Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination Of Your Child
© 2010 Anthony Esolen
In the spirit of The Screwtape Letters comes this, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination Of Your Child. Anthony Esolen opens by observing that the western world obviously does not like its children, or it would treat them differently. In mocking appreciation for what passes for modern education and parenting, Esolen offers a guide to what is being done well, and offers advice for even more efficiently crushing their messy little humans into conveniently-formed bricks in the wall. Dripping with irony, this manual for childhood destruction is really a defense of being human, calling parents’ attention to how much has been lost and reminding them what is valuable and good about being ye as children.
In his introduction, Esolen notes that American children spend the majority of their day in warehouses, surrounded by people who do not love them. We have reduced our children to commodities — to be bussed, warehoused, and then put to use in the economy. In the process, some of the essence of humanity — curiosity, adoration, innocent dreams — are snuffed out. (Think of the native passion for learning about the world, for instance, which is absent in most adults.) Esolen criticizes the very nature of schoolrooms themselves, the strict age segregation and the concentration of hundreds of kids into the same spaces. The socialization received in such institutions is the same received in prisons: the socialization of gangs and cattle. These mass schools are Efficient, but human beings are not creatures who can be made efficiently. We are handicrafts, best shaped by learned hands with the experience of years in them — who know how to work out our lumps and produce something that is beautiful without having to be perfect.
The dreary mentality of the factory, the curse of Taylorism — “scientific management”, in which factory laborers were turned into efficient cogs by doing the same practiced motion over and over again — has penetrated deep into the school. The risky, the inefficient, are kept away. Gone are childhood adventures outside; the kids sit inside, transfixed by their phones. Gone, too, are the self-organized games played on the street and in any vacant lot, the games that allowed children their first taste of adulthood — for there they regulated their games, improvising as they needed to to allow for limited conditions or layers. If children ‘play’ sports now, they only do it in organized teams, supervised constantly by adults. The little saplings are never free to bask in the sun, not with looming pines above them. What should be done for sheer joy is instead pursued for filling out a college resume; the commodity’s only value is for its utility.
Esolen’s criticism goes beyond education, though he fires sallies it at regularly given how much time kids spend institutionalized. The parent who wishes to spiritually neuter their child, to turn play into passivity, would do well to plunk them down in front of television. Not only will it shorten their attention span and keep them fixated for hours on end, but it will take the time they could have been using to get into trouble — exploring outside, for instance. This trivialization of the human experience continues in the reflexive sneering-at of men and women once lauded as extraordinary, as well as the reduction of sexuality to meat and friction — instead of the dangerous, beautiful act of creation it once was. The triumph of triteness has reduced “love” to lust, or admiration, or preference, or any old thing – but never devotion and affection.
Esolen is ultimately arguing for a childhood and a human life that is valuable for being human, not for economic utility. His version of childhood is one that is rooted in the family, not in organization; he dreams of children sitting at their parents’ feet, admiring them and heroes from fiction and history, wanting to grow up to be good men and women themselves. Esolen renders his rebukes not in a despairing tone, but in a mischievous, playful one; the same one that appears in his lectures on Dante ,where he off-handedly mentions that the motto of a given university is in fact taken from Dante.(There is always a lone guffaw when he intones: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate…“)* Esolen’s wit is also audacious, as seen when he started mocking television…while on television. The hosts cut him off rather awkwardly. It is an argument for a humanistic education — that is, one that takes as its purpose the fulfillment of the human person, not producing Dewey’s faithful subjects for the state.
* Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.