To Abridge or Not to Abridge?
One of the most essential parts of Charlotte Mason's philosophy is that children's minds should feast upon living books. Sometimes it's easy to spot a living book, other times it's unclear whether a book is living or not. There's a misconception that a living book has to be old, but the truth is: not all old books are living, and not all living books are old. While is true that many CM curricula utilize older books, the age of a book doesn't automatically guarantee it to be living. Conversely, not all modern literature should be relegated as twaddle.
Additionally, not all versions of a particular book are guaranteed to be living. For instance, an abridged book might be change a living book into something that's considerably different than it's form. But what does it mean when a text is abridged? And can an abridged text be living? What did Charlotte Mason say about using abridged copies with our children? These are some of the questions we'll consider in this post.
What is an Abridged Book?
Put simply, an abridged book is a shortened version of a book. Sometimes the front cover of a book might be clearly labeled as, "Abridged" or "Adapted" - which means that it's missing some (or much) of the author's original content and/or language. However, sometimes, it can be hard to tell if a specific title is abridged. For example, Robinson Crusoe has been republished over 700 different times - making it harder to spot an abridged copy. Sometimes a book may not be clearly marked as abridged on the cover, but further inspection of the publishing information (typically located in the first few pages) will state that it's an abridgment or adaptation of the original.
So, why might someone choose an abridged version of a book over the original? Generally, the thought is that it makes the text more accessible for readers and/or it helps familiarize children with the plot of a specific story. Regardless of the rationale, abridged versions of books are created by removing scenes and dialogue and/or shortening exposition or descriptions. Sometimes abridged versions actually change what is written (e.g., the ending) instead of simply removing "unimportant" excerpts.
Charlotte Mason said, "Children have a right to the best we possess; therefore their lesson books should be, as far as possible, our best books."¹ This raises the question: are abridgments the best we possess? Are they better than the original? And are they filled with the same living ideas as the complete version? Probably not.
Not All Abridgments are Created Equal
However, some abridgments stay fairly true to the original, and even keep the original language. For instance, Dangerous Journey is an adaptation of John Bunyon's Pilgrim's Progress but it maintains all the original language, and simply removes portions of the original text. Therefore, the storyline, characters, language, tone, ending, etc. are faithful to the original. This is ideal.
This is in contrast to something like The Great Illustrated Classics series that publishes classics specifically geared toward children. While this might sound good in theory, these books have heavily watered down language and are sometimes missing the author's original tone and expression altogether. Charlotte Mason said, "ideas must reach us directly from the mind of the thinker, and it is chiefly by means of the books they have written that we get into touch with the best minds."² It's important to realize that a book that's been heavily abridged is merely the editor's interpretation of the author's original ideas. Therefore, when we choose to use an abridged book over the original, we risk losing touch with the mind of the author and the ideas conveyed in his/her original work.
Charlotte Mason cared deeply about the quality of books put into student's hands. And she was leery of using abridgments. In her third volume she wrote, "...if we send to any publisher for his catalogue of school books, we find that it is accepted as the nature of a school-book that it be drained dry of living thought It may bear the name of a thinker, but then it is the abridgment of an abridgment, and all that is left for the unhappy scholar is the dry bones of his subject denuded of soft flesh and living colour, of the stir of life and power of moving. [emphasis added] Nothing is left but...the 'mere brute fact.'
It cannot be too often said that information is not education. You may answer an examination question about the position of the Seychelles and the Comoro Islands without having been anywise nourished by the fact of these island groups existing in such and such latitudes and longitudes; but if you follow Bullen in The Cruise of the Cachalot the names excite that little mental stir which indicates the reception of real knowledge."³ In other words, the living ideas found in living books nourish our minds in a way that isn't likely to happen with an abridged version.
Why it Matters in a Charlotte Mason Education
While the question as to whether or not we should use abridged books may seem trivial on the surface, if we zoom out to the big picture, we can begin to see how our educational philosophy and values inform our decisions. Charlotte Mason believed that just as parents care about the food that goes into our children's body, we should also care just as much about the nourishment of our children's minds.
She describes feeding our children's minds in this way: "We know that food is to the body what fuel is to the steam-engine, the sole source of energy; once we realise that the mind too works only as it is fed education will appear to us in a new light. The body pines and develops humours upon tabloids and other food substitutes; and a glance at a 'gate' crowd watching a football match makes us wonder what sort of mind-food those men and boys are sustained on, whether they are not suffering from depletion, inanition, notwithstanding big and burly bodies. For the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body."⁴
At the end of the day, what we feed our children's minds matters. If a book is stripped of its original tone, rich language, character development, and descriptive imagery, are there any living ideas left to take root? Is it possible we're despising our children's capabilities when we hand them an abridged copy of a classic? Or perhaps we're concerned we, as the parents, won't understand a book without an abridgment? It's okay if our students don't understand everything in a book - it's also okay if we don't understand everything in a book. Hard doesn't mean bad. When we pursue hard things and wrestle with hard ideas, that's when growth happens - this is true whether we're talking about adults or children.
As parents (homeschooling or otherwise), we should put thought into the ways in which we feed the minds of our children - particularly in the way of books, as this is the primary way children are educated in a Charlotte Mason education. A Mason so wisely stated, "...as a child grows we shall perceive that only those ideas which have fed his life, are taken into his being; all the rest is cast away or is, like sawdust in the system, an impediment and an injury."⁵ When it comes to the books, our aim should be to feed our children a feast of rich ideas that nourish their minds, lest we cause an impediment to their personhood. Because children are born persons. And a person's mind grows upon living ideas. Living ideas come from living books.
¹,⁴,⁵ Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 18, 105, 184, 109.
²,³ Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 177, 169,