When people criticize CM homeschoolers for using "old books," I don't think it's generally Shakespeare, Plutarch, Emily Dickinson that they have in mind, although you never know; more often they're thinking of late-Victorian science textbooks, Spencerian handwriting, and anything Empire-ish. It is true that Charlotte Mason's school "kingdom" promoted a particular set of values. She said that, in fact, an education should reflect the chief ideas of its age, if anyone could nail those down. Regular Treehouse visitors will know that I'm a longtime reader of Charlotte Mason's books, and an experimenter with her curriculum. (Yeah, my poor kids.) So you might think I'm one of the few stubborn types who insist on every school book being a hundred years old. You might be wrong.
I think Charlotte's booklists and curriculum reflect, to a large extent, her own world and her own times. She drew a great deal of her philosophy from the classical tradition, but she (and her colleagues) combined that with an early-20th-century, British, largely Church of England view of what made a well-educated person and a well-rounded citizen.
And I will rush to add that I admire her for it Some of the ways that she mined her own culture, followed discoveries and world events, and used the resources that came her way to apply her principles of education, were hugely creative.
In another period, another place, she might have chosen differently, again, not so much in literature or with enduring writers such as Bacon, but with the more informational subjects. Our problem today is that many non-fiction books for children aren't well written; they may have facts and lots of visuals, but they lag on writing style (or are deliberately offensive or just silly--a current version of "twaddle"). However, let's leave the style question aside for now. What I want to look at is the way Charlotte's book choices combined ideas-of-the-age with straight information, and often a touch of practicality as well. THIS is what we need to copy in current application of CM principles: the well-written book, for sure, but also the literary umbrella. This is not the same as making connections for children or squeezing out Herbartian apperception masses. It's about finding a way to both organize a certain amount of information, and make it interesting at the same time. To make it timely, but not limited to people from one's own time. To make it relevant to the home country or region, but without assuming that children will not be interested in plants or animals they can't see firsthand. To provide beautiful "mental furniture," but also the skills to serve others and become generally useful (knowing how to find one's way between towns, mail packages, mend clothes, spell things properly). This is no small job!
One of the first examples I noticed was in the Arithmetic chapter of Home Education. "How many pennies is a shilling worth? How many shillings, then, might he have for his fifty pennies? He divides them into heaps of twelve, and finds that he has four such heaps, and two pennies over; that is to say, fifty pence are (or are worth) four shillings and two pence." In a country where the common coin, a shilling, was worth twelve pence, the children were taught early on to divide things by twelve (with pennies as remainders), before they even worked with tens. As North American currency is based on the decimal, we use pennies, dimes and dollars to teach units, tens, and hundreds (and later, money applications make decimals themselves easier); the twelves get relegated to inches, dozens of eggs, or maybe hours on a clock. The order in which we teach arithmetic concepts will vary according to our money or other natural illustrations; the principles of teaching them do not.
Frances Epps' guide to the British Museum (actually a review of ancient history and mythology) was written specially for the Parents' Union School students; but the very similar guides to Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's and so on, that were used right from the start of the P.U.S., were not; they were just picked up as books that would give context to heroes and history, and do it in a way that interested children. The fact that Charlotte Mason depended on the same sorts of books for over thirty years says to me that, first, they must have worked; and, second, that they illustrated her principle of putting facts into a meaningful context. Besides, all this has a bit of a practical bent too; if a child has worked that much with pence and shillings (or pennies and dimes, or euros), he'll know how to count money and make change; if he's read the stories of the Elgin Rooms or the memorials at a cathedral, or what's in the Smithsonian (is there a good book about that?), maybe he'll be able to take you on a tour someday.
Look at the middle-school-level work in geography. In any term, students of about twelve or thirteen might be using one of the country-by-country books that Charlotte Mason herself had written years before, reading the lessons and filling in maps; studying concepts in physical geography; and discussing current events and finding those places on maps. They would also be studying a book of famous naval battles of the British Empire, with the intention, besides encouraging patriotism, of giving them a larger, global view of geography. In the post-WWI period, the old geography books were not dropped (though they were over thirty years old and had not been revised), but a book outlining boundary changes in Europe was included in the programme every term, and students were drilled on the map of the world. It's the Sea Power book, though, that shows the use of a resource that put "the world" into a context, a frame that made sense to the children of that place. A utilitarian model of teaching might present the same information, but in a more technical way, without that "hook to hang information on." Which way is more likely to stir the imagination and encourage learning? Also, the more global perspective of Mr. Household's book (actually two different books, used in different years) balanced the close-up country studies that they were getting through Charlotte Mason's own geographies.
Now, some homeschoolers may not approve of "studying war" as an aid to geography (although it's something to consider--don't Americans learn some national geography by studying battles of the War of Independence and the Civil War?). Most of us are not looking for a revival of the British Empire. But to make use of context, or hooks, in the way that Charlotte Mason did, we need to be looking for present-day equivalents. For some of us, a global geography context might be Christian missions. Our family owns an "animal atlas," which divides animal life by continents; some students might use geology, or archaeology, or marine biology, or the voyages of a particular person or group. I am NOT suggesting that we squeeze any of these topics into a "Robinson Crusoe Scheme," turn them into reproducible unit studies or any such thing, or even that we ruin an innocent novel by turning it into a geography lesson. It might still be a book that was not written to teach that subject--and that's probably all the better. But please note also that this is not the same as sneaking beets into brownies: the students should know what they're studying and why. In that sense, it probably is better to identify a separate resource (in their case, Sea Power) as the vehicle for geography, and keep it for that.
I mentioned the Smithsonian, as one example of an "umbrella" that houses a great deal of American history and culture. What spots, monuments, castles, are the treasure houses of the places where you live? Or where you'd like to go? What ways can you think of to not only zoom in, but zoom out? What resources, old or new, exist to teach about these places, and about the world and the universe at large? On a non-geography level, what applications-with-bigger-ideas are out there for lessons in mathematics or language, in music or art?
If we're looking for the best-of-the-best materials currently available to homeschoolers (which might not be written for homeschoolers or for schools at all), these are the criteria we need to keep in mind. How will we stir the imaginations of this generation and maybe the one to come? Charlotte Mason did a fantastic job speaking from and to her world; and in many ways, she still speaks to ours. If we can't use all her books, we can at least draw on her wisdom.