“I hope the reader is not among the naughty children who read the fable and skip the moral.”
— Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 167
This issue came up recently in the Scholé Sisters classical writing class during a live Q&A session. The question was about the morals in Aesop. Some of us were under the impression that Charlotte Mason forbid the reading of the moral in an Aesop’s fable (and some little children strongly disapproved of this practice). My knee jerk reaction was that this was incorrect, but I didn’t say so because I thought I might be wrong. I’ve been reading Charlotte Mason over and over for almost twenty years, but that doesn’t mean I actually remember everything.
I do remember Andrew Kern promoting such things when my children were young: Don’t read the moral, he said. Have the children invent a moral. Maybe, I thought after reading the question, he got that idea from Miss Mason and I just don’t remember where?
Still, it struck me as wrong. It seemed unlikely to me that she would forbid something so integral, but perhaps I’d forgotten something important? All I could do was research to be sure.
And so I did.
I looked up every instance of fable and moral and Aesop in Charlotte Mason’s volumes until I was sure I knew what she’d said.
Did she forbid the reading of the moral of Aesop?
She never did.
Or, at least, I can’t find it. If you can, and you want to send it to me, I’m willing to recant.
What she did forbid was moralizing. She didn’t think we should read the Bible like it was a fable. She didn’t think we should take a history tale and try to boil it down to a moral and use it to preach at our children. In Towards a Philosophy of Education she writes:
No child would forget the characterization of Charles IX as ‘feeble and violent,’ nor fail to take to himself a lesson in self-control. We may not point the moral; that is the work proper for children themselves and they do it without fail. (pp. 50-51)
History is an orchard full of wisdom for the taking. Sometimes, it backfires when we try to extoll the fruit. This is part of a larger thought of Charlotte Mason’s, really — if “learning” is done when someone picks the fruit of wisdom, whoever picked the fruit did the learning. We do not seek a morally neutral education but we do require that the children do their own learning. I’m not going to pick a child’s fruit anymore than I’m going to treat him like a baby bird by taking a bite and chewing it up and spitting it into his mouth. I will take him to the trees and set him free.
Fairy tales, likewise, are not to be moralized. In School Education, Charlotte Mason agrees with Felix Adler:
‘Do not,’ he says, ‘take the moral plum out of the fairy-tale pudding, but let the child enjoy it as a whole . . . Treat the moral element as an incident, emphasise it indeed, but incidentally. Pluck it as a wayside flower.’
But Charlotte Mason was a firm believer in fables, which are of a quite different nature from history or fairy tales. She was a big fan not only of Aesop but also Margaret Gatty’s book Parables of Nature, which is funny to me because I’ve always found it a bit too preachy for my taste. Gatty’s stories always start off with a Scripture and the fable is an illustration of what the verse is talking about. “We know that all things work together for good,” begins one. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” begins another.
It seems like if she’d been worried about the teacher reading the moral along with the fable, she would have mentioned it, but she never does. Instead she says,
Aesop’s Fables … are used with great success, and are rendered, after being once heard, with brevity and point, and children readily appropriate the moral. (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 180)
So do we read the moral, or don’t we?
I firmly believe we read it, and that it is no violation of Charlotte Mason’s principles to do so (though going on and on about it obviously would be). After all, she explicitly chides us in School Education “not [to be] among the naughty children who read the fable and skip the moral.”
So take Aesop and Margaret Gatty as you find them. Read them in full, which means reading the moral. But don’t forget that just as the enjoyable force and power of a good joke is dissipated by much explanation, so is the moral power, particularly of Aesop, ruined by commentary.
Let the moral linger in the room like a good punchline.
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