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Ten Ways To Destroy The Imagination of Your Child (2010)

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#1 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 21 March 2011 - 01:41 AM

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This book just skyrocketed its way up to the top of my "must read from 2010" list.

... It might also be relevant that, going by the stories he tells in this book, his own childhood growing up in Pennsylvania coal country as the grandson of Italian immigrants involved plenty of imagination - and adventure, warmth, and humor. On top of all of this, Esolen is a college professor, which means he has firsthand knowledge of the generation raised by the methods now prevailing. He knows the experience of a healthy childhood, the fruits of a narrow modern one, the treasures of the Western canon, and the trials of bringing up children of one's own: in other words, all the knowledge we would want as an author of such a book to have.

His thesis is not a new one, and as a result much of this book depends on execution. Assuming the reader is already sympathetic to Esolen's general argument, the question is not whether the book is persuasive but whether it will teach the reader anything he doesn't already know. Does it argue for a traditional curriculum and against "helicopter parenting" in ways that are interesting and even sometimes surprising? Will the reader enjoy the time she spends with this book, regardless of whether she needs convincing that children do not need to be protected from fairy tales, the outdoors, and God? Ten Ways is remarkable because the answer to all of those questions is yes.

"Self-expression is the finest antidote for a perky imagination ever invented." "Tell your children that rifles and all the other implements of hunting are simply evil. Best to do this while your mouth is full of a cheeseburger from McDonald's." Esolen's flair for aphorism is given plenty of room to shine by the Screwtape Letters-type voice he adopts: "Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible, or They Used to Call It 'Air,'" and "Keep Children Away from Machines and Machinists, or All Unauthorized Personnel Prohibited." But if the dark side of aphorism is cliche, Esolen consistently avoids the temptation. He even avoids little one-word cliches: a passage about the overstructured dullness of the modern school day notes that it "cannot be called working at a 'grindstone,' because a real grindstone is a swift and lovely tool, and has the property of sharpening."

... Another difference between Ten Ways and your average gripe about the decline of the West is that this book calls its villains by name. Rather than vaguely pin the blame on some loss of Western values and nerve, Esolen cites specific expert and popular authors who, in good faith, have defended modern childrearing. Specificity makes his attacks more brutal. Here he is quoting Michael J. Basso's Underground Guide to Teenage Sexuality - look what he can do in a single set of brackets: "'Unfortunately,' he says, wiping a reptilian tear from the eye, 'many adults are more interested in their own values, religious beliefs, agendas (plans to accomplish their personal goals [sic; Basso apparently believes that people who cannot understand that simple word can fathom the depths of human sexuality]) and power.'"

... Before he reaches page 5 of his book, Esolen has told the story of Sissy from Dickens's Hard Times, the traveling-circus horse breaker's daughter whose schoolmaster, Gradgrind, asks her to define what a horse is. When she stands dumbfounded, unable to fit the richness of her experience into a dry list of features, Gradgrind turns to another pupil, Bitzer, who gives him what he wants: "Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth," etc. Life is made up of experience and wisdom; books, like Gradgrind's school, are about knowledge. It can be hard to translate one into the other, but Esolen has managed it. Any parent who takes his book and translates it back into life will surely be pleased with the result.

- Helen Rittelmeyer, 'The Kids Can Be All Right,' National Review, March 21, 2011

#2 Brian D

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Posted 21 March 2011 - 11:58 AM

Very intriguing. I also would like to read this.

#3 David Smedberg

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Posted 21 March 2011 - 04:05 PM

I'm currently in the middle of reading Esolen's Ironies of Faith. I don't expect to read every word, I'm more picking out parts that seem particularly interesting -- but the breadth of his knowledge is impressive.

#4 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 12 April 2011 - 04:05 PM

A few favorite excerpts so far ...

pg. ix -

A few years ago, a vandal seized some forty or fifty thousand books from my college's library. He didn't want to read them, or even to sell them. He wanted simply to get rid of them, on the grounds that nobody would read them anyway. Some of the volumes he had branded for destruction were irreplaceable. I know, because I went into the back room where they were being held temporarily before the trucks came to haul them away. From that room I saved several dozen, including a definitive dictionary of medieval Latin, and the first great grammar book for Anglo-Saxon - you know, the language that Beowulf spoke on the night when he was tearing Grendel's arm off, and the monster knew that his end was near. "That was not a good day for Grendel," says the poet, deadpan. It was not a good day for books, either.

There wasn't much we could do about it, because the vandal in question made more money than we did and had a nicer office. He was our librarian. It's ironic, but true, that one of the qualifications of the modern librarian is a distaste for books ...

pg. x -

A good book is a dangerous thing. In the wrong hands, it is like a bomb housed within a couple red pasteboard covers. It can blow the world wide open; it can, if it's Dante's Divine Comedy, blow the reader as high as heaven. It carries within it the possibility - and it is always only a possibility - of cracking open the shell of routine that prevents us from seeing the world. Our days pass by with the regularity of a conveyor belt at an airport, which we duly get on, and make our way with bland uniformity. A book is like a mischievous boy sticking out his foot at the end of the belt, or like some fantastic intellectual machine that jolts us awake, and we find that the belt is gone. Instead, we're riding in a stagecoach on a trail of dry ruts, and half-naked Indians are surrounding us from the hills, bows stretched and arrows picked to fly.

pg. xii -

For the first time in human history, most people are doing things that could never interest a child enough to make him want to tag along. That says less about the child then about us. If someone should say to us, "How would you like to spend most of your waking hours, five days a week, for the next four years, shut within four walls," we should go mad, that is if we had an imagination left. It is only by repressing that imagination that many of us can stand our work. Some years ago, American feminists, in their own right no inconsiderable amazons against both childhood and the imagination, invented something called Take Your Daughter to Work Day. "See, Jill, this is the office where Mommy works. Here is where I sit for nine hours and talk to people I don't love, about things that don't genuinely interest me, so that I can make enough money to put you in day care."

pg. 7 -

Old history textbooks used to be full of battle plans; people had the quaint notion that the outcomes of battles like Salamis, Lepanto, and Waterloo changed the course of history. One argument for getting rid of those plans was that they were dull. Actually, they were dull to the teachers, many of whom didn't care a rap about the structure of battles, but they could be dynamite for the young. Once when my family and I were visiting Gettysburg, I got into a conversation with a teenager at the top of an observation tower. He was a tourist too, but he told me he came back to Gettysburg quite a lot, and showed me Little Round Top and described for me what happened there.

He reminded me of a couple of homeschooled boys I knew, who also got their hands on battle plans, pored over them, committed them to memory, and turned the basement into a battlefield. They drew out the woods and hills and rivers in chalk, marked the battalions with counters, and then played a game of strategy with declared decisions and dice, reenacting the battle not as it actually happened but as it might have happened. When they'd made a move or two on the sprawling "board" of the basement floor, they would then go outside and play it out with their arms and legs and voices. And all this was going on while the mother of one of the boys looked the other way.

pgs. 13-14 -

The memory, then, is not to be taken lightly. In children, it is surprisingly strong. Adults scoff at remembering things, because they have - so they say - the higher tools of reason at their disposal. I suspect that they also scoff at memory because theirs is no longer very good, as their heads are cluttered with the important business of life, such as where they should stop for lunch and who is going to buy the dog license. But educators of old, those whom we recognize rightly as mere drillmasters, exposed children to a shocking wealth of poetry and music, and indeed would often set their lessons to easily remembered jingles, as did Saint John Bosco, working with the street boys of late nineteenth century Turin, and as Marva Collins in Chicago did more recently, with unnerving success. The memorization and recitation of poetry was one of the hallmarks of the so-called Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, in the late 1960s, under the direction of the Renaissance scholar John Senior. The intensely personal encounter with poetry, which memorization requires, began to change so many lives that the trustees of the university, appropriately alarmed, shut the program down ... To have a wealth of such poetry in your mind - a wealth of knowledge about man, set to music - is to be armed against the salesmen and the social controllers. It allows you the chance of independent thought, and independence is by nature unpredictable.

... and that's just from the first 15 pages of a 237 page book.

#5 David Kern

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Posted 14 April 2011 - 09:33 AM

My favorite thing about this book is the "Screwtape Letters" approach Dr. Esolen takes. As the title implies, he is writing a satire wherein he pretends to be actually trying to destroy the imaginations of children. That makes the book quite humorous. He presents a number of "methods" for doing this destruction including: 1, keep children inside; 2, bring heros down to size; 3, downplay the differences between the sexes; and many others. This is a really wonderful, fascinating read and I too highly recommend it.

The non-profit organization I work for hosts a conference every year about the "purpose, practice, and essence of classical education" and a few years ago we had the honor of having Dr. Esolen join us. He is a kind, energetic man of great insight.

And, as an unrelated aside, this year: Greg Wolfe and Ken Myers will coming!

Edited by David Kern, 14 April 2011 - 09:34 AM.

#6 BethR


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Posted 14 April 2011 - 09:44 AM

Somewhat unrelated asides: Anthony Esolen has also translated Dante's Divine Comedy, and recently published a meditation "on the blessings of a bum leg" in Touchstone. I admire his work greatly.

#7 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 17 April 2011 - 11:08 AM

Finished. I enjoyed this book so much that I am now in the middle of trying to write a book review for it. It's turning longer that I thought it would, so I'm dividing it in half. Part One of my review is here.

#8 BethR


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Posted 23 April 2011 - 01:52 PM

Finished. I enjoyed this book so much that I am now in the middle of trying to write a book review for it. It's turning longer that I thought it would, so I'm dividing it in half. Part One of my review is here.

Great stuff! I'm shocked, though, to find Mr. Esolen describing the storytelling sailor in "The Boyhood of Raleigh" as a "Scotsman." He's not wearing a kilt, he's wearing loose, sailor's pantaloons. The "official" description at the Tate Gallery site identifies him as a "Genoese sailor." The Genoese were great explorers & sailors, & Devon, where Raleigh grew up, had a busy harbor at Plymouth & was known for sailors & sailing. The Scots? Not so much.

Sounds like a good book, all the same. Anyone can get a fact or two wrong.

#9 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 14 May 2011 - 01:32 PM


Isn't there anything of perhaps tragic irony about this commercial? Sort of like well-coiffed rats in a cage running in place in response to electronic stimuli.

Shut within the four walls of a room? Check. Avoiding being out under the sun and the sky? Check. Staring at an electronic screen for hours at a time? Check. Used as a pathetic excuse for exercise if you live in a big city/apartment/or anywhere for that matter? Check. Just generally practicing stilted athletic exercises specifically designed to inevitably lead to injury (because you're trying to do all the running, kicking, hitting, swinging, and jumping in a tiny little space where you also have to restrain yourself at the same time) that would horrify any physical education instructor or gym trainer? Check. Managing to conclude the spending of hours of your time on this under the illusion that you just participated in "sports" without actually having to ever make actual physical contact with any person, place, or thing? Check.

Edited to add: Oh I forgot to mention the advertisement - "It's not about winning or losing. It's about how you play the game. You are the controller."

Edited by Persiflage, 14 May 2011 - 01:34 PM.

#10 Thom Wade

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Posted 16 May 2011 - 08:14 AM

I've never seen such a wrong headed reading of a particular product as you just gave.

(Yeah, I am being hyperbolic...but seriously...my friends and family-you know, the people you so wrongly assume one does not intereact with in playing the games-have a lot of fun and definitely get a good sweat worked up)

Edited to add: I find it rather ironic that you chose this thread to place the criticism of something that involves imagination.

Edited by Nezpop, 16 May 2011 - 08:20 AM.

#11 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 16 May 2011 - 10:11 AM

... my friends and family-you know, the people you so wrongly assume one does not intereact with in playing the games-have a lot of fun and definitely get a good sweat worked up)

Edited to add: I find it rather ironic that you chose this thread to place the criticism of something that involves imagination.

It does take a considerable amount of imagination to create a game like this, but that doesn't necessarily say much for what it's doing to the consumers, sweating or having fun as they may be.

pg. 30 -

Contemporary life happens within walls; for the first time in the history of the human race, most people will spend most of their lives indoors. Therefore we must prepare the young for such a life. But as Robert Frost writes in "Mending Wall,"

Something there is in us that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

So we must replace the great world about us with an artificial world, where not the imagination but the stray nervous tics of the brain may roam for a while and then rest. We must give the walled up child the illusion of the hills and plains. We must replace air with virtual space ...

pgs. 45-46

It was a cool day in late August, the sun sometimes shining through the clouds sailing along in a stiff breeze. Perfect for hiking, biking, playing touch football, or just getting lost, which is what I was aiming to do that afternoon. In the library were children taking part in an indoor summer reading program. A nice young lady was reading them a story about animals. Sitting next to me were two boys, soft-bodied and vacant in the eyes. They were watching video clips from professional "wrestling," the images of men overmuscled, stupid and sleazy.

It seems to obvious a question to ask, but why weren't they outside wrestling themselves? If they had been, they would have introduced into their memories the spring of the wet grass underfoot, or how it feels when you grapple for a shoulder and lose the hold, or what happens when your leg gets hooked underneath your opponent's leg, or what grunts and laughs and growls you make when you are in a good fight with a friend. A couple of kids doing that, for a few minutes, are almost a world unto themselves, a world of good humor and sweat ... across the room came the cheerful sounds of the young employee, teaching the children how to say simple words in French. "Vache," she said to them. "Qu'est-que c'est que la vache dit?" "Mooooooo," said the children.

pgs. 56-59

Take for example one of the activities that seems most harmless: they got together to play ball. Do we not see how many things they needed to do in order to achieve that goal?

First, they needed players, and that meant rounding up the usual suspects, rousing them from bed, or cajoling them from their chores, or reminding them that they promised they would play and threatening them with ridicule if they did not. That already is a complex social activity: they had to organize themselves.

Then they needed a field to play in. Finding one was not always easy. You had to take what the neighborhood gave you - you had, most of the time, to "make" your field out of a half of a yard and a street, or a clearing beside a hill that wasn't too hilly, or the back end of a parking lot with a wall and fence on one side. That meant seeing how the game could or could not be played there. If you had a big tree behind what would be first base, you might declare anything caught in the tree to be an automatic out. Or, if there was a short wall in right field, you might declare anything that hit the wall to be in play, but anything over the wall to be out ... You are envisioning what a good competitive game might look like, and are fitting the field with ground rules designed to make the game possible: steps, trees, fire hydrants, ditches, garage doors, garbage can lids, embankments, sidewalks, some old man's porch, the car parked across the street, all come into play, all become part of the world you fashion. None of this, it should be noted, is in the spirit of self-esteem and nebulous exercise that an adult-organized activity, say youth soccer, provides.

So much for the field, but you also need equipment. That too is not always the easiest thing to procure. Some fields aren't right for a hardball and bat. Others aren't even right for a tennis ball and bat. What to use? You use what is at hand, and alter the game accordingly: rubber balls, superballs, wiffle balls, the dead core of an old baseball ... But how to play? The rules will have to depend upon the field and the equipment and the number of players. Here you'll see kids using all kinds of treacherous ingenuity. Is there an odd number of players? One will be the Official Pitcher for both sides. Are there only six players? Declare one outfield "closed": left field for lefty batters, right field for righties. Is the ball plastic or rubber? Call "hitting the runner," meaning that you can throw it at a runner advancing from base to base, and if you hit him when he's not touching a base, he's out. Are the bases too close? No leads allowed ... Is there a flat wall for a backstop? Tape a strike zone on it and throw the ball hard ...

But then, how do you choose the teams? Here we venture upon catwalks and rope bridges - a false step, and the game is shot. When adults organize children, it is all taken care of, and usually inattentively. But to create a game that will be at all enjoyable, you have to consider who the big kids are, who can hit and who can catch and who can throw, how many girls there may be (distinguishing those who can throw from those who can't), who "needs" to be on the same team with someone else, and so on ... 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 waking 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. It shut off the opportunity for real appreciation of an opponent's case. It delivered the message, instead, that one's own feelings are paramount, and anyway, what difference does the score make, so long as everyone is having fun? ... But even if score is kept, when the dispute arises, an adult steps in, splits the difference (which is usually an unjust split), and orders the kids to proceed in their maturation.

But boys from time immemorial have fashioned their own "rules" for meting out sandlot justice. The batter hits a ground ball to shortstop and says he has beaten the throw to first. The shortstop says he's out.
"I had you by a mile!" A mile, in sandlot parlance, means five or six inches, the distance of the foot as it is about to come down upon the base.
"Are you kidding? My foot landed before I heard the ball in the glove! You're blind!" This is the Counterargument with Evidence.
"You never heard the ball at all, you liar!" This is the Direct Attack on Personal Integrity.
"I'm not going to let you get away with it this time!" This is the Threat to Personal Well-Being.
"Well, go ahead and try something!" This is Calling the Bluff.

... And if that doesn't work, the boys will not go home in a snit. What would be the fun of 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 - and everyone will accept the result, for better or for worse. Anybody who still harbors hard feelings about it is labeled a Sore Loser, and is looked upon with contempt by his fellows; it is a deep character flaw. But anybody who can engineer a quick solution acceptable to all sides is labeled a Good Sport, and of him great and glorious things are expected.

We should always remember that such a scene as I have described is the last thing we want. People who can organize themselves and accomplish something as devilishly complicated as a good ballgame are hard to herd around. They can form societies of their own. They become men and women, not human resources. They can be free.

#12 Berggeist



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Posted 16 May 2011 - 10:43 PM

For there to be imagination, there must be mystery - real mystery such as the Creator and the created order of which we as creatures are a part. We are compelled by the very nature of our created being to seek the Mysterium Tremendum and to have a relationship with Him and with the rest of His creation. Healthy imagination is the bleeding edge of faith, the means by which we quest for an ever-deeper relationship with the Creator and the created order. A warped and distorted imagination is one, devoid of a relationship with the ever-revealing Creator, which attempts to made the gnostic quest for knowledge without relationship - exactly what Adam does in the Garden story: he wants knowledge without a relationship with the Creator, hence, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The gap between the Mysterium Tremendum and the fallen creature manifests itself as our ignorance. Self-deprived of relationship to the Creator and the created order, we seek to fill that void with two kinds of superstition: the irrational and emotional kind, the spiritualized kind, which comes out as Voodoo, rabbits feet, horse shoes and other charms; and the rational and empirical kind which we call science with it plausibility arguments masquerading as a given of nature.

The prerequisites for a healthy imagination are humility, submission, awe, curiosity and discipline.