Charlotte Mason on Teaching With Literature
Teaching with Literature Works
What is the most effective way of teaching? In the chapter, “Liberal Education in Secondary Schools” in A Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason suggests that “the mind refuses to know anything except what reaches it in more or less literary form” (v.6, p. 256) From my observation and experience in teaching with literature (and without), this is largely true. Truths and principles conveyed through stories, especially in the context of a learning lifestyle, stay in the mind as useful and usable ideas that can be incorporated in a student’s writing, conversation, and life.
In support of this idea, Miss Mason discusses how vaguely we remember the daily newspaper we read or how little children remember of worksheets and exercises. “The mind appears to have an outer court into which matter can be taken and again expelled without ever having entered the inner place where personality dwells. Here we have the secret of learning by rote, a purely mechanical exercise of which no satisfactory account has been given, but which leaves the patient, or pupil, unaffected . . . Now there is a natural provision against this mere skimming of the ground by the educational plough. Give children the sort of knowledge that they are fitted to assimilate, served in a literary medium, and they will pay great attention.”
Miss Mason observed that most people remember ideas that reach them in the form of story, and they are able to apply and use these ideas in other areas of study, as well as in their writing. The only way to easily achieve the retention of knowledge is through “a great deal of consecutive reading from various books, all of some literary value; . . . one reading is sufficient; nor should there be any revision for the distant examination.”
Cultural Literacy through Literature
As an example of the cultural literacy that comes through exposure to literature, she provides an impressive “list of 200 names, used with ease and fitness in an examination on one term’s work by a child of eleven in Form II.” A child of 11? I’d hate to admit how many of these I’d have to look up!
Abinadab, Athenian, Anne Boleyn, Act of Uniformity, Act of Supremacy, America, Austria, Alcibiades, Athens, Auckland, Australia, Alexandria, Alhambra.
Bible, Bishop of Rochester, Baron, Bean-shoots, Bluff, Bowen Falls, Bishoprics, Blind Bay, Burano.
Currants, Cupid, Catholic, Court of High Commission, Cranmer, Charles V, Colonies, Convent, Claude, Calais, Cook Strait, Canterbury Plain, Christchurch, Cathedral, Canals, Caliph of Egypt, Court of the Myrtles, Columbus, Cordova.
David, Defender of the Faith, Duke of Guise, Dunedin, Doge’s Palace.
England, Emperor, Empire, Egmont (Count), English Settlement
Flour, Fruits, French, Francis I, Francis of Guise, Ferdinand, Foveau Strait, Fuchsias, Fiords, Ferns.
Greek, Germany, Gondolas, “Gates of the Damsels,” Gondoliers, Granada, Gate of Justice, Gypsies.
Henry VIII, History, Hooper, Henry II, Hungary, Haeckel.
Israel, Italian (language), Italy, Infusoria.
Jesse, Jonathan, Joseph, John, Jerusalem, James, Jane Seymour.
King of Denmark, King of Scotland, Kiwi.
“Love-in-Idleness,” Lord Chancellor, Lord Burleigh, Lord Robert Dudley, Lime, Lyttleton, N.Z., Lake Tango.
Mary (The Virgin), More (Sir Thomas), Music, Martyr’s Memorial, Milan, Metz, Monastery, Mary, Queen of Scots, Mediterranean, Microscope, Messina, Middle Island, Mount Egmont, Mount Cook, Milford Sound, Museum, Moa, Maoris, Mussulman, Moorish King.
Naomi, Netherlands, Nice, New Zealand, North Island, Napier, Nelson.
Oberon, Oxford, Orion.
Pharisees, Plants, Parliament, Puck, Pope, Protestant, Poetry,
Philosophy, “Paix des Dames ,” Philip II, Paris, Planets, “Pink Terraces,” Piazetta, Philip of Burgundy.
Queen Catherine, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, Queen Isabella, Queen Juana.
Ruth, Robin Goodfellow, Ridley, Reformation, Radiolaria, Rotomaliana (Lake), Rea.
Saul, Samuel, Simeon, Simon Peter, Sunshine, Sugar-cane, Spices, Sultan, Spain, St. Quentin, Socrates, Stars, Sycamore, Seed-ball, Stewart Island, Seaports, Southern Alps, Scotch Settlement, St. Mark, St. Theodore, St. Maria Formosa (Church), Sierra Navada.
Temple, Titania, Testament, Treaty, Turks, Toul, Thread Slime, Tree Ferns, Timber Trees, Trieste, Toledo.
Verdure, Venus (Planet), Volcano, Volcanic Action, Venice.
Whieat, Wiltshire, William Cecil, Walsingham, Winged Seed, Wellington, Waikato.
I won’t suggest that an American student in the twenty-first century should have exactly the same list, but they should have a similar wealth of knowledge ready to use “with ease and fitness.” There is a story at the bottom of every subject, and when it is told (once, as Miss Mason reminds us, is usually sufficient), it can help children understand and remember the essence of an idea.
Teaching with Literature Every Day
To add more teaching with literature to your daily life, I suggest copious amounts of reading (or listening, in the case of auditory learners). In addition to literary fiction, bring in biographies of artists, explorers, architects, writers, scientists, musicians, and mathematicians; stories of expeditions, inventions, discoveries, compositions; travelogues; magazines such as National Geographic or Smithsonian; and whatever fits your family’s interests.
You’ll find that students will deeply understand the concept of justice after suffering with Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and they’ll remember the bitter cold and peril of the Arctic circle, as they try to survive with Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd’s expedition. Contrast this with what they would understand or remember after filling out a worksheet with the definitions of justice, love, and faith, or a scientific report on the weather in the Arctic or Antarctic.
Stories have the power to spark ideas and imagination and engage emotional memory in a way that makes abstract principles and arcane facts easy to understand and remember. When learning can be simple and joyful, why make it boring and difficult (and pointless because they are unlikely to remember anything) by using tedious worksheets and canned curriculum? It’s never too late to start teaching well. Resolve now to make teaching with literature and stories a major part of your educational adventure!