Record Keeping and Portfolio Evaluations in a Charlotte Mason Home School

The Charlotte Mason Student Motto


I am, I ought, I can, I will.

Charlotte Mason’s motto for students.

Though almost everywhere it is seen as “I am, I can, I ought, I will” instead.

As I understand it, this was the way it was eventually framed to students in the Parent National Education Union under Mason.  But what I do not understand is why and when it was changed.  (I am slowly reading through Mason’s volumes again, so perhaps I will come across the reason at some point.)

In Mason’s first volume she wrote,

'I am, I ought, I can, I will.'––'I am, I ought, I can, I will'
––these are the steps of that ladder of St. Augustine, whereby we "rise on stepping stones
Of our dead selves to higher things."

'I am'––we have the power of knowing ourselves. ‘I ought'––we have within us a moral judge, to whom we feel ourselves subject, and who points out and requires of us our duty. 'I can'––we are conscious of power to do that which we perceive we ought to do. 'I will'––we determine to exercise that power with a volition which is in itself a step in the execution of that which we will.  (p. 330)

So it seems that at least it began in the order “I am, I ought, I can, I will.”

When I think of it like this…..

I am a child of God, uniquely created in His image.

I ought to know His law as it is written on my heart.

I can freely choose.

I will choose to follow Christ.

….it makes sense to have it in this order.  After all, I believe that the Holy Spirit has to call me to Christ and work in my life before I can choose to follow Christ.  And God does give me a free will to choose to follow Him or not.

Mason spends a great deal of time talking about the formation of habits and why this is so important to the life of a child (or adult, for that matter).  So in thinking about habit formation----faith or religious beliefs aside, it also strikes me that we need to first know how we ought to do a thing in order to be able to do it. 

A child needs to know how to organize toys, hang up clothes, clean a sink and so on to be able to do those things.  Likewise, he must know how to form a letter, count objects, read words, observe nature/critters carefully without causing harm, and so forth.  He must first be taught before he can do….and then he has the freedom choose what he will.

So even in this light, the original order makes more sense to me.  I’ve seen it written that the order of the words does not matter, but in some ways, I think they do (if only as a reminder to me to teach and lead well).  I think a child needs to know that he can clearly find what he ought to do in scripture.  That he can rely on those who have gone before for instruction, help, and guidance.  And that once he has a path to follow, he is able and capable to do so----if he chooses.  It is a habit training in a sequence of thought for the conscience.  When one knows what he ought to do, even with free will and choices of what he can do, hopefully the decision of the will rules in favor of what is right and just.

What are your thoughts on the motto? 

Can you point me to where Mason explains a change of order and why?  She uses words carefully and precisely so I think there must be a reason to it, and I’d be glad to read it if there is one to be found.



I have learned how to search the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection and was able to find some historical notes about the development of the badge made for students in the Parent Union Schools, where the final design of the badge states the  motto as "I am, I can, I ought, I will."  Interestingly, one of the first documents in the collection regarding the the formation of the badge stated the motto was:  "I am, I ought, I can, I will."  It was a letter to the editor from The House of Education Students' Association.

"Whatever "totem" is chosen the motto of the school must of course be included, "I am, I ought, I can, I will." (p. 3 of this PDF file.)

Other correspondence writes the motto in the other order.  So really, the mystery is not solved for me yet.  But it is interesting that in some manner during the planning of the badge, the motto order was changed.  I do not see reference as to why anywhere yet.  It is just stated differently at various times.  Stay tuned....  :-)


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