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