Dr Maria Montessori wanted children to be rooted in reality and to that end she felt there should be some caution in the use of myth and fairy tale with children, particularly the very young.
Now, I too would probably not read Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book to very young children, for the simple reason it would be too much, but I believe that myth and story have a very important place in children’s development and culture. I would also steer clear of the overly sweet and dumbed down versions poured out of publishers for undermining of children’s faculties.
In one of her less well known works Montessori wrote
Educationsists in general agree that imagination is important, but they would have it cultivated as separate from intelligence, just as they would separate the latter from the activity of the hand. They are vivisectionsists of the human personality. In the school they want children to learn dry facts of reality, while their imagination is cultivated by fairy tales, concerned with a world that is certainly full of marvels, but not the world around them in which they live. Certainly these tales have impressive factors which move the childish mind to pity and horror, for they are full of woe and tragedy, of children who are starved, ill-treated, abandoned, and betrayed. Just as adults find pleasure in tragic drama and literature, these tales of goblins and monsters give pleasure and stir the child’s imagination, but they have no connection with reality.
I agree that educationalists from the 19th century onwards have been vivisectionists of the personality; in fact I would say of the person, but I disagree with her statement that fairy tales have no connection with reality. The golden core of the ancient myths and fairy tales is true and that’s why they have endured throughout human history.
We are designed to long for truth even if we aren’t too sure where to find it.
Charlotte Mason insisted on a literature rich curriculum in which the books were well written and respectful of the child’s intelligence and imagination. There was so separation for Mason or Montessori of the different thought processes in the child. Instead they both recognised a whole person (made in the image and likeness of God) and respected the inherent dignity of the child as a person.
From the safety of the great myths children (and adults for that matter) can explore the natural law. They can see the battle between good and evil and the courage to overcome fear. The ancient myths show flawed heroes and great good done by those heroes, often in the face of fickle gods who never seemed to have anyone’s best interest at heart. In these stories a child’s imagination is fed so that they can begin to think out the reasons for what is real. Children are natural philosophers.
Despite having written the Narnia books C.S.Lewis disagreed with his friend Tolkien on the use of myth.
“Myths are lies,” said Lewis, “and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”
Tolkien disagreed. He had spent a great deal of his academic life studying the ancient myths. “Far from being lies,” he insisted, “they are the best way, sometimes the only way, of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible.” He saw in myths, even the pagan ones (or perhaps especially them) a light cast on truths that might otherwise be lost in the darkness of man’s error.
The ancient pagans had a kind of innocence and wisdom so that their myths hold lots of little golden nuggets. It’s good for children to see that all men throughout history have been made in His image and have some of that image to share.
But it’s also good psychology in that children (and adults) get to face their fears and work through them in story. It’s a lot of what ancient stories were for in the first place. But they also point us to the depths of the natural law so that we see we are all human, together, no matter what. I think the pagan myths actually point us back to what has been the Christian construct of personhood, showing that there was some understanding of the human as person right from the beginning.
You may notice I’ve added a signature which links to my shop. I’ll “formally” launch the shop next week as term starts.