Monday, April 18, 2011

Children shouldn't read dead things. (Living Books)

The focus of this week's Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival, hosted at Fisher Academy, is Living Books, and it is based on this paper that she wrote, that was later incorporated into School Education, part of her six-volume series on education.

What is to be said about living books that hasn't already been said, said often, and said well? 

And yet our public libraries seem to sell off more good books than they buy; the mall bookstores, as always, have mostly glitz-for-girls and scary-for-boys; and the sold-to-schools book flier that we brought home from last weekend's homeschool meeting--well, we won't even discuss what abominations were in that one.  Homeschoolers, in a way, are lucky...the rest of the world knows about the big online booksellers, but we also know about smaller vendors who aren't embarrassed to combine Alfie and Plutarch in the same catalogue.
"Now do but send to any publisher for his catalogue of school books and you will 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. Nothing is left but what Oliver Wendell Holmes calls the "mere brute fact.""--Charlotte Mason
Dry bones, no flesh, no colour...books fresh from the morgue?  Whatever these textbooks were, as Miss Mason says in her paper, they obviously weren't the books that got Swedish schoolgirls fighting a duel about their favourite kings.  Or the books that got Marva Collins' students working literary quotes into their everyday talk:
"Once when a student told a lie in class, someone said, 'Speak the speech trippingly on thy tongue,' and another chimed in, 'The false face does hide what the false heart does know.'  If a girl was acting too flirty, the other girls would accuse her of acting like the Wife of Bath....Another time when a rubberband shot across the room, I asked Michael whether he had done it.  He said no and blamed it on Phillip, who said, 'Et tu, Michael? This was the most unkindest cut of all.'"--Marva Collins' Way, by Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin
The books are still there for the finding.  I expect that when I go to the Big Used Booksale at the end of this month, I'd be able to find multiple copies of Shakespeare plays, anthologies of poems, hundreds of paperback classics used for one class or another and then discarded.  They're getting a bit harder to find, but they're still out there....and they're "in here" too (online as e-texts).  If we're brave enough to trust our children's minds to the great thinkers, the great humorists, the great observers, then Pascal and Plutarch, Voltaire and Vermeer are easy enough to pull up, download, reserve through even a small library, or find on a used-classics shelf.

Charlotte Mason explains that yes, mathematics may help you develop your mind in a certain way; that learning Latin is certainly good for developing certain strengths, "intellectual muscle" and so on; but none of these alone are going to give you "fact clothed in living flesh, breathed into by quickening ideas."  This argument is not quite clear in the Parents' Review paper, as there appear to be a few words missing; it is clearer when you compare it with the same page from School Education:
"Mathematics, grammar, logic, etc., are not purely disciplinary, they do develop (if a bull may be allowed) intellectual muscle. We by no means reject the familiar staples of education in the school sense, but we prize them even more for the record of intellectual habits they leave in the brain tissue, than for their distinct value in developing certain 'faculties.'"--School Education, Chapter 16
But she also has a warning for those who would take even good books and grind, pre-digest, or otherwise manipulate either books or school subjects to make them work the way we think they should:
"The fault does not lie in any one of these or in any other of the disciplinary subjects, but in our indolent habit of using each of them as a sort of mechanical contrivance for turning up the soil and sowing the seed.  There is no reprieve for parents."
There's no getting out of it or around it; there are no short cuts, magic machines, or snake oil potions that can take the place of good books, well served at the right time.  And there is no magic clicker to tell you exactly what those are and when--even Charlotte Mason was chary about giving a list of the "hundred best books for the schoolroom."  She didn't want people just taking such a list and trying to plug it in, "make it work."  Now that is not the same as saying that any books are fine, including nose-picker histories and vampire romances; Miss Mason had definite opinions about good and bad books, and personally chose the best books she could find for her schools.  But it's not about the booklist, in the end; it's about awakening to the possibilities of books.
"Once she [Erika, a six-year-old student] began reading and saw what fun it was, there was no stopping her.  She became addicted to books.  If she wasn't reading one of the Judy Blume books or one from the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, then she was trying out the Fables of La Fontaine or the Song of Roland.  One day, as I went around the class asking each child what new bit of knowledge he or she had learned that day, [she] said, 'I'm like Socrates*.  The only thing I know is how much I don't know.  I'm learning something new every day.'"--Marva Collins' Way

*In this term's Plutarch study of Solon, we learned that Solon said the same thing. I don't know Socrates very well: did he also say he was learning something every day, or was Erika misquoted? It doesn't matter much, but I'm curious.

Related posts:

Notes from a Book Talk
A Month with Charlotte Mason, #24
Me not just dumb monster, me read Plutarch
Hearts and Minds
Thinking Like a History Teacher

3 comments:

Jeanne said...

Oh, you are so good to me!! Having just completed Polplicola, Solon just has to come next!! Did you know that? Did you have me in mind? I like to think so.

Jemimah's first narration is on my blog - using your question. I think she did pretty well for a newby.

Brenda@CoffeeTeaBooks said...

I still remember when Christopher went from being a so-so reader to absolutely loving French literature after reading The Count of Monte Cristo. He went on to read more books by Dumas.

After that, he would go to the Classics table at the used book sales to buy classics with his own money.

I think it had something to do with all those swords...

Jimmie said...

I'm part of Amazon's Vine program to review books. I should have known better than to select a book from a modern series for middle schoolers. Yuck. It was terrible. I kept thinking that it was like someone took one of of those dumb cartoon shows and wrote a book from it. No characterization whatsoever. Deadly dull predictability. Utterly dead.

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