In his first chapter (“Speak, Child”) of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter, Seth Lerer discusses the “infancy” of children’s literature. Such a study requires a review of children’s education, as that is the basis for children’s literature. Lerer discusses the classics (the “really old classics,” as I’ve dubbed them on this blog) that were the basis of education in the ancient world.
I took note of two elements within his discussion of the classics. First, children’s education was based on recitation and memorization. Also, children learned from extracts of The Illiad and The Odyssey, and later The Aeneid, works that even then were “adult” literature.
Memorization and Recitation
The first point caused me to ponder: Do children memorize in school today? What is the benefit of memorization?
Interestingly, Lerer argues that the study and memorization of the classics helped give children a voice. They began by memorizing Homer and progressed to writing their own recitations. Memorization, then, provided a way for them to find their own voice.
I remember memorizing some Robert Frost poems in eighth grade. Even now, any time I’m walking through a forest or driving down an autumn tree-lined road, I find myself thinking, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood….”
Likewise, in the past few days, I noticed others around me reciting instead of finding their own words: movie lines, commercials, and song lyrics. So even today we memorize and recite to find our own voice.
The Illiad as Children’s Literature
But children in ancient days weren’t quoting advertisements: they were memorizing Homer. The classic texts were what helped children learn to speak in an adult world. Lerer summarizes:
…what these texts taught were not simply moral maxims, but habits of control. Children could be masters in the house; yet children of the salves, too, could achieve beyond their birth to gain a path of honor through their merit. … nec generi, sed virtuti. [not according to birth, but according to merit] (page 34).
In other words, Homer helped kids see they could be anything when they grew up. I don’t know much about social class in antiquity, so I don’t know how accurate my generalization is. Nevertheless, it’s empowering to think that Homer could have that effect. But it’s also got me thinking: what literature might be appropriate for children?
Of course, children in ancient days didn’t have any other “children’s literature,” so to speak. Certainly, children’s literature today empowers children to speak, gives them a voice of power and mastery, and helps them recognize the opportunities they have in the future. But Lerer stresses that these works for adults were also the literature and the textbook that children relied upon.
Children were able to understand and take things away from otherwise adult texts. Note that they didn’t read the entire work (The Illiad, for example, is very violent), but they read extracts that were applicable to them. If we ask our children to read extracts from today’s adult texts, might they still resonate with them?
Reading Lerer’s overview of these classics as a part of childhood education prompted me to begin the Really Old Classics Challenge. I am not familiar with many of the classics he discussed, and I’d never have thought of them in terms of children’s literature. I’m curious.
When I read The Illiad, I imagine it will be a struggle. There are challenging concepts and language within them. I imagine they were challenging to adults in ancient days. And yet, portions of the works were applicable to children then, and they memorized portions for their learning.
I’m not an educator, and my only child is a year old. I’m not calling for the addition of The Illiad to the first-grade curriculum. I recognize that the language of The Illiad is rather complicated for anyone today: this is a different age with different myths and traditions.
That said, I’m sure that modern literature has similar extracts that may resonate with children. What modern literature for adults might have portions that resonate with children? And should we encourage our children to memorize literature? Does memorizing extracts empower children with a voice? I wonder: if we expect more of our children, will they rise to the occasion? Why not try them, and see?
After reading this chapter, I’ve added a few things to my “to read” list:
- The Illiad by Homer
- The Odyssey by Homer
- The Aeneid by Virgil
- Confessions by St. Augustine