Thursday, April 14, 2011

TEN WAYS TO DESTROY THE IMAGINATION OF YOUR CHILD (2010) - by Anthony Esolen (Book Review - Part 1)

Every so very rare once in a while, a writer writes a book of cultural commentary that turns classic. One thinks of Utopia by Sir Thomas More, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, or even Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Also incredibly rare are actually satirical works of great literature. One ought to remember the comedians Horace and Juvenal of ancient Rome, The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, and even Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell. I am still rather excited to announce my belief that we have been given another of these works. Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child is a work of absolute genius. I have never read his writing before now, but Anthony Esolen's English prose is beautifully constructed. His writing flows with an easy pleasantry to the ear upon which both James J. Kilpatrick and William F. Buckley Jr. (God bless 'em) would both smile upon.

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 title is perfect, but don't allow it to cause the assumption that this is only another guide to parenting book. Neither should you allow my above paragraph to make you think it's all doom and gloom predictions. Esolen wittily attacks so many soul destroying traps embedded within our culture that his book applies to far more than just parenting and education. His new book is occasionally prophetic, cheerful, hopeful, sad, nostalgic, hilarious, enchanting and discerning all rolled into one healthy and rollicking read. I can see future generations fondly referring to Esolen's Tormentarians just as we may occasionally refer to Jonathan Swift's Lilliputians today. This book ought to be a classic for years to come. I currently want to make every single one of my friends read it.

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.

"Consider what happens to people whose night skies are spanged with constellations like The Master of Hestviken , or Moby-Dick , or The Brothers Karamazov ," Esolen asks us. "These people are hard to fool. They are also hard to enlist in pursuit of the trivial and ephemeral. It is as if we had given them a powerful telescope atop a high mountain, and shown them how to use it, and directed their attention to the Orion nebula, and once they had learned to do so and to love the beauty they found there, expected them to look at light bulbs on a marquee. Or, if not a telescope, a magical device for seeing deep into the human heart; and then expected them to watch American Idol , or to be impressed by the maunderings of the latest political hack." (pg. 100)

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.

"If we loved children, we would have a few. If we had them, we would want them as children, and would love the wonder with which they behold the world, and would hope that some of it might open our own eyes a little ... We would want children tagging along after us, or if not, then only because we would understand that they had better things to do. Now that simply is intolerable. For the first time in human history, most people are doing things that could never interest a child enough to make him want to tag along. That says less about the child than about us." This means that children haven't lost certain ideas about the world that we have. They ask questions we don't ask anymore and reject assumptions we have long accepted decades ago.

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 this is where Esolen decides to follow the Screwtapian writing method, and argues for our modern culture and its goals of protecting ourselves from the undue influence of children. "The real danger is to ourselves: that we will look upon their world, a fallen world no doubt, but a world still touched with wonder and gratitude, and choose to allow those childlike virtues to enter our hearts. 'Suffer the little children to come unto me,' says Christ, 'for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.' Which He might have rephrased, and did rephrase, thus: 'He who would save his life must lose it.'" (pg. 66)

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)

Modern culture wants to educate our children towards political ends, and there may be no better way to eliminate their imaginations than by teaching them with this goal in mind. This will color our and their entire view of history. Thus, if we must use any history books at all, we'll use ones like A History of US by Joy Hakim.

"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)

This also involves eliminating the parts of history that are actually interesting to children. Esolen's snide modern tone explains how "Old history textbooks used to be full of battle plans; people had the quaint notion that the outcomes of battles like Salamis, Lepanto, and Waterloo changed the course of history. One argument for getting rid of those plans was that they were dull. Actually, they were dull to the teachers, many of whom didn't care a rap about the structures of battles, but they could be dynamite for the young." (pg. 7) He notes how he was acquainted with one family who allowed their sons to get their hands on, study, pore over and memorize old battle maps. But the danger of battle strategy filling their minds cannot be cautioned against too strongly. It will increase their intelligence and tactical thinking in ways that could threaten our comfort zones.

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)

What if boys still have a desire for violence? What if they remain fascinated by the solider and his weapons? Easy, fill their minds with violent video games. Ignore military history, just let then eat away all their curiosity with hours staring at the florescent video screen, deadening their souls with safe and fake virtual violence. This is prevent them from looking up to ancient heroes of battle.

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)

Thus, we need to affirm our modern world where no one memorizes old poetry anymore. "Teaching is a political act" declared one history teacher that Esolen met on a panel discussion that met on how to eliminate its college's program on teaching Western Civilization. Quite so. Political teaching is ham-fisted by nature and has no room for rebels and questioners. Someone who spends all their time on social networking and video games is less likely to resist state social programmers than someone who commits Shakespeare's best monologues to memory. In fact, our modern culture is dead set against anyone enjoying Shakespeare at all.

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.)

On this subject, Mr. Esolen turns veritably droll ... "Imagine a serpent whispering into the ear, 'Young lady,' or 'Young lad,' as the case may be, 'do not fear those rigid threats of Death. Bad grammar will not kill you. How should it? It is itself weak and foolish. All structure is foolish. Be creative. Do what you please. So what if some old fashioned Tyrant set up above calls it gibberish? It will be your gibberish. There are no rules. Isn't this apple shiny, though?'" (pgs. 19-20) If you don't understand the basic rules of grammar, then you are going to have hard time appreciating the thoughts and distinctions made by the most brilliant minds in history. "And so what what we kill is not only the possibility that the students will learn English grammar, but that they will learn the grammar of anything at all - law, moral philosophy, mathematics, history, you name it." (pg. 20)

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.

"The past is dangerous, not least because it cannot go away. It is simply there , never to change, and in its constancy it reflects the eternity of God. It presents to the young mind a vast field of fascination, of war and peace, loyalty and treason, invention and folly, bitter twists of fate and sweet poetic justice. When that past is the past of one's people or country or church, then the danger is terrible indeed, because then the past makes claims upon our honor and allegiance. Then it knocks at the door, saying softly, 'I am still here.' And then our plans for social control - for inducing the kind of amnesia that has people always hankering after what is supposed to be new, without asking inconvenient questions about where the desirable thing has come from and where it will take us - must fail. For a man with a past may be free; but a man without a past, never." (pg. 123)

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)

In chapters 5 and 6, Esolen explains our our modern culture needs us to disparage both patriotism and heroes. It helps to deaden one's imagination if your love of country is turned to contempt. Just focus on all the bad things that happened in your country (there will be plenty of them given human nature is what it is), and then define your country by those abuses. Look the same on those characters who were traditionally considered heroic. "We cannot indulge a sentimental admiration of the hero if we are to keep our children banal and safe." (pg. 146) Another helpful strategy is to give high praise to everything and everyone equally. "If everyone is a hero, then no one is a hero; and genuine heroes will go unnoticed in all the mindless self-congratulation." (pg. 148) Your child won't be inspired by George Washington if he is taught to sneer at Washington's tactical military skills and slave ownership. Your child won't be inspired by Abraham Lincoln if you explain to him how Lincoln was really a tyrant who didn't care about African-American civil rights, and just wanted to use them for political propaganda purposes.

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.

" ... a picture of Millais of two boys in Renaissance wear, listening - one of them his chin in both palms - to a bearded and barefoot Scotsman telling a story of the land beyond the seas. The picture is entitled The Boyhood of Raleigh . The idea is impossible to miss. Just as the lad Raleigh was fired to adventure by the stories of old, so the young reader ... will be fired by stories of his country." (pg. 127)

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.

"What we want are not exactly traitors. A courageous traitor we may loathe and yet respect. We want instead citizens that are not really citizens, whose rejection of their country is too ordinary, lackluster, and thoughtless to rise to the level of treachery. Whatever region of the heart beats warm with piety, we want to still it. And this we can do by spreading abroad three untruths. The patriot is narrow-minded because he is attached to a single place. The patriot is narrow-minded because he is bound to the past. The patriot is dangerous because he cannot understand people who fight for countries besides his own. If we can cause children to accept these untruths, we will not only have dulled their imaginations. We will have made them morally obtuse, to boot; and that is no small achievement." (pg. 129)

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.

"Since parents wish to have children, yet to be unencumbered by them, they happily agree to have the effective school day take up all the daylight hours and then some: from the early march to the bus stop, to the long ride to the faraway asylum, through the school day (which is interrupted only briefly for that oiling of the human machine, which is called 'lunch'), to the long ride back home, to the piles of homework that amount to little more than drudgery, graded by machine, or merely logged by the teacher as having been gotten through, but never really pored over, nor regarded as the work of a struggling human mind ...

"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.

"Imagine, then, never being able to look upon the sky. That would drive us mad, and madness, unless it is of the sort that is predictable and spends money, would damage our economy. In Lady Windemere's Fan by Oscar Wilde, Lord Darlington says, 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.' That is bad. We want our children to look at the gutter, or, at the very least, the movie theater or arcade across the street. What we want is to raise human beings that are not burdened with the yearning to look upward ... We want to remove the organ of longing for the sky; call the procedure an ouranotomy or something of the sort. The sky suggests the vastness of creation and the smallness of man's ambition. It startles us out of our dreams of vanity, it silences our pride, it stills the lust to get and spend. It is more dangerous for a human soul to fall into than for a human body to fall out of ." (pg. 33)

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)

Finally our culture just replaces the wonder of the stars with an obsession over different sorts of "stars" altogether. There is nothing like deadening the senses and intellectual capacity like a nonstop focus on pop celebrity. With the help of mass media, by training up our children to constantly look for utterly uninteresting news stories - about Britney Spears latest haircut, Tiger Woods' affairs, Lindsey Lohan's latest drinking party, or Derek Jeter's latest short-term hookup, etc. - their imaginations and sense of wonder will, in fact, horribly suffocate to death. "We must raise students who do not care what a star is, nor what it is made of, because the only stars they trouble to gaze at are the kind that flame out after a moment or two: the stars of mass entertainment. Click, goes the remote control." (pg. 36)

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 ...

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