Reverse Alchemy

A book that I’d been eyeing for some time came in the mail today. It’s called Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen, and I’m considering failing tomorrow’s Greek exam in order to begin reading it today. No, not really, but I did read the introduction the moment I opened the Amazon parcel. It promises to be more than I was hoping for, and I was hoping for a lot. Here’s a large sample from the introduction:

“The old alchemists of the early Renaissance sought the secret philosopher’s stone, which could, in the right recipe, transform lead into gold. We smile at their folly. We know full well that you can’t transform lead into gold. You can only transform gold into lead. This book is written to show you how to do that. The gold is nothing other than the child’s imagination, which if it is not gold itself, can still work the miracle of old King Midas. ‘Nature only provides us with a leaden world,’ wrote the poet Philip Sidney, ‘but it is the poet that makes for us a golden one.’ If we can but deaden the imagination, then, we can settle the child down, and make of him that solid, dependable, and inert space-filler in school and, later, a block of the great state pyramid…

“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-range economic prosperity, besides threatening certain industries with extinction – the manufacturers of tasteless clothing, for instance, and importers of refined sugar. Since we must have children, we would be sure to subject them to all the most efficient and humane 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. We owe it to them, and, what is more important, they owe it to us. Now we have been doing a fine job of this for many decades. I will not, in this book, fail to give credit where credit is due. Far be it from me to claim, for instance, that I have invented day care. I confess that, when I was a little boy, I’d have found the idea perfectly revolting. Nor can I claim to have come up with the soul-leveling notion that boys and girls are the same. I confess that, when I was growing up, I was fascinated, frustrated, appalled, and thunderstruck to find them different. But some people are born with genius, and others are but blessed with the knack for setting their superiors’ inventions in some order. I am, I’m afraid, of that latter sort.

“Here now, for the first time, are ten sure ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. I do not claim that it is an exhaustive list. No doubt, many of my readers, blessed with a keener attention to the needs of the child, will have come up with others. But I am sure that a judicious application of even three or four of these methods will suffice to kill the imagination of an Einstein, a Beethoven, a Dante, or a Michelangelo” (p. xi, xiii).


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