A Charlotte Mason Education, Narration
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Some History on Narration, Part I by Carroll Smith

The earlier blog posts on narration reviewed the work of teachers who were involved in PNEU schools.  These I hope have “warmed your imagination” a bit about this topic.  Hopefully, it has created questions, some of which have been posted as comments.  I will get to those and any others before I finish with these posts on narration.  For this blog I want to go back to the beginning.

That is a long way back.  All the way back to the beginning of the Jewish people is where we will go (One could also probably trace this through other people groups as well, but this is the one most familiar to me).  Before we do, I want to give a couple of reminders.  First, print was not available.  Whatever very few books might have existed at that time, were handwritten.  Second, very, very few were able to read the written words.  In fact, in Nehemiah 8:8, “Ezra open the book.  All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up.  Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’  Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.” One man is reading to thousands.  There is only one book and very likely only a very few who could read that book.  But, imagine with me for a moment.

Can you imagine yourself there?  The awe!  Reading from a book that had been written for them that had been neglected for years and years while they were in exile.  It was probably the only book in the world that they knew about and could have just learned of its existence.  Ezra had been reading to them from morning till noon – to both women and men.  Their response was awe and wonder, respect.  Think of what it must have been like–those words from the Book of the Law of Moses–they had a focus, a direction, a sense of wonder about the God who wrote them.  They gave a common goal, a common life; they created a sense of “us.”  For our purposes though, I want to briefly consider a couple of verses from Deuteronomy that Moses said to them.

In Deuteronomy 4: 8-9 (NIV), it says, “And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?  Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live.  Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”  Again in Deuteronomy 6: 6-7, (NIV) Moses says, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”  The oral tradition is being commanded here.  We are responsible for teaching our children and in those days, it had to be done through oral tradition–narration or retelling.  Today many would consider that weak.  It needs to be “in writing” to verify.  Is it so bad to only have learned things orally?  Let’s take a jump to some more recent research and study.

Albert Lord (1964) said in his book, The Singer of Tales, that through his study of the epic poetry of Yugoslavia, he watched the oral tradition in process.  His conclusion was:

We realize that what is called oral tradition is as intricate and meaningful

an art form as its derivative “literary tradition.”  In the extended sense of the

word, oral tradition is as “literary” as literary tradition.  It is not simply a less

polished, more haphazard, or cruder second cousin twice removed, to

literature.  By the time the written techniques come onto the stage,

the art forms have been long set and are already highly develop and ancient. (p. 141)

The point here is that before writing was invented and widely used the passing on of knowledge, poetry, music was done through the use of oral transmission.  Lord indicates that the oral tradition is the backbone on which the literary tradition rests.  In fact, the oral tradition in no way weakens the content that is passed down.  In other words, the use of committing knowledge to memory and having to depend on the memory of humans did not weaken the authenticity of the knowledge being passed on orally.  David Rubin in his book, Memory in Oral Traditions (1995), says, “The transmission of oral traditions is remarkable to the modern, literate observer.  Songs, stories and poems are kept in stable form in memory for centuries without the use of writing, whereas the literate observer has trouble remembering what happened yesterday without notes” (p. 3).  The problem isn’t the legitimacy of narration or the oral tradition, the problem is our weak, unused memory systems.

Tenney in his commentary on John in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary says, “It seems probable that the story of Mary’s anointing of Jesus may have been narrated in the church prior to the writing of this gospel (vol 9, p. 115).

The point in telling you this is that narration has been used for centuries.  Only one person, Ezra, read the Scriptures.  Retelling those Scriptures, as well as their national history had to be done by parents using the oral tradition.   Narration is not a modern invention.  It was not invented by Mason.  The other very important point is that narration, as history has taught us, is a most effective way to “know.”

Next week (God willing and I have sometime during the conference) we will continue our look at narration from a historical point of view.

Holy Bible. (2005). New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan.

Lord, A. B. (1964). The Singer of Tales.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Rubin, D. C. (1995). Memory in Oral Tradition:  The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Tenney, M. C. (1981). The Gospel of John. In F. E. Gaebelein (General Ed.). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol 9, pp 3-203.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan.

©  2013 Carroll Smith

This entry was posted in: A Charlotte Mason Education, Narration


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 Comment

  1. Fascinating observations. I have always loved those verses in Deuteronomy, and heard them ‘come at’ from many parenting/teaching angles, but never this one. Passing this on… 🙂 Best wishes at the conference. Wish I was going to be there, but maybe another year.

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