In the homeschooling arena there are two distinct camps: those who believe in highly structured education (often labeled “classical”) and the “unschoolers” who push against the strictures of what seems to them to be a soul-crushing pedagogy. Both have their points but there’s a third way. Since children’s souls and minds are meant to be just as unified as those of adults, it’s up to us to give them instruction which fulfills their emotional well-being while simultaneously guiding them into how to learn and love to learn.
We all know that stuffing children’s minds full of facts is not the way to feed their souls. Rather, our constant commitment is to focus on how to help them enjoy learning so that they naturally and gently fold the facts they learn into the wider, larger scheme of their lives and environments. It’s not an easy job to pass on a love of learning, but as I contemplate starting another school year I remind myself that all children have a natural love of life and a curiosity about the wonders of the rich world surrounding them. There is much truth to the quote that learning is “caught, not taught”; as adults we are motivated by inspiration, and it’s the same for our students.
Learning in peace is the third way. Especially when it comes to the literary canon, the adage “quality, not quantity” is applicable. The point of the humanities is to learn how to generalize truths and incorporate them in our lives and society. This is particularly true with literature. Truly reading and appreciating literature is a spiritual experience wherein students ponder and enjoy the characters, plots, and themes they encounter. Whenever possible they should have time to read in leisure rather than rush frantically through a mass of texts. As they grow older students will learn how to take in and integrate more knowledge while retaining the sense of peace and appreciation engendered in them when they were younger. They will become educated in the deepest and most genuine sense for they will be equipped to seek the virtuous “pursuit of happiness” the founding fathers of the United States understood to be the highest calling and fulfillment of the human experience.
Choosing the “best” novels is a nigh to impossible task, but at the top of my list is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The book both exemplifies and defies the genres of the Romantic Era and Gothic mystery; Brontë skillfully uses them as tropes to explore her complex, frustrating, challenging, lovable protagonist. The book is beloved by professors and “lay” readers alike because Jane’s inner life is so real that she not only lives in the pages of the book but with each subsequent reading she seems to grow and speak in a new way to the reader.
Brontë does a deep dive into so many themes through Jane’s persona that it’s impossible to explore them all in just one or two readings; topics such as the roles of women, freedom of the will, the consequences of arbitrary class distinctions and the challenges of living out moral values are presented with subtlety and believability.
If you think about it the plot of Jane Eyre is similar to that of an epic story, both externally and internally. From her bitter and angry response to the abuses she endures as an orphan to her metamorphosis into a woman of strength of will and deep principles, Jane’s journey takes the reader on a wild emotional ride. At first blush it might appear that the plot is a rather picaresque story as Jane moves from place to place encountering various people and experiences. But it is not: it is a plot unified by the development of Jane’s soul as she learns from her forbearing friends to replace her hardened heart with one overflowing with forgiveness and mercy. By the time she meets Rochester Jane’s fundamental Christian character is established, but her ethics are tried by the surprising moral choice with which she is presented. Like the “Crossing the Threshold” stage of Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Cycle, she must emerge from the Valley of Death before finding her true and spiritual heroic status.
After the author has developed the superior character of Jane, presenting it in terms of Christian goodness and morality, Brontë brings in her antithesis, St. John Rivers. (It is not a coincidence that we discover he is a cousin, for he is her alter ego in many ways.) His zeal for religion is real but self-serving, and he himself says he is “ambitious.” It seems odd for a person who is consumed by ambition to want to dedicate his life to missionary work, but Brontë is bringing home the point that true religion must come from a humble servant’s heart. A life dedicated to others is not enough if it does not flow from a loving spirit, and contrarily, a soul which is can serve others anywhere.
The novel also follows both external and internal mysteries. Brontë uses these plot angles to spur the reader on, but the deeper significance of them is to highlight Jane’s spiritual development as she encounters the challenges of life. She could have responded to Rochester’s deceit with bitterness as she did when she had been wronged when younger, but instead she sees his plight and forgives him. She successfully crosses the great moral threshold of her life when she freely both loves and leaves him.
Jane’s desire for freedom – including the freedom to choose right – is prominent in the story. The motif of birds in cages and in flight comes to the fore when Jane says, “I am no bird and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will.” Jane’s strength of will comes from her belief that she has the ability to choose her moral destiny and she will not, under any circumstances, relinquish that right.
~Check out our courses where we teach the classics of literature in unity with composition atintegritasacademy.com!
For the present, most of us have more “leisure time” than usual and this lifestyle might more truthfully be called “mandatory leisure time.” It might be tempting to watch more Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc., but an alternative is to set aside some time for reading great literature together. I like to read literature which is redemptive, myself. This doesn’t always mean that a book has a “happy ending,” but perhaps in our present homebound state it would be most uplifting to read books which conclude joyfully! Some good modern literature does not qualify but much 19th century literature does.
If you haven’t read many works of the masterful Charles Dickens other than, perhaps, A Christmas Carol or A Tale of Two Cities – they are treasures awaiting you! You will find that his other novels are page turners filled with memorable characters who beckon you into their worlds. His works were originally set up to be read by chapter, out loud. I have found that A Tale of Two Cities is much less accessible for young people than his other novels, and while I appreciate the allegory of A Christmas Carol, it is not in the category of his best works.
Dickens and other authors of his era wrote weekly “chapters” and submitted them in a “serial” way to the magazines, periodicals, and newspapers of the day. People read these novels aloud the way we watch television today – their stories brought much delight and were a mainstay of households in both Britain and America. Families would gather together in the evenings to hear the latest “chapter” of the book together, laughing or crying at the exploits and complications in the lives of their favorite characters. In our present situation it might make for an enriching alternative to binge-watching your favorite tv show, or at least – be a pleasant addition to it.
The epic poem Beowulf and the Arthurian romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are enduring works which continue to enthrall us today with their stories of brave heroes who sometimes exhibit superhuman powers. What is the appeal and importance of these works–what makes it worth sorting out and sometimes slogging through the challenging diction of these classic tales, today?
In order to grasp the entire picture, we need to understand the context of Beowulf. The hero of this story (think “Viking”) is a figure who straddles the period between pagan and Christian somewhere around 500 A.D. and the tale is set in the Nordic countries of Sweden and Denmark. The unknown author was British, possibly a monk, and probably wrote the work c. 900. Some scholars see the epic poem as a pagan story, based on the elements of the bloodlust and boasting incorporated in some scenes. Others see the poem as Christian, given the analogies made to biblical stories, and the incidents of humility which Beowulf and other characters attempt to exhibit in the midst of their tests and triumphs.
Because the story is “transitional” in time and nature, it presents the reader with an understanding of the cultural/religious changes which occurred in the west during this early medieval period. In Beowulf, the evil monster, Grendel, traces his lineage back to Cain, the first murderer, chronicled in the book of Genesis. And the dragon which our hero battles in the end may be more than just an outward evil, but perhaps also represents personal sins such as greed and envy.
In contrasting Beowulf to classical works such as The Odyssey, the shift in values becomes clear: while ancient heroes must seek kleos (glory), the heroes of medieval stories must strive towards the Christian virtues such as humility, chastity, and self-sacrifice. Since Beowulf straddles the two worlds, the story displays the contrasts and conflicts between the two cultures, and the ways in which Western culture was entering into the Christian ethic.
In the later medieval poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the Christian ethos is pushed further, as Gawain must learn that striving towards the virtues a knight has vowed to embody is not enough. As Gawain experiences powerful temptations and tests (magically induced by the evil Morgan le Fey), both he and the reader learn that while he may strive for perfection, he cannot accomplish this only through his own personal strength and will. Rather, the knight must rely on the power of God as he turns in to Him in humility after learning that he is in need of heavenly support, no matter how sincere his intentions.
These enduring tales of heroes and knights give insight into the culture, religion, and psyche which formed our literary tradition, and provide the background for how audiences even today long for icons to emulate. The yearning for the “super” character continues today, as anyone who goes to the movies knows. Everyone loves a hero!
~ Cindy C. Lange, MA
~Check out our courses where we teach these classic works and others at integritasacademy.com
While middle school might seem like a time of uncertainty and confusion for both student and parent, it is also a time of wonderful opportunity: students begin to realize that the world of facts is the precursor and foundation to the even more engaging universe of ideas, thought, and personal creativity. This is particularly true in the area of composition and literature, wherein is the opportunity to develop the ability to think logically, through reading great texts and writing about them.
Students do not need to wait until high school to begin to develop their analytical skills in writing, and in fact, after climbing that initial steep hill, they discover that what at first appeared to be a long, painful journey has turned out to be the preparation for entering an entirely new kingdom which they now have the keys to enter. Truth to tell, it’s the best time in life for them to part the curtain and enter into entire the adult world. They now can unlock the codes which open the doors to understanding the mature thought found in great literature. The ability to grasp the themes and deep riches of literature is also the ability to truly grasp history within the context of human nature. Dostoevsky knew this, and stated that it is through literature that the Russian people understand history. Perhaps this explains the love people have of historical fiction, or any great novels which thematically reflect the history of various incidents and people in history.
The book which has most influenced my own understanding of Dostoevsky’s assertion is Witness, by Whittaker Chambers. One of the unsung masterpieces of 20th century literature, this historically accurate book (not fiction) is the story of an influential American journalist’s journey from being a communist spy when he was Time Magazine’s religion editor to his gradual change of worldview during the 1950s and the “Mccarthy Era.” Witness had a profound influence on me when I was a young college student, and shaped my philosophy and future approach to life in immeasurable ways. I will forever be grateful to the college friend who handed that book to me when I was questioning my own belief system.
Perhaps you have a book which has meant a lot to you throughout the years; I personally find that revisiting my own experience with Witness is rejuvenating and encouraging, especially in times of discouragement or doubt. The ways in which literature can shape our consciences and define our lives are myriad because the relationship between words and the ways they express truths about our reality is profound and never-ending. There is no logic or understanding without a grasp of language and its handmaid, writing.
In my experience middle school students are ready for this philosophical and literary journey: in fact, though they may not know how to express their desires yet, they are yearning for it. When a parent/teacher/mentor guides the way, most students jump at the opportunity to begin the pilgrimage. Even if it means a steep climb at the beginning of the trip, the reward is worthwhile. Surrounding students with fine literature is a wise way to start them on the path to learning to write and the foundation for their developing the logic they need to help them fulfill their life callings.
Questions about our courses? Check our website, integritasacademy.com, or email us at Cindy@integritasacademy.com.
In several of our high school
courses we read about ghosts in short stories and plays, and students sometimes
ask me why we do this. When I return the favor and ask them what they
think, we often have some interesting discussions about the soul, spirituality,
Truly, literary ghosts are extremely important if we understand their
First, the ghosts we know are often really–ourselves. Great literature
reveals the human condition; it shows us how to rise above our weaknesses,
mistakes, and sins, and what happens when we don’t. Ghosts tell us
about ourselves and the things that haunt us, especiallyour own failings. They reflect
what we are thinking, deep down, underneath self-delusions, guilt, and hidden
self-knowledge. For instance, when we read Macbeth, we understand that
ghosts can be the creations of our own minds: they may be forbidden
desires, desires which dominate us so fully that against our own
consciences, we believe in them and obey them. If we give in to them, we
become ghosts ourselves: shells of our former selves who cower in
fright as we hide from the results of our own selfish, evil actions.
Often, ghosts are about place and space. Virginia Woolf’s story, “A Haunted House,” expresses how connected we are to the places in which we’ve lived and loved. Here the new owners of a house find mysterious ghosts whose residual experiences inspire the them to continue the love which the original couple has, it seems, extended to them through time in this cherished home which still emanates the deep, abiding commitment of its previous owners. As we grow older we learn how important our homes and communities have been to us, and they become part of the warp and woof of our own spirits–so much so that sometimes, we find it hard to consciously assimilate the depth and breadth of our past experiences.
Finally, ghosts reveal the spiritual nature of our existence and our connection to immortality: life which extends beyond the present. When Hamlet is presented with the ghost of his father, he is not sure if the ghost is a demonic deception, or his dead father, directing him from the beyond. Even those of us with strong religious beliefs can’t conceive exactly of what lies beyond, or how those who have died view us. While Christians are instructed not to attempt to hold seances with the dead, this doesn’t abrogate the question: what, exactly, is the relationship of those of us on earth to those who have died? And what is it like for them, in their new state? Hamlet wrestles with how he should relate to what he thinks may be his father’s spirit, and in so doing reveals the internal conflicts we all experience when we confront personal tragedies, and how we might have been responsible for them, or may be able to repair them afterwards.
Ghosts may bring forth our regrets: sorrows which challenge us to either wallow in self-pity and anguish, or to accept reality, in the recognition that it is only in embracing our situation and our own failings that we find healing, peace, and maturation. Or, perhaps ghosts will bring comfort to us: the memories of times with loved ones now gone, the times with children now grown. Whatever our personal ghosts are, reading and writing about them is a way forward to understanding ourselves, the world we live in, and the God who created us.
Continuing my summer thoughts in the spirit of “Beach Reading,” I have a confession to make. I am a great lover of the mystery story, the traditional thriller, and yes, even the noir genre. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in defense of the idea that reading about murder is a justifiable activity, even from a religious point of view. I’ll save comments about her thoughts for another time, but simply confess to you that I not only love a well written mystery, but think that they often qualify as legitimate literature.
There was a “Golden Age” of the mystery from about 1920 to 1950. During this era, British authors perfected the genre. They delighted in presenting highly puzzling plots which played “fair” and gave all of the clues a reader would need to solve the mystery, if he or she were paying close attention.
In recent years, while there have been some well-written mysteries, many (most?) are dumbed down and rather prosaic, so it’s best if a person can become acquainted with the “Golden Age” mysteries first. Here are some authors from the Golden Age who literary-minded teenagers may enjoy:
Dorothy L. Sayers;
John Dickson Carr; Agatha Christie (of course); Margery Allingham; Ngaio
Marsh; Edmund Crispin; Josephine Tey; Michael Innes; Patricia
Wentworth; G K Chesterton (The Father Brown mysteries)
Reading a good mystery is a lovely way for a book lover to take a break from more serious literature, while still enjoying great writing. My personal favorites are Ngaio March, Josephine Tey, G. K. Chesterton (his Father Brown character), and Michael Innes. And let’s not forget the original detective story writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
To start the summer, I’m sharing some favorite books and authors with you. You might like to try them sometime– maybe even this summer. When homeschooling our five children, I always looked forward to summer when I could explore “new to me” books in a leisurely manner.
I am selective about modern/contemporary literature, but I have a few authors I think are keepers. They are in no particular order, since I can’t decide which ones I like best. First on my list is Marilyn Robinson. I do not recommend starting with her earlier book, Housekeeping, but rather, go to her trilogy, starting with the Pultizer Prize winner, Gilead. Robinson has a strong grasp of the deeply Christian nature of our culture, and celebrates the family of a pastor in these brilliant novels.
Second on my list is Fred Chappell and his Kirkman tetralogy, beginning with I Am One of You Forever. His books also focus on family and contain a spiritual ethos, but they have a comic side to them that makes me laugh out loud when I reread them. He was poet laureate of North Carolina from 1997-2002, and has also won many awards for his work.
Finally, I recommend Ron Hansen’s book, Atticus, which is a prodigal son story (also a mystery) full of warmth and hope. In addition to receiving many book awards, two of Hansen’s novels have been made into movies. Hansen is a professor in my home territory at Santa Clara University, where I received my teaching degree.
I’m happy to be able to recommend the books of these three living authors to you, and perhaps you will dip into one or more of them while dipping your toes in the water, or vacationing in some mountain idyll. All three of these authors know how to “dig in” and find the “stories” that make you appreciate and rejoice in life and faith.
I hope you all have a blessed summer with family and friends, no matter where you are or what you are doing.
The fourth quarter at Integritas Academy is dedicated to Shakespeare’s plays. In Lit & Comp 1 we read Macbeth, and in Lit & Comp 2, we study As You Like it. Our middle school course enjoys The Tempest, and in Lit & Comp 3/AP next year we will do an in-depth critical study of Hamlet.
Here are a few of the many wonderful reasons to study Shakespeare:
master the rhythm of the language (including the iambic pentameter poetic sections)
unpack the rich themes and humor as you gain understanding of the texts, written at the height of the English language
expand your knowledge of history and England.
Tips for Reading the Plays
It’s important to read the original language, but there is nothing wrong with following along with an updated version as you read the original, as long as the update is not just a summary. There are quite a few of these now, but the version online, “No Fear Shakespeare,” is a solid one. It also helps to read confusing sections out loud.
Getting to know The Bard is a great way to spend spring! If fact, he calls us to join him at this time of year:
From you have I been absent in the spring, When proud pied April, dressed in all his trim, Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing. (Sonnet 98, 1-2)
The Fellowship of the Ring sets the stage for the Lord of the Rings series as Frodo and his companions begin their perilous and often confusing journey, which stands in contrast to the ordered world in which they live, The Shire, in Middle Earth. This “disordered” journey is a form of entering chaos: Like King Arthur’s knights as they sally forth from Camelot, the members of The Fellowship venture far and wide to conquer evils which surround them. However, unlike the Knights of the Round Table, the members of The Fellowship recognize that as they set out to destroy evil, they also bear the potential for the destruction of the kingdom within themselves. The Ring itself is a constant reminder to them that they must first fight their own internal selfish desires in order to save The Shire.
As a “quest” story, the novel contains elements of both classical and medieval literature. Middle Earth is a highly ordered world in which all creatures have their proper roles which are integral to the natures of the characters: an elf could no more attempt to behave like a hobbit than you or I could attempt to behave like a dog or a cat. This order is hierarchical; some creatures’ duties—and some characters’ duties– are more significant in the larger community than others; some folks are more civilized and wealthier than others. However, in this sort of society, a person with a “lower” occupation or status is not a less important person. For instance, the Innkeeper at The Sign of the Prancing Pony, Mr. Butterbur, is no less valuable than Gandalf. Rather, his role suits him and his class of creature; his job “belongs” in the fabric of the society just as much as Gandalf’s does. But Tolkien breaks free of the traditional medieval roles when he calls Frodo, that modest and insignificant hobbit, to save the kingdom.
As is also true in the King Arthur stories, Middle Earth is a place where the natural world is important and valuable. Being “good stewards” of what we are given to tend, whether it be a garden, a forest, or a river–is key, and there is a balance between the creatures’ using and respecting nature. Thus, the hobbits cut back the trees from the Old Forest at the edge of their lands, but leave the Old Forest alone in every other way. Nature is connected to many of the creatures closely, as we see with Goldberry, who, we are told, is the daughter of the River. Also, the natural world reflects the nature of the creatures who inhabit it; the hobbits’ shire is green and cozy and friendly. In Middle Earth, the physical world embodies the goodness and concreteness of reality, and this is most carried forth into the lives of the hobbits, whose liking for beer, food, gift-giving, home and companionship emphasizes their close and deep connection to the earth and world around them. The interactions which the members of The Fellowship will make with the forest and the river serve to help us understand that nature itself is being corrupted and disfigured; the hobbits are responsible for recovering both the kingdom and its environment.
The hobbits’ desire for comfort extends solidly to their ability to shut the outside world out and imagine that they live in complete safety. When The Fellowship of theRing opens, that safety is clearly no longer guaranteed. Rumblings of strange doings and mysterious strangers tell us early on to Beware! Middle Earth is not safe and this includes the fates of harmless, peace-loving hobbits. Their love of calm stands in stark contrast to the difficult quest which Frodo and his friends undertake; as the story unfolds, we begin to see that Middle Earth is now not the ordered world which it should be. Trouble is afoot, and Frodo, in spite of his fears, will choose to leave his comfortable home to confront this trouble.
As did the knights of medieval times, Frodo accepts the challenge to go forth in search of danger. Though Gandalf tells him that he should not go out of his way seek danger, the truth is that in order to make sure that the Shire is kept safe, Frodo must plunge headlong into an unknown evil, putting his life in jeopardy. Like martyrs and war heroes, Frodo charges ahead to do the right thing despite his fear, weakness, and sinful desires. Where the quest ends he does not know; the path he must follow is also a mystery. What is clear is that Frodo and his friends choose to respond to the challenge of the quest regardless of their great personal weaknesses and fears.
The hobbits respond with courage to a life-threatening situation in which they must stand up and choose which side they are on. Like the heroes of old, they embrace the challenge; what’s different with Tolkien’s story is that characters’ personal foibles do not just influence the story—they drive the story forward, because the interior lives and ethical choices of the protagonists are a reflection not only of their decisions to accept the quest, but of their personal spiritual and moral development. Middle Earth is a proving ground for the soul, as much as it is a place for the external battles in Middle Earth. Rather like our own world, if you believe in the Christian worldview.
Initially, the established roles of the hobbits are like those in the medieval world, but Tolkien moves past the traditional story as he reveals the hobbits’ “new” role as lowly individuals who make moral sacrifices in the hope re-establishing a place of goodness and happiness; a world free from despots where the inhabitants will live in a peaceful and joyous community of mutual love. The members of The Fellowship are “co-inheritors” in their Kingdom because they offer themselves up sacrificially to save and rejuvenate the world they know and love.