Living Books vs. Twaddle

When I first started researching homeschool curricula, I encountered Charlotte Mason. I remembered hearing about her philosophy from a friend a year or two before, so I read a book about her concept (though admittedly I’ve learned since that many CM adherents prefer her own writings, which makes sense) and later found a site for book ideas and implementation based on the CM method.

Being a proponent of a global understanding of history, I found the concept of Anglo-centric history to be just as annoying as American-centric history. The white man as savior/conqueror, Western civilization as ultimate culture, and colonialism as key to world progress all strike me as severely problematic as a citizen in the 21st century as well as the resident of an international city and the parent of a child of color, so we passed on Mason’s history component. I continue to be concerned about our collective view of history, especially with regards to the origins of the United States and the view of the US in the scheme of world history, and teaching it as an exploration of the various perspectives present is incredibly important to me.

There were beautiful vignettes described of mothers and children, and in my head I could be the maternal figure sitting quietly in a rocking chair knitting while I looked on adoringly at one of my cherubs who narrated (the CM version of an oral book report, essentially) with little difficulty something she had just heard me read to her or read to herself. Someday I might be that person. But when my children were small and even now that they are not so small, our life did not and does not lend itself to much of that. Further, I have fat stubs of thumbs that do not lend themselves well to knitting. I know not all CM adherents buy into these images, but because they were some of the first I encountered (and I could not deal with out-of-order history because of my own personality flaw), I passed on most of CM as a result.

All is not lost, however, for Charlotte Mason promoted a study of art and composers as well as actively learning folk songs and hymns. I love this part of her method, because arts education is something I had in childhood and totally took for granted. I have yet to hear about modern American students receiving this type of instruction in mainstream schools. In the CM method, art and composer studies revolve around learning about specific artists and composers, being able to identify their styles, and learning to appreciate them in the truest sense of the term. We have done this through selecting Pandora stations and using our private music collection as well as visiting museums, concerts, taking choral and instrumental lessons, and having home singing time (spiritual and secular selections included). Some of these memories of singing together, especially when our children were very small, are the sweetest ones I have.

My other favorite concept from CM is the concept of living books. These are books that draw in the reader, allow the reader to get lost in the story, and challenge the reader to higher ideas and vocabulary access to rich language. Children will benefit from all portions of these types of books; imagination will be cultivated, brains will be developed, and readers will be armed with that language when it is time for them to learn to read and write.

Mason contrasts living books with what she calls twaddle, a fun word that I loosely translate as literary junk food. These are beach reads. These are at worst the textbooks we encounter, especially those used in language arts classrooms in the place of real books (this is truly one of the worst travesties of modern education). Twaddle might engage the reader, but it isn’t going to stick. These books are dumbed-down “fun” at best, though I daresay a child used to not being talked down to will not generally enjoy this type of literature. Some of them are not worth the paper on which they are printed, but we have all read twaddle at one point or another. Whether a CM adherent completely opposes twaddle or makes space for it is an incredibly personal decision. In our home, I choose to use library trips for occasional twaddle if the kids choose to have it then. I don’t knowingly purchase it. I will say this about modern twaddle in children’s literature: it is overall of better quality and more advanced than some of the twaddle my friends and I read as kids in school, so that is a victory for our society.

I continue to use the terms “living books” and “twaddle” and have yet to find a more useful way of referencing the necessary hierarchy of reading material for my children. Again with the intellectual snobbery, I know; however, we get one chance at exposing our children to the best the world has to offer, and we all choose where we put our emphasis. Mine has always been on good reading material, for I truly believe if they know how to read, research, and be discerning in their reading and research, they can not only learn anything but advocate and think for themselves.

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