I can be rather vindictive in my entertainment. Like the time I read one of Richard Weaver’s anti-Dewey screeds during off-time in my educational practicum. Sitting in that huge public school, with all the echoing tiles around me, I found it rather delicious to enjoy Weaver’s taking the entire system apart. His comments, at this point, apply to private schools as well as public, universities as well as grade schools. Three years of constructivism had worn me down, and I had begun to decide that I had no interest in teaching high school, unless I found my way to a classical high school somehow. Weaver had a lot of thoughtful criticisms, and to me–bored and tired of being force-fed popular educational theory–they were a relief. I wasn’t crazy.
But Weaver’s criticisms were written a long time ago. Things have gotten worse since then. Not simply test scores, either. The atmosphere in schools has changed. They are now Big.
Anthony Esolen’s recent book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, is a delightful attack on how modern children are being raised. Satirically, he pretends that he actually wants to destroy the imagination of children. Of course, we can easily tell that he doesn’t. But the slight satire allows him to turn what might have been another dull book about how The Sky Is Falling into a delightful romp through basically everything.
Esolen hits on some of the points we expect from conservative cultural critics. There are places I disagree with him, or think that he doesn’t offer enough explanation. For instance, he warns against denigration of heroes, including the American military–a rather damning indictment of the modern anti-war movement. The indictment is deverved, I believe, but it doesn’t address the conservative anti-war movement, which can be quite enthusiastic about heroes and unenthusiastic about foreign wars. Because of the book’s focus, he also doesn’t offer solutions to some of the problems he unveils. So librarians are turning into philistines. But why? How can we fix the problem? And kids are stuck on the Internet. But the Internet isn’t going away. How can we use it without–as Esolen puts it–destroying children’s imaginations?
But these problems are fairly minor compared with the overall value of the book. Esolen isn’t so much trying so offer a set of solutions as he is trying to set a fire. And in that, he succeeds. His book encourages parents and educators to let children explore, to protect their sense of wonder, to let them dream, to leave them alone, to give them the gift of silence. After reading, I want to go and do some of those things myself. And I’ve been looking at the night sky with a little more pleasure and a lot more understanding. (His praise of some folk music also motivated me to get my guitar out again. I got a little excited playing “The Easter Rebellion” and ended up sporting a huge blister on my thumb.)
Yes, Esolen’s book definitely could set a person ablaze. And it proves what C.S. Lewis said–that people who often stare into the night sky or frequently meditate on the distant past are less likely than others to be “ardent or orthodox partisans.” Mainstream conservatives have praised Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, but without Esolen’s knowledge of the humanities, I wonder how much they understand it. Esolen, meanwhile, sees deeper than than most of them. Some of my favorites among his observations:
- Structure is the key to imagination. Modern educators argue that students shouldn’t be so focused on learning facts that they lose the ability to be creative. What they don’t talk much about is that you can’t be very creative without any facts in your head.
- Memorization can lead to creativity. Yes, we can Google things now. But you can’t Google something if you don’t know what it is. And what you memorize shapes your imagination, allowing you to synthesize unrelated things. Google can’t do that, either.
- Bigness kills the imagination. Large schools are among the culprits. You become narrower, not broader, in your understanding of humanity when the only students you get to know well are your close friends. Being around a lot of students doesn’t amount to socialization.
I could go on. Esolen’s book is worth it. But supper is waiting. And food, of the non-packaged variety, is another way to stimulate your imagination. Who knew?