Thoughts on Reading the Classics
Recently a reader of A Living Education asked for an article on the place of reading the classics in a curriculum. A great many excellent articles have been written on this topic, notably one by Rob Shearer of Greenleaf Press. My own usage of classics is based upon some different factors to what Rob’s article discusses. Perhaps my thoughts may add another side to your own consideration of this topic and on the selection of books.
Does Your Method Rule Your Homeschool?
Our perception of ourselves affects our actions. Many people see themselves as homeschoolers first and foremost, as members of a particular movement. Homeschooling is their primary identifier. I see myself firstly as a 21st Century Christian and secondly as an Australian. Homeschooling is a choice we have made, but our decisions within that educational and lifestyle choice are not based on what homeschoolers are doing, or what is the homeschool way. They are based, I hope, on what God wants for us. That sounds rather pompous, I know, however there is peer pressure even within homeschooling, to do certain things to appear like you are doing a great job.
What Would Charlotte Mason Recommend?
We can be too concerned about whether Charlotte Mason recommended recommended reading a classic, or another clever educationalist said it was good – I find a great many of Charlotte Mason’s methods simply wonderful and use a lot of them, but we make our decisions based upon other factors, not her recommendation alone. We need to cut through these subtle expectations we place upon ourselves and find out what God wants for us.
While we may not be sure of God’s whole purpose for us, these are two things we can know for sure – that He put us in this century and that is no mistake, and that He put us in this part of the world where we live and that is no mistake either. Our choices of how we educate including what types of books we use, are made with consideration of this larger picture.
Too Many Living Books
There is one main problem with using living books – there are just too many of them! As a bookseller I have access to a number of large book warehouses; one stocks over 500,000 different titles. While many will never interest me, a great many would. Limited house space, money and time mean the vast majority of this ever-expanding number of books will go forever unread by me or my circle of friends or family.
In the time we have, with the money we have available for living books and with the floor space we have, we must decide what to read. Even if did these factors not restrict us, and we could read to our heart’s content, it can be an unhealthy way of life to spend most of one’s hours reading. Somewhere we must stop acquiring knowledge to using that knowledge, and that should also help us to choose our books wisely.
Reading Old Classics
Because we can’t read everything of interest, we will want to read mostly books that may be of value to us. I say, “mostly” because in everyone’s life there is a need to relax and unwind without the need to be striving for more knowledge. Even Charlotte Mason allowed a little time in a child’s life for twaddle.
Classics are the sort of books which have proven value. Not only are they exciting and entertaining stories, but the reader will possibly learn some good lessons about life, if they are reading thoughtfully. Classics generally tell of another place and another time, and although precursors to our modern culture, are not about our culture. They throw light on situations today using stories from the past. From well-written books, as classics tend to be, the reader will come to view the world through the worldview of the author and the characters, living their lives vicariously.
Reading Modern “Classics”
This will also happen as we read well-written modern books which may not yet have attained the title of ‘classic’. This is what the joy of reading is about -the value of discovering truth along with the characters.
So why not read modern books if we can learn and discover truth in them as well? Books in the modern vernacular are easier to read. They are generally favoured in our society. Should we feel sad that people are generally reading fewer older books, and determine that that will not be the case in our families? Will older books teach lessons that newer books will not? Should our families read Dickens to make us feel incensed at the plight of poor children in cities, or should we read Mama Tina’s biography about her work in Vietnam to feel the same? Is there a greater purpose to consider behind our reading?
At the recent Christian Homeschool Conference in Sydney, Jay Wile described an interesting project he had devised for his teenage daughter to do for language arts and history. He had her translate the American Constitution into modern English. He and a university registrar, using her translation, then read their Constitution through for the first time. Dr. Wile is a highly educated man. The University registrar who interviewed applicants was supposedly well educated also. So I am referring to well educated people, the ones we assume may read harder books, as opposed to most of the population. Neither of these educated people had read a document fully that both highly valued. Why? Largely because it was not written in modern English.
This is an observation that we would do well to consider: putting archaic English into modern English enabled them to learn what they would not have bothered to learn otherwise. I must think carefully why I want my children to do copy work from a classic book that uses old fashioned language. Will the older language mean they, like most, don’t bother to really grasp the meaning? Is grasping the meaning the main point of the lesson, or is practicing a form of English no longer spoken the main point of the lesson? Would it not be better to have them write ideas in a manner clearer to understand?
Modern Literature Style
There is much powerful literature and biography coming off printing presses today. Modern literature speaks loudly to modern people, and “raises (its) voice to all mankind”. It reduces long descriptions, leaving them to be brought out through the action or the dialogue much like a movie does. It cuts out slow sections, leaving in what is necessary to the plot. Character descriptions come through the character’s actions and the readers must discover the truth about their nature for themselves; the author is not a commentator. Often whole events are purposely omitted and only alluded to, the reader having to do the work of filling in the gaps based upon what came before or after. It is a whole different way of writing than literature styles from even a century ago, which tended to follow a clear sequence from beginning to end. It seems to take more cues from the styles of movies and theatrical productions than from the old art of storytelling. To teach writing today using the classics as a model to teach a style which is no longer popularly read, and will seem unusual to modern readers.
Making Choices When Reading the Classics
When I am considering curricula and books, foremost in our minds is what sort of children we want. Of course, our children are not clay that we can mould as we wish—they are thinking individuals with minds of their own; however the shape we mould, though not set firmly till adulthood, is likely to help form the boundaries of what they will eventually become. In deference to God, we attempt to shape them in a way we think He may want them to go.
Books mould the minds and hearts of our children, so the books we choose should be moulding them in the way we are hoping for them to go. God expects every generation of Christians to do all that is within their power to reach their own generation? This is foremost in our minds as we decide which books to use.
Our approach is two-pronged: on one hand we want to help them develop excellence in their lives and enough knowledge about our culture to become able servants of Christ within our culture; on the other hand we want to stir up compassion for those people alive today and put before them materials that make them feel part of God’s great contemporary work. Covering both bases is, we believe, important. In our society, people listen more to those who know the cultural norms, particularly if they are qualified in their area.
Of course many are heard who don’t fit these criteria, but they generally fade away before too long. Therefore I need to keep in mind that cultural knowledge (that which constitutes most of what we called ‘education’) is but one part of the education I wish to provide. The other part is bringing understanding and compassion for the world today, and I also choose books to feed our children in this way.
I don’t want them only to know about the end of British slavery and not that thousands of children who are still slaves today; to know the facts about the Bubonic Plague but have no idea of the devastation being wrought by the AIDS plague in Africa now; to know about orphans in Industrial England but not know of the many orphans today, victims of wars, government policies and AIDS. I will read to them about William Carey’s mission work in India, but am also concerned about them knowing about mission work today in various parts of the world. And what about our own backyard? The growing poverty in our cities – people who are striving to clothe their children adequately and don’t have the knowledge of how to put together a healthy meal on a budget; parents who don’t know how to train their children and are struggling with the whole child raising process, where before a whole community supported their efforts. These issues are the responsibility of the 21st Century church – an amazing, unprecedented opportunity, because Western Christians have now more freedom and money to act than ever before in history. As a result I want my children to know they can make a difference and that God has called them.
A Feast of Ideas When Reading the Classics
We have a wonderful opportunity as parents to shape the thinking of our children. Children from a young age are generally compassionate and warm towards people who do good for others. In the primary years I take advantage of this natural tendency to read a lot of children’s missionary stories, biographies suitable for children as well as fictionalized stories based on fact, such as Dave and Neta Jackson’s Trailblazer series. As they move into high school I include on their reading lists more modern stories based on life in the modern world, particularly about people with lives different to their own. The idealism of adolescence is the perfect time to reinforce the idea – “You can make a difference.”
God wants His people to ‘Arise! And Shine!’. To arise implies a process of rising from a foundation to a higher place. It is not the same as being a shooting star – coming from nowhere and disappearing as fast as it came. If being a shooting star were the goal, a knowledge of the Bible would suffice entirely for education and the classics would be a distraction from that goal. However to ‘rise up’ infers an infrastructure which will support you as your light shines on, brighter and brighter. Here is where a rigorous education, that may include classics, comes in.
These sorts of thought-provoking materials can build thinking people who learn to carefully plot a course in life. That is extremely worthwhile, as long as one does not get so caught up in the lives of the ancients and medieval churchmen so as to forget that we have actually not been sent to the ancients and the medieval people – they should be our aids to help us fulfil the unique purpose our generation has. Our education should be an infrastructure to support what God has us here for—to lift up his name in this day and age, and to make disciples of all nations. Education without this purpose is nothing but idolatry.
Influencing Our Culture
William Wilberforce is one man we can learn from. There is much in common with his life and ours today. He was a wealthy man in a comfortable world –upper class England in the 18th century. This is much like the average Australian in the 21st Century world. Compared to the rest of the world we are incredibly wealthy in every way and separate enough from the world’s problems to be comfortable. Wilberforce’s counterparts cared more about appearing cultured than they did about the needs around them, to which they largely closed their eyes. Wilberforce, after his conversion to Christ, made a choice that upset many of his friends. Not only did he choose to turn away from the drinking and loose-living many indulged in, but he declined a more comfortable life; he saw his position as a politician would enable him to do something to end slavery, as well as positively affect the religious beliefs of his countrymen. In those days many well-off men spent their days socializing and reading in men’s reading rooms. They were educated and proud of it. They were also letting injustice reign when it was well within their power to act.
Some homeschool methodologies tend to emphasize the classics and medieval wisdom, I ask myself—will this allow our family to be in the world but not of it, or will this make, us feel separate and unconnected from the rest of the world? Making ourselves too separate brings an us and them mentality, not conducive to reaching out to help in any way that gets our hands dirty. Will these books help us better understand the world we are in and have compassion for others? If not, will it add to our cultural literacy, and what place should it then have?
Reading the Classics that Illuminate
There are two groups of classics I have used and strongly recommend be used regularly.
- The first of these groups is the Bible. The Bible won’t merely entertain with tales of heroic peoples and the rise and fall of nations; it will invigorate, direct, illuminate and guide. Many of the disciples of Jesus were unlearned people as far as cultural literacy went, but with a knowledge of God and His purpose for them, they made a difference in their world, which was what He expected of them.
- The second groups of classics I would recommend are the Christian classics. These are true stories about Christians who rose up in their generation. Much of the level of heroism and philosophizing that can be found in the traditional classics can be found in the Christian classics. These include sermons and original writings of revivalists and noted Christians of the past and biographies of godly people. There are also many good biographies simplified for younger children.
Like William Wilberforce, we have many choices available to us today. Will we raise our children to be highly educated so they can live comfortable lives of ease, or will we educate them so that they have the power to ease the burdens of others? What is the mark to which we are aiming our arrows? If we fail to aim, we fall to the default mode of secular society: the “good life”, a job, nice car and house, holidays and a happy family. This is to seriously miss the call of Christ. Is homeschooling all about preparing children to reach secular society’s benchmarks of success without the interference of schools? Or can we take the glorious opportunity before us, leave behind our comparisons with school students, and recognize the greater purpose in it all? Aligning our goal with God’s purposes will then affect how we educate.
Note: This is a reprint from A LIVING EDUCATION – ISSUE 16. 2006 – Thoughts on Classics by Mary Collis. Used with permission.