10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child: Book Review

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.

Living a “Christ-Centered” Life is Nobody’s Job but Your Own

I recently saw an online advertisement for a Christian university. The banner across the top of my webpage featured smiling students and, following the name of the school, the tagline, “A Christ-centered education.”

This advertisement, like those for many other Christian universities, implies that Christ-centeredness is an intrinsic part of their students’ education and, more subtly, that attending a Christian school is the best way to have a “Christ-centered” education.

This got me thinking, because it’s simply not true.

I spent the first three semesters of my undergraduate education at a private, Christian university. I learned and grew a lot over that time, and I still have fond memories of attending the school and maintain friendships forged there. However, I chose to finish my education at a public, state university, so I’m able to compare my experience at both types of institutions.

To be sure, attending a Christian college or university is a fine choice for many students. It may be the right kind of environment some need to cultivate and discern their faith, and I’m sure many alumni of Christian schools can claim the same benefits from their education that I found at a secular school. There are stories from all sides—those of students who attended Christian schools and later strayed from the faith, those of students who attended secular schools and found God, and everything in between—and I’d be very interested to hear some of those stories. This is just what I’ve learned from my experience.

So, back to that advertisement: at best, it is quite misleading. Implying that a “Christ-centered” education is best attained by attending a Christian school is the same as saying that a “Christ-centered” career can best be achieved by working for an expressly Christian organization.

To have a Christ-centered education (or job, or life, or anything), one must be Christ centered.

I appreciate that the goal of many Christian schools is to look at education through the lens of Christianity, but in the end (as I’m sure many of these schools would themselves confirm) that work can only be done by the individual Christian in every aspect of his or her life. The only person who can truly and consistently cultivate my faith is me, by the grace of God. There are many benefits that come from taking Biblical exegesis courses or having academic discussions about the intersection of Christianity and other disciplines, but all of the Bible classes in the world can’t replace a personal discipline to study and learn from Scripture and other Christian writings. No number of mandatory chapel services can replace active membership in a church community.

The church is another important factor in this conversation, because the church is (or ought to be) the linchpin for the Christian’s personal spiritual development.

Christian schools are not administers of the sacraments; churches are.

I doubt that any Christian school would claim to be a replacement for the church. In my experience, most Christian schools seek to augment a student’s spiritual development, serving as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, the unique growth and guidance that comes from the church. However, I want to emphasize that it’s important for all Christians to remember that Christ established the church to be the guardian and administer of the faith, and other Christian institutions are secondary.

Also, as someone who attended both a Christian and a secular university, I can attest the fact that one’s spiritual development is not necessarily better or worse in either environment, nor do the beliefs of professors or peers necessarily have a crucial influence on one’s spiritual or academic growth.

I was honestly afraid to switch from the Christian school—an environment I had been in since the fourth grade—to the secular university, fearing that my “worldly” classmates would immediately judge, attack, or condemn my faith. Instead, I found that my professors and fellow students were, on the whole, respectful, thoughtful, and intelligently curious when conversations about religion came up. Also, interacting with people who hold different beliefs than I do (about God, school, morality, life) was very beneficial, as it gave me better insight into how people who are different than me think about the world. I learned both how we are different and how we are not so different. I learned that non-Christians are not necessarily “out to get” me, making me more open to honest conversations about life and faith, rather than afraid of them. I took classes, completed projects, and engaged in discussions with Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, and more. To be honest, a lot of the time our personal beliefs didn’t come into play.

Learning in an environment that was not centered around religion made me realize that many people simply don’t care about my religion, so I don’t need to be afraid of immediate judgments about me based on what I believe. It also drove home the reality that the responsibility to remain Christ centered in everything I do is entirely my own.

I feel that my personal experience in both the Christian and secular academic environments demonstrates that a school’s professed religion (or lack thereof) does not necessarily impact a student’s spiritual development, and, more importantly, that Christ-centeredness hinges first and foremost upon the individual Christian. You may be mandated to attend chapel, but no one is going to force you to go to church. All Christians are called to participate in the work of their faith and to choose for themselves what the center of their lives will be, no matter where they decide to get an education.

Blessed are the Unsuccessful

Whenever I can, I like to begin my 10th grade English classes like this: “Someday, you are going to die and no one is going to remember you. Whether you graduated from Harvard, became a successful businessperson, or worked as a janitor, the chances of the history books actually remembering you are slim to none. So what’s the point?”

My school prides itself on its accomplishments. The school mission statement encourages students to pursue excellence in all of their activities. As a result, our students have sent satellites into space, travelled to Scotland for theatrical performances, marched in the Rose Bowl Parade, and have won state championships in athletics. Our students are headed for the Ivy Leagues because they have learned the art of pursuing excellence.

Working with such motivated students, however, has reacquainted me with a problem, one that infects every area of our lives. We mistake excellence for education, muddling together appearances with reality.

Excellence is predicated on comparison by performance. Instead of attending to the proper formation of our souls, we are more concerned whether others find us impressive, attractive, or enjoyable. We work so hard at our excellent performances that we’ve become accustomed to a mode of existential exhaustion. Then, like my students, when we’re reminded that someday we’ll die and be forgotten by history, we’re left with a distressing question: “What’s the point?”

In his book Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard addresses a similar problem. In an attempt to distinguish Christian love from worldly love, he drives a wedge between love itself and the performance of love. “For,” he says, “one is not to work in order that love becomes known by its fruits but to work to make love capable of being recognized by its fruits. In this endeavor one must watch himself so that this, the recognition of love, does not become more important to him than the one important thing: that it has fruits and therefore can be known.”

The desire for “recognition” is the desire for the appearance of love at the expense of love itself. In the same way, my students sometimes struggle for a perfect GPA at the expense of their education. As a result, grades don’t accurately reflect a student’s intellectual development; instead, they reflect a student’s ingenuity in manipulating the educational system.

For Kierkegaard, the only safeguard against the desire for recognition is obedience, a direct response to Christ’s command “Thou shall love…”

Obedience, unlike excellence, depends on my willingness to obey. Any other motivation encourages pride, which is itself a symptom of excellence. Pride, like excellence, needs comparison, because “it is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” Without the comparison, excellence cannot assert itself as excellent.

Obedience, on the other hand, is a private act of the will independent of popular opinion. Obedience cares nothing for appearances because it’s primary concern is to be in proper relationship to the command. Every obstacle of excellence pales in comparison to the immediacy of obedience. It liberates us from the changing demands of comparison and ushers us into communion with God “in Whose service is perfect freedom” (BCP 1928).

Education, I try to tell my students, is the difficult process of learning to be good, conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God. The point is not that they earn an A in my class and go to a fancy college. The point is to become liberated, happy human beings.

You Were Right about those Grammar Worksheets being Pointless

By and large, the research is pretty clear: putting grammar worksheets in front of students and diagramming sentences simply does not improve student writing or correct grammar.

I have officially lost your interest. After all, what subject is less interesting than grammar?

But bear with me for a moment while I ask the underlying question: why are we still doing it this way? Why are we still diagramming sentences in classrooms and why are children still drilled in grammar worksheets and correctness? Even though reading and discussing stories and writing essays of personal interest yields far more correct knowledge than grammar worksheets, worksheets thrive.

My answer: sloth.

There is a point up to which shrugging and saying, “follow procedure” may be okay, but when we see a procedure failing over and over and over, and we refuse to change it, we become complicit in its failure. Schools do not exist for grammar worksheets, they exist for students; holding to a failing procedure no longer serves the students, but serves the procedure.

Now, I don’t want you to think I’m picking on teachers, because this is all of us. I doubt there’s any occupation or activity that doesn’t have “grammar worksheets” of its own. There are ineffective ways of living and working that we all slump into despite a lurking, hidden self-knowledge we constantly push away. Unconsciously, we convince ourselves that it is easier to continue pursuing stale, ineffective routes than to tear them down and build something new.

Sloth is not a sin we talk about very often in church these days. Perhaps that’s because we live in such an anxious, fast-paced environment that it doesn’t feel like this stressful life allows any time for sloth. But, I wonder if adopting useless procedures is a caffeinated culture’s way of being slothful by refusing to take the time or expend the energy to choose an effective, virtuous method.

(If you’re interested in a good overview of research on teaching grammar, see Constance Weaver’s Teaching Grammar in Context.)

Education: Should We Teach the Bible in Public Schools?

Joe Carter summarized the debate rather nicely, including two opposing viewpoints, over at the Gospel Coalition this past week:

The Issue: Roma Downey and her husband Mark Burnett, the producers of the History channel’s hit mini-series The Bible, recentlyargued in the Wall Street Journal that it’s “time to encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization.”

The two sides of the issue presented in the article are simple: either you think that we should avoid teaching the Bible in our public schools because the material will not be taught in accordance with any Christian beliefs, or you think we should teach it, simply because any exposure to the Word of God is good. Joe concludes that:

The Bible is a foundational document of Western culture and any student unfamiliar with the text will fail to understand the thousands of references, allusions, and metaphors used in art, literature, and history.

And, well, he’s spot on.

But let’s step further down this rabbit hole, for a moment. The reason that the Bible is so deeply embedded in Western culture is because of the influence of Christianity. Even authors of great books of the Western canon who were not believers were familiar enough with Scripture to reference or make use of it. My high school reading list certainly had Biblical allusions that most of my classmates missed; I didn’t catch them all, either, simply because it was far too easy to separate my Sunday School classes with my government-mandated ones.

That said, the further I studied the Bible in an academic setting–admittedly a setting characterized by belief rather than doubt–the more I learned when I read just about anything else, particularly from Western history. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser, Kant, Hume, Descartes: all of these authors become richer the more immersed in the Bible you are. The cultural value of the Bible seems reason enough to include the Bible in our public school curriculum, regardless of how it is taught.

But  maybe we can go a step further.

I suspect that while it would be valuable to teach the Bible in schools, it would be further beneficial to have it taught by someone who had studied it professionally, and preferably from a standpoint of belief. This will likely fall on deaf ears for many, but hear me out. I don’t intend to turn cultural appreciation of the Bible into through-and-through evangelism. But if education is intended to form individuals into thinking members of society, and if a part of that is understanding the texts which form our society, then it makes sense to give the Bible a fair reading. While a believer would not be the only sort of person who could teach the Bible adequately for the purpose of understanding the vast number of allusions present in the Western canon, there’s something to be said for encouraging sympathy to a position many of the authors we already read held. It’d be easy to write off allusions as simple foolishness if the Bible were simply taught as a book of lies; at the very least, let’s just teach it as another story book, with a nod to the fact that many believe it to be true, to some degree or another.

The counter-point to my suggestion is that we have to keep the church and the state separate: religious education, particularly when arguing for an inclusion of only the Bible, ought to take place outside of the public school system. There’s merit here, but I think the stronger point is still in favor of teaching the Bible, as an academic source. If we can better understand the texts we are already reading by studying the Bible–and the fact that we read these texts suggests they are important to understand–then it seems simple foolishness to avoid teaching at least the basic stories of the Bible in our school systems. Why not read Paul alongside Franklin and Lincoln, the Gospels alongside Shakespeare, and Proverbs alongside Machiavelli? There’s little to be lost and much to be gained.

The purpose, after all, wouldn’t to force religious belief onto those who don’t believe, or even onto the public at large; rather, the intention is to educate well, and education includes adequate background research. Surely the Bible is a part of our Western canon: let’s learn it well.

Utter Failure: Learning to Drive a Stick Shift

There’s a chasm of difference between doing what you knew you could and doing what you thought you couldn’t.

When I was 14, my dad bought a black sedan we called Shadow. At the dealer, he selected one particular attribute because, “You’re about to start driving”: Shadow was a manual transmission. I would learn to drive on mom’s automatic. The whole purpose of Shadow was to be dad’s car.

Four years later on the street in front of our home, dad found himself jerking back and forth in Shadow’s passenger’s seat while I eeked shaking, sputtering false starts out of the transmission. Again, he explained, “Push in the clutch, and move into first gear. Then, gaaaah! — ” and the car lunged. Then, died. Again. My dad is a patient sort of man, and it took him four little training sessions to give up on me.

My mom’s turn began in a parking lot where Wal-Mart used to be. I clicked into the driver’s seat. Inept, but knowledgeable, I depressed the pedal and turned the key, then released. Shadow leapt, my mom’s head bobbled front to back, and the familiar red light shone on the dashboard, marking defeat. “Good try,” she said. “Now, remember to put it in neutral before you turn it on–HOLD THE BRAKE!” We sunk backward in panic for three long seconds as I pumped gas into the engine, mistaking one pedal for another while Shadow growled his agitation. At 8:34, mom decided to take a walk while I practiced getting into first gear.

From my bedroom desk that night, I could hear my parents agreeing in the other room. On the wall between them and me, ribbons for dramatic speech, plaques for charcoal and pencil and painting, and a great, big valedictorian trophy cast shadows. I was 18, and everything I had ever tried had come pretty easy, if I put a little time in (sometimes a very little time). Behind every ribbon was a time when I couldn’t lose – always a matter of “good” or “better.” It was a wall full of “A+”s that might otherwise have been “A”s. Below, parallel parked on the street, Shadow sat. My first outright, no question “F”. For my untrained hands, Shadow was as mobile as a fat man on a barstool. Pitted against a manual transmission, I wasn’t between “good” and “better,” I was solidly in the failing camp. And, strangely enough, no one but me would really know or care if I failed.

I climbed into Shadow the next morning. I turned the key, and he yanked forward for just a moment, then quit and the red fail light flashed.

“10:44,” I said. “The last time I ever stalled Shadow was at 10:44.” I flipped the key left, breathed in the cool winter air, and twisted the key right. I heard the engine whir. Then, I tried to ease off the clutch as I shifted into first. Shadow flatly died.

“10:44 and thirty seconds,” I said aloud. “The last time I ever stalled Shadow was at 10:44 and 30 seconds.” Once again, I shifted the key back, took a long breath, and started the engine. That morning, I crept some 5 feet forward over 30 minutes. Conveniently, he was still basically parked where he had been at 10:43.

Afraid of whiplash, no one else would get in the car with me. Yet, every day for two weeks, I spent thirty minutes stalling and sputtering and jolting and irking. And, slowly, I watched the minutes between stalls lengthen. I could get him moving in first gear within nine days. Second gear proved another full-week challenge, but after that, third and fourth and fifth came easy. Of course, reverse was a freebie.

Finally, at the dinner table one night, I replied to some question or other, “I deposited my check at the bank today.”

“How did you do that?” mom wondered. Mom and dad had both driven their cars to work, and no one was around to give me a ride.

“I drove Shadow,” all nonchalant.

“To the bank?”

“Yep. He ran just fine.”

Three years later, the night before graduating, my friends and I gathered at our little rented house to preen. One friend, straightening her hair, cooed, “Think about what this represents, this diploma. Four years of work, tons and tons of effort. I’m so proud of it! This diploma is the greatest accomplishment of my life.” They nodded.

“I don’t know,” I dissented. “I worked hard for my B.A., and I’m really excited to have earned it. But, for me, I don’t think anything I’ve done took as much as learning to drive a stick shift.” Whatever the outcome, there’s a chasm of difference between doing what you knew you could and doing what you thought you couldn’t.

The Experience of Education

In spite of engaging in formal education every year since I was five, I never spent any time analyzing the process itself. It seemed odd to do so. It would be like considering deeply how I was breathing; useful, perhaps, but ultimately boring. Classrooms felt roughly analogous regardless of what state I happened to be in, and textbooks were nearly identical. Education, school, and learning were all just things I did, not activities I actively considered. Continue reading The Experience of Education

Teaching with Portals: Why Gaming may have Educational Value

If you are a gamer, at least one who is not exclusively tied to consoles, this last week was potentially painful. It was a blissful sort of pain, though, since Steam’s now famous Summer Sale happened. Many gamers flock and buy what would constitute tons of discs worth of entertainment, were it not entirely digitally based. Valve, the company behind Steam, can barely keep up with the server strain, and with good reason. A number of people picked up Portal 2, a game I’m more than familiar with. But the game is starting to pick up, well, a bit of steam within the educational community. Continue reading Teaching with Portals: Why Gaming may have Educational Value

Practical Education: People are too Complex for Simple Answers

Academic vs. vocational. Should we train high school and college students in history, philosophy, and biology or in industrial arts, computers, and accounting. I’m not the most practical person in the world (and proud of it). But, in this case, it’s a lot of money and policy invested in one direction or the other. I’ve got to go practical. No choice.

Which is why I recommend academic education over vocational. Continue reading Practical Education: People are too Complex for Simple Answers

But Seriously, Folks: Pineapples and Standardized Tests

The absurd talking pineapple story found in an 8th grade standardized test is not a new phenomenon--it’s been sighted on tests in several states in the past seven years and has been the subject of much discussion online since at least 2007.

It’s only in the past few days, however, that the story’s real problems have come to light. Education Week has some good thoughts here about the unquestioned power of the companies that draft your child’s standardized tests:

I do not know what the teachers in New York can do to prepare their students for the pineapple story – perhaps have them watch some episodes of Monty Python.

Teachers who give standardized tests are required to sign affidavits swearing they will not copy the tests, or divulge their contents. Thus teachers are forbidden from airing concerns they might have about the contents of the tests.

The tests have become the ultimate authorities in our schools, and the test publishers are virtually unquestionable.

The standardized testing technocracy has convinced our policy makers that the only way we will be competitive in the world is if everyone learns the same information, and has that learning measured in ever-finer increments. We are not supposed to look behind the curtain to see the way this data is arrived at.

We are promised that any problems in the system will be fixed by the next generation, the Common Core, the computers that can score tests as well as the current system of warehouses of poorly paid readers now used for that purpose.

The truth is that sensitive formative assessment is the proper domain of a well-trained, intelligent teacher, capable of seeing the individual strengths and weaknesses of children, and guiding their learning. Standardized tests are useful when used as an annual check on that learning, but that is all. Once heavy consequences are attached to them, all the learning in a classroom is re-oriented to focus on pleasing that master, that almighty unquestionable arbiter of what has been learned.

Read more here.

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