Historical Fiction and Charlotte Mason
I’m sure you’ve seen them — curricula that people tell you is Charlotte Mason and is absolutely loaded with historical fiction.
When I first started homeschooling 17 years ago, the choices for curricula were slim. Facebook didn’t exist, forums were in their infancy, and email lists were spread mainly through word of mouth rather than search engines. Even learning what curricula was available was a challenge.
I chose a literature-based homeschooling curriculum, but we struggled with it. Later, we switched to a different literature-rich curriculum with less historical fiction. And suddenly, our joy was back. It’s no that the first curriculum was bad. With that switch, I realized that my daughter simply did not learn well from historical fiction.
Sure, they were fun, but as far as learning history that way? A bust.
Both of these curricula though were — and still are — widely touted as using the Charlotte Mason method.
I thought that while Charlotte Mason was a nice philosophy, it obviously couldn’t work for my kid-who-doesn’t-like-historical-fiction.
I was wrong.
Historical Fiction in the Programmes
When I first began really digging into the PNEU programmes in preparation for writing Wildwood Curriculum, I still held that deeply ingrained belief that Charlotte Mason = historical fiction.
What I found was something else entirely.
While historical fiction can be used to help ‘flesh out’ studies or even bring them to life, they are not a major component of a Charlotte Mason education.
In Form I in the PNEU (Parent’s National Education Union) programmes from the 1920s and early 1930s, we see no historical fiction used for either literature or history.
What we do see is books about children in other countries, and fairy tales from various cultures.
Literature vs. History
Forms II and above for that same time period do have historical fiction, at a rate of 1-2 books per term. These are listed under “literature” rather than “history”. While they could be used to add flavor to the historical studies, they were never intended to replace the non-fiction living books used for history.
This is good news for those of us whose children shy away from historical fiction. If your child doesn’t like it, simply use a different high quality book for literature.
Look at those figures again — 1-2 books per term. That’s 3-6 books per year, though I found that the programmes tended to have 3-4 books per year of historical fiction. This is a far cry from the literature-based curriculum I used when I first started, which has 25 books of historical fiction for their program meant for ages 8-12.
What would Charlotte do?
Some would argue that historical fiction was in its infancy in this time period, and that is the reason that Charlotte Mason didn’t use historical fiction as extensively as many literature-based curricula that call themselves CM do today.
This is a rather touchy argument. It’s rather like saying, “If this were as popular and widespread when Miss Mason was alive as it is today, surely she would have used it more. Therefore, we are justified in using these in a much higher proportion than she did.”
This is problematic on a few levels. First, no one actually knows what Charlotte Mason would do with today’s resources. She may have used historical fiction much more than we do now, or she may have used it much less. She may have used exactly the same amount, that is, approximately one book per term.
Second, when we say with a broad stroke “this is what she would have done,” we take away from the purpose of studying her works and programmes. In my opinion, it’s fine to say “this is what I have decided for my own family” but not “this is what Charlotte would have done if only ….”
Third, historical fiction as a genre was actually established in the early 1800s. Sir Walter Scott was the one who brought it to popularity, but he wrote Waverly in 1814. There had been a full hundred years of additional historical fiction to draw from by the time the PNEU programmes were in use.
And yet, we still see generally only one book per term that might be considered historical fiction today.
Does “Living Book” = Historical Fiction?
Why the disconnect? I think it’s the emphasis on “living books” in a Charlotte Mason education. That is not a problem; as a matter of fact, living books are indispensable to the method. The problem comes when people think that “living book” equals “fiction.”
I plan to do a blog post on living books in the near future, but let me just say this here: while a living book can be fiction, it is not a requirement. The requirement is that they be written in a literary manner.
As a matter of fact, the vast majority of living books in the PNEU programmes were non-fiction.
Judicious use of historical fiction in a Charlotte Mason education is fine, but don’t rely on them for the bulk of your children’s education.
One to two books per term should be the maximum, beginning at approximately 9 or 10 years of age (Form II).
More than that and you are taking away from other essential elements of a CM education.