Sunday, February 22, 2009

Laying the Basis of Education by the Habit of Reading

This period of a child's life between his sixth and his ninth year should be used to lay the basis of a liberal education, and of the habit of reading for instruction. During these years the child should enter upon the domain of knowledge, in a good many directions, in a reposeful, consecutive way, which is not to be attained through the somewhat exciting medium of oral lessons. Charlotte Mason, Preface to Home Education
First, it's interesting about the "oral lessons". I could find nothing more about her caution about their use in Home Education, but in School Education you find, under the heading of "means of destroying the desire for knowledge" (p 214 School Education)

(a) Too many oral lessons, which offer knowledge in a diluted form, and do not leave the child free to deal with it.
(b) Lectures, for which the teacher collects, arranges, and illustrates matter from various sources; these often offer knowledge in too condensed and ready prepared a form.
A little later in the book (p 226):

Thus it becomes a large part of the teacher's work to help children to deal with their books; so that the oral lesson and lecture are but small matters in education, and are used chiefly to summarise or to expand or illustrate.

Too much faith is commonly placed in oral lessons and lectures; "to be poured into like a bucket," as says Carlyle, "is not exhilarating to any soul"; neither is it exhilarating to have every difficulty explained to weariness, or to have the explanation teased out of one by questions.

and a bit later (p 227):

Oral lessons have their occasional use, and when they are fitly given it is the children who ask the questions. Perhaps it is not wholesome or quite honest for a teacher to pose as a source of all knowledge and to give 'lovely' lessons. Such lessons are titillating for the moment, but they give children the minimum of mental labour, and the result is much the same as that left on older persons by the reading of a magazine. We find, on the other hand, that in working through a considerable book, which may take two or three years to master, the interest of boys and girls is well sustained to the end; they develop an intelligent curiosity as to causes and consequences, and are in fact educating themselves.

and on p 229

The lecture must be subordinated to the book. The business of the teacher is to put his class in the right attitude towards their book by a word or two of his own interest in the matter contained, of his own delight in the manner of the author. But boys get knowledge only as they dig for it. Labour prepares the way for assimilation, that mental process which converts information into knowledge; and the effort of taking in the sequence of thought of his author is worth to the boy a great deal of oral teaching.

Do teachers always realise the paralysing and stupefying effect that a flood of talk has upon the mind? The inspired talk of an orator no doubt wakens a response and is listened to with tense attention; but few of us claim to be inspired, and we are sometimes aware of the difficulty of holding the attention of a class. We blame ourselves, whereas the blame lies in the instrument we employ––the more or less diluted oral lesson or lecture, in place of the living and arresting book. We cannot do without the oral lesson––to introduce, to illustrate, to amplify, to sum up. My stipulation is that oral lessons should be few and far between, and that the child who has to walk through life,––and has to find his intellectual life in books or go without,––shall not be first taught to go upon crutches.

I know these quotes are hard on the eyes, and I apologize. I think it's interesting that this emphasis on books rather than oral lessons was actually a very traditional concept. My favorite manual on Ignatian education warns against lectures and too much talk in very similar terms, and for very similar reasons. The activity of a student's mind is very important, and oral lessons tend to be received in bits and pieces.

I am not quite sure what CM meant by oral lessons being "exciting". I was looking back over all my school life and realized I can hardly remember a word of most of the classes I sat through, though I suppose I must have retained bits and pieces. But I do remember other things like the tumbleweed rolling across the playground, the way a teacher's glasses caught the fluorescent light, the skinny boy with the buzz cut in first grade who couldn't sit still for the life of him. Those things don't have much to do with the content of the lessons. But listening involves only one sense, the hearing, leaving the other senses more or less idle or in actual competition with the listening.

I wonder if oral lessons disconnect you from your brain processes in a way that reading does not. And what would Charlotte Mason think of educational DVDs and tapes?

Now what about reading aloud or listening to audio-tapes? Most of my children have trouble listening to books on tape. Because of the way they learn, they find the unfamiliar voice and sound effects very distracting. Reading aloud to them has a different effect. It's mom, and there is a relation-bonding aspect to it which associates beautiful language with deep affection and comfort. Now, reading aloud is not quite the same as an oral lesson because part of CM's criticism of the oral lesson was its mediocrity. Most teachers of grade school and secondary school are not great minds in their own right. Their words will not have the force, clarity and grace of a good book. Reading a good book aloud is a sharing of appreciation (though Charlotte Mason thought that doing this should not distract from her primary goal of getting kids directly in touch with books for themselves).

Now this brings us back to the habit of reading for instruction. She has a lot more directly to say about that in other parts of the book, but the primary emphasis in this preface is that nothing else should be allowed to interfere with that habit. The school talk should be centered around the book -- the teacher's comments can introduce or sum up or point out sections of the book, but the reading is the central focus of the lesson.

You find that reading, in many ways, is unavoidably at the core of a liberal education. Our heritage comes to us largely through books, though also through art and music. How else can the dead people of past times speak to us? Nowadays there is cinema, which is a form of drama in my opinion, and I believe it will over time become part of the stream of culture to an even greater extent than it has already. If the Greeks could have filmed their tragedies, would they not have? (sure, there is an element in the audience gathering personally that is lacking in the modern video viewing at home, but to replace that there is a wider possibility of transmission comparable to the wide transmission of books begun by the invention of the printing press).

OK, really rambling now. Just a few thoughts. I didn't even get to "reposeful and consecutive". But that is obviously important to her in dealing with an excellent book -- the fact that it can easily take a year or two years for the children to work through it. This is a plus in her opinion because it's like visiting a wise person over a long course in time. You get familiar with their approach, their thinking, their whole persona. Since education is "by intimacy" not by quick superficial exposure to different concepts, in her view, the careful reading of a challenging book is an apprenticeship in a way of thinking and seeing and expressing.

I just read Frank Smith's quote in James Taylor's Poetic Knowledge to the effect that children learn to read from an author, not from a technique. I handed the book over to my son at college and I can't seem to bring up the exact quote, but here are a couple of parallel ones:

“Learning to read is a complex and delicate task in which almost all the rules, all the cues, and all the feedback can be obtained only through the process of reading itself”
This one is about writing, but in a lot of ways the thought is the same:

If you aspire to be like a particular author, you read what the author has written. You don't study how the author writes, you participate in the author's writing. There is ample evidence that children are sensitive to what they read, even if they -- and their teachers -- are not aware of the fact. It doesn't always work in the learner's interest. Children whose reading primers were mindless three-line stories..... wrote similarly mindless fragments themselves when asked to compose a story. Children who were reading rich, complex, meaningful material produced stories that were creative and interesting. As computer programmers say: Garbage in, garbage out.
Gilbert Highet in The Classical Tradition points out that complex, rich language actually develops a person's structure of thought. He writes in the context of how introduction to the Latin and Greek languages allowed barbarian peoples with simple, concrete languages to actually become capable of thinking and creating at a much higher level than they would have been able to do otherwise. Often the Greek and Latin words entered their own language and made the languages higher. Again, it is "participation" in the writer's thoughts. This is something that cannot happen so effectively when the teacher becomes an intermediary between the child and the book. You lose the participation; the book and the author become "objects" of thought, not "co-thinkers". The difference is subtle, but has wide ramifications (and now that I think of it, it explains something that puzzled my daughter when she encountered it in her high school peers -- that they dislike books like Dickens' and Brontes' and Shakespeare's, because they have been taught to objectify them by much discourse on "literary techniques" and "author's intention" which is fine AFTER a student has learned the "one thing needful" in the literary response, but is devastating and almost permanently injurious if it is done PRIOR to it).

Perhaps another strike against the "oral lesson" is that it tends to talk down to a minimal level of competence. I think a teacher faced with a class of children of various intelligences and background will try to communicate so that even the most disadvantaged children will have a possibility of understanding. This is tactful, and proper in circumstances such as instructing children how to tie shoes or behave at mass, but does not give these children a chance to rise above their current levels of competence in intellectual and emotional response. Beautiful, poetic, narrative DOES give the children something to be attracted to and respond to even when they don't totally understand it yet.

One final note: when she uses the term "medium" of oral lessons she is speaking precisely. A "medium" is something that comes between two things. To CM, the "medium" should be mostly the child's own perceptions and attention.... the child develops a relationship with the book, so the relationship itself is the medium. If a teacher interferes with this (instead of supporting it with well chosen words) then the child may become dependent upon the medium, and then when it is taken away, the child either has to learn for himself to do without that crutch, or else is left helpless and without his own tools.


lissla lissar said...

Just a thought- the bit about learning from an author's writing reminds me of C. S. Lewis' objection to treating writing as though it were a puzzle to pick apart, or a neat way to psychoanalyze the author, instead of a story, description, or argument to immerse yourself in or respond to. The first seems like a good way to avoid having contact with something you're reading- you hold the piece at careful arms-length, dissecting and probing, assuming the real point of writing isn't the thing written. The second invites real conversation, vulnerability, listening.

Huh. Does any of that make sense?

Willa said...


It was odd for me to find out a few years ago that this "sympathy" with a work, or even participation in it, wasn't a romantic or modern notion, but a thoroughly classical one. It wasn't until roughly the time of the Enlightenment or later that the study of literature became more "scientific" in a detached way.

That's interesting about analyzing "what it REALLY says," as if the book were on trial as a hostile witness : ). That seems to be how a lot of people are taught to relate to literature nowadays. I think CS Lewis says something about that too.