This blog is part of Educating My Boy: Chronicles of a Free-Schooler
For this lesson I had assigned a number of stories for different reasons.
I wanted Jack to read the two stories, “Stone Soup” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” for their metaphorical value.
I asked him what he learned from “Stone Soup” and he said that the lesson of the story was that it was better for people to pool their resources together and create things together. We noted that the twist in this particular “lesson” was that sometimes you almost have to trick people into doing that.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes” showed how a trickster can fool a stupid and vain person and how others will go along with the lie for different and opportunistic reasons. Jack enjoyed the part of the story that it took a child to call the bluff. Mainly, however, my point in assigning these stories was to introduce “stone soup” and “emperor’s new clothes” as metaphors that can describe situations that one observes in everyday life.
The second set of assigned stories was two retellings of the fairy tale “The Selfish Giant.” I had Jack read an anonymous retelling from the flimsy collection Classic Fairy Tales and compare it to a retelling by Oscar Wilde. I wanted to know which one was more “enjoyable” to read (back to the “amuse and instruct” theme). Jack said the Oscar Wilde one was better: “It was funner to read”— and something to the effect that it flowed better. I asked whether he was saying that to please me, since he knows that I like serious writers. He denied vehemently!
Our most interesting conversation, however, followed an old Greek story that I had had him read. “The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice” is a parody of Homer’s Iliad, composed about a century later. It is about a war that breaks out between frogs and mice because of an incident that occurs between the prince of mice and some frog. The mouse prince, running away from a cat, asks the frog to carry him across a pond. The frog agrees but while the mouse is on his back he runs into a snake and ducks underwater. The prince of mice is inadvertently drowned and a bloody war breaks out between frogs and mice, avenging the killing of the mouse prince. The story is a parody of the interminable fight between the Greeks and Trojans in the Iliad and pokes fun at the absurdity of war.
Obviously I had an ulterior motive in choosing this story! I wanted to point out the idiocy of one group of people turning against another, and how once this sort of thing starts it perpetuates itself. I reminded Jack of the family feuds between the Capulets and Montagues in Romeo and Juliet (we had seen the Zefirelli’s film in third grade) and the feud between the Grangefords and Shepherdsons in Huckleberry Finn (we had read it in fourth grade).
So far so good. Jack did not object. Then I took the discussion one step further. I said that since one group of people can turn against another group over very stupid things (and once they do this it is very hard to get them to stop and think) some leaders create wars by deliberately turning one group against another.
Jack grumbled at this. He knew where it was going. But I didn’t back off. “Whenever you have a war,” I said, “you must always ask the question, What do leaders gain by making wars between people? Who benefits from a war?”
“I don’t want to think about this,” Jack blurted out angrily. “Because my body wants to do something about it but I can’t. I don’t want to know. It ruins my life.”
The comment about his “body” was very interesting to me and I made a mental note of it. But I insisted some more. “I’m teaching you social studies through literature,” I said. But he was very upset: “I don’t want to know. I don’t want to learn this until I’m 18. I can’t even vote now.”
I was surprised at how upset Jack got. I know that children are very sensitive about the brutalities they notice. It makes them feel helpless and angry – and surely quite scared. But I also learned a lesson from Jack’s outburst. Some social and political realities are just too harsh for children. They “ruin” their lives in that they not only make them feel helpless in improving things but also guilty in enjoying the security and good things they enjoy in their own lives.
I dropped the lesson and the topic. But it got me thinking about how to teach “social studies.” Actually, I’ve always disliked the title “social studies” – it sounds babyish and condescending. I reminded myself to keep to my approach of teaching Jack like a college student. When it’s time to do “social studies” I’ll introduce social science and its various branches. In fact, this ties in very well with teaching science in general (observation, methodology, etc.) and the introduction to Aristotle with which I began these lessons. I’ll be working on this!