Transcript for SS #57: Heroes First! (with Wendi Capehart)
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Brandy: You’re listening to Scholé Sisters episode number 57.
Welcome to Scholé Sisters, the podcast for the classical homeschooling mama who seeks to learn and grow while she’s helping her children learn and grow. Scholé Sisters is a casual conversation about topics that matter to those of us in the trenches of classical homeschooling who yearn for something more than just checking boxes and getting it all done. I’m your host, Brandy Vencel. You can find me at Afterthoughts—that’s my main blog, and also Teaching Reading with Bob Books, which is where I keep my line of printable phonics lessons. You can hear more from me on my other podcast, AfterCast. My co-host today is Mystie Winckler. Mystie is a second-generation homeschooler with five kids and too many projects. Through her blog, podcast, and membership, she spurs homemakers to further diligence and delight in their work at home. You can find her over at SimplyConvivial.com.
We are thrilled to finally have Wendi Capehart on the show today. Wendi has been working with the AmblesideOnline Advisory for over twenty years. She and her husband, Bill, have been Christians since their teens, they married at twenty, they’ve been married thirty-seven years. They have seven children, fourteen grandchildren, and they have helped raise their perfectly delightful two godsons, as well as occasionally hosting Japanese exchange students and Ukrainian orphans. The Capeharts have lived all over the world; most recently in the Philippines for two years where they served as missionaries with a Christian school. In January they will be moving to Malaysia where they will help establish a learning center among other projects. There is a link in our Show Notes if you’d like to subscribe to their newsletter. Wendi blogs at WendiWanders.blogspot.com. She also has published an e-zine called Education for All, and that actually contains a lot of what we’re talking about in this episode. So, if you would like to check that out, you can go to https://gumroad.com/wendiwanders.
We want to remind you to head on over to the ScholeSisters.com/laugh because this year’s retreat, Laughing Well, takes place on Saturday, September 21, so it’s coming up really soon. You want to make sure you’ve got your registration in.
Today, we are talking about why it is not whitewashing to introduce heroes in a child’s education to the exclusion of some of the, shall we say, darker subjects. I think you’re going to like this topic. And so, without further ado, let’s get to it.
[00:02:48] Scholé Every Day
Brandy: Well, let’s start off with our Scholé Every Day. Mystie, I’ll have you go first so that Wendi understands how this all goes.
Mystie: Yes! I’m excited because this time—it might be a first ever—I’m sharing a book that I have finished and not a book that I just started or plan to start. [Laughter]
Brandy: Good idea.
Mystie: So I just finished Middlemarch by George Eliot and I loved it.
Brandy: I’ve never read that.
Mystie: Oh, it was so good. It was close to 40 hours on audio. I listened to the audio. I think that I will read it again in the book form because there were so many good quotes that I know I missed saving most of them because they just go right by but her use of language, it’s like every sentence has a paragraph of meaning.
Mystie: It’s so rich and our characters are so rich and deep and very human. And I was even thinking it ties into our topic a little bit today. I thought of a connection in that Dorothea (one of the main characters is someone who kind of lives in a different kind of world than she actually lives in, you know, in her mind and actions she would fit more into the heroic type past and that’s what’s populated her moral imagination, more than actual reality. So actual reality kind of takes her by surprise. And she won’t listen to her reality checks and commonsense people that are around her trying to warn her, which, about half the time is good and about half the time is not so good.
Mystie: It’s not black and white. There are good things and bad things. I really enjoyed the very last bit. So, I promise this is not giving away anything
Brandy: Oh, I was going to say, “Don’t do it!”
Mystie: It’s like the last sentence.
Wendi: Stop. Stop. [Laughter]
Mystie: So, the novel opens likening Dorothea to St. Teresa of Avila and how she doesn’t quite have the same scope because she lives in Middlemarch, very middle class, out of the way country town. So can she do any good with her life in such a provincial life is one of the questions.
“A new Teresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life any more than a new Antigone would spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brothers burial. The medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone, but we, insignificant people, with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.”
“The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive. For the growing good of the world is partially dependent on unhistoric acts and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Wendi: That’s really good.
Brandy: Okay …
Mystie: It was a beautiful book.
Brandy: … I’m gonna buy it.
Wendi: You can get it for free in the public domain.
Brandy: That’s right.
Mystie: I did, as soon as I heard it, go and mark this quote, because this one’s for Brandy. These are widows and older married women who are sharing their various physical ailments. There’s a new doctor in town. So they are a little skeptical. She says,
“Mrs. Renfro, the Colonel’s widow was not only unexceptionable in point of breeding but also interesting on the ground of her complaint which puzzled the doctors and seemed clearly a case where in the fullness of professional knowledge might need the supplement of quackery.”
Brandy: That is awesome! I know a lady that might qualify for that quote.
Mystie: You could say if Si listens, never mind, that quote’s for Si. [nb. Si is Brandy’s husband]
Brandy: Yeah really! That’s awesome. Even better than I expected. Well Wendi, what are you reading these days?
Wendi: I am reading a ton of stuff because I haven’t had access to hard books much for the last two years. Not a lot.
Brandy: Oh, that’s right.
Wendi: So I just finished, though, a five-volume set for kids called, The Mistmantle Chronicles.
Brandy: I just heard of those.
Wendi: I only heard of them in April and I’m kind of annoyed about that. I’m a little offended. Who knew and didn’t tell me? I should have been told. These are by M. I. McAllister. M is for Margaret. In describing them it will sound a little like Redwall but they’re really not much like Redwall—they’re about this island, Mist Mantle, that is peopled by anthropomorphic otters and moles and hedgehogs and squirrels and occasional visiting swans, but they’re so much richer and deeper than Redwall. McAllister is the wife of a pastor and he was, I think, Methodist, I’m not 100% sure. They have a lot of depth and maturity; there is adventures. Urchin is the main squirrel in the first couple of volumes and he’s an orphan with a mysterious past because you know, all the makings of all the best classic books, but the characters are just lovely and they are steeped in a Christian worldview. They’re not blatantly overtly Christian, for the most part, but the second volume opens with this quote,
“Great heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, thou ruler of all.”
Wendi: The deity in that is referred to most often they call Heart, and it’s just really lovely. I really wish I had been introduced to them when they were first published. They are widely available and e-version, ebooks, you get them on your Kindle, you can check them out from Hoopla for your library if you have access to that. If you want hard copies, you’re going to have to hock one of your kids for the fifth volume. [Laughter]
Brandy: I know just which one (just kidding!).
Wendi: That fifth volume, I understand, was never published in the United States. So maybe if you have friends in the United Kingdom maybe they could find you a hard copy of it. It wasn’t published in the U.S. so it’s harder to find a hardcopy of. Right now, it’s actually fairly cheap, it’s only around a hundred dollars, from what I’ve seen. A couple of years ago people who were looking for it (I looked at discussions) they were talking about nine hundred dollars for a paperback. It’s really an awesome series but it’s not worth nine hundred dollars.
Wendi: Especially when you can get it for, you know, six or seven on your Kindle or free from your library if you do ebook.
Brandy: We need to get the Living Books library guy on that project; have him republish those so that they can be widely available.
Wendi: If he can. Disney Hyperion, the last I looked, owned the rights and I don’t know that they share well with others.
Brandy: Oh, wow.
Wendi: You should probably edit that out.
Brandy: Point taken.
Wendi: I don’t want to be sued.
Brandy: Nor do we. Too bad. So they’ll make it into a terrible movie someday.
Wendi: That’s what I’m afraid of. It’s just really beautiful. Just lovely. I pretty much cried through the last two or three chapters of the fifth volume. And I had been thinking as I was reading through them, I know it ends after five volumes, how is it going to end in a way that is satisfactory but not just tidily wrapping everything up in a bow. And she did it. She did it. And then she seemed to have quit. I don’t know, I wish she would write more. I mean, other stories. She doesn’t have to continue with Mistmantle but I wish she would write other stories.
Brandy: Well, I wrote it down again to remind myself to start shopping for those books. I’d love to have hard copies if I could just because we only have one Kindle. So, the six people sharing the one Kindle always gets interesting, especially since, technically, there’s a person who is the personal owner of that Kindle. He doesn’t really approve of everybody else using his Kindle. So, he tries. He tries to share is all I can say. Well mine, today, is The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and I remember when this book came out about 10 years ago, and I had wanted a copy so bad, but I didn’t have any expendable income for fun books for me. Everything had to double as something that would work for school and so I just kind of have sat on it ever since and I was looking for something to read in my library and nothing struck my fancy, so I didn’t just buy The Black Swan, I actually bought the four-volume set, Incerto, his work. So, I’m trying to explore him as a thinker so I’m about maybe halfway through The Black Swan now. I’ve been reading it a lot. It’s like my chiropractic visit book, basically, and it is interesting. I had read such great things about him being, I don’t want to say that people were calling it a living book, but just that he was so relatable and he didn’t write like an academic and I agree but he’s like a name-dropper like you would not believe. So I find him a little bit annoying like he’s he wants you to know that he’s been places and knows people and has read things, you know, so I find him a little bit annoying But he’s interesting because he’s very obviously like a just your mainstream secularist. So he was born in Lebanon before the war and ended up here basically because of the war—how do I explain him? So he’s very influenced by Darwin; he has that evolutionary sort of world view—my point is I could sum up his whole book with “many are the plans in a man’s heart, you know, but the Lord directs his steps” because ultimately, to me, in reading The Black Swan as a Christian, it’s like, ‘Oh, what he means is ‘we think we know and then we find out that we don’t because we’re not actually in charge of everything.’ So it’s been sort of amusing as a Christian to read some of this that he’s saying things that are shocking like we can’t know the future. “There’s a whole theology around that.” But it’s still great fun. And I don’t know if you’ve read it, Wendi.
Wendi: I have not. I follow him on Twitter, but I haven’t read any of his work.
Brandy: I think what you would like about him is when he starts going after academics for, basically, purporting to be authoritative but their actual record, their actual track record, is not any better than like an uninformed taxicab driver’s would be. He says the difference is that the taxicab driver would never claim to know about it. So it’s very interesting; he hasn’t brought up climate change, but I was thinking about how you know when my dad was a kid they were saying they were going to have an ice age and then when I was a kid that was going to be like, you know, we were all supposed to be underwater right now, right, living on a raft somewhere. I saw that movie and so now it’s like, you know, there’s this constant forecasting and it’s never right but we always think the next forecast, well, not we, but they.
Wendi: We’re always surprised but we never were.
Brandy: Yes, exactly. Exactly. So actually, it kind of reminds me of Thomas Sol too because Thomas Sol talks about that with social programs where we look at their intentions, but we never judge them by their actual effectiveness or lack thereof. Anyway, so it’s fun and he was like a Wall Street Trader. I grew up in a home where my dad was a stockbroker and the market was talked about at dinner every night basically, so it’s fun I feel like, ‘Oh, he’s my people, I get him.’ So that’s been fun.
[00:16:46] Topical Discussion
Brandy: Anyway, I suppose we should transition to our topical discussion and, Wendi, you are the reason—I mean we always invite people on that we think we would have a good conversation with, but you were actually requested, you’re the reason for this episode in the sense that someone came to us and said, “please make her explain this” …
Wendi: Oh, I’m so nervous.
Brandy: So I think it was at AO Camp (if I remember correctly) that you made a passing comment, and so we got this comment when we were asking for ideas for the upcoming season, someone wrote in and said:
“I heard Wendi Capehart mention that we need to be careful in the books we present to our kids so as not to make them cynics. I would love to hear more about this idea, maybe an interview with her even (which is why you’re here). She also says it here when discussing the David Macaulay book,” and she gave me a link. So I went and picked up what you said about the David Macaulay book, and so you were talking about Motel of the Mysteries, which I had never heard of, so naturally, I bought it …
Wendi: It’s hilarious.
Brandy: And I read it and I could see what you meant because it’s basically making fun of the narratives around archaeology…
Wendi: Sitting on the seat of corners, and it’s hilarious.
Brandy: Yes. It is hilarious, but I could also see what you meant. So, you wrote in your post, you said,
“This is a good time [you were talking about study of ancient histories] to read a book on the science of archaeology as well as the thought-provoking Motel of the Mysteries by David McCaulay, but, don’t do this book with students younger than about sixth grade or twelve or so. Remember, we do not want to make cynics of children too young. It does not increase their discernment. It makes them unbecomingly opinioned, arrogant, and judge-y far too young.”
I thought I would follow that up with one final thing for introducing this before you have to defend yourself which was Charlotte Mason in volume 6 quotes this guy named Mr. Fisher who’s actually quoting John Stuart Mill.
Wendi: AH! You stole my thunder!
Brandy: Did I really? Should I stop?
Wendi: No, that’s awesome! Go ahead.
Brandy: Okay, so she (well, it’s Mill) says,
“Of course, there is a great deal to criticise in any country, and I should be the last person to suggest that the critical faculty should not be exercised and trained at school. But before we teach children to criticise the institutions of their country, before we teach them to be critical of what is bad, let us teach them to recognize and admire what is good. After all life is very short; we all of us have only one life to live, and during that life let us get into ourselves as much love, as much admiration, as much elevating pleasure as we can, and if we view education merely as discipline in critical bitterness, then we shall lose all the sweets of life and we shall make ourselves unnecessarily miserable. There is quite enough sorrow and hardship in this world as it is without introducing it prematurely to young people.”
Wendi: He said it all really. What is there to add to that? It’s brilliant. And he says everything. I can add some stuff because I can always talk about Charlotte Mason and her ideas and my opinions on education, but I think that quote should be put at the forefront of probably at least years one to three before you start. We’re just too quick to introduce topics that are prone to bring more bitterness than understanding more periods in life before children have the developmental capabilities to deal with it.
Brandy: I want to go back to your comment that you made on your blog where you said,
“We don’t want to make sense of children too young.” You said, “it does not increase their discernment it makes them unbecomingly opinioned, arrogant and judgy far too young,” and I thought that was really interesting because I do think that the parents that are wanting to have these conversations at young ages, they’re generally well-intentioned.
Wendi: Absolutely. Absolutely! The intentions are good. We know about the best intentions and I’ve done this myself is that, you know, I am not speaking out of my hat about something I have not personally observed. I have done this with myself and my own kids, and yes, we all want compassionate children. We want them to be able to see somebody else’s point of view. We want them to have meaningful empathy for the less fortunate, for victims of injustice, we want them to avoid being the perpetrator of injustice, but we approach this in ways that undercut our goal, in my opinion, when we when we introduce these things too early. One of the ways we end up doing it is we read badly written books, message fiction, we turn things into morality tale which we all know, Charlotte Mason warned us against. She talked specifically about goody-goody books and twaddle, she doesn’t call it message fiction or message books, but that’s what it is. And when you do that the first single issue thing is too heavy handed and they’re not rich enough to fill the imagination which was actually the subject of my talk at AO Camp. Miss Mason talked about the purpose of the types of books she wanted use with the youngest children: the fairy tales, the hero tales, both in history and in mythology and literature, as the purpose of that is because it’s so hard and so rich that it fills the imagination and squeezes out thought of self, but when we reduced it down to these single issue topics and get little bitty kids all worked up about issues that are bigger than they are, they have nowhere to go with that, it produces more focus on self, which which results in continually focusing on self and their opinions and how they feel about things and how they’re going to be, you know, heroic and overcome all these errors in their country’s history. It narrows, it doesn’t expand their sympathies. It makes them self-conscious, self-centered, and opinionated to the point of arrogance is actually a quote from the PR article [Parents’ Review article] on avoiding goody-goody books.
Brandy: Oh, really.
Wendi: We want a wider outlook. It takes time. We want shortcuts, that’s why we jump to the warts in history and the bad guys (see how bad this was? We don’t want to repeat this.) We want a shortcut but that doesn’t usually work. Shortcuts almost never result in the kind of effects that we want. We want their sympathies to grow naturally and Mason talked again and again and again about starting out with what’s close to them. So instead of focusing on the big injustices, that are bigger than the kids are, and they can’t really understand them, wrap their heads around them, and they can’t really do anything about it at that age, focus on what’s near them: being kind and fair and generous to the people around them, people in their homes, people in their neighborhoods, people they go to church with. You want to start with what Vigan Diorian, he calls it “the sure vision of the goodness of goodness.” Children are also not very good at nuance. We’ve all noticed when they’re reading their history they always want to know who are the good guys.
Wendi: Who are the good guys in every battle? Were they good or were they bad? They’re ready for the worst in history when they stop asking that question because they understand that in every battle there are people on both sides who meant well. Who maybe were wrong but they believed they were right and they believed what they were doing was heroic and good, that they were fighting for something worth fighting for. When they can understand that then they can understand and handle the bad and unpleasant stuff about their own country’s history. I would also say when parents are fighting, good parents kind of protect their children from that, we don’t go into details about what Mom and Dad are fighting about out. God forbid it comes to divorce. In general, we try to help children stay on good terms with that parent. Their love of country is something we need to be tender about too. You just don’t want to bring them into this stuff too little. It’s too big, it’s too hard for them. We need to let kids be kids and protect their childhood. In Witness by Whittaker Chambers he told the story about one of his daughters, I think it’s a homeless person she sees he’s obviously in and bad shape, and they give him some money or food or something, and his daughter asked (she’s only five) but she asked her dad, “What happened to him? Why is he like he is?” and Chambers tells her just a very little bit and then he says, “This is enough for you to know right now. This is a grown-up problem. It’s not something for you to be concerned about yet, that you will learn more when you’re older. I will tell you more when you’re older.” “But right now,” she said, “it’s just too sad for me?” and he says, “Yes.” And I think that adults need to be more careful to let the kids mature and grow up and develop, to mentally develop, reach that point where they are not so hardnosed and black and white, but they can understand nuances and complexities; that people sometimes do wretchedly bad things, and bad people surprisingly, occasionally, do shockingly good things that seem out of character that you can’t just necessarily pigeonhole everybody and everything that has ever happened. You know, no country is really all good or all bad in their entire history, but we tend to moralize and reduce things down to slogan black and white issues that are not actually true anymore because we’ve taken all the complexity out of it.
Brandy: That’s interesting. What is that? I’m trying to remember the name of the book that I read. It was a fiction tale but it was like World War II, Germany. And there’s the angel of death in it. What is this called? I’ll have to figure it out and I have it somewhere on my shelf. I just can’t remember the title for some reason. Sorry. Talk about an obscure reference. Anyway, I’ll put it in the Show Notes once I figure out what it is, but the thing that struck me about this particular book was that it talks about the people in Germany during World War II as if they are perfectly normal people. And in reading the book it dawned on me I have only ever seen a caricature of Nazi Germany. I mean, Nazis were bad, but it never connected that maybe everybody in Germany didn’t agree with this, and maybe they were just trying to live their normal lives, and maybe they didn’t know what to do, and maybe they … talk about lack of nuance. I realized I had none. All I had was “Germany bad.”
Wendi: It’s really easy to view history that way and to think of people as monsters—that group of people are monsters that we wouldn’t be like that. Unfortunately, we would, we are, we do. There are areas in all of our lives where if we really took the time to think about what we’ve taught or did, it would be embarrassing. We don’t want every single thought that crosses our mind facing the glare of the light of day. We all have places we need to grow and we are all capable of doing great harm to other people. And it happens the same way it happened in Germany. We get locked up in our own lives. We’re all capable of injustice—even people fighting injustice are often utilizing unjust measures against other people or they’re not thinking fairly and justly about other people—this is something Mason stressed a lot.
Brandy: The Book Thief—that was the book I was talking about.
Wendi: I’ve heard of that one. I don’t think I’ve read it.
[00:29:29] Where do we start in order to get to nuance later?
Mystie: So, how do we get the nuance or do we just wait for the nuance? Because I think that the people who want to show both sides are trying to get at that nuance. So its kind of like are they two sides of the same coin? Like, we’re only talking about heroes and all the good things only or saying, “Well, they need nuance, so we’re going to talk about how people are bad too.” But it seems like you’re talking about there being a developmental stage to this. So where do we start in order to get to nuance later?
Wendi: We start with the hero tales and the more sweeping vision of history where the kids are still asking who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? And we’re not necessarily telling them. All we’re telling them is it’s harder than that. It’s harder than that. And as they read through biographies and memoirs and fairy tales (which are fabulous for the moral imagination) and they’re gradually developing that ability to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes, to see somebody else’s point of view, to see multiple points of view, to understand that sometimes there’s not a black and white, sometimes there’s not a good guy and a bad guy, sometimes there’s two flawed people making bad mistakes. They will come to develop that the more widely and richly they read so that it kind of develops on its own with a little bit of extra help from us, just a few little comments along the way answering those questions in a more respectful way without just sweeping negative generalizations “America bad.” I think we can say, “Slavery in America was bad, but I’m not sure that we can say every single person who owned a slave was bad through and through. I’m not justifying slave-owning at all but I am saying even people who were enslaved themselves when they left slavery sometimes had good things to say about some of the people. They hated the condition. I’m not really explaining this well—scratch that all.
Mystie: Well, it’s not a one size. It isn’t black and white. Thomas Jefferson: people want to either make him a hero where he was all good or well he owned slaves so therefore everything good that he did we can’t respect it.
Wendi: Yes, and people grow. They’re not all good and they’re not all evil. They have laws. They have good qualities. David is a classic example. A friend of mine, his dad was Asian (to protect his anonymity I’m not going to go into specifically which country and language group), but he was Asian and he was what he calls “fresh off the boat” when he married his American mother from the south. My friend’s granddad (the father of his American mom) was furious and he used some significantly disturbing racial slurs that I cannot even repeat and had very strong opinions on this relationship and they were all negative. But this same grandfather when my friend’s dad ended up abandoning the family and pursuit of other women, kind of an organized-crime lifestyle, the same grandfather who had used all these racial slurs and seemed to have no redeeming qualities, particularly around his attitude towards race, he stepped in and helped raise my friend and he was his mentor, he was his friend, his ally, his supporter, his nurturer. He was the person my friend needed in his life and he loves him and respects him so much and says he made him the man that he is and he’s a Christian, he’s a Believer, and he’s walking with the Lord. It would be very easy to dismiss him as that point in his story, you know, when the couple married. And he said those things and that wasn’t the end of his story, that wasn’t the end of his impact, his involvement, and we need to give people a chance to grow even in history. We need to understand that. We’re only seeing part of the picture, of any picture. We need to help our kids understand that. So before we show them that all their heroes have feet of clay, that some of them, maybe even were up to their necks in clay. First, we start with showing the wider picture—this ability to grasp frail human nature after they’ve gotten this rich, rich background of myths and fairy tales and living books, and also some experiences with real people, who want to nourish your compassion and sensitivity, you don’t just get that from a book but you’ve also got to be out there and doing things in your church, your community, your neighborhood—looking for opportunities to serve and do real things for real people because this is the other the other side of this—too quick to introduce all the war and in the service of fighting injustice. We want to nurture a meaningful sympathy. We call this empathy today. Charlotte Mason never used that word because it turns out it wasn’t in use until the fifties; it was always sympathy. We don’t just want to feed the sense of self-righteousness and one of the problems with awakening this kind of self-righteous indignation about topics that are bigger than the kids are and that they can’t do anything about, too early, we don’t nurture sympathy or empathy that way we nurture something that’s more like empty sentimentalism. They have this indignant sense of injustice and they can’t do anything about it. Then that’s harmful to them and it doesn’t produce the kind of compassion and empathy and a warm sense of justice, accompanied by human compassion and human understanding of human frailty. There was another PR article (I’m afraid I can’t give you the date of this one and the volume number, I just quoted it) it says,
“There are few things more injurious to character than the idol indulgence and emotions which result in action of no kind and then the feelings of emotions themselves become the end with empty sentimentalism is a real danger of the present day [which is interesting because I know this must have been from the early 1900’s] it’s a habit that grows upon one making us feel that we are quite virtuous without the necessity of making a real effort for lone made virtue the virtuous.”
And then the author of that article, William James who says,
“whenever resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical proof it’s worse than a waste of time.”
A waste of time was my phrase, but that’s what he’s saying. We can’t let that happen. You can’t let that warm feeling of self-righteousness and indignation evaporate without actually acting on. It is wasting time when you’re building the sentiment of habit. You’re building a habit of letting sentiment pass without prompting to any deeds. And so, the indirectly sentimental condition is set up. Don’t let sympathetic feelings pass without some outlet in action, no matter how small that action is. Even if it’s only speaking kindly to your aunt, holding a door open for somebody, sending an encouraging note to somebody, you don’t want to permit the indulgence of idle sympathy. Children need to put action to sentiment in a meaningful way. The article says in a family this is easier than in a school because in a family there is always somebody to whom the child can show kindness, some definite person who could be saved a pain or given a pleasure. But mere sentiment is deadening to real compassion. Vague and impersonal feelings without action result in our own complacency when we mistake those misty feelings for virtue.
Mystie: So that’s the information-action ratio, which we had an episode on last season applying it to Mom’s, but applying it to our kids and their education too, because we’re framing their habit of mind as we read to them and educate them.
Wendi: Right. So don’t give them such big problems that are overwhelming, just as you wouldn’t go into every detail of every argument that you have with your husband (even when he’s wrong) because it’s not for the children to have to deal with something so grown up.
Wendi: So be careful about that and then when they don’t let them just engage in their idol. It’s very pleasurable to feel superior to everybody else because [Laughter] they’re not. It is just really far too easy to indulge that feeling. And it sounds ugly and hilarious when I frame it that way but that’s what happens so often, is this sort of smug, “I would never do that. It’s terrible that they did. I, of course, was not made that way,” without giving them opportunities to actually practice compassionate, empathetic behavior.
Brandy: It is interesting. And I never really thought about it this way, but in asking small children to judge adults when small children have very limited temptations. It’s very easy to feel superior when you’ve never had an opportunity to commit any of the sins that you’re judging.
Wendi: Right. And you’ve never experienced any of the problems that the people dealing with them have, which is similar to what you said about the temptation, but it’s much easier to think that this should or shouldn’t happen when you are not actually dealing with the situation that out of which those circumstances actually happened.
Mystie: One of the connections I’m making (this might be going out on a controversial limb but I don’t think it’s a limb) is on both sides of the issues, the whitewashed version of history and the doubters/skeptics version of history, under both of those are problems that come out of people’s rejection of myths and fairy tales and fantasy. If the only stories that you are allowed or providing for your children all have to come from history because they have to be true and you’re presenting them as true, like factual stories, but they are appropriate to the age, they’re hero tales, but you’re presenting them as this is true, then it becomes a problem when they get older where things have never been complicated stories. And it’s kind of like Brandy was saying where she realized that she never thought sympathetically about Nazi Germany …
Wendi: Everyday German’s building their lives.
Wendi: Just trying to put food on the table and not end up being killed themselves.
[00:41:16] The Value of Myths and Fairy Tales
Mystie: So this is where the value of myths and fairy tales comes in for young children is it gives them this bigger, broader picture of the world, where they aren’t being asked to judge real people but they are being presented with complex stories.
Wendi: Situation sentimentalism stories.
Mystie: And good and evil both, but not in a way that is threatening to their world or their patriotism.
Brandy: This is interesting because I didn’t expect this necessarily to turn into a discussion about how virtue would be taught, but I feel like it’s becoming that, and I hadn’t really thought about this, but cynics aren’t the embodiment of virtue. They’re usually standing aside casting judgment, but they’re not active.
Wendi: In one sense they’re like the dwarves in The Last Battle.
Brandy: Yes! Oh my goodness. You’re so right. I had not even thought of that.
Mystie: Well, see, fiction fantasy stories give us those kind of categories.
Wendi: Yes, and you know, I like the dwarves in The Last Battle and I kind of get where they’re coming from. That’s an easier place to stand for. You don’t have any decision to make. You can just sit there and make fun of everybody and it’s not your responsibility. But, in fact, we do have a responsibility to choose, and eventually children will develop to that stage where that’s appropriate, but you don’t ask a four year old to choose a parent’s side in a disagreement. You don’t ask them to take sides in a 200 year long national argument either. Let them grow and develop a little more maturity and experience and wisdom under their belts before that. And the thing about reaching out, active service for other people, that may seem a little disconnected and unrelated, but active compassion is what matters. All the right thinking in the world is useless if it doesn’t produce, it’s worse than useless, it’s harmful if it doesn’t produce some right action. So they need to be starting young connecting those feelings with meaningful, helpful, considerate, compassionate action. And also they’re learning along the way this is not always easy. It’s not always convenient or comfortable to make cookies and take them to the neighbors that just has moved in up the street especially if you’re an introvert. It’s not always easy or comfortable to go out and pick up the trash in the yard or weed a neighbors yard, or offer to take somebody else’s turn to clean your church building if your church building does that, you know, build cleanup. Acting compassionately is not always easy. It’s easy to think about but it’s not always easy to do.
Mystie: And personal comfort is such a default value today that I think we have to actively fight against that tendency.
Brandy: Wow. Okay, I’m sorry, I’m still trying to work this out a little bit. So I was just thinking more and more about this. So cynics are the judgy ones, so they’re the dwarves, but we talked about the well-intentioned parents who, I mean, we’ve seen the extreme sometimes, right, in the AO Facebook group where you’ve got the young mom who just turns every history reading into a discussion on racism or patriarchy or whatever, but I can see now how she wants the hero, right? She wants the person who’s going to defeat racism, but I can see how, now that we’ve talked about this little bit, how it would actually produce cynicism. So, she wants to avoid what she would think of as a whitewashed version of history when she’s teaching her children, but what you’re talking about is actually intended to cultivate a general love. Am I heading in the right direction?
Wendi: I think so.
Brandy: Heroism is based on love, right?
Wendi: And you can say things along the way like, “Remember there’s always two sides.” “Remember everybody isn’t all good and all bad.” David, again, David is a fabulous example of that. He did an absolutely horrible thing to Bathsheba and Bathsheba’s husband. We don’t usually start, by the way, when we were teaching children Bible stories, that’s not the first story we tell them about David. [Laughter]
Brandy: That’s true.
Wendi: A lot of people leave that out until much, much later—and that’s really all I’m saying, give it some developmentally appropriate time before you’re asking little kids to make great big judgments that adults still can’t agree on or handle appropriately. So the intention is good, but I think that a lot of modern books and approaches to these issues are really just the current incarnation of the goody-goody single issue message book that children wonder about because they are counterproductive. They don’t result in what you’re looking for. They sometimes will make a child actually sicken of the subject because it’s handled so poorly, the one dimensional, that it’s not interesting, it doesn’t catch their imagination. It doesn’t light that fire that you wanted. It makes them roll their eyes and go, “Here she goes again.” And so it’s counterproductive. It’s not producing what you want. It’s not telling kids the truth, it’s telling kids a single one dimensional truth without giving them anything nourishing and life-giving to accompany it, to help fill it out, to help them digest it.
Brandy: You just reminded me of an Adam Sandler scene.
Mystie: Oh dear.
Brandy: Sorry. Have you ever seen the movie Bedtime Stories?
Wendi: I’ve never even heard of it.
Brandy: Okay. I’m not necessarily recommending it because I don’t remember it. Well, here’s the thing too, I realized that I watched a number of movies while I was pregnant that I fell asleep during and I recommend them and people are like, “That was horrible!” and I’m like, “Oh, I must have been sleeping during that part of the movie.” So, I’m talking about the good parts, right? But there’s this scene where he’s reading (I can’t even remember why he’s reading bedtime stories, maybe he’s babysitting or something, I can’t remember) but the kids tell him that he has to read them a bedtime story, and he’s like, “All right, do you have any?” So he grabbed some books off the shelf and he’s like, “What is this? Rainbow Alligator Saves the Wetlands? The Organic Squirrel Gets a Bike Helmet? I’m not reading these Communists stories to you.”
Wendi: And that is how I feel about The Rainbow Fish. I must say. They’re morality tales. It’s just morality fiction. The topic has changed but the style has not changed and it’s the style and the idea that the whole philosophy behind it that “we will fix the world” would be quite so goody-goody.
Mystie: I hadn’t thought about that being the same as goody-goody.
Brandy: I hadn’t either.
Mystie: But it definitely is.
Wendi: And it’s sad because, again, the intention, the goal, the desire is honorable and admirable and so it’s really frustrating to see people walking along untying their own shoes every day and tripping on them, and not realizing what they’re doing to themselves.
[00:49:30] Protecting the Younger Siblings
Mystie: So I was wondering if you save the discussing of the nuanced version of history until later, how does that work logistically when you have a large homeschooling family all in one house? How do we protect or save that from the younger sibling side of things?
Wendi: That’s a really good question.
Mystie: Homeschoolers are particular about trying to be superior in their knowledge.
Wendi: We have seven kids and there’s a 15 year gap between the oldest and the youngest. The first five actually are really, really close together. I had four teenagers at once, just barely missed having five. Those five grew up on classical music and folk songs, of course folk songs, and I know this is a different topic but it’s the same sort, it’s a similar thing. The youngest two were introduced to pop culture in ways the oldest five didn’t even know existed. But because of that age group, you know, the older ones also lived at home longer, all of them pretty much until they got married, so they were bringing home their newfound interests, and it wasn’t specifically that it was objectionable, except honestly, you know, the lowest common denominator, is easy to like pop music. It will take a little bit more work to like classical music, a little more exposure. And so the youngest two were drawn to—and plus it’s the admiration of the older siblings—and so I’m thinking out loud as we go through this, you know, I told you they’re funny because now they see what happens, the oldest siblings, now that they have children, and a popular aunt and uncle (who are the babies of the family) are into pop culture… [Laughter]
Brandy: Oh, the irony.
Wendi: Draw them in, make them partner with you. If your family does Santa Claus, when you tell an older child about Santa Claus, you say, “Let’s protect the innocence of the younger children.” When you tell them about the facts of life you say, “Let’s not share this with your little sister.” So, perhaps that’s something you can do. Is explain it’s a developmental issue. It’s something I want your younger sibling to have a wider, happier view of life. Read them the John Stuart Mill’s quote, which I think is beautiful, and explain, “I want to protect the younger kids, so let’s be careful about what you say in front of them about heroes and what you know of history.” Have some private discussions about that. Like I said, I’m just spitballing here because I didn’t do this. [Laughter]
Brandy: Well, I was thinking, okay, that makes sense to me because I know that around here I’ve asked my older kids not to talk about certain topics with the younger ones, especially a couple years ago when my younger ones were, you know, still like third grade and I live in California, and there’s a lot of social issues going on all the time and I just didn’t think they needed to know every … I mean, sometimes, sometimes there are situations. I always tell the story that I lived next door to a transvestite growing up, so my parents had to explain gender assignment surgery when I was like super young, but my kids don’t need to know that because there’s no context for needing to know that, and so I’ve asked my older children not to mention it. Now, my youngest is 10 now so it’s not as big of an issue, but even now I feel like there are still things that I still want him to enjoy his life before junior high without being burdened by all of the crazy things going on here. Actually, this is kind of an attending thing, but I also was wondering then in this context, so you were talking about acts of sympathetic compassion, but it just dawned on me that what I have seen lately here, and this is with people with whom I agree on certain issues, but taking really young children to go do (and I mean really young, like even preschoolers) to go do activism at the state capitol. What do you think about those kinds of things?
Wendi: And, you know, I have taken, years ago, my older kids when they were younger, I did take them to a pro-life march a couple of times, one that was a gentler, kinder, no pictures of aborted babies, that kind of thing, but I actually think I shouldn’t have done that now.
Wendi: I think that one of those issues that I should have thought this is too big for little kids. They don’t have to deal with this. And again, where that line is will vary depending on the child and the parent and the family circumstances like you said, but Mason also talks about being very careful to impose our opinion on children and I don’t think it’s an opinion that life begins at conception, but I do think getting you know, children all worked up and letting them know that people are killing babies that are in the womb is maybe not something every child needs to hear all the time at every stage of development.
Mystie: And I think, too, in the multi-age, I think that the music example was a good one, because the child can still through that real life experience learn that things aren’t actually black and white by having it that diversity of experience. It’s just easy, it takes intention, because it’s easy to then let the easier music just predominate, but it takes work …
Wendi: Especially when you have a lot of kids in the house and we play music.
Mystie: And we’re going to still make sure that we have classical music because we’re still forming the tastes of these younger students and it’s not going to be as 100% but it still has to be in the mix.
Wendi: Right. And you have to be aware that it’s happening, which I kind of really wasn’t it seems. I don’t know. It seemed gradual. I don’t think it can have been as gradual as I feel like it was because on the other hands the whole background music in the house pretty much flipped over night. [Laughter] You have to pay attention to what’s going on. And I think also bringing your older kids into it by asking them to help you protect the sensibilities and the tender ages of their younger siblings is another act of intentional compassion that they can be thinking about. And it will help them with parenting when they’re older too. The line is going to be different. It’s not necessarily a hard core: grade three is okay, grade four is awesome, grade two is wrong. It’s nothing like that, I’m afraid. You have to just play it by ear and make your own mistakes, but keeping these things in mind and being intentional, like you said, and making the effort to just think about them and consider the developmental level of our kids and what we’re asking of them will help, just that alone, will help prevent a lot of the sort of results where we get the situation where just the emotion is a substitute for any meaningful actions for that sense of smug arrogance is seen as discernment, and it’s really not, it’s just smug arrogance.
Brandy: I remember one time I was sitting at Starbucks and there were some kids from the local college that were having a study group near me and they had a lot of opinions that they had probably been taught in their class, or I don’t know, maybe some other school at some other time, but they couldn’t really back them up. The discussion was a bunch of sound bites that they were obviously repeating from elsewhere, but I just kind of stopped what I was doing and listened for a while out of curiosity and they weren’t able to have a real discussion where someone took a line of reasoning and followed it which lead to some sort of logical or ethical conclusion and it was in that moment that I realized why getting our kids to ape our opinions isn’t really doing them any favors because I realized they had all the opinions that were right according to the liberal university that they were going to but they couldn’t back them up and they couldn’t think through them because they were just aping what they have been taught. It was really interesting. I’m thinking even more here about like the cynicism versus the heroism, and like what we really want is outcomes, and the idea that cynicism in many ways is probably an outcome of, well, you talked about shortcuts. So okay, I’m putting this together. Sorry, I’m still trying to put all this together …
Wendi: That’s alright.
Brandy: … but it’s the outcome of being in a hurry and the heroism takes a long time to develop and we could start to want fruit right now. We want to see, you know, the evidence of our hard work in homeschooling and parenting and all those things, but I think it takes longer to develop someone who can really be thoughtful about things. That takes a lot of reading and thinking and just living.
[00:59:23] Moral Preening
Wendi: Yeah, unfortunately or fortunately, I guess, all the worthwhile things generally are not found through shortcut. You’ve got to do the hard work so long, you know, taking the long view. And Charlotte Mason talks about volume four is a really good one for all the parents to read, in my opinion, and it gets it gets shortchanged a lot. We assign it to the kids in middle school but she talked a lot about issues that are related to this, about the responsibility we have to think justly of other people. Do not jump to conclusions about them and do not be full of a little bit of self-satisfaction about ourselves and who we are and how good we are because we aren’t like those other people. Like, you know, the Pharisee and the sinner praying in front of the temple in one of the gospels. We do tend to have that tendency. That is human nature to come to a conclusion to proceed what has gone before and think of ourselves as superior, we maybe wouldn’t use that word, but that is the feeling without any context, so we don’t realize the mistakes that we’re making—there’s no humility, we really need to cultivate a sense of humility and I think a sense of humor early on in children also to avoid some of these same kinds of negative results where there’s a lot of virtuous moral preening but no actual fruit from this moral preening.
Brandy: Moral preening. That’s a new one. I like that.
Mystie: Well, if you think about it, I think that comes, no matter the situation, it’s reinforced when a child, a student parrots back your opinion and they get rewarded for just agreeing with you, but we need to be requiring a thoughtful process. So not just being happy because they agree, but maybe even pushing back. Even if they’re saying something that we agree with, to still ask them a question or prod them into backing up what they’re saying.
Wendi: And asking from some Socratic questioning. Do you think this person reached their conclusion because they didn’t think of anything that you thought of? Do you think there’s something missing? Even when you agree with their conclusion trying to draw out some compassion and understanding and ability to see other points of view, to understand where other people are coming from, and not being so hasty to judge those who have gone before us when we have never lived in their circumstances, their moral and cultural environment, and you don’t have a clue what that felt like. C.S. Lewis talked about this when he talks about the value of reading old books…
Brandy: Yes, I was thinking of that.
Wendi: And he says it’s not because the morals and values in these older books are better than ours it’s because their errors are more obvious than ours. So, you can overlook the bad stuff easily, it’s outlined in neon, blinking at you “this is a bad thought, a bad way of thinking. This is wrong.” We can see that clearly, but our own cultures errors and mistakes, we really cannot see them that clearly. They’re part of the air that we breathe and we’re not distinguishing it and can’t smell it any more than a fish knows he’s wet and 20 years from now we’re going to be going, “Ooh. Ouch. I thought that one.” Or worse, we’ll be going, “Oh no, no, no. I never thought that way.” And we actually did but we’ve just conveniently buried it and moved on.
Mystie: And just because there are things in our culture that we notice are wrong and believe are wrong now doesn’t mean there aren’t also things that are wrong that we are accepting. So I think we think that we’re immune because we do see some bad things so therefore we must be okay.
Wendi: None of us can possibly be immune to every single thing or we’d be perfect and nobody is, so we have to accept that all of us are missing something and that alone should keep us a little bit on the humble side and a little bit able to have a sense of “I’ve not arrived so I can’t dismiss other people who have also not arrived because they’re on different stations on those railroads of life.”
[01:04:30] Encouragement for Young Moms
Brandy: I have one final question for you. And that is, if you would please, give some encouragement to the young moms, they’ve got kids third grade and under, where should their focus be?
Wendi: On loving those kids and giving them rich, wide, and generous stories, and poetry, and literature. Seriously that stuff does the work for you. There are little other things that you can do but loving your children, meeting their needs, not their every fancy, not their every wish and whim but meeting their needs makes them compassionate people, or helps them be a compassionate people themselves. Nobody can think about somebody else when they are starving for validation, affection, or actual food, but and just reading widely and well good story. The children themselves will think about those stories and will ask questions and discussions will happen. We make so much extra work for ourselves sometimes, I think.
Brandy: That’s a good point. Well, Wendi, thank you so much for coming on the show. This has been a wonderful conversation. I’m so glad that someone recommended we talk to you about this. I think we probably need to have you back on some time because we didn’t even really get into one thing that you and I had talked about which was debunking.
Wendi: Well, I always put debunking up there with warts.
Brandy: True. That’s true. But still we might have to have you come back.
Wendi: Well, thank you for having me. I enjoyed it. I appreciate being up and I would be glad to come back anytime.
Mystie: Thank you.
Wendi: Thank you. Have a good day.
Brandy: You too. That’s it for today. Thank you so much for listening and being a part of the Sisterhood of the podcast. As always, we’d appreciate it if you spread the word about the podcast to your friends. Remember, you can find out about the fall retreat at ScholeSisters.com/laugh. If you are interested in leading a local retreat in your area, go to ScholeSisters.com/local and you will find all the information you need to know in order to make that a really easy thing to do. Next episode, Mystie and I will be chatting with Ashley Woleben from the Classical Homeschool podcast about diffused mode thinking and it’s relationship to scholé. Talking with Ashley is always fascinating so we know you’re going to love this one. Until then, we want to remind you once again, that homeschooling is a marathon you needn’t run alone, so open up your eyes, look around you, find your sisters.