Education is like a journey and, as with any journey, there must be some initial idea or inkling of the destination before there can be any reasonable means to arrive there. The end of education is, of course, the truth, and there exist few truthful awakenings like Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes. As a wondrous introduction to the paths of wisdom, educators in the playroom and the classroom know well why Mother Goose matters.
Mother Goose nursery rhymes introduce children to the world that God made good. They are musical and imitative vignettes of reality, constantly shifting their gaze, page by page, from one subject to another. There is no attempt to present any concept of a whole because there is no need for an integration of things at this tender age. The child is happy to explore a vast multitude of goods without worrying about what they all amount to or tend towards. Mother Goose simply plays with the parts, diving one at a time into the many worlds that make up the world.
What focus there is, is on the household, the countryside, and everyday life—the sorts of things that happen when people wake up, eat meals, do chores, play games, and go to bed. Mother Goose is not so concerned with the deeper mysteries since the surface of things is wonderful enough to any child who is seeing it for the first time. Mother Goose rhymes portray plain, honest, and playful quips in plain, honest, and playful fashion, with a profundity and simplicity that most have forgotten through custom.
Besides the large truths about life peering and beaming from these little poems, they are first and foremost delightful. These delights are an introduction—nothing more; but introductions are often the most important part of any endeavor, especially education. The genius of these rhymes as introductions to the way things are is that they are rhymes. They settle themselves comfortably into the hearts and minds and mouths of children, becoming part of their language and a ready measure for experience.
For children, these rhymes are not simply satisfying. They are soul stirring. To them, dogs are as exciting as dragons and puddles as infinite as oceans. Mother Goose parades a whole host of such ordinary wonders before her little blossoms, and in this they are given a taste of reality—and a taste for it, as well, which is precisely why she is educational. These little introductions celebrate the wide world. Mother Goose well knows that the good things grown dull for so many are more than sufficient to please the innocent.
The benefit of Mother Goose, however, is not that she provides children with patterns or preparations on how to be moral, or well behaved, or good readers, or any other practical thing. Her wise prattlings are good for their own sake, giving children the all-important experience of resting in an end, even if it is a simple or a silly end. Any utilitarian good that proceeds as a result of their having these rhymes written in their heart is purely accidental.
The most significant obstacle to providing today’s children with the education of Mother Goose is that Mother Goose has not educated many of today’s teachers and parents. No teacher or parent can give a child what they themselves do not have. The solution to this difficulty is simply that teachers and parents who have no experience of Mother Goose should read Mother Goose. Poetic knowledge is good for grown-ups too.
Mother Goose serves as a principal awakener to the everyday wonders of the world for young children. Without Mother Goose, children run the risk of being forever babes in the woods, deprived of the touchstones that help to form the habit of knowledge. Without these indispensable nursery rhymes, a child may never acquire appropriate appetite or aptitude for works that plumb the depths of reality.
Without the poetry of the nursery, every other poetic mode and philosophic instinct can be left undeveloped, resulting in education itself becoming a crippled thing. Mother Goose prepares the way for other educational journeys. In the end, Mother Goose matters because she is a beginning.
Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.
This article was originally published online by The Cardinal Newman Society.