This is definitely a trend, at least among British writers of a certain era…

From “Why I Write,” by George Orwell:

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. Nevertheless the volume of serious–i.e., seriously intended–writing which I produced all through my childhood and boyhood would not amount to half a dozen pages…

…However, thoughout this time I did in a sense engage in literary acitivites…for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise…this was the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind. I believe this is a common habit of children and adolescents. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say, Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but quite soon my ‘story’ ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw. For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf’, etc etc. This habit continued until I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside. The ‘story’ must, I suppose, have reflected the styles of the various writers I admired at different ages, but so far as I remember it always had the same meticulous descriptive quality.”


October 4, 2010

Virgin and Child, c. 1250, Paris, Metropolitan Museum (personal photo)

A few years ago, when I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, I was surprised when I came upon the following passage:

“Of all the characteristics in which the medieval age differs from the modern, none is so striking as the comparative absence of interest in children. Emotion in relation to them rarely appears in art…The Christ child is of course repeatedly pictured, usually in his mother’s arms, but prior to the mid-14th century he is generally held stiffly, away from her body, by a mother who is aloof even when nursing…Her separateness from her child was intended to indicate his divinity. If the ordinary mother felt a warmer, more intimate emotion, it found small expression in medieval art because the attitudes of motherhood were preempted by the Virgin Mary.” (p. 49)

When I read that passage, I immediately thought of the affectionate statuette above, which has long been one of my favorites at the Metropolitan Museum. Nor it is the only one–there seems to be a whole 13th C. Parisian school of lovely, tender Madonna and Child statuettes. I remain somewhat puzzled by Ms. Tuchman’s comment, which I suspect she made in service of a predetermined thesis, but at least it made me examine the evidence.

Theodore Roosevelt, by John Singer Sargent

“I am delighted that you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports. But I do not believe in them if they degenerate into the sole end of any one’s existence. I don’t want you to sacrifice standing well in your studies to any over-athleticism; and I need not tell you that character counts for a great deal more than either intellect or body in winning success in life. Athletic proficiency is mighty good servant, and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master. Did you ever read Pliny’s letter to Trajan, in which he speaks of its being advisable to keep the Greeks absorbed in athletics, because it distracted their minds from all serious pursuits, including soldiering, and prevented their ever being dangerous to the Romans?”

Putting our talents in perspective is a concept that our society seems to have lost sight of. We go all out for celebrity, even when the end is dubious. And do you see how Roosevelt refers his son to the Romans? This is the value, in my way of looking on it, in Classical Education. It is an antidote to the specialist mentality.

“We may confuse this obsessive need for difference from the parents with the child’s quest for individuality. That would be a misreading of the situation. Genuine individuation would be manifested in all of a child’s relationships, not just with adults. A child truly seeking to be her own person asserts her own selfhood in the face of all pressures to conform.”

“Precisely during our children’s adolescence, just when there is more to manage than ever before, and just when our physical superiority over them begins to wane, the power to parent slips from our hands. What looks to us like independence is really dependence transferred. We are in such a hurry for our children to be able to do things themselves that we do not see just how dependent they really are. Like power, dependence has become a dirty word.”

Hold on to Your Kids, Gabor and Maté

“Unlike pleasureable activities, which are relatively easy to engage in (like going out to dinner), gratifying activities are the application of one’s unique strengths and so are more difficult to come by (like cooking a gourmet meal at home).”

“Another important skill parents teach children is how to deal with with free time and solitude in a way that promotes fulfillment and flow rather than loneliness and depression. Many studies have shown that people are more likely to be depressed when they are alone; this is thought to be because without other people around to interact with, those who lack internal motivation lose the external sense of motivation and goals other people provide them. As their mind loses its sense of purpose and begins to focus on thoughts that make them anxious, people often seek out stimulation that will screen out the anxiety-producing thoughts–such as having a drink or turning on the television.”

“Free time should be meaningful–either work or play, but not neither.”

From “The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness,” by Christine Carter Berkeley.

I’m not a believer in happiness for its own sake (I prefer the deeper concept of joy), but I do think these quotes have something interesting to say about learning to use one’s time. It occurs to me that the average student in a college prep high school program is being carried along at a pace which atrophies the ability to creatively regulate its use. Thus, such students are being trained to boredom and helplessness in the absence of an external structure. This makes them more vulnerable to anxiety and the need to find stimulation that will mitigate that anxiety. (In addition to drinks or television, there are peers, the internet, and most combinations thereof.) It’s not a matter of whether such students can do rigorous work. They may even wish, in some instances, to take deeper and more challenging classes. It’s a matter of such work having a purpose beyond achievement for its own sake.

“The fatal mistake is in the notion that [the child] must learn ‘outlines,’ of the whole history…of the world. let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the life time of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age.”

–Charlotte Mason

In our family, one of the figures we lingered over was Elizabeth I. We even tried to approximate this gown. Queen Elizabeth was also my daughter’s introduction to controversial subjects in politics, because of the role the Tudors played in the wars of the Reformation.  But we didn’t set out to do any of this.  It all started because of a book.

“For one thing, the pupil is now far more defenceless in the hands of his teachers. He comes increasingly from businessmen’s flats or workmen’s cottages in which there are few books or none. He has hardly ever been alone. The educational machine seizes him very early and organizes his whole life, to the exclusion of all unsuperintended solitude or leisure. The hours of unsponsored, uninspected, perhaps even forbidden reading, the rambling, and the “long, long thoughts” in which those of luckier generations first discovered literature and nature and themselves are a thing of the past. If a Traherne or a Wordsworth were born today he would be “cured” before he was twelve.”

–C.S. Lewis, “Lilies that Fester”

The list of things that prevent solitude is growing.