The Wonders of the Last Sea- exploring “living books”

So what is a Charlotte Mason education, anyway? This is one of those questions newly seeking parents will ask and they will get a different answer from each person who responds. I can only answer based on my own interpretation… Much of what I know has come from reading around the Ambleside Online site, from reading Karen Andreola’s “A Charlotte Mason Companion” and visiting her website Charlotte Mason Supply and Research and from many years of ‘discussion’ on the Ambleside Online Yahoo Groups (there are many, but I mostly read the main AO List, AmbleRamble, and the AO YR 0 list).

I believe that the Wikipedia page on Charlotte does a good job introducing who she was and what the main tenets of her educational philosophy are. I do plan to write more about her philosophy, but I wanted to first write about the methodology that set a Charlotte Mason education apart from other styles of homeschooling.

The first- and maybe most basic- method of a ‘Masonian’ education is the use of the ‘Living Book’. As the Wikipedia article describes, a living book is a book that is written by one author, someone with a passion for the topic and who shares his/her enthusiasm about the topic with the reader. These books can be novels, biographies, travelogues, histories, etc. These books will transport the child/reader into the topic so the child has a genuine experience with the wonderful ideas behind the words.

In my own life, books have long been a passion. I started reading for pleasure in the 5th grade (much later than other bibliophiles, I know). I’d noticed this girl reading a book during recess each day and I thought if I had a book maybe I could strike up a conversation with her and maybe we could be friends. So I borrowed “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” by dear old C.S. Lewis from the school library and soon enough, I was in Narnia during recess.

I still have the paperback box set purchased for me at age 11

The connection I made with the Chronicles is hard to describe. I know that God was speaking to me through the Pevensies and I know that I longed to be a Narnian long before I knew what a Christian actually was. The goodness of the characters in the books, along with their need for Aslan resonated within my soul and left an indelible imprint on me. I discovered a need within myself to be better, to live up to the goodness my Narnian friends displayed. Their courage, their devotion to Aslan and to one another, their courtliness, their sense of adventure- I began to long for all these traits in myself.

When a child is welcomed into a different world- or into a different time in our own world- and is introduced to a topic by the author/narrator, the child is given a personal tour of the new topic. By spending copious amounts to time with worthy characters and worthy teachers, children soak into their being and consciousness all the lessons and goodness those teachers have to offer. This is one reason Charlotte Mason advocated short readings over a long period of time. Imagine enjoying a fine meal- one may bolt the food down and the enjoyment will soon be over. But if one takes one’s time, savors the delights before him, then new flavors or subtle textures may be discerned. When a child lives with a character or an idea, the child has time to roll it around in his mind, to ponder and question. The topic or character becomes a friend to the child- familiar, comfortable, known. And that is why it is so important to savor living books, so one may have the time to linger over worthy ideas and beautiful thoughts, so these thoughts may become a part of us.

Charlotte also wanted to be sure that each child was reading real books- not dumbed-down, abridged versions of books that had been ‘processed’ for the child’s consumption. Charlotte- and I- believe that children are capable of much more than we give them credit for. Children can understand and synthesize thoughts and emotions at a much higher level than is generally appreciated. While there is a difference between a child and an adult, it isn’t so drastic as we sometimes think. Children are capable of listening, of imagining, of being raised up to the level of the literature/books we give them. No, we don’t read ‘War and Peace’ to a seven-year-old, but we do give that child the BEST of children’s literature, in the original language and without abridgement. We allow the child to read (or to hear) the author for himself and we allow the child to make his own connections with the material. This is his experience with this book and this author. It is his to hear and to hold on to.

I’ve been reading to my 5-year-old son from Edward Eggleston’s “Great Americans for Little Americans”. It’s American history in story form for children. We read about Marquette and Joliet and their adventures on the Mississippi River as they meet the Iowa indians and brave the monsters that supposedly lurk down river. This is my take on the story. My son? He remembers that the Iowa indians fed the explorers like babies (I suppose it was part of their hospitality rituals) and that they shared a peace pipe, “like in Peter Pan,” he said today.

You see, not only has Alex made is own connection with this story, remembering those parts which are important and impactful to him, but he also made a connection between stories. He remembered the indians from ‘Peter Pan’ and has now added his knowledge of the Iowa indians. His knowledge of indians has grown based on his own experiences with the material without my interference as a ‘translator’. I believe that my son is a person in his own right- that God is shaping him and is creating a history for my son. That history includes his interactions with the materials I give him. The Lord will use the sources to shape and mold Alex (and eventually Fae) into a person who will be responsive to Him, who will come to love and serve Him and who ultimately can be shaped into the image of His dear Son, Jesus.

The idea of using ‘living books’ is not unique to Charlotte Mason, however. In college, this is how many classes are organized. We underclassmen were set to read complete books, unabridged versions of Chaucer, Joyce, Rabelais, Derrida, and the list goes on. Why is this method of education used in college, but is thought to be ‘too much’ when educating younger students? How does it educate a child to read an excerpt of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ or of ‘Cinderella’, or- worse yet- someone’s watered-down translation of those brilliant works? Haven’t these excerpts been selected by someone else as the most meaningful and important section of the story? The child’s autonomy in making the connection has been lost because someone has come between them and the material. Now, the child’s only job is to understand what the adult believed was so important. No, when a parent had carefully and prayerfully selected materials to bring to her children, she must then stand aside and allow the child to nibble at the meal. He must be allowed to roll the ideas around on his tongue without interference. Just as a parent cannot digest a bite of a meal for her child and expect him to derive the nutritional benefit, neither should she pre-digest the ideas presented by an author. Leave the meal to the child, the author and the Lord.

Because I believe my children deserve to interact with the greatest minds and the best ideas I can offer, and because I believe they are capable of forming their own opinions and their own connections, I use ‘living books’ in my child’s education. God is using these materials- using the conversation my children are having with the authors- to bring them into relationship with Himself as they learn about the world around them.

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