Wednesday, September 5, 2012


In the course of life, it is inevitable that we will go through difficult times, transitional periods that are trying, tough patches. In encouraging one of my married children who is going through one of these testing times currently, I can sympathize because we have had our share of rough seasons in life. Now, fifteen years down the road, I reflect back to one such summer, and I have a different perspective on it. At the time, the trial seemed all consuming, but it isn't the exhaustion and stress of that season that I look back on as important now, but rather, a particular radio interview I "happened" to hear while peeling potatoes for dinner one evening.

A mother and son were being interviewed about homeschooling and my ears tuned in because one of the concerns I had at the time was the swiftly approaching school year and my lack of preparation to start my then youngest child on the homeschool road. That radio program, as it turns out, would be pivotal, the lasting influence of that particular summer.

I was fascinated by their schooling approach. As I recall, the mother was explaining how their entire course of study for 12 years had been through the use of living literature. They had never formally studied science or math, yet her son had been accepted into an engineering program at a prestigious university. This was rather startling information to me at the time. His scores on college entrance exams were superb. How could a course of only studying literature prepare him for this, I wondered. The interview focused on how a life-long education through wide reading could equip someone for anything. I began to view my bright little five-year-old's future with different eyes.

Through the relationships I've made with other homeschooling mothers in our library, I am aware of a wide variety of approaches families choose in undertaking their children's education. Some come to check out books to supplement their textbooks or co-op programs and others check out literature as the sole source of study. Over the course of my long homeschooling journey, I have observed many fads come and go. A friend of mine often laments that homeschool moms are the most insecure and fickle group of people on the planet (I also challenge anyone to find a group of women more self-sacrificing and committed). It's true that we Americans tend to gravitate to whatever is new and promises shining results. I also have to humbly admit my own share of trial and error throughout the years of educating my children.

My conviction about living education and the Charlotte Mason method arises from years of frustration and failure searching for the best for my children. It can be a frightening venture to set off on a course most of your friends haven't chosen, not knowing if your experiment will succeed or fail. Perhaps a few anecdotes will encourage you if you have a mind to try. If we're honest, most of us can readily agree that our own education has had some dubious lasting results. Many areas of deficiency, and perhaps this is part of why we are a bit wishy-washy in knowing which direction to take with our own children.

One mother of ten thought I would be amused to hear of a recent incident in her home. One of her son's friends came to visit and was incredulous that her son was absorbed in a book, in fact, his history lesson.

"What are you reading?"

"A book for history."

"That doesn't look like my history book, why it's just a story!"

"Maybe it's not like your history book," her son explained, "But when I read it I feel like I'm there, living inside the history."

The friend only endured his lessons and was skeptical that school work and personal pleasure could be related. Apparently, this is not a new question. Recently, I read some comments of Charlotte Mason on the subject of the influence of literature on boys:
He got something out of this random reading, bits of history and bits of fable, real, both of them, out of which his mind got its necessary food. Now, here is a point worth attention. How seldom do we hear of a famous man who got that food for his mind which enabled him out of his school studies! And how often, on the other hand, do we read of those whose course of life has been determined by the random readings of boyhood! We go on blindly and stubbornly with our school curriculum, as if this were a fact of no significance, because, say we, the boy will have chances after his school-days to get such pabulum as he needs; but life is not long enough to afford the waste of some dozen years, its freshest and most intelligent period. And, what is more, the boy who has not formed the habit of getting nourishment out of his books in school-days does not, afterwards, see the good of reading. He has not acquired, in an intellectual sense, the art of reading, so he cannot be said to have lost it; and he goes through life an imperfect person, with the best and most delightful of his powers latent or maimed. Why in the world should we not give children, while they are at school, the sort of books they can live upon; books alive with thought and feeling, and delight in knowledge, instead of the miserable cram-books on which they are starved? (Formation of Character, pg. 291)
Compare this with another real incident in the life of our library. Emily was helping a young lad find something interesting to read on a particular history topic. When she inquired what he knew about the Boston Tea Party he was silent, then dredged up a tidbit in the form of a memorized fact set to a little song.

"Oh!" enthused Emily, "Then you did study that. What did you think of the colonists dressing up as Indians and dumping the English tea?"

His response? "I have no idea," and, in his defense, how could he have through the memorization of this detached little chunk of information? This particular boy is alive with interest and curiosity about his world and every story he reads. However, this isolated event held no place in his active little mind because it had been imparted with no connection to any living and breathing idea to engage his fertile mind.

Charlotte Mason's comment?
"Of all our sins of omission and commission, none perhaps are worse than the way we defraud children of those living ideas which are their right. (Formation of Character, Part II, pg. 283-284)
I am so grateful God caught my attention that day in the kitchen many years ago when I was otherwise preoccupied with surviving life's struggle. The ideas I learned in that interview directed my course and opened my mind to the possibilities a school education could have when based on living material, not a program or a course of memorizing "essential" pieces of information.

I urge you, whether you feel confident about teaching or not, whether your life is in upheaval or sailing along smoothly, to consider the educational food you are serving your children in these few short years you have left together. Will your child graduate with a diploma certifying that he has passed through all the required courses with feelings only of relief at being "finished?" Or, having been well nourished with a living education of living ideas from living books, will your child eagerly continue living a full life, always learning every step of the way with anticipation and joy? The path of the former is predictable enough, that of the latter? Endless possibilities.

For the joy of reading,


1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful and wise post, Liz. "Why in the world should we not give children, while they are at school, the sort of books they can live upon...?" Why indeed? Invest in our future! Read a book!!