Clara's Clearing

Clara's Clearing

On the reading list: The Prince and the Pauper

Monday, June 13, 2011

This blog is part of Educating My Boy: Chronicles of a Free-Schooler

The “lessons” that I have been blogging about have been on readings from My Book House. But we’ve done other readings and other “lessons” as well. I will blog later about the reading list I’ve been going through with Jack.


On the reading list for this year was Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.  Alas, I read this book on my own in second grade but had to read it to my sixth-grade son. But no matter. He has to get certain books in his consciousness, by hook or by crook! One of the reasons for reading The Prince and the Pauper was to lay a foundation for introducing him to sociology, which is on my agenda to take up as part of our social science curriculum next year.


My opinion of the book as a second-grader was that it was a little boring. Reading the book again after so many decades I still found myself of that opinion! I can certainly articulate better now what is wrong with the book: the writing is belabored, too much false archaisms, the plot is crammed with many abandoned threads and too much implausibility, etc. I had to plod though it back in second grade; I had to plod through it now -- dragging my kicking and screaming boy behind. Once a plodder, always a plodder. Important message to my kid: you finish what you start. But back to the book…


As we read The Prince and the Pauper we talked about many things, mostly history. The “prince” in the book is a fictionalized version of Edward VI, son of Henry VIII. The history of Henry VIII and his many wives makes of course a good story. I pointed out some connections that Jack already had to this particular history. One connection is in the nursery rhyme I Had a Little Nut Tree where “the king of Spain’s daughter” refers to Catherine of Aragon, the spurned first wife of VIII and mother of Mary I, known as “Bloody Mary” (another anecdotal connection).


The beheadings and other executions ordered by Henry VIII and his daughter Mary were very disconcerting to Jack, as was the bloody intrigues and backstabbing going on at court. And since in the novel appears a hermit whose excommunication from church and parish has turned him homicidal, I had to explain something about the bloody wars between Catholics and Protestants in England at the time. Jack really hated all this. The executions in the Tower of London and the witch-hunting executions of a couple of women in the book were very difficult for him to hear. The oppression of poor people that Mark Twain depicts in the book is also not pleasant. The stories that the band of pauper/criminals tell around a campfire of how they ended up doing what they do is pure Mark Twain.


History was certainly not intended as entertainment for children – so what do we do? “Protect” children from history by keeping them ignorant of it? A sort of Siddhartha experiment where the prince’s father tries to keep the future Buddha from becoming aware that disease, old age, and death exist? I don’t know. I just plod.


At any rate, as we read the book (which took an ungodly long time – we had to renew the library loan three times) we did talk about a lot of realities and ideas that the novel brings up. As I do with most novels I read with Jack I often stop to explain what’s going on – I can’t stand leaving comprehension to chance. We had had a number of conversations while reading the book but for this “lesson” I wanted to have a more formal discussion. There were two areas I particularly wanted to explore, which also touched on Aristotle’s “to amuse and to instruct.”

1. II wanted Jack to pay attention to what we learn from this particular novel about three things. First, how being born to a social class, a totally random chance occurrence, can determine your life. A prince and a pauper can be virtually identical except that one, well, is born a prince and the other a pauper. Second, education is often the first step for bridging the gap between social classes. After all, the reason the pauper in the book could even be remotely taken as a prince was because of the little education that he had received at the hands of a kindly priest. 
    These first two points Jack could quickly grasp as soon I pointed them out. But the third point that language itself can both demonstrate one’s education and bridge social gaps -- which is especially true of England and the English language – was a little trickier and I tied it in to the other topic below.

2.   I drew Jack’s attention to the question of plausibility in fiction and what is called verisimilitude. I introduced the word: “veri” as in verity (“realness”) and “similitude” as in similar, simile, words that Jack already knew. How close to “reality” was The Prince and the Pauper? “The plot was semi realistic,” said Jack, unable to elaborate a whole lot on what he meant. I had anticipated this, so before this discussion/lesson I had had us watch the movie My Fair Lady, with Henry Higgins changing Eliza Doolittle’s cockney into King’s English. “So how likely do you think it would have been for the little pauper Tom Canty, who most likely spoke cockney, to pass off for a prince who would have spoken high English, regardless of the Latin that the priest had taught him?” I asked Jack. He acknowledged that it was not likely. I pointed out that the book then failed on account of lack of verisimilitude. So perhaps the book was more successful in “instructing” us than its deficiencies allowed it to “amuse” us -- from a formal standpoint (esoteric point, I know).

This was a pretty advanced lesson. I told Jack that this could have easily been a session I would conduct in a college literature class. I also told him that if this were a class for a higher grade than sixth I would give two topics for students to write on:

1. What do we learn from The Prince and the Pauper about social class, education, and the English language in the England of a few centuries ago?

2. What does and what does not make The Prince and the Pauper “realistic”? Explain the concept of "verisimilitude.”

For Jack, I would probably give a third option: Analyze the novel with the “analytical tools” that you came up with a couple of lessons ago:  “plot, character, and details.” Jack was flattered to be reminded of his “analytical tools” and he said, yeah, plot is the backbone and spine of the story. And he elaborated: the characters expand the story, like arms and legs make a body bigger, and details are what make the story interesting. “A story without details is boring,” he said.

Concluding the lesson I said that if he were not the type of kid to give me so much trouble I would give him a writing assignment. “If you were a good boy I would give you a big homework right now,” I said. He gave me a funny look.

Speaking of giving me trouble, through this discussion Jack was busily doing things with his hands, folding paper, popping ollies with his little finger skateboard, etc. Once he lifted his foot to his nose and sniffed it. When I said that was gross he said he was just trying to touch his heel to his nose. Also, as is usual during our lessons, he seldom looked at me. “Your eyes don’t have to be on the person to hear,” he said. “The stupid teachers always said ‘give me your eyes.’ That’s so unreasonable. People don’t hear with their eyes.”


I’d like to add a note for readers who might think this lesson was too complicated for an 11-year old. I would say that the points that we covered in this lesson may have been too difficult for a kid to remember but they were not too difficult to comprehend. These blogs are brief and condensed versions of long conversations between Jack and me. I don’t gloss over any point I am trying to get across to a student, be it a college student or a middle-schooler. I make sure they comprehend (I’ll come back to this in a moment) but I don’t worry about remembering. I introduce certain ideas and ways of looking at things and leave the remembering to future encounters with those ideas and angles. I wrote about this approach here.

Back when I taught Shakespeare to undergraduates the first thing I made sure of was that they understood every nuance of the plot. Again, I did not leave comprehension to chance. Shakespeare and Mark Twain’s language can quickly create comprehension blocks for most kids nowadays. Once you make sure the student feels confident about having absorbed the intricacies of the story you can discuss all kinds of finer analytical points: verisimilitude, social class, nature of language, you name it…

It is quite unfortunate that children now don’t read the kind of literature that challenges and develops their reading comprehension. I see it in my own kid and there’s not really anything I can do about it. (Even if he were the kind of kid that you could force into things I still wouldn’t want to resort to force.) I saw the future of kids like him in my college students. But… once you get around to the comprehension barrier (hold their hands through it if you have to) they certainly can grasp and appreciate the depths of good literature.

Perhaps once their eyes have been opened to this depth they might become inspired to plod through comprehension barriers on their own and someday actually read real literature for pleasure.

I don’t know what else might work!


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