How not to read a fairy tale

After today’s earlier post I was browsing the web for some more Grimm news, when I came across this site. This is what happens when professionals get involved in teaching literature to children. Truly, I think the temptation is irreistable. Please don’t teach this way. Maybe, if you have to feel grown up while you teach, do it in fourth grade. But why you’d want to I’m not sure.

Here’s one that should be tried only by those who have mature judgment and don’t think little kids can handle complicated moral debates. To debate whether a fairy tale character should have done something generally questionable is different from debating whether the child ever should. In other words, the discussion should stay in the realm of the particular: whether this character should have done this act; not wander into the realm of the abstract: whether it is ethical to sometimes deceive.

I think she’s a little naive about children’s moral capacity and the effects of premature abstraction, but am subject to correction. What do you think?

Teaching Fairy Tales and Personal Knowledge

I am continually amazed at the power of fairy tales to enliven a boy’s childhood. Fairy tales might be the place where the folly and harm of impersonal knowledge is most easily seen. Here’ Bruno Bettelheim in his magnificent book The Uses of Enchantment:

Like all great art, fairy tales both delight and instruct; their special genius is that they do so in terms which speak directly to children. At the age when these stories are most meaningful to the child, his major problem is to bring some order into the inner chaos of is mind so that he can understand himself better–a necessary preliminary for achieving some congruence between his perceptions and the external world.

“True” stories about the “real” world may provide some interesting and often useful information. but the way these stories unfold is as alien to the way the prepubertal child’s mind functions as the supernatural events of the fairy tale are to the way the mature intellect comprehends the world.

Strictly realistic stories run counter to the child’s inner experiences; he will listen to them and maybe get something out of them, but he cannot extract much personal meaning from them that transcends obvius content. These stories inform wihtout enriching, as is unfortunately also true of much learning in school. Factual knowledge profits the total personality only when it is turned into “personal knowledge.”… A fare of realistic stories only is barren.

Do you see the significance of fairy tales for your children? So often we want common sense to rule the nursery. Well, that common sense is not something that enables the child to manage his world. Heck, it doesn’t even work for us. When I use my common sense, I know that my trials are going to continue, that no fairy godmother is going to come to my rescue, that I’m on my own. I become hopeless. But the fairy tale tells me my fairy godmother is looking out for me.

And that seems like a valuable piece of news. No wonder materialist culture, Christians who take their common sense too far and their anxieties even farther, and rationalists tend to oppose fairy tales.

The great thing about teaching fairy tales is that all you have to do is tell them – or, if necessary, read them. The child’s soul will do the work. If they want them retold, retell them. Over and over, if necessary. They are the means by which we can tend the heart of virtue, to use the title of Vigen Guroian’s fine book on this subject.

Fairy tales are an instance of poetic or personal knowledge, of living ideas.

Harry Potter and sympathetic treatment

As I have blogged twice about Harry Potter, both with qualifications for Rowling’s greatness, I think I should add something that has struck me recently and which I consider one of her great powers: the ability to engage sympathetically with the inner workings of the human mind.

Probably my favorite magical device in the whole series is the brilliantly named Pensieve.  She introduces it perfectly. The tone is set in the gravity and secrecy and soberness of Dumbledore’s office. Harry enters it and is surprised by its function. Then Dumbledore quietly draws Harry out of it and back to his office. The quietness and sensitivity of the scene and the actions shows an inner warmth in Rowling toward the secret workings of the mind: the memories, the challenge of keeping them ordered, the yearning to make them objective and understand them.

Perhaps the best chapter in the fourth book.

How to give your child a good lunch

Here’s a good little article from Kathy Ireland (the Christian Martha Stewart) with some appealing ideas for preparing lunch for your child (or for your child to prepare for himself) during school.

How to Teach Harry Potter

Of course, a lot of people would ask, “Why to teach Harry Potter?” and they’re right to ask. The reason is because kids are reading it. That doesn’t mean you should make kids read it who otherwise wouldn’t (it isn’t THAT good), but for those who are, it would make for good discussion.

There are two big issues with Harry Potter: One, whether it expresses a sound “worldview” and two, whether it is well-written.

Sticking with the chiastic motif, let me reflect on the second question first. It is very unevenly written. Rowling uses tons of cliches, describes things as “oddly” or “strangely” something or other too often, and occasionally becomes too cute. Many people have suggested that she gets better as she proceeds. I agree. The first and second volumes don’t offer much. The third steps up.

The fourth almost does, but she seems to make the same mistake as an author that her readers did as readers. She’s too absorbed in the world she’s created. The story should have been half as long, but she lingers too much on the details of Christmas presents and the way things are mailed. The fourth volume is the most disappointing. A person who hadn’t read the first three and fallen under her spell would be much less likely to find it interesting or compelling as a starting point. You can’t say that about, for example, any of the Narnia Chronicles.

Also, I can’t get past the feeling that the magic is childish in its use. In daily activities or on special occasions, the magicians can do whatever they want. Some of it is explained as the stories develop, like when the house-elves are revealed as providing the food. But it’s too easy, too light, too pleasant. With all the magic, they should never have an inconvenience. I need to reflect more on this point, because it’s important and I’m not ready to draw a conclusion yet, but I know I don’t find the magic so prevelant in my fairy world. Again, it seems childish – a shallow form of wishful thinking.

In the sixth and seventh she’s back to developing a good plot again.

And when it comes to developing a plot, Rowling is brilliant. By book five, she has created a compelling world, developed characters of great variety (some simple caracatures, like the Dursleys, some complex like Harry, some subtle like Dumbledore), and raised enough questions that the reader is swept into Harry’s and Dumbledore’s quest. Harry is not always likable, an important element of his likability. But we want him to grow and to win. He does both, at tremendous cost.

That tremendous cost justifies the whole series. Rowling has wooed an entire generation away from sentimentalism and has added to the call for a more heroic age in which friendship, self-control, and courage replace the cynicism and sentimentality (fraternal twins) of the 20th century.

Which brings up the next issue.

The worldview question is much more complicated. Apparently, Rowling is a practicing Christian in the Church of Scotland, so it’s interesting to speculate on whether she intended to express or even attend to the Christian worldview in her writings. Nobody can do so perfectly, of course, so it would be easy to find areas where she falls short. It would also be valuable to find areas where she represents it well.

But the Christian worldview insists that things be regarded and judged according to what they are (the kind of thing they are), not by whether a given artifact agrees with a series of statements somebody has determined are dogma. So the first worldview question has to be whether Potter succeeds as literature.

Here are some questions I would ask a class to prepare them for a read of Potter (before they know it’s what we’re going to read):

  1. (see the earlier post) If you were writing a fantasy/fairy tale, would you give magical power to humans? Why?
  2. What is the difference between a man and a boy?
  3. Can you write a Christian story without talking about God?

However, if you read the book continually asking whether or not it is “written from a Christian worldview” you won’t be able to answer the question because you won’t be reading the book. First you need to read the story. Of course, if there are immoral actions or vile values exalted, such things stick out pretty quickly, though a really good book could create the appearance of such exaltation and then undercut it. The point is, you have to read the books before you can judge them.

That doesn’t mean, and this is a critical point, that we are somehow bound to read every book and watch every movie before we can make a judgment. For the most part, we aren’t supposed to be spending so much time on empty entertainment (i.e. as watching movies usually is) anyway. So as a practical matter, we need the help of others to decide where to spend our time.

This is just common sense, but I’ve wandered from my point, so I’ll hang up now.

Knowledge and Little Children

Charlotte Mason spoke of Living Ideas. James Taylor developed the ideas of John Senior and others under the concept of Poetic Knowledge. Michael Polanyi wrote an important book called Personal Knowledge. Christian de Quincey pushed a lot farther with his book Radical Knowing, looking to eastern mysticism for his foundations.

But in all of these cases, the author challenges what westerners seem to take for granted. That knowing is a conscious, rational process or act. The truth is, conventional western ideas of knowing are rooted in Descartes and Bacon, and they have been deterioriating among philosophers of knowledge for over 200 years. Old habits, especially bad ones, die hard.

I’ve been forced to reflect on these issues because I’m working on a pre-school curriculum and also because I keep finding myself in conversations with heads of school and teachers who have ideas about how to teach young children that don’t make a lot of sense to me.

Let me address the second point first because one, it’s most easily described, two, I like chiastic structures, and three, it seems to be pretty common so I’m most likely to offend a lot of people.

What I keep hearing is that in the grammar stage children should be taught reams of information through repetition because they are in the grammar stage and the grammar stage is about facts. Some go so far as to say that they should not be required to use reason yet because they can’t.

The thing is, teaching this way differs from everything else we do with children at this stage. For example, in the classic illustration, if a four year old child touches a stove, do we respond by having him memorize a jingle about things to avoid in the kitchen. No, we are perfectly comfortable with the child’s instinctive, “hard-wired” capacity to recognize both cause and effect with one hand and associations with the other. We comfort the child.

But if we want to teach a seven year old grammar, we have him sing songs about it, songs that are remarkably abstract, that refer to things he doesn’t know, and that he will be quizzed on the next day.

Let me be clear and careful: I have no trouble with singing songs to help kids remember things (though they need to get rid of the crutch/song as fast as possible), nor do I object to them memorizing passages that use language beyond students’ understanding (creeds, catechisms, Shakespeare, etc.). My heart still leaps up when I recall my then four year old daughter standing front of the student body at Providence Academy and reciting Wordsworth’s “My heart leaps up…”

No, that is not my objection. My objection is to two contradictory notions, both of which I keep finding people seem unwittingly to hold: 1. that the child has learned grammar when she has memorized this chant/jingle/song and 2. that children at that age can’t learn grammar anyway so they should just learn this chant/jingle/song.

Either they are capable of learning grammar at that age or they are not. Since grammar is the application of logic to our verbal communications (not, as modern theorizers would have us believe, the mere application of rhetoric (i.e. usage) to our verbal communications), the question comes down to whether grammar stage children are capable of reasoning logically.

Of course, that becomes a question not of kind but of degree. Of course they are capable of reasoning logically. At a certain level, even a cat or a dog is capable of that. That’s why, apart from dead puppies, they come when you call. The question is how much, or rather, at how high a level is a small child capable of reasoning logically.

I’ve raised five children (the youngest is 12 now). I’ve taught every grade fro 2-12. I’ve interacted with preschool children. The one thing I can attest to, and that research verifies, is that children from the womb have an innate capacity – even a necessity – for logical reasoning. Around the time they reach the age of three, they begin to develop the ability to reason logically on purpose, consciously, using words and quantities (numbers and shapes).

They are not very good at it, which is why they are so cute.

By the time they reach kindergarten, they have become remarkably adept at it. They could outsmart any non-human creature in most purely logical activities, though I suspect they would probably lose to the cleverness of a chimpanzee on its own turf.

By the time they have reached third grade, the grammar stage proper on most charts I’ve seen, their reasoning capacity is extravagent and a wonder to behold, especially if they haven’t been to school yet or watched too much television. They can remember long passages (I had my third grade memorize the magnificat and Proverbs 8 each year), they can find associations between seemingly unrelated ideas, they can calculate and estimate.

And yet, there seems to be a notion that we should not engage them in discussions about what we are teaching them. We should just fill their heads with information.

This is NOT what Ms. Sayers was suggesting. Read her essay again and you’ll see something much more jolly, interactive, intellectually assertive on the part of the child. She demonstrated the pleasure that children derive from the rough and tumble of meaningless sounds, but she was not arguing for a meaningless classroom.

What I’m arguing is this: children can actually learn grammar, in the abstract, grammar itself – not just words that represent grammar. In other words, they can actually understand grammar lessons. But it matters enormously how they are taught.

The notion of how we teach causes me to realize that I may have wandered a little off course, so I need to correct myself and get back to the point, which is about knowledge and how we teach. I was pointing out that some people seem to have developed notions under the name of classical education that are not particularly effective at education and are certainly not classical. You can, perhaps, see it most clearly in grammar, where we are teaching “grammar” stage children grammar in ways that don’t make sense and don’t work.

What I’m really thinking about is, “Why do we do that?” Why do we simply press information into the heads of grammar stage children and call it teaching. I honestly believe there’s an element of naive pride involved. We have long heard that rote memory is deadening, and we have discovered that, in fact, children enjoy it, when put to a rythmn or a tune. We have been told that school should be fun and that children are not able to learn very much, but we have discovered that children are bored when you try to make them have fun (they prefer trees and playgrounds to classrooms no matter how entertaining you make the classroom) and they are able to learn a great deal.

So we aren’t going to be pushed around by those who smirk at us and throw down terms like “rote memory” and “drill to kill” at what we are doing. We’re the classic adolescent who lets his adversary control him by defining the opposition.

There is no opposition between learning by heart and thinking. Grammar school children CAN understand so much more than we seem to be willing to recognize. By denying that, we fall into the same trap that caught the conventional educator.

But why did it happen? Because, I’m going to argue in a following post, we have adopted the same rationalist and pragmatist assumptions about what knowledge is and that has prevented us from seeing the true glory of what Christian classical education can achieve.

 [This next line is a note I wrote to myself and I can’t cut it from this document. Software is weird – it redefines the word buggy]

Necessity may well be the most powerful teaching instrument available.

A Writing/worldview exercise

If you were writing a fairy tale/fantasy a la Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, even Rowling, would you give magical powers to the humans in the story? Why?

Comment and let me know!