Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Is Plutarch too difficult for children? A few century-old opinions

by Anne White

In 1919, twenty-six schools using the PNEU curriculum (i.e. the correspondence school based on Charlotte Mason’s methods) were surveyed as to their impressions of the books, methods, the success of the curriculum with their students, etc. The results were compiled into an article that was included in a booklet, Impressions of the Ambleside Method.

On the topic of Plutarch, the survey drew mixed responses.

“The study of Plutarch's Lives,” says another [teacher], “seems suitable only for riper minds. If the Lives as a whole were studied the scholar might get an idea of the foundation of the Roman and Grecian Empires.”

“But,” said [the editor] Mr. Household, “he has missed the whole purpose of the study, which is by no means to give them ‘an idea of the foundation of the Roman and Grecian Empires,’ but something very different.” 

Mr. Household quoted the French philosopher Montaigne:

 “He (the teacher) shall by the help of Histories inform himself of the worthiest minds that were in the best ages. It is a frivolous study if a man list, but of invaluable worth to such as can make use of it...What profit shall he not reap touching this point, reading the lives of our Plutarch? Always conditioned the master bethink himself whereto his charge tendeth, and that he imprint not so much in his scholar's mind the date of the ruin of Carthage, as the manners of Hannibal and Scipio, nor so much where Marcellus died, as because he was unworthy of his devoir he died there; that he teach him not so much to know Histories, as to judge of them...” (Of the Institution and Education of Children. Essays, Book I, Chap. xxv)

[One teacher] found that “Narration has greatly improved their English. The children have a larger vocabulary. They have a clearer way of expressing themselves, and are not afraid of speaking in front of the other scholars...Then again there are many subjects for Compositions and the Compositions have certainly improved; they are not as scrappy as they used to be. The subjects of their essays are more interesting.”

“The children very much appreciated the story of Romulus and Remus, ” said [a young teacher], “and seem to have set out with the determination to enjoy the life story of Lycurgus. It is this book--Plutarch's Lives--and the History of Rome which are the subjects of interesting compositions.”

To sum up, another teacher said,

“There is no disguising that the children find Plutarch difficult, but they are meant to find him difficult. The joy comes when the difficulties are mastered, and they are being mastered at [our school]. ”