I recently finished reading Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen. This book had been recommended on a forum I like and I had high hopes for it. I was a little disappointed. While I do agree with the book’s basic premise, I was not enamored with its approach and found the author’s own opinions, which showed through quite clearly in a number of places, irritating.
As its title suggests, this book takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to explaining how current approaches to parenting and education tend to destroy our children’s imaginations. The schools themselves cannot tolerate imagination:
“But the bigger the school, the more dangerous and upsetting a single act of imagination can be.” (p. xiii)
So too the end goal of our modern educational system is to destroy imagination so as to produce people who are both gullible consumers and obedient worker bees. In this he would agree with John Taylor Gatto. And, frankly, Gatto, who takes a more direct approach, does a lot better job of saying the same things. That indeed is one of my main criticisms of this book — what Esolen has to say has been said better by others. Gatto excels at pointing out the flaws of the public schools. For a more positive approach that shows what our kids need to be imaginative and excel, I would recommend Peter Gray’s Free to Learn over this book.
But for the most part, my problem with Esolen’s book is not in the content but in its style. As I said, he takes a tongue-in-cheek approach which pretends that we wish to kill our children’s imaginations when clearly this is not what the author really believes. This might have gone over better in a shorter work (perhaps even on the level of an e-mailed top-ten list) but falls flat in a longer book. Esolen is not consistent in how he proceeds. At times he follows his premise and speaks as if we wis to kill imagination. But at other times he talks about his own experiences as a child and seems to praise all the things his book is ostensibly criticizing. It’s a mixed-up approach and it doesn’t work well.
Despite the defects in his approach, I could agree with a lot of what Esolen says — that kids need free time and fresh air and space to be themselves. But there are other more minor points in which he just irritated me. His personal views on a lot of things come through many places in this book and I don’t always agree with them. He touches on things like gun control and homosexuality for instance. And even when I do agree with him, I often find myself annoyed by the fact that he slipped these things in when they really have little to do with the point of the book.
One issue which is relevant to the book’s main point but which turned me off early on was when he discusses boys and girls playing together. I agree with the general premise that we should not conflate boys and girls as if there are no differences between them. And I can even see that they at times may need to do things separately. But Esolen goes further than this, arguing that they should primarily play separately. He spends some time discussing how wonderful it was as a boy to roam free outside with other boys (this is one of those points where his own reminisces undermine the tongue-in-cheek approach he tries to take). But then of girls he says essentially: “and I am sure they enjoy doing their girl things inside together.” Though one of his ten points is that being outdoors fosters the imagination, he seems to all but exclude girls from the great outdoors since the boys are out there running wild and the girls must be kept separate.
Now I don’t want to sell Esolen completely short. There are parts of this book that made me think and I do plan to do future posts on some of the specific things he has said. But as a whole, this book did not thrill me and I do think others have said the same things better. It is not an awful read but I can’t unequivocally recommend it.