Literature, Uncategorized

Harris Burdick

 

harris20burdick Everyone has read The Polar Express and Jumanji, but are you familiar with Chris Van Allsburg’s more obscure work, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick? When I was a new 5th-grade teacher, this was my very favorite book to teach and to use as a jumping off point for creative writing. Each page features a mysterious drawing and a title as well as the first few words of the story – however, the rest of each story has been lost. It is up to each reader to make up their own story for each page.

Through the years, I’ve used this book in many different ways. As a young teacher, I had my students choose which illustration was the most interesting to them and then made an impressive hallway bulletin board with copies of the drawings and each student’s story posted beneath it.

As a young mother, I sent pictures to family members so each one could write a story to share at the next family gathering. One of my college-aged children sent “The House on Maple Street” to ten people of various ages and backgrounds around the country. She then attempted to analyze what each story had in common and what was unique about each one.

One day I was browsing at Barnes & Noble with my younger girls and realized I had never introduced them to this fantastic book. I saw an almost identical but thicker book right next to it on the shelf: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. What in the world? An anthology of short stories corresponding to the original Harris Burdick illustrations, each written by a famous author.

I started screaming, right there in the children’s section. My daughters were not too young to be mortified. When I was paying, the cashier commented on how neat my new book looked. I told her that the only thing that could be cooler was if it had a story by Stephen King.

I was so excited by my discovery that I had to start perusing it before the little girls had even gotten on their seat belts. When I looked at the table of contents, I saw stories by Sherman Alexie, Lois Lowry, Lemony Snicket, AND both Stephen and Tabitha King! All I can say is that I’m glad that the windows were rolled up because I started screaming again.

I resisted the urge to go home and read it cover to cover and decreed that no one was allowed to read any story if they had not already written their own for that particular illustration. Then I started a weekly writing project with my younger girls. We examine one picture, then all write a story to go with it. Then I read them the similar story from The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.

This is such a painless way to get kids thinking and writing. I encourage you to see if your library has these Chris Van Allsburg books. But be forewarned, screaming may ensue.

 Daydream Believer (and Homecoming Queen)

Genevieveis a former public and private school teacher who has five children and has been homeschooling for the past thirteen years. In her free time, she provides slave labor to Dancing Dog Dairy, making goat milk soap and handspun yarn, which can be seen on Our Facebook Page and at Dancing Dog Dairy.

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Literature

A Legacy….by Brit

There was a time when a man spoke very impatiently to my father. He had seen a copy of the Iliad lying on the table. “You are reading this?” he asked.

“I have read it many times. Now I read it to my son.”

“But he is too young!” The man protested, almost angry.

“Is he? Who is to say? How young is too young to begin to discover the power and the beauty of words? Perhaps he will not understand, but there is a clash of shields and a call of trumpets in those lines. One cannot begin too young nor linger too long with learning.”

[…]

My father was a tall man, and now he stood up. “My friend,” he said, “I do not know what else I shall leave my son, but if I have left him a love of language, of literature, a taste for Homer, for the poets, the people who have told our story–and by ‘our’ I mean the story of mankind–then he will have legacy enough.”

Louis L’Amour, The Lonesome Gods, p. 141-142

Though our homeschool has changed a bit here and there over the years, one thing has been constant pretty much from the beginning – we wanted to make sure we read to our children, read often, read good books, and gave them a love of reading. Honestly, you could say this began on our oldest’s first night home from the hospital. He had his nights and days very mixed up, so after he nursed, my husband took him and hung out with him until it was time to feed him again. Starting that very first night, my husband read to him. If I remember correctly, it was Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You Will Go! It didn’t matter that he didn’t understand a word of the story. What mattered is that he knew his daddy’s voice, heard the rhythm and cadence that comes with spoken language, and knew that daddy was with him.

That practice has continued throughout our children’s lives. Even now, I still read to them in the mornings during the school year, my husband reads to them most nights at bedtime, and we often have a family audio book going. Reading – together, alone – has become part of our culture as a family.

I still remember something my principal told a group of us when I was still teaching. His two sons were older – one in college and one in high school – but he said they still read aloud as a family. They often took turns, sharing books they loved with each other. They also would listen to books in the car as they drove places. To realize that once my children were able to read to themselves it was still a good thing to read to them made a huge impact on me. My firstborn, that little boy who heard his first story the night he came home from the hospital, still loves to listen to his father and me read to him and his siblings. Truth be told, they all still love to listen to the early pictures books being read to the youngest two.

“Who knows how much he will remember? Who knows how deep the intellect? In some year yet unborn he may hear those words again, or read them, and find in them something hauntingly familiar, as of something long ago heard and only half-remembered.”

Louis L’Amour, The Lonesome Gods, p. 141

Being raised in a literature-rich home is having its effect on our daughter with special needs as well. She loves books. From the time she was able to crawl around and make mischief, she has been pulling books off the shelves to “read” them. Over the years she has amassed quite a collection of her favorites. She still has us read what some would consider “babyish” books – board books with little print on each page. But those books are sinking in. She is beginning to recite them with us. She sits with those books and reads them to herself. She brings them to the dinner table and takes her turn at “recitation” by “reading” them to the family. She also loves longer books – books that, given that she has Down syndrome, some would say she wouldn’t have the attention or comprehension to sit through. But I know she does. And I attribute so much of her love for language and literature to it being a strong part of our family culture.

We may not have monetary riches to leave our children. At this point in our lives, with my oldest nearing the end of his homeschooling career, I’m just hoping we have riches enough to help with college for five children. But we can leave them a few things money can never buy – a love for language, a love for literature, a friendship with some of the greatest writers who wrote some of the greatest works.

Image courtesy Freeimages.com

Brit and her husband are living this beautiful, crazy life with their four sons and one daughter in sunny California. They made the decision to homeschool when their eldest was a baby after realizing how much afterschooling they would do if they sent him to school. Brit describes their homeschooling as eclectic, literature-rich, Catholic, classical-wanna-be.

Great Books, Literature

Jumping the Language Hurdles in the Classics, by Lynne

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia, ca. 1790-93 by Jean-Baptiste Wicar

“Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin’d town;
His banish’d gods restor’d to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.”  
– opening stanza of the Aeneid by Virgil

My college experience was truly eye-opening for me. I was exposed to all types of things that I’d never even considered. One of those things was the classic literature of the Western canon.

Some of the first things I had to read in my freshman humanities class were The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. I really wish I had enjoyed these stories more, but my diet of Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books did not adequately prepare me for the level of reading that these epic stories required. I was lost and very confused much of the time. I was not even familiar with the story line, so I hardly participated in class discussions at all. By the time we got to The Canterbury Tales and King Lear, I felt a little more comfortable with the strange language of the past. With a little practice, I was able to comprehend the stories and the unwritten messages of these everlasting works.

When I decided to head down the classical path with my kids, I thought about my experience with the classics quite a bit. I’m going to share something with you that may get me banned from certain Classical Ed circles. Shhh. Don’t tell them. Okay?

I read children’s versions of these stories to my kids.

There. I admitted it. I know some people consider this to be cheating somehow. They say that children are perfectly capable of handling the actual texts. And that may very well be true for many children. Heck, it’s even true for my children, for the most part. However, here’s my thinking behind my reading of the children’s versions:

My boys are in middle school now. We’re currently reading Aeneas: Virgil’s Epic Retold for Younger Readers. It is written at about a fifth-grade level but doesn’t seem to be dumbed down in any way. We are enjoying the heck out of this story. (I get a tad annoyed when my younger son leads us down a mythology rabbit trail because it’s taking us much longer to get through the book than I planned. It is very hard to say, “Hey! No! You cannot tell us about Menelaus right now because, gosh darn it, Aeneas was just getting to the part about how the Trojans could have possibly thought it was a good idea to roll this giant horse into the city!”)

Anyway, we’re enjoying the story immensely – just as we have enjoyed The Odyssey, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and other classic books. By reading the children’s version, we set the scene and develop the characters in our minds. We understand what is happening because the story is being told in familiar language. Our brains aren’t busy deciphering the odd language and long sentence structure. So many times in my adult life, I have thought to myself that if I had at least been familiar with the elements of these classic tales, it would have made the reading of them in college so much easier.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s bad to read more developed, more complicated language with your young children. In fact, I think it’s an excellent thing and should be done frequently. That is how their ability will grow. But, when I really want my kids to understand the message in a book, I read the more simple version.

I started reading my boys stories set to verse at a very young age. The library is full of these miniature children’s epics. I think these kinds of books are a wonderful preparation for the epic poems they will be asked to read later in life. I fully intend to have my children revisit several of these classics in their original form in high school. My hope is that their background knowledge of the stories and the surrounding history will make their experience with the original classics much less taxing than mine. They will be able to decipher the more complicated language and come away with deeper lessons than they learned during their first foray into the classics. I’ll write another article in about 5 years and let you know how my plan worked.

Great Books, Literature

Healing Modern Warriors Through the Past, by Jen W.

 

“Great books help you understand, and they help you feel understood “- John Green

A recent item in the news helped solidify for me the fact that warrior cultures throughout the course of history have held many of the same values and had many of the same problems. A group including actors and directors known as “The Philoctetes Project” is performing Greek tragedies for current and former members of the military, but not just any tragedies. These tragedies deal specifically with some of the problems faced by ancient warrior cultures.

To quote from their website:

“Ajax tells the story of a fierce warrior who slips into a depression near the end of The Trojan War, attempts to murder his commanding officers, fails, and takes his own life. It is also the story of how Ajax’s wife and troops attempt to intervene before it’s too late.

Philoctetes is a psychologically complex tragedy about a famous Greek warrior who is marooned on a deserted island by his army after contracting a horrifying and debilitating illness. It is also the story of a young officer who attempts to betray the wounded warrior by stealing his weapon, but then faces a moral dilemma about leaving the suffering soldier behind.”

As a society, we sometimes seem to believe that war is something invented by modern societies, that modern wars are particularly brutal or that modern man is more psychologically fragile than warriors of the past. Programs like this emphasize to warriors that what they are experiencing is not new, and that they are not pampered nor spoiled by modern society in a way that makes them more fragile. They emphasize to the modern warrior that they are not alone, and that what they are experiencing is something that is part of the common experience of man.

But, it is important to do more than connect with modern warriors. Only one percent of Americans will ever serve in the military. A year ago the New York Times published an opinion piece on the disconnect between the modern American military and the majority of the American people.

Americans and Their Military Drifting Apart

I thought about this article when my husband recently deployed to Afghanistan and the most common response I received from civilians was, “Oh, I didn’t know we were still sending people there.” Unless they live in a military-heavy town like Fayetteville, NC or Clarksville, TN, most Americans are unlikely to have regular interaction with members of the military or their spouses and children. This is in stark contrast to World War II when Victory Gardens, scrap metal and rubber drives, rationing, war bonds and other methods to support the war were something that Americans participated in on a daily basis. The American people were part of the war effort. There have been no such initiatives for the Global War of Terror; we have simply added the blank check to the already crushing and mind-boggling national debt.

Veterans often talk about the fact that people rarely ask about their experiences. It is something most people avoid because questions might seem nosy or intrusive or might bring up painful experiences. But to veterans, it often feels like a disconnect or that people believe it is something of which to be ashamed.

We need a project like this that reaches out not just to veterans, but to the American people. We need a project to help the American people start to understand what soldiers and their families go through. I believe that reading about the “thousand yard stare” or the anger of warriors when mistreated by the institutions they trusted in an ancient context will help people start to realize that these are common experiences that should be shared, not shouldered by a small percentage of the people and ignored by the rest.

 

 

Jen W.– Jen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen jen_wstarted on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.

Great Books, Literature

Great Books: The Canterbury Tales, by Jen W.

 

 

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The Canterbury Tales are one of those required readings that most people suffer through in high school without really taking the time to understand, deeply appreciate Chaucer’s ability to cover numerous aspects of the human experience or even stop and think about whether or not they find it enjoyable reading. Are you the type of person who likes the type of chaste, romantic stories that you might find in Christian romance novels? Or are you more of the type who loves irreverent humor like the type found in modern farce? Either way, Chaucer has something for you.

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When my students read The Canterbury Tales, the first thing I have them do is read through The General Prologue. I have them make three columns: people that Chaucer likes or approves of, people that Chaucer does not like or disapproves of and people that Chaucer is ambivalent about. Students nearly always get this wrong the first time around. They skim, they don’t see Chaucer’s biting sarcasm, they don’t connect that the implications they would read into the words today are often the same implications that Chaucer intends. Two prime examples of this misunderstanding are with the Summoner and the Pardoner.

Read quickly, students assume the usual modern tropes as they skim the text. These are religious men, so the students assume goodness. The Summoner’s appearance is described in detail, but in seemingly opposing phrases. His face is described as red and “cherubic,” but because it is covered with sores, he has crazy eyebrows over his small eyes and he smells bad. Modern students are accustomed to this sort of rough exterior holding a heart of gold, but Chaucer tends to be more literal. The Summoner’s interior is no better than his outward appearance, he is usually drunk, he is lecherous and a liar. The Summoner was someone who was charged by the medieval church to charge people with spiritual crimes and bring them before the ecclesiastical court. The description of The Summoner’s many faults, his ignorance (he barely knows any Latin, despite hearing it all day when in church), the way in which he brushes off the teachings of the church (pointing out that you can pay a bribe to excuse yourself) both show that Chaucer thinks little good of him. Students recognize this when you have them go back and read the section aloud. One of the main things they catch onto is the quip about children being afraid of him. Are they merely afraid of him due to his outward appearance and gruff, drunken behavior or is there another reason? My students have mostly asked when they came to this line, “is he a pedophile?” I think, yes, that definitely one possible implication that must be entertained, even if it is not a certainty.

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The Pardoner’s description is not much better, but without careful reading it’s easy to miss. The Pardoner is in many physical ways the opposite of the Summoner. He is gentle. He is smooth and hairless. He has flaxen hair. He is carries religious articles. But, a closer look shows other aspects. He is like a gelding. His flaxen hair is greasy and lank. He carries jars of pig-bones. He carries a bag stuffed full of pardons that he is selling for a price, hopefully to a trusting country parson who will pay a dear price for a real religious relic. The implications of his description are a matter of intense controversy. Chaucer surely means the hairless, gelding description to be distinctly negative. Is he really a woman? A hermaphrodite? Is he part of a couple with the Summoner? I don’t think it’s possible to say for certain, it only matters here that sexual immorality of some sort is being implied. These are as much criticisms of the church as they are personal criticisms. The church was in the midst of the great schism. Many of Chaucer’s close friends were executed during the political turmoil of the time. Chaucer was forced to leave London for Kent. There was even a specific event involving pardoners who stole money they claimed to be collecting for a hospital. The Friar’s Tale deals with a summoner who is working for the devil. Clearly, Chaucer is making statements about the corrupt nature of the ecclesiastical structure and politics of the time.

These are the sort of descriptions that can give many students their first realization that the human condition is exactly that, the human condition. There truly is nothing new underneath the sun. Society is no more degenerate now than it was then. Chaucer certainly seems to disapprove of the degenerate nature of several of the pilgrims, but does Chaucer fully approve of the opposite?

The Knight could be seen as the opposite of the first two pilgrims we have looked at. He is first described as “worthy.” He values truth, chivalry, truth, honor and other high-minded qualities. He has ridden to war in defense of Christendom. He is at once wise and humble. But, he is also serious and unhappy. He is the first of the pilgrims to tell his story. His story is chaste, romantic, classical and boring. This is the drawback of clean living. It isn’t very exciting. The same can be said of many modern similar stories. Each of the pilgrims tells a story that reveals their nature and reveals more of what Chaucer thinks about them. Their stories reveal both their proclivities and their prejudices (such as The Prioress’s Tale which is a gruesome, anti-Semitic story).

If you thought that the pilgrims were going continue in order of medieval societal hierarchy, you are quickly disabused of that notion when The Miller jumps in with his own story. The fact that the pilgrims do not continue in some sort of order gives a democratic or egalitarian feel to the group. The Miller’s Tale is a rollicking one involving adultery and more than a healthy dose of scatalogical humor. The ribald nature of The Miller’s Tale rivals modern movies like The Hangover.

The depth and breadth of Chaucer’s tales, told by his pilgrims, is one of the major things that makes them worthy of reading today. Few modern authors could manage so many different genres and styles of writing. The collection shows that movies like The Hangover are not the result of our cultural downfall or erasing of Christian values in a secular society. Stories both chaste and…well…not so chaste have existed since people started writing down stories in the English language. They even existed at this time, when the church was at the height of its political and social power.

Taken as a whole, both the prologue and the stories are a tale of what it means to be virtuous. Because the truth is, we are all Chaucer. Humans admired many of the same things then as they do now. People might find the risque nature of The Miller’s Tale hilarious or offensive, but it is a tale of getting by on one’s wits, justice and the benefits of maturity. The Parson’s Tale offers advice of not believing everything you hear, not being overly trusting and cautions against greed. The Reeve’s Tale takes a “eat or be eaten” attitude toward human nature that suggests that every man is out for himself.

These tales illuminate the nature of the each pilgrim and often, the nature of humanity of a whole. “Holy” men of highly questionable character, cheating businessmen, people who take their civic duties seriously, women fighting to be recognized as equal to men; the pilgrims are a mix of people that can still be found in modern society. This allows students to appreciate the fact that human nature has remained largely unchanged, that the struggles faced today are not new.

It smacks of Kurt Vonnegut’s quote, “But I have to say this in defense of humankind: In no matter what era in history, including the Garden of Eden, everybody just got here. And, except for the Garden of Eden, there were already all these crazy games going on that could make you act crazy, even if you weren’t crazy to begin with. Some of the crazymaking games going on today are love and hate, liberalism and conservatism, automobiles and credit cards, golf, and girls’ basketball.”

Careful reading allows students to connect with people of the past in a way that sanitized summaries in a textbook do not allow for. It allows them to see that there truly is nothing new under the sun. It humanizes the people of the past. It allows students to think that maybe they can make a small difference in the world, even if they cannot change human nature. Say what you want about the downfall of Christian values, but you cannot deny that people have always enjoyed stories that involve sex and fart jokes.

While sex and fart jokes are a large part of some of the stories, there are other stories that balance those out. Taken as a whole, both the prologue and the stories are a tale of what it means to be virtuous. Because the truth is, we are all Chaucer. Humans admired many of the same things then as they do now.

 

Jen W.jen_wJen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen started on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.

Great Books, Literature

Frankenstein, by Jen W.

 

In August of 1945, after the bombing of Hiroshima, radio announcer H. V. Kaltenborn said, “For all we know, we have created a Frankenstein! We must assume that with the passage of only a little time, an improved form of the new weapon we used today can be turned against us.” It has been nearly two hundred years since Frankenstein was birthed into existence during the cold, stormy summer of 1816 by Mary Shelley. Frankenstein was a revolutionary novel. Not only did it create a sympathetic, beautiful character out of a monster, but it created a villain out of an educated member of the nobility. The book broke class barriers and protested treatment of the hated “other,” whomever that “other” might be. Since that time, the story has never been out of print and has been regularly reinterpreted and referenced in popular culture over and over again.

Many people have heard the story of how Frankenstein came to be. Percy Shelley took his wife, Mary, and baby William to Lake Geneva in order to meet with Lord Byron. It was July, but the year of 1816 was known as the year without a summer. Scientists today have a variety of theories, that the weather was due to a volcanic eruption in Indonesia or part of the the Little Ice Age or was caused by historically low solar activity or some combination of these factors. Regardless of the cause, the cold, dreary, stormy weather found the trio stuck indoors. Their boredom soon led to a game of telling scary stories. It was Mary’s story of a scientist destroyed by his greatest triumph that would have a lasting impact upon western culture.

 

Upon reading Frankenstein for the first time, some are surprised to find that Frankenstein of the book’s title is not the monster, but the scientist, Victor Frankenstein. We discover the creature never receives a name. He is simply called “the creature.” This accomplishes two things — it is designed to dehumanize the creature, but at the same time it makes the creature a sympathetic character. But we meet neither the monster nor his creator, at first. We first meet a ship captain in treacherous seas.

Robert Walton is a young ship captain who is navigating the waters of the North Pole while looking for passage between the Pacific and Atlantic. The letters he writes his sister reveal his intelligence, the spirit of adventure and discovery that border on obsession, and his loneliness. His crew discovers a man on the ice — starved, exhausted, near death. The captain finds the man well-spoken and genteel. The captain’s nature and situation help him to sympathize with and relate to the man. However, as our young captain describes the intensity of his passion to complete his quest, the rescued man becomes disturbed, begging the captain not to drink from the same cup of madness that had brought about the current circumstances. The captain listens as the man slowly unfolds his story: The story of Frankenstein.

Victor describes his carefree, idyllic childhood which was spent in the company of Elizabeth Lavenza (his cousin or adopted sister, depending upon the edition) and his friend, Henry Clerval. Victor studies philosophy, science, alchemy and the occult, but when a visiting scientist explains electricity to Victor after he witnesses lightning strike a tree, Victor realizes that the alchemists were mistaken in their ideas and latches on to this new and exciting field. This part of Victor’s life seems ideal.

Any loss experienced by the family is compensated for and any difficulty overcome by love and charity. At the same time, with each bit of trauma, Victor proclaims each an omen of his current misery. Even his mother’s death shortly before he leaves for university is described in this manner. Victor’s fatalism has a two-fold effect. First, it builds the tension in the narrative, but eliminates a piece of the suspense because we already know that Victor eventually ends up stuck on the ice of the North Pole. All of the talk of omens and signs indicates that Victor accepts his situation as his fate rather than a self-fulfilled prophecy that Victor could have avoided, if he had made different choices, much like Romeo’s proclamation, “I am fortune’s fool!”

When Victor arrives at the university he meets with a professor of “natural philosophy” who tells Victor that his studies of alchemy have been wasted. Victor decides to study science after attending a lecture on chemistry. Victor quickly becomes obsessed with reanimation, the harnessing of the power of life and death. He neglects every other aspect of his life, focusing on this singular pursuit. His vision is one of wonder and beauty. Following the example of the alchemists he had studied (and whose examples have already been discredited in the novel) Victor works alone in his reclusive apartments.

It is important to note these aspects of his work: He is going against the scientific beliefs of the time, going against scientific discipline, going against the close advice of his professor, and he is reverting to an earlier time rather than working within the framework of the modern science of his time. His studies lack scientific rigor, discipline, oversight and ethics. These are some of the things that will ultimately lead to his downfall.

He begins to patch together a corpse to re-animate. All together, his study of reanimation takes two years. His studies culminate in zapping the creature with lightning, bringing the spark of life back into the decaying corpse. But, as the creature comes to life, Victor finds it repulsive and, after awakening to find the creature looming over his bed, terrifying. Strangely, Victor attempts to simply ignore the living nightmare of his creation, avoiding his apartment. This continues the theme already begun: He is avoiding his responsibilities in favor of acting with the emotion of the moment. Rather than alerting authorities or getting help from the scientific community, he attempts to avoid the issue entirely.

Soon, Victor chances upon Henry who has newly arrived to study at the university. Victor takes him to the apartment, apprehensive that the creature may still be skulking there, but relieved when it is not. Victor falls into a long illness, implying that guilt or remorse may be at work within him. Henry slowly but surely nurses Victor, presenting him with a letter from Elizabeth upon his restoration to health. These attempts at ignoring the problem and hoping it will simply go away hint at the dire consequences that we know will lead to Victor being trapped on a ship in the ice near death.

The plot continues to proceed in a similar manner with Victor shirking his responsibilities, trying to “fix” the problems that compound one upon the other, never admitting his horrific mistakes or seeking help, but patching the problems after the fact as if he were sticking his fingers and toes into a very leaky dyke.

The creature first murders Victor’s youngest brother. Despite the fact that Victor believes the creature committed the murder and even sees the creature at the site of the murder, Victor allows a young woman to be tried, convicted and put to death for the murder. Victor does nothing to stop it. he is afraid to admit his wrong-doings, afraid to admit his shortcomings, afraid to admit the horror that has come to pass at his hand, afraid that he might not be believed. These are poor excuses for allowing the death of an innocent girl and shine a light on the lengths Victor will go to in order to avoid responsibility for his actions.

The Frankensteins go on vacation as a family to escape their grief. The fact that Victor goes with them, never warning them, is an indicator of his denial. Eventually, Victor meets with the creature. When he hears the creature’s side of the story, Victor actually feels so much sympathy for him that Victor actually agrees to create a mate for him. Victor patches together and reanimates a female corpse, despite knowing that the creature’s murderous behavior. Clearly, Victor is not a man who easily learns his lesson the first time.

The family travels back to Geneva, where Victor promises his father that he will marry Elizabeth, but first he must travel to England. He passes through England, going on to a remote island in Scotland where he will build a mate for the creature. When the she-creature is as hideous as the first creature, Victor destroys her. The creature is furious. He swears revenge and promises to be with Victor on his wedding night. Victor believes the creature wants to kill him. But most readers will be able to read the foreshadowing and recognize that the monster plans a revenge that is like the wrong Victor committed upon him, that of killing his mate.

As Victor starts to leave Scotland he begins to receive a taste of what he has visited upon others. He is accused of murdering another person that was killed by his creature. When he finds out that the victim was his friend Clerval, he falls into a delusional state once again. Once again, a member of his family must nurse him back to health. This time, it is Victor’s father who also talks Victor’s way out of the murder charge. Barely escaping with his life and with a vengeful, murdering monster hot on his heels, Victor merely continues on to Geneva in order to celebrate his wedding. He doesn’t admit the truth, even to his own father. These are further examples of Victor having his head in the sand and ignoring his problems rather than facing them or at least admitting them so that he doesn’t bring everyone else down with his quickly sinking ship.

Given the Victor’s present circumstances and the fact that this story is told in the form of flashbacks, modern audiences can intuit what happens next. Victor marries Elizabeth and the creature murders her on their wedding night. In a fit of grief, Victor’s father also dies. Finally, Victor takes decisive action. He vows revenge upon the monster, chasing it to the far ends of the earth. This is where the story comes full circle. After telling his story, Victor begs the captain to reconsider his desire for glory. As Victor sleeps, the crew confronts the captain for a second time, demanding they return to England if and when the ship is freed from the ice. This time, the captain listens, considers and finally agrees. Soon, Victor dies, but as he lay in his coffin, the creature comes aboard. He speaks to the captain, giving him an eloquent explanation of his own miseries. But. we already know what the captain has decided. He is allowing caution to be the better part of valor. He is placing the lives of his men above his own path to glory. He has decided to take the more ethical path.

This, ultimately, is the lesson of Frankenstein. Victor had been engaged in scientific fancy instead of hard science. Science without oversight, ethics, discipline or responsibility is a dangerous business. At the same time, the history of gothic romance indicates the strong sense of sympathy that Mary Shelley and other Romantics would have had toward Victor’s passion and obsession. This will be a distinct difference between how a Romantic age teenager (Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein) and a modern adult will experience the novel. Recently, I heard a young man explaining how Marianne from Sense and Sensibility was the sole character from literature that he felt a strong sense of relation to. This sense of Romance is one that teens and young adults still strongly relate to. It’s important to recognize this within our young adults. Every hurt cuts deeply, every love is the greatest of loves, the sense of wildness found in Bronte’s moors and the obsession of Victor Frankenstein are all imminently relateable. Victor’s obsession is not just with science, but is a duel with death itself. Mary Shelley had recently lost her first baby when she wrote Frankenstein, and one can imagine that this experience influenced her choice of subject. What young person doesn’t dream of living forever or of finding a fountain of youth or permanent reprieve from the pain of the death of loved ones?

Echoes of Frankenstein, often considered the first science fiction story, reverberate though literature, popular culture, politics and even hard science itself. Every debate on scientific ethics from the atom bomb to human cloning carries with it the ghost of Victor Frankenstein. Every scientist carries the weight of his or her ethical burden. Teens and young adults can relate to the single-mindedness of Victor in his quest to defeat death. Those are some of the reasons that Frankenstein continues to be a relevant part of the “great conversation.”

Great Books, Literature

What Can Jane Austen Tell Us About How to Choose a Spouse? by Jen W.

 

A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.

I will never forget sitting in a college survey class as a literature major while a nursing student complained about Pride and Prejudice. “It’s unromantic! It’s boring! Darcy is such a jerk!” Even at 18 years old, the comments made me believe that I had an idea of why divorce rates were so high. I didn’t think it was unromantic or boring, but I have a pretty good idea why other young women believed it was so. “Romance” has been sold as a product for a very long time, but the idea of what it means changes with the times. There is a famous correspondence between Charlotte Bronte and the literary critic George Henry Lewes in which Bronte roundly criticizes Austen as lacking in wildness and passion. Obviously, the books of the Bronte sisters have those things in spades. But, heroes like Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester would raise the eyebrows of any sane parent, just as Edward, the sulky vampire from Twilight, would likely do today in reality.

And that is the trouble with stories that tout the value of fantasy over reality. Sure, many women find men who brood and obsess over them to be exciting on some level. But, these are often the women who wind up pressing domestic violence charges against their partners later. Obsession, unlike what the perfume commercials would have you believe, is an unhealthy emotion. These types of relationships are hardly a recipe for domestic bliss.

It’s true, Jane Austen died nearly two hundred years ago when the lives of the women she wrote about were very different than the many choices that women living in much of the world have today. It is also true that she never married, so what would she know about choosing a spouse? But I contend that a large part of the reason that she is both popular and relevant today is that she was a shrewd observer of human nature, and those observances resonate today. But they resonate in the realities of long-term relationships, balancing a family and running a household instead of engaging in a love affair. Having a torrid love affair simply shouldn’t be anybody’s main goal in life, and it isn’t good enough reason to get married.

Novels, since the birth of the genre, have been full of rejected, seduced, and abandoned maidens, whose proper fate is to die. 

In Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, she focuses on the plight of a family of women who have not been treated kindly by their only living male relative. They are basically left destitute and rely on the charity of a distant relative. This focus provides a theme that continues through several of Austen’s books, the relative lack of economic and political power of women. Gothic novels are full of young women whose fates are exactly as described in the above quote. But, Austen hoped to give her heroines a chance at a happy, stable life. 

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The novel’s sisters, Marianne and Elinor, are a pair of contrasting heroines whose lack of economic status hampers their ability to marry decently, the only possible salvation from their current destitute status. Marianne is the “sensible” sister of the pair, however, this word at the time had a very different meaning than it does now. Today, we might call Marianne a free spirit or artsy or sensitive or even emotional. By contrast, her sister Elinor represents “sense.” In this context, it shows that she is intelligent, reserved and displays good judgment. We expect to see these two sides at war, but in truth, what we find in the end is that the desired result, according to Austen, is a balance between the two. Elinor nearly loses her chance at love by not being forward enough while Marianne comes close to ruination by sharing too much of her sensitivity and passion with a man not committed to her.

How about the men in the novel? Elinor is attracted to Edward Ferrars because he is intelligent, pleasant-mannered and steady. His sense of duty initially holds him back as he is promised to another and his restraint hurts Elinor. In the end, it is his sense of duty that allows him freedom of choice, and he chooses Elinor. Marianne, on the other hand is first attracted to John Willoughby, a dashing young man who flirts with and flatters Marianne. I’m certain that he sends her pulse racing in a manner that Charlotte Bronte would have approved of. He leads her to believe that he intends to marry her, and she allows him to take a lock of her hair, earning her the disapproval of the more careful Elinor. But he needs a wife of financial means. Even though he claims to love Marianne long after he has given her up, he has treated her in an unkind and careless manner. This is not how you should treat the person that you love. We later find out that Willoughby has impregnated and abandoned at least one other young woman, leaving an impression that this could have been Marianne’s fate as well. Marianne marries Colonel Brandon in the end. He is constant, kind, and takes her into his confidence with painful secrets in order to save her feelings. It is through making wise choices of marriage partners that the women gain both in love and in economics.

I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.

Arguably her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice continues the discussion of women and their lack of economic power. As the novel opens, a wealthy and eligible bachelor has moved into a country neighborhood. This new addition has thrown the neighborhood, particularly the Bennet family, into a tizzy. You see, the Bennets have five daughters, an entailed estate, no male heir, and have saved little to support the girls upon their father’s death. The girls attend a local ball at which time we are introduced to not just one, but two rich bachelors!

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This focus on the wealth of potential suitors seems predatory, especially for modern readers. But, as the novel slowly unveils, it becomes clear that the financial future of the Bennet ladies is full of peril. The wacky family members, the financial distress, the fact that all of the girls are “out”– all of these things spell trouble of the sort that tends to scare off potential suitors.

What types of character traits does Austen find desirable and which does she condemn? Certain we see the condemnation of an excess of pride. Elizabeth’s pride blinds her to the true character of those around her until she is, nearly tragically, proven wrong. Mr. Darcy’s pride is what spurs him to deliver what is arguably one of the worst marriage proposals in history. Both learn to think outside of their personal scope to see the viewpoints of one another.

Other character traits that are undesirable include the flighty, nervous nature of Mrs. Bennet; the self-importance and the fawning, false flattery of Mr. Collins; the overt snobbery of Lady Catherine de Bourgh; Mr. Wickham’s gambling, indebtedness and womanizing; the wishy-washy behavior of Mr. Bingley; the rudeness and meddling of Caroline Bingley. Really, the book at times seems to be a parade of bad behavior and manners. But, by contrast, we have the kindness of Jane, the wit and vivacity of Elizabeth, the dutiful nature of Mr. Darcy. But, what does Mr. Darcy really do to recommend him in marriage? What is it that makes Elizabeth change her mind?

First, she reads the letter he gives her the morning after the disastrous proposal and learns the truth of her incorrect beliefs and the true wrong that Mr. Wickham has done to Mr. Darcy. The fact the he willingly reveals such painful events is the very beginning of intimacy between the two. We first begin to see real change in Darcy when he accidentally surprises Elizabeth and her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. They are on a tour of country estates. He catches Elizabeth off guard by how kind he is to her relatives. He speaks to them as equals. He invites her uncle to come fishing. She learns to see beneath the surface. He learns to open up enough to take care of people outside his direct circle.

The story of Pride and Prejudice is romantic because he takes Elizabeth’s offenses to heart. He opens himself up in ways that are uncomfortable for him. He takes her into his inner circle. He accepts her family. He takes care of her reputation. He defies his own extended family for love of her. He accepts her lower circumstances because he finally realizes that her circumstances have made her the woman that he loves. Likewise, Elizabeth comes to see Darcy as deep, sensitive, caring, intelligent and dutiful. He would never embarrass her like Mr. Collins might. He would never run up debts or attempt to seduce vulnerable young women like Wickham does. He won’t mistreat the people around him as Lady Catherine de Bourgh does. He won’t misspend his money, putting her future children in jeopardy as her own father did. He will take care of her and cherish her in every way.

You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope…I have loved none but you.

The third novel that we’ll look at is Persuasion. An interesting point in this novel is that our heroine, Anne Elliot is the wealthy but less favored daughter of a lord while her only real love interest had been turned away several years before due to his lowly social status. In the meantime, he has raised himself to a distinguished rank in the British Navy (as did Austen’s two brothers) and accumulated a fortune as a successful Navy Captain. Anne Elliot is a beleaguered soul. She is considered a spinster at 27 years old. Her father is in debt due to over-spending, but still maintaining his snobbery. One sister shares these tendencies. The other sister is married and more than a bit of a drama queen, languishing in “ill health” or hysterics when she isn’t the center of attention. The surrounding cast of extended family members and friends simply do not share Anne’s kindness or true refinement of a sort that doesn’t come from fashion or money.

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Captain Frederick Wentworth returns to Anne’s life suddenly when his sister and brother-in-law rent her family home (it is being rented out in order to bring some income back into the coffers). He is aloof and treats her in a manner that shows he still carries the hurts of the past. He even praises one of the young women of their acquaintance for her headstrong manner when she vows not to let the opinions of other people sway her. He makes small efforts to take care of and protect her. But, when this turns to near tragedy, he quickly realizes that this isn’t necessarily the course of a wise woman.

In the meantime, her cousin and her father’s heir, Mr. Elliot, attempts to court her. She finds him attractive. His manners are pleasant and easy. He pays attention to her, which is a huge thing in and of itself for Anne’s confidence and mood. And yet, she doesn’t believe he is being truly open or honest. She tells Lady Russell (who encourages the match just as she discouraged Anne’s acceptance of Frederick’s proposal so many years before) that they would not suit. But Frederick doesn’t recognize Anne’s attempts to put off Mr. Elliott for what they are.

Finally, Frederick overhears Anne passionately explaining to another that women are the most constant in love, never giving up, even when all hope seems lost. This actually renews his own hope and spurs him into action. He writes her a beautiful letter, and she quickly rushes to reconcile with him. They are finally reconciled and their engagement renewed. Ultimately, this is a story of interrupted love in which the problems are overcome by forgiveness.

What traits does Austen warn us about? Vanity, not just in others but she warns us not to succumb to that trait within ourselves, giving over to false flattery. She warns about over-spending, urging economy, frugality and financial planning. She warns about both appearing too frivolous and too serious. She warns both about being too wishy-washy and too headstrong, instead urging us to approach problems with logic and a sense of balance. We should invest ourselves in quality people who are kind, who love us in spite of our many faults or the need to forgive us for past or present hurts. We should match up with spouses who are willing to put up with, take care of and socialize with our family, even when those family members we love are wacky, not socially appropriate or a bit crazy. We should look for ways they take care of us instead of associating with us when it is convenient or they get something out of it. It’s true that things like caring for your family may not seem as wildly romantic on the surface as digging up your grave or creepily watching you sleep. But, solid marriages aren’t made of people without normal coping mechanisms. I advise young women and men to look to Austen for advice on choosing a spouse instead of the Bronte sisters or Stephanie Meyer. You’ll be happier for it.

Great Books, Literature

Beowulf, by Jen W.

 

I’ve had several people ask me why we still study Beowulf. What is the point? How does it relate to anything we experience today? Of course, Beowulf has value simply because it is one of the earliest stories written in Old English to have been found. We have a lot of good evidence and reason to believe that it was an oral tale long before it was written down by scribes. Beyond that, it is a very early tale of good versus evil: a hero versus monsters, a good ruler in opposition to an evil, bloodthirsty ruler. But where Beowulf most speaks to me is as a military wife.

Beowulf arrives in Denmark, determined to help a king who once helped his own father, and to kill the monster threatening the community. He is able to defeat both the monster and its mother despite the jealousy and treachery which are being fomented in the king’s court. His strength and leadership prove his worthiness. He returns home, sharing his treasure and rewards with his king. It is no surprise that Beowulf eventually ascends the throne upon his king’s death. Beowulf has a long and prosperous reign, and most stories would end there, but this one does not.

A new threat appears on the horizon, a dragon, whose lair has been disturbed by treasure hunters. Beowulf immediately wants to go fight it. The reasons are a little murky. Maybe Beowulf feels a sense of personal responsibility as king and protector of his people. Maybe he wants to maintain his reputation as a fierce monster-killer. Maybe he wants one last great hurrah before ascending to the great mead-hall in the sky. His motivations are unclear. Is it a selfish act or a selfless act? Can it be both?

Beowulf does defeat the dragon, but meets with his own death through the battle. His advisors and his people all worry that they will no longer be able to stand against their enemies, now that Beowulf is no longer there to protect them.

I know, relating this tale to modern warrior culture seems far-fetched. But, the truth is that warrior cultures have retained many of the same values, needs and qualities through the centuries. A Roman soldier carried between 60 and 90 pounds of equipment, the same as a modern US soldier. Strength, keeping a cool head while in danger, being able to lead, these are qualities praised both in ancient times and in modern militaries.

A trickier similarity is that soldiers feel both a sense of personal duty and responsibility as well as a desire for glory. These seem like competing rather than complementary feelings when viewed through the lens of Western values. It can be difficult for the average person to imagine feeling those things simultaneously. Beowulf can help people connect with more modern stories of soldiers.

As one example of a modern war story, these conflicting feelings are reflected in ending of the movie The Hurt Locker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqn-tSa1wYY

He tells his wife that they need more bomb techs, which shows a concern for others and a sense of duty. But, he also speaks about his love of the adrenaline.

There are soldiers who volunteer for deployments when it isn’t their turn, when they could avoid deployment if they wanted. They volunteer both out of a sense of duty and from a desire for the glory of war. How would you feel if you were a fellow soldier who didn’t want to deploy for some reason? How would you feel if you were the pregnant wife of a soldier who volunteered for deployment? Different people will interpret such an action in a different manner because of their own distinct relationships and perspective. We cannot easily dismiss any of these perspectives; each seems equally valid.

The fact that some semblance of warrior culture still exists today makes Beowulf very relevant to modern history. I think it can help people gain a small bit insight into the mindset of the modern warrior as well as the ancient warrior.

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Photo taken by Asif Akbar

 

Jen W.jen_w Jen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen started on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.

 

 

 

Homeschool Wisdom, Literature

A Step Off the Bow, by Briana Elizabeth

 

A few years ago, I dropped history as the spine of our homeschool.

I know, I know, this is a controversial thing to do amongst classical homeschoolers. If you would permit me to explain why….

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It started as most life-changing things do, as a trickle. There was a huge thread on a classical homeschooling board about philosophy, literature, history, and homeschooling. Then there was the book I was reading, The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft. And, finally, there was a catechism class I was teaching, and that is where all the pieces started to come together.

It was a class of about sixteen eighth graders. All public school children, stuck with me, the homeschooling mom. They were a rowdy bunch, but my way of teaching is to have discussions with them, and for the most part, they were happy with that. As discussions go, there were rabbit trails, and personal anecdotes, and the volley back and forth of ideas. Of course as a teacher, I bring in references to other things: science, literature, history–whatever would elucidate my point, and to make an abstract more concrete for my students. At that time, the CCD class was in the medieval ages, exploring the idea of social justice, and I threw out a reference to Robin Hood. In return, I got a blank stare. Hmmm. I asked if they’d seen the Disney movie, and sang a bit of the Chanticleer’s song. Nothing. “Stealing from the rich to give to the poor?” I asked. A few eyes lit up; okay, we might be getting somewhere.

That whole discussion eventually set me on another path of discussion and into a thunderstorm of thought. Did they know fairy tales? I asked what fairy tales they knew. Not many. From there, I started asking about books, and apart from new modern hits, they had read almost none. This is why teaching them was so hard. I would bring up a well-known reference, one that should be a culturally understood reference, and they didn’t know it. It had been happening often enough to be noteworthy, and I wasn’t making the connections of why, but as I kept asking, the whole of it was becoming overwhelming. It would be no exaggeration to say that they had to start with nursery rhymes to backfill why they didn’t know.

I actually went home after that class and drank. I had just spent an hour with children who had no literature in their lives, no connection to the inheritance of Western Civilization they were a part of, no idea who we were as a people, and no poetic imagination.

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I started asking my children, do you know Little Red Riding Hood? Pinocchio? The Steadfast Tin Soldier?

Their answers weren’t much better. But why? I mean, I’m a homeschooler. How did we end up with this huge, gaping hole? Shame on me. Then I realized, we had ended up here because historical literature had always been a priority, pushing out classic literature. At one point, I had five children under five, plus the older two whom I had pulled out to homeschool were in older grades, so that when we ‘started’ schooling we jumped in at fourth grade and seventh with nary a nursery rhyme to be found. Then, when I was done with their schooling for the day, and taking care of the littles, you can imagine what extra reading got done. “None” would be the right guess. I had left that portion of the older children’s education up to the public school.

So, out of my reaction, we dropped history.

For us, it was the right thing to do. I am only one mom, their only teacher, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and I need to sleep. So did they. I couldn’t have five separate read-alouds for five different grades. Because I wanted what we read to matter, it couldn’t be swept away in an ocean of three hours of daily reading; it would all get mushed. So something had to be prioritized, and literature was what I chose. Why? What I was reading gave me the answers.

“Philosophy makes literature clear, literature makes philosophy real. Philosophy shows essences, literature shows existence. Philosophy shows meaning, literature shows life.” Peter Kreeft, p22 The Philosophy of Tolkien.

And, a few paragraphs later he says, “Literature incarnates philosophy. You can actually see hate when you read Oedipus Rex. You actually hear nihilism when you read Waiting for Godot. As the acts of the body are the acts of the person, as a smile does not merely express happiness (the nine-letter word does that) but actually contains it, so literature actually contains or incarnates philosophical truths (or falsehoods).”

“All literature incarnates some philosophy. All literature teaches. In allegory, the philosophy is taught by the conscious and calculating part of the mind, while in great literate it is done by the unconscious and contemplative part of the mind, which is deeper and wiser and has more power to persuade and move the reader. Allegory engages only the mind while great literature the person, for allegory comes from the mind, while great literature comes from the whole person.”

“Literature not only incarnates philosophy: it also tests it by verifying it or falsifying it. One way literature tests philosophies is by putting philosophies into the laboratory of life, incarnating them into different characters and then seeing what happens. Life does exactly the same thing. Literature also tests philosophy in a more fundamental way. It can be expressed by this rule: a philosophy that cannot be translated into a good story cannot be good philosophy. “

Peter Kreeft, pg 22-23, The Philosophy of Tolkien, emphasis  mine.

Can’t historical literature do that? Yes, it can. But choices had to be made. Caddie Woodlawn or Narnia? Guns for General Washington or Pinocchio? Toliver’s Secret or Little Women?

All of them are good, but what is best? Choices had to be made.

Did I want them to learn history through historical fiction books, or did I want them to learn everlasting truths through literature? Could the historical fiction do both? Yes, it can, but it doesn’t always, and those classic children’s books were classics for a reason: they embodied human nature, they fed the moral imagination, and they nurtured poetic knowledge.

Most classically home schooled children will pick up Robin Hood when they study the medieval ages, so again, why was I bothering to drop history as our spine? For me, it was where the emphasis was put. And, I have to say that as they enter the middle grades and high school, literature and history re-intwine, but in a different way.

Then I started learning about Humane Letters. My intuitive decision to drop history as our spine was right. As I learned later, it was right because I needed to replace it with Humane Letters. Humane Letters is the study of philosophy, history, theology, and literature.

“Truth is symphonic.” said Hans Urs von Bathazaar.  The symphony is the whole of Humane Letters; philosophy, history, theology, and literature.

At this point, though I know there is a difference between the Humane Letters and the Liberal Arts, within the classical homeschooling community (outside of Norms and Nobility) I’ve rarely heard either of those terms differentiated. I would love to hear a discussion on the terms and their implementation with emphasis on curriculum choices in the classical homeschooling community, but that’s a discussion for another day.

With a liberal arts emphasis you also eventually hear of Adler’s great books or Dr. Senior’s ‘good books’. From reading his books, I don’t think Dr. Senior would recommend Adler’s idea that the Great Books be read apart from instruction or in a vacuum. He was much more of a Christian humanist.

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In his article The Great Books: Enemies of Wisdom, Frederick Wilhelmsen brings a strong argument against the Great Books and, in turn, against some of the neoclassical homeschool curriculum.

“But behind these pious intentions [the Great Books]–as good as they might be– repose three presuppositions, sometimes not expressed formally, but always exercised in the classroom: (1) disengaging the meaning of a text equalizes philosophizing; (2) the teacher is little more than a midwife whose role consists in leading the student to read texts and who is supposed to disappear, so to speak, behind the texts; (3) these books speak to the reader across the centuries altogether without any need to locate them within their historical contexts. Wisdom is not in the professor and wisdom is not in the tradition; wisdom is in the Books.

Let me attack these presuppositions in turn:

(1) Intellectual delicacy is needed to understand that the first prejudice is a fallacy. The understanding of the meaning of a text is not equivalent to the exercise of what Dr. Joseph Pieper felicitously called “The Philosophical Act.” Quite evidently, no one can become a professional philosopher who has not mastered the skills involved in reading a text. But a scholar who is not a professional philosopher–for instance, an intellectual historian–can do this very well without his being able to affirm the truth or detect flaws in a philosophical argument. Philosophical reasoning, on the contrary, consists in forming presuppositions into premises yielding conclusions. This habit is by no means reducible to the first set of skills. The philosophical act, therefore, can be exercised upon a text, but it does not have to be: it might be exercised on the report of a text, on a problem presented in isolation from texts, or on any issue which demands philosophical penetration.  The explication des texts hunts for “meaning” not “truth.” “[snip] The great books approach tends inevitably towards producing the skill needed to read intelligently a philosophical work, but it does not, of itself, help turn a man into an incipient philosopher.”

(2) Weighing the second prejudice, we must note that the very location of philosophy as a discipline shifts from the personal nourishment of habits of thinking about the real mastery of a number of philosophical classics. Concerning this latter, little need be said; Bergson once wrote that it takes a lifetime to master as many as two great philosophers and the very best we can do with the rest is to gain a gentleman’s awareness of their role and importance within the development of Western intellectuality. It were better to know one of them thoroughly than to know all of them superficially. No deep principal guides this observation: it is based simply on the economy of time given an undergraduate in a handful of courses dedicated, in a hurry, to his philosophical education.  [Multum non multa?]
[snip]

St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of a kind of sin – probably a minor sin – which is “curiosity,” wanting to know what may be worth knowing in itself but which is foreign to the destiny a man has given his own life. He was thinking of the cleric who ignores the things of God and busies himself with “pure” philosophy. But long before Aquinas, Plato pointed out that a mark of the philodaster, the false philosopher, was his knowing “many things” but knowing none of them in depth.”

[snip]

(3) Weighing the third of these prejudices–the conviction that books make sense to students without being located within the historical context that gave them birth and in abstraction from the living tradition in which they play their part–we must note that a kind of philosophical fundamentalism asking to its religious counterpart has insinuated itself into many departments of philosophy given over to Great Bookism. Yet very few, if any, philosophical masterpieces speak by themselves to the contemporary student. This is specially true when they are read, as they are, in translation.” pg 328

Please, go read the whole paper. I have brought out what is relevant to this article, but the whole is full of gems.

I must admit that when I read this, I had three reactions. The first was great sadness–where do we go to receive this education for either our children or ourselves? Secondly, I rolled my eyes. How does Wilhelmsen propose we begin to rebuild this lost education? Who are the rebuilders? How do you rebuild the educational system of an entire country? And thirdly, I was angry because it seemed he would have us burn all of the good for the pure. Nevertheless, I agreed with his diagnosis.

So, how do I apply what I’ve learned?

I adopted the curriculum put forth in David Hick’s Norms and Nobility. A friend who read it, and who classically homeschools, described it as elegant. It is.

I will write about the practical changes I made in my next blog post.

Briana Elizabeth has been at this homeschool gig since her 23 year old son was in 7th grade, and his psychiatrist told her that he had to be homeschooled. Her son never went back to public school that year, and the following year, she pulled her 4th grade daughter out of public school. Her five other children have all been homeschooled entirely. It was baptism by fire, but she wouldn’t trade it for the world. Through the years, she has in the end, not only educated her children, but herself, and homeschooling has brought about a whole paradigm change of living for her family. The education that had seemed only possible for the elite was possible through classically homeschooling.

Great Books, Literature

What's So Great About the Great Books? by Jen W.

 

As a classical homeschooling mom, one of the greatest joys and challenges of teaching my kids has been exploring “great books” with them. I know this is something many people see as an insurmountable challenge to strive for on their own. They look at literature guides that contain terms like “post modern” or “metalanguage” or “deconstructionism.” Those terms can be meaningful, but they can also create a block to looking at the real heart of literature.

I studied literature in college, but I often looked at stories differently than those around me. I often received high scores for great answers, but I sometimes heard that my answers were “wrong.” For me, at its heart, literature is about people. Yes, you can take a feminist, post-modern or deconstructionist view of the world and overlay any piece of literature with it. I think that tells us a lot about how people live now and affords little thought to the bigger picture. Ultimately, too much jargon turns people off of studying literature. It simply isn’t necessary in order to connect with literature on a basic level and let it inform your world.

What did people value in the past? What did they find funny? What did people want in a leader? What did young women find romantic? What characteristics in people make them better spouses? When one looks at those sorts of questions, I think it connects us to people and the past in ways that only great stories can do. There are universal truths and problems to be found in many such stories that hold true in the lives of real people today. This doesn’t mean we will feel a personal connection to every story that we read. It doesn’t even mean we will enjoy every story that we read. But, I firmly believe that wide reading will teach us about the people around us. When books tell us about people, they also tell us about politics, economics and what it was like for a particular person to live in a particular time and place.

In this series, we’ll look at a number of great works. I’ll explore their more universal themes and explain why I (and only I, with the caveat that many experts would disagree with my personal opinions) believe they have stood the test of time and why people should still read them. What this series will not be is a how-to of literary analysis; this is because I think there are already a lot of great resources out there that fill that niche. I will create a separate list of resources for anyone interested in learning more about the mechanics of literary analysis.

  

Jen jen_wW.– Jen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen started on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.