In this chapter, I think Esolen has touched on something often overlooked, and that is the ability of machines and craftsmen to inspire imagination in children. In previous chapters, Esolen already pointed out that most adults perform jobs that no child would ever be interested in doing–paper pushing, anyone? This brings us to the third method of destroying the imagination: Keep Children Away from Machines and Machinists.
Boys are amazingly resilient, it seems. Their entire childhoods seem to be one near-death experience.
But I digress.
In addition to his Inventor’s Box, his Gigi also gave him the Dangerous Book for Boys Essential Electronics Kit. Between the two boxes, I’m sure something will catch fire, if given enough time.
Esolen seems to think that a lot of little boys don’t do a lot of experimenting, and he blames parents and teachers and…safety.
Parents and Teachers
Esolen says we are building a culture embodied by his chapter’s subtitle: All Unauthorized Personnel Prohibited. We are keeping children away from Men at Work. I remember last year I wanted to take the children to the print shop where my husband’s work has their collateral material printed. We were so excited to go, and then we were informed that it was not allowed by their insurance.
Children are a liability issue, they said.
What about little girls who aren’t as fascinated by fire and motors? We do the equivalent, he says, when we keep them away from women who have mastered the traditional womanly arts. We distance them not just geographically, but we wall off the entrance when we disdain manual labor in the form of craftsmanship and call the womanly arts “mindless drudgery.”
I love that Esolen knows the truth: Safety
[A] home with a good woman in it was always a work of the imagination.
This is perhaps the most effective way (says Esolen) of keeping children from having their interests piqued by working people. We tell them it is not “safe” to go to this place and see those men do this or that. We elevate physical safety above all else, and constantly tell our children to be careful. In discussing art, Esolen says:
Michelangelo did not sculpt the David in a padded cell. In fact, he had to hang around with the rough stone quarriers in Carrara to learn what marble was really like, from inside, so to speak, when men cut it out of the mountain. Had he been told to wear a helmet all his life, he would never have gone to Carrara in the first place.
Of course, having a couple little boys myself, I have to say that safety can be a real concern. Our policy from the time our oldest was a toddler was to teach him how to do something safely, if he wanted to do something dangerous for his age. I don’t mean that we hovered over him, wringing our hands and pointing out every danger. But we all know that boys especially will risk their lives without knowing it, and so something simple, like teaching a baby to crawl down the stairs backwards, comes in handy.
Our oldest was a climber. He really frightened people who weren’t accustomed to toddlers scaling to great heights, or even climbing up a stool. But we taught him how to hold on and how to climb down, and I’m glad we did that, rather than telling him to get down and stay down. Someday he will be jumping over six foot fences like his father, who my nephew used to think could fly.
In this chapter, Esolen is really driving home the idea that to kill imagination, one must kill that sense of wonder with which children seem to be born. (Remember that killing the imagination creates the ideal citizen for the brave new world: dull and dependent, but able to get boring tasks accomplished without resistance.) This involves a lot of “thou shalt nots” such as “thou shalt not go hunting” and “thou shalt not raise animals for food.” These things encourage independence and self-sufficiency.
One “thou shalt” stuck out to me:
[I]f you do engage in the arts, make sure they are puny and merely pretty, and by all means keep things as petty as possible.
This reminds me of children’s crafts in Sunday School and preschools and the like. They are so obviously outgrown because they (generally speaking) have no artistic merit, nor do they tend to aim for development into something more mature. They exist merely as an “activity”–a way to keep children busy until their parents come get them. Now, the children naturally enjoy such things, and I’m not saying I never give crafts to my children (because I do). But I don’t let them mistake crafts for art, and I often emphasize (when they ask) that they are learning skills that will serve them in “real art” someday (for instance, they are mastering the skill of using scissors or folding paper neatly or whatever).
Formal crafts, of course, are different from giving children a box of art supplies and letting them create to their hearts’ content. This can be very inspiring for some children.
But, back to Esolen’s point, by lowering art from a great expression of the human soul, of ingenuity, of beauty, to a thing for children that they outgrow, we kill a bit of the human spirit.
The World of Video Games
Esolen calls the world of gaming “unreality.”
The finest thing to do is to sit your child in front of a video game which involves the manipulation of something on a screen–a gun, often enough–and then to pretend that the manipulation, following the tracks of the game’s design, is somehow imaginative.
I have noticed this with some boys and, sadly enough, with some men. Manipulating objects in the unreal world causes them to feel as if they accomplished something in their day, something exciting even. The result is a lessening of their ability to enjoy the real world, which leads to less and less accomplishment in the real world.
A neighbor once told me that she wished her son would go outside, but all he wanted to do was play video games. She sighed. She herself grew up milking cows and making cheese and generally living a vibrant out-of-doors childhood. I think she knows he is squandering his precious childhood, and I’m not sure why she doesn’t take them from him. One thing I know for sure is that it makes her sad.
One thing I was reminded of in this chapter is that there are seemingly endless ways of lighting the imagination on fire. Everything from cross-stitching to quilting, carving to hunting, ham radios to shovels, etcetera seems to have potential. Which means the key probably goes back to the previous chapter about letting children alone.
Of course, in this chapter we get to what Dana has been hinting at, which is informing the imagination. It is being with workmen and witnessing real, valuable work being done which inspires children to go home and try their hand at something.
This autumn, I decided that the world might not be going to hell in a handbasket, after all. Some high school boys from the local (gasp!) public high school had left a business flyer on our doorstep saying they were willing to do gardening work. Little did they know that our postage-stamp-sized front lawn deceives. There is almost half an acre of work hidden behind! Anyhow, we hired these young men, and they were up for a big job. When they realized they weren’t going to finish in time, they suddenly had a bunch of friends helping them beat the clock.
My husband asked one of the guys later how he was able to procure help so quickly. He laughed and said he promised them he’d buy them dinner at Taco Bell and take them dove hunting if they’d help him get the job done.
And then they all drove off, ready to eat burritos and shoot birds.
It was so refreshing that I thought that all was not lost for future men in this world.
Get the (almost) weekly digest!
Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.