Living Stones Academy

Educating by atmosphere, discipline, and life

Why Living Books Need Experience

on May 20, 2011

I’m finally finishing up Karen Andreola’s book “A Charlotte Mason Companion”. In the chapter on grading, she talks about a personal experience at the Daniel Boone homestead that brought something sharply home to me. I don’t think it’s been said anywhere, though I haven’t read all of Charlotte Mason’s book so I can’t say for sure. It sounded like Andreola was drawing her own conclusions. At any rate, her recounting reminded me of two experiences I had on my last trip to England, 13 years ago . . . hmm, make that 3 experiences. Anyway, it also made me realize that the subjects of science, nature study, history, math, literature, and maybe anything else we study need the companions of living books and  experience. In fact, in my mind, you cannot study (at least) science, nature study, or history without both. Here’s why.

My trip to England was a solo trip. My friend, who had planned it with me originally, had decided it wasn’t prudent for her to go at that time. That’s not something that’s likely to stop me, so I went anyway. What was funny is these 3 experiences that came back to me were all repeats of things I had done 4 years earlier. Now, I’m not listing them in order of how they happened, but how I remembered them this time. 

  1. The first was visiting Highgate Cemetery.  Highgate is the burial place of many famous men and women, including Karl Marx. On my first trip, it was overcast and rainy, typical spring weather. I wanted a picture of George Eliot’s tomb, but she’s buried on the opposite side of her lover and I had to climb over and on to his slab to do it! Remember: overcast, rainy, cemetery, England. You don’t have to have seen Poltergeist a dozen times to get the heebie-jeebies. (Unfortunately I had) As soon as I snapped my picture I jumped down, but as the two slabs were on a slight incline what I jumped on to was nothing less than a mudslide, and I went down on my rear! Going back to this same location 4 years later—this time in the summer heat—I remembered the muddy pants but not why. As soon as I saw the tombs I remembered and laughed at myself. But that’s not the experience I mean. Coming up to the cemetery, I had to walk around the outside wall and fence to get to the entrance. There were many old, worn tombstones nearly buried in tall grass and weeds pressing eagerly against the fence. Once inside, walking off the trails marked on the map, you see many of these tombstones. They are on top of each other, crowding each other for space. Obviously over the centuries they’d simply run out of room. I have no idea where the caskets/bodies must be (and don’t really care to think about it). I didn’t remember this part from my first visit, but this time it overwhelmed me. Many of these stones have been rubbed smooth and you can no longer see the inscriptions. One I saw from outside only had a single name legible: Rebecca. I was struck by this thought, that most of these people were buried by someone who at one time cared. Many had visitors, for months, maybe years afterward. Then eventually, the visits stopped. That thought morphed into a question: does anyone remember Rebecca? This thought stayed with me for a long time.
  2. The second experience was a contemplation of the great Tower of London. I’d visited this place both times, and the first time was with a young girl and we both had the same guide book. We stopped a beefeater to ask him where the jewels were kept, and he started gesturing excitedly at us saying, “You have the good book!” Turned out it was HIS picture on the front of our book, so we had a good laugh and he took great pleasure in insisting on autographing it for us. That and two other beefeaters making fun of our American English (we asked if we could take pictures, and they responded with a smile, “You can’t take pictures, you’ll get arrested. But you’re welcome to take photographs.”), and it was a good time. This second time, more contemplative. As I followed the tour guide into King Henry VIII’s throne room—he of the many wives and decapitations—I realized that, in all I’d read, he was quite feared. All monarchs were feared and had absolute power and many behaved on whims. Let me point out here, that my own experience with learning history has been from living books—historical fiction, colorful renderings in books devoted to a topic, studying medieval literature, etc. So that is where I have my foundation. I don’t remember actually anything taught in history class in school; all knowledge I posses is my own personal pursuit in living books. So I already had an emotional attachment to Henry. And it occurred to me to think: what would he think of these people parading through his throne room snapping photographs? Later, when I crossed the top of Tower Bridge and looked down, I saw how the Tower of London is now dwarfed and crowded out by modern civilization. What once was a tower of terror, now was a money machine that no one was afraid to enter. Henry would be furious at the lack of fear, I think.
  3. Last was the London Dungeon, a museum of torture, death, and horror in English history. Yes, I’m a sick puppy! There’s even a wax depiction of Henry and his wives. Demonstrations of the rack, etc. I am particularly fascinated by the Jack the Ripper mystery. (If you click on the link there, look under Games and Diversions, then Original Fiction, and the name Tanya Dubnow . . .that’s me. Smile ) I must have seen the tv movie with Michael Caine a dozen times. My fascination with mystery I suppose. Anyway, enough about my perversions . . .So of course I wanted to do the Jack the Ripper segment again. It’s a separate tour or “attraction” you can opt for. I’ve read the clinical reports of what happened, so I’m no stranger to the names and descriptions. But something happened this time. The tour guide became impatient with his inattentive group—a lot of teens making faces and giggling and pointing at the oversized post mortem photos on the wall. So finally he raised his voice and said (to this effect, I don’t remember the exact words), “Try to remember that this isn’t fiction!  These were real women, who lived real lives, and who really breathed, who were brutally and viciously murdered. It’s not a game!” That was sobering, even for me, even though I thought I had a proper understanding. But that’s when I realized something else. These victims were prostitutes. In their day, they were nameless, faceless, objects, nonentities. No one cared about them one way or another. But then Jack came along, and because they died horribly at his hands, we know about them today. We know what they looked like, their names, and some of them their histories. All because they were cruelly killed. That’s a major turn that history did for them.

Just reading about these places and peoples never afforded me what apparently happened that summer: empathy, appreciation, and understanding. No matter how good the book or film or play or song or poem, nothing takes the place of really being there or doing it. Experience is a teacher that has no substitute. Nature study, Charlotte Mason style, lives by this in the keeping of nature journals. I’ve been astounded at the connections Caleb has made by starting to really keep one; those connections come by his hearing the facts from a text (through mommy’s reading or rewording) and also handling the thing himself. Obviously, there will be limitations to what we can experience firsthand; though I’d love to travel to York with my family someday and visit the Viking museum, I doubt it will happen. But we can reenact, build models, try to build something the way the Puritans did, attempt a trek to mimic Lewis and Clark . . . .we can never underestimate what actually doing a thing can teach.


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