Parents want to give their children the best education they can and there are two extremes often applied regarding what this means. On the creative, experiential end of the spectrum are parents who focus exclusively on enriching and inspiring their children; on the other end are those who believe that learning must be strictly formulaic. Which is correct?
[Nathan Siemers – Attribution – ShareAlike 2.0 Generic CC
– 5970089724_674349ede7_b_0The answer is neither.]
Students need to be constantly inspired and challenged to investigate the world for themselves, or at best, they will learn to hate school while simply “storing up” information. On the other hand, if children are not given the framework on which to “hang” knowledge, they are not learning at all, but are simply wallowing in a well of self-deception and narcissism.
A classical education is not about learning ancient terminology: it’s about learning to think for yourself, as the classical authors did.
A classical education is not about learning certain facts: it’s about developing a worldview which honors truth and beauty and engenders a love of knowledge.
A classical education is not about competing in the marketplace: it’s about believing that if students are passionate about learning they will be passionate about life and therefore, their vocations will become self-evident.
A classical education is not about believing in “experts” who claim to have grabbed the brass ring, and all you need to do is jump on their merry-go-round and — Voila! your student will be classically educated. Rather, it’s about developing a disciplined, virtuous mind and life. A person’s true vocation and joy in life will be evident if he or she follows this authentic classical path.
True classical scholarship is rare: most of us will never attain it, and that includes the many poseurs in the classical market who purport to have it and attempt to sell it to us. But given a genuine classical philosophy and pedagogy, all students can discover their God-given potential, find their place in the world, and live rich, joyous and successful lives.
Next Time~ Part 2
Curriculum Gimmicks vs. The Great Knock: Formulas vs. Structure and How C. S. Lewis Answers the Dilemma
There are various approaches to understanding poetry. In the 20th century, the rise of literary criticism began the process teachers now use of analyzing specific literary (rhetorical) devices such as similes, metaphors, etc. to explain the poem. In the 19th century, though, the focus was on having students memorize the poetry and experience the language of the works as a whole. Which approach is best? My answer is both. Memorizing a poem “makes it your own,” but understanding the diction leads you to richer understanding which causes the poetry to enter deeply into your soul.
Today, honors courses require that students take the poems apart rhetorically. This approach to literature, and poetry specifically, is due to the influence of the New Critics, the group of 20th century authors who popularized the idea of literary criticism. They, and their approach, are no longer “in vogue” in universities today, due to the rise of
Marxist-feminist and other post-modern critical approaches. But in truth, literary criticism as we know it owes its existence to the New Critics such as I. A. Richards, et al, since they taught us how to break apart diction with such careful and specific techniques.
Some assert that analyzing literature rhetorically in this manner “ruins” the enjoyment of it; this is not true. Like any aspect of learning, the more you understand the specifics of the topic, the better you can appreciate its unity. Those who have had negative experiences “digging into” literature have simply had poor teachers who have not successfully passed on the truth that in the humanities, we must comprehend what we read both inductively and deductively, and when a student is challenged to do this, he begins the process of independent thinking, of unifying his thought so as to see the poem as a powerful communicator of truths, both emotional and spiritual.
Let us take Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” as an instance of a poem which yields rich results when we “unpack” it rhetorically. Here is the poem:
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” ~ Robert Frost
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Frost is deceptive. He uses nature to write “beautiful” poetry, but upon examination, we find that his diction is complex, and if we are not extremely careful in approaching the poems, we will be led astray, rather like a detective who is distracted by false evidence, and thus misses the clues which will lead him to discover the true topic at hand.
Although he lived during the time of the development of modern poetry, or “free verse,” which abandoned traditional rhyme schemes and meters, Frost despised this movement. He famously quipped that writing free verse is “like playing tennis with the net down.” In other words, without the rules, there is no poem, no way to create a work of value and structure. Thus, Frost’s poetry is traditional, but deceptively so because of his informal diction; he appears to be holding a conversation with us over the backyard fence or a cup of coffee, when in fact he is always giving us fresh assessments about life and the world, and our relation to it as humans.
After reading the poem out loud, we establish the rhyme pattern. (For those already familiar with these basics, please forgive this brief review.) The rhyme pattern is that referred to as “couplets,” as two consecutive lines rhyme before moving on to the next set of two. Always use lower case letters to show a rhyme pattern, as shown at the end of each line. Frost’s is traditional here, as always:
flower/hour b (skip the “er” in flower, and read it in the 19th century way, as “flow’r”)
leaf/grief c day/stay d
We engage next with the meter: The rhythm of the poem. Each syllable is stressed or unstressed in our natural speaking manner, creating the “patterns” we know as “meter.” The first and last lines do not line up with the meter of the rest of the poem; lines 2-7 are strictly iambic, but the first and last lines are not. Iambic meter means that the first syllable is stressed, and the second is not. There are two syllables in each “iamb”; each “iamb” is called a “foot.” A poet may have as many “feet” in a line as he chooses. Frost chooses to have three in his lines here, so this is called iambic trimeter.
But let’s get back to the intrigue of those first and last lines not being iambic. Why? The lines have more stressed (emphasized) syllables in them than the iambic lines. When a poet uses stressed syllables in this manner, he is drawing the reader’s attention to these lines. Frost wants us to notice these first and last lines because they are communicating his theme. Additionally, he uses alliteration to pound home the stress: the hard “g” sound in “green” and “gold” wakes us up. Let’s look at the first line:
The emphasized (stressed syllables) are shown in capital letters:
NAture’s first GREEN is GOLD.
Nature, green, and gold are emphasized. We get it that this poem is about nature. But—is it? Why is nature’s first green also gold? Is that true? Nature’s first green is actually in spring. How can green be gold? The leaves turn gold in the fall, right before they die and fall off. So even in the first line, Frost is presenting us with a dilemma—a quandary. Let’s go on and see if we can find some explanation in the next three lines:
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Gold is the hardest hue (color) to retain. Why? – because the leaves are dying. While the shimmering gold leaf is the height of beauty, it is also bittersweet; it is a sign of impending death. So, this poem might not be about how beautiful nature is; it might be about something else, such as, perhaps, that death is inevitable. And, not only is death unavoidable: importantly, life’s climax, this nadir of perfect glory, is fleeting, and even as the leaves enjoy their golden glory, they are moving towards death, as we are.
The next line is tricky, but is a continuation of his now clear theme, that life is temporal, and we are all on a journey towards death:
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
The question here is: What does “subsides” mean, in context? It can mean lessen, become less severe, etc. We can discover what Frost means by paraphrasing some: As it dies, one leaf gives way to another leaf which will spring fresh in spring, green and bright. A leaf dies, but it is replaced by another, new leaf: the cycle begins again, and the process repeats itself each year. That’s fine, but – didn’t we already know that? Frost was just laying the groundwork: now he goes on to zing his point home in the last three lines, explaining all in the poem’s “shift”:
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Most poems have this “shift”- a point where the author surprises the reader somehow as he changes his viewpoint; it might be a minor twist, or it might be a big one. It’s minor in this poem, if you’ve been paying close attention. Paraphrased, the first of these lines says,
“In the same manner, death came into the world through the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.” The allusion to Eden encapsulates much, but it’s key to understanding the poem; “thus death came into the world,” as the New Testament says. Notice the word “sank” in the phrase “sank to grief,” which implies that originally, the progression to death did not exist. There was a better world, but we do not live in that world. We must accept not only the mortality of nature in general, but our own mortality.
Although Frost is not religious, he relies heavily upon this Judeo-Christian understanding of the nature of humanity: death entered into the world, and it is inevitable. Think about the line
So dawn goes down to day
Here is another quandary. Shouldn’t dawn be the beginning of day; don’t we say that the sun comes “up”? Isn’t it sunset that goes “down”? Why does dawn go “down” to day? You may already see the answer: because dawn brings forthanother day, time has progressed. The dawn goes “down” not only because it disappears as day springs forth, but because it is another harbinger, a marker on the march of time towards death.
The poem concludes with a strong accent on the word “nothing,” which we now understand much more clearly than we did when we read it as the title:
NOTHing gold can stay.
The unspoken messages are now clear: life is precious, but transient, and we should value every minute, for we do not know when the golden leaves of our lives will drift into eternity. Nature’s first green is gold because the very start of life (spring, green) is also the beginning of our journey towards death—we eventually become “gold,” when we reach our maturity, and then will soon pass from this life to the next. We may or may not believe in the biblical explanation for the brief nature of our lives, but we know that its point is true. And, he implies, if we accept this reality, we will have a better chance of appreciating the life we experience here, before we “shuffle off this mortal coil.”
I teach writing according to the Jane Schaffer writing method, used by high achieving schools in their honors and AP programs. The Schaffer pedagogy meets the definition of “classical” because it leads students into developing critical thinking skills at an early age. Schaffer is qualitatively different from other popular “classical” writing methods, because Schaffer teaches them how to analyze, interpret, and assess ideas. Put another way: students’ minds are engaged in such a manner that they are inspired to develop independent thought. This is because students are led to ponder what a character’s (or historical figure’s) motivations are, or what the consequences of his or her actions or words are, within the context of the theme and diction of the story.
Schaffer is simply a codification of how analytical writing was taught traditionally. As I often tell students, they are like Sherlock Holmes walking onto a crime scene. They must look at the situation presented, as a whole, and from that assess what the important “evidences” are. The Schaffer method calls these “concrete details” (CDs). From there, students use the context of these facts to determine the theme(s) of the text. Why did the author use those facts at that point? Students also bring their own knowledge of life and universal truths to bear on the situation: What is the point of the passage? What does it reveal about the character, or what message is the author communicating to the reader?
When students begin to think analytically, they begin to think independently. Of course, this is the goal of a classical education, not the memorization of a bucketful of facts or texts. The necessity of having such skills before entering the halls of higher education cannot be overemphasized. The Jane Schaffer approach takes time to learn in the beginning–students are building up their “deductive” muscles. But with guidance and practice, they become independent thinkers.
The “method” is a proven way to bringing students’ minds to bear, in order to train them to focus so that they successfully learn the process of analytical reasoning. As students begin to incorporate the techniques so that they think and write inferentially, they no longer need the Schaffer steps, as they have begun the process of independent thinking–the ultimate goal of our educational efforts.
I realize this is a shibboleth among educators today, but I’m going here anyway: recent studies have shown that there is no valid scientific evidence to show that particular students (of any nature) learn better through either an auditory, visual, or a kinesthetic approach. In other words, there are no individual learning modes. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time learning about and teaching special needs students, I do realize that the “received wisdom” in today’s educational community directly contradicts this assertion.
I have always quietly questioned the “learning styles” approach for several reasons. First–and this is purely anecdotal–I have never personally observed any remarkable improvement in a student I have taught due to using lessons which were based on how that student’s learning style had been assessed, even when I was working in special education, applying these lessons diligently.
Second, as a devotee of the Mae Carden philosophy of education (in addition to having attended a Carden school as a child and having received training in the method as an adult), I have absorbed her pedagogy: all students should learn through multiple senses: “reading, listening, speaking, and writing,” as Miss Carden put it. In other words, we develop our intellects by using our various God-given senses. Mae Carden also emphasized individualized learning. By this she did not mean developing an entire new curriculum for each student, but rather, the teacher’s taking the time to work individually with each student. Miss Carden trusted the good teacher to work at finding ways to connect with students. ( I was acquainted with her personally, and know this to be true.) She knew that a teacher who cares about her students will be given the ability to help them when she makes the effort. This is why it is important to keep class sizes small: most classical educators’ experience is that a class which has more than 15 or 16 students is not going to meet the individual needs of students. The teacher simply cannot “divide herself up” during the class period so as to meet the particular questions of students, if the class is large.
My experiences teaching larger classes live online for the past 8 years have borne out this belief. Because my own five children are grown, and because my husband is a surgeon who works long hours, I have had the time to work very long hours in order to give my many online students the individual attention they deserve, through email and phone conversations. However, larger classes are not good, even when the teacher is willing (and able) to give this kind of time commitment, because some students “slip through the cracks” during the class period, and do not learn to interact and grow intellectually through the class discussions. Because I now run my own school, I am able to restrict the class sizes appropriately.
Finally, from a broad philosophical view, the idea that we use multiple senses makes sense, because we all are human beings. That may sound simplistic, but if you think about it, it’s perfectly logical. When teachers engage students by bringing multiple senses to bear, they are teaching the “whole child.” We are whole people, not fractured beings, artificially segmented into disparate parts. It’s not possible to separate out our thoughts and inclinations into neat categories, although it certainly is a temptation!
This is not to say that we do not have different “preferred” styles of learning. I might like to learn by watching videos or listening to audio books, but there is no evidence that I learn better through my preferred modalities. In fact, I may not learn nearly as well through these methods. And this brings up the underlying point: it is a teacher’s job to help a student develop a love for learning, in all modalities; as Carden herself said, “Life is a joy, so should be learning.”
The assertion I am presenting here, while backed up with solid studies, is not popular. The government has learned how to usurp our tax money from us in ways that supposedly help our children who struggle with the accepted public school modes of learning. Other “individualistic” pedagogies popular in the homeschool movement have latched onto the “learning modes” philosophy; finally, well-meaning parents who want to find ways to understand their own children’s struggles have claimed this explanation because they have been duped.
Nothing replaces individual interaction with a dedicated teacher/mentor. In the ancient classical world, those lucky few who were educated had tutors who guided them into learning with personalized attention. For the past century or so, “educators” since John Dewey have been trying to find a magic bullet which will replace this traditional approach. The result has been a disastrous experiment which has damaged our children and our society beyond measure. Unfortunately, many so-called “classical educators” participate in this experiment, either unwittingly or wittingly. There is no replacement, no magic bullet. There is only the difficult but rewarding work of learning how to learn.
I don’t envy Socrates. No, not only because he drank that horrific hemlock, but because I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to play the role of a free speech advocate in his time. Talk about a tough gig. I imagine that Socrates might reiterate today in words something akin to these:
Welcome, habitués of the classical marketplace! We are here again, ready to dig into the philosophical problems of our time. And I proudly claim the moniker, “gadfly of the state,” for I reveal the foolishness of the supposed wise men of our society, and this especially includes myself.
This does not make a good sound bite today, and as we know, Socrates himself bit the dust because of his daring proclamations. But is our society that different? I’m not referring to the juvenile restrictions on free speech that are now prevalent in our universities. I’m talking about the false marketing which dominates the classical Christian homeschool movement, thus obscuring the true meaning of what it means to gain a classical education; I’m talking about what I call marketing hemlock. If you have a student who is in middle school or high school, and he or she signs up for a “classical” course in the humanities (online or otherwise) where the points of the course are “fed” to the student–that’s marketing hemlock. This poison must be counteracted by a bona fide classical pedagogy, wherein teachers/scholars are free to speak the truth about the state of classical education today, and wherein students are taught to think well enough to practice their right to free speech.
A classical approach incorporates the Socratic method, wherein instructors ask their students challenging questions, rather than lecturing them. Most teachers are terrified of “dead air time,” as the media people call it. You know–that silence in the room when no one says a thing, or has any response to a teacher’s inquiries. I understand that fear–I experienced it when I first began teaching. The problem is that if the teacher is insecure with the concept of “dead air time,” or, most likely, afraid of losing her job because silence will be interpreted by critics as incompetence, she will hesitate to practice the Socratic method. In short, the problem is with the pseudo-classical pedagogy that is peddled in much of the present home school/classical market. In 21st c. America, “results” are everything. You must have short term “provable” goals and objectives for every activity you conduct, in our utilitarian world. Those goals stand against the precepts of a genuine classical education, but more on that in another article. It may seem strange to connect silence in the classroom with free speech, but the Socratic technique is, in fact, the ultimate example of it, for the student is free to explore all thoughts out loud, without boundaries.
In the classes I teach, I force myself to wait. I – just—wait for the students to respond and interact, and they always do. Believe me, sometimes that can be awkward in an online classroom, but it always pays off in the end. I recently had a student from a last year– someone I’ve become friends with–tell me that she has missed this aspect of my class; she always looked forward to how she was going to be challenged, how she would be “put on the spot,” when she was in my class. That was encouraging and comforting to me, because teaching with a Socratic approach is an ongoing act of faith.
Sometimes in “classical” and homeschool marketing circles, teachers initially present themselves as Socratic, but revert to the regurgitation pedagogy prevalent in most schools. It’s so tempting. Teachers do this by opening the class session with thought provoking questions, but then quickly turn to answering those questions themselves. I’m not saying that a teacher should never weigh in, but once a student gets to middle school age, in the humanities courses he or she should be constantly challenged to discover the answer by applying personal knowledge, worldview, and logic, before the teacher makes any pronouncements.
Most of the time, though, teachers are dedicated, sincere, and overworked. In the online homeschool “world,” many of the school owners use the manipulative techniques of the marketplace to draw parents into their web, using catch words which resonate with those of us who have read some classical works, convincing us that they have some secret we poor, ignorant parents don’t know about. (In fact, many of these owners are not classical thinkers, and indeed, have not read the canon of classical texts they market to us.) Meanwhile, the teachers who work for these schools must conform to the prevalent marketing mold in order to keep their jobs, even when they do not agree with it.
So, perhaps you are asking, “What exactly IS the Socratic method?” Most people know that it means to teach by asking questions and then engaging with the students’ responses, but – is that it? Yes and no. The teacher must come with a good understanding of the topic at hand, of course, not just a few questions. Even more, the teacher’s larger knowledge will provide her with the ability to respond to the student’s comments with further questions. This is the challenging aspect of teaching in the spirit of Socrates. There is no “script” for what will happen next. It is also the exciting part of it: the environment which produces the “Aha!” moments that lead to independent thinking and genuine creativity.
Some committed homeschool parents feel inadequate to teach their children. They shouldn’t believe this, because they have the very tools in their own hands which will lead their children to become independent thinkers: they themselves wish to learn and grow in their scholarship. For the most part, learning is “caught, not taught,” as the old saying goes, and a parent who develops the habit of engaging Socratically with his or her children is a good teacher.
Parents should trust themselves. If they have the need to outsource some classes, they should prayerfully seek out schools which appear to promote thoughtful, genuine learning, but be wary of the hucksters who haunt our American landscape. Within the Christian community, they are the new carpetbaggers, wolves in sheep’s clothing. Here are a few suggestions I have about how to try to distinguish between genuine online classical schools and those who are pretenders. These points apply to humanities courses:
If a school claims that pre-recorded classes replace the live engagement of the “great conversation,” it is not classical school. (There may be times when you need to use pre-recorded “Self-paced” courses– that is understandable. Just don’t buy into the myth that a humanities course can be taught this way and still be genuinely classical.)
If a school presents courses which are replicated, these are not classical courses. Independent thinking demands that each teacher (i.e. mentor) must interpret the information for him or herself. Of course, sometimes teachers use study questions and resources created by others–that is not necessarily a warning sign, but it could be. But when a humanities course is “canned,” it is not classical.
If a school will not allow you to choose a particular teacher or allow you to personally engage with that teacher before you sign your student up for a course, you should have your spidey senses up.
Many parents, especially homeschool parents, feel intimidated by terms such as “Socratic learning,” “classical method,” “Rhetoric,” etc. They are tempted to defer to the “experts,” but often, they have no way of knowing if those who present themselves as scholars are, in fact, qualified to pass on a genuine classical education. As I said in a previous article, we are all products of our present dark age.
There are some wonderful teachers and schools out there, but there are also poseurs who, like the ancient sirens, lure people in with their empty promises. Unlike Odysseus, we are not caught between Scylla and Charybdis; however, each of us has a God-given mind and the parenting abilities to help us wisely determine our own family’s fate. Odysseus had to choose between two evils in the Straits of Messina, but we may choose the good–not to mention the beautiful.
As I begin my own live online school, Year of Our Lord 2017, many thoughts come to mind. My involvement in the resurgence of classical education over recent decades has taught me much, both about education and about human nature. And over the past eight years, I was privileged to have been an instructor in two popular online schools, and what a rich education that has been!
Primarily, a cynicism I had developed about American families through my previous teaching experiences–in particular regarding religious and (fellow) homeschoolers, has been replaced by a sense of hope about the future of America and her upcoming generations. Through the hundreds of students and parents I have “met” through teaching live online, I have discovered that there is a deep hunger for genuine learning, framed specifically by the historical Judaeo-Christian tradition which affirms that there IS such a thing as Truth with a capital “T”– that while many in our society wander in the wilderness seeking without finding, truth is, so to speak, in their backyard, if they care to dig it up.
Teachers who want to communicate truth have a heavy burden, for several reasons. First, many of us have had to go back and learn what it means to hold a classical worldview before we can teach it, for we were born at the beginning of our present dark age. Second, although there have been some significant books written about how to re-appropriate the classical canon, we still need to suss this out for ourselves: How do we transmit what it means to be classically educated in this society? As with apophatic theology, which is the defining of God by what he is not, genuine learning might best be described, firstly, by what it is not: it is not a checklist of books, and it is not a codification of learning “methods,” and it is not the memorization of facts.
The Classical World, Marketing & the American Educational Disposition
More apophatic statements: Classical learning is not about grades, or competition in the marketplace: rather, it is a path to enlightenment. Students develop the ability to think for themselves; they grapple with difficult moral dilemmas; they strive for the good and the beautiful; they seek virtue as they engage in, as Mortimer Adler framed it, “the great conversation.”
Another apophatic assertion: if you are listening to videos as a replacement for humanities courses, you are not engaging in that conversation, because just covering the “facts” of the western canon doesn’t teach you how to think; videos have their place, judiciously used, in the classroom, but recorded courses cannot duplicate the experience of interacting, debating, questioning, and growing that occurs among students. The “great conversation” cannot be conducted without live people who engage within the Socratic environment. If you are attempting to become an independent thinker, recordings of this sort will not help, no matter how many so-called “classical” schools market them as a learning tool. What they really are is a way for greedy school owners to make a lot of money without having to pay to engage real teachers in classrooms in real time, with human students, while dealing with all of the attendant problems that come with negotiating with embodied people, not “virtual” life. Schools which provide such videos in place of genuine learning should, at the very least, delete the word “classical” from their marketing and their vocabulary. Let us strive, on our classical journey, to be honest with ourselves and be sure that we do not take shortcuts which are, in fact, wanderings in the educational wilderness.
So students (and teachers, and parents) must first learn how to distinguish the good and the beautiful from the deceitful salesmanship of our present American society, because a classical education is about finding the good and the beautiful, and learning how to love them. This is difficult, and it takes a kind of disciplined effort which is often interrupted (sometimes necessarily) by the distraction of test scores and college requirements, and significantly but unnecessarily, by the slick marketing of some schools which present themselves as classical but all too often are really just repackaged versions of the bureaucratic public school system which has developed in this country; a system which provides false formulaic answers to the nagging question which rightly besets all of those called to the vocation of teaching: How do I pass on to others what it means to think for oneself? And this will be the foremost question for upcoming devotees of genuine classical learning: how to distinguish between and among schools which use the word “classical” as an appeal to gain certain clientele, and those which rightly and truly practice the classical way: that of teaching students to think for themselves in the light of Truth. (May 2017)
(Originally published in the May, 2011 Epistula, Veritas Press Publishing Company)
We all know the following Mother Goose rhyme: Jack be nimble / Jack be quick / Jack jump over the moon. Wait! Something’s wrong here. Wasn’t it the cow that jumped over the moon? Indeed, nursery rhymes sound the depths of our childhood experiences, but they serve as far more than fond memories. The nursery rhyme has been a training ground for English speaking children for the past 400 years or perhaps longer. Mother Goose was the first “holistic educator,” because nursery rhymes teach to every aspect of a child’s nature: sensory, physical, cognitive, and moral. We can say with assurance that Mother Goose was far ahead of her time.
The mythical figure of Mother Goose is usually depicted as a crone who presides over the treasury of English nursery rhymes which has evolved over past centuries. The earliest reference to her is in a collection of French stories in 1650, but the name came into its current usage in 1780 after a British publisher adopted it in reference to a “compilation of traditional English nonsense songs and rhymes.”[i] The tradition of Mother Goose was carried across the pond to the American colonies, where she has steadfastly remained the reigning denizen of early childhood literature. There are several reasons for the unwavering popularity of her verse; investigating them gives insight not only into the poems, but into the nature of children, and more specifically, into the ways in which children can and should develop.
The first and most important function of the rhymes is that their insistent sing-song rhythms immerse the very young in the cadences of the English language. The rhymes prepare inexperienced ears to recognize not only specific words, but entire phrases, laying down the neural pathways for children to aurally receive, process, and finally, organize the more detailed, chaotic information which will soon bombard them as they grow past toddlerhood and move into the world of cognition and reason. Take the well-known Here We Go Round the MulberryBush—this ditty repeats the phrase “the mulberry bush” three times within four lines, with each repetition varying the tune and pitch slightly. Why? By retaining the same words while slightly altering the tune and placement on the musical scale, the phrase takes the child incrementally from the “known” to the “unknown”—this is foundational to the way that we learn. As they chant, the children run around an object, developing physical abilities in tandem with tonal memory. The content of this rhyme is irrelevant, but the repetitive nature of the words, with their sing-song lilt, provides children with a now-familiar milieu in which to learn; their auditory world becomes a known haven which yields a sense of security through its limited phraseology and repetition, while acting as a vehicle through which they refine their ability to distinguish differences in sounds.
The rhymes also provide children with information about the world around them. Mother Goose “educates” by creating touchstones for their expanding minds. For instance, many are about foods in the household. “Pat-a-cake” explains the baker’s wares; “Little Jack Horner” glorifies the Christmas plum pudding (and Jack’s thumb!); silly Jack Sprat and his wife exemplify fat and lean; the “little piggies” go to market looking for roast beef, etc. Nursery rhymes also familiarize children with commonplace items in an entertaining manner. A cat plays a fiddle, a cow jumps over the moon, dishes and forks run away together . . . amazingly, this simple technique causes children to begin to make connections between and among objects, developing their analytical processes through the use of the furnishings of their everyday world.
Additionally, nursery rhymes serve to help children learn and appreciate humor, as in Sing a Song of Sixpence, wherein the king is served a blackbird pie in which the still-alive birds pop out of the crust singing. (Blackbirds were eaten as a gourmet item in earlier times.)
Or take Peter, Peter,Pumpkin-eater, in which Peter cannot “keep” his wife until he places her in a pumpkin shell (!). Learning humor is a crucial aspect of developing critical thinking, and helps children to learn to differentiate between various aspects of the world around them, as they note the contrast between the joke-rhyme and the real world it supposedly reflects.
Mother Goose rhymes also inculcate morals and rules in children by using a form which they will easily remember, as in this sardonic scolding of a child for his tardiness: A dillar, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar! / What makes you come so soon? / You used to come at ten o’clock / But now you come at noon. Or this one: Seesaw, Margery Daw / Sold her bed / And laid upon straw. And we all know about what happened to Jack and Jill when they ran up the hill, and it wasn’t pretty! While some lessons Mother Goose teaches might seem grim to us (Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home / Your house is on fire, your children all gone!) they were necessary helps to children of previous generations, who lived in a harsher environment where these admonitions were necessary. However, There’s a Neat Little Clock is charming even to the 21st century mind: There’s a neat little clock- / In the classroom it stands- / And it points to the time / With its two little hands. / And may we, like the clock, / Keep a face clean and bright, / With hands ever ready / To do what is right.
The riddle-rhymes push the envelope further: My favorite is As I Was Going to St. Ives, which is often used in first grade readers because it incorporates logic with arithmetic (or so it would appear):
As I was going to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives, Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits: kit, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?
Do you know the answer? Actually, it is unclear. Perhaps only one person was going to St. Ives, since the speaker states in the beginning that he is going there. Or perhaps everyone is headed that way, including the animals. Then there would be 2,802—talk about a traffic jam! It’s even possible that the last line of the riddle is only asking how many of the party he met were going, and doesn’t mean to include him in the question, in which case it is possible that zero could be the answer. This rhyme is actually a form of a riddle from 1650, BC called The Papyrus Rind[ii]–what better way to introduce children to the vagaries of language than that of a timeless logic problem hidden in a nursery rhyme?
Mother Goose has remained with us these many centuries because she is worthy of the honor; she is a teacher par excellence, an iconic and insightful culture-bearer who inculcates deep lessons into our Western heritage. Let us adopt her and say wholeheartedly: Welcome, Thou Beloved Crone!