The Purpose of Literature (Making Sense of Language Arts Part 1)
"As for literature - to introduce children to literature is to instal them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served."¹
This is the first in a series of posts that will examine how language arts is taught in a Charlotte Mason education. In general, we typically refer to language arts as one subject. However, language arts is very broad and encompasses several different subjects. According to Google, language arts includes the following: grammar, composition, spelling, reading, listening, and (sometimes) public speaking. Today we'll explore the the role reading (i.e., literature) plays in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy.
Literature: A Feast For the Mind
Books play an extremely important role in our children's education. Charlotte Mason even goes so far as to say, "The only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books."² Notice she doesn't say just any books - but worthy books! She believed that children's school books should be of the highest literary quality. Throughout her volumes, Charlotte Mason likens education to the spreading of a feast, and the physical nourishment of the body is analogously compared to the feeding of the mind through use of living books.
Let's stay on the feast analogy for a minute. Just as certain foods are more nutritious for our physical bodies than others, Miss Mason argues that not all books are created equal in their ability to nourish the minds of our children. She states:
"The mind, like the body, requires quantity, variety and regularity in the sustenance offered to it. Like the body, the mind has its appetite, the desire for knowledge. Again, like the body, the mind is able to receive and assimilate by its powers of attention and reflection. Like the body, again, the mind rejects insipid, dry, and unsavoury food, that is to say, its pabulum should be presented in a literary form. The mind is restricted to pabulum of one kind: it is nourished upon ideas and absorbs facts only as these are connected with the living ideas upon which they hang."³
It is through literature that students procure living ideas that will touch their heart and inspire their character. (We've also explored in previous posts how literature brings subjects like history and geography to life in a way that a textbook never will.) A broad exposure to rich literature is how we begin to gain a deeper understanding of what Charlotte Mason called the science of relations. Because not all literature is created equal and Charlotte Mason cautioned educators and parents to be thoughtful when deciding which books we use in our children's education.
To Abridge or Not to Abridge?
While it's clear that books play a central role in a Charlotte Mason's philosophy, the question becomes, which books? And if they're old books with antiquated language, should we offer an abridgment? Or how can we expect our kids to comprehend the plot if we, as the parents or teachers, aren't even sure what's going on? So, how exactly do we choose the "right" living books? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is not always as clearcut as we'd like; clarity and discernment come only when we have a firm grasp our personal educational philosophy. Only when we can clearly articulate the principles that support our philosophy, are we able to confidently make decisions regarding which booklists or curriculums to use. That being said, one thing we do know is that Charlotte Mason generally advised we avoid reading abridged versions of books to our children.
She makes the following claim about abridged schoolbooks: "...we 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.' It cannot be too often said that information is not education. You may answer an examination question about the position of the Seychelles and the Comoro Islands without having been anywise nourished by the fact of these island groups existing in such and such latitudes and longitudes; but if you follow Bullen in The Cruise of the Cachalot the names excite that little mental stir which indicates the reception of real knowledge."⁴
At the end of the day, whether we choose to use abridged versions of books in our homes or not is a personal choice. But let's be sure that we don't despise our child's ability to do the work of his own education in the process. Abridgments aren't inherently bad, but they typically aren't that great either. Truthfully, most abridgments lose the very language and literary quality that made the original title a classic to begin with. And while our intentions to "familiarize" our children with the plot are generally honorable, sometimes the opposite happens; children become uninterested in reading unabridged versions later on because the plot has been spoiled. No matter where we land the abridgment debate, the point is, we shouldn’t automatically assume that our children need an abridgment to get something out of the story.
What is Twaddle?
Charlotte Mason uses the term "twaddle" to describe books that have little to no substance or literary value. If we go back to our feast analogy, twaddle - like candy, is harmless in moderation. However, just as we would never expect our bodies to be sustained on candy alone, our children’s minds cannot be properly nourished on twaddle alone; Sadly, there is much twaddle available for children today. Every shelf in the library or ad on YouTube is filled with endless amounts of twaddle. At some point, most of us have probably read a children’s book (or any book) that’s left us feeling….well, less than inspired. Charlotte Mason argued that twaddle should have no place in our children's lives. "They [children] must grow up upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy."⁵
One of the reasons we tend to rely on twaddle is because we despise our children's ability to comprehend quality "adult" literature, but Charlotte Mason says this:
"...children have no natural appetite for twaddle, and a special literature for children is probably far less necessary than the book sellers would have us suppose. Out of any list of 'the hundred best books,' I believe that seventy-five would be well within the range of children of eight or nine. They would delight in Rasselas, Eöthen would fascinate them as much as Robinson Crusoe, the Faëry Queen, with its allegory and knightly adventures and sense of free moving in woodland scenery, would exactly fall in with their humour. What they want is to be brought into touch with living thought of the best, and their intellectual life feeds upon it with little meddling on our part."⁶
As parents and teachers, it's important that we are selective about which books we feed the minds of our children. The truth is, we run the risk of starving their minds if all we give them is twaddle. "The intellectual life, like every manner of spiritual life, has but one food whereby it lives and grows––the sustenance of living ideas. It is not possible to repeat this too often or too emphatically, for perhaps we err more in this respect than any other in bringing up children. We feed them upon the white ashes out of which the last spark of the fire of original thought has long since died. We give them second-rate story books, with stale phrases, stale situations, shreds of other people's thoughts, stalest of stale sentiments."⁸
In the end, since we set the affections of our children and since literature is the basis of a Charlotte Mason education, the books we choose are immensely important. Read Aloud Revival and Honey for a Child's Heart are excellent resources to help families weed through the endless options of books available. Regardless of how we've chosen to educate our children, it's important to ask ourselves questions like: What type of nourishment are we providing our children in terms of literature? What types of living ideas are being portrayed in the literature we read in our homes/schools? And where can we forgo twaddle in an attempt to make rich, meaningful literature the standard in our homes?
¹, ², ³ Mason, Charlotte, A Philosophy of Education, p. 51, 13, 21
⁴,⁶,⁸ Mason, Charlotte, School Education, p. 169, 123, 122.
⁵ Mason, Charlotte, Parents and Children, p. 264.
⁷ Mason, Charlotte, Home Education, p. 229.