Thursday, April 14, 2011
TEN WAYS TO DESTROY THE IMAGINATION OF YOUR CHILD (2010) - by Anthony Esolen (Book Review - Part 1)
This book is a MUST read, no matter who you are (of whatever sex, race, age or creed). If you are a grandparent, you should immediately demand that your children read this for the protection of your grandchildren. If you are a parent, you'd better read this quick, because Esolen will give you particular insights - into how modern culture and modern educators are currently in the business of eating your children's souls - that no one else has to offer. If you are a young career minded 30s-20s something, you have to read this if you don't want your future family to be a bleak, conformist, dull, dumbed down, miserable counterfeit version of the family that you someday hope to raise. If you are a college student, I'd be hard pressed to find a better modern book with which to arm yourself with questions for your mind-numbingly boring professors. If you are a high-school student, this book could rise up within you and your friends such a moral and righteous indignation that it could set fire to your entire high-school. If you are an elementary school student ... well ... any family member who loves you will carefully ensure that there is a copy of this book waiting for you, just as soon as one of your parents, elders or teachers bucks the system and actually opens the door for you to the vast new world of good healthy reading that is out there just waiting, like a hidden fairy land, for your discovery.
The very first paragraph of the very first page, immediately demonstrating that the author cares about things our modern culture no longer cares for, begins thus:
"A few years ago, a vandal seized some forty or fifty thousand books from my college's library. He didn't want to read them, or even to sell them. He wanted simply to get rid of them, on the grounds that nobody would read them anyway. Some of the volumes he had branded for destruction were irreplaceable. I know, because I went into the back room where they were being held temporarily before the trucks came to haul them away. From that room I saved several dozen, including a definitive dictionary of medieval Latin, and the first great grammar book for Anglo-Saxon - you know, the language that Beowulf spoke on the night when he was tearing Grendel's arm off ..." (pg. ix)
Esolen describes our culture's decline in demand for books, particularly for good books, and notes that a good book is a dangerous thing. This is because it can change you. "It carries within it the possibility - and it is always only a possibility - of cracking open the shell of routine that prevents us from seeing the world. Our days pass by with the regularity of a conveyor belt at an airport, which we duly get on, and make our way with bland uniformity." (pg. x) But that bland uniformity is interrupted by great works of art and beauty within literature. Good books open new worlds for us, provoke us to think, and turn us into different people.
Esolen then points out that we are presented with a problem. We've been slowly eliminating and replacing books with technological social-networking non-stop mass-marketed entertainment to dull our senses from ever being awakened by anyone like Charles Dickens, Plato, or Thomas Aquinas. But there's one thing in the world we have not got rid of, and that's children. The most noticeable thing about children is how incredibly different they are from us grownups.
Esolen points out that "If someone should say to us, 'How would you like to spend most of your waking hours, five days a week, for the next four years, shut within four walls," we should go mad, that is if we had an imagination left. It is only by repressing that imagination that many of us can stand our work. Some years ago, American feminists, in their own right no inconsiderable amazons against both childhood and the imagination, invented something called Take Your Daughter to Work Day. 'See, Jill, this is the office where Mommy works. Here is where I sit for nine hours and talk to people I don't love, about things that don't genuinely interest me, so that I can make enough money to put you in day care.'" (pg. xii)
So Mr. Esolen mockingly takes it upon himself, for most of the book, to voice our modern day culture's viewpoint, arguing that we, indeed, do not want to lose our comfortable "grown-up" ways of looking at, and living in, the world. Therefore, our priority should be to destroy the childlike wonder with which every little one is endowed. We have all the weapons of modern culture with which to accomplish this goal - our education system, increasingly socialized government, the internet, video games, television, etc. - and we've actually been fairly successful just over the last couple decades. (Not to say that we still can't do better.) We just have to mold their young minds into accepting the trite and the banal. "Cliches are easy. So we bring up our children on cliches." (pg. 101)
"Time and again, Miss Hakim - who is by far the best of a weak lot - is out to teach students that the Story of Us is reducible to the Story of the Triumph of the Correct Way to Think about Everything ... So, for example, when Hakim discusses Jefferson's Declaration of Independence - a tract she sincerely admires - she pretends not to know what Jefferson meant by the statement, 'All men are created equal.' 'He didn't mention women,' she notes, despite admitting that 'we do know that in the 18th century the words 'men' and 'mankind' included men and women.'" You see this renders actual thought among students being taught history unnecessary. "Instead of assuming that Jefferson knew what he meant, and that he still , for instance, did believe in the universal franchise, and then wondering how he could reconcile his belief in equality with his denial of the vote to women, we take the easy way out, declaring that the ideas in the Declaration have 'take[n] on meanings that go beyond what the writers intended,' namely, meanings that we ourselves approve of, and so do not have to think about." (pg. 109)
Instead, Modern Culture prefers that we discourage this sort of thing. War, battle and soldiers need to be frowned upon. We need to keep "belittling the intelligence of the soldier, by preaching an easy and self-serving pacifism, and by reducing the military to a career option open for everyone, regardless of physical prowess or even sex." (pg. 147) "What we want to do, then, is see only the misery that war brings, and never ask such obvious questions as, 'What would Europe look like, had Britain surrendered to Hitler and Mussolini at once?' Or, 'What would Asia look like, if the Americans had come to terms with Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor? ... Instead, we should instill in our children the sense that they are virtuous simply because they have adopted the opinion that other people - particularly, the ones who agree to go off to war - are not virtuous. They fight; we are wiser than they are, and favor peace. It is a virtue for which we need not sweat a drop, or scratch one finger. We practice it in a warm cocoon of safety, and are praised for it." (pg. 149)
The same thing goes for the old tradition of memorizing poetry.
"Adults scoff at remembering things, because they have - so they say - the higher tools of reason at their disposal. I suspect that they also scoff at memory because theirs is no longer very good, as their heads are cluttered with the important business of life, such as where they should stop for lunch and who is going to buy the dog license. But educators of old, those whom we now recognize rightly as mere drillmasters, exposed children to a shocking wealth of poetry and music, and indeed would often set their lessons to easily remembered jingles, as did Saint John Bosco, working with the street boys of late nineteenth century Turin, and as Marva Collins in Chicago did more recently, with unnerving success. The memorization and recitation of poetry was one of the hallmarks of the so-called Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, in the late 1960s, under the direction of the Renaissance scholar John Senior. The intensely personal encounter with poetry, which memorization requires, began to change so many lives that the trustees of the university, appropriately alarmed, shut the program down ... To have a wealth of such poetry in your mind - a wealth of knowledge about man, set to music - is to be armed against the salesmen and the social controllers. It allows you the chance of independent thought, and independence is by nature unpredictable." (pgs. 13-14)
Cultivating an appreciation for English poetry is bad enough, but learning the difference between good and bad English prose also needs to be eliminated. Thus, the philosophy of teaching basic English grammar in our schools has changed. Forget about the ancient languages, in which our words have their roots and original meanings. Forget graded teaching on the parts of speech. In fact, ask anyone on the street today to name the 8 parts of speech. They won't know what you are talking about, and this is a good thing if we want the communicative levels dialed on "low." (FYI, the eight parts of speech are nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections ... and you better not have to look the definitions of any of those up.)
Again, the proper way to extinguish the imagination is to cheapen one's view of history as well. If we want a people that are subservient to the transient popular culture, then we can't be having them learning lessons from history. They might be inspired to do something. Or they might compare what modern rotten politicians are telling them with what old rotten politicians promised other people in the past.
Admit it, your knowledge of history is probably pretty pathetic. That's because of the poor education you received, and you received it on purpose. Esolen frequently waxes into eloquence here - "The past is like a secret room in an old house, filled with dust and cobwebs, but also rays of light cast upon ancient armor, and odd tools whose use we have forgotten, and books recalling the words and deeds of men and women who once walked the earth, and whose bones now rest in their graves. It is a chamber that strikes one with the sense of holiness, because we come into the presence of those who once were as we are, and who now are as we will be." (pg. 136)
One the problems with the past is that children used to be inspired by heroes and daring feats of adventure.
Esolen's modern voice sees this as a problem in the arts as well, which, at least until modern times, used to celebrate the noble, the daring, the courageous, and the bold.
We can't have that sort of thing anymore. Guys who fought against impossible odds were stupid and unrealistic. Our forefathers weren't really fighting for any noble causes anyway, they were just interested in their own wealth and the preservation of their domineering patriarchal society so that they could keep all the minorities and poor people down.
Unfortunately, the problem of a child's imagination is that when left alone, or when left with other children, it tends to grow of its own accord. When you're young, so many simple things can turn into enchantment and games with your playmates. The only way to prevent this is constant nonstop supervision, carefully planning your child's schedule, making it just as rigorous as a corporate business executive. We design our the lives of our children in order to eat away as much spare time as possible. Then the television, internet, and video games can take care of the rest.
"All of this the parents will accept, as canceling out years of their children's lives, which otherwise would have to be genuinely lived, with all the risks that genuine life must run. It also frees the parents. They may, with a clear conscience, go forth bravely to be what is called 'themselves,' along with millions of others who are being themselves, working at jobs that don't need to be done among people they don't really like. That is the Real World, and the routine of the school day and the night of homework prepare us for it." (pg. 31)
According to our modern culture as Esolen sees it, this careful planning and constant supervision needs to exclude the outdoors as much as possible. The outdoors are dangerous for a whole number of reasons. "First, there is what was once called the sky " which alone can provide fuel for wonder and imagination.
But our culture has a way of conquering this distraction as well. It's just a matter of correct priorities. "... we wish to make the sky at once banally familiar and utterly ignored. We should say that it does not really exist, that its blue is an optical illusion, and suchlike." That will help spoil a large amount of childlike curiosity right there. Of course, we still have the problem of the starry night sky. But our education system has been working on this for the last couple decades.
"Here let us note with satisfaction a curious success of our educational program. A century ago, there were no classes in astronomy in any of our grade schools or high schools. Yet anyone could tell you why you might build your house with the windows facing south, and why the planets seemed to move, and why, above the Tropic of Cancer, we never will see our shadows directly under our feet, and what the latitudes on a map have to do with where the North Star is in the middle of September. Now we have plenty of units and classes on astronomy, and our students are as familiar with the sky as Iowa farmers are with oarlocks and topmasts. Some of my own students are hard put to point towards the west - despite the fact that that is where we are all going." (pg. 35)
Thus their minds will focus only on the trivial, transient and meaningless. They (and we) can all stay occupied with that which truly does not matter. Our free time can be wasted and wasted some more. As the years pass, we can successfully get through the hours without being bothered about real questions, meaningful conversation, or anything that might hurt our flabby brain cells. This is the end product of our modern culture.
To Be Continued ...