Monday, June 04, 2012

Great books and socratic method

My son is all excited about the new script he and his friend are writing. They have been on the phone several times with each other, chatting and hashing out the plan; dreaming it up. He told me they were going to use the "traditional symbols" of good and evil in the script.  Traditional symbols. I love it, and I will tell you this is a direct result of a "Great Books" conference we attended on the weekend, where we pondered this literary concept in depth, intermixed with socratic discussions.

Traditional symbols in literature mean: a dragon is always evil.  Witches are evil. A hero is always a good guy. A good character always behaves as a good character.  Good always wins in the end. Dwarfs are mischievous. You get the idea.  If we read to children classic books and stories with traditional symbols, they begin to develop a clear distinction between good and evil; right and wrong. It provides a framework from which to spring from when they encounter real-life situations.  Consider that author C.S. Lewis would have agreed. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader from the Narnia series, the character Eustace  ventures away from the group and goes off on his own. It is foggy, and he finds himself at the bottom of a cliff at the entrance of a cave, out of which "two thin wisps of smoke were coming." The thing that comes out of the cave is something he had never imagined, and C.S. Lewis goes on to describe the thing as a dragon. He writes of Eustace: "He never said the word Dragon to himself." "Edmund or Lucy or you would have recognized it at once, but Eustace had read none of the right books." So we know that C.S. Lewis likely placed great value on the role of good books in forming the imagination which informs our character and even our behaviour.  However, if you look at what's popular in juvenile fiction these days, what's lining our bookstore shelves and our libraries - the subject matter is the occult, and the lines between good and evil are blurred.  Why are we so attracted to this genre?  Is it because we are fascinated with the "supernatural" - the stuff we cannot see - but we are unwilling to go the God-route?  So the other junk - the Twilight stuff, etc - does it attempt to fulfill in us a desire to believe or play with the supernatural? Because the desire to know our supernatural God is written deeply in our hearts; the desire to know that there is a God; but we just keep refusing to acknowledge.  Maybe?

Read good, classic books to your children, not the junk food for the brain! Read books that will clearly portray good from evil! Want to hear more about this? Want some good reading lists to give you a start? Read A Landscape with Dragons - the Battle for Your Child's Mind by Michael O'Brien. Download it to your handy dandy Kindle.

Then, take it a step further.  Read classics to your kids, but be active in your reading.  Discuss.  Ask questions like "Why do you think he did that?" "Do you think 'blank' was a hero? Why? What is a hero?"  "Was it okay for Jack to steal from the Giant?" "Do you think it was okay for her to 'blank?'" And before you know it, you've got yourself a good socratic discussion.  Socratic method refers to the method Greek thinker and philosopher Socrates used to engage his students in intellectual conversation - he asked questions, and answered questions with questions, in the pursuit of truth and understanding.  But you know, Socrates didn't pioneer this method, not really.  It was the method Jesus used. "After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded by his understanding and his answers". Luke 2:46  If good enough for Jesus, then good enough for me :)  I truly believe that this method is essential to getting yourself and your kids to learn to think, and I need to do even more of it! At the conference, it was pointed out that unless you are active in your reading, asking even yourself questions and jotting down ideas as you read - if you don't do this you will miss some important things!  Some important insights!  These insights aren't just going to fall out of the sky and onto your lap because you read the story. No - you have to actively seek them.  Keep a journal. Read. Write. Discuss.  Have your kids do the same. Because the whole point of reading the classics is not only to delight, but to change you for the better; to enlighten.

During the Great Books conference, we broke into groups based on age and discussed the assigned readings in this manner.  It was WONDERFUL!!  It was so awesome to be among kids, from ages 6-18 plus parents, so clearly, eloquently, and thoughtfully articulating and discussing together.  These kids are great; so open; so willing to jump in and put their opinions out there. Its one of the things I love best about the homeschooled community - the kids are usually confident with who they are, comfortable in their own skin. A good sense of self.

And because I was a parent participant, I affirmed something for myself and my kids agreed:  A good, in-person socratic discussion, group setting, is far more valuable than any online socratic class.  And also, a mix of adults and kids is ideal so long as you reserve the adult participation for the latter part of the discussion (otherwise we tend to dominate).

My kids have been in online socratic classes this year - the classes have been quite good - but in no way a replacement for the in-person real deal.  Interestingly, one parent at the conference admitted that she put her kids in online classes to "abdacate" her responsibility to the online provider, while she read to the younger kids (that sounds like my life!).  An online class rep lovingly explained that made her cringe a little to hear, because the online classes in question were never meant to replace outright the parent's role, but to supplement the home learning.  You should still be discussing the material with your kids in addition to the online, and I need to do more of that.

I have resolved, therefore, to create more opportunities for in-person socratic discussion groups going forward. In the last city we lived, we met with another family once a month for "family bookclub." We picked a book, read it, then got together on a Sunday afternoon for a potluck and book discussion.  Often we'd watch the movie of the chosen book.  Fun!! The kids have fond memories of this!

So, if you are one of my IRL friends, expect a call and an invitation!!

I hope you all have a wonderful week, blessed by God, and blessing others on your way.

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