Monday, August 20, 2018

A Challenge for This Week

The story of Undine was an extremely popular children's story in the 19th century, although it is not one which recommends itself to today's parents.* Louisa May Alcott mentioned it in Little Women, and Charlotte Yonge references it in one of her collections of stories.  Yonge also wrote the introduction to it in one edition.
Briefly, Undine is a water sprite, unwittingly fostered by a sweet Christian pair of elderly parents. As a water-sprite, Undine is not evil, but she has no soul, which means she has no experience of the pain which causes humans to empathize with one other. Her bewildered human parents are unaware that she is not a human. They love her but are much troubled by her thoughtless, careless ways. She is affectionate but willful and self centered, unable to empathize with others, unconcerned with how her selfish antics grieve her family. She falls in love with a passing knight and he with her, and their union, consecrated in marriage, grants her a soul, instantly giving her a gravitas and depth of patience and human kindness that opens her eyes to the suffering she has caused and the good that is open to her in the world.

It reminds me very much of the George MacDonald story The Light Princess, which I won't summarize because it simply must be read.
At any rate, Undine's light and careless (and so often thoughtlessly wounding) affection is awakened, made deeper, stretched, and given real meaning when love imbibes her with a soul.

Mason uses this highly popular and very familiar story as a sort of a hook with which to open her sixth volume on education.  

This week, I'd like to challenge you to read this with me, and when you have finished reading take a minute or two to write down or review orally as much as you can of the following preface from volume VI (you can retell it to the baby while changing a diaper, or talk to your soup as you stir if you have no time or inclination to write):

"It would seem a far cry from Undine [by La Motte Fouque] to a 'liberal education' but there is a point of contact between the two; a soul awoke within a water-sprite at the touch of love; so, I have to tell of the awakening of a 'general soul' at the touch of knowledge. Eight years ago the 'soul' of a class of children in a mining village school awoke simultaneously at this magic touch and has remained awake. We know that religion can awaken souls, that love makes a new man, that the call of a vocation may do it, and in the age of the Renaissance, men's souls, the general soul, awoke to knowledge: but this appeal rarely reaches the modern soul; and, notwithstanding the pleasantness attending lessons and marks (grades and one's gpa) in all our schools, I believe the ardour for knowledge in the children of this mining village is a phenomenon that indicates new possibilities. Already many thousands of the children of the Empire had experienced this intellectual conversion, but they were the children of educated persons. To find that the children of a mining population were equally responsive seemed to open a new hope for the world. It may be that the souls of all children are waiting for the call of knowledge to awaken them to delightful living.

This is how the late Mrs. Francis Steinthal, who was the happy instigator of the movement in Council Schools, wrote,––"Think of the meaning of this in the lives of the children,––disciplined lives, and no lawless strikes, justice, an end to class warfare, developed intellects, and no market for trashy and corrupt literature! We shall, or rather they will, live in a redeemed world." This was written in a moment of enthusiasm on hearing that a certain County Council had accepted a scheme of work for this pioneer school; enthusiasm sees in advance the fields white to the harvest, but indeed the event is likely to justify high expectations. Though less than nine years have passed since that pioneer school made the bold attempt, already many thousands of children working under numerous County Councils are finding that "Studies serve for delight."

No doubt children are well taught and happy in their lessons as things are, and this was specially true of the school in question; yet both teachers and children find an immeasurable difference between the casual interest roused by marks, pleasing oral lessons and other school devices, and the sort of steady avidity for knowledge that comes with the awakened soul. The children have converted the school inspectors: "And the English!" said one of these in astonishment as he listened to their long, graphic, dramatic narrations of what they had heard. During the last thirty years we (including many fellow workers) have had thousands of children, in our schoolrooms, home and other, working on the lines of Dean Colet's prayer for St Paul's School,––"Pray for the children to prosper in good life and good literature;" probably all children so taught grow up with such principles and pursuits as make for happy and useful citizenship.

I should like to add that we have no axe to grind. The public good is our aim; and the methods proposed are applicable in any school. My object in offering this volume to the public is to urge upon all who are concerned with education a few salient principles which are generally either unknown or disregarded; and a few methods which, like that bathing in Jordan, are too
simple to commend themselves to the 'general.' Yet these principles and methods make education entirely effectual.

Challenges for this week (over the course of the week, not all in one day):  

Read the above, look up any words that aren't clear,  and spend a couple minutes either writing or telling as much of it as you can recall.

Write down or simply think about 3 points that strike you (for any reason at all)

Here are a couple of mine:  1. 'Pleasantness' over lessons vs Ardour for knowledge; casual interest vs steady avidity for knowledge.  

Undine's awakened soul allowed her to really understand, for the first time, how other people felt, to care about them in a meaningful way, to see things from their point of view, and no longer to put her own way of thinking first and foremost. 

Feel free to share yours!

Related challenges: 
1. Go outside with the kids at least once this week- take a walk in your neighbourhood, or visit a park, a farm, a garden (does a neighbour have one?) or a plant nursery.  Just enjoy it- walk along and look for something pretty or interesting to admire or be curious about.

2.  Sing aloud at least twice this week (more is better, but this is the minimum).

3.  Consider this poem:
 A centipede was happy, quite,
 Until a frog in fun
 Said, 'Pray, which leg goes after which?
This worked his mind to such a pitch,
 He lay distracted in a ditch,
 Considering how to run.

Are you overthinking your week? Read something good to your children. Sing with them. Take them outside. Ask them to narrate the good books and stories you read.  Nourish their bodies and their minds, starting with with what you have and where you are.


*footnote and spoiler alert:  to be honest, the story of Undine doesn't end well, as not every human with a soul is as awakened to our duties and responsibilities to one another and the way of love as Undine.  Think Little Mermaid except the betrayal by the beloved is deliberate and the Mermaid is the cause of death to the unworthy human husband. 


  1. Thank you for doing these challenges! I have just realized they are happening, and look forward to joining in. This is just what I need right now!

  2. Is there a place to share these? Anyway, I am just struck by the idea of the relationship between pain and empathy. Don't think I have ever considered that...or have I? Thank you for these challenges.

  3. Michelle, I am not sure I understand the question about where to share? You can discuss them here, in the forum, or on the FB group, and you can share link with your ---- Oh- is that what you're asking? How to share? Should be a little row of boxes for various social media sharing at the bottom of the post. If you mean something else, help me out- I am easily confused some days!=)

    That is an interesting connection- pain and empathy. Hmmm. Yes. Although I feel like too much pain hinders that connection with others- one has to get beyond the raw edge of it for the empathy to take effect. What do you think?

  4. Hi, Wendi! I have a couple:

    "It may be that the souls of all children are waiting for the call of knowledge to awaken them to delightful living."


    "both teachers and children find an immeasurable difference between the casual interest roused by marks, pleasing oral lessons and other school devices, and the sort of steady avidity for knowledge that comes with the awakened soul."

    To me they both talk about "the love of learning". I used to wonder what I should do to make my children love learning. But (correct me if I'm wrong) based on my understanding so far of CM's principles (esp #1), all children love to learn. It's just up to us (parents/adults) to present them the true, beautiful, living ideas.

    As for the other challenges:

    1. we walked in our neighborhood late this afternoon. And we found a huge snail! Though it was dark, with a help of a flashlight, my son noticed its "so so tiny eyes".

    2. This week we sang aloud "Molly Malone" and "Children Of Our Heavenly Father". Molly Malone was his favorite. He requested for that song every single day!

    3. Thanks for sharing this poem. It's funny, and a great reminder.

    I'm excited to do the next challenges! :)

  5. Lorie, thanks for sharing!
    Yes, I think you're right- children tend to come loving to learn. We have to avoid hindering that love, and also present the wonderful ideas.