I don't often post here specifically about Ambleside Online, which for the last eight years has been the foundation of our homeschool. Athena's children use Ambleside; so do Fa-so-la-la and her sister; and so do several of my other blogging friends, since our common curriculum is one of the things that draws us together. One of the questions that often comes up for us is its "relevance" vs. its "dustiness."
Walter Wangerin Jr. wrote an essay (in Swallowing the Golden Stone) called "An Adult's Tale in Children's Clothing." He begins it this way:
"It has ever been my purpose to fashion stories which, though they are explicitly for children, can nevertheless engage the watchful adult as fully and as well. To that end I enrich the detail and the language enough to reward an adult's more sophisticated attentions....I allow allusions to literatures which the child would never know (and does not need to know in order to enjoy the story at her level of experience and response). I develop chords of themes, as it were, the lower, more subliminal notes creating a fundament of which the child is no more aware than she is of the foundations of her house, but which adults might interpret with full awareness."In a recent fascinating exchange with Roger Sutton (the editor of the Horn Book, and I'm not name-dropping here; he has a blog just like everybody else), he expressed some genuine concern that children whose education is centered on older books may need, so to speak, to blow a lot of that old dust off of themselves before (somehow) entering the "real world." To be fair, he was not speaking so much of the idea that children should read classics as the problem that they might miss out on something worthwhile and newer.
I certainly agree that there probably are some parents out there who hide behind certain books...say of the Victorian era...because they think those books will produce better moral character in their children. However, I don't think Ambleside Online users usually fall into that category. We're more interested in detail, language, and "chords of themes." We're interested in developing those "more sophisticated attentions" that will allow older children to explore as widely as they can without being hampered by their lack of background. To read Paradise Lost with any kind of enjoyment, you need to know not only the Bible but also something about classical mythology; you need to have a generous vocabulary and understand something about Milton's subtle humour as well as his serious themes.
I wrote in the comments on the Horn Book post that "It's exactly that 'wider world' to which we are attempting to introduce our children: a world that stretches back beyond our own generation and into places that many of today's children will not be able to go [if they are not given enough of a foundation in books that stretch their thinking]....In other words, we are not attempting to use old books because they are old books, but because we do indeed want our children--to quote Charlotte Mason--to put their feet into as wide a room as possible. I don't think that we're as far apart on that point as you might think."