Useful Employment: Summer Reading

In the summer months of my growing up years, sitting in the shade of a tree or feeling the warm breeze of an oscillating fan, I spent many a long afternoon reading. Weekly readings were gathered from the school book club and from the local library (which required a weekly two and a half mile bicycle ride to fill my basket). Afternoons were filled with mystery, people of long ago, men and women who lived in the White House, and characters who, by their adventures, captured my imagination.

We played outdoors in the mornings and evenings, when it was cooler. These times were filled with swimming, bicycle rides, visits with cousins, gardening, kick the can, lightning bugs and stargazing. During the hottest part of the day, we were still, and this is when we read. Screen based temptations such as television, movies, video games, and social media were not continually vying for our attention. Life was simpler. Simple, common activities were before us. The effort of decision was lessened.

Today, parents and children have a multitude of enticements competing for their attention. Parents, just think of the requests that have come before you to have access to your children for an afternoon, a week, or a month this summer. Morning, noon and night, the commercial market screams for access to our children. And, all too often, the children scream for access to the commercial market with all its adrenal stroking sights and sounds.

In We Have Met the Enemy, Daniel Akst elucidates the challenge of choosing between desires. He divides desires into first and second ordered desires. The first ordered desires are “the grabbing of appetites and longings that seem to beset us without conscious intervention.” These are, of course, the targets of all commercial marketing. Second ordered desires point to the fulfillment of personhood in the highest sense of the word. Charlotte Mason’s biographer Essex Cholmondley provides insight into this highest sense of personhood.

The power to live the life God has given him in exactly the way God intends him to live it. In order to have this power the person must be at his best, must be a complete person, “mind, heart, soul, and strength” and must know how to choose the good and refuse the evil.

In order to choose between these first and second ordered preferences, parents must have a vision for the kind of person they would have their child  become. Children grow up to be men and women. Yet, for any given child, there are broad possibilities as to the kind of person he or she will become. Noble maturity takes attention and effort, the  denial of baser desires and the satisfaction of the more noble desires. Thus, effort in a certain direction is required by both parents and children.

Charlotte Mason reminds us that in order to rightly “bring up” children without treading upon their personality, parents and educators are limited in the “tools” they use.

'Education is an Atmosphere, a Discipline, a Life.' By this we mean that parents and teachers should know how to make sensible use of a child's circumstances (atmosphere), should train him in habits of good living (discipline), and should nourish his mind with ideas, the food of the intellectual life.[1]

While it is unquestionably easier to play upon children’s sensibilities, emotions, desires, and passions (or to allow them to play upon ours), the result is disastrous, one becomes a slave to chance desires. It should also be noted that the relational atmosphere, the intentional formation of good habits, and the offer of inspirational ideas are not tools for manipulating children. Rather, they point to a quality of life that naturally “brings up” children in a healthy way.

In thinking about the summer, and the tools we have in hand, consider this about Atmosphere – What kinds of environments will surround your child this summer? What will she ‘breathe in’ to influence her moods, her aspirations, her inclinations towards humanity?’ Will they be life giving and ordered around second level preferences?

And consider this about Discipline – What habits of the good life will your child be trained in this summer? What habits of thinking and acting will influence her for the life before her? Will they be life giving and ordered around the second level preferences that nurture his most noble personhood?

And consider this about Life – What ideas will be cultivated through the books he reads, the technology he embraces and the company he keeps? Will they be ideas of integrity, courage, and faithfulness, all ordered around second level preferences?

We choose between Ideas. It is well, however, to know what it is that we choose between. Things are only signs that represent ideas. Several times a day we shall find two ideas presented to our minds; and we must make our choice upon right and reasonable grounds. The things themselves, which stand for the ideas, may not seem to matter much; but the choice matters. Every such exercise makes character the stronger; while it grows the weaker every time we bow to less worthy impulses.[2]

Charlotte Mason believed that the ideas required for sustenance for children are mainly found in the best thought the world possesses, stored in books. We must open these books to children, the best books.

Only as he has been and is nourished upon books is a man able to "live his life." A great deal of mechanical labor is necessarily performed in solitude; the miner, the farm-laborer, cannot think all the time of the block he is hewing, the furrow he is ploughing; how good that he should be figuring to himself the trial scene in the Heart of Midlothian, the "high-jinks" in Guy Mannering, that his imagination should be playing with 'Ann Page' or 'Mrs. Quickly,' or that his labor goes the better "because his secret soul a holy strain repeats." People, working people, do these things. Many a one can say out of a rich experience, "My mind to me a kingdom is"; many a one cries with Browning's 'Paracelsus,' "God! Thou art mind! Unto the mastermind, Mind should be precious. Spare my mind alone!" We know how "Have mynde" appears on the tiles paving the choir of St. Cross; but "mynde," like body, must have its meat.[3]

Our choices change who we are and how we live. Open the books, (some are listed in our library or download list). And, let us rise to be the persons we were intended to be.

[1] Mason, Charlotte, School Education, 216-217.
[2] Mason, Charlotte, Ourselves, Book II, 146.
[3] Mason, Charlotte, A Philosophy of Education, 331.
** Édouard Vuillard "Women Reading"