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The Language of Literature

From my own personal experience, one of the most important elements of a Charlotte Mason education-the one that is revealed most often as my children grow up-is the complete embracement of the beauty of the written word. I see it in both of my girls when they quickly distinguish between something that is well-written and something that is not. They easily navigate through the overwhelming number of books with catchy titles and captivating cover pages at bookstores and libraries, resorting instead to opening their pages to see what’s really inside. It’s also there when they write their own essays, narrations and personal fiction works. The lyrical, poetic language unfolds in their written pieces and it never feels forced, stilted or unnatural. It’s as if listening to and reading from beautifully written books tuned their ears and eyes to a special kind of language. A language they now know.

In this ever-changing world of ours, one of the key components for finding success in it is to acquire a few languages. Languages can be more inclusive than just the traditional understanding of it as the language specific to a nation such as French, Spanish, German, etc. This word also refers to programming languages and, if used a bit more loosely, refers to music, law, science, poetry and more. The latter reference meaning that it takes a great deal of time and study and even immersion for someone to really communicate in the world of music, science, literature, etc. People wholly unfamiliar with music may be able to appreciate a great song or composition when they hear it, but they cannot replicate it. You can apply this same idea to any major field of study-including literature and poetry. In other words, you cannot replicate something beautifully written if you have not spent some time studying it. And since literature has an artistic side as well as a technical side, you cannot study one side, ignoring the other, and replicate it either. This is where public schools fail our students. It is well enough to teach them the technical side of reading and writing, but students will not acquire the language of literature without the remaining half of it –the beauty and the art.

This is why a good Charlotte Mason curriculum includes many books which were written in the past. While today we can still find authors who know the special language of literature and it is revealed in their written works, it is much harder than it once was. Many books today benefit from what some educationalists deem their real purpose- conveyors of information, technical practice for young readers or fiction written specifically for entertainment, attracting reluctant readers (or maintaining moderately interested readers).

Firstly, the nonfiction books are visually interesting (or in some cases visually overwhelming) and are meant to appeal to children. Designed to allow children to browse through them, they do not support the skill of focused and extended attention such as would be required with a longer chapter book with fewer pictures. The easy-readers are meant to be interesting but most fail at this attempt. They lack narrative flow and an engaging style; they often read short and stilted and with low vocabulary levels. However, these books are very practical when young readers are developing fluency. The problem arises with the versions meant for fluent readers who become stuck in this style of writing, even when they are able to go on from it. Lastly, the fiction books today are often formulaic and tend to fall under the latest fad category. Occasionally, you will find a hidden gem –usually in the fiction genre-but you have to look very carefully for those.

Older books usually better exemplify both sides of quality literature in that they are well-written, engaging and capture the imagination of the reader with the use of poetic language. Written in a time when technology did not afford people with alternative entertainment or distraction, books written many years ago transferred the author’s artistic vision of a story in a fiction work or the enthusiasm for a historical event in a nonfiction work to the reader. The reader then shares in this vision or enthusiasm.

So, yes, a good Charlotte Mason curriculum will include older books. A good one also tries to include as many modern books as possible (digging out those hidden gems) and even, on occasion uses one that barely fits inside the boundaries of what constitutes a living book. The goal here is to focus on quality books no matter the era from which they were written.

Older books tend to fit well in the literature and poetry sections of a book list, while science, geography and sometimes history requires books to either be modified older books or modern books. Sometimes, finding an older science book which transfers the love of a topic and adding in current demonstrations, experiments and object lessons often provides the balance needed to keep this book. Now students can still hold on to the beauty and poetic side of literature, while still staying current with regard to factual knowledge. This adaptation prevents the constant requirement of using a non-living but modern book, which may be up-to-date, but comes at the expense of stifling a love for the topic.

Charlotte Mason particularly mentions the type of books that she felt would be best in developing and maintaining a child’s language for literature and poetry.

In Parents and Children, she writes:

In literature, we have definite ends in view, both for our own children and for the world through them. We wish the children to grow up to find joy and refreshment in the taste, the flavor of a book. We do not mean by a book any printed matter in a binding, but a work possessing certain literary qualities able to bring that sensible delight to the reader which belongs to a literary word fitly spoken. It is a sad fact that we are losing our joy in literary form. We are in such haste to be instructed by facts or titillated by theories, that we have no leisure to linger over the mere putting of a thought. But this is our error, for words are mighty both to delight and to inspire.

For the children? They must grow up upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told. Let Blake’s Songs of Innocence represent their standard in poetry; De Foe and Stevenson, in prose; and we shall train a race of readers who will demand literature––that is, the fit and beautiful expression of inspiring ideas and pictures of life. (Vol. 2 pp. 262-263)

She also reminds us that children may enjoy reading books of lesser literary quality, but this does not mean that we should always allow them to choose these types.

That children like feeble and tedious oral lessons, feeble and tedious story books, does not at all prove that these are wholesome food; they like lollipops but cannot live upon them; yet there is a serious attempt in certain schools to supply the intellectual, moral, and religious needs of children by appropriate ‘sweetmeats’ [candy or sweets].

As I have said elsewhere, the ideas required for the sustenance of children are to be found mainly in books of literary quality; given these the mind does for itself the sorting, arranging, selecting, rejecting, classifying…(Vol. 6, p. 117)

It cannot be repeated often enough: a curriculum based so completely on books must rely heavily on principles which choose only the very best of books. There are many different types of curricula available today, some of which rely more on worksheets, reports and textbooks. A reliance on these components then removes the need for a significant number of quality individual books, since the majority of the learning takes from the textbooks. Charlotte Mason felt strongly about children learning from books and that those books should be of a high quality. This allows the students to directly take from the heart and knowledge of the authors of those books. After narrating them, they then can add this direct knowledge to their own, assimilating it as best fits them.

The best books give our students the opportunity to listen to and read from works which epitomize the language of literature, many of which were written by authors of the past. These were authors who still reveled in this language and were eager to share and pass on this language to their readers. And they were not afraid that the readers would not understand, for those readers too were beginning to learn that language. It was and still is a gift that authors share with us; so then we too may go on to share it.

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