Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How Big Is Your Child’s Bubble? Weighing the Merits of Mainstream Fiction in a Classical Education

Recently, a friend asked me why I think it is O.K. for kids to read Harry Potter. This is the kind of conversation that can go in many directions, but is ultimately less about the specifics of J. K. Rowling’s work and is more about the proper role of literature in a Christian child’s upbringing. For me, it is also a discussion that highlights the philosophy of classical education.

First of all, why should fiction be part of a child’s mental and moral education at all? It would be possible to draw all stories from history and to spend the rest of the day on arithmetic, science, and theology. Theoretically, the child would thus be exposed only to truth instead of to imaginary people and their lives. Yet the physical information provided by science, arithmetic, and even history cannot fully explore psychological and spiritual realities and does not prepare the mind to grasp the intangible aspects of theology. Fiction is better than history at helping readers to explore the baffling, beautiful, and horrifying depths of human nature because fiction is an art form and is therefore free to arrange stories in whatever manner is needed to make truth clear. This arrangement can force the reader to think in new ways. It strengthens our ability to empathize with losses, sufferings, and triumphs that we have never experienced because it helps us imagine how they would affect us. It provides a safe way to examine the consequences of life choices without committing them ourselves. Fiction is needed because we humans were created with emotions and imaginations that arithmetic cannot fully satisfy. 

The classical education presents literature from throughout the scope of human experience in order to explore the great questions of life and to see how humanity's answers (whether true or false) influence our own culture. Simultaneously, these books shape the student’s taste by providing the best possible examples of literary and artistic excellence. In the classical model, then, books are chosen for three reasons: 

1. They are the work of a great mind and will help their reader to better understand life, death, or humanity. We know that the authorial mind was great because the books have stood the test of centuries and, although their original cultural context is gone, are universal enough to remain compelling.

2. They are/were highly influential and help the reader understand the shifting beliefs of Western Civilization.

3. They are artistically good. 

H. J. Ford
(Orange Fairy Book)
Yet modern parents face a baffling challenge. Back in the glory days of classical education, children’s literature was a pretty empty field (not to mention the complete absence of baby Latin primers illustrated with friendly monkeys). Traditionally, students spent their early years learning to read, write, and cipher—and did not even begin their classical studies until they reached the equivalent of junior high or even high school. Nowadays, the neo-classical movement is strongest and most unified in elementary education. We read children’s literature and say that we educate classically (indeed, we call kids’ books from thirty or fifty years ago “classics”). Little House on the Prairie may be charming and delightful, but it didn’t exactly shape the development of Western Civilization. Ultimately, this is not a problem. Modern parents can simply decide which books are most compatible with preparing their young children to profit from future experiences with Shakespeare, Homer, and other “greats.” I think that these preparatory books should be:

Well-written, although at a child’s level. Good writing includes both style (the student is developing an ear for the English language) and substance (the focus should be on meaningful aspects of life, such as family relationships or typical human problems, and presented with depth and insight). This kind of book helps expand a child’s view of the world and gives him the habit of enjoying good books. Personally I think that kids need to read both hard and easy books. Hard books stretch the brain and teach that rewards follow sweat. Easy books (especially if read swiftly in large quantities) teach fluency, speed, and the feeling that reading is fun. Easy books needn't be junk (I hereby ban Goosebumps and Diary of a Wimpy Kid). 

Garth Williams
(Little House in the
Big Woods)
Helpful in developing the imagination. A diversity of books expands a child’s sense of normal and prepares him to respect and explore human differences (as a side benefit, it helps to ready him for potential upheavals in his own life). A good literary diet will prevent your kid from saying, as one eight-grader did to me, “Well, we’re smarter than the people in history, because we have, like, i-pods and stuff.” If he had read enough stories about the resourcefulness of people living in past centuries he might not have thought of computerized technology as the sole marker of intelligence. This category is also where fantasy and science fiction come in. Both genres allow an author to take symbolic, abstract concepts and make them real. The power of sacrificial love can be explored more vividly in a world where the death works magic. The nature of humanity can be questioned in a world where robots develop an independent will. Because Christian families want their children to ponder spiritual as well as physical reality, stories of wonder are well worth seeking out.

As Gene Edward Veith comments in THIS article,* 
A realism that confines itself to descriptions of only those things that can be seen in ordinary life necessarily excludes that which remains unseen but which nonetheless gives ordinary life its meaning, namely, truths of morality, faith, and transcendent ideals. The challenge for a Christian writer or artist is how to get at these invisible truths. It is possible to show their effects in a realistic way or to go inside the heart of the characters to show their inner struggles. There are realistic Christian authors, such as Dostoevski, but another way to write about these invisible truths is to explore them symbolically; that is, through fantasy. By definition, fantasy is wholly imaginary. It is not reality, but it can provide a way to think about reality.

For a brief discussion of how C. S. Lewis answered three objections to fairy tales, read THIS
I also like THIS post about the human need for wonder (as evidenced by our desire for dragons—I linked to it before some time ago).

Revealing. Although young children may not yet be reading Jane Austen, Luther, or Darwin, good juvenile literature helps prepare for this by showing that different people live and think in completely different ways. This does not mean that kids should read about every human challenge, bad attitude, or error before they are ready, but it does mean that a steady diet of fiction set in only one time period (or written only during one decade) is too narrow. Restricting your child to the collected works of G. A. Henty is about as useful as locking him into a rather boring, padded room for several years. On the other hand, reading only contemporary books means that in almost all of your kid's stories, loyal peers are the only ones the protagonist can count on (with a little bit of limited help from a few adults). Of course, in order for a child to fully benefit from this varied approach, a teacher should be involved in pointing out some of the beliefs and attitudes behind each book and asking the child to evaluate them from the perspective of truth (go for balance: don't make your child a piranha who leaps triumphantly at every potential flaw in what he reads. Especially if he looks smug while doing so).

Quentin Blake (Matilda)
Because a child is still developing a sense of normal, books that present erroneous ideas should be balanced out by a higher percentage of optimistic, pleasant books with admirable heroes and encouraging heroines. Yet you can’t raise a kid on Redwall and then throw Descartes at her in high school. Instead, discernment should be taught through controlled, age-appropriate exposure to a range of ideas. This is one of the biggest advantages of books—they give students a crystalized version of popular claims (it’s easier to see through crystal than mud) as well as time to practice responding to error. Would you prefer that your student first encounters a vibrant version of atheism (or an emotionally compelling argument for abortion) as a lonely college freshman, or while you are still present and can participate in the discussion?

Classical education is all about learning to understand and evaluate ideas, which means that it does not fit within a tight little bubble designed to protect your child from exposure to anything erroneous, potentially corrupting, or otherwise bad. Your child's education will not help him thrive in life if he never transitions from intelligent, safe, classical kid to intelligent, discerning adult. The classically-educated student is being trained to understand our world so well that he or she may be able to change it.  That is why reading some popular fluff can be helpful. Some of it has had a significant impact on the imagination of our generation. It can provide a good way to recognize the yearnings, beliefs, and unconscious attitudes of people today. Incidentally, it also gives your geeky, home educated child something to talk about with mainstream peers, which is actually a very good and healthy thing.

Inga Moore
(The Wind in the Willows)

This is where Harry Potter comes in. The Potter series is certainly not fine literature (Rowling has a horrible habit of using ALL CAPS to signify the characters’ strong emotions, and in book five, Harry spends a lot of his time FEELING REALLY ANGRY and shouting at OTHER PEOPLE). However, Rowling is a marvelous storyteller. She spins a seven-year tale with a complex backstory and many beloved characters. She has a keen grasp of what children are like at different ages and portrays them with affectionate realism. She keeps us turning pages yet also reflecting on meaningful themes. Part of the reason that Harry Potter enjoys a more universal audience than Twilight, The Hunger Games, or Percy Jackson (and will undoubtedly outlast them all) is that it is a much better story. The Harry Potter series contains that intangible spark that makes a story beloved, despite its flaws.

Some families object that the magic in Harry Potter, unlike that in Lewis or Tolkien, is unacceptable to Christians because it is too close to the real, forbidden occult. It is true that Rowling dubs her characters “witches” and “wizards,” and that they pursue increasing ability to use magic. This is in contrast to fantasies in which the human protagonists never themselves learn magic, even if they are aided by magical beings such as Gandalf (who is technically not human) or Coriakin (who is a fallen star). However, Rowling tends to take the terminology of myth and fairytale and reinvent it. Her “magic” is not very mystical or omnipotent. It is not achieved through midnight blood sacrifice, meditation, or even by tapping into some great force. Instead it is a mundane and mechanical kind of magic. Rather like learning the rules of physics, students study the specific words and action that will make a potato peel itself or a chair go flying. Magical ability is a gift that a person either has or does not have: no one can seize this power for themselves. Because Harry Potter is a school story, a great deal of sweating, grumbling, and quiz-taking is involved. Rowling’s use of magic is unlikely to predispose any normal child toward the occult.

Mary GrandPré (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets)
The reason her story needs magic is because, as a fantasy, it is able to explore themes that would be extremely difficult to discuss in a realistic children’s novel. Her villain is seeking immortality. Her hero is grappling with the loss of his parents (and later, other friends) to death. In the end, Harry’s willingness to die is the only way to defeat the villain and save the wizarding world. Previously protected by his mother’s self-sacrifice, Harry finds that sacrificial love is the one power which can face and defeat death. These themes are excellent openings for Christian discussion and provide much to admire. They are not presented in a way that meshes 100% with Christian doctrine (unsurprisingly from a secular author), but neither is the heroism of The Iliad or the virtue of The Aeneid. All three stories are capable of sparking fascinating thought and conversation, but none should be allowed to shape your child's Christian faith.

The purpose of Christian education is to prepare a student to be in the world, but not of it; to be wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove. We use literature as a way to understand and engage with the world. In classical literature, we see that even pagan authors were able to recognize certain universal truths. We also see where they embraced tragic lies (I have heard multiple people comment that studying pagan mythology helped them realize how unique the Christian concept of God is, and how grateful they are to be Christians). If a parent plans to reject Harry Potter, it should not be simply because you plan to protect your adolescent from every impure book (no one’s bubble should be that small, lest it pop on contact with the world). Nor should you emphasize the dangers of Harry Potter, purely because it contains magic, and ignore the destructive silliness of teen romance novels, the romanticism and feminism of Little Women, or the pervasive “follow your heart” mentality of contemporary children’s literature. All of these books need to be balanced with a sound grounding in truth. Many of them should be discussed directly with your child. Some should be burned at midnight to the strains of Jane Austen on tape.

We could burn Twilight.
Santo Domingo y los Albignese
, by Pedro Berruguete.

Is Harry Potter a safe book to hand to your kid as a fluency reader? That depends on the age and awareness of your child. By the last book, Harry is seventeen and is facing a dark and evil opponent. Even Rowling herself has commented that children should not start the series too early. In addition to its potential to scare a very young reader, the series contains the same secular errors as any other mainstream secular book. This means that your young reader should already be able to handle such things, or that you should read along and discuss the issues that come up. Isn't that the process of a classical education?    


*Dr. Veith is not, himself, a fan of Harry Potter (as you will see from his article). For a contrasting point of view, you could try THIS post from Carrots for Michaelmas. Michael O'Brien's book, A Landscape with Dragons, lays out a very conservative view of what makes fantasies acceptable to a Christian audience (I have not read his book, but his argument seems to be that all fantasy must match Christian symbolism-- i.e., all dragons must be evil). THIS post provides a critique of his book and points out the inconsistencies we can fall into while trying to explain why Tolkien/Lewis =  good and pretty much all other fantasy = bad.


For my follow-up post on Training Discerning Readers, click HERE.



  1. Forget children, what about adults? Adult converts in particular can sometimes have similar problems.

  2. True! It seems like an adult convert who was in the process of reshaping his/her entire moral worldview, attitudes, cultural outlook, etc., has a special challenge. Probably that person needs to read mostly books that help support the new outlook before starting off to critique a bunch of unsupportive ones. "How to become a discerning reader" is also an important topic. Any tips?

  3. I have come back to read and re-read this post twice. Thank you for your thought provoking post. I have been struggling with this very thing in our schooling, and I think you made some excellent points. I had banned the Harry Potter series in our house (well before we even had children) after getting into the 4th book and feeling that the darkness of the novel went too far for a children's book. You gave me something to consider and for that I'm glad.

    1. I'm glad it's helpful. Deciding how much "darkness" is appropriate for kids is definitely tricky. Quite honestly, I know that I've become less sensitive (perhaps even desensitized) to it in the last decade because so many kids' books are dark. So are fairy tales, of course.

  4. I got into an interesting discussion with my husband on this topic a couple of nights ago. In the most recent Percy Jackson book it's revealed one of the characters is gay. Nothing is acted on, but the feelings are there. We were discussing whether we'd let the kids read the series. I said I'd still let them read it in high school, because it's better they read it with us in high school where we can discuss it, than out in the real world where there's no discussion of how you're being manipulated.

  5. This is fantastic. I'm going to link to it in a book review that I'm in the middle of writing, actually, because I just finished reading a book with a gay protagonist, and I'm grappling with "why did I read this book" and "would I recommend this book" questions, when the main character has a lifestyle I believe is sinful. I'm coming to the conclusion that it's rather like reading The Count of Monte Cristo, where the protagonist is vengeful and malicious -- did I finish the book wishing to be more like that protagonist, or did I finish it going, "Okay, look at the problems their sinful choices caused." Did reading this book help me understand someone very unlike myself? Etc.

    Anyway, completely love this post of yours :-)

  6. Hello, Anna! I found you through the link-back on Hamlette's blogpost and have to agree completely with your conclusions. I'll never forget the girl I encountered in college who refused to read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde because she thought it was contradictory to her faith and might lead her astray. We were attending a Christian college that promoted Christian thought and examination of literature. I was horrified there was a Christian out there who supposed their faith so weak that it could be easily swayed by a story. That's what I call being entirely too sheltered.


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