“As for literature––to introduce children to literature is to install them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served. But they must learn to know literature by being familiar with it from the very first. A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find.” – Charlotte Mason
One of the hallmarks of a classical education is, of course, “classical” literature. At last week’s meeting, I read lines from some of the classics our children have read, or will read this year in school. The selections I used came from “Little House in the Big Woods” (2nd grade), “Don Quixote” (5th grade), “The Prince and the Pauper” (6th grade), “The Iliad” (9th grade), and “Pride and Prejudice” (10th grade). Children and adults have feasted on these works for generations, and in one case, for thousands of years. What is it about these books that makes them “classical?” Why should we want our children to read them?
Books like the ones described above, and the ones listed below, share some essential qualities that puts them in the category of classical. First, they are written in noble language. Second, they teach readers important lessons about human nature (life lessons pertaining to virtue and vice). Third, because they are well written and deal forcefully with human nature, they transcend time; in other words, generation after generation can read, enjoy, and benefit from them. As Charlotte Mason said, they bring a continual holiday to our doors….
One of the things classical literature can bring to a reader’s experience is challenge. A challenge because of the ideas and issues a reader has to confront, and in the case of a child, the additional challenge of reading material that is sometimes above the reading level he is used to encountering.
Challenge is exactly what a classical education demands of students, because challenge is what is going to make them better. Mortimer Adler, one of the 20th century’s great intellectuals and one of the men who gave us “The Encyclopedia Britanica” and the volumes known as “The Great Books,” wrote a book called “How to Read a Book” www.amazon.com/How-Read-Book-Touchstone-book/dp/0671212095). In it, Adler pointed out how reading difficult books is one of the important ways to improve reading ability. Reading books above one’s level is an essential aspect of academic self-improvement. Reading classical literature provides an opportunity in this regard.
I have, in the past, heard adults criticize the use of classical books in school. One common remark has been: “why can’t my child just read books written in everyday language he can understand instead of from these old books that have some words in them even I don’t know?”
The goal of using classical literature is not to stump students with archaic language. In fact, there are plenty of “modern classics” our students will read. The point really isn’t about modern or older lingo. It is about quality, classical literature (defined above), versus the types of books students are assigned to read in many schools today. Some of these books are characterized by “topics they can relate to,” and a lack of academic rigor (if students are assigned to read entire books at all).
Mortimer Adler used a nice analogy about exposing students to challenging classical literature instead of mediocre works. He said, when students study classical texts they get to taste cream. When they read popular, mediocre books, they experience skim milk. The goal in school should be for “all” our children to taste the cream. Now, there will be students that will get more cream than others due to varying abilities among students, but at least all students will have some cream.
When students “engage” in classical literature, they are challenged, they are inspired, and they learn important lessons about the world and their place in it; and most importantly, they learn about their own humanity.
The following section contains a grade-by-grade list of titles students will study this year at Founders Classical Academy:
Charlotte’s Webb, Stuart Little, Little House in the Big Woods, Peter Pan, Hour of the Olympics (fiction companion to Ancient Greece and the Olympics), and various short stories & poetry
Alice in Wonderland, The Chocolate Touch, The Wind in the Willows, Aladdin and Other Favorite Arabian Nights Stories, Vacation Under the Volcano (fiction companion to Ancient Rome and Pompeii), and various short stories & poetry
Robinson Crusoe, Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Gulliver’s Travels, Polyanna, Robin Hood, King Arthur, Treasure Island, Hamlet & Romeo and Juliet (children’ versions), and various short stories & poetry
Sherlock Holmes, Don Quixote, Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Little Women, A Secret Garden, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and various short stories & poetry
Iliad and Odyssey (Children’s Homer by Padraic Column), The Prince the Pauper, The Sea Wolf, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Julius Caesar, Count of Monte Cristo (Abridged), and various short stories & poetry
Fahrenheit 451, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Cyrano de Bergerac, Diary of a Young Girl, Romeo and Juliet, Animal Farm, and various short stories & poetry
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Twelfth Night, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (selections), Red Badge of Courage, and various short stories & poetry
Iliad, Aeneid, Antigone, Julius Caesar (Shakespeare), & other poetic and historical selections from ancient Greece/Rome
Canterbury Tales (selections), Hamlet, Sonnets (Shakespeare), Paradise Lost, Selected Poems (Milton), Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, English Romantic Poetry (selections)