Friday, March 01, 2013

Keep the good bits: Philosophy of Education, Chapter 10 (Curriculum)

Part Two of Three

The more old books that get posted online, and the more powerful the search engines that appear, the more interesting Charlotte Mason research becomes.  Project Gutenberg is the granddaddy of free books, Google Books is useful for the books that you can actually look inside, but right now I especially like Archive.org, "a non-profit digital library offering free universal access to books, movies & music, as well as 271 billion archived web pages."  Which is all kind of ironic, because Charlotte Mason herself didn't approve of quick information and shortcuts...but that is what makes this time travel possible.

(Flux Capacitor Sign found here)

So, browsing through some books from the various science groupings of the Parents' Union School, which included geography, and sometimes listed the same book for one subject one term, another subject in another, I'm coming up with two general categories.  In the late 19th through early 20th centuries, there was sort of a publishing boom in textbooks, often called "readers."  So you get books from that time called "Health Reader" or "Citizen Reader."  Some of these, as Charlotte Mason said, were very dry and boring.  Some were much better, both in terms of content and in style or appeal for the reader, and it seems that the P.U.S. made free use of those. 

The other category would be the books written by scientists, explorers, naturalists etc., who were not involved in education and not writing especially for schools, but whose books were accessible to children or older students anyway.  Many scientists did, and still do, write articles and books for audiences outside of academic journals--Richard Feynman's books come to mind.  This would also include biographies and other non-fiction about scientific discoveries--and there have been some excellent examples of this, both past and present.  Just as all the good historians and biographers haven't disappeared, neither have all the good science writers.  There's still good stuff being published.

Which brings us to the issue of content and viewpoint.  This, also, is not a new problem.  For me, it's best illustrated by Canadian scientist David Suzuki, who's been a household name for years, partly because of The Nature of Things.  I'll watch him on T.V.; I'll even read something he's written, out of respect for his degrees, age, and experience; but his atheism combined with his global-warming activism often puts me off.  Similarly, some of the authors recommended by the P.U.S. were not only fervent evolutionists, but had horrendous connections with movements to control population and so on.  Don't get me wrong here--I certainly don't believe that Christians should only read books by Christians, or that we can only use homeschool materials from Christian publishers.  We need to be aware of the varying viewpoints on things like the age of the earth, even within Christianity!  We need to know what questions are being asked about the universe, as well as the answers that have been proposed.

Still, we may not want to revive some or most of these books, but not so much because of age as of outlook.  What they are useful for, in downloaded versions or just to browse through online, is to get a sense of what Charlotte Mason and her educational cohort considered good science combined with good reading; and, particularly, to get a real sense of the difficulty and the amount of reading that was expected over a term.  My own sense is that sometimes we assign more books and longer readings than the P.U.S. did, and sometimes what we assign is less comprehensible, or at least harder to get into.  For instance, in our Ambleside Online Curriculum, middle-school students doing English History are assigned a section from Birth of Britain, along with a number of suggested original documents and a couple of extra books.  It's a lot of reading, and many of the students find it difficult, although that particular AO year is still one of the best and most enjoyable (based on user comments).  In contrast, P.U.S. students of the same age, studying the same time period, used Arnold-Forster's History of England (free download at that link), and a very minimal amount of supplement (one chapter from Scott's Tales of a Grandfather, telling about Robert the Bruce.)  Again, that's not meant in criticism of AO, but just to make the point that we may be requiring, sometimes, more than even Charlotte Mason did.

I have a couple of other absolutely unqualified ideas on that as well, that you can take or leave, but they're coming out of some recent browsing of Form III books in different subject areas, as well as those notes from Miss Claxton that I referred to in a recent post.  First, we tend to take very seriously that statement of Charlotte Mason's that children should work through a complete book; we assume that that means every word of every chapter.  In Miss Claxton's lesson about gnats (pasted into that post), there was some stuff at the end of the chapter that she just skipped.  She says specifically that she had two children read the paragraphs cited there, then they narrated, then they were Done.  I have had that same impression about Plutarch, that there was no way they could have covered some of those long Lives in one term, not with those short passages that they would have had to stick to in a read-aloud lesson (example here, scroll down to "Bucephalus"); and I honestly don't think they did--I think there was some selection.  I have personally found this idea very freeing--I have felt a lot less guilty lately about skipping where we need to.

Second point:  we hear Charlotte Mason saying that children's school books should not be sugar-coated, should not talk down to them; but I think we may err, again, in expecting upper-elementary students to willingly bury themselves in a book of history or science intended for senior high or adult readers.  I'm not talking about leaving out all the interesting stories of history---in fact, my sixth grader and I just finished a series of lessons on the Peloponnesian War.  What I think they need, at this stage, and what I think Charlotte was aiming at, is keeping "the good bits."  This applies as much in science and geography as it does in history.

I am still not done this topic, and I haven't included the links I intended to, so they'll be in the next post.

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