It takes guts these days to write a book like Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. The point of the book is a radical reclamation of childhood from the teeth of the zeitgeist, which means actually confronting that pervasive spirit. It’s a popular spirit, of course, and many well-meaning parents have ingested its disease and passed it on to their children. So in explaining ten proven methods to kill the imagination, Anthony Esolen also delivers a robust and piercing critique of our wayward age. The main targets of his satire are modern education and what is often misnamed “pop culture.” It isn’t culture at all, Esolen argues, only mass entertainment. But his machete swings a wide swath, and cuts also from fast food to children’s Bibles, and from mindless politics to fake macho manhood.
The format is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, with each chapter written from the perspective of a modern educator who shares insights on how to destroy the imagination. The chapters are each devoted to a single method, with titles like “Cast Aspersions upon the Heroic and Patriotic,” “Reduce all Talk of Love to Narcissism and Sex,” “Keep Children Away from Machines and Machinists,” and “Never Leave Children to Themselves.” He points out that to kill the imagination, not much education is needed. Just enough to teach children the “knowing smirk,” the sneer that belittles virtues like nobility, honour, and courage, and to inculcate kids to mock the traditions of their parents. True, virtuous friendships, as well, should be too potent for our comfort. The reason, as this beautiful passage explains, is that true friendship excites the imagination:
“For you look at the friend and you remember the past, and treasure it. You love the friend, and suddenly you understand that this life of ours cannot fully be described by the motion of particulate matter in empty space. You see instantly that politics fades into unimportance with all its noisy glamour and empty promises. You feel that others before you have known what it is to have the true friend, the one before whom you can, as Cicero put it, think out loud. You feel that, and it is like an earnest of eternity, of being grounded in a love and beauty and goodness that is at the heart of all ages, and that transcends them all. Pals we may have, in the flatlands of contemporary life. Political allies, sure. Coworkers, aplenty. But not friends” (p. 191).
Every chapter is worth reading, but one of the better ones is “Level Distinctions between Man and Woman or Spay and Geld.” If politically correct platitudes have settled like blight on our postmodern language, Esolen’s writing carries none of that sickly dead weight. Not only are men and women not “equal,” he argues, but the idea itself is nothing short of “soul-leveling.” So if we are to kill the imagination, children must never be confronted with real manhood and real womanhood, and all the mysterious and passionate drama found therein. For example, Esolen writes, we must keep young girls from ever being aware of the following:
“When girls in America outgrew their rag dolls, they began to collect things that might be useful or beautiful for their lives as women – as wives and mothers. They would save napkins, tablecloths, silverware, or whatever they treasured most, and keep them in a cedar chest, their ‘hope chest.’ Note the significance of the act. A young girl would be encouraged not simply to daydream but to act in a determined way to bring about some joy for herself and for those whom she would love, far in the future. They might as well have called it an ‘imagination chest,’ as it exercised their capacities, practical and moral, to see what it meant to be a good woman, and to prepare themselves to live up to that calling” (p. 193).
It’s best to simply rewrite history, to change the above from aspiration into oppression, and to condition children to be offended by it. Teach them to respond with the knowing smirk, or whatever will tarnish the dignity of both womanhood and manhood. Indeed, the imagination killers have had enormous success in these departments. Manhood, too, is disappearing, and not with a shout or a cry or anything of like vigor, but with a rather spineless and effeminate whimper. And as manhood goes, so goes the family, the church, the arts, and every other true bastion of the imagination.
There were minor points here and there that I found unconvincing. While I am not convinced, for example, that children’s Bibles are helpful, neither do I believe, as Esolen does, that they cause people to “look back on belief with the same seriousness with which they remember a cartoon” (p. 222). Rather, I would maintain with Esolen that the text of Scripture itself is more than sufficiently powerful to work on the hearts and imaginations of young children.
Further, I didn’t find that the “Screwtape” format was as effective as it could have been. At times it felt like an afterthought, as when he would go for pages explaining the positive effect of some virtue on the imagination, and only in the conclusion would he briefly tie the passage back into the theme. Because of this, it was sometimes easy to forget that the narrator was speaking against the imagination instead of for it. I didn’t find overall that the format did much to establish his point.
But none of these criticisms diminish the power of the book. The imagination is a precious gift from God, and as with all his gifts we are accountable for how we use it. When the imagination lies forgotten in the cerebral attic we forgo the depth of feeling and maturity of thought that prove so valuable in our love for God. The Psalms we sing in church, for example, are put to melodies that will never move a heart unless that heart has ripened in the full sunlight of a robust imagination. Otherwise they will be heard, as many of our other fading cultural treasures, as little more than distant relics of a now irrelevant age.
If this can be said of those melodies, which are only one example among many of putting the Psalms to music, how much more can be said of the inspired content itself? For it is the imagination that grapples with the profound, and no more profound expression of the spectrum of sanctification exists than that which the Spirit of God has given us in the Psalms. From the valley of the shadow of death to the dew-dripping heights of Mount Hermon, to the cut and thrust of battle, the trumpet blasts, and the deserts of winter and solitude that lie between, to enter fully into the world of the living is to enter fully into the world of the Psalms.
The LORD used David’s imagination for his great glory, as he has done with so many others through the ages. Such a great gift resides in every child, in every potential worshiper of the Triune God. How the imagination grows, that it grows, then, has enduring, even eternal, consequences. For this reason, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child is an important book. The discipline and instruction of children includes far more than just raising decent kids. The point is to instill in them a hatred of evil and a passion for all that is good, true, and beautiful, a goal that cannot be reached apart from tending the garden of the imagination.
Because of these fading ideals, Esolen is like that lone student in Tiananmen Square, staring down the tanks of our cultural deconstruction machine. He contrasts a real, vigorous, and meaningful childhood with the soft, therapeutic, and mindless fantasy that our culture celebrates as “progress.” Although a book like this has too much bite to be popular, that bite will prove a blessing to every child whose parents read it and take its wisdom to heart.