Posts Tagged ‘homeschooling’

Encouragement for the Crazy Homeschool

Dear Reader,

Rereading Charlotte Mason’s first volume, Home Education, I find encouragement for the crazy homeschool. When things are out of control and your little one is screaming and you can’t get anything done and they are running wild and you worry they don’t have any friends and will grow from little maladjusted hooligans to big maladjusted hooligans, Charlotte has encouragement for you:

When your children are running wild —

“Most of us are misled by our virtues, and the entire zeal and enthusiasm of the Kindergartnerin [i.e. kindergarten teacher] is perhaps her stone of stumbling. ‘But the children are so happy and good!’ Precisely; the home-nursery is by no means such a scene of peace, but I venture to think it a better growing place.” (p. 188)

When you worry they are not getting “socialization” —

“Let us follow the little person to the Kindergarten, where he has the stimulus of classmates of his own age. It certainly is stimulating. For ourselves, no society is so much so as that of a number of persons of our own age and standing; this is the great joy of college life; a wholesome joy for all young people for a limited time. But persons of twenty have, or should have, some command over their inhibitory centres. They should not permit the dissipation of nerve power caused by too much social stimulus; yet even persons of twenty are not always equal to the task of self-management in exciting circumstances. What then, is to be expected of persons of two, three, four, five? That the little person looks rather stolid than otherwise is no guarantee against excitement within. The clash and sparkle of our equals now and then stirs up to health; but for everyday life, the mixed society of elders, juniors and equals, which we get in a family, gives at the same time the most repose and the most room for individual development. We have all wondered at the good sense, reasonableness, fun and resourcefulness shown by a child in his own home as compared with the same child in school life.” (p. 191)

When you worry you are not getting anything done —

“Here we come to the real crux of the Kindergarten question. The busy mother says she has no leisure to be that somebody, and the child will run wild and get into bad habits; but we must not make a fetish of habit; education is a life as well as a discipline. Health, strength, and agility, bright eyes and alert movements, come of a free life, out-of-doors, if it may be and as for habits, there is no habit or power so useful to man or woman as that of personal initiative. The resourcefulness which will enable a family of children to invent their own games and occupations through the length of a summer’s day is worth more in after life than a good deal of knowledge about cubes and hexagons, and this comes, not of continual intervention on the mother’s part, but of much masterly inactivity.” (p. 192)

When you think you just don’t have the knowledge or skill for this —

“The educational error of our day is that we believe too much in mediators. Now, Nature is her own mediator, . . .  and the part of the mother or teacher in the early years (indeed, all through life) is to sow opportunities, and then to keep in the background, ready with a guiding or restraining hand only when these are badly wanted. Mothers shirk their work and put it, as they would say, into better hands than their [kindergarten], because they do not recognise that wise letting alone is the chief thing asked of them, seeing that every mother has in Nature an all-sufficient handmaid, who arranges for due work and due rest of mind, muscles, and senses.” (pp. 192-93)

[And because I want to be clear that for CM “Nature” is not some force that works apart from God–]

“The notion of supplementing Nature from the cradle is a dangerous one. A little guiding, a little restraining, much reverent watching, Nature asks of us; but beyond that, it is the wisdom of parents to leave children as much as may be to Nature, and ‘to a higher Power than Nature itself.'” (p. 186)

A little context– Charlotte here is talking about a popular movement in her day: Kindergarten! It represents pressure for early education, the idea that we need formal instruction and trained teachers for littler children, that somehow being home with mom isn’t enough. Sound familiar?







All the CM Curricula Compared

Dear Reader,

I have done a series of posts comparing various Charlotte Mason curricula. As the number of them has expanded, I realize this has become a bit cumbersome for you, the reader. So this is my attempt to put it all in one place (plus one additional curriculum is included!).


A little background — my goal has been to present what each curriculum has to say about itself rather than to give my opinions. I tried to choose the questions I would have when comparing curricula. Topics range from What does it cost? to How does it deal with high school science? to How Christian is it?

There is a lot out there for homeschoolers these days and the list seems to be ever-expanding. The curricula I have chosen to compare are all from Ambling along Together’s list of CM curricula.  Each purports to be a Charlotte Mason style curricula (as compared to merely “CM influenced” or adaptable). Though I have made use of many of these websites and have taken bits and pieces from various sources, I do not use any of these curricula exclusively. I do have some opinions, but I don’t have one favorite curriculum.

The Curricula

I have gone back and forth on even putting this section in. I don’t want to bias you with my own opinions but I do realize it is helpful just to have some sort of list of everything with brief introductions. Let me say from the start that I am overwhelmed by the work and generosity of all the people behind these curricula. Most are homeschool moms who have taken the time to put together quite extensive resources that they either give away or sell quite affordably (I can’t imagine anyone is getting rich off of any of these). Most are also works-in-progress; even old stand-bys like Ambleside Online are still improving and changing.

Here then are the curricula I will look at, in no particular order:

Ambleside Online (AO) — If you have been at this for a while, Ambleside may have been your first introduction to CM; it seems like it has been around forever. As with all these curricula, you buy the books, but otherwise AO is free online. While they are still updating and perfecting AO, it is a relatively complete curriculum with a reputation for being rigorous.

Simply Charlotte Mason (SCM) — Simply Charlotte Mason is another one that has been around for a while. There is much here that can be used for free but the biggest expansion on the SCM site seems to be in the store where more and more ready-made materials are available. A modular approach, it has a reputation for being a little less intimidating and easier to adapt for families with multiple ages.

The Alveary — A newer curriculum with a lot of buzz (pun intended). It’s big selling point is that it is a CM curriculum for the 21st century. Though the curriculum is newer, the folks at CMI who are behind it have been around for a while.

A Delectable Education (ADE) — The biggest part of ADE is the podcast, but one can also get a consultation for personalizes curriculum help and suggestions. This personalization is one of the big selling points. The other is a commitment being “purely CM”; the ladies at ADE will admit that this too is a work in progress but their goal is to ask how CM herself would have done things and to, in some sense, return to those roots.

A Modern Charlotte Mason (MCM) — As the name suggests, MCM also aims to combine more modern works with the classics in a CM education. Flexibility in terms of use with families or individual students is another big selling point.

Living Books Curriculum (LBC) — A CM approach, living books based curriculum with a vision for and ministry to those in less developed countries as well (especially in Africa).

Higher Up and Further In (HUFI) — Book lists and schedules for CM learning.

Gentle Feast — A newer contribution to the world of CM with a gentle, family-centered approach with personal consultations available.

Wildwood — Still fairly new with a lot still to be done, this is the only inherently secular CM curriculum I know of.

Ambleside Schools International — Despite the name, this curriculum is not affiliated with Ambleside Online. Like Charlotte’s PNEU, it trains teachers and provides curricula for schools as well as homeschoolers. Heavy on training and support with weekly mentoring. Though less well-known, they have been around quite a while.

The Charts

Though the goal of this post is to put everything on one place, I still can’t figure out a good way to put it all in one document. Here then, in three documents, are all the CM curricula compared:

SCM ADE AO Alveary 5-8-17


Gentle Feast Wildwood Ambleside Schools 9-5-17

As always, let me know of updates and revisions. Consider this page a work in progress; I will try to update as there are new curricula available or changes in current ones.


Is it Biblical?: CM’s 5th Principle, Part 1: Atmosphere

Dear Reader,

In my most recent post in this series, I looked at what Charlotte Mason calls the “gospel code of education” (see this post to get up to speed and to find links to all the previous posts in the series). This “code” consists of three injunctions which Charlotte takes from Matthew chapters 18 and 19. They tell us what we may not do in raising and educating our children. From these negative commands, she says we may derive corresponding positive commands:

“. . .  the positive is included in the negative, what we are bound to do for the child in what we are forbidden to do to his hurt.” (Home Education, p. 13)

Next up for us then is to look at what we may do in educating our children. I am excited to dive into this topic because there is something here that has always puzzled me. As Christians, we begin to read Charlotte’s philosophy of education and there is a lot to appeal to us — the child as a person, the Holy Spirit as the Great Educator. So far so good. But then somewhere along the way we are talking about whether to use a spelling curriculum or to rely upon dictation, about whether it is wrong to use a formal grammar curriculum, about how long lessons should be, and on and on and on . . .  How did we get from these theological concepts to the nitty-gritty day-to-day specifics? How does “the child is a born person” lead us to short lessons and living math? (We won’t get to all the answers today but I am excited to start getting into the practical details.)

What are the positive principles? Some were implied in the negatives we looked at last time — When she says that we offend a child (i.e. cause him to sin) by laughing at his infantile wrongs, we may reasonable conclude that we must discipline without smiling on wrong-doing and that we must follow through on our “no”s. Charlotte tells us that to despise a child is to not take him or his sin seriously; we may again reasonably conclude that we must deal with and not ignore his early sins. Lastly, Charlotte tells us that we hinder a child when we call him wicked, do not teach him of God’s love and fill his life with ” listless perfunctory prayers, idle discussions of Divine things in their presence, light use of holy words, few signs whereby the child can read that the things of God are more to his parents than any things of the world” (Home Education, p. 20). For each of these we can readily supply the opposite — we must teach the child of God’s love, introduce him to meaningful prayer, spare him idle conversations and allow him to overhear real ones, use holy words reverently, show him that the things of God matter more to us than the things of the world.

Though we may come to some such conclusions on our own, Charlotte herself does not immediately lay out for us positive principles. So to see what Charlotte says we may actually do in education, I am going to return to her 20 Principles and specifically to the fifth principle with its well-known phrase, the very motto of her schools: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”

Education is an Atmosphere

My methodology has been to look first at what Charlotte herself has to say and then to hold her ideas up to the Scriptures. I have asked in each post if Charlotte’s ideas are “founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures,” a phrasing I like which comes from my own church’s membership vows. We do not expect the Word of God to directly address every issue but we, as Christians, should seek out an educational philosophy which, where possible, is founded upon the Scriptures and which is otherwise in agreement with biblical principles and thought. Because this threatens to be a huge topic, I am going to divide it into three posts. First up: Education is an atmosphere.

This term tends to cause some confusion for those new to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. To  a large degree, this confusion stems from terminology. In her fifth principle, Charlotte speaks of “the atmosphere of environment.” At other times, as in her sixth principle, she uses the word “environment” pejoratively as a counterpoint to atmosphere:

“When we say that ‘education is an atmosphere,’ we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child’s level.”

Charlotte reacts here against certain educational trends of her day (some of which are still popular in our own) which said that if you just put the child in the right environment “he is to all intents and purposes educated thereby” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 94). An environment is something artificially constructed and brought down to the child’s level; an atmosphere “nobody has been at pains to constitute” (Ibid., p. 96).  Charlotte gives this wonderful description:

“It is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us. It is thrown off, as it were, from persons and things, stirred by events, sweetened by love, ventilated, kept in motion, by the regulated action of common sense. We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby’s needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges. And, what tempered ‘fusion of classes’ is so effective as a child’s intimacy with his betters, and also with cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner, with everybody who comes in his way? Children have a genius for this sort of general intimacy, a valuable part of their education:  . . .  no compounded ‘environment’ could make up for this fresh air, this wholesome wind blowing now from one point, now from another.” (Ibid., pp. 96-97)

There is a lot to take in here but I think the key phrase is “the natural conditions under which a child should live.” That is really all atmosphere is. Put thus it sounds simple but not every child is raised in the atmosphere he should live in and even in the best homes there is much that is not ideal (given that we are all sinful people in a fallen world).

I said I would let Charlotte speak for herself, but I am going to digress a bit and give you some of my own understanding of this issue because I think it is so often misunderstood — Atmosphere happens when our lives spill over into our children’s. If I go and select edifying paintings to put on the walls and classical music to play during snack time but have no interest in these things myself, that is an artificial environment. If, on the other hand, the same paintings and music are present because I love them and enjoy them myself, that is atmosphere.  I met a family recently; the father is a public school physics teacher and the children all go to public school. But in the few hours I visited their house, they discussed the books they were reading and built ramps from wooden blocks to amuse the youngest family member. These things were all done naturally and casually. There was real interest and intellectual curiosity that the kids had clearly picked up from their parents. This is atmosphere. On the flip side, we can see the effects of a poor atmosphere — How many parents withdrawing their kids from public school complain that the child has no desire to do schoolwork or to learn? We have even come to expect this of children and are surprised when a child beyond the age of 10  (or 8 or 6)still loves to learn. The child’s (bad) atmosphere has taught him not to love knowledge and to be embarrassed by learning. [Digression within a digression: Many homeschoolers argue that the antidote to such an attitude is “deschooling.” I do not think Charlotte would have agreed. I think in such cases when the child has already been damaged by a negative atmosphere, we need to do more than let them alone; we need to be proactive. See this post.]

To return to the main topic, there may be things which contribute to atmosphere, but it is not primarily physical. In the quote above Charlotte mentions some things: ” . . . his dog and cat; . . .  the fields where the buttercups grow and . . .  the blackberry hedges,” but she does not mention home décor or even having the right books. Atmosphere is about people and experiences and above all attitudes.

Atmosphere includes the moral aspect or attitude in the home:

“[H]abits of gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people, or––habits quite other than these, are inspired by the child as the very atmosphere of his home, the air he lives in and must grow by.” (Home Education, p. 137; emphasis added)

It includes the intellectual attitude, what Charlotte calls the thought-environment:

“There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs, as its atmosphere about a planet the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.” (Parents and Children, p. 37)

It also includes a heavy dose of the real world, with its pains and sorrows. Charlotte says that “children must face life as it is.” The atmosphere is one of “truth and sincerity” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 97). Elsewhere she puts it thus: “I do not say that we should wantonly expose the tender souls to distress, but that we should recognise that life has a ministry for them also” (School Education, p. 184).

The hardest part of atmosphere is this: If the atmosphere in your home is not what it should be, the solution needs to begin within you, the parent, for:

“[E]ducation is an atmosphere––that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives.” (Parents and Children, p. 247)

Before we move on, we must remember that there is a context for this principle. Charlotte does not say only “education is an atmosphere” but adds “a discipline” and “a life.” Atmosphere alone, she tells us, will not accomplish education:

” . . .suppose that all this is included in our notion of ‘Education is an atmosphere,’ may we not sit at our ease and believe that all is well, and that the whole of education has been accomplished? No; because though we cannot live without air, neither can we live upon air, and children brought up upon ‘environment’ soon begin to show signs of inanition; they have little or no healthy curiosity, power of attention, or of effort; what is worse, they lose spontaneity and initiative; they expect life to drop into them like drops into a rain-tub, without effort or intention on their part.” (School Education, pp. 149-50)

Atmosphere lays the groundwork for education but it alone is not enough to produce education.

[Another digression: Here I think we see a difference with the unschooling movement. Briefly, before I had read much on the Charlotte Mason method, I was captivated by the idea of “strewing” which I got from unschooling sources.  To strew is to leave good materials — books, pictures, music, etc. — laying all around in the hopes that the child will pick them up or will somehow absorb their good content. This is an artificial environment, but, even if it were not, and even if it were accompanied by the right intellectual environment, it would not be enough.]

To sum up, atmosphere, as Charlotte describes it:

  1. comes about naturally and is not contrived
  2. includes exposure to creation (those dogs and hedges she mentioned), to various sorts of people (she mentions cooks and blacksmiths), and to ideas (particularly those ideas which rule the lives of the parents)
  3. is more about an attitude than about things
  4. includes exposure to what we might call virtues: “gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people.” By exposure here I do not mean lessons but that children see and experience these things.
  5. includes exposure to that which is “lovely” and “divine” as opposed to what is “sordid” and mundane
  6. might be equated with the real world with its sorrows and pains

(7) Lastly, we may say that a reason given for atmosphere is that God works in the lives of children as well as that of adults.

Atmosphere and the Bible

Having looked at how Charlotte defines atmosphere, the next step is to see how this jibes (or doesn’t) with the biblical evidence. As we move further from the theoretical and more towards the practical, we do not expect to find as many biblical verses directly addressing our problem. We are more in the realm of “agreeable to” than “founded upon.” And that is okay. The Scriptures are “the only infallible rule for faith and life” but they are not the only rule nor should we expect them to tell us everything about every aspect of life. They tell us all we need to know of our sinful natures and the plan for salvation; they do not tell us all we need to know about other topics such as diet or education.

Looking at the points above, then, we can ask both Are there biblical passages which tend to support these ideas? and Are there passages which tend to contradict them?

I’ll begin at the end — Point 7 above was the reason for atmosphere (at least in part): God works in the lives of children as well as that of adults. In one of the early posts in this series I looked at what the Bible has to say about children. I won’t rehash the evidence here (you can look back at that post for the verses) but what we saw was that children are included among God’s people, that they can sin, and that they are held to the standards of holiness and righteousness. I think we can add now that the Bible gives us some clear descriptive evidence of God working in the lives of children from John the Baptist in the womb (Luke 1:44) to the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-8) to the boy David (I Sam. 17).

Some problems arise when we look for Bible verses on this topic. I would say there is a basic harmony between what Charlotte says and the Scriptures but we are not going to find anything that uses her language of atmosphere verses environment or makes the distinctions she is making.  The following passages seem to lend support to Charlotte’s view:

  • Rom. 1:20 “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted) and Prov. 6:6 “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” — The Bible tells us that we can and should learn of God through His creation. I think it is reasonable based on this to say that exposure to creation should be part of the child’s atmosphere (see the first part of point 2 above).
  • Deut. 6:7 “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” — The picture I get here is of the things of God being integrated into life; they are spoken of throughout everyday life and as such might be said to form part of the atmosphere. This sounds a lot like the last part of point 2 above, the ideas of the parents form the atmosphere.
  • Gal. 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” and Eph. 4:1-2 “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, . . .” — I am sure we could find many more verses on such virtues. If these are praised and we are instructed to treat one another in such ways, then it seems logical that our children also would be surrounded by such things (point 4).
  • Phil. 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”– One of the most on point verses; it seems to support point 5 above, that we are to provide our children with what is divine and lovely.

We see then that there are some verses that tend to support Charlotte’s idea of atmosphere. For the most part I would say that they support it in a general way, that they make her idea plausible, but they do not address specifics of how.  The second question we asked if there are any verses that argue against the points; I honestly cannot think of any (if you can think of any against or any more for, please comment below!).

Myth Busters style I am going to say that this principle is plausible. I don’t think we can say that the Bible supports a CM view of atmosphere over against the environment of, say, a Montessori classroom, but the basics of what a child should be exposed to and surrounded by seem to be quite biblical.







Two More CM Curricula Compared

Dear Reader,

See my most updated post on CM curricula here.

In previous posts I have looked at some of the major Charlotte Mason curricula out there. Well, it turns out there is always something new. This time, I am looking at A Gentle Feast and Wildwood. The latter is the first secular CM curriculum I have seen. It is also, thus far, in the beginning stages it appears so there was not a lot I could say about a number of subjects. I think you can get a fairly good idea of it and, if your theology/life philosophy does not fit with the standard CM outlook it is probably a good place to start. In general, my object in these posts is to let the curricula speak for themselves and not to give you my own opinions of them or to sat which is most “CM.”

The previous posts are here:

Four CM Curricula Compared

Three More CM Curricula Compared

And here is today’s contribution:

CM curricula third 8-5-17

As always, please let me know of any changes you see. I am by no means an expert in all of these.


Living Books on 9-11 and the War on Terror

Dear Reader,

In my post on living books on the 2000s, I promised you a separate post on 9-11 and the War on Terror. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on 9-11 and the War on Terror

Not surprisingly, there are a ton of books on 9-11 and a good number on the War on Terror. My oldest was a baby during the 9-11 attacks. They have no first-hand memories of the attacks but they do know a lot just from being part of our society. My kids are middle and high school and I wanted them to really feel the impact of those events as they unfolded so we found some news footage from the day on YouTube and watched it. I think they appreciated this and that it gave them some sense of what it was like to live through the events. It was interesting for me because, having watched things unfold on TV as they happened, I remembered the big events — second plane crashing, building falling, hearing that something had happened at the Pentagon — but forgot how much time there was in between and how much the poor commentators had to fill in and guess what was happening with no real information. It was interesting to see how slowly they came to the realization that someone had done this on purpose and to use the word terrorism (even though the World Trade Center had been a target previously) while today our minds immediately jump to terrorism no matter what has happened.

We have gone beyond our spine book for the year but I did read this book aloud to all my kids:

911 6

Saved by the Boats by Julie Gassman is a long picture book (but, yes, I read it even to my high schoolers) but it tells the story of 9-11 very well while giving a slightly different take on events. I had no idea about the boat evacuations and how many ordinary people had pitched in to help. As with most books on this topic, I was in tears by the end.

As I said there are a lot of books on this topic and I am sure many are good. But I also didn’t want to belabor the point by just reading about what is essentially an event that covered only a few hours over and over again. But if you are looking for some others, here are some I skimmed through (mainly based on what was available in my library system):

Seven and a Half Tons of Steel tells the story of the World Trade Center (I believe).

14 Cows for America tells of the support that came from far distant lands, including one African village.

Fireboat is another one about the role of boats in the aftermath.

America is under Attack and Twin Towers are more general books relating the events.

Ground Zero Dogs, as its title suggests, is about the canine rescue workers. It does not seem like a living book to me but might appeal to an animal-loving kid.

A few more:

I am not going to go through all of these. The Cornerstones of Freedom series is one I usually like — but only the older books that begin The Story of  . . . The Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 is a newer one (it pretty much has to be) and did not look as good.

A Nation Challenged is good if you want pictures.

To help understand the events, try Critical Perspectives on 9/11 and Understanding September 11th.

As we begin to understand the events, we also move into a discussion of radical Islam and terrorism in general, and to the War on Terror.

There are a lot of middle grade and up books on terrorism. Many seem poorly written and don’t provide a lot of true historical information. I had my 7th grader read Eve Bunting’s The Man with the Red Bag. Bunting is an author we know. The book wasn’t awful though I am not sure it was great either. He seemed to mildly enjoy it. I think more than anything it showed the paranoia in the wake of 9/11. From his narrations, it seemed weak plot-wise (or maybe he narrated poorly).

My 6th grader read The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis. This is the first in a series of books about a girl in Afghanistan. This is no Dickens but Ellis seems like one of the bets choices out there for a glimpse of life in Afghanistan and I believe she has books set in other Middle Eastern countries as well. My daughter chose to read the rest of the series on her own.

Life of an American Soldier in Afghanistan by Diane Yancey is what it sounds like and gives another perspective on the War on Terror. I believe The Unforgiving Mind is also the soldiers but looks longer, deeper, and darker.

Happy Reading!


Books for Political Philosophy

Dear Reader,

My oldest (just finishing up 11th grade) has an interest in political science so, at his request, I created a course for him this year in what is probably best termed political philosophy. I looked at the AP comparative government course but it requires one to know a lot about and to then compare specific countries. This is not really what I was looking for for him. My goal instead was to have him delve into the ideas behind government. The overall plan for the course was fairly simple: read and narrate a bunch of books and then write a term paper at the end. As I write this, the term paper is still in the final stages (due Friday!), but his reading for the year is finishing up so I thought I would share with you the books we found for studying political philosophy.

I used two more textbook-y books as spine books: A Short History of Western Civilization by Sullivan, Sherman, and Harrison and Political Science: A Comparative Introduction by Hague and Harrop. Honestly, this is not a subject I ever studied in an organized way and I was hesitant about it. I chose these books to make sure we weren’t missing any big concepts. I only had my son read selections and though he did one or the other of them most days, the readings were using around 5 pages so it was not overly burdensome or a big part of what he was doing.

For these and many of the other books, I had him make notes rather than do a straight narration. We began the year by sitting down together and trying to come up with questions we might ask about any government. We came up with a list of 10 or so along the lines of: Who is in charge? Where does power come from? How does the government relate to the religion? I then encouraged him for each era, place, or philosopher he read about to think about these questions and to make notes answering them. I consider this a focused narration. In some sense, you could say we are starting with some sense of the ideas we expect to find, rather than just narrating and hoping ideas rise to the surface. I don’t know how Charlotte Mason would have felt about this, but I think it is an approach that works well for this subject.

Our approach was mainly chronological so we began by looking at the Greeks and Romans. (Egyptians and Ancient Near East were covered in his Western Civilization spine but not in other reading.) Our book for this was The Ancient City; a study on the religion, laws and institutions of Greece and Rome by Fusel du Coulanges. This is a dense book so I did go through it ahead of time and select passages for him to read. Because the goal of this course is to study the theory of government, we weren’t interested in every twist and turn in the government of each of these places, but more in the big trends and the reasons for them.

For the Middle Ages, we used On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State by Strayer. This is a thin book. I didn’t want to get too bogged down in this time period so it was a perfect fit. Moving into modern times, I had him read two slim volumes: The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction by Loughlin and Magna Carta: A Short Introduction by Vincent.

Because I found it for free, we used On Democracy by Robert Dahl. This is a history of democracy and discussion of its pros and cons.

As we moved into modern times, our focus became more on philosophies and theories than on events and places. I came up with a list of major political philosophers and we read the relevant portions from various books. The philosophers we looked at were (in order):

Machiavelli, Luther and Calvin, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Bastiat, Kant, The Federalist, Burke, de Tocqueville, Hegel, Marx, Hitler, and Nietzsche.

The books we used were:

History of Political Philosophy by Strauss and Cropsey — A thick book of the college textbook sort, but well-written if dense. I usually skimmed through each section and marked specific paragraphs and sections for my son to read since it is so dense. The style is relatively engaging, however, and the tone is friendly to our beliefs.

10 Books that Screwed up the World and 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read by Benjamin Wiker — These are excellent books and every student should read them whether they are studying political philosophy or not. We didn’t do every chapter in them, just the ones relevant to politics. For 10 Books that Screwed Up we used the audio- book. It was very well done. The reader had the perfect tone for it. I would look for any of Wiker’s other books as well (he has one on the periodic table we have used).

The Consequences of Ideas by R.C. Sproul — Similar to Wiker’s books. I didn’t love this one quite as much but it is still very good and worth having any child read. We used the audio-book version again (we had a lot of car time this year).

We ended our reading for the year with some books from a particular perspective; our denomination (the RPCNA) traces its roots to the Scottish covenanters and historically is very committed to the idea of Christ’s mediatorial kingship over the nations. This principle is laid out in William Symington’s Messiah the Prince.  There is a simplified and updated version called Messiah the Prince Revisited. I read both and opted to have my son read only the original. I found that in the revised version the arguments are simplified to the degree that they don’t come through clearly. But if you are having problems understanding the original, you could read it side by side with the newer version. A more accessible book is Founding Sins by Joseph S. Moore. This is a wonderful book. Again, one everyone should read. If you think the US was founded as a Christian nation, you need to read this book.

That is all the books we used. As I said, the year ended with a term paper designed to pull from many of these sources.




Living Books on the 1990s

Dear Reader,

This is part of my continuing series of posts on the books we have been using on our homeschool. Find all my booklists here.

As I mentioned in my post on the ’70s and ’80s, it is getting tougher as we get closer to present day to find good living books to use. I was caught off guard when I realized that our spine series ended at 1990 so I scrambled to order all the library books I could find for kids on the 1990s. I checked out as many as I could and began sorting through them to find something that I could read to my kids (grades 6-11) to give them an overview of the major events of the decade:

Looking at all these books makes me appreciate how much better our spine series (Our Century) really was, though it may not be considered living by some.

The two I ended up using are The one on the top left there — The 1990s: Decade in Photos: The Rise of Technology and A Cultural History of the United States through the Decades: the 1990s by Stuart A. Kallen (top row, third book over). Note that the first book has no author listed on the cover; this is not a good sign. It is the simpler of the two and is really elementary level. I used it because it gave a not-too-too- bad synopsis of some events tat the other book left out. Kallen’s book is fuller and goes more in depth but it is a cultural history if the US and touches less on international events.  My third choice from this lot would be History of the 1990s (top, right) but in the end I decided it was a bit worse than my other choices. I did keep out Fashions of a Decade: the 1990s but used it only to show pictures of the fashions and trends of the era. The three on the bottom row I did not like.

More and more of what we are studying has direct bearing on current events so I have begun to take a slightly different take in their individual reading. My goal is for my kids to begin to understand the issues behind the stories they might see in the news. When studying Watergate, I ran across a book that I really liked edited by a woman named Debra A. Miller. A library search revealed that she has a quite a number of volumes available. They are part of different series and so there is some variation in format. Many, like the one I used on Watergate, are compilations of primary sources with only brief, added introductions. These selections may be speeches or statements by politicians and various groups or articles for or against an issue. They seem to be intentionally well-balanced — for every opinion on one side of an issue, there are opinions on the other.

So I began by getting a number of books on various countries and having each child pick one.

1990s 1

We ended up with North Korea, Darfur, Pakistan, and Iran. There is some variation in how hard these books are. Certainly a high schooler could handle them. A middle schooler might have to stretch a bit more. I wouldn’t recommend them for elementary age. I did not require my children to read all of their book but selected the essays that I thought most relevant. I also gave them each some targeted narration questions; that is, rather than just “narrate this” I would say something like “on today’s readings I want you to tell me about nuclear weapons in Pakistan.” Because they are each reading about different countries, they also have to share what they’ve learned with their siblings.

After picking countries, we are moving on to issues. Debra Miller again has numerous books on the hot-button topics of the day:

Some topics are political, some cultural. Some are more appropriate for my younger kids; some are acceptable for high schoolers. As I write this, we are just beginning this process, but my intention is to do the same as we did with the books on countries — guided narrations and presentations to their siblings.

One last book on the ’90s:

1990s 2

I found this one on Hispanic America which I may have my 6th grader read in place of one of the issue books. It seems to give a good idea of the scope of what we mean wen we say “Hispanic” and the different cultures that encompasses.



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