Read an Excerpt
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child
By Anthony Esolen
Copyright © 2010 Anthony Esolen
All right reserved.
Chapter One Why Truth Is Your Enemy and the Benefits of the Vague
Gradgrind, without the Facts
"Now what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!" —The opening of Hard Times, Charles Dickens
Those are the words of the schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind, whose philosophy of education is meant to reflect the smog-ridden industrial desert of Coketown, where his enlightened school is located. If what you want is industrial production, cheap and plentiful, and if human beings are to be cogs and gears in the industrial machine, then of course you will want to stick to flat unimaginative Facts. A cog should not go soft, musing about the clouds in the sky. A gear should never wonder what it would feel like to turn backwards.
It's easy for us to laugh at the naiveté of Mr. Gradgrind, we ingrates who have inherited all the benefits of the revolutionary system that he represents. We forget that what was called "empiricism" in education—sticking to facts, sir, and avoiding the training of the moral imagination in virtues that can't be isolated in a glass dish or oxidized in a Bunsen burner—was locked in a mighty struggle with the older tradition of the liberal arts—introducing students to the best that has been thought, done, and written in the world, and, sometimes quite by accident, indulging dangerous flights of fancy, with every book like Aladdin's carpet, ready to whisk us away. The popular form of such an education was what young David Copperfield had, locked up in his room by his cold-hearted stepfather:
My father had left a small collection of books in a little room up-stairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Bias, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.
I pick up McGuffey's Fourth Eclectic Reader (1837) and find, to our shame, that along with precise rules of grammar and elocution, students are expected to expand what was once quaintly called their "souls," contemplating, for example, the meaning of those places where their forefathers fought to secure their liberty. "No American," writes Daniel Webster, "can pass by the fields of Bunker Hill, Monmouth, or Camden, as if they were ordinary spots on the earth's surface. Whoever visits them feels the sentiment of love of country kindling anew, as if the spirit that belonged to the transactions which have rendered these places distinguished, still hovered around, with power to move and excite all who in future time may approach them." The same short selection ushers on stage, in a single sentence, the beauties of Homer, Milton, Cicero, Raphael, and Michelangelo. It is, alas, no isolated lapse into imagination. Students elsewhere in the book will be transported to the Himalayas, the ruins of Babylon, Westminster Abbey, the volcano of Etna, the gates of Hell, and, more dreadful even than those, the whirlwind out of which God spoke to Job, commanding him to consider the glory of the creation about him:
Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?
That one image would be sufficient to quicken a dying imagination, undoing months of hard and programmatic labor.
So we ought to be grateful to the old Gradgrinds, without whom the first stage of modern education, with its demotion of a sense of beauty to an irrational and private feeling, would have been impossible.
In C. S. Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, brought up in a modern Gradgrindian school, bumbles into a cave with treasure in it, and makes the terrible mistake of putting a golden bracelet on his arm. He did this, says Lewis, because in his school all the boys and girls ever read about were factories and electrical output and population density and such like. Eustace didn't read the right sort of books, says Lewis, so he never did know what to do in case of dragons, and other sorts of eminently practical things like that. This of course is the same C. S. Lewis who, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, has four children enter into another universe by stepping into a clothes dresser, when, as everybody should know, a wardrobe is for hanging clothes in, and that is that.
So, if we want to kill the imagination—and we do want to do that—the Gradgrind method of sticking to the Facts is not a bad way to begin. Consider what it would be like to have row upon row of students seated at their geography lesson, while the rain drips down the gutter from outside the windows. Hear their voices in unison, droning on without inspiration or joy: "The Arkansas River is 1,469 miles long. It is the sixth longest river in the United States. Its source is in Colorado. It empties into the Mississippi River. It flows through Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. It is irrigated for farms. The Rio Grande River is 1,885 miles long. It is the third longest river," and so on, until death, or the bell, whichever comes first.
But there are problems with the Gradgrind method. Let's see what they are.
A Horse Is a Horse, Of Course, Of Course
Early in the novel Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind in his arrogance makes the mistake of taking in to his school a girl named Cissy (Gradgrind insists upon calling her "Cecilia"), whose father wants her to get a better education than he can give her himself. The father works as a horse breaker for a traveling circus, and so Cissy has lived all her life among tightrope walkers, magicians, fire-eaters, lady acrobats, elephants, midgets, and suchlike. Hardly a promising upbringing. For the trouble with Cissy, other than that she has a keenly developed sense of good and evil, and a lively imagination, is that she actually does know some Facts. And that proves to be a dangerous thing.
"Give me," says Gradgrind, for the benefit of Cissy and the whole class, "your definition of a horse."
Cissy, alarmed, can say nothing:
"Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!" said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. "Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in relation to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy's definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours."
Whereupon Bitzer, a pale and gloomy boy with the habit of knuckling his forehead when he is not speaking, the pride of the Gradgrind system, replies:
Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisors. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth. Thus (and much more), Bitzer. "Now, girl number twenty," said Mr. Gradgrind. "You know what a horse is."
The irony is that Cissy knows more about horses than anybody in the classroom, certainly more than Bitzer, who is merely repeating phrases poured into him, like concrete into a form. She has ridden upon horses, seen them give birth, combed them and curried them, and watched as her father salved their sores or rubbed them with liniment. She knows them in a way that only life with them reveals. At the end of the novel, indeed, Mr. Gradgrind's spoiled son, Tom, will be spirited away from the clutches of the law, riding a horse provided for him by the circus people, and disguised as a clown. Then there will be no patter about the horse being graminivorous and shedding its coat in the spring.
And yet Bitzer is in possession of some facts about horses. He knows that they have twelve incisors. What's an incisor? Why should a horse have those, if he eats only grass? Will he eat anything besides grass, anything that an incisor might help him bite and crush? For instance, how does a horse eat a carrot? Or an apple?
Bitzer knows that horses shed their winter coats. How do they do that? Do the coats come off in patches? Do the horses rub up against rough trees or rocks to peel them away? What does the new coat look like?
Bitzer knows that you can tell how old a horse is by looking in its mouth. What would you be looking for there? Do the teeth grow long? Do they change color? Do the gums turn dark? Can you learn the age of other animals in the same way?
The judicious reader will see the problem. A Fact, by itself, does not seem to rouse the imagination. It merely is. It sits there like a rock. Yet its apparent impenetrability is a challenge to the mind. The Arkansas River is 1,469 miles long. How wide is it when it reaches the Mississippi? Can you sail a boat upriver? How far can you go? Is it a clear and fast river, or sluggish and muddy? If water from the river is used for farming, does that mean that it has been dammed up here and there? If it has been, are there big man-made lakes along its course? Can you swim in those lakes?
Now of course it is better that the students learn facts about the Arkansas River, than wander about the streams of Mount Helicon, where the Muses of Greek mythology danced and sang. It is better that they should learn that Mount McKinley is the highest peak in North America, than that they should trudge along with Frodo to Mount Doom in the heart of Mordor. It is better that they should learn that there are twelve tones in the western musical scale, than that they should listen to a wood thrush singing from the thickets, trilling out his ethereal notes that have no name. But it would be better still if they had never heard of the Arkansas River, or Mount McKinley, or the twelve tone scale.
Such heights of ignorance could never be attained in Mr. Gradgrind's time, for the simple reason that in the middle of an industrial revolution you actually have to know some things to get some jobs done, and those jobs were often complicated, requiring a great deal of ingenuity. Suppose, for you, a tree is nothing but a source for lumber. That's fine. You're well on your way. But in Grandgrind's day you would then have to know about sawmills, and that would require, in turn, a pretty precise knowledge of waterpower, and how to use wheels, belts, and gears to turn the rotary motion of a wheel into just the right back-and-forth motion of the saw, complete with couplers to disengage the mechanism from the source of power. In other words, a sawmill, while not the Forest of Arden, is in its own right a fascinating place.
A great deal of that fascination can be found in William Stout's The Boy's Book of Mechanical Models (1917), now available in reprint, and doubly dangerous to the young mind, in that it encourages both the direct experience of mechanical forces and the spirit of irresponsible play. Thus Stout describes seeing a "wonderful electric writing telegraph" at the Saint Louis World's Fair: "Here a man sat at a desk with a pencil and wrote and drew pictures, while above him, on another piece of paper in a separate machine, a pencil guided itself in the same manner and drew the same lines. It was very interesting, especially when one thought of writing from one city to another, as can be done with this machine."
So Stout, while yet a boy—such was the state of unsupervised youth in his day—went home to devise a way to copy the machine in miniature. His scheme takes into account all kinds of facts. First, there is what I'd call the "grammar" of the telautograph, the structure that directs its motions to the desired goal. Then there are the parts themselves, and knowing by experience what sorts of work they can do. Then there's the material for the parts: wood, rubber, and metal.
Of course, Stout's machine is far too complicated an apparatus for our current schools, I am proud to say, let alone for a boy rummaging about his basement with spare wood and a toolbox. But Stout assumes that his readers will grasp the principles involved without much trouble: "You can see from this how;" he says, "if you swing the pencil sideways so as to move this lever about its pivot S, that the pencil at the other end will slide sideways back and forth in exactly the same way as you move the first pencil." That's just one motion; a linked mechanism transmits the up-and-down motion, and the whole machine therefore will transmit any kind of motion of the pencil at all.
"Well," says my reader, nervously looking over his shoulder as his son transforms a ruler, a spool, and an ice cube into Lord Winter's catapult, "that may be the case for mechanical or physical facts, but surely it is safe to drum young heads with historical trivia, as dry as dust. If their minds are going to be as flat as Oklahoma, they should be as dry and dusty as Oklahoma, too." True enough, and many an imagination has been flattened by such an approach. Yet beware: historical facts can be dangerous, too. Webster could not have touched the imaginations of his audience, after all, if they had not known what Bunker Hill and Camden were.
Let's take a few examples. What could be duller, you say, than to memorize the dates of the various presidents of the United States? Not much. So the student properly instructed may learn that Franklin Pierce was president from 1853 to 1857. If the facts stopped there, that would be fine. But they might not stop there. He might learn that Pierce was an unpopular president, another fact, and this one more mysterious. He might read somewhere that Pierce's son died just before his father took office. He might hear that a great author named Nathaniel Hawthorne was a close friend of Pierce. And all at once a picture of a tragic man emerges in the mist, one who might have done well, had times been better. If the student then remembers that the Civil War began in 1861, and that Pierce was a Democrat while Lincoln was a Whig, and then a Republican, the mystery deepens, and questions begin to stir in the sleepy mind. What was it like to have been that man, watching the war that he did not prevent, with the Union armies commanded by his political enemy?
Or consider this piece of apparently harmless trivia: "The Normans conquered Sicily in the eleventh century." Ah, who cares about that? Nobody, so long as you have not made the mistake of introducing your student to geographical facts to boot. For if he knows where Normandy and Sicily are on the globe, he may ask the obvious question, "How did the Normans get down there? Did they go overland, or did they sail?" And that might lead him to investigate the construction of their boats, or who was in control of Sicily before they arrived. He might eventually find out that Viking raiders and traders had long been in contact with Constantinople, and that the Byzantine rulers there requested the help of the now Christian Normans in ousting their enemies, the Muslim Arabs, from Sicily. How did Vikings end up in Byzantium? It appears they trekked overland to the River Don in Russia, and then sailed down it to the Black Sea and Constantinople. It would be better if the student could not tell Sicily from Saskatchewan, and knew only that Vikings were Very Bad People with funny hats who sailed a lot.
Old history textbooks used to be full of battle plans; people had the quaint notion that the outcome 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.
Excerpted from Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen Copyright © 2010 by Anthony Esolen. Excerpted by permission of ISI BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.