Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child
TEN WAYS TO DESTROY THE IMAGINATION OF YOUR CHILD. By Anthony Esolen. Wilmington: ISI Books, 2010. 256 pages. $18.00.
When I told my wife I had ordered this book she asked me why. I sarcastically said, “Because I don’t have enough guilt in my life.” Well, I do now.
Anthony Esolen’s book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child is a thought-provoking book that should be read by every parent and educator in America. It is a biting critique of the way American culture has suppressed the marvelous thing childhood once was and turned it into a neutering system of conformity that punishes children for thinking, learning, failing, and exploring on their own.
Do not be deceived by the title. Lists are the things of popular culture. Buzzfeed, Vox, Huffington Post, and most sports websites are inundated with lists. Lists have almost become synonymous with clickbait. But Esolen’s book is not just a catchy pop-lit book with a list in its name to snag your hard-earned $18. Every item on the list is well thought out and the book is not easily skimmed or digested. It’s more philosophical in nature than it is an instruction manual. It reads more like G. K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis than it does Dr. Kevin Lehman, or Gary Chapman. With that said, it is still quite witty and broadly satirical.
The book is more than an exercise in nostalgia, though there’s plenty of nostalgic sentiment to be found. Esolen clearly favors the way things used to be, at least as far as childhood is concerned, but he has a rationale for it. He’s not just a condescendingly critical old-timer, complaining about children spending too much time in front a screen or texting each other. He explains what’s at stake, why it matters, how it influences thought and destroys imagination in children. Like a poet, Esolen has a gift for articulating concerns that many of us may have, but struggle to give clear voice to. This is the value of the book.
In quick order Esolen dismantles education’s fascination with facts; empiricism as it used to be called. He does this using the opening of Hard Times by Charles Dickens, where the schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind demands that the children of his school learn nothing but the facts. Cool calculations. Clear information. Unimaginative speech. And so the girl who grew up with a father who worked as a horse-breaker for a circus and spent her life around horses is chastised and belittled by Schoolmaster Gradgrind, because when asked, “Give me your definition of a horse?” she is speechless. Meanwhile, her classmate, who’d never spent a day around a horse in his life is applauded when he defines the horse as a quadruped, with forty teeth—twelve of which are incisors.
Knowledge is broader than data. Data still needs to be interpreted, synthesized, organized, and acted upon. Only those with imaginations are helpful in those departments.
Imaginations want to know more than data. They want to explore mysteries. They want to wonder. They want to rejoice. They want to sing. They want to know what it all means. But imaginations have been destroyed. Schools (‘asylums’ Esolen calls them) authoritatively tell children what it all means before giving them the data, and if after being given the data the children don’t agree on what it all “means” then the children is rebuked, and this is precisely the kind of thing that Esolen satirically says “we can’t have.”
Because so much of childhood occurs within the walls of a school, much of this book is a critique of the education system in America. If you are a person who homeschools your children, Esolen’s book will be an easier read, and you’ll find yourself cheering affirmatively, as he does in the first place. Unfortunately, while offering his critique of modern education in America, Esolen paints with too broad a brush. He doesn’t ever tip his cap to those on the front lines, or even acknowledge that there are many good teachers who are truly trying to extract the imagination from their students, but have so much working against them that they don’t always succeed. In a book filled with so much critique, a little encouragement or praise for those on the front lines teaching would have been nice.
To reveal all ten ways that Esolen says you can employ to destroy the imagination of your child would be a disservice to Esolen and this book. Two should suffice. One of them is “Never leave children to themselves.” If you left children to themselves they might accidentally learn how to govern or resolve disputes between one another. Something as simple as resolving disputes teaches children about virtues of patience and integrity, honesty and truth. Doing it for them and hovering around them destroys their imagination that could emerge from so simple a thing.
A second way is to “Cast aspersions on the heroic and patriotic.” Esolen says pejoratively, “Everyone’s a traitor.” This one really hit home because I’ve seen it so often. Such attitudes can be seen in fictional and real people alike. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, it’s not uncommon for literary ‘experts’ to speak glowingly of Satan, advocating that Milton intentionally made him the more sympathetic and engaging character. God, in contrast, is the soul-sucking, enjoyment-dampening deity that no reader would want any part of. Such a critique holds up for as long as it takes someone to realize that John Milton also wrote Paradise Regained and considered it the better of his two works. But real heroes and patriots are called out as traitors. There is no honor. There is no gravitas. There are no ideals larger than self. The greatest ideal of all, it would appear, is to find the faults of others. In a world full of sinners, there is no smaller or more easily achieved task. Just think of the number Thomas DiLorenzo did on Abraham Lincoln with his 2002 book The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War. Have you seen how Matthew Inman, author of the humorous comic strip The Oatmeal, eviscerates Christopher Columbus in a comic strip that is retweeted and reposted on Twitter and Facebook umpteen times every October 12th? Growing up, I knew little about Benjamin Franklin, except that he was a womanizer (reinforced for me in the sitcom The Office in their episode in Season 3 titled Ben Franklin.) So many aspersions surround Thomas Jefferson, one begins to wonder if this man had any redeemable characteristics at all. This author of the Declaration of Independence was entirely stripped of every hint of patriotism in my public school education because he owned slaves—and had sex with them too. For Christians, it was even easier to consider Thomas Jefferson a “traitor” - after all, he took a pen-knife to the Bible and cut out every instance of the divinity of Jesus Christ and called the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, “the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves priests of Jesus.”
Esolen gives us a better way, an honest way, a way to revere the heroic and patriotic without turning a blind-eye to their moral failures. Of course, to do that, you can’t deny the transcendent. This is a third way to destroy the imagination of a child...but I’ve already said too much.
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child is a wonderfully-thought provoking book. You won’t agree with everything Esolen says, but you’d be a fool to dismiss what he has to say. If you’re a Christian, the arguments are more palatable as Esolen’s own Christian faith comes through in spades. If you’re not a Christian, Esolen’s mastery of recalling literature should help you turn the pages till the end.
This book is so well-written I fear that it lends itself to militant advocacy. My experience with people who homeschool their children is that they are usually for apologetic in their homeschooling practice than they are in their faith (if they ascribe to one). A book like this would easily fuel that militant-aggressiveness, and might be cited as though it were Scripture itself. The book, by no means, advocates for such a reading of it, but it’s not hard to imagine such a thing occurring.
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child was written in 2010. Nothing has changed in the past six years to make this book or its arguments obsolete. With the rising prominence of cell-phones and tablets, the book is all the more compelling. It’s not the quickest read available, but it is a good one. It’s given me a lot to think about. This is a book that will stick with me for a long time. I’m confident that will be the case for you too.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.
 Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Random House, 2006), 4.