I said yes when Carroll asked me to speak about living books and the moral development of the child because that seemed like a topic close to my heart. Then, as I began reading and researching, I thought I had offered to serve up the ocean with a teaspoon. This subject is huge. More time and more ability on my part could not begin to do it justice.
Because, reading has an enormous impact on a child’s moral development. I’m not going to try to convince you that books are the only influence, but stories are key, even critical, and I will unequivocally say, your children’s reading is essential to their moral growth and development. When I was first introduced to Charlotte Mason through Macaulay’s book For the Children’s Sake, I was initially drawn to Mason’s method because of “living books.” I knew I couldn’t recall the title of a single textbook I’d had, but had learned very much from books I read on my own. Immediately, I began using living books for my children’s lessons. Over the last ten years, I focused on studying Mason’s Home Education Series, gleaning specifics on the how and why of teaching Plutarch or picture study, to find out about “the way of the will and of reason,” or “masterly inactivity.” So when, this past December, I resolved to read nonstop, straight through all six volumes, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was surprised, (actually shocked is more accurate), at how much she says about books. This “big picture” view showed me how easy it is for us to see these books as a means to an end, as vehicles to transport information for “school,” a useful technique that’s superior to traditional textbooks.
Mason knew living books were far more than useful, far more than a tool, but the most effective and powerful instructors for a child’s life, reaching beyond school lessons, able to penetrate their whole person - to enlighten the eyes of the heart, instruct the conscience, illumine the understanding of themselves, others, their world, and even God Himself. Living books influence character almost mysteriously. Character, who a child is and becomes, was Mason’s higher goal, not the level of academic prowess he need attain.
Character is who we are. Our thoughts affect our beliefs, beliefs affect our decisions, decisions affect our actions, actions reveal our character. Throughout her writing she quotes such Bible verses as, “As
a man thinketh in his heart, so is he;” “A child is made known by his actions;” “Out of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Mason puts it: “A man is what he has made himself by the thoughts which he has allowed himself, the words he has spoken, the deeds he has done.” (v2, p236) Since stories determine what we think about, they are key to who we become.
I’m confident every parent and teacher here deeply desires their children to be strong in virtue and moral character. Think, parents, about the first time you held your baby, the daunting responsibility
you suddenly felt, your overwhelming sense of inadequacy not just for their survival, but to show them how to live. Remember realizing that bringing them into the world was the easy part? If changing diapers and teaching them how to play baseball was all there was to parenting, we wouldn’t tremble. But they are infinitely complex individuals, made in the image of God. Understanding them is nearly as challenging as understanding God is, something no theologian claims to do. We can’t imagine who this child will become. Feed and shelter, sure, but direct moral development? - how in the world do we manage that?
This is where living books, Mason knew, could assist us, by giving us vision. I am certain her confidence in books had something to do with her very first principle of education - you know the one that’s seemingly easiest, because it’s stated most simply: “children are born persons.” This is why children need a wide and varied feast spread, not just because there are varieties of children, but because each whole person, complex and multifaceted, needs to be fed. Stories feed the whole person, not just the mind. Mason was on to something here, had a glimpse into this mystery. She felt she was standing on holy ground – because she was, and so are we. This teaching of children is sacred work, sowing stories, like spreading seeds of all kinds, trusting they will bear fruit.
(to be continued)
For the joy of reading,
For the joy of reading,