Have you ever disagreed with a fellow Charlotte Mason educator? Have you ever had a lively discussion on some point of contention? Have you held your own opinion about something while others proffered different opinions?
Welcome to the PNEU. During the same conference I mentioned in the last post, a group of at least seven (unmarried!) teachers got together and had a tussle over the best way for parents (!) to deal with questionable reading material for their children. I have seen this exact discussion reenacted (by actual parents) more times than I can remember in email groups, forums, and social media sites. For some reason, this particular discussion was immortalized by publication in one of the PNEU periodicals. Someone was keeping the minutes in good old-fashioned form, and it was printed that way. I’ve reproduced it for you here (in black) and added a few imaginative touches (in blue) because these were real folks, and as I said, I’ve heard this discussion before. I’ve given it a title:
Miss Allen Disagreed
Discussion centred on Miss Pennethorne’s views with regard to books read by children.
[Miss Pennethorne apparently expressed the opinion that parents should not be too quick to confiscate a book from a child, even if the book might contain something “undesirable.”]
Miss Allen disagreed with Miss Pennethorne’s opinion that a child reading an undesirable book should not be disturbed, or the book taken away directly. Evil might be done in a few minutes. [Miss Allen was appalled! “If you don’t snatch the book away immediately, who knows what the kid might see? Better not to take chances.”]
Miss Hertzel said that the treatment should depend on the temperment of the child, as the very fact of calling attention to the evil might open their eyes to it. [Miss Hertzel—a little savvier than most—tried to diffuse the heat a bit by pointing out that all children are different. Some of them might not really notice anything amiss, but if the book were confiscated, it might create a sort of “Aha!” moment and they’d realize more was going on than they’d thought.]
Miss Wilkinson asked if the child could not be prevented from ever obtaining an undesirable book. [Miss Wilkinson pointed out, with a bit of self-righteous satisfaction, that careful parents could probably make sure that children never had a chance to even start reading an undesirable book. “Why would they have any books like that where children could get them, hmmm?”]
Miss Lawrence suggested that the children should always submit their books to the scrutiny of their parents before reading them. [“Mothers and Fathers should just have a rule. They must make it a rule that their children always have to ask them before they read anything.” That’ll fix it.]
Miss Drury raised the question, as parallel with this, of how to keep children from harm in newspaper reading. [“You know these kids have newspapers delivered to their houses every day, and their parents sit there reading them during breakfast. How is anyone supposed to keep children from reading suggestive headlines two inches tall?”]
Miss Allen then gave the idea of teaching children to respect their own minds, and of their own accord to stop reading anything that “soiled their minds.” [Miss Allen—so obviously a “Miss” and not a parent—thought children might be mature enough to just stop reading anything that would “soil their mind.” Although they don’t seem to mind soiling their hands, shoes, and clothes, she thought they could just police themselves and stop reading if they encountered anything that would cause a smudge on their pristine thoughts. Everyone in the room looked at her as if she were out of her mind.]
Miss R. Williams thought it a better plan for children to ask an elder whether a book would prove interesting, rather than raise the question of “may” or “may not.” [Miss Williams was a little worried that anything forbidden would just seem more desirable because of that, so she thought the whole question of getting permission to read something could just be circumvented by telling children they shouldn’t read anything without first getting an adult perspective on whether or not it would be interesting for them. She could see the danger of “forbidden fruit,” but it seems a bit naive to think that children are going to rely on adults to tell them what might be interesting. They’d rather find out for themselves.]
Resolution was moved by Miss Wilkinson and amended by Miss Allen [!] that:
“Parents or those in authority should, as far as possible, exercise supervision over the books allowed to fall into children’s hands, but there should be no restriction to their power of taking away at once an undesirable book.”
[Wasn’t that nice of these conscientious teachers? They aren’t going to place limitations on parents about how they should deal with a child who happens to be reading an undesirable book, although they can’t resist including a suggestion that parents should exercise a little gumption and supervise what “falls into” a child’s hands]
The amended resolution was seconded by Miss Lawrence, and carried unanimously.
[And I’m sure they all felt much better with that accomplished. But feelings were still running a bit high, so…]
Further discussion followed. [Somewhat loudly.]
Miss Lawrence objected to Miss Pennethorne’s proposal to supply books of horrors to children. Imaginary horrors in adventure stories she considered injurious to children; but if horrors are necessary, let them be of the sufferings of real people. [Miss Lawrence has a horror of horrors. Let’s face it, she’s squeamish, and because she is, she doesn’t want poor, innocent children to read about imaginary horrors like fire-breathing dragons who destroy villages or giants who threaten “fee fi fo fum” because then they won’t be able to sleep at night for fear of the monsters under the bed. It would be much better, she thinks, for them to read about the sufferings of real people. Like martyrs who were beheaded and burned at the stake, maybe?]
Miss Allen asked for advice how to treat historical horrors and the fascination they have for some children, but asked if the unpleasant details could not be avoided. [“Oh, that’s true. Real stories might be too graphic for children. What are we supposed to do about that?” She’s clueless, but give her a minute and she’ll have the solution.]
Miss Hertzel agreed that details were better avoided, as children were more apt to gloat over them than realize the pathos. [Miss Hertzel teaches a houseful of bloodthirsty little boys who get into daily fist fights, whack each other with sticks, and hide garter snakes and spiders in her desk. She no longer has many illusions about “innocent” little children. She just wants to avoid books of horrors because she doesn’t want to give them any new ideas.]
Miss Drury reminded the students present that children, like nations, must pass through a stage when horrors are not so horrible to them as to more advanced minds. [This is a really interesting observation and might have been a more fruitful discussion than the minutia about how parents should deal with their children and reading material, but everyone is bored and getting hungry and they are ready to be done with this, so…]
[The intrepid] Miss Allen proposed the following resolution:
“Stories of hardships endured through devotion or patriotism are suitable for children, but books of horrors as such, whether historical or imaginary, should be avoided.” [You just knew she was going to come up with something.]
The motion was seconded by Miss Hertzel [who just wanted to go get a sandwich], and carried unanimously [because everyone was so tired of arguing].
[But Miss Allen couldn’t let everyone go without having the last word, so even though she’d started the whole thing by disagreeing with Miss Pennethorne in the first place…]
Miss Allen rose [casting a disdainful glance at squeamish Miss Lawrence] to defend Miss Pennethorne’s doctrine of horrors as a fight against “missishness.”
[Well, okay then.]
Well, I hope you enjoyed that. I could say, “wouldn’t you have loved to have been a fly on the wall and seen the actual discussion?” But, if you’ve spent any time on Facebook, you already have (probably many times over).
I told you they were all real people just like us. As I leafed through the book (I think it was the L’Umile Pianta), I ran across this discussion printed just like this (just the black words, remember), without heading, explanation, or embellishments. I read through it, photographed it, and forgot about it until I was looking at my Armitt research recently. I read it again and again, and the personalities began to emerge. One wonders if Miss Pennethorne was present at all—she contributes nothing to the discussion except her initial thoughts, which might have been in the form of a paper read to everyone. Or maybe she was the one playing secretary? Miss Allen clearly dominates the discussion, while timid Miss Williams only pipes up once. Miss Lawrence is a bit “missish.” Miss Hertzel is the most sensible of the bunch, but doesn’t have the energy to keep engaging with Miss Allen. Does anyone think real parents are going to take the advice of these unmarried governesses on how to deal with children and “horrors” in books? Does anyone think there is one right resolution that applies to all families in all circumstances, or is this one of those things where they might concede that parents can best decide how to manage with their own children? (Miss Allen probably wouldn’t think so.)
I have no wisdom to offer and find no great insight here. This was just for fun! And yet…I am mindful that this little discussion was a tiny part of the conference and the shared interests of these young women. They wrote glowing reports of their time together—it was refreshing and heavenly. They put this in in the magazine with the other info about the conference so non-attenders could feel as if they were there. Yeah, sure, they disagreed about some little things, but it did not shake their convictions about the principles they shared and their desire to keep on building each other up and encouraging each other in their common labor. But that’s not speculation on my part. This is what one of them wrote about it:
If I could make you feel the love that was there! If I could tell you of the joy of being in touch with power—the power we felt among us that that made it impossible to fail! If I could show you the simplicity that knows the few things that matter, then indeed you would know what such a week meant to those who lived it.
As I prepared for this series, I visited the Armitt website and discovered that the enforced closure is hurting them very much. They rely on visitor ticket sales to fund the museum, and during the closure, they have nothing except any donations they might receive. My goal with this series was merely to offer some light-hearted and interesting tidbits I gleaned during my visits, but I’m going to add here that if you enjoy this series and the virtual visit to the Armitt, please consider sending them a small donation—their link will explain how you can do that.