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P.S. 1984

Professor Anthony Esolen thinks that Western culture destroys the imaginations of children, though it certainly has not destroyed his own.

By 7.12.11

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Perhaps the cattiest quote of all time was Mary McCarthy’s summation of Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the." After finishing Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, Wilmington, 2010), I would apply McCarthy’s quote to Professor Esolen, with the crucial substitution of "a truth" for "a lie."

Anthony Esolen is a graduate of Princeton, professor of English at Providence College, and translator and editor of the Modern Library edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. A man of erudition and one of the world’s experts on Dante, Esolen signals with this book his presence in the top rank of authors of cultural criticism, following in the footsteps of Richard Weaver, Walker Percy, Russell Kirk, John Senior, Christopher Lasch, and Roger Scruton. A father and a man of strong Christian convictions, he nourishes a great love of the West--and of that America that anyone over 60 remembers and anyone under 50 knows only through old movies. And he thinks that West is rapidly, and permanently, fading away.

He's targeting an audience of educators and parents. He wants to save the imagination of children from a culture of death that, even when it permits physical survival, kills the human imagination.

If we loved children, we would have a few. If we had them, we would want them as children, and would love the wonder with which they behold the world, and would hope that some of it might open our own eyes a little.

We would love their games, and would want to play them once in a while, stirring in us those memories of play that no one regrets. We would want children tagging along after us, or if not, then only because we would understand that they had better things to do. Yet, for the first time in human history, most people are now doing things that could never interest a child enough to want to tag along.

In ten chapters Esolen outlines the techniques being used to destroy the imagination of children. Similar to C.S. Lewis’s adoption of a devilish persona in The Screwtape Letters, in each chapter Esolen poses as an educator, parent, or government official expressing the outlook and pushing the agenda of quasi-totalitarian brainwashing to ensure the "dictatorship of relativism," as Pope Benedict describes it.

In his persona as the destroyer of youth, Esolen writes:

We must then kill the imagination. The ideal of course would be to cease having children, but that might have some adverse effect upon long-term economic prosperity, besides threatening certain industries with extinction--the manufacturers of tasteless clothing, for instance, and the importers of refined sugar. Since we must have children, we should be sure to subject them to the most efficient and human techniques to fit them for the world in which they will live, a world of shopping malls, all the same everywhere, packaged food all the same, paper pushing all the same, mass entertainment all the same, politics all the same….I am sure that judicious application of three or four of these methods will suffice to kill the imagination of an Einstein, a Beethoven, a Dante or a Michelangelo.

In his first chapter, "Why truth is your enemy, and the benefits of the Vague," Esolen in the pose of his evil avatar advises:

How then do we do away with the facts? The first thing is to keep the memory weak and empty…That is because a developed memory is a wondrous and terrible storehouse of things seen, heard and done. The developed imagination remembers a strain from Bach, and smells spinach cooking in the kitchen, and these impressions are not separate but part of an unified whole, and are the essence of creative play….The Greek lad knew his poetry, which was for him also history and moral training, only by memory. 

Come to think of it, when was the last time your children or grandchildren ever recited anything for you? For that matter, can you yourself remember (much less recite) any poems, speeches, or passages from novels without the help of immediate access to the Internet? Yes, in this case the majority of us are also victims.

In the "Threat Outside the Door," Esolen’s anti-imaginative persona observes that few parents grasp the danger of children playing outside.

The most enlightened educators grasp it and have taken steps to ensure that their own children are left to their own devices outdoors as little as possible. They have shortened summer vacation, parceling out free days here and there through the school year. As for the school day itself, both parents and educators want it to be as long as possible.

Parents will accept all of this. Canceling years out of their children’s lives, which otherwise would have to be genuinely lived (with all the risks that that genuine life must run) sounds like a perfectly safe proposition. It also frees the parents. They may, with a clear conscience, go forth bravely and be "themselves" along with millions of others who are being themselves, working at jobs that don’t need to be done among people they don’t really like. That is the Real World, and the routine of the school day and the night of homework prepare us for it.

Other chapters deal with such subjects as patriotism, narcissism and sex; distinctions between man and woman; and the "kingdom of noise." This book is unfailingly witty and also maddening, reminding the reader of what was our American culture and calling us to take action--whatever that might be--to both conserve and retrieve the rapidly disappearing West. More and more clearly we are facing, as C.S Lewis named it, "The Abolition of Man."

The anti-Esolen avatar concludes with this prediction: "This is what the destroyers of imagination will do, whether they are aware of it or not. If we are but wise enough to let them, they will wipe that cursed thing called 'man' from the face of the earth, to replace him with something more convenient to social planners, more manageable."

Esolen offers no policy prescriptions, but I will dare to suggest a few:

  1. Abolish the Department of Education.
  2. Amend the Constitution or State laws to state that parents are completely responsible for their children’s education.
  3. Adopt tax and fiscal policies that enable a spouse to remain home full-time educating and rearing the children and do not double tax families opting out of public school systems.
  4. Make available to undergraduates of all state universities core curricula or Great Book Programs that affirm the primacy of Western culture. See Hillsdale College, the University of Dallas, Columbia University, or St. John’s College in Annapolis or in  Santa Fe for details. Universities should not be vocational schools. Corporations could do a better job at that.
  5. Have all states decertify teachers unions and pay teachers on merit and certain fixed standards with review by parents.
  6. Televise a debate between the infamous Tiger Mom Amy Chua of Yale Law and Anthony Esolen on the education of children. Let the populace decide--and save the children and the West.
  7. Provide a 24-hour bodyguard for Esolen. He may well be the most dangerous man in the country. We can’t afford to lose him.

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About the Author
Matthew Kenefick is a Church historian who writes from Washington, D.C. and a Research Fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute.