Recently, a colleague of mine—whose first child was born just weeks ago—noticed my copy of Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. “You know,” he said, “a friend of mine told me that parenting is the most guilt-inducing profession there is. That’s why when I saw the title of that book you’re reading, I decided I will never read it.”
As a soon-to-be father myself, I understand his sentiment. There are so many ways that we fall short in raising our children; why read a book that outlines ten more so that we can feel even worse than we already do? And yet, Esolen’s book is worth reading, and not just for the concerned parent or early childhood educator. I will admit that as a warning about what not to do with children, Ten Ways can at times be overwhelming and even heavy- handed. But read as a broader critique of our system of education and culture, it offers a creative and poignant reminder not only of what a good childhood used to—and might still—be, but also of what it means to be fully alive.
The introduction to Ten Ways is worth the price of the book. In it, Esolen adroitly establishes the conceit that holds the book together: His narrator, a sort of twenty- first century Screwtape, is fed up with children. He has opened his essay decrying the dangers and inconveniences of classic books, but now he turns to children, who are, he writes, “worse than books.” For “a book makes you see the world again, and so ruins your calm and efficient day. But a child does not need to see the world again. He is seeing it for the first time.” The curiosity and wonder that come from seeing the world afresh make children unpredictable and unmanageable. Turning the cliché that “children are our greatest resource” on its head, the smug narrator argues that if we do indeed see children in this way, then we should treat them as we would any other resource: standardize them, warehouse them efficiently, prepare them to fit neatly into their proper place in the commercial juggernaut that we call culture. And to accomplish this we must kill their imagination. “If we can but deaden the imagination,” he says in his eminently practical way, “we can settle the child down, and make of him that solid, dependable, and inert space-filler in school, and, later, a block of the great state pyramid.” This deadening is critical, because even a single act of imagination is a threat, as this hilarious analogy makes clear:
A vast enterprise like McDonald’s can only function by ensuring that no employee, anywhere, will do anything sprightly and childlike in the way of cooking. I sometimes think that if a single boy at the grill tossed paprika into the french fries, the whole colossal pasteboard enterprise would come crashing down. Barbarians everywhere would be grilling the onions, or leaving the ketchup out, or commandeering the Swiss to take the place of the American. The great virtue of McDonald’s, that of the solid, dependable, inert routine, would vanish. The rest of the book gives us a program for making sure the paprika will never be tossed. Esolen presents ten “methods” for squashing individuality and creativity in children, each in itself an ironic critique of trends in education, child- rearing, or the culture at large. The first of these, a chapter entitled “Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible, Or They Used to Call it ‘Air,’” is one of the best. It attacks the increasingly prevalent sheltering of children indoors, away from the majesty and risks of the natural world. By recounting the joyful alfresco adventures of his youth, and by cataloging insights about the natural world from books (from the Epic of Gilgamesh to C.S. Lewis and Wendell Berry), Esolen reminds us that like the Psalmist, we should be awe-struck by the glories of God’s creation. He also makes it clear how easily we can miss them: “A child that has been blared at and distracted all his life will never be able to do the brave nothing of beholding the sky.” Thus
the need for time in nature, which builds resistance to the flashy and ephemeral distractions of culture and leads to curiosity, resourcefulness, and self-knowledge. But children no longer spend much time outdoors, for the school day is too long, the summer too short, the parents too scared. So children, whose little “free” time is regimented out in a slew of formal extra-curricular activities, don’t really get to experience life.
This is the focus of Method 2: “Never Leave Children to Themselves,” in which Esolen looks back wistfully to a time when children were allowed to organize games and adventures through their own initiative. He praises pick-up baseball and spontaneously formed clubs devoted to the love of singing or stamp collecting or chess, while he critiques what he sees as the largely utilitarian motives behind the zealous involvement of parents and organizations in children’s activities. “Everything you do as a child,” counsels the narrator, “must be geared—I use the word “geared” deliberately—toward the resume which will gain you admission to Higher Blunting, followed by Prestigious Work, followed by retirement and death.”
Method 4, “Replace the Fairy Tale with Political Clichés and Fads,” is a diatribe against Deconstructionism and political correctness, the violence they do to the love of learning, and the mediocrity they breed in literature. Such an argument has been made before; for example, see Francine Prose’s scathing and controversial 1999 essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American High School Students Learn to Loathe Literature,” which begins in this way: Like most parents who have, against all odds, preserved a lively and still evolving passion for good books, I find myself, each September, increasingly appalled by the dismal lists of texts that my sons are doomed to waste a school year reading. What I get as compensation is a measure of insight into why our society has come to admire Montel Williams and Ricki Lake so much more than Dante and Homer.1
Both Ms. Prose and Esolen make the point that growing up on drivel stunts young people so that when they face more challenging and potentially rewarding literature, they don’t stand a chance of understanding it or appreciating it. Why the drivel? Both authors maintain it is because the childrens’ overseers are less concerned with stretching the imagination or presenting the real complexity of human relationships than they are with keeping things “relevant” and socializing children well. Now, the problem is not that literature is used to teach deep moral truths to the young. That must happen. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “unless civilization is built upon truisms, it is not built at all.”2 The problem is that the books that high schoolers read, many of them of dubious literary merit to begin with, are presented solely as a pretext for facile discussions of values that are in vogue. As Esolen’s subversive narrator concludes, “Reading is all about the adopting of the correct position.” Of course, the correct position—and Prose and Esolen agree in this critique—is always some modern piety along the lines of a predictable and very limited set of socially acceptable morals.
Esolen does offer an alternative, though, and that is where this chapter is of most use to the parents of young children. He praises folk tales, fairy tales, and fables for their potential to stir up in young readers a love of virtue and justice and to help them recognize, and believe in, love and beauty.3 Because folk tales present a moral universe where right is right and wrong is wrong, they are dangerous. When learned in childhood, these stories—and Esolen provides a number of specific examples—make it possible for young people later to appreciate Shakespeare, and Dostoyevski, and even Puccini. Therefore, says our narrator, the stories must be suppressed: “If you do not want a child to paint, you take away his palette. If you
do not want him to use his imagination to conceive of archetypal stories, you take away his narrative palette.”
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child makes a lot of other good points as well. There is no space here to outline, for example, the book’s insights into how a child’s belief in heroes, his love for his country, his openness to learning from the past, and his respect for the mystery of the opposite sex all help to nurture his moral imagination. The book is a valuable contribution to the conservative corpus on education and virtue that should provoke good discussions among educators and parents. Where others have laid out in a more analytical way the reasons for the decline in moral education, such as empirical psychology, logical positivism, and general moral relativism,4 Esolen’s contribution is to make us understand these causes through laughter and then mourn their effects. His writing is elegant and vigorous and his love for the classics infectious. Readers who want to follow up on any of the dozens of books, folk tales, and children’s stories he draws from can consult the detailed bibliography he provides. There is some repetition between chapters, but this makes it possible for sections of the book to be read independently by those who are not ready to attack the whole. I might even suggest that parents consider forming a group to discuss sections of the book together, perhaps along with a teacher or school administrator, as has been done with success at the school where I teach. Not everyone will love the book: the author’s strong opinions (on everything from day care to pop culture to true manhood and womanhood) and his tone (at a few moments almost belligerently pedantic) may be off-putting to some, and others may feel crushed by the sense that modern life, or their particular situation, makes many of his ideals difficult to realize. But I think that most readers will be grateful for this inspiring charge to foster and protect our most human resource.