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Lincoln’s kindness, laughter and love for literature . . .

In tribute to President Lincoln, who we honor (along with Washington) on this President’s holiday,  I’d like to reflect upon the spirit of the man who ruled as President over our nation during one of the country’s most difficult and trying times.  It seems significant that Lincoln, who became a political force in his time, was able to achieve what he did, while still hanging onto a gentle kindness, an appreciation for laughter and a devotion to literature.  When he was a young man, working as a clerk in the Springfield store, a gentleman came into the store badly in need of money.  He had a barrel full of old things that he wanted to get rid of. As the D’Aulaire’s note in their biography of Lincoln, ” Abe had no need of the barrel, but he bought it for half a dollar to help the man.  When he opened the barrel he found at the bottom the book he needed to study law.”  Abe had been hankering to begin the study of law, and by this simple act of kindness found exactly what he needed–Blackstone’s Law.  He would be devoted to Blackstone for the remainder of his life, but the lesson here is in his very simple act of wanting to help someone else, he also helped himself.

Lincoln was also devoted to learning to laugh, and spent considerable time perfecting this art.  He studied Aesop’s Fables faithfully and found in them the insight he needed to understand life, and to take a humorous slant on many of its more difficult aspects.  He used this humor to tease his stepmother, whom he loved dearly.  The D’Aulaire’s note that as Abe sprouted to his six foot four height during adolescence she teased him,

"If I had another face, do you think I'd wear this one?"

“I can always wash your muddy footsteps from the floor, Abe, but keep your head clean so you won’t be leaving tracks along my whitewashed ceiling.”  Abe grinned, scratched his head, and thought of a joke.  When his stepmother went out for a while, he took a little boy with muddy feet, lifted him up and walked him like a fly across the ceiling.  “Abe, I should thrash you,” said the stepmother when she came back.  But she laughed at the joke instead.  And with a pail of whitewash Abe made the ceiling white and clean again.”

During his debates with Stephen Douglas, the senator accused Lincoln of being two-faced.  Lincoln quipped back, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”  And during the Civil War when General McClelland refused to march on Richmond, Lincoln wrote him, “Dear General, If you do not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a day or two.”

Other pithy statements of Lincoln include:

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.

If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.

No matter how much cats fight, there always seem to be plenty of kittens.

During his time as clerk in Springfield Abe made the acquaintance of Jack Kelso–the village philosopher.  Though Kelso did little work, he was the first to open to young Lincoln the beauty of Shakespeare and Burns.   Lincoln nurtured his love for Shakespeare throughout his life and took the plays with him to read whenever he traveled. He also memorized quantities of Shakespeare and found reverberations within the plays that spoke to deep places within his heart.  In a letter to a friend, comic actor and Falstaff-specialist James Hackett, Lincoln mused,

Some of Shakespeare’s plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing “O, my offense is rank” surpasses that commencing “To be or not to be.”

James Daugherty notes in his biography, Abraham Lincoln, that after the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Lee at Appomattox Court House, Lincoln and his cabinet were returning to Washington on the River Queen steamboat. It was Palm Sunday. “All day the talk had been about literature, and he [Lincoln] had read aloud for hours to friends from a volume of Shakespeare’s plays.  Macbeth was speaking with a soft Kentucky drawl.  He read and reread the lines, and paused to comment here and there on favorite passages.”  The lines that seemed to strike Lincoln most intently and ones he repeated and commented upon were:

Better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave.
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.
Treason has done his worst; nor steel nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further.          (Macbeth, 3.2.19–26)

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of th...
Lincoln as President

The man who had led the nation through its most horrific war, whose life had been marked by countless acts of kindness and clemency, doubtless felt deeply the loss of the thousands of young soldiers that had made the ultimate sacrifice.  Did the lines “whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace” speak to him on that score? Having laid two of his own beloved sons to rest, Lincoln doubtless identified deeply with the mourning of a nation bereft of its sons. Did Lincoln also have a strange presentiment of his eminent rest?  These things occurred just five days before his death.

As we remember Lincoln’s life it behooves us to follow in the footsteps of one who lived his life so well.  His life was marked by kindness, laughter, and a deep appreciation for the complexity and pathos of life.  He loved literature because it helped him make sense of life’s greatest challenges and find laughter, joy, and ultimately peace in the midst of them.

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Mid-year inspiration from Charlotte Mason

February can often be a month of lagging motivation and inspiration as winter drags on and the glory of spring and summer seem very far away.  Recalling Charlotte Mason‘s most seminal tenets of education half-way through our school year can revive and inspire us to finish well.

Education is an atmosphere.

Charlotte Mason’s motto, “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life” might accurately be called “educating organically.”  As parents many of us are interested in providing our children with the most wholesome foods we can offer in our day of mechanized corporate agriculture.  When available, we desire organically grown fruits and vegetables, minimally processed whole-grains, free-range, antibiotic and hormone-free meats, and best of all, home grown fruits and vegetables from our own gardens!  We desire, to put it simply, to provide our families with foods that are as close to nature and as unadulterated as possible. This same perspective could be applied to understanding Charlotte Mason’s methodology of education. By defining education as “an atmosphere, a discipline, a life”, Mason strove to reconnect education back to an organic understanding of it; in other words, true education happens when the right atmosphere is established that nurtures life and growth. When the human spirit is nurtured by love, transcendent truth, beauty, music, literature, adventure, imagination, play, and healthy expanding labor, the mind and the spirit grow naturally. As Ms. Mason noted, “we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food.”1 Analogous with nutrition’s importance to maintaining life is the suitable nourishment of the mind and heart.

As parents striving to avoid foods for our children that are adulterated with sugar, preservatives, unhealthy fats and chemicals, so too, our approach to education should reflect a similar devotion.  Mason called the adulterated curriculum often proffered children “twaddle–the mentally inferior and useless stuff produced or written for children by adults.”2 Mason defined an “organic” curriculum as rich in “living books.”3 Because Mason recognized the inherent dignity and individuality of each child, she strove to establish an approach to education that respected and encouraged that intrinsic value. Just as parents avoid junk food with its questionable nutritional value, curriculum based upon tedious workbooks, monotonous rote work, and watered-down uninteresting stories, is to be avoided for its questionable educational value.  Mason advocated only the best literature for children.  As she notes, “We hold that a child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas, but is rather [. . .] a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge.  That is its proper diet.”4 An educational curriculum rich in scripture, classic literature, histories, biographies, poetry, and dramatic works nurtures the spirit, develops the imagination, and equips a child for life.  The clear delineation of right and wrong in fairy tales, folk tales, and mythic and epic literature, nurtures the inclination of the human heart for that which is good, lovely, honest, and true.  By a rich and orderly serving of living books, the child’s heart is expanded and enlarged. As the youngest child listens and understands story, he freely relates back his response to story.  The growing discipline of narration initiates the child into the world of words.  True education begins.

Education is a discipline.

In addition to a solid foundation of living books, Mason advocated the educational benefit of play and nature study. Indeed, Mason “recommended four to six hours outdoors each day [. . .] from April to October” for growing children.5 While Mason had the benefit of the English countryside at her doorstep, many of us must drive or plan in advance in order to provide these experiences for our children. But provide them we must. Running, swimming, skipping, jumping, climbing, and dancing will all make for happy, well-rounded children. Weeding a garden, feeding chickens, picking fruit in an  orchard, all work to connect children to real life.  While outdoor free play is important in and of itself, Ms. Mason also advocated nature studies that open the eyes of the child to the beauty and wonder of the outdoor world.  By the discipline of observing and relating (and even sketching and recording) what a child sees as they experience and examine the natural world–terrestrial and astral, a connection to and appreciation for beauty is established. This is the beginning of wonder.  In a technology-saturated culture, where children often spend little time outdoors, this becomes increasingly essential.  The ability to see the small wonders of the natural world around us (even if we live in a city or suburb) gives the child a lens through which to appreciate beauty and experience life.

Education is a life.

Mason’s philosophy of education is designed to develop life-long learners. Introducing children at a young age and through their educational career to the “best which has been thought and said in the world” connects them to the rich literary heritage of western civilization–a heritage that can inform and inspire them throughout their lives.6 Opening the eyes of a child to the beauty of the natural world around them develops wonder–a defense against the cynicism and hubris of postmodern life. This can provide a critical antidote to an often violent and topsy-turvy world. Understanding their place in that world establishes a solid foundation for right relationship with God and their neighbor.

Works Cited

1.  Mason, Charlotte. Towards a Philosophy of Education. Radford, Virginia: Wilder Publications. 2008. p. 86.

2.  Macaulay, Susan Schaeffer. For the Children’s Sake:  Foundations of Education for Home and School.  Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1984. p. 15.

3.  Towards a Philosophy of Education. p. 118.

4.  Ibid. p. 89.

5.  Mason, Charlotte.  Home Education. Radford, Virginia: Wilder Publications, 2008. p.40.

6.  Arnold, Matthew and Jane Garrett.  Culture and Anarchy.  Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006. p. 5.