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

The Unit Study Model

Volume 2, Parents and Children, pg 255-256

Test for Systems

We also have in our possession a way to test Systems that we come across so that we can assess their educational value. For example, a while ago, the London Board Schools exhibited some work, and one exhibit that got a lot of attention was from New York, representing a week's worth of work from a school using Herbart's methods. The students had spent a week studying the theme of 'an apple.' They modeled it out of clay, sketched it in paint, stitched the outline on a sheet of cardboard, pricked it, formed the shape of the seed pod's pentagon out of sticks. Older students made a model of an apple tree complete with a ladder for climbing up to pick the apples and a wheelbarrow to cart them away, and there was more along the same lines. Everyone exclaimed, 'That's neat! How clever! What an ingenious idea!' and went away thinking that they'd finally seen something worth labeling education. But I have to ask, 'What was the foundational idea?' The whole study was based on the external shape and internal contents of apple, and these are things that children are already very familiar with. What mental habits had they gained from their week's work? Yes, they learned to really look at an apple, but imagine how many other things they could have been introduced to in that same week! The students probably never felt bored since the teacher's enthusiasm urged them on. But just imagine:

'Rabbits hot and rabbits cold,
Rabbits young and rabbits old,
Rabbits tender and rabbits tough.'

These children probably had had enough of apples. The most education this 'apple' study provides is in showing us how the human mind tends to accept and rejoice in any neat, laid-out system that appears to produce immediate results. Instead, we should be analyzing every school lesson and testing to see if it does or doesn't advance one or both of our great educational principles [presenting living ideas, and developing habits].

Volume 3, School Education Education, pg 60-61

A Tempting Concept: The Basis for Unit Studies

This presents a fascinating opportunity for us. If Herbart is right, then education is clear and simple. All it takes is selecting the right ideas to turn out a man made to order. This is a very tempting scheme of unity and continuity! It might be possible to spend an entire month on lessons planned specifically to create one single 'apperception mass,' perhaps about 'books.' We might plan object lessons on colors, shapes and sizes of books, as well as more advanced object lessons about paper-making and book-binding. There could be hands-on crafts about sewing and binding books, and age-appropriate lessons about the contents of books. Tots could learn ABC's and Little Bo Peep, while older students could focus on poetry and philosophy. A month in which the entire school, all grades, could arrange their education in groups of ideas that could clump into one big apperception mass around the concept of 'books.' This sort of thing was actually done a while ago in London. 'Apple' was the central idea of the apperception mass.

Personality is Eliminated

Finding principles that unify and provide continuity among ideas presented to the mind is fine. But we believe that this unity and continuity should originate from the soul of the person himself--otherwise this tempting collection of related ideas might result in a collection of random information that the mind never assimilates.

Turns Out Duplicates

Or, if you take two souls and provide them with the exact same ideas in the same exact order and don't allow any other ideas to get in, you could create carbon copies of the same person. This possibility would forever destroy the great concept of the solidarity of the race. I'll ask again, how does Herbartian theory advance our interest in individual personality, our sense of the sacredness of the person? The person becomes a non-entity. He's nothing more than the manifestation of the ideas that take hold of him. He doesn't have so much as an inkling of natural tendency to prefer one set of ideas over another. Everything is random. As far as the personal growth and evolution of he individual, there's no personal individual to grow. The person is merely clumps of ideas, and that's what expands and grows. The man is simply a handy jar to give the ideas a place to collect so they can do what they need to do. Herbartian psychology has lots of interesting concepts, but we can't accept it as our educational ideal without sacrificing a few leading principles that are popular in current thought.

Volume 3, School Education Education, pg 230-231

Coordinating Subjects [The Unit Study Model]

Another point I'd like to make is that coordinating subjects shouldn't be based on the notion that they need to be planned to prevent ideas from clashing and to assist their formation into clumps of 'apperception masses.' They should be coordinated solely in reference to the natural and inevitable relationships to each other. When reading about the period of history of the Armada, we shouldn't devote math time to calculating how much food was necessary to sustain the Spanish fleet. That would be an arbitrary, forced connection, not a natural, inherent one. But it's natural to read whatever history, travel books, and literature will make the Spanish Armada come to life in the students' minds.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 114-117

Herbart's ideas about psychology are enormously satisfying and appealing to teachers. Like any other group of people, they're naturally eager to make their profession look indispensable. Herbart's philosophy shows that every child is a new creation, able to be molded completely by the teacher. If the teacher just learns how to do it, she can gather the best collection of ideas in the most effective sequence so that they form groups to the best pre-ordered advantage [unit studies]. Then the job is done. In the student's mind, the strongest and most powerful idea masses take over, and, if the teacher has selected beneficial ideas, then, viola, the student is made into a full-fledged, educated man.

Here's an example of a week's schedule, assembled by a teacher to make the best use of correlating subjects to manipulate ideas into apperception masses: 'Math (Decimal fractions, simple equations, parallelograms), Science (latent heat), Domestic Skills (nerves, thought, habits), Geography (Scotland, industries in general).' Here's one for another week: 'Math (metric problems, four rules of symbols, sum angles of triangles), Science (machinery), Domestic Skills (circulation), Geography (sculpture of Britain).' Apparently the ideas in these subjects of study are more clever and limber than they appear, and are able to recognize and leap towards each other to form apperception masses on cue!

One popular educational expert gave a valuable introduction to Herbartian education. As an example, he wrote a unit study series of lessons for elementary-aged children titled, A Robinson Crusoe Concentration Scheme. It starts with nine lessons in literature and language arts. The subjects are things like, 'Robinson climbs a hill and discovers that he is on an island.' Then there are ten object lessons, including The Sea, A Ship from Foreign Parts, A Life Boat, Shell Fish, A Cave. The lessons don't show how these objects are supposed to be produced. The third series is drawing lessons, probably nine or ten, drawing a ship, an oar, an anchor and so on. The next series is on manual work, all involving Robinson Crusoe, building a model of his island, his house, his pottery. The next course of studies is for reading. There are lots of lessons taken from selected portions of Robinson and from 'a general reader about the items studied in the object lessons.' Then there's a series of creative writing assignments, where students write a composition based on the object lesson. The children would come up with sentences, the teacher would write them on the chalkboard, and each student would copy the completed composition from the board. Here's a sample: 'Robinson spent his first night in a tree. In the morning he was hungry but he didn't see anything around him except grass and trees without fruit. On the seashore he found some shellfish and he ate them.' Compare that with the prolific output of six and seven year olds working in our Parents Unions Schools. They can write about any subject they're familiar with. In fact, they can dictate their own compositions from pages they've heard read aloud just once directly from Robinson Crusoe--and I don't mean a children's edition, but the original.

Arithmetic also has its lessons with lots of simple mental problems dealing with Robinson Crusoe. The eighth and last series was singing and reciting such things as, 'I am king of everything I see.' 'Each lesson lasted about forty five minutes.

Generally, a unit study based on a book like Robinson Crusoe would last the entire year. Students in England seemed as eager and interested in studying Robinson Crusoe as the students in our German schools. One can easily see the wealth of material in the story to develop even more lessons.' One certainly does! The whole thing must be fascinating for the teacher. Ingenious plans to amplify a thing are always interesting when you're the one putting the time and work into it. And no doubt the children were thoroughly entertained. The teacher was probably at her best developing as much as she could from a little bit by her own sheer force. She was like an actress putting on a show and the children were spectators, as they would be at a puppet show or a movie. But one thing we can be sure of. The children developed a loathing forever afterwards, not just for Robinson Crusoe, but for every other subject dragged in to illustrate his adventure. Another unit study uses an apple to base a hundred lessons on, including construction of a paper ladder to pick the apples. But, for all this, not one of the lessons suggests actually eating the poor apple. We won't name the author of the Robinson Crusoe study because, as a Chorus in a Greek play would say, 'we cannot praise him.' But he has followed the Robinson Crusoe study with one about the Armada.

The well-intentioned, clever, hard-working teachers who create these concentrated studies have no idea that each lesson is an offense to young minds. Children are eager and capable of a wide range of knowledge and literary expression. But these kinds of lessons reduce their learning to senseless trivia and insipid, pointless drivel. They develop apathy that stays with them, and the mere mention of learning makes them anticipate boredom. Thus their minds wilt and deteriorate long before their school career ends. I've spent so much time on this subject because I, too, believe that ideas are the only proper diet to grow children's minds. We are more clueless about the mind than about Mars! The only way we can draw conclusions is by looking at results. And the results conclude that the mind is a living thing, a spiritual organism. (I don't need to apologize for calling a substance-less thing an organism, since Herbart made a greater contradiction by speaking of 'apperception masses.') Just like the physical body, the mind needs regular and adequate nourishment. This nourishment comes from ideas that are assimilated when the mental diet is enthusiastically devoured, and growth and development are the result under this kind of diet.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 118

The popularity of jigsaw puzzles shows how much people like to put unlikely things together--such as Robinson Crusoe and lifebuoys!

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 124

What's the alternative? A coordinated unit study like the one about Robinson Crusoe, but based on what some corporation wants. It might be a year learning about soap--how it's made, what it's made from, the history of the soap business, how soap is shipped to buyers, ways to use soap, how to fill out a soap invoice, different kinds of soap, ad nauseum. Iron, cotton, nails, pins, engines, buttons--every industry will offer its own brilliant lesson plans for unit studies. Those who advocate utilitarian education will be thrilled.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 276

I hope readers will look further into the reasons behind our choice of curriculum. We have a standard of coordinating all things that are essential, but not so meticulously that it becomes a bore.


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