Every day the boy Harald heard some such story of war or of the gods, until he could see Thor riding among the storm-clouds and throwing his hammer, until he knew that a brave man has many wounds, but never a one on his back. Many nights he dreamed that he himself walked into Valhalla, and that all the heroes stood up and shouted:
–Jennie Hall, Viking TalesI‘ve been spending a lot of time pondering something I read the other day in The Story of Charlotte Mason. I’ve been trying to work this out in my mind, but I think I need to work it out on paper.
So here’s the short version.
Sometime between 1908 and 1919, Sir Michael Sadler (from the Department of Education) sent out a questionnaire. He was going to be speaking at an upcoming event on the topic of “Moral instruction direct and indirect,” and he wanted to know the thoughts of his friends and colleagues. Miss Mason was among the many who responded, but in her response she did not answer with A or B. Instead, she offered Sir Sadler a third way.
That third way was wide reading.
I’ve spent hours this week trying to wrap my mind around why this would work, why this is important. When yesterday I sat down and read a chapter of Viking Tales aloud to Q-Age-Seven, it all came together for me.
Every day Harald was exposed to a story, which means that every day he absorbed a bit of culture. And day piled upon day, and week upon week, and before long he could see it in his mind and dream it in his dreams.
According to Essex Cholmondeley, Charlotte Mason had found that “to teach morals either directly or indirectly may have disappointing results.” Her solution was simple:
Growing persons must build up their own principles of right and wrong, and in order that they may do so they need two things. They must gain the insight into human behaviour and human nature which can come through much reading in literature, history, biography, Scripture. With this they should be given some form of map or chart of human nature, with all its great possibilities for good and evil.
Real quick, I want to correct a possible misunderstanding. When Miss Mason says that they must build up their own principles of right and wrong, she isn’t thinking here of values clarification. That sort of thing came long after her time. She believed in absolute truth and absolute standards of right and wrong. What she’s referring to is what I’ve heard many a youth pastor refer to: the child “making their faith their own.” She’s talking about ownership — where the child’s morals are coming out from the inside, not being imposed from the outside (as if they were still two-years-old — I maintain the toddlers and preschoolers require externally imposed morals, but that is another post for another day).
Miss Mason went on to say:
Direct moral teaching cannot supply the place of wide and intelligent culture. It may supplement such culture by offering the young scholar a scheme of the powers and possibilities for good or evil which make up human nature, into which he will naturally fit the results of his reading and reflection; but the conclusions should be his own and derived from pretty wide reading, especially of history and literature.
It is hard for us to hold on to the truth that virtue is built upon imagination. We have to be able to envision the good life, and our part in it. Can a man be virtuous if he cannot imagine virtue? I don’t think he can be.
Imagination fuels human action. Let’s take, for example, studied dictation, which is a normal practice in a Charlotte Mason education.
True confession: we have never, ever done it.
Why? Because no matter how much I read about it, I couldn’t imagine doing it, nor how it ought to be done. It was totally a mental block. So then I tried to tell myself it wasn’t that important or something, but the truth was that I was deficient in vision.
And then my friend Linda taught a little tutorial on it during our language arts night at our local CM group last month. Like a flash, she changed my life. I could finally see it.
When our children read these tales from history and legend, and they see good kings being good and bad kings being bad, when they see cowardice and bravery, when they see love and hatred — when they come to love virtue (this is a sign of reading the right books) — they are building up that internal imagination that will serve them throughout their lives. They are being, in a word, enculturated.
Here’s the deal: there is no neutrality. All children are absorbing culture from someplace. So we might as well be deliberate about it.
I heard a mother of a preschooler the other day bemoaning that her child was resisting writing.
At age four.
Some children really do write at four, but not very many. Those who do are outliers. We get so caught up in that sort of stuff at such young ages, and yes, of course, the child is made in the Divine Image, therefore she was created to write.
But eventually, not at four.
I just wanted to say, “Stop worrying and go read that poor child a really great book. Not a bad book, not an okay book — a great book.”
She wasn’t talking to me, though, so I practiced the art of minding my own business.
But my point remains. If the goal of education is character, virtue — if its purpose is, as Milton said, to “repaire the ruines of our first parents” — we have to figure out how to do that. And Miss Mason is saying that we start with the imagination — with enculturation.
Story is more important than we think.
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