are wrong. Maybe they've misread their list of duties, maybe they've over-rated their own roles, maybe, in their enthusiasm, they've intruded on the personalities of children. It's not a carefully controlled environment that children need, with everything artificially manipulated to relate to each other. They need a real atmosphere that hasn't been contrived and organized by specialists. The ideal atmosphere is everywhere, all around the child. It's what he lives and breathes in already, as naturally as the air around him. It gets tweaked and personalized by the people and things it includes, it gets modified by events, it's sweetened with the love of those he knows, and is regulated and kept healthy with some common sense. We all know the natural lives that children live at home. Their household routine is set by their mother. They play with their father. They're teased and shown affection by their brothers and sisters. They learn from bumps and bruises. They learn to sacrifice by having to wait until the baby's needs are met. They role play by pretending the couch is a boat, or by making tents with the table and chairs. They learn respect for the elderly by visiting grandparents. They learn how to get along with others by playing with friends in the neighborhood. They learn how to be intimate by sharing secrets and love with the family pet. They like discovering where buttercups grow, and they're ecstatic to discover where the blackberries grow! And they learn about consideration for people of all classes and races from relationships with their superiors, and with the man who comes to mow the lawn, or clerks at the store, or anyone who crosses their path. Children are expert at striking up these kinds of friendships, and it's a valuable part of their education.

They do need some watchfulness and guidance, though, to be sure their relationships are healthy ones. No artificially created environment could possibly compare to the natural atmosphere of real life, which blows like a fresh wind over the child.

It's fine to take advantage of a child's atmosphere to help along his education, but there must be limits. The limits are for us, not for the children. The most important limitation is that we may not artificially adjust the child's atmosphere to prevent him from feeling life's blows, or shield him from his own circumstances. Children need to experience the real world and face life. They aren't fooled, anyway--if their parents are anxious or upset, children sense it in the air. 'Mama, Mama, you aren't going to cry again, are you?' and a child offers a hug to try to take away the trouble. These are the kinds of things that prepare children to deal with real life. We should not shield them in glass boxes. If we do, they grow soft and delicate and will never be strong enough to handle problems effectively. But parents must remember their roles. The parents are the ones in charge, and the children need to submit to them. Also, it's wrong for more capable people to dump their heavy loads on those weaker than themselves. In the same way, it wouldn't be right for us to put young children in the position of making serious decisions for us. Decision-making is one of the most stressful tasks in life, and young children should be spared from that weight.

A school setting offers less opportunities for adding the element of real life to a child's atmosphere. But atmosphere applies here, too. School lessons can be so watered down and sweetened, and teachers can be so smooth and condescending, that they encourage lazy thinking and moral dullness that's difficult for a child to ever overcome. The strong brace of truth and sincerity should be in every school. Here, the common pursuit of knowledge by both teachers and students helps. It creates a current of fresh air that even a visitor to the school can see in the intellectual growth and working morality in the faces of both teachers and students.

But not all schools are striving out of a pure love for learning. Some are working very hard, but their effort is motivated by a desire for good grades. When that's the case, children's faces aren't calm and happy. Instead, they're anxious, restless and worried. The children don't sleep well and they're irritable. If anything goes wrong, they fall apart in tears of frustration, or get sullen. They're more difficult to manage in general. When this is the case, there's too much stress in the environment, their atmosphere is too over-stimulating, and they can't help reacting to the strain. Teachers come to the conclusion that the work is too challenging. They remove one thing or another from the curriculum. Or doctors may prescribe that a student relax for a year by being allowed to run and play instead of doing his lessons. The poor child! At the very time in his life when he needs knowledge to sustain his mind, he's turned away from lessons and left to pick up whatever he can learn on his own. So his nervous condition gets even worse and the child is labeled as having a condition of chronic nerves. But the problem was never the work. It was the atmosphere in which the work was done. Sometimes the teacher is so worried about her students doing well that the class picks up on her stress. 'I'm afraid that X can't do his test. He loves school, but he bursts into tears when I give him a test question. Maybe I've demanded so much that I've turned him into an over-achieving perfectionist.' This was said about a seven year old! The poor child was taxed into over-exertion because moral pressure was used to motivate him. But we envision better things. We foresee happy days for children when all their teachers understand that the only exciting motivation that's necessary to get high quality work from each child, no matter how big a classroom may be, is the natural curiosity in each child that makes him instinctively love knowledge. The calmness and pleasure of schools who use this principle is a surprise to any visitor who doesn't realize that this is as normal as the contentment a baby gets from nursing and taking in the nourishment he craves.

There are two possible paths for us: (1) We can create a fragrant but stale hot-house atmosphere by modifying and controlling conditions. In this atmosphere, children grow well enough from all outward appearances, but they are weak and dependent. (2) We can allow children to experience real life as it comes, but with enough care not to allow too much to batter them. For instance, we don't have to abandon them to evil influences by allowing them to have bad friends.


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Paraphrased by L. N. Laurio; Please direct comments or questions to AmblesideOnline.