Some Thoughts on Memorywork and Grammar

Dear Reader,

I return once again to Anthony Esolen’s book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. You can read my review of it here. Though I wasn’t thrilled by the book, it made me think. Not to surprisingly in a work on imagination (or the lack thereof) in children, Esolen gives us some insight into his take on education. Though he does not profess allegiance to one particular philosophy of education, he seems to me to fall in the classical education camp. Though my own approach tends to follow along the lines of a Charlotte Mason education, I was intrigued by some of what he had to say.

Esolen is a fan of memorywork, not for the sake of rote learning, but as a means to further innovation and inspiration. He says:

” . . . a developed memory is a wondrous and terrible storehouse of things seen and heard and done. It can do what no mere search engine on the internet can do. It can call up apparently unrelated things at once molding them into a whole impression, a new thought.” (p. 9)

It is the first part of this that makes me think Esolen might fall into the classical camp with its division of education into stages– first the grammar stage with its memorization and then later logic and rhetoric. This has never appealed to me. But I rather like the picture painted by the second and third sentences of how those seeds come together to form new ideas. Combining disparate threads into something new seems like a wonderful outcome of an education to me. To support his view, Esolen also references the ancient Greeks who said that the Muses, those bearers of inspiration in all the arts, were the daughters of Memory. What a lovely connection that is. Esolen goes on to clarify that it is not merely a matter of memorizing anything that is available. The subject of memorization must be valuable or worthy (note that the whole tone of the book is tongue-in-cheek; therefore Esolen speaks as if he is advocating the killing of the imagination and his advice here has that goal in mind):

“We can encourage laziness. by never insisting that young people actually master, for example, the rules of multiplication, or the location of cities and rivers and lakes on the globe. Then we can allow what is left of the memory to be filled with trash . . . Therefore, for children, books with silly, flat, banal language is best.” (p. 14)

Esolen moves on to discuss other areas of education, among them grammar. His advice here (and remember he speaks as if the goal is to stifle imagination) is to not teach grammar or, if one must, to only pretend to teach it. I really wish he had expanded upon what he means by this. It seems that much of what he would he would term “pretending to teach grammar.” But I am not sure I understand what it would look like to really teach grammar. From what I can gather, the pretending looks like learning a lot of disjointed, picky rules.

I have noticed in my own homeschooling that what we teach often does not seem to match the kind of writing we find in great books. For example, we tell children to use lots of good descriptive adjectives, but the sentences they come up with are not what I would call impressive writing. They are overburdened with details when they are not necessary. Similarly, we rail against run-on sentences but as far as I can see great books are full of them. This is the example Esolen uses as well. He quotes a long passage from Henry Fielding and then says, “But teachers will undoubtedly call that carefully structured sentence, building to its absurd climax, a run-on, because it happens to be long” (p. 19). But what can we do to teach children to write well other than expose them to great writing? Esolen implies there is a way, but he does not give me enough information to know what he means. Admittedly, his book is not meant to be a guide to teaching grammar.  Still, I would like to think more about this. How can we teach grammar in a way that really produces good writing? Any ideas?


The Importance of Authorship

Dear Reader,

It seems silly to say how important it is for a book to have an author. How could it not? Maybe there truly is one out there generated by random key-punching monkeys? But the truth is many books these days, particularly those we use to educate pur children, do not have an author. Do you see the difference? It is not about “Did some human have a hand in creating this?” It is about “Is there a mind behind this? Is there some one person with ideas he or she wishes to communicate?”

I was reminded of this fact recently as I was reading through Anthony Esolen’s book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (see my review here). He uses the phrase “peculiarities of authorship.” Actually the whole sentence is a good one. Esolen tells us that to destroy our kids’ imagination “Textbook manufacturers should flatten out all the peculiarities of authorship” (p. 103). He is correct, but I almost think just pondering over that one phrase,  “peculiarities of authorship,” is enough. I have been rolling it around in my mind, and here is what I have come up with: When we read a book, we connect with the mind of the author (this I have learned from Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy); if there is no author, there is nothing to engage us, no one to connect with. I realize this is not an utterly profound idea but this is the first time I have really thought about it this way, about why it is so important that a book not be written by committee. As Esolen says later in his book:

“Five people can have a conversation. A thousand people can only make noise.” (p. 206)

Have you ever listened to someone who has a passion? A friend of my mother’s once invited us over to see his train paraphernalia. I didn’t think I was interested in trains and railroads but his passion was infectious and made me feel at least for a time like trains were the most fascinating thing around. That is the sort of experience, whether live or in writing, that you can only get when an individual mind is allowed to shine through. That is the power of authorship.

Now a book written by two people is still much better than once written by ten, but I imagine that even then there are more compromises that have to be made. One person doesn’t quite like the way another has put something so they haggle over it and come up with a phrasing they can both accept. Perhaps the book is better for it, but perhaps also something is lost. I am a little in awe of authors, not so much that they are able to write, but that they allow so many people to glimpse the interior of their minds. They open up this most private place. I think this is probably even more true of fiction writers who cerate a world for us or allow us to see the world as they do. I would think it is a very humbling thing to open oneself up in that way and allow others in, knowing they might not like it, might disagree or be critical. But I am very glad they do let us in, and if there are odd bits, it is because they reflect a unique human mind. Those are the peculiarities of authorship.


Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival: Affinities, Intimacies and Comradeship

Dear Reader,

I am very happy to be hosting this week’s edition of the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival. To learn more about the carnival or to find other editions,please see Fisher Academy International. The text for this month comes from Charlotte Mason’s third volume, the chapter entitled “We are Educated by our Intimacies — Further Affinities.” If you haven’t read it yet you can do so at Ambleside Online here.

A Charlotte Mason education is all about relationships.  We seek an intimate knowledge of the material we study, not just a rote memorization of facts. This is what Charlotte speaks of when she uses those old-fashioned words “intimacies” and “affinities.” In this month’s section, she is talking particularly of the relationships which our children develop beyond the core academic subjects. You may know a kid who loves rocks, who knows the names of all the birds, who can identify airplanes flying high overhead. These are his or her affinities. For more on what kinds of interests we should allow our kids to pursue and on how to get them interested in anything at all, check out my post “Developing Intimacies.”

Camille at Surviving Mexico gives loads of practical examples when she shares all the interests her son developed this summer in “We are Educated by our Intimacies — Further Affinities: Otherwise Known as What We Did This Summer.” I admit I am a little overawed but everything they managed to do in a summer!

Affinities can be built just by playing and splashing around in the sand and the muck.

Affinities can be built just by playing and splashing around in the sand and the muck.

Celeste at Joyous Lessons shares with us some of the interests her family has found while exploring the California Coast in “Nature Study at the Beach:: A Series.” I particularly loved this quote about how our intimacies only grow with increased exposure:

“But with that growing familiarity comes not less interest but more, as I have found to be the case with all of our nature study. More “friends” to greet each visit. A deeper awareness of even the littlest changes. An understanding of which features are season-specific, which are weather-specific, which are time-specific, which are location-specific, and which are just all-around unexpected.”

Socialization is a hot button topic for homeschoolers, and though Charlotte does not mention it by name, she does in this chapter talk about the importance of what she calls comradeship. You can read more about that right here at Letters from Nebby in my post “Comradeship.”

Comradeship on the beach

Comradeship on the beach

And speaking of comrades, we homeschooling moms could use some too. Jennifer urges us to attend CM conferences and to learn from others in her post at Charlotte Mason Institute entitled “United for the Advance of a Cause.”

Happy Reading!



Jeremiah 5

Dear Reader,

[This is part of my continuing series on the book of Jeremiah. You can find all the posts here.]

As we have seen, Jeremiah prophesies to the southern kingdom of Judah after the northern one has been destroyed when their own destruction for their sins is imminent.  He himself is from a priestly family and knows the law well but is shocked to find that even among the leaders there is no righteousness.

Jeremiah 5 opens with a call to search Jerusalem to see if there is a righteous man. Does this sound at all familiar? God likes to repeat Himself in dealing with His people, perhaps because of our hard-headedness. This passage reminds me of Genesis when Abraham is told that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed and bargains with God to spare the cities if only  a few righteous men can be found in them (they can’t). Jeremiah does not bargain with God like Abraham did. He doesn’t have to. God tells him,

“If there is anyone who does justice, who seeks truth, then I will spare it.” (Jer. 5:1b; my translation)

This game of “what does this passage remind you of?” is always a good one to play when reading through your Bible. It helps us make connections and see patterns that God uses. As in Genesis, the answer here is that there are not enough righteous men (though one presumes the prophet himself would qualify). We once again learn something important about our God though — He spares the wicked for the sake of the righteous. That’s kind of the heart of the gospel message, isn’t it?

Jeremiah himself hopes that perhaps it is only the ignorance of the lowly that has brought this destruction on. He goes to the great, those who should know the law, but finds that they also have broken the yoke of God’s law and cast His fetters off of themselves (vv. 4-5).

As we have seen in previous chapters, there are a number of sins of which the people are accused. This should not surprise us nor is it contradictory. Sin begets sin and it is rare that we engage in one serious sin without others also coming into play. We must also remember that we have reached the end-game in the book of Jeremiah — many earlier warnings and calls to repentance have been issues, all of which the people have rejected, and now the final destruction is looming.

In this first half of Jeremiah 5, one of the sins that God calls the people to account for is false swearing. This may seem like a minor thing to us, but we must remember that the Ten Commandments also forbid taking the Lord’s name in vain. This is a matter of honestly and integrity and it is no small thing. So in verse 2,  we re told that if the people say “As the Lord Lives”, a common oath, then “they swear falsely,” and in v.7, they swear “by what is not God.” There is a little bit of a play on words going on here because the word for swear in Hebrew is  shb’ and a very similar sounding word sb’, “fill” or “satisfy”, is used in the latter half of the verse. This is how it reads:

” . . . .  they swear ( shb’ ) by what is not God; when I satisfy ( sb’) them, they commit adultery . . . ” (Jer. 5:7)

The use of similar sounding, and in Hebrew very similar looking words, creates a contrast between what the people do — swear falsely — and what God does — provide food.

The Bible is full of examples like this. As parents, we often speak of giving consequences that fit the actions. God does this as well, in His own way. So we find a bit later in the chapter that the people are accused of rejecting God’s word, as sent through the prophets (v. 13). Then the Lord says, “‘Because you have spoken this word, behold I am making My words like fire in your mouth, and this people are wood and it will consume them'” (v. 14).

The sins of the people, their lawbreaking, find sharp contrast in verses 22 and 23. Israel and Judah have cast aside the cords of God’s law:

“Go for me to the great ones for I would speak with them,

Because they knew the way of the LORD, the judgment of their God.

Surely they all together broke [the] yoke, shattered [the] fetters.” (Jer. 5:5)

Yet it is only humanity, among all creation, that rebels against its Creator in this way. We are told in verse 22 that:

“I made the sand a boundary for the sea, an everlasting decree that it might not cross it.

Though they reel yet they are not able; though its waves abound yet they do not cross it.” (Jer. 5:22)

This is followed immediately in verse 23 by another assertion of the people’s rebelliousness:

“But as or this people, they have a backward and rebellious heart . . . ” (Jer. 5:23a)

The sea in the ancient Near East is the symbol of chaos. In the myths of Israel’s neighbors it is what must be tamed in order for creation to happen. There are hints of this in the Bible as well. This is why we are told, for example, that in the new heavens and the new earth there will be no more sea. The Israelites were not a surf-and-sand loving people. And yet the sea, as chaotic as it is, as much as its waves may churn and try to cross the boundary that has been set for them, does not disobey its Creator. Only God’s people do that.

I have been reading a book on environmentalism (more posts on that coming) and am struck by how humans alone rise above creation and can have such a great impact on it, for better or worse. Jeremiah, of course, is not concerned with global warming or pollution, but still the same idea seems to be here: it is humanity, and humanity alone, who breaks the law of God.

Next time: Jeremiah 6.



Dear Reader,

[This is my post for the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival. Read the latest edition here.]

Comradeship. What is it? Do our kids need it? And if so, how do we get that for them? If you are a homeschooler, you may already have guessed that this is going to be yet another post dealing with the old socialization issue.

In her third volume, Charlotte Mason throws this word around. She has been discussing the affinities or intimacies that a child may acquire in the course of his education (see my earlier post here). She then turns to the need for “fellowship” and leading and taking an interest in one’s schoolmates (p. 202). These she says are a “sine qua non” — that is to say, they are essential. She goes on to compare Ruskin who was lacking companionship in his youth and Wordsworth who “lived the life of his school-fellows with entire abandon” (p. 202).

What difference, if any, did this make to the men? Ruskin, as quoted by Charlotte, says that he “had nothing to love” and “no companions to quarrel with neither; nobody to assist, and nobody to thank” (p. 202). Now it seems from this brief account that Ruskin lived a life surrounded by servants who did no more than their duty by him and that his parents might also have been distant, so perhaps a lack of friends was not his only issue. Nonetheless, his comments are instructive. He sums up his educational experience by saying,

“‘My present verdict, therefore, on the general tenor of my education at that time, must be, that it was at once too formal and too luxurious; leaving my character at the most important moment for its construction, cramped indeed, but not disciplined; and only by protection innocent, instead of by practice virtuous.'” (p. 202)

I find the last but here particularly intriguing — “only by protection innocent, instead of by practice virtuous.” It is easy to be good when one is not challenged, but other people, by their very differences, do challenge us. They require us to compromise, to see other points of view, to defer to another.

Charlotte offers us a little less on Wordsworth but does speak of his youth, with its many companions, as the shaping time of his life which remained with him and influenced his later work. I love the phrasing she uses — that he “lived the life of his school-fellows with entire abandon” (p. 202). I picture a group of boys free to roam the countryside together, getting muddy, having adventures, not thinking of adults the whole day long. It is an idyllic picture.

So what are the implication for us? My own children’s experience lies somewhere between these two extremes. They have friends whom they see regularly, usually weekly. But they are not unencumbered by the adult world. At our weekly park days, they go off on their own, play games that they invent and have to discuss and agree on, but there are always parents hanging around, within eyesight. They do not have absolute freedom. I do not think this is a bad compromise. The truth is children left completely to themselves can get in serious trouble. But I have also known homeschoolers who isolate their children to such an extent that they pretty much only socialize with their families. I am not willing to say this is wrong, but I will say that my children have learned a lot more about how  others approach the world from dealing with kids from other families. Our own choices are highlighted when we see that others do things differently and it has led to discussions about why we do things the way we do.

So, what about you? How do you draw the lines as a family? How do you decide how much free time with friends is appropriate?



Need Baby or Holiday Gifts?

Dear Reader,

If you need baby shower gifts, Christmas gifts, stocking stuffers, etc., please consider checking out my daughter’s Etsy shop. She has lots of knit, crochet, and tie-dyed items and adds new ones regularly. Some of my favorites right now are two-layer gloves for ladies and kids and super soft, warm infinity scarves. The tie-dyed baby onesies are very cute too.

Two-layer gloves can be worn together or as fingerless gloves

Two-layer gloves can be worn together or as fingerless gloves

Tie-dyed baby onesie She can also do appliqued ones with hearts, footballs, and lots more.

Tie-dyed baby onesie
She can also do appliqued ones with hearts, footballs, and lots more.

Scarves, Infinity scarves and Cowls are made of really soft yarn. Seriously at a recent craft fair everyone walking by wanted to pet them.

Scarves, Infinity scarves and Cowls are made of really soft yarn. Seriously at a recent craft fair everyone walking by wanted to pet them.

Thank you!


Creationism vs Evolution Links

Dear Reader,

I have a number of posts now on the whole creationism versus evolution thing (and more coming) so I wanted to provide a place to find them all at once. Here they are:

Creation and Environmentalism: A Book Review (Part 1)


One Brief Thought on Evolution

Evolution, Creationism and the Direction of the World

Christian Views of Creation

How Did Creation Happen?

Why Evolution?

Human Evolution and an Update

Alternative Views of Evolution

The Genre of Genesis 1

Does “Day” Mean “Day” in Genesis 1?

I will update this page as I do more posts on this topic.




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