Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Literature as Moral Instruction

Some Advisory Progeny sort through
a few family books. 
You may have noticed, and perhaps wondered why, AO does not use any of those popular reprinted Victorian morality tales which are specifically geared toward the teaching of 'character.'  It is not because we are not concerned with the development of good character in our children.  Rather, it is because we believe that the little books and studies which purport to 'teach' character are misguided, at best, and usually poorly written. In her third volume, Miss Mason refers to such books as twaddle:
What manner of Book sustains the Life of Thought?––The story discloses no more than that they were intelligent girls, probably the children of intelligent parents. But that is enough for our purpose. The question resolves itself into––What manner of book will find its way with upheaving effect into the mind of an intelligent boy or girl? We need not ask what the girl or boy likes. She very often likes the twaddle of goody-goody story books, (emphasis mine, WC) he likes condiments, highly-spiced tales of adventure. We are all capable of liking mental food of a poor quality and a titillating nature; and possibly such food is good for us when our minds are in need of an elbow-chair; but our spiritual life is sustained on other stuff, whether we be boys or girls, men or women. By spiritual I mean that which is not corporeal; and which, for convenience sake, we call by various names––the life of thought, the life of feeling, the life of the soul.

I would put character development under this 'life of the soul.' How could we define that further?  Could we say it is the growth of both an instructed, informed conscience, combined with habits of right action?  The habits we can discuss later. For this post, we will focus on how we instruct the conscience.  The Bible, of course, is the best instructor of all.   Real, living books also serve very well for lessons in what we would call 'character development.'

Miss Mason explains why:

The instructed conscience knows that Temperance, Chastity, Fortitude, Prudence must rule in the House of Body. But how is the conscience to become instructed? Life brings us many lessons––when we see others do well, conscience approves and learns; when others do ill, conscience condemns. But we want a wider range of knowledge than the life about us affords, and books are our best teachers. There is no nice shade of conduct which is not described or exemplified in the vast treasure-house of literature. (emphasis mine, WC) History and biography are full of instruction in righteousness; but what is properly called literature, that is, poetry, essays, the drama, and novels, is perhaps the most useful for our moral instruction, because the authors bring their insight to bear in a way they would hesitate to employ when writing about actual persons. Autobiographies, again, often lift the veil, for the writer may make free with himself.
The above quote is taken from Leslie Noelani's Modern English version of Ourselves, Miss Mason's fourth volume.

On pages 50 and 51 of volume 6, Miss Mason explains how well the children are able to extract the morals from the biographies they read:
The way children make their own the examples offered to them is amazing. No child would forget the characterization of Charles IX as 'feeble and violent,' nor fail to take to himself a lesson in self-control. We may not point the moral; that is the work proper for children themselves and they do it without fail. The comparative difficulty of the subject does not affect them. A teacher writes (of children of eleven),––"They cannot have enough of Publicola and there are always groans when the lesson comes to an end."

A while ago I read the above passages to my children (grown and nearly grown), and asked them if any of the books we'd read came to mind immediately.  One of my daughters said we'd think she was weird, but Winnie The Pooh and Shakespeare's Sonnets came to mind almost immediately. I also remembered another time when we had a lesson on gossip at church.  One of our daughters had been reading A Tale of Two Cities, by Dickens (she was about 11 at the time). She told me the lesson, which used the verse about how the tongue is as a roaring fire reminded her of the darkest days of the French Revolution, when a careless remark could get your neighbor arrested, and a malicious remark could have him beheaded. Another of my children spent a good deal of profitable time pondering over the lessons about false friends which she gleaned from reading Dickens' Oliver Twist.

Children are able to handle much stronger stuff than we give them credit for, too.  This is another reason those 'goody goody storybooks' Miss Mason spoke of often miss the mark. As a small child away from home for the first time, another of our daughters requested of her grandmother that a 'comforting story' to be read to her from the Bible. The grandmother asked for a suggestion, and my young daughter (about 8) asked for the story of.... Jezebel!  That is not the story most of us would choose, is it?  I pondered over that for a while and then realized that what comforted that small child of 8 was the meaty and firm knowledge that the wicked did not prosper forever.  Left to my own devices, I would have made another choice for a 'comforting' story.

The goody goody storybooks Miss Mason would not use in her own classrooms seek to create a sort of a recipe, or formula, for character development rather than deal holistically with the child as a whole person who is nourished not by morality tales, but by living ideas in literary form.

 As Charlotte mason wrote in her sixth volume:
Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest. He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs. Urgency on our part annoys him. He resists forcible feeding and loathes predigested food (emphasis mine. WC). What suits him best is pabulum presented in the indirect literary form which Our Lord adopts in those wonderful parables whose quality is that they cannot be forgotten though, while every detail of the story is remembered, its application may pass and leave no trace. We, too, must take this risk. We may offer children as their sustenance the Lysander of Plutarch, an object lesson, we think, shewing what a statesman or a citizen should avoid: but, who knows, the child may take to Lysander and think his 'cute' ways estimable! Again, we take the risk, as did our Lord in that puzzling parable of the Unjust Steward. One other caution; it seems to be necessary to present ideas with a great deal of padding, as they reach us in a novel or poem or history book written with literary power. A child cannot in mind or body live upon tabloids however scientifically prepared; out of a whole big book he may not get more than half a dozen of those ideas upon which his spirit thrives; and they come in unexpected places and unrecognised forms, so that no grown person is capable of making such extracts from Scott or Dickens or Milton, as will certainly give him nourishment. It is a case of, “In the morning sow thy seed and in the evening withhold not thine hand for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that."

I suspect that most, if not all, of the Victorian style morality tales count as 'predigested food.'
 Feed the children's minds, and their 'characters'  upon living books, of which the Bible is chief.


  1. Wendi, as an adult (and finding myself often inclined to settled for a mystery or a magazine because "I deserve it, I've had a long day"), I was challenged by this Parent's Review quote:

    "Think of the splendid series of experiences that becomes the possession of the boy or girl when first they have read through the eight great books of George Eliot. What a world is opened up even by a single novel like Romola; what sympathies are stirred by Adam Bede; what insight into the misunderstandings that flow from mere differences of character is the gift of The Mill on the Floss; what realisation of the struggle between generous ideals and mean circumstances is awakened by Middlemarch! "

    So far I have gotten through Scenes of Clerical Life, Middlemarch, and Silas Marner; I'm working on Romola. I incorporated Silas Marner into one child's Year Five literature, in spite of its bad reputation as a long boring book that English teachers foist on people; it's not actually that long, and it's a good story. I did skip a bit of adult content and a couple of long speeches with the Year Five, but otherwise she got the whole thing, and she gave good narrations too (always a good sign). It seems strange, but it's always been the "not written for kids" books that my children have remembered in later years: Great Expectations, Ivanhoe, and Silas Marner.

    The whole article is here:


  2. Such wonderful food to chew on! Thank you!
    I am also amazed at what my children pull out of the books they are reading! Sometimes they will give examples like "oh mom! just like in Shakespeare!" or "just like Samuel did!" It is great to hear and I smile from ear to ear each time!!
    Warm regards,

  3. Now I'm paranoid that some books I downloaded from a certain co. that reprints old books could be twaddle and for some reason I didn't think of that way. hmmm...I try hard not to stay clear of twaddle but maybe I have it hear tucked away thinking it was okay because it was vintage/old...hmmm

  4. Heather, I know how you feel. It's easy to forget that Miss Mason was criticizing overuse of twaddle in the Victorian era, so she was talking mostly about books that are now over 110 years old.

    I still remember the feeling I first got when I read her books for myself and then looked up some of the books she was talking about and I realized how low I had set the bar for myself.


  5. Where can I see a list of some of the books she called twaddle? I'm curious.

  6. Sorry, I was unclear. I meant, when I first saw the books she was calling living books, that humbled me.

    Charlotte seldom liked to criticize directly, But I think we can get some sense of what she didn't approve of by looking at the books she *did* recommend, and then noticing all those 'goody goody' book published during her lifetime which she did *not* recommend.

    A PR article author quotes her as saying,

    ""Guard the nursery; let nothing in that has not a true literary flavour; let the children grow up on a few books read over and over, and let them have none, the reading of which does not cost an appreciable mental effort. This is no hardship. Activity, whether of body or mind, is joyous to a child.""

  7. I love this and am challenged by it. But I'm quite sure that beautiful grandbaby is learning moral instruction from Eric Carle ;-)

  8. I just read another post that compared an overly moralistic approach to literature to trying to "find the mechanism" (ala the Emperor and the Nightingale).

    The funny thing is that ever since people began writing specifically for children, most of those stories have been moralistic ("ooh, look, an impressionable young mind-- I shall mold it!"). Nowadays the morals are simply different. We teach girl power, believe in yourself, environmentalism, etc.