If you were to ask for the distinguishing features of a Charlotte Mason education, the use of ‘living books’ would be high on the list. If you were to ask what makes a book living, you would no doubt hear numerous and perhaps conflicting opinions. But if you asked for an example of a living book, I’d be surprised if a textbook was among the offerings.
In fact, Charlotte Mason believed that there are four ways to destroy the desire for knowledge, one of them being:
Text-books compressed and re-compressed from the big book of the big man.School Education, p. 214
Her belief was that the whole of a child’s instruction should be conveyed through the best literary medium available, that a child needs sufficient mind food and that it should be varied.
However, from the record of the programmes used for the various levels of Charlotte Mason’s PNEU schools we learn that she did use textbooks, not only for Mathematics but for other subjects such as English, History and Science as well. Obviously these choices would have been in keeping with Charlotte Mason’s views on how children learn and would certainly have been books of a literary nature.
Some examples I found were:
English Lessons for English People, by Abbott & Seeley
Geikie’s Physical Geography
A Text Book of Geology, by C. Lapworth
A School Geometry, by H. Huli and F. Stevens
A Survey of Modern History by H.W. Hodges
Ancient Times: A History of the Early World, by J. H. Breasted
Charlotte Mason admitted the difficulty in choosing books but she also gave us ways to help identify living books; ways which also apply to textbooks:
… children’s requirements in the matter seem to be quantity, quality and variety: but the question of books is one of much delicacy and difficulty.Philosophy of Education, p. 248
We cannot make any hard or fast rule. … [W]e need to have in us the ability to discern a living book.School Education, p. 178
Discernment is something you grow into and develop over time and when you have been in the habit of using living books it is much easier to spot an imitation.
The advantage I’ve found in using a resource such as AmblesideOnline is that it has been thought through with discernment and adjusted over time. The fact that there is a large pool of families using the curriculum helps in the discerning process:
The completeness with which hundreds of children reject the wrong book is a curious and instructive experience, not less so than the avidity and joy with which they drain the right book to the dregs.Philosophy of Education, p. 248
The book should written in such a way that the child is able to narrate from it:
Because knowledge is power, the child who has got knowledge will certainly show power in dealing with it. He will recast, condense, illustrate, or narrate with vividness and with freedom the arrangement of his words.School Education, p. 225
Just because a child doesn’t like a book doesn’t mean it is not suitable:
Children cannot answer questions set on the wrong book; and the difficulty of selection is increased by the fact that what they like in books is no more a guide than what they like in food.Philosophy of Education, p. 248
We are all capable of liking mental food of a poor quality … but our spiritual life is sustained on other stuff, whether we be boys or girls, men or women …School Education, p. 168
The book needs to be challenging enough to stimulate the mind to receive nourishment, in the same way the body being stimulated by the smell of food, is prepared to digest it. If the book is too easy or direct the knowledge will just brush the surface of his mind and leave no impression.
… [W]e owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge … [W]hat a child digs for is his own possession …School Education, p. 177
Digging is hard work and requires a level of fitness. Often when we start with a certain book it may seem too difficult for our student. This has happened in our home a number of times but the problem was usually resolved by taking things slowly for a time and persevering until their ‘fitness level’ increased.
There are textbooks which have been written by committees, drained of any nourishment, abridged to death. They offer only dry bones without flesh, sawdust, a list of facts – an unsuitable substance posing as food.
There are other textbooks written by someone who loves their subject. The writing is appealing, fresh and living, full of ideas. Children narrate them with vigour and interest and we know their intellects have been stirred.
These books are not just full of facts and extracts. The author has taken ideas, made them his own and in presenting them ‘with a great deal of padding,’ has made them more accessible. (Philosophy of Education, p. 109)
Again, we need not always insist that a book should be written by the original thinker. It sometimes happens that second-rate minds have assimilated the matter in hand, and are able to give out what is their own thought (only because they have made it their own) in a form more suitable for our purposes than that of the first-hand thinkers.School Education, p.178
Charlotte Mason Education believed that ‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.’ It isn’t a book list and she declined to make one:
The ‘hundred best books for the schoolroom’ may be put down on a list, but not by me.School Education, p. 177
Her aim was that the child would have a wide outlook, that he would be marked by virtue and have intimate relationships with many things. (School Education, p. 162)
The curriculum we use is really a means to this end.
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