Daily Archives: May 16, 2011

Could Public Domain books improve literacy levels?

John Taylor Gatto has said that before compulsory education was introduced, under the Prussian model, in America, literacy levels were something like 95%.

Something I read recently about the nineteenth century and the law said that in England (and I am assuming Scotland and Wales were much the same) literacy levels improved exponentially from 1830 through to compulsory education. By 1900 the levels were already dropping drastically.

I remember being told by a tutor, and I have since read this elsewhere, that St Thomas Aquinas wrote his Summa  for school children aged around 14 -15. Now it is difficult for Master’s students to get to grips with. The pompous idea that medieval people were ignorant and we are so enlightened is patently untrue.

But there have been some interesting developments. The age of the computer has given many of us access to all sorts of books, radio programs and podcasts that are high quality and mind stretching stuff. Many of the books that are so easy to access these days are in the public domain and with no copyright they are free for all readers.

Certainly homeschool families and curriculum planners have made the very best of these old books to offer a huge range of high quality, practically free books for children’s learning.

There are many of what Miss Mason called “living books”.  Those are books written by a single author with a flow and joy to them that group written disjointed textbooks written today simply cannot match.

Traditional fairy stories – Andrew Lang’s extensive collection for example – give children a wider language base as well as retaining the the deep set natural law of morality found in both old pagan and early Judao-Christian myth and storytelling.

I know that many parents (especially of those of the home ed variety it seems) have a belief that all books published prior to around 1960 are good and those published after that date are bad. More worrying imho, are those parents who have decided the differential between good and bad is simply this; books are good, technology is bad.  I actually saw a blog entry where the mother stated that no book had ever harmed a child. She should visit our local library some time and see if she can say the same after that!

I don’t buy into any of these views. Some old books are excellent. Some are awful or as Charlotte Mason noted (writing before 1925 remember) “twaddle”. Some modern writers are dreadful and some, such as Tomie de Paola, Michael Morpurgo and others are excellent.

We are using more and more free public domain books, as there are collections made available that are conveniently tailored for learning.  Favourite sites are HERITAGE HISTORY and THE BALDWIN PROJECT. None of the books in these collections have been dumbed down to treat children as though they have never acquired language and couldn’t possibly work through long words.

I don’t know whether these free books could help increase children’s language skills and learning; although I have certainly seen evidence of it in my own family, but there is no doubt that something has gone wrong in general with children’s books today. The level of language for “teen novels” is appallingly low and that’s before you get into the banal to nasty plot lines.  The difference between the beautifully written A.A.Milne stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and the utterly naff “disney” versions is stark. Children deserve better than that surely.