The Study of Literature

Dear Reader,

For the next Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival I have been reading through the section of her sixth volume entitled “The Knowledge of Man: Literature.” This a short section but I have a few observations on it.

The first is that, as with history, literature is included in the section on “the Knowledge of Man.” This gives us a big clue as to why we study literature and as to what makes good literature. Books worth reading give us insight into human nature and the human condition. They are full of ideas. We learn about ourselves through them. We are also able to vicariously experience other times, places, and situations so that our worlds are expanded.

Charlotte discusses what literature is appropriate for what grades. One does not begin the youngest children on Dante or even Shakespeare. But at no time does she advocate abridged or edited versions for children. Even when one uses books aimed at children, they should not be ones that talk down to them. The youngest children read fairy tales, fables, and myths. Such things not only feed the imagination, they are great for learning to narrate from. We found Aesop’s fables in particular wonderful for first exercises in narration. Charlotte also says her students read Pilgrim’s Progress at ages 7-9. It sounds like this is done slowly, one chapter at a time. Personally, I found that my children were not thrilled with Pilgrim’s Progress. We began it a couple of years ago and ended up setting it aside because they just were not interested. They have listened to other books that I might have thought above their level, but, sadly, this one did not take hold which is a shame because I really feel like they should read it.

Moving on, by age ten Charlotte has students beginning on Shakespeare as well as longer novels like Gulliver’s Travels. We listened to this one in the car. It was challenging for the kids because it does have long descriptive passages but the overall story did engage them. We have recently been reading a book, Miss Masham’s Repose (highly recommended!), which builds on Gulliver and they clearly remember the story. Charlotte makes a point of saying that we are not to stop and explain words to children (unless they specifically ask) nor are we to skip the long descriptive passages, though she seems to think the children appreciate them more than my children seem to. She  says:

“Children take pleasure in the ‘dry’ parts, descriptions and the like, rendering these quite beautifully in their narrations.” (p. 183)

I would say at best my children tolerate such passages if they find the story otherwise engaging.

Needless to say, as children get older, their reading gets more advanced as well. Most of the works she mentions for the later years I have never heard of but they sound daunting.

The reasons Charlotte gives for all this reading are interesting:

“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.” (p. 184)

An immediate goal is to give children a picture of the times they are studying in their history. But a broader goal is to help them to be good citizens by enabling them to form considered opinions on the issues of the day. I discussed in my post on history how the values of society seem to have changed. We care about getting ahead so we value the STEM subjects, math, science and technology. Charlotte cared about forming people so her main emphasis is on history and literature which help us consider ideas and learn about ourselves and others.

Here we see a little bit of a new dimension added.  Charlotte’s idea of a good citizen is someone who is well-informed and has considered opinions so they can vote and participate in their government. I do not think we have abandoned the idea of good citizenship but it seems to now equal contributing to the GNP. Our country’s goal is to get ahead in technology, to beat China and others in coming up with new ways to do things. And it is not that that is a bad goal, but if it is our only goal, it seems to me very materialistic. And all this trickles back down into our educational system so that we devalue the things that teach us about ourselves and perhaps would help us be better people, like history and literature. We lament the fact that people don’t vote and are not informed about the issues but we are doing nothing to raise a generation who is able to do these things or who even cares. And that was the test of a Charlotte Mason education, not how much will they earn, but how much will they care.


2 responses to this post.

  1. I love the last line! So true, and so needed for our culture.


  2. […] Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (see this post, this one, and this one) makes the case that we deal with subjects in fiction, particularly fairytales, that are hard to address in real life. Not only do these stories allow us to get a feel for situations which are hard or which we have not yet faced, they provide us with solutions. They give us heroes and show us examples of how to act, or, often just as valuably, how not to act. Charlotte Mason makes a similar point (see this post or this one). […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s