How Old is Too Old for a Science Book

Charlotte Mason commented that she had few living science books written in English to choose from. (vol. 6, p. 275) I sometimes reflect on this as I agonize over which book to use for a subject. We have so many to choose from! But recently I began to wonder if Mason would approve of using some of the books I like, because of their age. Would she say a science book that is over 50 years old is too old?

I have some good reasons to use books from the early half of the twentieth century. Primarily, that the quality of books for young people has dramatically declined since the 1960s when the government started federally funding libraries. As more money was available, the quality went down. Think of it like this, if you have a limited book budget in your house, you will be careful as to what books you spend money on. You’ll be far less likely to buy twaddle, if you know you won’t have enough leftover to buy what you need for your kids’ school year.

This question led me to do some research on the books Mason used. I looked at the 14 most commonly used science books from the P.U.S. Programmes between 1921 and 1933, for forms 3 through 6 (middle school through high school). The youngest book used was indeed only 2 years old when she implemented it. It was called Some Wonders of Matter, and included some ideas that were newly discovered, so it needed to be a fairly new book. Half of the books used were under 12 years old when they were first assigned, but what surprised me was that the other half were between 24 and 85 years old when they were first assigned. These books were used for several years, and by the time I ran out of programmes to look at, a third of these books were over 50 years old.

I needed a minute to let that sink in to be sure! Once it had, my misunderstanding of her use of only new books was sufficiently corrected.

In our day, we have a very limited number of new books that are of good literary style. There are a few that we can choose from, such as Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now (2014) or Walter Lewin’s For the Love of Physics (2011), and when we do find them, I think we should absolutely use them. But the thought of using an older book doesn’t bother me at all now that I have looked closer at the books Mason used. Now I can suggest my favorite old books with all heartiness. Books such as Everyday Weather and How It Works by Herman Schneider (1951), Look at the Sky and Tell the Weather by Eric Sloane (1970), Microbe Hunters by Paul deKruf (1926), The Romance of Physics by Keith Gordon Irwin (1959) and Leaves: Their amazing by lives and strange behavior by James Poling (1971).

I should also mention that I don’t think we are the only ones to struggle with the “out of print” issue. There are times when I saw a book on the P.U.S. Programmes year after year, only to be replaced by another book, with a note saying that the former book would be “even better”. Then a year later the first book is the only one listed again. Maybe a book had to take a back seat while she fought to get it republished? That is only speculation, but it’s fun to think that she might have battled the same problems we run into today.

While I’m happy to see that I don’t have to defend my favorite old books anymore, I don’t necessarily think we need to use the books Mason used. For one thing, the language of the books she used can give me trouble at times. I am personally not a fan of the conversational style utilized in some of them. Additionally, we do have some very good books to use that are newer, and I feel confident that Mason would use a newer book if it met the qualifications of a living book that she adhered to.

There is a balance that we must consider. Principles we must take into consideration. We must use a living book, or the time spent for the average child is wasted, because the ideas will not “touch the region of mind.” (vol 6, p. 256) This is really non-negotiable if you want to do a CM education. Therefore, while we should use as new a book as we can find, we cannot sacrifice this important qualification.

Lastly, do not be concerned about the information that is left out of these older books. Remember that the common information is the most important material for our students to learn, and typically that hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years. Mason quoted Sir Richard Gregory to say,

“The essential mission of school science was to prepare pupils for civilized citizenship by revealing to them something of the beauty and the power of the world in which they lived, as well as introducing them to the methods by which the boundaries of natural knowledge had been extended. School science, therefore, was not intended to prepare for vocations, but to equip pupils for life. It should be part of a general education, unspecialised, but in no direct connexion with possible university courses to follow.” (vol 6, p. 222)

That may give you a good measure of peace as you go forward or it might make you very uncomfortable. Try to remember that a well rounded liberal arts education will prepare your student for any eventuality in life. They will indeed be prepared for college, but they should not ONLY be prepared for college.

6 thoughts on “How Old is Too Old for a Science Book

  1. Alli Taggart

    Thank you SO much for all your time thinking and about and researching this, and then for sharing it with us!

  2. Dena Johns

    I so appreciate all of your posts! They have helped me understand Charlotte Mason’s methods more than most any other source. Thank you for all you learn to then share with us. I truly appreciate it!


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