In Part One of this article, we looked at two recent arguments in favor of letting children’s desires dictate what they read. This common contemporary argument is directly opposed to the idea of a classical, Christian education. While the aim of most contemporary educators is to prepare their students for the workplace, the aim of classical, Christian education is to train students to love truth, goodness, and beauty, so that they may gain wisdom and virtue. Classics are worth reading because they train students in virtue. The students learn to evaluate the actions of others and in doing so, they are prepared to make wise choices themselves. In addition, good literature trains their affections, helping them learn to love what is true, good, and beautiful.
Last month, a friend asked me which books had been most formative in my childhood. Her question caused me to think: Do books shape us? How do they shape us? If this is such an important part of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, how do we choose the right books?
I believe reading the right books in childhood absolutely shapes our attitudes and behaviors. If you are a lover of empirical data, you will be disappointed with my proofs. I cannot supply statistics or quote any experts other than the centuries of other folks who have loved books and invested many childhood years reading them (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, the Founding Fathers, your favorite author). I can only attest to my own personal experience.
My childhood was shaped by books like Little House on the Prairie, The Chronicles of Narnia, Little Women, and Anne of Green Gables. All of these books shared three important elements. In each case, characters faced difficult choices, tried to eliminate personal vices, and entered adulthood. As in our own lives, each character faced a choice between doing the wrong thing which appeared simpler and more pleasant, and doing the right thing which appeared more difficult and less pleasant. Being steeped in the lives of characters who made right choices inculcates a habit of right thinking in our children. These books “baptize” their imaginations as they identify with the hero and reject the villain. Later, they will be fortified to make wise choices by imagining themselves as the hero in their own story.
Of course, sometimes books teach by negative example. These, too, are very powerful. The consequences that unfold for Edmund and his family after his choice to follow the White Witch are far more instructive than any lecture you could give your children about temptation and sin. Stories are powerful teachers. If you doubt me, consider the examples in Scripture. When David sins with Bathsheba, Nathan does not lecture him on the evils of adultery. He tells a story.
Reading the right books forms character not just by fortifying children to make wise choices, but by helping them to form virtuous habits. Our modern minds too often confuse values with virtues. Tolerance is a value. Self-sacrifice is a virtue. What virtues do you hope your children will practice? Do you discuss prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, charity? In Little Women, Amy tries to conquer her vanity and selfishness. In Little House on the Prairie, Laura tries to conquer her quick temper and her selfishness. In Anne of Green Gables, Anne tries to conquer her rash impulses and her temper. These young women are on their way toward acquiring the virtues of humility, gentleness, and selflessness.
Lastly, characters in good literature for young people enter into adulthood. Many times, they are on the verge of discovering their special gifts and talents. They begin to consider their future vocation. The best books maintain this sense of a vocation (a “special calling,” from the Latin word voco) over the modern sense of a job. Our children can join in the sense of embarking on an exciting journey into a life’s work. Too much contemporary children’s literature ignores the important elements of the journey toward adulthood—the discernment to make wise choices, the acquisition of personal virtues, and the call of a worthy vocation.
If we choose wisely, we can inspire our children to love the true, the good, and the beautiful, and to act in accordance with that knowledge.
A very short reading list for young girls (I really had to exercise restraint here):
· Anne of Green Gables (8-book series) by L.M. Montgomery
· Emily of New Moon (3-book series) by L.M. Montgomery
· Little Women, An Old-Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins, A Rose in Bloom (and anything else) by L.M. Alcott
· Little House on the Prairie (8 book series) by Laura Ingalls Wilder
A very short reading list for young boys:
· Little Britches series by Ralph Moody
· The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald