Wednesday, February 22, 2012

From the archives: On hard books, or, don't serve a stew you wouldn't eat yourself*

(Originally posted April 2010)
"For people who want to do the "living books" thing that Susan Macaulay has popularized, here is the kindergarten program all worked out for them.""--Dr. Ruth Beechick, review of a preschool-K curriculum
I use some of Ruth Beechick's books in our homeschool, and she has many good, practical ideas, especially (perhaps ironically) in using real books to teach language skills. However, I also think this comment is typical of the general misunderstanding around Charlotte Mason and "living books" in particular. In both fiction and non-fiction, the term “living books” has been overused, abused and confused, to the point that almost any chapter book set in some other era is now considered quality historical fiction...and, in the review above, "classic" picture books also suddenly join the list. Some people may take offense at that, and please understand that I am not discouraging the reading of picture books in general--only saying that these were not "living books" in the way that Charlotte Mason used the word.

If we’re going to be faithful to Charlotte Mason’s literary standards, we need to understand that she wasn’t exaggerating when she talked about little children playing Robinson Crusoe, or a schoolboy spending his whole Easter break reading Southey’s poems. It wasn’t so strange that Anne of Green Gables and her friends chose to act out "The Lily Maid" in 1908. Authors like Scott, Pyle, Kipling, Bunyan, Defoe, Kingsley, even George Eliot, were just considered The Books That There Were. They were the standards of the time, and children in "literate" households grew up familiar with Those Books, along with the Bible. If you look at the books Charlotte Mason refers to in the second half of Ourselves, which is meant to be read by older high school students, there are casual references to George Eliot's novels and other books that most of us are lucky even to get around to reading in college. For her students, they were common currency.

Now there must have been hundreds or thousands of books published over the last century, and most of us have gotten much worse at reading and at making time for reading. We’re hesitant, like Joyce McGechan, to put this kind of meal in front of our children because we’re not even sure we’d want to eat it ourselves. We’re in an era where, in a lesson plan for fourth graders, it’s expected that you should define words like “average” and “develop” before reading a book to them—and the lesson plan I found that in is for a picture book.

So I’m very aware in saying this, that the verbal and cultural gap between CM’s students and ours can seem insurmountable. But the fact is that there’s very little being published now, especially for children, that has both the literary power and the idea power of the books from the earlier eras, so we will often find ourselves turning back to them, not exclusively, but as a solid foundation.

Remember this from the third post? "Despising children is not doing the good that we should do in loving them or teaching them, because we undervalue their intelligence, their value as persons, their capacity for good, or even their capacity for bad."

And why are we using these hard books again? Is it because children develop character by chewing on gristle?
"Let us imagine an author at his craft, say, Herman Melville while writing Moby Dick, or Jane Austen working on Pride and Prejudice. Now assuredly what these literary artists hoped above all else was that a century or two from their own time students in high schools would be using their great works not better to understand love or honor or revenge or nobility or happiness, but to “analyze how multiple themes or central ideas in a text interact, build on, and, in some cases, conflict with one another”; as well as to “analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).""--Terrence Moore, "Dressing up Standards, Dumbing Down Schools," quoted by the Deputy Headmistress
Children, if they’re exposed to rich language from an early age, even if we find ourselves stumbling through some of the books, will get it, and will want more. Remember the little girl at Bending the Twigs who threw a sentence about Cerberus into her grammar lesson?

A leisurely education means having the freedom (time, space, opportunity) to discover what makes us fully human.

*Cafeteria lady Mrs. MacGrady on Arthur

Photo:  The Apprentice, 2006

2 comments:

Jeanne said...

Oh yes, this is a fabulous post. thanks for reposting it again.

Naomi said...

Grateful to be standing on the shoulders of those who know the difference! Thank you for reposting.

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