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Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

In a recent survey of teenage girls which asked them to name their ideal careers, nearly 40 percent selected something in the arts and entertainment fields. When asked if they thought they would actually get their dream jobs, two-thirds said either that they “think so” or that they were “certain.”

As another piece of evidence about the dream world which is modern adolescence, I offer what happened when I was asked to speak to high-school students about how to pursue a successful career. In the course of my remarks, I said something that seemed imminently sensible, but which evoked immediate rejection from a majority of my listeners, namely, that none of us can do anything he wants.

“You can,” said a student in the back, rising as if with great effort from his slouch, “if you want it badly enough.”

“I’d really like,” I told him, “to play professional basketball. But I can’t shoot, nor can I dribble, nor do I have the reaction time of the average player on a losing college team. No matter how much I’d like to be a point guard for the Chicago Bulls, it’s not something I can do.”

“Then you must not want it bad enough,” my challenger retorted. He returned to his slouch, fortified by the approving nods of his classmates.

The imagination of young people, it would seem, is in no danger of going away; if anything, one might be forgiven for thinking it could stand a good backhand. Many adolescents, in fact, live in a world of fantasy that encourages stupid choices and, eventually, crushed expectations.

Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, then, seems a welcome tonic. It appears we need to do some imagination destroying, and to replace what we level with common sense.

But wait—Esolen offers his book Screwtape-style, with an authorial voice that encourages readers to truncate the dangerous imaginations of their young charges, lest they grow up to be independent adults. What emerges from Esolen’s ironic treatment is a clarification that the baseless dreaming of the sort one often encounters among young people, as it turns out, is not imagination run amok, but a narcissistic self-absorption that crowds out genuine imagination, which Esolen might define as man’s inherent tendency to understand his place in creation, to grapple for truth, and to craft beauty within the context of being himself a created being.

The modern daydreaming impulse is not a natural extension of this, but rather the Mr. Hyde to genuine imagination’s Dr. Jekyll. It is a toxic consequence, in part, of immediate, pushbutton, mental masturbation. With a few keystrokes today’s teenager can blow up alien cities, watch the copulation of actors bearing outsized body parts, and tell any number of people on the receiving end of his texts how much he loves or hates them, all before he finishes the bag of potato chips at his elbow. And all the while, so long as his test scores are adequate, we tell him he’s bright and encourage him to reach for the stars. “We can do a fine job curdling the imagination by stressing ‘creativity,’ for the creative child is encouraged to think of himself as a little god, with all his bright ideas coming from within. The older tradition has the poet as hearer before he is a crafter of verses. The Muse comes to him” (Esolen 2010, 200).

What patience can exist, then, for the labor of true creation? What intimacy can be forged where passion comes so cheaply? What humility has been cultivated that might activate the poet’s “receptivity,” as Esolen calls it, to a world filled with mystery, with a grandeur that encompasses us, yet does not originate with us?

The artifacts of our current culture—and the shoddy, corporatized educational systems in which they are embedded—invite us to turn inward. “Self-expression,” Esolen writes, “is the finest antidote for a perky imagination ever invented” (88).

This book is much more, then, than an assessment of what saps the genuine imagination of children. It is a lament for what we have lost and are losing: honor, humility, non-eroticized love, truth, and faith.

Esolen is a Christian—in an older sense of that word, before the modern apostates and know-nothings and sentimentalists got a stranglehold on it—and so he has a Tolkienesque sense of hope even (especially!) in the darkest hour, and of fighting the enemy with an eye not toward self-righteousness, but toward victory. This means thinking strategically about exactly how Mordor might be laid low.

And the Mordor of our time, one gathers from Esolen, is a utilitarian educational culture administered by small-minded bureaucrats in thrall to materialism, scientism, and social conformity. Whereas traditional conservative critiques of education tend to be of public schools—and these for being populated by government employees who fail to impart a sufficient level of “core knowledge” to their charges—Esolen reviles all the attributes of mass-production schooling that is equal parts Henry Ford and John Dewey: age-segmentation, undifferentiated treatment, chockablock schedules that afford no time for individual exploration, and obsession with facts (“How long is the Mississippi?”) over knowing (“What was it like to navigate the Mississippi?”).

It’s tedious work, Esolen notes in Screwtape style, of blunting the properly imaginative impulse, but the tedium has a purpose. It’s all part of a process for churning out citizens who make things difficult neither for their educators nor their rulers, and who set themselves to the task of enhancing the national GDP, both as producers and consumers. Writes Esolen: “...everything you do as a child must be geared—I use the word ‘geared’ deliberately—towards that resumé which will gain you admission to Higher Blunting, followed by Prestigious Work, followed by retirement and death” (54).

An additional result of modern education practices, ironically (or purposefully, according to Esolen’s authorial voice), is that it makes students understand less, even as they learn more. Worse still, it makes them care very little about any of it. The recipe is eerily familiar to anyone acquainted with middle-school science projects: “Demand drudgery, but not drudgery that has as its end the mastery of facts, or of an intellectual structure within which to retain and interpret the facts, or of a great work of imagination for which the facts of grammar or arithmetic or whatever are the doorkeepers. Keep them busy and idle at the same time. Put them in groups, to pull down the intelligent. Have them make posters full of unrelated data” (25).

This is a dangerous critique, because it applies not only to the underperforming, overspending, government-run holding pen posing as a school down the street, but to a good many private and charter schools as well. When Esolen writes that factories aren’t “...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” (83), the chuckle fades in the throat of the good conservative. Wait a minute—this guy isn’t just criticizing Cesar E. Chavez Middle School, he’s going after Friedrich A. Hayek Academy!

There is in most schools, in Esolen’s estimation, far too much obsession with what Nobel Prize-winning economist Vernon Smith derides as “knowing what versus knowing how.” There is, further, a dangerous concession to materialists who believe science is only, in the words of Walker Percy, “the isolation of secondary causes in natural phenomena,” rather than the original—and religiously sympathetic—aim of “discovery and knowing.”

The net—and ironic—effect is that greater exposure to the machinery of the modern school yields diminished knowing, albeit hidden, in many cases, by a heightened command of disconnected and de-contextualized facts. Today’s best students know the dates of more wars than their ancestors, but they can no more give an intellectual and moral defense for (or a case against) war than they can run a farm or build a river raft.

And this knowing how of moral questions is of a piece with the knowing how of mechanical questions. Acquiring either requires interaction with the world that moves beyond (but not in the absence of) theorizing—an experience modern schools, families, and churches are increasingly ill-prepared to impart.

It’s an interesting question, whether the models currently popular among education reformers—most of whom are conservative and libertarian—namely charter schools, private schools following some version of a classical education philosophy, and home schools actually avoid the pitfalls Esolen traces in his book.

It helps, in considering this question, to separate his critique into pedagogy and content. In the former category we find Esolen attacking the acquisition of facts, the test-driven knowing what at the expense of knowing how—how to do things, how to experience the world, how to grapple with moral questions. We find as well the hour-stacked-upon-hour indoor confinement of schools, the relentless scheduling and adult supervision of every activity, the relegation of mechanics, work, and vocational training to a lesser track for dumb kids.

It’s the rare private or charter school, it’s safe to say, that isn’t vulnerable to criticism on all these fronts. Home schools can be somewhat better, insofar as many of them are more rural, and in the context of large families, yielding at least the opportunity for self-direction, along with outdoor play and work.

Schools favored by reformers may fare better on content, but here Esolen identifies as additional enemies of imagination: the politicization of stories, the diminution of the heroic and patriotic, and the elevation of sex equality to a religious impulse. He adds to these the elimination—by dint of mockery, suspicion, and ignorance—of philia and agape, so that eros reigns supreme.

Set alongside all this the destruction of reverence for God (and forget theological education that can stand more than a rudimentary examination), and the modern, public-school educated youngster too often emerges with his world having been flattened and faded gray, his passion reduced to sexuality, and his curiosity transmogrified into occupational hoop-jumping.

There are expensive private schools that manage to achieve these same destructive ends, of course, and a great many elite universities actually revel in doing so. Even a modest focus on great books, one takes from Esolen, can have an ameliorating effect, if only because grappling with The Odyssey, for example, forces one to deal with a complexity of emotion and motivation (not to mention the full panoply of Greek loves) that undermines the two-dimensional political correctness enshrined in textbooks and lesser literature.

In their embrace of great books, then, and classical education, and their devotion to religious instruction, advocates of education reform have within their sights a set of remedies for half the problem identified by Esolen. But what to do about pedagogy? Might it be the case, as in many revolutions, that the reformers still carry within themselves the wrong worldviews of those they seek to depose? This might be a fertile question for everyone involved in the strategy and philanthropy of education reform, and one could find a worse starting point than Esolen’s book.

Indeed, it might be best to start with Esolen himself because, besides a passion that occasionally comes to the surface so fully that his Screwtape conceit is undermined (a small and admirable failing), the greatest shortcoming of this book (insofar as leaving readers hungry for more may fairly be called a shortcoming) is its absence of pedagogical prescription. Avoiding political correctness,  godlessness, and sneering nihilism goes without saying, but what to do with the incessant drive toward greater and greater knowing what, at the expense of how? Here this reader, at least, wants to hear more from Esolen. And perhaps we will.

Tony Woodlief is a writer who lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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