Educational Philosophy

Myth: Charlotte Mason only uses old dusty books.

October 16, 2014

BY JEANNE GRANT WEBB

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he photos accompanying this post are of some of my beloved books. They’re old, and, sad to say, they’re likely to be a little dusty as well.  Collecting old books is my hobby, and it gives me a great deal of pleasure.  I manage to justify this passion to my husband, by using many of them as I homeschool my daughter.

I am certainly not the only CM old book collector.  Some CMers become sort of old book snobs, eschewing anything written after about 1970 completely and preferring, where possible, to use exactly the same books that Miss Mason used back at the turn of the 20th Century. Which is all very well, and would probably be a good academic exercise, but I wonder what Charlotte Mason, herself, would have said if she had been around today. Did CM use only old, dusty books? Do we need to, to formally follow her method? Is using old books really CM at all, or are we just perpetuating a myth?

[I]t is hopeless and unnecessary to attempt to keep up with current literature. Hereafter, it may be necessary to make some struggle to keep abreast of the new books as they pour from the press; but let some of the leisure of youth be spent upon “standard” authors, that have lived through, at least, twenty years of praise and blame. {Formation of Character, p. 223}

The reading for Forms V and VI… follows the lines of the history they are reading, touching current literature in the occasional use of modern books; but young people who have been brought up on this sort of work may, we find, be trusted to keep themselves au fait with the best that is being produced in their own days. {Philosophy of Education, p. 184}

Often it is difficult to accurately predict exactly what Miss Mason would say if she stood here with us today, but in these two quotes we actually have her opinion in the old versus new debate. In the first quote, Miss Mason is speaking of books read for leisure; in the second she describes books read in school, but in both, her thoughts are the same — when it comes to literature, at least, new is not necessarily better. Miss Mason says two things here — first, wait for at least 20 years worth of criticism before considering a book as worth your while. That time frame, incidentally, excludes Harry Potter,  TwilightThe Hunger GamesHis Dark Materials and Divergent. Which is probably exactly what Miss Mason meant. Ahem. Secondly, she feels that a child familiar with the qualities that make a book great will be able to find the best modern literature themselves.

So, now we know, old books that are regarded as classics are best.

More difficult to discern from our reading is Charlotte Mason’s opinion on non-fiction titles, on science and maths books, history, geography and languages. Here we have no quotes. Are old, dusty books her preference here, as well?  To get an idea of Charlotte Mason’s thoughts here, we must look more at what she did, rather than what she said. And to do this, we look to the books used by her students.

In Spring of 1921, students using the timetables produced for Miss Mason’s own schools studied parts of the following books:

Form I
Our Island Story H Marshall 1905
Ambleside Geography Book I Charlotte Mason 1881
Tales from St Paul’s Mrs Frewen Lord 1894
Little Folk in Many Lands 1904
A Birdland’s Little People O Pike 1919
Trees and Shrubs Eyes and No Eyes Series 1904
Tommy Smith’s Other Animals by E Selous 1906
The Teaching of Mathematics to Young Children by I Stephens 1911

Form II
History of England by H O Arnold-Foster 1913
A Social Life in England through the Centuries R H W Hall 1920
A First History of France by L Creighton 1901
Ambleside Geography Books III 1881
The Sciences E S Holden 1902
The Changing Year F M Haines (1924, but this book was published first in chapters in the Parents’ Review in 1916.)
Countryside Rambles Furneaux 1921
Furneaux’s Nature Study Guide 1913
Lessons on Experimental and Practical Geometry  H S Hall 1906

Form III and IV
Meiklejohn’s A New Grammar of the English Tongue 1887
A Student’s History of England by Samuel Gardiner 1891
A History of Every Day Things in England by H and C Quennell 1918
Social and Industrial Life St Loe Strachey 1895
Winners in Life’s Race Mrs Fisher 1883
Natural History of Selbourne by Gilbert White 1789
Elementary Studies in Plant Life by F E Fritsch 1915
The Study of Plant Life H C Stopes 1910
First Year of Scientific Knowledge Paul Bert 1899
Some Wonders of Matter Bishop Mercer 1919
A Health Reader by W H Abrahall 1906

{I have listed the oldest edition of these that I could find.  I think they are first edition dates.  Let me know if you find anything earlier.}

In science, we all know that Charlotte Mason placed a great deal of emphasis upon recognition and outdoor work, but this nature study was augmented by the most excellent books. There is nothing old or dusty about the science books studied by these students, either, with publication dates ranging from 1921, the very year of the timetables, and back. Most science books used in 1921 were less than 15 or 20 years old. Some were a lot newer than that, with publication dates only a couple of years earlier than the programme.

If we look at history, we find similar. Students were using books written in the 1880s, but also books written in 1918 and 1920.

I could go on, but I’m not going to, because this is really an academic exercise. What we see from looking at this schedule is that Charlotte Mason did not ascribe to the use of old books, literature excepted, at all. Admittedly, there may be reasons for this. Charlotte Mason suffered from the same problems we do today when it came to keeping books in print. Her schools could not use books that were not readily available, and some newer selections will be made for this reason. Some, but not all.

So where does that leave me and my dusty, old, precious books? Well, we will use many of them. “Children’s books, perhaps more than any other print media, reflect social change”, said Maurice Saxby, a renowned expert on Australian children’s literature. {The Proof of the Puddin’: Australian Children’s Literature 1970-1990, p 416}

Since the 1960s, the range of subjects tackled by children’s authors has become more diverse. Stories have become more realistic. Indigenous and minority perspectives have been taken into account. Social issues unmentionable in earlier times became the subject of children’s stories. Some of this change has been long awaited, and is welcomed by us all, but along with this change has come a shift from the conservative Christian values that my family, in particular holds so dear. From the early 1970s on, I can no longer assume that a book written for children will be acceptable for my daughter, and so much of the reading for my family will be from books published in earlier times.

The change in religious and social values impacts upon non-fiction books as well. It is difficult to find history books written today without a revisionist agenda, books without whitewashing some periods of history, or looking at it through a 2014 non Judeo-Christian lens. Sometimes this bias is difficult to see without careful reading.

Science books, too, are written with a worldview quite different from mine. Then need for good science books written from a modern Christian view is great. Until these books arrive, I will continue to use many old science books, updating the knowledge as necessary.

A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. {School Education, p. 228}

Many things determine the books I select for my daughter to read. I look at quality and style of writing, worldview and values, the character of the characters {if you know what I mean}, the facts being presented. I look at readability, I  search for the best living books. As Charlotte, herself, says above, a living book may be long or short, easy or hard, old or new. What really matters is that it brings its message alive in the eyes and mind and heart of my precious daughter. Once all that has been taken into account, the age of the book doesn’t matter at all. And that is what Charlotte Mason thought too.

Myth busted.

Jeanne Grant Webb is an Aussie homeschooling mum to 12 year old Jemimah. She is passionate about the educator Charlotte Mason, the AmblesideOnline curriculum, MEP maths, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Australia, Japanese aesthetics, French language, Asian travel, children’s literature, her garden, and living a peaceful life in the country. She is honoured to work alongside Brandy and other inspiring Christian women as part of the AmblesideOnline Auxiliary. Jeanne writes about all of these things as well as whatever strikes her fancy at her blog, A Peaceful Day.

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