Friday, December 10, 2010

Discerning What Literature is Good For Our Children

The topic at our monthly CM discussion this month was: Discerning What is Good or Harmful for our Children in Literature, Art, Music, etc.

We arrived to bubbling hot chocolate on the stove, fresh pot of coffee with Peppermint Mocha creamer and several treats to tempt the palate - what a warm welcome! Then to top the evening off, we were served crispy oven baked french bread with bubbling brie and berry preserves by a toasty warm fireplace - thank you Brianne! I really think we need to discuss CM more often!

If you'd like to join us in the discussion on this topic you can do so at Charlotte Mason Education here: http://charlottemasoneducation.ning.com/forum/topics/discerning-what-is-good-or
If you aren't already a member (which is free and open to all interested in CM), just request membership and we'll approve you asap.

First and foremost, I think it needs saying that because we come from many different life experiences and beliefs, have children of differing ages and are at different points in our journey of educating our children, we clearly aren't looking to hammer out the one and only truth that applies to us all in discussing this topic. Rather, by discussing it and sharing perspectives we can hopefully further clarify our own thoughts.

As we travel down the CM road of educating our children through literature, we encounter fairy tales with its talking animals, fairies, spells, witches and beasts. History with its martyrs, cruel dictators, wars and tribulations. Shakespeare full of romance, death, trickery, evil, comedy and more. Greek myths with its pagan gods and heroes, and abundant literature with its wealth of imaginings.

It's no wonder we as parents stop at some point and ask, "Is this really appropriate or good for my children?"

Some parents choose to eliminate it altogether, often quoting Phillippians 4:8. Others see no reason not to share it with their children so long as they are there to discuss it with them and refer to scriptures such as Col 2:20-23. There are also those who stick to what is concrete and eliminate the abstract, believing that young children are incapable of handling the abstract. And then there are those who fall somewhere in between, picking and choosing, skipping over and rephrasing things as they go.

Regardless of where our beliefs lie, scriptures like Romans 14:14 seem to indicate that next to God's Word, we ought to follow our conscience in the matter.

Charlotte Mason believed, that the knowledge of God, the knowledge of man and the knowledge of the Universe was an inheritance every child has a right to. In trying to find what she thought on this topic, I came across a few things she wrote that may apply here.

Now we must deal with a child of man, who has a natural desire to know the history of his race and of his nation, what men thought in the past and are thinking now; the best thoughts of the best minds taking form as literature, and at its highest as poetry, or, as poetry rendered in the plastic forms of art: as a child of God, whose supreme desire and glory it is to know about and to know his almighty Father: as a person of many parts and passions who must know how to use, care for, and discipline himself, body, mind and soul: as a person of many relationships,––to family, city, church, state, neighbouring states, the world at large: as the inhabitant of a world full of beauty and interest, the features of which he must recognise and know how to name, and a world too, and a universe, whose every function of every part is ordered by laws which he must begin to know. It is a wide programme founded on the educational rights of man; wide, but we may not say it is impossible nor may we pick and choose and educate him in this direction but not in that. We may not even make choice between science and the 'humanities.' Our part it seems to me is to give a child a vital hold upon as many as possible of those wide relationships proper to him. (Vol. 6, p.157)

The object of children's literary studies is not to give them precise information as to who wrote what in the reign of whom?––but to give them a sense of the spaciousness of the days, not only of great Elizabeth, but of all those times of which poets, historians and the makers of tales, have left us living pictures. In such ways the children secure, not the sort of information which is of little cultural value, but wide spaces wherein imagination may take those holiday excursions deprived of which life is dreary; judgment, too, will turn over these folios of the mind and arrive at fairly just decisions about a given strike, the question of Poland, Indian Unrest. Every man is called upon to be a statesman seeing that every man and woman, too, has a share in the government of the country; but statesmanship requires imaginative conceptions, formed upon pretty wide reading and some familiarity with historical precedents. (Vol. 6, p. 184)

Mother and Child, Francis Coates Jones

Now Plutarch is like the Bible in this, that he does not label the actions of his people as good or bad but leaves the conscience and judgment of his readers to make that classification. What to avoid and how to avoid it, is knowledge as important to the citizen whether of the City of God or of his own immediate city, as to know what is good and how to perform the same.

Children recognise with incipient weariness thedoctored tale as soon as it is begun to be told, but the human story with its evil and its good never flags in interest. Jacob does not pall upon us though he was the elect of God. We recognise the justice of his own verdict on himself, "few and evil have been the days of my life." We recognise the finer integrity of the foreign kings and rulers that he is brought in contact with, just as in the New Testament the Roman Centurion is in every case a finer person than the religious Jew. Perhaps we are so made that the heroic which is all heroic, the good which is all virtuous, palls upon us, whereas we preach little sermons to ourselves on the text of the failings and weaknesses of those great ones with whom we become acquainted in our reading.

Children like ourselves must see life whole if they are to profit. At the same time they must be protected from grossness and rudeness by means of the literary medium through which they are taught. A daily newspaper is not on a level with Plutarch's Lives, nor with Andrew Lang's Tales of Troy and Greece, though possibly the same class of incidents may appear in both. (Vol.6, p.186-187)

Oh how I wish we could have her at one of our meetings for some Q&A! It seems to me from what I've read that CM, always with an eye on quality and interest for the children, would have been on the more liberal side in what she presented her students while removing anything rude, offensive, or inappropriate. We can see from the books and authors that she does mention in many of her writings: Hans Christian Anderson, Brothers Grimm, Aesop's Fables, Age of Fable, Plutarch, Our Island Story, etc. more specifically what she would have included in her curriculum.

One of the ladies at the meeting mentioned that having read the Greek myths with her children, they were able to make a connection with it when they read Acts in the Bible. The literature had opened up a better understanding of the time and place and thinking of the pagans Paul encountered in the Bible.

We also talked at the meeting about the difference between an adult's depth of emotion and understanding and a child's. When we read something tragic, it affects us deeply and we may continue to think about it for days and months, while my experience with my 9yo daughter and 7yo son has been that they are sad for the tragic, but 2 minutes later they are asking where their lunch is. They likely don't relate and understand tragedy as deeply as I do because of their limited life experience.

That's not to say all children are this way - some children are very sensitive and are troubled easily by one thing or another, which again confirms that these are individual decisions.

Kristine, always our go-to gal for books, brought an interesting book to our meeting titled "Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide To Six Shakespeare Plays" by Peter J. Leithart and shared some of what he said with us. In it, he has a section titled 'A Christian Approach to Literary Study' which she found very applicable to what we were discussing.

Here's some of what Leithart writes. Keep in mind he is writing with the adult, not children in mind:

Christians have often had a difficult time with the study of literature. Fiction has been seen as a seductive distraction from the serious business of holy living. Poetry's rich language has been viewed as a means of promoting beautiful false-hoods. Drama has been condemned for depicting immorality and violence, for tempting audiences to lust and anger. So, ... why study literature at all? Why should the Christian spend time with novels or plays or short stories? Shouldn't we be concerned with "real life," with edifying the Church and building God's kingdom, with witness and worship?

Great question. He goes on to say:

Since language is one of man's greatest glories, it is also potentially one of his most dangerous pitfalls. ... Having recognized the danger of abuse, however, we need not conclude that therefore literature has no proper use. For the same reason that language may be used to commit evil, its use in speech and writing is near the heart of what it means to live as a creature in God's image.

Shakespeare was, as Caesar says of Cassius, "a great observer," who was able to look "quite through the deeds of men," able to see and depict patterns of events and character. He understood how politics is shaped by the clash of men with various colorings of self-interest and idealism, how violence breeds violence, how fragile human beings create masks and disguises for protection, how schemers do the same for advancement, how love can grow out of hate and hate out of love. Dare anyone say that these insights are irrelevant to living in the real world? For many in an older generation, the Bible and the Collected Shakespeare were the two indispensable books, and thus their sense of life and history was shaped by the best and best-told stories. And they were the wiser for it.

The point came up a couple of times at our meeting that reading literature with our children gave rise to great discussions that would likely never have happened otherwise. Discussions on character, good and evil and truth and deception are an opportunity to train our children in discernment.

I also found this point he made interesting...

Christians must avoid the danger of forming judgments, especially moral judgments, without really understanding what they are reading. We should not condemn Macbeth as occultic and unChristian because witches play a major role; we need to look carefully at how Shakespeare uses the witches in the play, and I will argue that his use is perfectly compatible with a Christian view of life. ... Ghosts appear with some frequency in Shakespeare's plays, but the plays are not ghost stories; Shakespeare uses ghosts to make profound points about guilt and the consequences of sin.

He has much more to say in his book, in addition to talking about how we learn literature by reference to a "master story" that we already know - our master story being the truth, the story revealed in the Bible.

There was also much more discussed at the meeting which ended up turning its way into a valuable discussion on handling sibling bickering.

Unfortunately, I can't get to it all - you'll just have to join us next time! Or post your comments here or in the discussion forum - we'd love to hear your thoughts!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent on all counts. I wholeheartedly agree. People, as we get to know them in real life are like those characters in the Bible and Plutarch. They are parts of good and bad. We teach our children to discern which is which. No one puts a label over our heads listing our faults. In this way of reading worthy literature, and discussing it; we gain understanding. We learn how to give grace, because we are not shocked that there is sin tucked into each character, including ourselves.