Monday, May 16, 2011

TEN WAYS TO DESTROY THE IMAGINATION OF YOUR CHILD (2010) - by Anthony Esolen (Book Review - Part 2)

Here's the link for Part 1.

Esolen continues in developing his proposition that, in order to destroy the thinking capacity and sense of wonder among our children, we ought to keep our kids from being exposed to the outdoors. There are several modern techniques that accomplish this goal nicely. For example the outdoors ought to be carefully controlled, fenced in, and cordoned off so that exploring it is the equivalent of a tour through a fairly boring museum -

"One way to neutralize this fascination with the natural world is to cordon it off in parks and zoos, and then to act as if only the parks and zoos were worth seeing ... Children should be encouraged to think they have 'done' rivers, or bird sanctuaries, or botanical gardens, in the way that weary tourists are proud to have done Belgium." (pgs. 37-38)

There are many curiosities that make awaken a sense of dangerous wonder in your child. The very best way of deadening your kids' senses to this sort of thing is to only expose them first to the same thing, except only virtual realities of the same thing. Let them learn about the natural wonders of the world through the internet, not by going outside. For instance -

"If a child displays an unseemly desire to know something about cows, introduce him to an Internet Cow, giving Internet Milk, and leave it at that. Remember that information is to wisdom as a ceiling is to the sky." (pg. 46)

Another popular modern practice highly conducive to halting the development of a child's thinking skills is to rigorously control even his time outside of the schoolroom. Meticulously organize, schedule, and supervise all your child's play time, especially with other children. Grownups should always be in charge. And here is where we get to one of the best little sections of Esolen's book. From pages 49-55, he tells what is almost a modern Utopian fairy tale, of a world where everyone's existence is minutely controlled and scheduled down to the very last detail. This "ideal" world Esolen describes is hilariously bad, and yet I'm really not sure if there is a single part of it that isn't actually part of our modern lifestyle.
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"We ought to rename our planet according to the bureaucratic shackles we place upon our children. We shall call it Tormentaria. It seems quite apt. The Tormentarians are a humane race. They don't favor harsh (though swift) punishment; they grow queasy if anyone mentions a whipping post or even a smack on the posterior. They prefer to work on the mind, patiently, interminably, beneficently. It is never their aim to settle things with a free and open fight. That would upset the blessed routine of Tormentaria. No, they direct all the machinery of their social systems to mold and squeeze the offender into the perfectly square hole he is destined to fill, for his own good and the good of his fellow Tormentarians.

The chief offenders of Tormentaria, or rather those who would grow up to be offenders if they were left to themselves, are the objects of plenty of molding and squeezing, for roughly twenty revolutions of Tormentaria around its sun. When they are hardly old enough to toddle about, they are wheeled away to what is called, in Tormentarian, an asylo , meaning 'rainbow center,' where they are attended to by paid professionals, usually of a kindly disposition, who will feed them at regular feeding times, nap them at regular napping times, give them regularly scheduled 'activities' to keep them from rusting solid, and remember their names. The little Tormentarians learn to look forward to the asylo , because otherwise they seldom meet another of their own kind. Besides, the walls of the asylo are gaily painted with colors unknown to the flora and fauna of Tormentaria - gaudy blues to substitute for the sky and purples and oranges to substitute for fruit, and buds, and flowers. Children, the Tormentarians know, like that sort of thing, and the sheer blare of it all will make Tormentaria rivers and trees and bluffs dull by comparison.

In the asylo the children must be 'tormentarianized' into predetermined games, never of a competitive nature, lest anyone should be hurt by real anger or disappointment, or elated by real victory. They also practice their alphabet, and the brightest among them learn to read drivel. That satisfies the vanity of the parents, who hope to send them to the finest penitentiaries on the planet. It also prepares them for their adult lives, when they will be reading newspapers and magazines. It has the added advantage of inducing burnout . This is a fascinating phenomenon that warrants a closer look ..." (pg. 49-50)

"They get up very early in the morning to board a bus which stops every hundred yards to take on new passengers. This ensures that no child has very far to walk, and that the ride takes an hour or so in the morning and an hour or so in the evening. That will mean nearly two hours ripped out of every child's life, for no real purpose, day after day for twelve years - a significant achievement ..." (pg. 52)

"Then the child is shipped to what is called a 'home' room - the Tormentarians have not lost all sense of humor. Here the child is numbered and checked off. An alarm rings, and all the children move from the "home" room to one of the classrooms to be exercised in the alphabet, or whatever ... Also useful in the Tormentarian regime is the partitioning of time into discrete segments. For instance, the child will learn that forty-five minutes is the correct amount of time to devote, at one sitting, to any subject whatsoever. Are you looking at pictures of butterflies? You should look at them for forty-five minutes. Are you reading a short story about a pirate? You should read it for forty-five minutes. But he is about to be hanged from the yardarm! No matter; let him wait till tomorrow. Are you learning Tormentarian grammar? Probably not, but if you are, you should learn it for forty-five minutes. But you think you may have understood what a 'participle' is for the first time in your life, and you want to test your theory out? Sorry, your forty-five minutes are up. Not to worry; the momentary excitement of discovery will pass, and tomorrow will find you as befuddled as ever ..." (pgs. 52-53)

"No matter whether the child's interest is as deep as the sea or as shallow as a rain puddle, and no matter whether the subject is Kings of Old or Being Nice to Animals, the organizing adults will make sure you spend forty-five minutes on it, all of you without distinction, no more, and no less. Every subject will be taken equally seriously, which means, in effect, that none of them can be taken quite seriously at all. After six or seven hours of this - which cannot be called working at a 'grindstone,' because a real grindstone is a swift and lovely tool, and has the property of sharpening, whereas school is intended to blunt ... [T]he child is conveyed back to the bus, for an hour's ride to what is, again with delightfully wry humor, called 'home.' As no one is home waiting for him, he turns on a television to watch a program he has not the slightest interest in; this is called homework . So his life goes on, year after year..." (pg. 53)
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These are, of course, just excerpts. I'll stop there and allow you the pleasure of reading Esolen's imagination killing Tormentarian tale in its entirety when you buy his book. His further descriptions of - molding the thought processes of the brain, the modern concept of "burnout," the old antiquated and ignorant Tormentarian educational systems, the purposeful "herding" method useful for keeping each young Tormentarian lonely and anonymous, the modern concept of "down time" and how it ought to be controlled, holidays, "after school exercises," and daily planners with appropriate scheduling for weekends - are rollicking genius.

Esolen briefly addresses the problems of gangs. In the modern world, most children spend the majority of their time outside their homes and away from their families. It could be argued that this causes the increasing number of criminal gangs in big American cities. But, it's not being away from home that's the problem, and for just a moment, Esolen speaks seriously -

"It is not that these boys spend too much time outside of the home. It is that they have no genuine home to spend time outside of. They have, for one, no fathers in those flophouses. They have no groups of men to emulate, keeping order, getting together for sport or the hunt or protection of community. Churches have collapsed into hobby houses for girls and old ladies. The schools are huge and anonymous. Sports teams are, consequently, relatively few. Institutions that used to minister to troubled youths, in groups, have become day-care asylums or exercise clubs for middle-class families." (pg. 63)

Young kids enter gangs because their families have failed them. The consequences are dangerous, both to them, and to the rest of society. Returning to tongue-in-cheek, Esolen reflects upon the problem of danger. The difficulty here is, for a modern society devoted to deadening our souls, the world is still a dangerous place. The outdoors are just one example, even studying subjects like engineering, physics, mechanics, machinery, chemistry, etc. in school can lead to dangerous activities for an imaginative mind. The point of modern society is to make everything safe and secure. We want our exposure to even things like science to be carefully controlled, dull instead of dangerous. This is why we take our children on field trips. Better a field trip than a science or chemistry experiment.

"Now the science museum, by contrast, won't have anything you can actually do that might lead to things breaking (or bones breaking). But the science museum, like science classes in school generally, is not about the business of stirring the imagination. It is instead about persuading the child to Believe the Right Things about Science." (pg. 75)

Another useful technique is to blunt our kids' minds by teaching them what they ought to believe, or what political stances they ought to take about things, rather than actually about the things themselves.

"At all costs we must encourage our children not to be fascinated by the actual habits of whales, or by the design that makes it possible for them to be underwater mammals. We must encourage them to believe that Whales Must Be Saved." (pg. 76)

Even a field trip needs to be carefully controlled to reach the right result. Some field trips, for example, could expose children to the wonder of intricately constructed and powerful machinery that will kill the operator if he doesn't know what he's doing.

"You will say now, 'Thank goodness there aren't machines like that still around, ready for children to look at and learn from.' But of course, there are. They are not, to be sure, popular destinations for school field trips, because they'd involve going to an infernally hot foundry or a noisy machine shop, or to a factory where People Who Have Failed in Life are working. Or they might involve approaching a real work site, with backhoes (what is a backhoe, and why is it called that?), or pile drivers (what is a pile driver?). Learning a little bit about such machines may also stir some curiosity about the past. The Romans, without diesel engines, built highways, bridges, aqueducts, palaces, and stadiums. How did they manage to sink a bridge's piers into a riverbed? What recipes did they use for their concrete? Did they have different recipes for different purposes? If they had pile drivers (and they did), how were they constructed? What did they use to pound the pile down?" (pg. 83)

Exquisitely crafted machinery could encourage a child to think in terms of the abstract. Just the like the inventors of a cotton mill or a steam engine, many of the great works of art and literature were only created by thinkers who could think objectively and organize thousands of details into one coherent whole. Thankfully we have things like Facebook and Twitter, which discourage this kind of thought or writing. Charles Dickens would never have been able to write novels with dangerous moral implications if he had learned to think by only using electronic social media, or by being taught English under modern public school curricula.

"If you don't want your child to write long novels wherein each character plays an orchestrated part to bring about the effect of the whole, you should keep him away from abstract structures generally. Best to sit him in front of a piece of paper and ask him to write about what he feels. Self-expression is the finest antidote for a perky imagination ever invented." (pg. 88)

Instructing children that the point of art, writing or any other creative activity is so he or she can be expressive is much more safe. If a kid is told to express himself, then he'll rise in self-esteem and therefore also think and focus on himself. And it is a much more structured and controlled life to always be thinking solely about yourself and your own self-worth. Self-reflection/obsession is to be encouraged. Stories about kids in school, or little Dick or Jane achieving self-worth by growing up to be corporate CEOs are to be encouraged. Stories about magic or beauty are to be discouraged.

"Fairy tales and folk tales are for children and childlike people, not because they are little and inconsequential, but because they are as enormous as life itself ... for in fairy tales, someone has to see beneath the surface of things, and glimpse the beauty that everyone else overlooks." (pg 97)

Brothers Grim or Arabian Nights aren't exactly best-sellers anymore. Instead of building a sense of wonder by reading antiquated stories about tin soldiers and paper ballet dancers, just let your kid watch the television instead. They'll prefer it, it's less work than reading a boring old book anyway.

"Fortunately, the attentive parent will be aided in this enterprise by what is called 'popular culture.' It isn't really culture, but mass entertainment; but that's another matter. Watch a half hour of television, and count how many times what is supposed to be humorous is based upon flattening or a reduction. Is someone not humbled but humiliated - and just for our enjoyment of the humiliation? Is the jest merely a snide wisecrack, and not really funny unless you adopt the snideness of the jester? Is the predominant mode the flippant, the cheap, the snickering? If so, know that you will have little to worry about. After years of watching the comic face of nihilism, your children will come to respect nothing, love nothing, believe in nothing, and long for nothing." (pg. 157)

I could happily quote Esolen's book for another couple hours worth of reading, but you could also just forgo a couple McDonalds burgers (or that movie ticket to go see The Hangover 2 , or the extra cash to pay for your next 50 cell phone texts for a day ... or just one extra expensive frappe-mocha-carmele-latte whatever at your local yuppie overpriced fake coffee shop) and buy and read the book yourself. Other strategies Esolen discusses that we use to destroy the imagination include:

Chapter 7 - Reducing All Talk of Love to Narcissism and Sex or Insert Tab A into Slot B

- from which you'll be introduced to the story of Nausicaa from Homer's Odyssey along with selections from William Douglas, Stephen Foster, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Plato, Dante, John Milton, Dostoyevsky, and then compare them to the philosophy of particular sex education books and modern day song lyrics.

"... rather we want to ensure that young people will look upon a Ferdinand and Miranda, or even Stephen and Jane, or William and Annie, as creatures of a fundamentally different species. As indeed they will be. How to ensure it? Reduce sex to hygiene, or to mechanics. Reduce eros to the itch of lust or vanity. Reduce the love of man and woman to something private, arbitrary, and socially indifferent. While you are doing these things, soak television and magazines with pictures of people in a state of undress, so that the only mysteries remaining will be in the cruel, the bizarre, and the disgusting." (pg. 168)

Chapter 8 - Level Distinctions between Man and Woman or Spay and Geld

- from which Esolen will re-acquaint you with the words of Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, Sigrid Undset, Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, Theodore Roethke, John Keats, Thomas Aquinas, C.S. Lewis and then demonstrate how Modern Culture declares all of them to be flat out wrong.

"... Have children understand that manliness and womanliness are contemptible. The true man is a cartoon figure, a crazy mixture of steroid-exploded muscle mass, grunts, and a bad shave. Otherwise men are fat, sloppy, and stupid. They paint their bellies for football games and drink beer. They are incompetents in the workplace. Their conversation revolves around fast food and fast women. For their part, the women are skinny to the point of emaciation. They wear clothes that would make the whores of old blush. They are fussy, snippy, and feline. They enjoy humiliating men, who always come back for more anyway. They have studied martial arts, and can be choreographed into delivering a backhand slap from a thin-wristed arm that will defy all the laws of physics and send a 250-pound man reeling. They have foul mouths, but they don't come by foulness honestly; a sort of sneaky, sniggering arch foulness ..." (pg. 196)

Chapter 9 - Distract the Child with the Shallow and Unreal or The Kingdom of Noise

- includes Lucretius, John of the Cross, Homer, John Milton, I Kings 19, C.S. Lewis, a section on television entitled "Murders and Toothpaste," Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Geoffrey Chaucer, Sigrid Undset, Harriet Becher Stowe, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Philippe Beneton, Blaise Pascal, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, the words of Christ

"... I was at a library one summer day; a library is a place where people used to house books, so that other people could borrow them and read them. Not so now. A library is a place filled with noise. Outside the full length windows the sun was shining on the sea, and the weather was perfect for swimming or fishing. Seagulls were circling about and crying their unearthly cry. Ospreys - those "bonecrackers," as their name in Latin means - had built an eyrie atop one of the telephone poles. A whole world lay in wait beyond the windows, a world of sound and silence, of both solitude and that genuine friendship that needs no words to express itself. And inside the library, I am pleased to say, were perfectly healthy children. They were not tanning by the sun. Their bellies were already a little soft, a little pudgy - an earnest of years of inactivity and boredom to come. They sat in front of machines of noise: computer screens, playing pointless video games. Or they did what is called "chatting," but not face to face. We are not talking here about someone looking you in the eye, talking about football, or whether God exists, or what it must be like in the winter in Newfoundland. The sentences they hammered out on the keyboards were sublingual, like the grunting of brutes." (pgs. 206-207)

And -

Chapter 10 - Deny the Transcendent or Fix Above the Heads of Men the Lowest Ceiling of All

- includes, well, multiple stories from the Bible

"It is, in the first instance, the very idea of God that guarantees that we can never reduce anything in creation merely to the stuff of which it consists. And, as for God Himself, what greater object of wonder can there be than one who is not the greatest thing-in-the-world, but beyond the world, of whom all things great and small declare, 'He made us, we did not make ourselves'?

... No, probably the best thing to do is to flatten the mystery. Here we could hardly do better than to follow the lead of those churches that seem determined to produce as many people as they can who will look back on belief with the same seriousness with which they remember a cartoon. These churches produce 'children's Bibles' and 'children's liturgies,' so that what is left imperfect during the week, Sunday school will complete. A child who never hears of God in school may yet be aware, from church and from his family life and from his own reading, of the tremendous mystery of that Father who is utterly different from us, yet who knows our inmost thoughts. But the child for whom God has been reduced to a googly-eyed cartoon of a smiling old man will reject it as he grows older, just as he rejects dressing up as Batman ..." (pgs. 221-223)

So Esolen hints that the churches also are helping out the schools in this regard.

I enjoyed reading this book so much that I could keep typing up favorite quotes from the book until I've somehow managed to (a) just type the entire book on the internet and (b) end up breaking copyright law. Hopefully this rather large collection of commentary and excerpts will only wet your appetite. I purposefully left some of the very best bits out, and there's no way of really getting how good the book is unless you read it for yourself.

So, go buy it now. I'm guessing most Borders or Barnes & Noble are too modern to want to encourage the reading of this sort of thing, (you'd stop reading and buying 90% of their stock if you agreed with half of what Esolen has to say about it), so you may have to buy it online. The Amazon link is right here. Enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic blog you wrote on this subject and I will definitely will read this.. I am writing a blog on Fairy Rings and how nature and science can be taught as well as the folklore of the rings. Growing up in the 60's, I have thanked God for what we had...no technology...and did a pretty good job at keeping it from my kids growing up but these days...Great post!! I am going to share your article... Thanks for posting it..:)

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