Category Archives: Literature

Using ancient myths to teach universal truths.

D'Aulaire's Greek MythsMost home education curricula and book lists include fairy tales and myths. There has been some discussion and disagreement about the place of these stories in a child’s education.

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.

Hydra

 

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.

Sign

You may notice I’ve added a signature which links to my shop. I’ll “formally” launch the shop next week as term starts.

Books that are true and true books.

What is a true story? It isn’t just a story about something that happened. A true story should be more than that; deeper and more solid. Truth isn’t simply a set of facts, it includes what those facts mean and how they relate to natural law.

As persons we are made to resonate with the natural law. In some ways our observance of the laws of nature are like a shadow, a type, of how we observe natural law. The most common metaphorical example of this is to say that a person who decides he wants to break the law of gravity and jumps off a building, will demonstrate the law of gravity, rather than break it. The law of gravity will break him. As it is with the laws of nature, so it is with natural law. When we decide we can break the natural law, to do as we want, we so often demonstrate it, in how it breaks us.

We don’t need to have studied philosophy or read the Summa to understand the basics of natural law. The law is written on our hearts (CCC 1954+), that i,s we can know it through reason and I suppose we could even argue we know it instinctively.

That’s not to say we all automatically know the whole Truth and the complete moral law;  no, that we have to seek in order to find. We are promised that should we seek it, we will find it. The Church has always taught that we must follow our conscience and that we are obliged to form that conscience. As parents we are the primary educators of our children, so we are to help them form their consciences.

Stories can help us do that.

Some stories stick with us. The great old fairy stories that the Grimm brothers have made famous, are steeped in old pagan memories but also in basic human truths. We see that beauty is in itself something of goodness, and that it is more than skin deep (Beauty and the Beast). We see sacrifice, love, courage, honour played out against, fear, envy, hatred and murderous intent, without being preached at in any way.

A true story is much more than a factual story.  True stories resonate with us, because we want truth really. The reason that Tolkien’s books remain so popular are because they have that truth. The little men show courage and strength that speaks to us in a way that even Gandalf’s great battle with evil and consequent “whiteness” doesn’t.

I can’t help believing that Tolkien and Lewis will be read long after Rowling and the agenda driven Pullman are forgotten.

One of the most popular kinds of books and TV programmes are based around murder. So many people have read of Sherlock Holmes, Poirot and Miss Marple,  the wonderful Peter Wimsey, Dr. Thorndyke and the ever beloved Fr. Brown. Some the attraction is undoubtedly in the “who dunnit” solve the puzzle, following the clues, but the root of the enjoyment comes from the moral certainty that murder is wrong, no matter how much the victim may have seemed to deserve it. Murder stories have almost the same sense as the traditional fairy stories were good and evil are clearly seen, even when the characters are flawed and complicated, like real people.

I am aware that there have been attempts by writers (for TV mainly I think) to turn the natural law on it’s head and have stories that make out murder to be fine, but I not aware they have been popular. That’s a sign of hope, that even in our post-Christian, post-traditonal-pagan (bring back old paganism!) culture we haven’t completely lost touch with ourselves.

Book Review: Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, by Anthony Esolen

Just before we get down to term and begin the more formal learning, I finished reading Anthony Esolen’s book  Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child that Esolen writes on are:

1. Begin by rearing children almost exclusively indoors. He then goes on to show how his own childhood was spent exploring and discovering the wonders of his local world. How this taught him and inspired him so that he could wonder at the world. Some reviewers have noted this and believed it needed a good Editor to snip away at these passages. Having finished the book now, I disagree. The whole point of his apparent rambling is because he was allowed to ramble and in so doing learned to live. Those of us who follow Charlotte Mason’s philosophy know that nature study and exploration are core to her appoach in helping children learn.

2.Never allow children to organise their own worlds or exploration of that which is interesting or challenging. Living in a culture that schedules, timetables and controls every waking moment of a child’s life, this is easy to do. Simply allowing children to do their own thing occasionally, pick up a book and sit and read it; actually get bored even, has become anathema these days. Esolen again shows his own childhood was quite different and that he was allowed to collect rocks, peer into holes, stare at bugs and that he grew to love learning in that way. Not many children I know love learning.

It’s all part of what Dr. Ray Guarendi so aptly calls the Do-do-go-go-get-get culture. It seems to me to be at the root of parents being horrified at the prospect of having their own children around them all summer. They seem to think that the children must be timetabled and expensively entertained at all times, and if not then they must be put in front of the TV or video game for hours on end.

3. Don’t risk allowing children to explore machines or encounter those who know how to use them. This is easy to do if you drown them in ‘elf’n’safety paperwork. They’ll never get to use a cooker much less muck about with a bike engine if you follow all those rules. I am afraid with Ronan’s love of cooking and the fact that their dad is often in the shed messing about with tools, we are failing miserably in this area. Ronan even borrowed a hammer and built a wooden aeroplane last week, with nails and everything! Oh no!!

4. Replace fairy tales with clichés and fads. I was astonished at the very narrow education so many of the people I taught at University had been subjected to. They knew nothing about the traditional fairy stories or even Winnie the Pooh. Now you might say, well you don’t need to know Sleeping Beauty to do a degree, but the lack of foundational knowledge had made them so very narrow in thought, and quite frankly in maturity. It did make me wonder what children’s stories they did read or had read to them. Esolen points out that the traditional tales, often full of frightening imagy, not only helps form imagination, but offers heroes who must love against the odds or face fiercesome beasts with courage and a small sword. Children’s books that offer political fads and banality are bound to deaden both imaginarion and virtue – and there are so many such books to choose from, only they are all the same.

5. Denigrate or discard the heroic or patriotic. Children need heroes. If you want to destroy their imagination and soul then make sure they don’t have real heroes to emulate. Make them like that astonishingly damaged teenager on Jamie Oliver’s Nightmare School who wanted to be like Katy Price. I have failed in this already as my children loved the story of Beowulf and already have some horribly traditional fairy stories told to them thanks to the Andrew Lang books. Worse still they are presently reading along with Under the Grape Vine, C.S.Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Ah well, I am sure I can fish out a Philip Pullman to crush them.

6. Cut down all heroes to size. Don’t allow hero worship unless it’s of the shallow bling wearing kind. Undermine as many aspects of kindness, courage and perseverance as possible. Make the good look weak and those who have a Christian faith must be mocked or made to look bad. Then you can push this message over and over. Easy enough with TV and other media. (And it worked so well for Hitler and Stalin).

7. Reduce all talk of love to narcissism and sex. Instill the mantras of “do it if it feels good for you” “don’t force your morality onto me” “Do it if you have a condom” and then before you know it the unholy trinity of me-myself-and-I will be the basis of life.

8. Level all distinctions between man and woman. Or as some have put this spay and geld. Boys in particular, Esolen says, must be restrained from manliness at all costs. Girls should not be feminine in any way.

9.  Distract the child with the shallow and unreal. – plenty of substandard TV and pseudo-educational stuff should help this process, as well as hours of gaming. OR take them to the library and let them get those teen novels that will help tick 7, 8,9 and 10 all in one go. If that’s not enough teen magazines can help. In fact start them early. While looking for books for Heleyna I came across a whole pile of shiny, sticker stuffed books to teach a girl how to primp and fuss and be a massive consumer of make up, high heals and anything pointless.

10 Deny the transcendent – Christians are so very good at this. Unfortunately for Catholics with the New Mass and stricter observance of the GIRM the transcendent has a real danger of breaking through. But you could always invest in that book I was told about where it was proposed that churches should all become mini monocultures about the people who went there and with almost nothing at all about God. There are plenty of those places so they are easy to find.

The book is written in the form of paradoxical intent, (obviously) and other reviewers have noted the Screwtape nature of the book. so the answers to the horror of dumbed down, inert children is in the warnings of things to avoid in order to destroy their imagination as well as the things to do to ensure the destruction. He packs the book with plenty of wonderful authors and ideas for truly inspiring children and allowing them to grow as good people.

This excellent book echoes the same unheard message that has been written and spoken since the Enlightenment darkened our culture. From Mason and Montessori, through Chesterton, Belloc and more recently Gatto and now Esolen, – and of course from Popes Leo XIII to Benedict XVI -we have been warned that our children’s lives are being flattened to the point where they are men without chests. We have been warned that deconstructing the family with collapse society and all the time the NOISE continues so no one hears the message.

There is a great deal of excellent literature pointed to within the book, and a good bibliography at the back. I was saddened to see a father review the book with a one star because he hadn’t read the books Esolen suggests and did not understand the way the book was written. Now, I am a great believer that a writer should avoid silly big words where a plain one will do and that if he can’t say something plain and clear chances are he hasn’t understood the subject himself, but Esolen is writing for the ordinary person, who has just a modicum of imagination left.

Professor Esolen wrote this article as he was writing his book.

Here is an article from Classical Teacher at Memoria Press.

Charlotte Mason Home Education; Grade 2 (yr 3)

I’m setting out the curriculum for Grade 2 or UK yr 3. There is the joint work Roni and Avila will do together.

Then the following:

Maths

Math U See alpha finish off and begin Beta.  Mathematical Reasoning level C and Complete the Picture Math book 3. I have some other bits and pieces to help him understand money better.

Critical Thinking: Building Thinking Skills Level 1 which he is already working through.

Language Arts: Language of God level B (he could do with C really) and Language Smarts C (I hope to get hold of level D soon) as well as the online Language Arts books from my resource blog. He has been doing some Scott Foreman worksheets which I think we will continue with.

Reading: He is reading the 26 Fairmount Avenuue books by Tomie de Poala but he has a few other things he has been reading too. He can more or less read fluently now so there is more choice of books for him.

Science Find the Constellations H A Rey; Exploring Creation with Astonomy Fulbright and Nature Detectives. I’ve also got Garden Dectectives on order. Alongside this is his big book of Science (Miles Kelly) and the Usborne Energy Forces and Motion book (internet linked) We’ll also continue with little projects and lapbooks based on the Usborne pocket science series. A kind aunt bought us the whole lot some time ago and they are pretty good.

Read Alouds: Still got to finish Benedict of the Hills and then Augustine Came to Kent and Beowulf. (For both the latter books much thanks to Clare). There’s bound to be more especially from the Baldwin Collection.

We are still working through Our Island Story and 50 Famous Stories Retold; I actually tend to use some of the Librivox versions; some of the readers are quite good. (We heard the story of Grace Darling (ch 19) and then visited her museum and grave last year).

Other stuff includes Dance Mat Typing as well as other BBC schools stuff which can be useful for revision and consolidation at times. We will also probably use some homemade worksheet stuff as well as the  great stuff available from That Resource Site.

This isn’t written in stone; I tend to change things as we go along- but it’s the start.

Another week of homeschooling.

twins3001

It was the feast of St Scholastica (or St Elastica as Avila calls her-patron of underwear manufacturers we assume)on Tuesday and so I read ‘The Holy Twins’ to the children. It’s a lovely book, beautifully illustrated and just the right length for a bed time story.

One of the homeschooling mums has given me a few Maths Together books which are basically little stories with math questions and puzzles included in them. Ronan and Avila quite like them and they are teaching some concepts about shape and number that is useful-while I save for a proper curriculum.

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Beowulf, Our English Ulysses

In ‘Parents and Children’  Charlotte Mason refers to the Tale of Beowulf as “Our English Ulysses”.

She does admit that he was not exactly English but he comes from our English Heritage.

A children’s version of the story from the BALDWIN PROJECT is HERE. There’s a somewhat more indepth version HERE.

Charlotte’s notes:

Beowulf is prudent and patient-

The first half of the poem concerns “Beowulf’s great deeds against the monster Grendal and his dam” (mother) the second, fifty years later concerns “Beowulf’s conquest of the fire-drake and his death and burial”.

…We may fairly claim the poem as English, that it is in our own tongue and in our country alone that it is preserved. The hero  Beowulf comes of brave and noble parents and mildness and more than mortal daring meet in him. When he comes to Hrothgar to conquer Grendel, it is of his wise counsel as much as of his strength that we hear. The queen begs him to be friendly in council to her sons, saying to him, ‘Thou holdest thy faith with patience and thy might with prudence of mind. Thou shalt be a comfort to thy people and a help to heroes.’ None, it is said, could order matters more wisely than he. When he is dying he looks back on his life, and that which he thinks of the most is not his great war deeds, but his patience, his prudence, his power of holding his own well and of avoiding new enmities.

‘Have Patience of thy Woes.’––’Each of us must await the close of life,’ says he; ‘let him who can, gain honour before he die. That is best for a warrior when he is dead. But do thou throughout this day have patience of thy woes; I look for that from thee.’ Such the philosophy of this hero, legendary or otherwise, of some early century after Christ, before His religion had found its way among those northern tribes.

‘I Swore no False Oaths.’––Gentle, like Nelson, he had Nelson’s iron resolution. What he undertook to do he went through without a thought, save of getting to the end of it. Fear is wholly unknown to him, and he seems, like Nelson, to have inspired his captains with his own courage. ‘I swore no false oaths,’ he said when dying; so also he kept his honour in faithfulness to his lord. On foot, alone, in front, while life lasted, he was his king’s defence. He kept it in equal faithfulness when his lord was dead, and that to his own loss, for when the kingdom was offered to him he refused, and trained Heardreg, the king’s son, to war and learning, guarded him kindly with honour, and avenged him when he was slain. He kept it in generosity, for he gave away all the gifts that he received; in courtesy, for he gave even to those who had been rude to him; and he is always gentle and grave with women. Above all, he kept it in war, for these things are said of him: ‘so shall a man do when he thinks to gain praise that shall never end, and cares not for his life in battle.’ ‘Let us have fame or death,’ he cries, and when Wiglaf comes to help him against the dragon, and Beowulf is wrapped in the flame, Wiglaf recalls to him the aim of his whole life:––

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