What do you choose?
Coral beads on a string,
Purple velvet and lace
And an emerald ring.
What will you have?
Pomegranates and pears.
Jellies, truffles and trifles
And chocolate eclairs. ~~from a poem by Olive Dove, in Under the Cherry Tree by Cynthia Mitchell
Charlotte Mason's literature course is unlike almost any other current educational approach, at least those I'm familiar with. It's bigger, but smaller; tighter in scope, but more generous in content. The words "wide and generous curriculum" can mislead homeschooling parents into thinking "more is better." However, when arranging the term's work in her schools, Charlotte placed firm limits on both the quality and the quantity of the literature books that were assigned.
(By the way, if you're looking at the original term programmes that have been posted on the Ambleside Online site, you may have to dig a bit to even find the literature selections. They come up under Tales, Reading, Literature, and sometimes, in the earliest ones, just under "English history.")
Even in the work for the youngest ones, she refused to swerve from the classics...actually from just about anything written after 1900 (Just So Stories and The Fairy Ring were exceptions), even though about a quarter of the twentieth century had gone by when Philosophy of Education was published, and even though some good children's books had been published during that quarter-century.
The clue to her reasoning on this may be in this section, in the paragraph where she almost apologetically points out that the literature for the two highest forms (senior high) is also made up of older books--but that she assumes that the students in those forms have no trouble choosing their own reading from current literature. In other words, she was expecting that they would read outside of class, and hoping that what they had read in school would give them the background to make those choices and to read critically and thoughtfully. The assumption is that we're still talking about quality literature, not throwaway novels; but the point is that Charlotte Mason wasn't "dissing" anything new. She was limiting the curriculum, perhaps, to the books that the post-World-War-I students might not have picked up on their own, and those that they needed to make sense of the larger, longer-memoried Knowledge of Man. I know I've said before that the books Charlotte recommended were "common currency" in her lifetime, and that's true, but a lifetime is a long time.
And if the youngest students didn't have that door opened to them early...they would soon be playing out the sad high school scenario of getting the Shakespeare play, or the poetry anthology, dumped on them, and moaning about having to read that junk. No recognition, no connections. That's why American high schools are talking now about dropping the senior English requirement.
So start small, Charlotte Mason said; but move in the right direction. Young "serious students" find what they need in Aesop's Fables, in fairy tales, in tales of heroism. Perhaps that was her other thought in planning curriculum, that the school books should be exciting, should be a cut above the normal, everyday books that the children might have had. It's just a thought, and of course that would depend on the home reading backgrounds of the children. Remember how, in the Little House books and others of that era, children used to dread Sundays, because they couldn't run and play or go sledding or do anything fun? Mrs. Forster asked, what if we turned that on its head and made Sunday the day that everyone looked forward to the most?...not a day of restrictions, but a day of special "bests" that belonged only to that day? In the same sense, "school books" might have an image of being dull; Charlotte wanted children to be almost licking their lips for more. She wanted to offer pomegranates and pears at least, if not chocolate eclairs.
What did make it to her list? You can see samples in the Programmes, but here's a short(ish) list from the programmes for Forms I through IV, moving from lower to higher classes (and please remember that only a couple of these would appear in any one term): The Pilgrim's Progress, Heroes of Asgard, Tanglewood Tales, fairy tales, Lang's Tales of Troy and Greece, Lamb's Adventures of Ulysses, Aesop, The Just So Stories, Quentin Durward, Kidnapped, The Age of Fable, The Water Babies, Marmion, The Lays of Ancient Rome, Children of the New Forest, Puck of Pook's Hill, The Jungle Book, The Little Duke, David Copperfield, The Lay of the Last Minstrel; poems by Tennyson, Shelley, and Longfellow; essays by Charles Lamb, Scenes of Clerical Life, Lorna Doone, more books by Scott, Palgrave's Golden Treasury, Book One of The Faerie Queene, Malory's Knights of the Round Table. (Shakespeare's plays were included as well.) The two highest classes were reading works by Aeschylus, Euripedes, Boethius, Milton, Pope; essays from The Spectator; novels by Thackeray, Jane Austen, and George Meredith; Boswell's Life of Johnson; lots of poems, critical essays, and letters; The Dynasts by Thomas Hardy; Life of Charlotte Bronte by Mrs. Gaskell; A shepherd's life by W.H. Hudson; Tolstoy's stories; The man born to be king by William Morris; Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope. In the years following Charlotte Mason's death, the curriculum added plays by Shaw, J.M. Synge and T.S. Eliot, poems by Robert Bridges, and books by Chesterton and Conrad. And, lest the P.U.S. ever be accused of not being multicultural, Lady Precious Stream.
Are those books of delight for our children? I like to think of some of them as a kind of surprise gift: not what the children might have chosen themselves, but new friends waiting to be discovered. Have you gotten to many of the books near the end of the list, in your own reading? Honestly, I haven't; I think I'm still working more at Charlotte's junior high level. There are a lot of friends I have yet to discover.
Notes from a Book Talk
A Month with Charlotte Mason #14