Anthony Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and classes in Western Civilization at Providence College in Rhode Island. He is a senior editor for Touchstone and writes regularly for First Things, Catholic World Report, and Magnificat. His most recent books include “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child” and “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization.” He lectured at Hillsdale College on epic poetry and the moral imagination as part of this weeks CCA series.
What is “imagination?”
I think that the imagination is the faculty that allows human beings to wonder, in two senses of the word: to be curious about things; but more important than that, to be in a kind of awe of the beauty and goodness of what is beautiful and good. If that kind of wonder is not present, then I don’t think we really have imagination at all.
There is such a thing as a “bad imagination” if the imaginative powers are turned toward evil. Hitler had a bad imagination. I doubt very much that anyone would say that Hitler had no imagination; the problem was that he had turned it towards this fantasy of the Aryan race. Any great power of the human soul can be used for evil.
But when you have kids who are encouraged in school to be cynical, and to evaluate things only according to a political script, then they are having their imaginations crushed. They have no wonder left. The snicker and the sneer are their default positions. They’re automatic in them, and they don’t even know it.
Is it natural for an imagination to be virtuous?
It is natural in the sense that that is what God intended for us to have, and we have been created by God in the image and likeness of God. The imagination is good insofar as it is an imagination, but all of our faculties can be turned towards evil. So of course what you need to be doing with your children is be training them up in virtue, and their virtue will direct their intellect, imagination, will, and passions. That’s the difficult thing, is to raise children of character. Our schools have it exactly inside out: they think that the difficult thing is learning to decipher the words on the page. What is difficult is training the unruly and sinful human soul toward virtue. Schools either ignore that or are set up in such a way that it is absolutely impossible for that to happen.
What does that mean for education?
The compulsory state education that we’ve accepted as normal has as one of its unstated principles that education — and I’m talking about learning to read, write, and do sophisticated arithmetic, learning something about history and geography and the natural world — that this is all difficult and unnatural. But its not; it’s natural in human beings to learn. So a great lot of the battle is won not by figuring out ways to foster the imagination, but just removing all those influences that snuff it out. The imagination is very natural in children, and very active. Homeschoolers know this. When your 11 or 12-year-old son has turned the basement into a Civil War battle field, you don’t then worry, “How am I going to foster my child’s imagination?” The imagination is already out of control — you don’t have a basement anymore.
The teachers and the whole system want to induce you to believe that you are not capable of this task, and only experts can teach your children. That it requires sort of sophisticated magic that is only imparted in departments of education in graduate schools, and that common people are not up to the task.
Can technology hamper our imaginations?
It depends on what the tool is. Take for instance the calculator. For elementary or middle school children for their arithmetic, this is a very bad tool. It doesn’t give the students any real feel for the numbers they’re working with. They’re only punching in buttons; they’re not actually writing them in with their own hands and doing the separate calculations. For instance, if you’re multiplying a three digit number by a three digit number, you have to do nine multiplications and several sums — and they’re not doing any of that. They lose a kinetic, tactile, and visual memory of figuring problems out. That’s a very bad tool. It’s as bad as a teaspoon would be for digging out your backyard.
Also, I think it’s a bad idea to have computers on the desk. We should be going in the other direction. That pull of the computer is now exercised upon us all. I don’t think we’re healthier for it. I think it makes us impatient — we want that instant gratification from the click. It does not make us wise, it does not make us particularly happy, and there are a heck of a lot of more human things that we could be doing. So schools are feeding an addiction that is already dangerous there. Kids should be reading great books. We don’t need a computer for that.
What are some great books for kids?
I read the Narnia chronicles, “The Hobbit,” and the “Lord of the Rings” to both of my children. The fairy tales of the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen are terrific. I just read “Captains Courageous” for the first time, on a lark, a few months ago. It’s just a great boyhood to manhood book. My daughter loved all the “Little House on the Prairie” books. My wife loved the Louisa May Alcott books when she was a child. How do you go wrong with the sense of honor and courage in “Treasure Island”? And I would not underestimate children. I think that there’s no reason really why a ten, eleven, or 12-year-old kid cannot read Charles Dickens. I think Dickens and George Eliot assumed that kids would also be among their readers. Even in the “Little House on the Prairie” books, Laura is a teenage girl, and Ma Ingalls saved up some money to buy Laura a book of poetry by Tennyson. Here are these dirt farmers out in the plains, and yet Mrs. Ingalls knew about Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Laura thought it was the greatest present that she’d ever gotten.
Compiled by Patrick Timmis