Have you noticed that Charlotte Mason seems to be keeping unusual company these days?
Over the last few years, Miss Mason's philosophy has taken on what she herself might have called a new small-c catholicity, and it's not unusual to hear her quoted along with Wendell Berry, St. Benedict, and scientists researching brain function. Like Anne of Green Gables with her hair up and her skirts down, CM has taken on a possibly unexpected but not unbecoming seriousness. At a recent gathering in Ontario, we heard the word "homeschooling" from the speakers much less than we heard both literary language (myth, metaphor) and spiritual vocabulary (transformation, meditation, sacrament, Glory). As a community, we seem less determined now to "use" Charlotte Mason for our own purposes, and more interested in discovering and discussing the truths of her philosophy. (The fact that we can even identify a "CM community" is a milestone in itself.) Even if you haven't attended CM conferences or retreats, you might still have noticed that the general image of Charlotte Mason education is maturing, partly because there is more previously-unavailable information available, and partly because there are some tenacious individuals digging through those resources and sharing their finds.
Laurie Bestvater's recent book The Living Page, published by Underpinnings Press, reflects that different, more contemplative view of CM, and at the same time manages to be a practical resource not only for homeschooling parents, but for classroom teachers and anyone with an interest in lifetime education. It does not attempt to cover the how-to's of every school subject, and omits the already-well-known history of Charlotte Mason, her college and correspondence school. Instead, The Living Page puts the focus on the role of Mason's "paper graces," or student-kept notebooks. Using many quotations from Mason's own writings, as well as archived examples such as the nature notebooks of student teachers, Laurie Bestvater defends the idea that these notebooks are not optional or peripheral, but absolutely central to a Mason-style, living-ideas, relationship-based education. She shows how and at what ages certain activities were begun in Charlotte Mason's schools, and discusses not only specifics of the various books, but the balance and connections between them. Taken together, they form a large and vital part of a child's self-education.
Giving students choice in what to write and draw, allowing them time to contemplate and observe, may have been unusual in Mason's day; but it is no less rare and threatened in our own time, in these days of easily- reproduced fill-in pages and visual examples at our fingertips. How does this style of notebook-keeping reflect Mason's consistent rationale, her overall vision that culminates in what she called The Way of the Will? Laurie Bestvater's detailed descriptions, along with photographs of new and vintage examples, give shape to ideas that may have previously seemed too abstract or not important enough to work into an already-full curriculum. But the book goes well beyond a simple description of how to keep the Book of Centuries, the commonplace book, and the nature notebook as Charlotte Mason knew them, and becomes a plea for a more human heartbeat in children's education. If a child keeps a notebook that gives her a "sense of possession and delight," and the delight is not so much because the end product is beautiful but because it reflects her own learning," the connections she has noticed, the relationships she is creating, is that not more valuable than many worksheets that will be filed away somewhere and then discarded?
The Living Page is, especially in its final section, a manifesto for what, throughout the book, is variously referred to as being "Keepers," living fully, and knowing Glory. It echoes what Susan Schaeffer Macaulay wrote in For the Children's Sake: that Charlotte Mason, with her emphasis on the value of the person, had insights that went beyond teaching children to read and do math, that there are important truths in her work that cross the lines of sacred/secular, school/homeschool, child/adult, then/now.
Laurie Bestvater's ability to combine literary examples with personal insights, while staying true to Charlotte Mason's philosophy and practice, makes The Living Page a unique and significant contribution to CM literature. Well recommended.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of The Living Page to review, but did not receive any other compensation. The opinions expressed are my own.