Esolen, Anthony. 2010. Ten ways to destroy the imagination of your child. Wilmington, DL: ISI [International Studies Institute] Books.
Professor Esolen has a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (1987) where his dissertation was “A Rhetoric of Spenserian Irony.” He teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College, so it should come of no surprise that he loves old books and literature and draws from them most of his illustrations about killing imagination. He speaks frequently on Dante, on translation (or the translator’s art), on Christian literature and art, and on contemporary issues surrounding culture and faith (see his Web page at: http://www.anthonyesolen.com/?page_id=46.)
Esolen does not claim that his “ten ways” is an exhaustive list, but does note that “I am sure that a judicious application of even three or four of these methods will suffice to kill the imagination of an Einstein, a Beethoven, a Dante, or a Michelangelo” (xiii)
Despite the erudite nature of the books and articles cited, Esolen has a fine sense of humor as, when commenting on the need for children to develop their memories: “Adults scoff at remembering things because they have—so they say—the higher tools of reason at their disposal” (13). Esolen suspects that such higher reasoning includes such things as where to get lunch and who will buy the dog license.
Esolen likens the lack of imagination to the “Jellyfish Theory of Imagination,” because in the land of the jellyfish there are no skeletons (no overarching structure to make sense of subjects like history or geography), so although the citizens can tell one jellyfish from another, they look exactly alike to us (15). Without knowing the structure of language, a writer like Tolkien would never have been able to imagine the Middle Earth and all that went with it.
The first method to destroy a child’s imagination is to “Keep your Children Indoors as Much as Possible” (27). Esolen recounts some of his childhood activities, which mainly occurred outdoors. Today children study inside of walls and subsequently their lives and so-called activities remain behind walls and their imaginations do not focus upon nature, but rather on billboards and TV advertisements. “Not everyone is a poet, yet children come uneasily near to it in their natural fascination with anything at all” (37). One way to neutralize this is to keep them in parks and zoos and then act like “only the parks and zoos” are worth seeing. Esolen notes that many people in our bureaucracies have never been pestered with imagination. “Our universities are filled with them” (40). If we leave children to their imaginations they may develop into people who don’t obey, such that “they will not buy what marketers want them to buy” (44). In this chapter Esolen’s observations are interspersed with illustrations from writers like Virginia Woof, Mark Twain, Milton, and many others. He weaves into this book his knowledge of classical literature easily and endlessly.
The second rule is to “Never Leave Children to Themselves” (47). They might improvise and play some games, change the rules a bit, ignoring the bureaucratic shackles that Esolen calls “Tormentaria”. Instead, children must be looked after by paid professionals who know how to treat them nicely, feed and nap them regularly, allowing them just enough scheduled things “to keep them from rusting solid” (49). Even competition must be scheduled so that there are no real losers. But the Tormentarians define learning in a new way, so that a child may learn to spell SKY but will not be tempted to look at it. And at home, children will sleep there, but hardly live there. Instead they will be “crated and uncrated in one place every day, and hardly ever a single one lost” (52). Esolen compares one of his fictitious Tormentarian Saturdays with one of baseball heroes, Stan Musial. Whereas Musial gobbled down breakfast, did some chores, and then disappeared with his buddies, only to reappear and gobble down supper before listening to the radio and doing some more chores before bedtime, the Tormentarian children gobble down breakfast an hour later, are driven to soccer, driven to a fast food lunch, are driven home for video games and TV, with barely time to complain about dinner, pretend to do some homework and chat to their friends on internet. They get to bed late but haven’t been subjected to the dangers of an outside adventure or organizing their own games. Esolen proceeds to the adventures of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to describe such dangers. He says we prefer children who have no experience with animals or practical skills, can’t follow a trail or cook a meal and, what is more, don’t desire to do any of these things.
The third principle is to “Keep Children Away from Machines and Machinists or all unauthorized pesonnel prohibited” (71). Experimenting and fooling around with machines, even building them, aids ingenuity, so that they do not end up “unable to change a doorknob” (75). The simplest thing is to “keep them away from adults who know how to do things” (76). Esolen comments on the values of apprenticeships, making friends with craftsmen and finding a kind of work “which is hard to distinguish from play” (86). Today arts and crafts are for decoration, not to foster imagination. There is to be no hunting or raising animals where children may chance upon “an imaginative encounter with the natural world” (92).
Another way to stifle the imagination of children is to “Replace the Fairy Tale with Political Clichés and Fads” (95). “If you do not want a child to paint, you take away his palette,” (97) and if you don’t want him to have imagination you take away the narratives that might encourage one. “You turn all stories into a bald, beaten sales pitch, preferably a political pitch” (99). They no longer read about magic lamps but rather about propaganda for homosexual rights. Reading then becomes adopting the correct political message (108) and the reduction of people to “politically motivated cartoon figures,” with history a comic book story (111).
The fifth assault upon children’s memories is to “Cast Aspersions upon the Heroic and Patriotic” (117). Esolen is adamant in his claim that we do not honor our country or our father and mother. He refers to Tolkien and the imaginary scenes in Middle Earth to illustrate tales from an imaginary world that show honor and love for parents and country. In this chapter he also quotes from the works of William Butler Yeats, Shakespeare, Flannery O’Conner and classical scholars that provide a context for the concepts of loyalty and beauty.
The sixth method to belittle a child’s imagination is to “Cut All Heroes Down to Size” (141), in fact reducing life to “a calculation of profit and loss” (144). Esolen warns that a “hero…is like a pack of dynamite, ready to blow any mountain of heaped-up conformity and dullness sky high” (146). He notes that the battlefield is the place where heroes show their courage and that the easy use of “self-serving pacifism” will belittle the ideals of the military. He refers to C.S. Lewis and his essay “Men without Chests” as the example of men without courage, generosity and courage (148). Those who go off to war are not virtuous, as we claim from our own “warm cocoon of safety” (149). “We choose not people who make peace, but people who talk about it a lot, preferably from a position of comfort” (151). We encourage flippancy and “the habit of sneering at what is great or noble” (153).
A seventh method is to “Reduce All Talk of Love to Narcissism and Sex” (163) and eventually with television and “pictures in a state of undress… the only mysteries remaining will be the cruel, the bizarre, and the disgusting” (168). Instead of understanding the passage of a girl to a woman, from being a child to childbearing, everything “is reduced to twaddle and giggles” (174). Children’s responsibilities to their bodies disappear and chaste love before marriage is vilified (176).
It follows that the next method is to “Level Distinctions Between Man and Woman or Spay and Geld” (179). “If …the imagination is essential to genuine humanity, and if that imagination is kindled by the strangeness of one sex to the other, then anything we do to blunt a child’s humanity will probably also blunt his sense of wonder for the opposite sex” (182). To Esolen, committee work is counterproductive because it brings children to the least common denominator of what is acceptable to everyone (188). Words like “manhood” and “womanhood” are to be avoided because such notions will make children think of a particular man or woman, their behaviors and their virtues. Instead, the pictures that children get of men and women in popular culture, that is mass entertainment, will find the true man “a crazy mixture of steroid-exploding muscle mass, grunts, and a bad shave” (196).
The ninth method is to “Distract the Child with the Shallow and Unread or the Kingdom of Noise” (199). Milton wrote many of his poems when he was blind—he could not have “read” Paradise Lost. He dictated it to his daughter but “saw” the work in his mind. To him poetic imagination was hearing it instead of “curdling the imagination by stressing ‘creativity’ …The Muse comes to him” (200). That is why moments of silence and solitude are to be avoided and “Instead of music and the whisperings of the natural world, noise” (203). Esolen points out that TV shows are quick, disjointed, conversations are removed from reality with clever quips, the oafish husband, snappy wife and snotty children. In the back ground is the bombastic music and, of course, lots of noise. Often the children are given comic books to read “with lots of noisy pictures and exclamation points” (207). Especially damaging are the “up-to-the-minute coverage of non-events, polling about polling, coverage about coverage, slogans about slogans, without pause” so that no one asks what is going on. (207) We end up regarding everything as noise, even people that we happen to meet. It seems that we prefer our bonds (216).
Finally, we should “Deny the Transcendent or Fix Above the Heads of Men the Lowest Ceiling of All” (217). Esolen makes this point clear when hes says that “it is a grave mistake… to suppose that schools can or should be neutral with regard to the being of God” (223). Symbols and paintings show that the motive for art and worship are bound together—our heart seeks something beyond itself. We can look at expressions of art and drama and see the hand of God—people do not travel around the world “to look at a mural dedicated to Collaborative Learning or Development of Social Skills” (229). “Man is not only that creature that forges tools, that reasons, and that walks upright. Man is the creature that looks up. Man praises” (231).
Esolen is a master at presenting problems of imagination that we need to think about. He does it with wit and learning and it bodes well for any parent who will to listen to him. But there is more here than a lesson for parents and children. As missionaries and cross-cultural workers, we can apply its principles to people in other societies. We can begin by asking what, as Westerners believe, is most important in our “work”: Time? Efficiency? Bookkeeping? Computers and software? We proclaim that relationships are the most important, but insist on building those relationships based on our technological values. We don’t spend time in walking, feasting, trading, weaving, hunting, fishing, farming, or just sitting, all activities that require a type and style of imagination that eludes our concept of reason and our end goals.