On Composition (new book excerpt)

Philosophy of Education, starting on page 195, offers examples of student compositions, written as examination responses. These represent Charlotte Mason’s story-starters, and there are only three, really: Literature. Nature. Current Events. Those three are repeated over and over, and that is “suggestive,” as Charlotte would say. Younger students were expected only to “tell back,” or to notice and reproduce the “major lines”; but the older ones were required to turn their thoughts on spring, or Home Rule in Ireland, or the poems of Tennyson, into blank verse, or ballads, or scenes involving literary characters. That gives us also, and not incidentally, a snapshot of what went on in the day-to-day teaching. The older classes obviously spent a fair amount of time reading or talking or writing about those same three subjects: literature (especially mythology, if we go by the exam responses); nature; and current events. It’s clear that they spent time reading poetry, and learned about meter. And although they did no worksheets aimed at increasing “higher-level thinking skills,” they were nevertheless practicing synthesis and evaluation, and writing like writers, in the same way that the young twig-painters were beginning to paint like painters. Without blobs, without gimmicks.

“Tell it slant”

One question we may ask, from our precarious perch in the twenty-first century, is how literally we can apply this. We can read, receive, participate, enjoy literature spanning centuries…but how do we reproduce? If there is no reason for an adult today to write poetry in the style of Tennyson, can we expect students to find meaning in such an exercise? Or find readers for their work? Writers still want an audience for their serious (or seriously hilarious) writing; but I’m guessing there is little market for a sonnet about the ups and downs of computer companies. Or a ballad about light-rail transit, or plant-based diets. Should we have Jane Austen’s “Mr. Woodhouse” chat about the latest celebrity divorce? Is there any contemporary way to respectfully, insightfully, and beautifully respond to a classic novel, a piano concerto, the buds on a tree, without turning it into the latest equivalent of a rap song? How do we encourage humour, even occasional irreverence, without going too far?

This is an ongoing problem, and one with which writers, teachers, and preachers wanting to reach their audiences have often struggled. Emily Dickinson recommended that we “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” and this may apply even more so now. Students who have grown up with Charlotte Mason’s practices may actually have an advantage over their parents, somewhat like that of third-culture kids: if their early learning experiences have been sufficiently wide and generous; if they have learned to look and listen carefully, and to reproduce the “major lines”; and if they haven’t had their “faculties” pulled to pieces by curriculum checklists, then they may be the ones who can successfully interpret those experiences for the next generation.

Excerpted from a forthcoming book, Ideas Freely Sown: The Matter and Method of Charlotte Mason, by Anne E. White.

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