by Anne White
In her 1995 book The Tightwad Gazette II, Amy Dacycyzn included an article called “The Chili Chart,” explaining it this way: “It's always interesting to examine how widely the costs can vary when you purchase or prepare a particular dish in different ways: in this case, chili.” Using a basic recipe (ground beef, beans, tomatoes, etc.) to define the proportions and ingredients of “chili,” she used a graph to show that, even within that definition, the cost of a cupful of chili could vary wildly according to, say, whether one used dried vs. canned beans, or homegrown vs. store-bought peppers and tomatoes. And that variation was only within the recipe as given: reducing the amount of ground beef, or replacing it with plant protein, or choosing a more luxurious meat option such as, say, ground-up steak, would have changed the price even more.
The cost of homeschooling is, similarly and exasperatingly, almost impossible to calculate, even limiting it to material costs (as opposed to lost earning opportunities for the teaching parent, or, on the other hand, money saved through not having to pay for packaged lunch food and fashionable shoes). Even for one year, for one child, using a definite curriculum such as AmblesideOnline, there are many variables. New or used? Print or e-book or audio? Owned or borrowed? Do you include your math curriculum, or outside classes like Latin or co-op drama? Do you count in a percentage of your electronic equipment? Board games? Craft supplies? Museum admissions? Gardening seeds? Biscuits for afternoon tea? Will you try to recoup some of your expenses by reselling books afterwards, or do you have other children who will take their turns with them? And don’t forget about professional development for the teacher, such as books and conferences; and memberships in various sorts of homeschooling associations.
We could create, as the government food experts do, “food basket” versions of a typical AO year. There would have to be some parameters, such as no substitutions, and exclusion of math curriculum, microscopes, and watercolour paints. We could, perhaps, create a Chili Chart of options from “luxury” to “economy.” Super deluxe: leatherbound first editions. Moderate: Some new books, largely paperback; some used, and some borrowed from the library. Super cheap: homemade printouts of online free books, in the smallest readable font. Super cheapest: somebody else’s homemade printouts passed on to you.
Part of the problem, though, with statistical “food baskets” is that they can be misinterpreted so that you think that’s exactly what you should be buying. This happened where I live early in 2020, when a news source published typical food items people should keep on hand in case they were unable to access supermarkets. Customers quickly emptied the shelves of spaghetti sauce and beans, because that's what was on the list. But it wasn’t meant to be a specific shopping list, more of a reminder that one should have some extra food—of whatever sort one normally eats—on hand. In the same way, the real-life version of homeschooling is that you might have multiple children sharing a resource, you might be doing science in a weekly group (and not need to buy any books), or you might have accidentally read or listened to one of the literature books before and have to substitute. You might be overseas, or travelling, and have to use as much free and online as possible. You might need to buy a full-on foreign language curriculum, or you might have your in-laws happily teaching it for free.
But is the point of a Charlotte Mason education to keep the cost as low as possible? On the “yes” side, Mason boasted that her methods were “economical,” as indeed they can be. She was also interested in seeing her ideas applied in low-budget situations: with young working adults who had to buy their own books; in schools in mining areas; and with families overseas who likely would have had to keep shipping costs to a minimum even in those days.
On the other hand, she used the word “generous” to describe the ideal curriculum. She criticized those who did have sufficient financial resources, but who refused to buy the books that, she believed, would not only enrich an educational curriculum, but actually form its backbone. She made the point that, as we do not feed children’s bodies on “smoke and water feasts,” so we cannot feed their minds properly without acquiring nutritious mind-food. One imagines Mason, perhaps not settling for the cliché of “for the price of a cup of coffee,” but insisting nevertheless that the best books are not simply an expense, but an investment in children’s minds.
John Ruskin, in the preface to Of Kings’ Treasuries, had this to say about book-buying, and the example of ourselves as readers that we set for children:
… valuable books should, in a civilized country, be within the reach of every one, printed in excellent form, for a just price; but not in any vile, vulgar, or, by reason of smallness of type, physically injurious form, at a vile price. For we none of us need many books, and those which we need ought to be clearly printed, on the best paper, and strongly bound. And though we are, indeed, now, a wretched and poverty-struck nation, and hardly able to keep soul and body together, still, as no person in decent circumstances would put on his table confessedly bad wine, or bad meat, without being ashamed, so he need not have on his shelves ill-printed or loosely and wretchedly-stitched books; for though few can be rich, yet every man who honestly exerts himself may, I think, still provide, for himself and his family, good shoes, good gloves, strong harness for his cart or carriage horses, and stout leather binding for his books. And I would urge upon every young man, as the beginning of his due and wise provision for his household, to obtain as soon as he can, by the severest economy, a restricted, serviceable, and steadily—however slowly—increasing, series of books for use through life; making his little library, of all the furniture in his room, the most studied and decorative piece; every volume having its assigned place, like a little statue in its niche, and one of the earliest and strictest lessons to the children of the house being how to turn the pages of their own literary possessions lightly and deliberately, with no chance of tearing or dog’s ears.That is my notion of the founding of Kings’ Treasuries; and the first lecture is intended to show somewhat the use and preciousness of their treasures: but the two following ones have wider scope, being written in the hope of awakening the youth of England, so far as my poor words might have any power with them, to take some thought of the purposes of the life into which they are entering, and the nature of the world they have to conquer.
So take some thought, as you budget and plan, of the real purposes of your homeschooling. Treat your bookshelves, and their contents, as the most studied and decorative things in the room. Then enter in and conquer.