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Dear Friends,

In Part IV of our series BFB Fundamentals, we are exploring the question of whether or not Beautiful Feet Books is classical in nature. As we noted in the previous post, until the definition of classical is clarified, the question can become one of semantics and may lead to simplistic conclusions.  Because classical is currently the homeschool paradigm de jour, examining some of its well-accepted tenets should prove helpful as you determine which path is right for you and the students you serve.

What does contemporary classical homeschooling mean?

Classical education as a home schooling model first became popular as the 20th century gave way to the 21st and has remained so since. For those of us who began home schooling in the 1980s, classical education was the new kid on the block.  As with any fad, it swept many in its wake and provided some folks with solutions to the failing standards they saw in public education as well as in the more relaxed homeschooling model.  Its emphasis on a rigorous academic approach seemed to guarantee the creation of scholars who would take positions of leadership in law, medicine, government and so forth.  This would be achieved through implementing the trivium as we noted in our previous post.

Stage One: The Grammar Stage

Early Greek educators did not view education as the process of three distinct stages, but as soon as students could read and write they were reading the classic Greek texts.

Early Greek educators did not view education as the process of three distinct stages; as soon as students could read and write they were reading the classic Greek texts.

Modern classical proponents ascribe to the notion that learning takes place in three distinct 4-year phases of a student’s life. While these phases may seem to correlate to the physical and intellectual development of the child, the bland acceptance of them can prove problematic. In the grammar stage of the classical approach (also known as the poll-parrot stage), emphasis is placed on pouring into the student facts (indeed “masses of information”-as one promoter put it) as children are supposedly sponges ready and willing to soak up facts of every kind, and can easily memorize these facts. Theoretically, later on, in the logic stage, these facts will be drawn upon as the child begins to reason. While this approach fits some students well, especially those gifted in memorization, other students, particularly those not gifted with the ability to retain masses of disparate facts, flounder. The focus on pouring information into a young child is based on the notion that in the grammar stage children will unquestioningly accept what is offered.

But is this 4-year cycle based upon a truly classical approach to education?  Did the ancients view education through this 12-year paradigm to which modern classical proponents ascribe?  As Diane Lockman points out in her helpful article “Classical Education Made Easier“, the ancient Greeks did not separate the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages. Students became proficient in reading, reasoning and speaking as they studied the classic texts of Greek literature with an emphasis on copy work and reading and reciting aloud.

An authentic classical Christian education, as developed during the ancient Greco-Roman world and later refined by the Western Europeans and American colonists, involved mastering three fundamental skills so that the student could then explore the deeper meaning of abstract ideas for the purpose of influencing society.  Three chronological stages were never part of the original interpretation.

The Charlotte Mason approach asserts that all children, regardless of age, are capable of reason, delight, appreciation of beauty, and  that “Education should aim at giving knowledge touched with emotion” (For the Children’s Sake). Pouring information into a child for the mere goal of “filling the brain with facts” defies the essential nature of classical education–the desire to teach children to think. True education cannot ignore the spirit of the child, his basic need to feel connected in some way to the studies at tumblr_moe00wJ7U91rrs6fio1_500hand.  At Beautiful Feet we believe this is done through literature’s emotional connection–the ability to identify with others through the power of stories of literary beauty and historical import.  A quick narrative read of historical facts (standard fare in most classical approaches) that offers no literary beauty and no connection to the great questions of the human condition, fails to meet the standards of a truly classical education.

Begin at the beginning: the four-year cycle of history study?

Additionally, the current classical notion that history studies must begin at the beginning (with ancient history in first grade) is another layer of artificial construction upon an already artificial 12-year model.  Classical education’s promotion of a four-year cycle of history instruction seems reasonable and the repetition (“what we don’t get the first time around, we’ll be sure to pick up next time!”) provides reassurance.  While the four-year cycle approach does provide that revisiting, it doesn’t consider the question of age and developmental appropriateness for subject matter. This concern is dismissed by promoting the notion that while studying ancient history with your first grader, one can just focus on mummification, gladiators, and chariot races; in effect this belies the basic notion that ancient history can be taught to a first grader.  The resultant “classical” studies are cultural in nature, not historical. Indeed, Oxford Reference defines history as “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs”–the study of history necessitates the focus on events.

History, taught classically  . . .

So how does one approach historical studies with a truly classical view to nurturing in young students reading, reasoning, and speaking skills? In essence, this can be accomplished in much the same way as the ancient Greeks did it–by exposing children to the best age-appropriate literature which is relevant to their times and culture.  For a young American child this means the best children’s books on the early saga of America’s great story, much as the Greeks read Homer and studied Plato–the stories of their ancestors, the history of their nation.  A child gifted with the knowledge and appreciation of his own historical heritage better understands his or her place in the world and from that foundation can embrace the beauty and the heritage of other nations and cultures.

So, how does this answer our question, “Is Beautiful Feet Books classical?”  If one looks at some contemporary notions of classical, then the answer would be, “No.”  On the other hand, if one perceives classical as incorporating Socratic reasoning and discussion, engaging with timeless literature (age appropriate), eschewing the use of textbooks and bland narrative works, and involving students in the Great Conversation about the important issues of the human heart, then yes, Beautiful Feet Books is classical.

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History is the essence of innumerable biographies. –Thomas Carlyle

Why Teach History through Literature? by Rea Berg

In our first installment of this series, we looked at the importance of the study of history. When we consider the question of how history ought to be taught and why we would consider teaching  history through literature, there are some interesting points to bear in mind: 1.  How has history been taught through the ages?  2. Why use literature to teach history?  3. Why is the use of literature the most effective way to learn history?

How has history been taught through the ages?

Waves of immigrants posed challenges to 19th century educators

Waves of immigrants posed challenges to 19th century educators

In the nineteenth century, with the dawn of compulsory education in America, schools were forced to begin to standardize what should be taught to all these children sitting eight hours a day at their obligatory desks. Because the dawn of compulsory education coincided with industrialization and with a massive influx of immigrants, educators felt motivated, from a sometimes elitist mindset, to educate the masses for the purposes of creating a literate work force.  Presented with the challenge of getting all these children from varying backgrounds on the same educational “page”, it is easy to see how the textbook naturally evolved.  Certain events, personages, significant battles and historical milestones were deemed essential knowledge for the creation of good citizens and a stable workforce.  These “facts” were compiled into disseminated formats stripped of the narrative elements of story, resulting in dry works of little human interest and no literary value.

Standardizing the teaching of history spelled the death knell for creating any love of history in that rising generation of new Americans. It alparisso flew in the face of how history was taught for centuries.  From ancient times forward students studied history by reading history.  In other words, if a student say, in the Middle Ages, was studying history he read the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Eusebius, Plutarch and Josephus. Of course, if you were a young French boy studying in a monastic school in Paris, reading these works meant learning Greek, Latin, and in some cases Hebrew, for ancient histories were not translated into vernacular languages until the late 1200s.  In some instances, it would be centuries before these ancient classic texts appeared in English.  An English schoolboy in London, would not have had Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in English until the late 1500s.   This is one reason why a classical education was always inextricably linked with the study of Latin and Greek.

Why use literature to teach history?

Our ancient young predecessors, sitting by candlelight or lamplight, reading history, actually read history through literature.  There simply was no other way to study history–which brings us to our second point. History has effectively been taught through literature since ancient times.  Only just the last century or so has this vibrant subject been robbed of its human connection by the ubiquitous textbook.  As Neil Postman urges in his book, The End of Education, those who desire to improve teaching ought to get rid of all textbooks which, in his opinion are “the enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning” (116).  Exchanging literature–biographies, classical works, even historical fiction, for the history textbook not only restores this discipline to its historic roots, but also reinvigorates it with its inherent passion, human interest, and wonder.  A middle-grade child reading Johnny Tremain for her studies of the American Revolution will learn far more about the essence of that struggle than even the most colorful textbook could ever impart.

Why is the use of literature the most effective way to teach history?

Literature, as defined by the Oxford reference is “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.”  Now, I’m not sure about you, but I have yet to hear of a single history textbook to win a Pulitzer or a Nobel prize for Literature.  Written works achieve the status of literary merit by their ability to speak to the human condition and the experiences, trials, and aspirations of the human heart. In this way, the best works draw the reader into the drama of the story and through the emotions open the mind.  David McCullough, Pulitzer prize-winner for his work John Adams, affirms that the most effective way to teach history is to “tell stories.”9780684813639_p0_v2_s260x420

That’s what history is: a story.  And what’s a story? E. M. Forster gave a wonderful definition to it: If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events.  If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story.  That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and . . . the listener to the story. (“Knowing History”)

The notion of emotion and empathy as a critical component of history’s ability to speak to the human heart, was promoted by Charlotte Mason, the 19th century educational reformer. She advocated the use of “living books”–literature, history, biography—”to open limitless avenues of discovery in a child’s mind”.  She taught that all, “Education should aim at giving knowledge touched with emotion” (For the Children’s Sake). It is the connection between the human heart, mind, and will, that makes the study of history so enjoyable and memorable to those fortunate to study it through the best books. As a wonderful by-product, students brought up on an educational curriculum rich in the best literature often become compassionate, engaged, and thoughtful adults–the best possible educational outcome.

Works Cited:

“Knowing History and Who We Are.”  David McCullough.  Imprimis.  Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College. April 2005.

Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School, Wheaton, IL: Crossway

           Books, 1984.

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images-1Taken at face value, the story of the Pilgrim Fathers has something of the mythic quality about it.  The Pilgrims were a harassed people fleeing their homes under cover of darkness, betrayed by a ship’s captain, arrested, left to languish in prison, and separated from their families. Their eventual escape to Holland and their lives as immigrants presented economic, cultural, and social challenges.  On their trans-Atlantic crossing to the New World they suffered  the wiles of unscrupulous investors, the near sinking of the Speedwell, the miseries of life “tween decks” for nine long weeks, and treacherous gales upon the sea that split their mast and nearly forced them back to England.  Their troubles weren’t over once they reached the New World.  There they suffered  disease and death.  Despite all of this, or perhaps because of all of this, the Pilgrim story echoes across the generations with hope in the midst of heartache, and with promise in the midst of pain.

The story of the Pilgrims is a story of persecution.

Convinced by their understanding of the scriptures that the state-mandated Church of England could not lead them into religious truth, the Pilgrims began meeting in secret. This infuriated King James and he swore to make these Separatists  “conform or he would harry them out of the land!” Many were arrested and imprisoned. Even the young orphan William Bradford, who joined the Separatists at age 15, was harassed by his own family who threatened to disown him if he continued his association with Separatists. To them he calmly replied:

To keep a good conscience and walk in such a way as God has prescribed in his Word, is a thing which I must prefer before you all and above life itself.  Wherefore since it is for a good Cause that I am likely to suffer the disasters which you lay before me, you have no cause to be either ec641bb454454e98a76916c9cdeb45cfangry with me, or sorry for me.  Yea, I am not only willing to part with everything that is dear to me in this world for this Cause, but I am thankful that God hath given me heart so to do, and will accept me so to suffer for him.”

It is remarkable that a teen-aged boy could make such a proclamation, and yet, it was also predictive of his future. William Bradford did eventually lose nearly everything that was dear to him, excepting his faith.  Bradford’s youthful bravado was the type of devotion that enabled the Pilgrims to endure persecution.  Ultimately, King James did drive the Separatists out of England.

The story of the Pilgrims is a story of prison and pain.

The Separatists were Englishmen bound over generations by history, culture, and language to their land. Their attachment to the very soil of England and their English identity was deep and profound.  Making the choice to leave was wrenching and traumatic. It was a painful choice that could only be rationalized by a new identity.  They realized they were no longer just Englishmen, but Pilgrims and sojourners.

Added to the pain of leaving England, was the trauma of heartbreaking separation of families.  In 1608, when the Pilgrims secretly hired a ship to help them escape to Holland, unforeseen events conspired to separate the men from their wives and children.  When the ship’s captain saw king’s soldiers approaching the families awaiting the ship on the beach, he panicked and sailed off with only the men aboard.  The men were devastated as they watched their beloved wives and children hauled off by the king’s soldiers, completely helpless to do anything.  Their pleas to the captain to let them off the ship went unheeded.  On the shore, William Brewster, was arrested once again and thrown back into prison.  The homeless women and children had to find shelter with hospitable neighbors until arrangements could be made once again for passage to Holland.

The distraught men who sailed to Holland were set upon by a gale that blew their ship mercilessly for a solid week.  Given up for lost, the ship finally reached the shores of Norway and eventually Amsterdam.  On landing, nineteen year-old William Bradford was promptly arrested by Dutch authorities.  They’d been “informed” by King James’s agent that Bradford was an escaped criminal. The falsehood was eventually cleared up and Bradford was released as the religious refugee that he was.

The story of the Pilgrims is also a story of providence.

The Pilgrims delight in the freedom of religion they are able to enjoy in Holland.  Life in the beautiful city of Leyden is peaceful and in some cases prosperous.  Though the former landed gentry of England will never completely adjust to being tradesmen, carpenters, and craftsmen, they are grateful for provision. But for these Pilgrims, being sojourners and citizens of a heavenly kingdom, prosperity and provision are not enough.  Fathers and mothers watch their children growing up in this prosperous city with little sense of the destiny they felt when they left all they loved to follow a higher calling.  The Twelve-year truce between Holland and Spain is coming to an end, and English sons will soon be drafted  into the Dutch army to fight against Spain. Circumstances, especially difficult ones, viewed through the eye of providence can bring perspective.

The Pilgrims choose to follow providence–a strong leading and sense that they are called to something higher. They call it a New Jerusalem in the New World and they begin to discuss, research and plan.  The timid ones, those who rightly fear the very real dangers of the wilderness, or the great length and hazards of the ocean voyage, are encouraged by none other than that former orphan boy, the man William Bradford.  He replies:

All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties; and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages.  It was granted the dangers were great, but not desperate; the difficulties many, but not invincible.  For though there were many of them likely, yet they were not certain.  It might be that sundry of the things feared might never befall; others, by provident care and the use of good means, might in a great measure be prevented; and all of them, through the help of God, by fortitude and patience, might be either borne or overcome.”

Again, Bradford’s words prove prophetic. Through careful planning, many obstacles are overcome.  But some cannot be foreseen, and must be suffered through.  That includes unscrupulous agents who at the last minute change the terms of their agreement, virtually assigning the Pilgrims to seven years of slavery in exchange for their passage to the New World.  This they will not do. So, they must sell much needed provisions in order to pay the port tax and leave England.  Finally at sea, the Speedwell begins to leak so badly both ships must return to port. Long delays and expenses ensue while the Speedwell is overhauled from stem to stern.

Finally the ships depart, once and for all, they believe.  But 300 miles out, the Speedwell begins to leak again Pilgrims2so badly that the captain can barely keep her afloat. The disheartened Pilgrims return again to shore where the captain concludes the Speedwell is over-masted and unseaworthy. This was suspected to be treachery on the part of the captain and his crew, as they did not really want to sail to America. Now the Pilgrims must abandon one ship, consolidate as best they can on the Mayflower and leave passengers and provisions behind. Valuable time and money has been used up.

Finally at sea, a North Atlantic gale blows up. The Pilgrims pray while the sailors delight in cursing the pious seafarers and their God. But when the main beam buckles under the violence of the storm, it is the Pilgrims who haul out a great iron jack-screw they had brought from Leyden, and fix the buckled beam.

Nine weeks later, on November 20, 1620, the Pilgrims sight land in Cape Cod.  But before the Pilgrims can fully give thanks, the captain announces that the treacherous currents around Cape Cod may run the ship into deadly shoals.  The Pilgrims pray once again and disaster is averted.  As the men explore the land for a suitable habitation, the women and children remain aboard the Mayflower.  Sadly, one day, Bradford returns to find his beloved wife Dorothy has fallen overboard and drown.   Later, when the Pilgrims are finally able to come ashore and begin to build their shelters, the exposure and lack of provisions have devastating effects. Of the hundred Pilgrims who made the journey, only six or seven remain well enough to care for the sick. By the end of the year, half of the Pilgrims have died.

The saga of the Pilgrims is a saga of persecution, prison, and pain.  But it is also a profound saga of perseverance, promise and providence. By November of 1621, the colony has recovered such that William Bradford proclaims three days of “praise and thanksgiving to God for his mercies to the children of men.”  Despite profound pain, Bradford has the perspective to see God’s providence and provision.

If ever any people in these later Ages, were upheld by the Providence of God, after a more special manner than others, then we: and therefore are the more bound to celebrate the memory of His goodness, with everlasting thankfulness . . . So that when I seriously consider of things, I cannot but think that God hath a purpose to give that land, as an inheritance, to our nation.”    –Edward Winslow, Good News from New England, 1623

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imagesToday, we will visit Korea on our world  tour through literature! A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park can broaden a literature approach to Medieval studies by taking the reader to 12th century Korea as viewed through the life of an orphan boy by the name of Tree-ear.  The orphan motif is an oft repeated literary device that draws the reader into the story through pathos, and the author doesn’t fail in her use here. Tree-ear’s story is set firmly in the world of the highly skilled pottery artisans of Korea who first invented celadon pottery.  Tree-ear learns their delicate but highly painstaking craft under a master potter and then must deliver the master’s works for a royal commission.  The journey takes him through danger from both man and beast and teaches Tree-ear perseverance and loyalty.  Winner of the Newbery Medal in 2002, this book not only teaches what medieval life was like for the poor, but also teaches the value of friendship and compassion.

So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins won the American Library Association Award in002112 1987 and tells a story of Korea, but with a twist. The young protagonist Yoko and her family are part of Japanese occupation forces in Korea (Japan occupied Korea from 1910-1945), and must flee Korea when Japan begins to lose the war.  Their harrowing escape and their attempts to pass themselves off as Koreans makes for a gripping and moving work based on the author’s own experiences.  Though Japan was the aggressor–and often a cruel and tyrannical one–what Yoko’s tale shows is how women and children are victimized by war, and must summon almost superhuman courage and sacrifice to help those they love.

The last award-winning book on Korea is Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul images-1Choi and is the author’s own biography of her childhood growing up in Korea during the same period as the title above.  Sook’s family are involved in resistance movement, and her brothers have been sent to labor camps, while her heroic mother keeps the family factory running and does everything in her power to protect her young female factory workers from the Japanese forces.  When war separates Sook from her mother, she and her little brother must escape by themselves.  Their journey is heroic, touching and miraculous!

This is just another brief installment on our Around the World tour through award-winning children’s literature which I will be covering in my upcoming Back-to-School Literature Soiree!  If interested, go here.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe's home from 1852-1863

Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s home in Andover  from 1852-1863

I have the fortune to have a dear friend who lives just a couple doors down from 80 Bartlet Street in Andover, Massachusetts.  While visiting there recently, I was delighted to learn that this address was the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe.  The author lived there just after the publication of her seminal novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Indeed, she applied her first royalty check from the novel toward the renovation of the home for her large family.  Her husband, Calvin Stowe, taught Sacred Literature at Andover Theological Seminary, and it was this position that precipitated the move of the family there.

Born into a notable family devoted to faith and education, one of the ironies of Harriet’s childhood, is that when she was born, her father was disappointed that she was a girl!  A preacher himself, her father wanted sons who could follow in his footsteps, which a number did. While a few of the Beecher sons made names for themselves during their lifetimes, it was Harriet who had the most dramatic and lasting impact upon the fate of the natthe_annotated_uncle_toms_cabin.large_-1ion and upon the history of the world. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a runaway best-seller, selling 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week; 300,000 in the first year; and in Great Britain, 1.5 million copies in one year. It was subsequently translated into 60 languages and impacted other nations still under the bondage of serfdom and slavery.

Gazing at the place Harriet called home for eleven years, I enjoyed imagining the happy chaos that must have often filled the halls and chambers of this lovely stone dwelling. It is easy to romanticize the life of someone from the past, but I know better than to do so with her.  Harriet has always been an inspiration for me, because, not only was she the mother of seven children, but she often parented alone, as her husband was sickly and given to melancholy and depression.  Because of her husband’s frequent illnesses, financial matters were always a concern, which was another of Harriet’s motivations for writing, as she was often forced to supplement the family income.  But despite the tremendous pressure upon her as wife and mother, she found time to devote to her passionate desire for abolition, and became a driving force through the dramatic words that flowed from her pen.  So convincing was her characterization in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that Americans all over the country were able to identify vicariously with the suffering slaves and their brave liberators.  This identification became a catalyst for change, and through the power of Harriet’s pen the nation grew ripe for emancipation.

When the AmeriHarriet-Beecher-Stowe-and-the-Beecher-Preachers-9780399226663can Civil War broke out in 1861 Stowe wrote “It was God’s will that this nation—the North as well as the South—should deeply and terribly suffer for the sin of consenting to and encouraging the great oppressions of the South”—(The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe).  It was to her a direct breach of the second great commandment as she noted, ” . . . the enslaving of the African race is a clear violation of the great law which commands us to love our neighbor as ourself”.

If you have never enjoyed the moving experience of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, consider picking it up as a summer read-aloud.  Though the language can seem a bit archaic at first, a little diligence will be rewarded handsomely, as the dramatic plot will quickly pull readers in. Most importantly, the lessons of compassion, empathy, and justice will linger long in listener’s hearts and minds.

A wonderful companion to the study of Stowe’s novel is Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers by Jean Fritz. The stories of the rambunctious household that Harriet grew up in, and the tales of her own seven children, may have a familiar ring to contemporary families who have made home education a choice and a lifestyle.  In the often humdrum duties of daily life, it is easy to forget that sometimes, future greatness can be hidden in an unlikely package.  Though her father and her culture could not have imagined it, Harriet’s preaching turned her world upside down and helped bring justice to untold millions.

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Hello Friends,

The clueless Mr. Collins

The clueless Mr. Collins

I am currently reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with my soon-to-be 13 year-old daughter.  It is such a joy most of the time, as Austen is such a master at characterization.  I say, most of the time because there are moments when reading her is just painful.  Painful because when she goes on and on about Mr. Collins (the obnoxious protegée of Lady Catherine de Bourg) one finds oneself about to scream with frustration!  Mr. Collins is so completely narcissistic, self-absorbed, socially retarded, and downright selfish, that his lengthy monologues are almost too much to bear.  He is beyond human endurance.

But there is another character who tries human patience almost as much.  Mrs. Bennett.  Mrs. Bennett is nearly as narcissistic, self-absorbed, and socially retarded as Mr. Collins.  Her only saving grace is that she does have 5 daughters who demand her attention.  But Mrs. Bennett is almost worse than Collins in that she humiliates, embarrasses and nearly sabotages the prospects of those 5 daughters in her efforts to find them suitable husbands.  What makes Mrs. Bennett’s behavior sometimes even more painful than Collins’ is that her actions have an uncanny ability to hit close to home. I know that most teenagers (and even adolescents) are sometimes embarrassed by their parents. This is a natural and important part of the separation that must come for healthy independence.  But how often, inadvertently, and maybe even intentionally, do I embarrass my teen/adult children by behavior that simply lacks discretion?  As parents, I think that we can easily mistake a teen’s particular vulnerability as immaturity, and not regard it properly.  By failing to be discreet with our teen’s areas of sensitivity or vulnerability we can easily become like

Mrs. Bennett, forever embarrassing her daughters!

Mrs. Bennett, forever embarrassing her daughters!

Mrs. Bennett.  I know I have failed at times in this area, and Mrs. Bennett teaches me what not to be.

Another area where Mrs. Bennett’s behavior is particularly instructive, is her insatiable need to boast about her daughters looks, prospects, impending engagements, and so forth.  She does this regularly while putting other girls down in comparing their hopes and expectations to her superior daughters.  Austen is a master at exposing what is such a common foible of the mother heart.  As mothers, our tendency is to compare our children to other children. Even if we aren’t so foolish as to

verbalize those feelings in social situations (as the clueless Mrs. Bennett often does), harboring those feelings can become a destructive force. If our children are academically or artistically gifted, then our comparisons lead to pride.  If our children are not academically or physically gifted, then our comparisons can lead to envy.  Not good, either way.

We humans laud beauty, intelligence, athletic ability, education, artistic skill, charm, and graciousness.  We hold persons who have these attributes in high esteem.  We often forget that these qualities and abilities are the fruit of other’s investment, time, and sacrifice.  We often forget that we are all products of those who have loved us, sacrificed for us, driven us to countless orthodontic appointments, paid for violin lessons, attended myriad sporting events and so forth.  The academic is the product of the teaching, skill, and investment of many teachers through every stage of their intellectual development. The successful athlete reflects the tutoring, training, and coaching of many individuals. Failing to nurture a recognition of  this very obvious fact in our children, can create narcissistic, self-absorbed youngsters that believe the world revolves around them.  This can lead to our children thinking much more highly of themselves than they ought to think.

When our children do well, when their successes please us, if they ace the SAT, score a winning goal, or land a leading role, we would do well, unlike the foolish Mrs. Bennett, to reflect upon and remember all those who helped to make that success possible. Cultivating the ability to see that we are who we are, because of what we’ve been given is foundational to having a grateful, humble, and joyful perspective on life.  Reading books like Pride and Prejudice together, affords us opportunities to wrestle with our baser instincts, ponder them with our children, to see ourselves for what we truly are, and to help ourselves and our children grow in favor with God and man.

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Dear Readers,

Having spent the last month visiting the remarkable city of Paris, I have returned with a new appreciation for a number of distinctly French things.  Besides the Normandy butter, melt-in-your-mouth croissants, rich dark coffee, organic meats, stunningly fresh and beautiful produce, not to mention the world class art and architecture, I’ve come to appreciate something which has quite taken hold of me, and spurred a great deal of thought and interest.  That is the French art of conversation.

While traversing countless parks, gardens, cafes, restaurants, art galleries, museums, cathedrals, and other public places, I was continually struck by the way in which the French engage with one another through the medium of speech.  Whether observing a work of art, or visiting over an espresso, the French are devoted to conversation. One thing which immediately becomes apparent, is that the French do not consider gazing at one’s iphone or smartphone while conversing the least bit civilized.  You simply don’t see it.  The French parks are filled with people of all ages, of all socioeconomic strata, and of diverse racial heritage.  And while they are conversing, they are looking directly at one another, completely engaged.  Their conversations are animated, apparently interesting to both parties (or multiple parties, as the case may be), and they are polite in their tone, and respectful in that they consider making eye contact essential to meaningful exchange.

In pondering this, I have been struck by how far our American culture has slipped in something so fundamental to a civilized society.  The saturation of PDAs  in American society has done little to improve true communication. If eye contact is fundamental to real exchange, then no wonder we seem to have slipped so far in the last few decades.  What kind of effects will a degeneration in true conversation portend for our future?

In reviewing a classic book I am currently preparing for publication, I came across this statement by Benjamin Franklin from his Autobiography, and it seems to strike at some essential components of meaningful human interaction.  It is to be wondered how much Franklin developed these notions about conversation due to his long tenure in France as America’s ambassador.

Benjamin Franklin 1767

Benjamin Franklin 1767

As the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of these purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure.  For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fixed in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.”

Franklin’s perspective certainly gives one pause if applied to much that is considered “talk” today.  How will our loss in this area affect future diplomacy, family relationships, and the civil discourse necessary to a true “liberal arts” education?  Is there a bright future for reasoned and civil discourse in this country?

In discussing these notions with a close friend who accompanied me to France, we both felt quite convicted by how often we miss the opportunity to make eye contact, to speak kindly and respectfully and to truly listen to the other. We were impressed as we pondered it, by the notion of how powerful eye contact is in affirming a person’s sense of worth and dignity.  Our fully intentional and direct gaze gives the sense of true engagement and interest in the other.  It imparts something quite elemental to the soul,

Americans (yes, us!) conversing excitedly in front of Notre Dame de Paris, despite the cold wind and rain!

something we perhaps can’t completely understand or define, but something critical nonetheless.  That, combined with Franklin’s plea for well-meaning and sensible men to be modest and pleasant in their conversation, are simple but powerful tools available to anyone with their sense of sight and speech intact.  What do you think?  How have these ideas impacted your life?  Does the art of conversation come naturally to you?

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