Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition (Part III) - Living Books
“We owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; and the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books.” -Charlotte Mason
To carry out the classical project of inculcating virtue and educating the whole person Charlotte Mason believed that students ought to read “Living Books.” What is a living book? Simply put, a living book is one that conveys living ideas and one that can be narrated by the student.
Books should be of the highest literary quality and should engage both the mind and the heart of the reader. This is important because our students do not read books for the mere acquisition of information. Instead, they read to be connected with heroes, ideas, and examples of truth, goodness, and beauty. These great works fire the moral imagination and show students that virtue is not only right, but it is also beautiful and praiseworthy, something worth seeking, something worth sacrificing to obtain and protect.
Charlotte Mason worried that divorcing ideas from their context causes them to lose their vitality and makes education boring. Education must be vital if they are to shape and form the entire person. Students should not read books merely to check off a list or to be able to say they have read them. They ought to read to grow as persons, to know more that they may understand more, and ultimately to act according to their greater wisdom. For this reason Charlotte Mason rejected any book wherein living ideas have been reduced to mere information, as well as compilations of facts which contain no life in the first place.
As children read living books they will not only be exposed to virtuous examples, but also be exposed to noble language that will naturally help them to learn to communicate clearly, persuasively, and winsomely. As Erasmus of Rotterdam, a famous classical educator put it, “It is not by learning rules that we acquire the power of speaking a language, but by daily intercourse with those accustomed to express themselves with exactness and refinement, and by the copious reading of the best authors.” While our students do learn grammatical rules, they don’t merely learn rules. They are also exposed to great works wherein they see good writing in context.
Finally, living books are valuable in their breadth. Because the goal of education is the formation of a wise and just person, an education that simply focuses on the “Three Rs” is inadequate. Charlotte Mason believed that children should be exposed to a wide range of ideas and interests, for the wider the ranger, “the more intelligent is the apprehension of each.” Living books always contain a wide range of ideas and interests.
This is again a place where we follow Charlotte Mason. We select living books that are broad in their scope, well-written, and that encourage and motivate our students to grow in goodness and virtue.