Anthony Esolen’s book, 10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, probably has the best cover of any book published in paperback. Despite the old proverb about judging books by their covers, this modern In Praise of Folly could draw in even a reader who didn’t know that Esolen is a leading scholar on Dante who can quote the majority of Paradise Lost from memory.
In this book, Esolen turns a critical eye on the state of education and childhood in America. He points out that the adulthood awaiting our children really requires a deadened imagination. The best cog in the machine will be the unobtrusive one, rather than the truly unique and irreplaceable one.
Playing devil’s advocate, Esolen spends 10 chapters describing and “lauding” the modern stories we tell our children, the vices we present as virtues, and the portrait of the world that we paint for them. In Chapter 1, “Why Truth is Your Enemy, and the Benefits of the Vague,” he opens fire on the modern educational notion that rote memorization is a dried out husk of learning from when we didn’t know better. He points out that learning facts gives children the building blocks they can play with. In Chapter 2, “Never Leave Children to Themselves,” he turns the criticism from the schools to the parents, and their need to enroll their children in afterschool activities and organized sports.
This continues through 10 chapters, including, “Keep Children away from Machines and Mechanists,” “Replace the Fairy Tale with Political Cliches and Fads,” “Cast Aspersions on the Heroic and Patriotic,” and “Level Distinctions between Man and Woman.”
His discussion of the way America has come to treat history is especially poignant. Though we like to think that shedding light on the downfalls of those once called “heroes” is giving a balanced view, teachers and textbooks are more likely to present such individuals as frauds who were once praised for false virtue, rather than complicated people with shortcomings and sad lapses. It’s an excellent point, supported by examples from older books of history, which display a more balanced view of heroes than modern texts give of those heroes when they cut them down to size.
Now, the one failing of Esolen’s work may lay outside of the scope of that which is contained between those wonderfully decorated covers. The problem with his Erasmus and Screwtape style arguments is that, in this world, they happen to be sadly true. As long as we raise children who will be trapped in the 9-to-5 monotony of a normal job where they are disposable, they will be miserable if they have well-developed minds with no tolerance for deplorable wastes of human time and energy. What Esolen doesn’t tell us is how to create a world that children will be well-prepared for by having a healthy development as human beings.
Then again, in The Odyssey, Calypso offers to turn Odysseus into a god with no freedom. Later, one of his servants is turned into a pig with no freedom. Who is better off — the slave who is a pig or the slave who is a god? One is aware of his prison, one is not. Throughout his work, Esolen assures us that mankind is better off striving after god-likeness than settling for farm animal complacency.
And, though his hints don’t become chapters, it’s clear that he hopes that a generation of children raised to understand goodness, truth, and beauty could upset the complacent order of things.