Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child
by Anthony Esolen
Intercollegiate Studies Institute
When SABR Matt and I were in elementary school (in the seaside Connecticut town of Niantic), we used to while away much of our free time dreaming up elaborate yarns about the Zinkleys, a family of super-geniuses who lived in a climate-controlled dome in Antarctica. As I recall, we chose Antarctica because we’d seen an episode of 3-2-1 Contact in which the young star traveled to said continent to visit the South Pole, and we were completely enchanted by Antarctica’s forbidding and seemingly alien landscape. As you may have guessed, this was before my official introduction to science fiction. If I’d known about Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars or John Christopher’s Tripods Trilogy back then, I’m sure I would’ve insisted that the Zinkleys make their home on another planet.
Be that as it may, our games of “Zinkley Pretend” would often last for hours on end — and when we weren’t absorbed in our fictional universe, SABR Matt and I would often run down Kevin Road to play with a friend who had what seemed to us to be the most terrific yard in the world. Behind this friend’s house was a good-sized pond that was a potential source of entertainment in any season. In the summer, we’d go swimming, heedless of the leeches and the weeds that squinched under our bare feet; in the winter, the pond would freeze up, and we’d “skate” around on the ice (I use scare quotes there because we didn’t actually have ice skates). In our friend’s front yard, meanwhile, a departing glacier had deposited a large pile of rocks that became for us our moss-and-lichen-covered “mountain.” SABR Matt fell off the “mountain” once and broke his arm in two places, but oddly enough, he managed to survive — just as I managed to survive many years later the day I decided to ride in the direction of the sunrise until I found Puget Sound and ended up crashing my bike into a fence and tree (obviously, this was after we’d moved to Washington State).
I share these things to illustrate exactly how much free reign our parents gave us as children. We did get involved in a few adult-organized activities, like the Scouts, orchestra, children’s theater, and Niantic’s Sesquicentennial Project, an after-school activity whose name the poor secretary at Lillie B. Haynes could never pronounce correctly, but large swaths of our schedule were left entirely open. Not only did this allow SABR Matt and me to – gasp! – play outside, but it also gave SABR Matt the opportunity to mess around with numbers (we called that being “numberish”) and draw weather maps — and it gave me the chance to prowl around the public library devouring every book on medicine and disease that I could get my hands on.
Today, on the other hand, parents don’t often leave kids alone to entertain themselves — and in his fantastically written social commentary, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, author Anthony Esolen identifies this lack of free time and nine other current-day trends as the key enemies of passion and originality. A while back, SABR Matt wondered out loud why the students at his university seem to have no “desire”. This book, I think, may contain the answer to his query. Esolen argues – and quite persuasively, I might add – that children’s souls have been bled dry by a combination of overly-controlling parenting, factory-style public schooling (which he calls “drudgery without the facts”), and a popular culture that cherishes political correctness above all else. At the same time, he presents a rousing defense of patriotism, traditional morality (including the traditional understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman), and religious faith.
Esolen’s prose is a real treasure – wickedly incisive and profoundly moving all at once. Here he is, for example, after he’s just described the organization of an unsupervised baseball game:
…Now you actually have to play the game. You have to keep track of the batting order, or the downs, or the number of outs, or the fouls, or the score. Nobody is going to do it for you. But what happens when there’s a disputed play?
Here again, we see the wonders of organizing every non-electronic moment of a child’s life. When adults are in charge, they will settle the dispute. Sometimes they do so preventively, by making sure that disputes cannot occur. That’s what schools in Massachusetts did a few years ago, decreeing that for elementary school soccer matches, no one should keep score. What a remarkable teaching device that was! It prevented the children from using their wits to separate right from wrong…
But boys from time immemorial have fashioned their own “rules” for meting out sandlot justice… The boys will argue, using evidence, and they all understand that it is in everyone’s best interest to respect evidence, since otherwise no game would be possible… And if that doesn’t work, the boys will not go home in a snit. What would be the fun in that? They will not cry, like babies. They will not sue. They will use the supreme act of their moral imaginations. They will forgive the baseball universe. They will Pretend the Play Never Happened. Everyone goes back to where he was, and the play is done over…
This is perhaps a slight idealization, but scenes like this may indeed have unfolded on a regular basis during Esolen’s childhood, when kids had involved parents available at home to teach them the difference between right and wrong.
Meanwhile, here is Esolen on the impossibility of creating great works of art without a sense of the transcendent:
We can suppose, then, that to remove from the child the possibility of praise – to rob him of any intimation of the Being that lends existence itself to all things that exist – would be like confining his mind to a room with a low ceiling. “This is all there is,” we say, “and don’t ask us where it is going, or what it means, because it is going to destruction only, and it means nothing. Now build a cathedral in honor of that. Write an epic poem about universal heat-death. Compose a song of love for what cannot love. Just try. When your head gets too sore from all the bumping against the ceiling, you’ll learn better, and be a good and useful citizen.”
Even though I don’t believe I’m called to marry, my inner teacher finds Esolen’s ideas quite inspiring. If you have children – or if you plan to have children in the future – and you’re seeking encouragement in your quest to raise creative and empowered kids who haven’t been deadened by today’s mass entertainments, I definitely recommend picking up this book.