My mom grew up on a wheat farm outside a small town in north Texas. She’s got a store of tall tales about killing rattlesnakes and pulling calves, our own family mythology. My siblings and I are city kids, raised in suburbia, but we spent lots of time at my grandparents’ farm growing up. It was a kind of dual citizenship: we were just countrified enough to be venturesome, just citified enough to be easily unnerved by this rugged, beautiful prairie. It’s a land of big skies and hot summers, crumbling red dirt and sluggish, muddy creeks, cactus and mesquite trees, scorpions and snakes — expansive, challenging, exhilarating country.
When we were small, we couldn’t leave the farmhouse yard for the fields beyond without an adult. But as we grew older we began exploring on our own, fortified with walkie talkies and water bottles. Every time we visited, we’d learn the land a little better. Eventually we extended our knowledge all the way out to the back forty, the roughest, most remote part of the farm. I’ll never forget our triumph the first time we reached the very back fenceline, our sense of empowerment and liberty. We climbed the highest rock we could find and stood in the wind looking around at the land we’d mastered, mighty as queens.
I owe so much to my time on the farm. That land shaped me in profound ways I can hardly articulate, even though I never actually lived there. It was also my primary exposure to nature as a child. During my school years, though we followed Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, we mostly didn’t get around to formal nature study — and I’m not telling you anything my mom wouldn’t tell you herself. This is real life: homeschooling is hard, and things slip through the cracks.
It’s true: I didn’t have The Perfect Charlotte Mason Education, in part because at the time, nobody knew exactly what that looked like. This was the early 90’s; homeschooling was still fringey and grassroots, and there was barely even an internet. If you wanted to learn about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, you had to dig in and study the series. It was slow going. There were no blogs, no podcasts, no facebook groups, no conferences. AmblesideOnline was in its embryonic form as a few intrepid women on an email list — my first official year was Year 4, and it was still a prototype (I was in the first batch of children to go through the curriculum — the “guinea pigs,” as we were dubbed fondly).
Let’s be clear: this isn’t meant to be some kind of expose (“AO grad tells all!”) but rather an expression of gratitude and admiration. The Charlotte Mason educators of my mom’s generation were pioneers in uncharted territory. They cleared trails for the rest of us, a immense labor of love it was my privilege to witness. Now, this territory is fairly settled, with reliable maps and plenty of guides. What a blessing this is — and yet, there is a trade-off.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: with all these resources available to us, isn’t it a little tempting to assume that everything has already been figured out for us? This can make us complacent, expecting the difficulties we face in understanding and implementing the method to be smoothed away by the right blog post or podcast or tutorial or curriculum. Or it can feel like pressure: rightly or wrongly, perhaps at times the possibilities suggested by the experts or the pretty Instagram feeds raise our expectations, and the simplicity of the principles becomes a complex list of things that must be done Just So.
But even with the support and inspiration provided by all these resources, there is still not one of us who will be able to Do All The CM Things Just Exactly Right. Fortunately, this isn’t necessary — these principles are elastic, resilient, built to withstand daily wear and tear. I can assure you: my imperfect, first-wave Charlotte Mason education has served me very, very well. We may not have done nature study just right with beautiful notebooks and ingenious handicrafts to show for it, but we had the farm, and my mom made sure we grew up in relationship with that land. That is what mattered. I may not have had The Perfect Charlotte Mason Education, but I received a wide and generous education, offered with great love, effort, and enthusiasm. And it was enough.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t need to understand the method and apply it as consistently as possible. What it means is that we can pursue that understanding and that consistency with a beginner’s sense of enthusiasm and liberation, rather than a purist’s burden of obligation. I’ll speak in a parable: when we were children on the farm, there was abundant beauty, interest and adventure to be found in the pastures and ponds close to the farmhouse. We could have ended our exploration there, or we could have never ventured farther without the guidance of an adult, and we would still have received plenty of benefit from knowing that land. And yet we were compelled by our delight to explore for ourselves, to go “further up and further in,” as Aslan says, and make the whole place our own. Our reward was an increase of knowledge, freedom, and joy. The better we knew the territory, the greater were its blessing for us.
I’m deeply, deeply grateful for all the help and support we enjoy now in the Charlotte Mason community. So much beautiful, inspiring work is being done, building on the foundation laid for us by the first wave of pioneers. For those of us who make up this second wave of CM educators, perhaps our task is to make wise use of these resources, but to preserve a pioneering spirit — expansive, independent, eager to improve our understanding, but unburdened by perfectionism. The guides and resources available to us now are incredible, and yet the richest experience of CM philosophy will always belong to those who dig in and study it for themselves, the way the pioneer generation had to. May we remember to consider this a joy rather than a burden; may we undertake it with the eagerness and freedom of children forging their way out to the back forty under a bright, wide, windy sky.