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The Literary Form: Friend or Foe? by Carroll Smith

I have been interested in understanding why Mason was so insistent on the story or the narrative. The narrative was one of the bedrocks of her educational paradigm but in most of today’s education, the narrative is not central and in some spheres is almost nonexistent.   Perhaps many educators today would think of the story as fluff or nonessential and certainly not rigorous enough.  I want to posit here a few ideas that might help us reconsider the importance and power of the narrative as essential to education.

Mason (1989/1925) frequently refers to the story, the narrative, the literary form. It is a non-negotiable in her educational paradigm. She says the mind, “has a natural preference for literary form; given a more or less literary presentation, the curiosity of the mind is enormous and embraces a vast variety of subjects” (p. 15) and that, “Like the body, again, the mind rejects insipid, dry, and unsavoury food, that is to say, its pabulum should be presented in a literary form” (p. 20).  “Everyone likes knowledge best in a literary form” (p. 290).  “Give children the sort of knowledge that they are fitted to assimilate, served in a literary medium and they will pay great attention” (p. 257).  The literary form, of course, relates to literature (versus informational text which dominates much current educational landscape).  I want to look at Mason’s insistence on the story or narrative or literary form (which has many shapes, such as poetry, novel, play, biography, etc.). One last example of her insistence on the literary form, “It seems to be necessary to present ideas with a great deal of padding, as they reach us in a novel or poem or history book written with literary power” (p. 177).  Why this insistence on the “literary form?”

Much educational practice today bypasses the story.  Are we not proud of our children who have memorized all the state/province capitols? Yet, if Mason is correct, it is not enough to know the facts about that state or province, but to know the people, their heroes (both male and female), their dreams and struggles, their overcoming obstacles. Memorizing capitols is to invest our children in atomised bits of information that really do not “inform” us, enrich our lives or add ideas to our minds.   Throughout her educational treatises, Mason continually brings us back to the narrative or the literary form, not facts, skills, memorization, but the power and necessity of the narrative.  Why might this be?   What do others make of this issue?

Alister McGrath (2012) describes the human need for a narrative, which offers insight into how we are made.  We “long to make sense of things. We yearn to see the big picture, to know the greater story, of which our own story is a small but nonetheless important part” (p. 2).  Humankind wants to understand the bigger picture to have a sense of what life means.  It makes us feel whole and complete.  McGrath quotes Iris Murdoch as saying, “the calming, whole-making tendencies of human thought” to which he adds, “by which she means the ability of a ‘big picture’ or ‘grand narrative’ to integrate our vision of reality” (p. 103).  As humans we do not seek atomised bits of information. If we want to understand atomised bits of information, it is for a bigger purpose such as building a bridge so that life can carry on over it for many years to come.  Or, we really don’t care what the capitol of Canada is except how it relates to the people of Canada, who they are, where they come from, their stories, etc.  Mason insists that the story or the “living” narrative brings satisfaction to the learning process for children and all of us.  This stands in direct contrast to the atomised information required by the paradigms of education used in most schools today where children learn dissected bits of information to regurgitate for state or national tests.  This type of learning does not satisfy our need “to know the greater story, of which our own story is a small but nonetheless important part” (p. 2), nor does it satisfy our need for “the calming, whole-making tendencies of human thought” (p. 103).  Why do we, then, have a distaste or a distrust for the narrative or story?

When I was a child “story” had fallen into such disrepute that my parents would say, “Don’t tell a story about it!” meaning not to tell a lie.  Stories perhaps are often viewed as embellished truth, or fanciful creations or fiction, and certainly not reliable.  What is reliable  today are the objective facts.  Today learning history often means getting the correct facts and to get these facts, history is frequently provided in textbooks in outline form.   Upon reading an essay recently, I was shocked and amazed to learn that history used to be considered a branch of literature.  Lionel Gossman says, “For a long time the relation of history to literature was not notably problematic.  History was a branch of literature.  It was not until the meaning of the word literature, or the institution of literature itself, began to change, toward the end of the eighteenth century, that history came to appear as something distinct from literature” (p. 3).  I am sorry, so count me as uneducated, but this was shocking to me.  History, a part of literature!  I have been raised with the idea that literature is a set of made-up stories that may very well tell us about the human condition, but certainly didn’t necessarily tell us truth about our past.  Their greatness or at least the greatness of the writers was how they could weave a good story that was engaging to a variety of people. The story dealt with the human condition and thus transferred some great truth to me through characters who might live very different lives than I. But, history as a branch of literature?  I thought history had to be facts driven.  This is why I struggled so when I first began to learn about Mason.  Dropping the memorization of facts was to be stopped and for what?  A Story?

Grossman indicates it was the “end of the eighteenth century” when history and literature were differentiated.   I’ve been pondering perhaps the Enlightenment has changed the way we read our history.  The ever confusing Enlightenment, with its emphasis on scientific facts, has changed the way we view education, life and so much more.  Children, these humans who have these “whole-making” tendencies or who “yearn to see the picture, to know the greater story, of which our own story is a small but nonetheless important part” (p. 2) are no longer in an educational environment where they are able to make connections or see the bigger picture or have the means to be “whole-making.”  They are inundated daily with atomised bits of information which come at them quickly and mindlessly.  In other words the facts come at them.  I think the Enlightenment has caused us to substitute facts and information in the place of engaging, “whole-making” story.  And according to Pico Iyer, Marshall McLuhan told us that, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.”  We wonder why the current paradigms continue to cause children to drop out and give up on life.  Facts and information that do not engage children or us are simply coming at us too fast.  We have lost touch with ourselves.

Alister McGrath (2012) in his book Surprised by Meaning gives a good example of how the facts without the story are insufficient.  We can understand a birthday cake by taking it apart and analysing its chemical composition.  Analysing in this way will tell us the amount of sugar, grains, oils in it, and other atomised bits of information which are good to know particularly if you have an allergy to any of these substances.  However, a list of ingredients with their chemical composition doesn’t tell why the cake was made in the first place.  It is only the narrative that can tell us the story of the person’s life that the cake celebrates.  It is this story that we want to know.  The facts about the cake do not satisfy us but the relationship we develop with the birthday person does interest us.

We cannot be without the story.  H. Richard Niebuhr (1989) said, “We are in history as the fish is in water” (p. 24).  Mason understood the water in which we live as supplied by an integrating of subjects that create the narrative. “A given period depends upon a notice of the ‘literature’ set; for plays, novels, essays, ‘lives’ (Plutarch), poems, are all pressed into service and where it is possible, the architecture, painting, etc., which the period produced.”  Here Mason has described “the medium in which we live” and thus in my opinion why her philosophy of education is so engaging to children.

It seems to me that we must reconsider the narrative in education.  We need to think more deeply about its usefulness to us.  Instead of being frightened by it and of feeling that our children are not educated unless we fall back onto current textbooks, we need to embrace the narrative.  Kieran Egan*, as a current writer and from a secular point of view has begun the process.  I am sure there are others.  Those of us in the Mason community need to explore the story or literary form more thoughtfully.  It is our rich heritage passed on from her to us.  I believe she got it right and thus we must give serious thought to the narrative or the story as a means to know.  This is also one of the reasons why we must not hybridize her with a mixture of textbooks, memorization, end of chapter comprehension questions, and other matterialistic** means of education.

Finally, I know there are many points in this blog that can be argued from various positions.  There are also many points I have not thought of, but nevertheless, we need to reconsider the story or the narrative and its place in education.  Shying away from it because of current educational practice is no reason to ignore what Mason said.

Gossman, L. (1978) History and literature.  In R. Canary& H. Kozicki (Eds). The writing of history. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Iyer, P. (2011). The joy of quiet. The New York Times.  Retrieved online at http:// _r=1&pagewanted=all on 1 Jan 2012.

McGrath, A. (2012). Surprised by meaning. Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press

Mason, C. (1989/1925) An Essay towards a philosophy of education. Wheaton:  Tyndale House.

Niebuhr, H. R. (1989) The story of our life.  In Hauerwas, S. & Jones, L. G. (Eds). Why narrative? Readings in narrative theology.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans Publishing Co.

*An example of Kieran Egan’s work is his book Teaching as Story Telling published in 1989 by The University of Chicago Press.

**Matterialistic here I spell with the double t to indicate the belief that all of life is only matter.

© Carroll Smith All Rights Reserved

This entry was posted in: Philosophy


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. country granny says

    This is exactly why teaching my dyslexic son the history out of the books we were sent for the home school program (I enrolled him in a complete program that I did not have to choose) became his favorite reading — when he hated books & all studying up to this time — it enabled him not to fail but to learn!

  2. Jenny Garrett says

    Last night I had the honor of seeing Dr. Condoleezza Rice give a speech at Duke University. She described how she had to inspire those who worked for her, 57,000 foreign service employees, and help them transform the way they represented America. She wanted them to be change agents of compassion and goodwill wherever they were, especially in the hard places. She said, and I quote, “You have to be able to inspire people and that means having a message that is inspiring. I drew back on a narrative of post World War II (and she went on to describe the historical events of that era) to inspire the modern foreign service employees. She used history, a story that is true, to inspire. I was delighted to hear that Mason’s ideas are not antiquated, but useful even for the Secretary of State of the most powerful country in the world!

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