Marlene Peterson believes that the desire to learn any subject begins in the heart, and is sparked by stories, music, imagery, and poetry — the Arts. She has built a free online library called Libraries of Hope: an open-source collection of stories, poetry, and classical artwork which parents and teachers can use to educate the hearts of children. She additionally has published more than seventy printed volumes of this collection. She has felt the collaboration of the Spirit through her personal journey of learning and creation. She is the mother of nine children, including eight daughters, and is a popular speaker at home education forums across the United States.
What is the vision behind the Libraries of Hope?
When I first started building Libraries of Hope, I didn’t have the complete vision. But we learn by doing! I’ve come to appreciate that my purpose in all this has been to learn and to teach the lost art of educating the hearts of children. I say “lost arts” because we have become such an academic-centered and mind-focused culture, that we’ve kind of been neglecting the heart. The law of nature says that what we don’t use atrophies from disuse. So we’re finding a hard-heartedness in our world. And the danger of that is hard-heartedness really blocks the Spirit, blocks the light, the joy and the love.
Libraries of Hope is a free online pool of resources to warm and open the hearts of children, and also to help teach mothers and fathers how to educate children’s hearts. We need more art and music and poetry and pictures, because those are the language that the heart understands. That’s how we soften hearts. Within Libraries of Hope I talk about the “Well-Educated Heart,” because we have focused too much on educating the mind at the expense of the heart.
I came across the writings of Charles Darwin, and he said his big regret as he got older was that he hadn’t taken time to listen to some music and read some poetry. He read an account in his journal from when he was a young man, about his being in a Brazilian forest and just being overcome with the wonder and the beauty of the forest and feeling there was a higher power. He said that he could no longer feel those things, because that part of him had atrophied, and that it was a great loss to his happiness. So that is what this is all about: Libraries of Hope is meant to help parents to warm and open the hearts of the children. Academics are good! Science and math are good. But we need this balance in our lives.
Why do you think that stories and music and poems are such powerful teachers?
Children don’t have the capacity to reason when they are born — they have this wonderful gift of several years when the heart is open and impressionable; and the heart responds to the arts, to story! That’s the language the heart understands. The first step in learning anything is to feel desire. The arts kindle desire!
The arts reach a place that’s deeper than words. When you think about Jesus with the Nephites, the deeper his messages went into their hearts, the fewer words they had to express it. It got to the point where “no tongue could speak” what they saw and felt. I came across a poem that said, “The deeps of our souls, like the deeps of the ocean, are silent.” Music and imagery travel where words can’t reach. If we give children the right kinds of stories and music, we give them a desire for beauty and goodness that will last their entire life. We’re bypassing that foundation when we just jump into the academics without allowing the arts to really nourish the soil where the academic learning is going to grow from.
Do you see a way that the arts could be integrated better with the academics? Can they influence each other?
I think the purpose of the arts is to awaken desire and to stir feeling, so they are naturally integrated. When we teach science we tend to jump into the textbook approach, but we bypass that part where children fall in love with the world, and feel wonder. So the way the arts and the academics integrate is that the arts are used to open hearts: to awaken that desire to know more, and to love it. Then you fill in the detail work with the laws and the facts and the information.
The big downfall I see is that schools that integrate art into the studies still tend to approach it from a very mind-based way. The way you know you’ve reached the mind is that you can test and measure it. So if you put a work of art in front of a student, you might say, “Okay, what technique did the artist use? What are the components that make this work of art what it is?” Whereas art at the heart level — you can’t test or measure it. There aren’t words to express it. We don’t allow that time for children to just feel it because we are a test-and-measure culture.
They absolutely need to work together. They both have a role to play. What I’ve come to understand is art first, and then science. Heart first, and then mind.
What is the task of the parent in educating the heart?
I was just reading this in 3 Nephi, where Jesus is ministering to the Nephites, and he asks for them to bring bread and wine. He instructs the twelve whom he has chosen to fill themselves first, and then feed the multitude. That is the pattern I stress in the Well-Educated Heart: mothers and fathers first fill their own hearts until it naturally starts to spill out. If you have a parent telling a story out of duty, as an assignment, it’s not going to have the same impact as a story that the parent loves and wants to share with their child. That’s when there’s connection, when there’s this other layer that begins to flow between parent and child. So the first responsibility is for parents to warm and fill their own hearts. And then share.
I focus on homeschoolers because they have the luxury of more time, but this absolutely fits in with traditional schooling. Schools are going to focus on the mind, and if parents understand that they need this balance, they need to be sure that at home they’re balancing with heart. The good thing about art is that it’s in very small pieces. It doesn’t take long to share a story, or to listen to some music. Just put some music on while you’re eating dinner! And all of these things begin to warm the heart.
You mentioned turning on music during dinner. I’m interested in other ways you see parents of young children fitting self-education and development into their schedules, and sharing the arts with their children.
My daughter has five little girls, and she says, “Oh mom, I wish I could have had a time in my life to learn all of this before the children came.” When you have little children you are so busy! In this season of life you probably don’t have a lot of time to do all you’d like to feed your heart. So with young children, I say you just learn with them! If you missed out on fairy tales growing up, you’re going to learn with them as you share the fairy tales with them. If you missed out on Mother Goose rhymes, you’re going to learn as you share them with your children. So it’s not like you have to block out three hours of your day for self-education. You’re going to be educated along the way with your children. I think if you can always be just one step ahead of them, you’ll be just fine. You don’t have to arrive at this moment of “okay, I’m fully prepared now.” It’s a process.
If you picture a mother duck with her little ducklings, they just follow along and do whatever she does. I’ve never seen a duck that is behind her ducklings, quacking at them and trying to push them along! If I picture that in my mind they’re just scattering in all directions. They don’t have a clue where to go or what to do. Children are looking for an example to follow — that is another one of those beautiful laws of nature. The young seek for something to attach their hearts to. And what they attach to, they grow to be like.
I’m interested in what role your own mother has played as you have developed this philosophy.
My mother is now almost 96, and her mind is still so sharp! The gift my mother gave me was that she didn’t hover over me. She didn’t schedule my life or manage it. The environment was set up, and she gave me the freedom to allow those impressions to happen in my heart.
When I was nine years old, we moved to La Cañada, California, and my house was right across the street from Descanso Gardens. I think it’s about 1700 acres of gardens. When I lived there it was free to the public — I could just walk across the street and into this beautiful garden. So much of the foundation of my life were the lessons learned in that garden! When you walked in, there was this beautiful pond with swans and ducks and a grassy area, a canopy of oaks, and forests of camellia bushes and rose gardens. It was like heaven to me. If I had come home and my mom had said, “Okay, what did you do, what did you think about? Did you do this or that?” It would have killed the whole experience.
I think of my home — we had a piano, which my mother played. So I wanted to play! When I was six I asked if I could learn to play, and she found a teacher down the street. I don’t remember her ever saying, “Okay did you practice? Here’s your practice time.” I wanted to play. The biggest motivator was that my dad would come lie down on the couch and say, “Would you play the piano for me?” and I’d play for him. Then he’d say, “Oh, I love to hear you play the piano.” And that’s big motivation! It is! I just had this wonderful environment.
All the things I needed were there, and the freedom to enjoy them. We had books! There wasn’t an “age-appropriate” shelf. I was just as likely to pull out the journals of Wilford Woodruff and tackle it, as Alice in Wonderland, because it was just all there! And anything I pulled out was good. That was the gift she gave me. I don’t think she knew that’s what she was doing — she was busy. But she created the environment, and she led by example: she was a reader, she loved music, and loved being in nature.
That makes me feel better about the days I’m too busy for my children.
I think time is a tremendous gift we don’t give our children. We structure their days and there’s no time for them to reflect, and have these impressions. I didn’t have a lot of toys! So I would sit there and imagine with twigs and leaves. It was glorious. My imagination was my playground. My mother gave me time — she was just busy doing stuff, I don’t think it was planned out. But as I reflect back I’m grateful.
What about your own children? Were they all homeschooled?
It was me who had the restlessness about education. They were public-schooled, and charter-schooled, and homeschooled. It really was individual! We have nine children, and I don’t think there’s any two of them that did the same thing. But I just always felt like there was something missing. I hated school growing up. I was a really good student, but it felt like a prison to me, and I just wanted something more for my children. Now they’ve all graduated from universities, and several have earned advanced degrees. So I guess from the world’s standpoint, yay! We did it right. But I was always looking for something different. If you talk to my children I think they would probably say that I inadvertently gave them that gift of finding their own way because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. There wasn’t much structure to what happened at home.
You graduated from college yourself, when you already were a mother of several children. Can you tell me about your experience balancing school with family?
The credit goes to my mother. My parents knew I wanted to finish my degree that I had mostly put on hold when I started having children. I took a class here and there as I could. When I was expecting our fourth baby, my mother offered to come to my home and tend children while I attended class. It was a crazy three semesters. I think I finished two years’ worth of courses in that time! I lived in Salt Lake and took classes at the BYU Salt Lake Center, BYU Provo and home study. I studied in snatches of time. My little children cheered me on. I remember missing a final because I had a baby on that day. But it was such a sense of great satisfaction to finish, and I owe it all to my mother. She deserved a cap and gown as well.
Where along that journey did you start developing the Well-Educated Heart, and the Libraries of Hope?
It took form in probably the last ten to fifteen years. When our youngest was getting ready to leave home, I had a friend who asked for my help. She had adopted this little school in Nairobi, Kenya, and she asked if I would like to help her try to figure out some things that we could do with this school. She would show me pictures of these little children. A lot of them were orphans, and all they had was this makeshift classroom with tin walls that made the room unbearably hot, dirt floors, and little benches. The children were so hungry to learn. I would look at them and think, a lot of these kids might not even make it to adulthood. If they’re only going to be on the earth for a short time, shouldn’t education be giving them something for the here and now? So my restlessness was back in full force.
The thought that was driving me was, “What is God’s purpose for education, and what is His method?” With this restlessness, I woke up in the middle of the night (the Spirit wakes us up at 3:00, because our minds are just too cluttered in the daytime!), and I went downstairs to my library of books. I had a shelf of the sixteen volumes of Teachings of the Prophets. And I felt, “Start here.” So for the next year I went through every word in those, and took hundreds of pages of notes, on anything that the Lord had to say about learning and education. And then I felt I should do it for the standard works. And I did! And that became my standard of truth. As I studied educational philosophies and methods, that’s what I would compare them with. From that study, what I came to believe is that God’s purpose in education is to prepare children to live lives of joy.
That’s why He created us! Man is that we might have joy. And why would He have any lesser plan in His plan for education, than to prepare us for that joy? His way of doing it is best said in Isaiah, “And all our children shall be taught of the Lord.” In the writings of Charlotte Mason I discovered the statement, “true education is between a child’s soul and God.” So our purpose, as I see it, is to awaken a desire.
The Book of Mormon talks about “secret combinations” who do works of darkness and are forces of destruction. Lately I’ve come to understand that this pattern for learning is a “sacred combination” for releasing light. And this sacred combination starts with feeling desires in the heart for that which is good and beautiful and right, and then you teach obedience to correct principles — the mind and the science part, the law part. Combining the two together, heart and mind, releases light. And all of God’s greatest gifts are found in the fruits of that light, which gives us understanding, which fills us with joy and love and peace.
God’s purpose is joy; his message is that we should learn by the Spirit. The way that we do it is with this sacred combination of heart and mind.
You asked specifically about where Libraries of Hope was born. When I came to understand the importance of stories, I had this idea to create a small library of books, filled with stories for children. Stories that would give them hope. Again, I had these little children in Africa in mind. It was a shower moment (good ideas come in the shower a lot). It would be called Libraries of Hope. And that’s where it was born!
I had no idea how to go about it, and it’s been quite a journey. The initial library ended up with over sixty volumes of stories I gathered. In the beginning I couldn’t have seen where this was going to go because the technology didn’t exist yet that has since opened the doors for other layers to unfold. So this little library of books is the foundation, and everything else has layered and grown from that core of books.
I felt such a guiding hand in the selecting of stories. When I was all finished, I was reading in D&C 88 where the Lord basically lays out His curriculum: that we should learn all things that are in the earth and above the earth, and the wars and perplexities of the nations, etc. And as I looked at this little library, it was all in there. And I didn’t do that! I feel like He helped me build it along the way, and that this library was a complete learning foundation for a child. Of course learning is forever, but the library awakens the desire of learning for all subjects.
How should parents and teachers use the art with children?
I think we often expose little children to art that’s beyond their comprehension, and they don’t like it because it doesn’t relate to anything that they’re familiar with. In the Libraries of Hope, I link to art from the era of Classical Realism — artworks that depict children in families and nature scenes, and stories from history. I look at art from this period, and I find it so “pure” that a child could understand it.
How do you use it? You let them see it! And you tell them the stories behind it, to get them started. Use stories to awaken the love of fine art! But allow children to have their own reaction to the art. There is no need to prompt them; they’ll feel it on their own. Just give them exposure.
I actually went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York a couple weeks ago. I’d walk into a room and there would be an art piece that I had seen before as a little reproduction, and it would just take my breath away! They’re always so much bigger, or smaller, than I realized. I understand how much is conveyed by the actual artwork, and these pictures that I post, they’ll never replace the real thing. But they can help to lay a foundation of familiarity, so that when children do go to the museums and see the actual work of art, they’ll be drawn to it.
As you’ve developed the Well-Educated Heart philosophy over the last few years, have you felt your own heart change?
Absolutely. So much more joy and clarity! My regret is that I didn’t find these things sixty years ago. Every day I think, “Oh, I’m getting older! There’s so much more I want to learn! And so much more I want to do.” I kind of feel cheated, that so much of my life hasn’t had these things awakened. And I think that’s what drives me. I want children to have a whole life of just enjoying what’s been prepared for us.
It has all happened so gradually, I think we don’t understand what has just been gifted to us in the last ten years. All these masterpieces of art that not even royalty could have seen — that were buried in palaces and estates and museums — they have been put up on the internet! We can access them for free. And the literature that you would have to travel and get permission to go into a museum to view, it’s all online for free! YouTube has only been around about ten years, and it has given us music that has been composed by the noblest minds that have ever lived. You can hear it performed by the finest musicians from all over the world. The greatest treasures for the heart have been re-gifted to us in the last ten years.
It is this generation of mothers that has been prepared. If they can awaken a desire in their children to partake of the arts, and combine it with the advances of the intellect that we’ve been working on the last hundred years — if we can combine the heart and the mind, then we’re going to see this burst of light on the earth that’s been prophesied. It’s all coming together and it’s exciting. And they’re feeling it! They are hungry to learn, and it’s all been prepared. If they have the desire and if they start.
I think the biggest obstacle to the Spirit is that we don’t give the Spirit much to work with. When the earth was created, it wasn’t created from nothing. It was created from matter unorganized. So our job is to give the Spirit raw matter to organize. And the Spirit does a beautiful job of that. We just have to treasure the Arts up in our hearts so He has something to work upon.
Where do you get your confidence as a mother, and as an educator?
Generally speaking, confidence comes from knowing that you are aligned to correct principles. And there’s no short-cut for study. Actually, one of my children said, “Mom, moms are listening to what you say. You are risking their children’s lives!” I thought, that’s a tremendous responsibility to feel that people are implementing these things. And my confidence comes back to that golden standard of truth: to that time of study where I fed on the words of the prophets and the scriptures. Everything I say I can back up with that golden standard. And if I can’t, then I don’t talk about it. But I find that truth has a way of being demonstrated everywhere. I find the confidence grow because I see there is a pattern in this life to the things that awaken us. I see this sacred combination, this pattern for learning, unfold in others’ lives, and my confidence grows.
What role has your faith played in this journey?
This has been a journey of faith. When I first had the idea for Libraries of Hope, the questions were, “So, what’s your business plan? How are you going to market this? How are you going to get funding?” And my answer was, “I don’t know. I have no idea.” But the impression in my heart was that the Lord was preparing a network of mothers, and that when the time was right, he was going to begin to write messages on my heart, so that when I shared those messages it would resonate in their hearts and they would have the desire to want to know more. And that is exactly what has happened! In the last couple of years, those messages have started to come. And there’s been over a thousand mothers whom I’m aware of, who have come from all over the world. Often I’ll get a letter and they’ll say, “I don’t know how I found you, but when I heard your message it resonated in my heart and I want to know more.” I get letters from families saying, we are incorporating these things and there is a new measure of joy in our home.
I guess my message is that the Lord is doing a work that we are all a part of. And my little role is to provide resources — a start. I would hope that many others will join in, and add to the rich field of resources available. But the work is going to be done by the mothers — I’ve said it before, He is preparing their hearts. Because this is a critical moment, where this light is about to burst forth upon the earth. The job of the mothers is to awaken desire through the arts, and to teach their children to obey correct principles. Those two in combination will bring a measure of light and joy and love into the world.
The message is that we must awaken desire in children’s hearts.
Do you have a message for our readers via a favorite story or poem?
There was a story I made my mom read to me over and over again. I wish I had the book — it had red and blue stripes on it, and contained stories of people’s lives. One story was about Jane Addams. When she was a little girl, her dad took her on a carriage ride. They went through the poorest section of town. Jane was just so sad — the children were dirty, and they were in rags, and there was trash around the yards, and the doors were hanging off their hinges. She asked her dad, “Why do people live like this?” And he said, “It’s because they don’t know anything better.” So when Jane grew up, she went to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago where there were a lot of immigrants, and she bought this big house. She lined the walls with fine art, and filled it with music and books. Then she invited everybody into her home, to come and be uplifted and inspired by all that was good. They in turn took it to their homes and improved their own lives. That idea has been planted in my heart. That’s how I envision Libraries of Hope. It’s a place to come and to be uplifted and inspired by the finest things that have been gifted to us from the ages. And as they fill your heart, you incorporate them in your own home and family, and feel uplifted and inspired. And that’s what this is all about.
At A Glance
Name: Marlene Blomquist Peterson
Location: Appomattox, Virginia
Marital history: Married to Brent Peterson for 42 years
Children: 8 daughters, 1 son
Occupation: President, Libraries of Hope
Schools Attended: Bachelors in Child Development and Family Relations, BYU
Languages Spoken at Home: English, some Swedish
Favorite Hymn: O My Father
Interview Produced by Meredith Nelson