A few years ago, a vandal seized some forty or fifty thousand books from my college’s library. He didn’t want to read them, or even to sell them. He wanted simply to get rid of them, on the grounds that nobody would read them anyway.
Some of the volumes he had branded for destruction were irreplaceable. I know, because I went into the back room where they were being held temporarily before the trucks came to haul them away. From that room I saved several dozen, including a definitive dictionary of medieval Latin, and the first great grammar book for Anglo-Saxon—you know, the language that Beowulf spoke on the night when he was tearing Grendel’s arm off, and the monster knew that his end was near. “That was not a good day for Grendel,” says the poet, deadpan. It was not a good day for the books, either.
There wasn’t much we could do about it, because the vandal in question made more money than we did and had a nicer office. He was our librarian. It’s ironic, but true, that one of the qualifications of the modern librarian is a distaste for books. They take up space, and space, the librarians complain, is limited. The books grow old too. Their covers fray, the spines crack, the pages go dog-eared. Inattentive student workers stick them on the wrong shelves, where they can practically “disappear” for years. People borrow them and don’t return them. Some people—I’m guilty of this—underline favorite passages, or write wry comments in the margins, so that the book eventually becomes a kind of successive crime scene. Here a priest wrote, “This is the modernist heresy all over again,” but over there an infidel wrote, “Church, enemy of thought.” That is not to mention fingerprints and inkblots and even bloodstains—from crushed mosquitoes, I guess.
Books are bulky and inconvenient—like rocks, and trees, and rivers, and life. It occurs to me that everything that can be said against the inconvenience of books can be said about the inconvenience of children. They too take up space, are of no immediate practical use, are of interest to only a few people, and present all kinds of problems. They too must be warehoused efficiently, and brought with as little resistance as possible into the Digital Age.
And there is the trouble. A good book is a dangerous thing. In the wrong hands, it is like a bomb housed within a couple of red pasteboard covers. It can blow the world wide open; it can, if it’s Dante’s Divine Comedy, blow the reader as high as heaven. It carries within it the possibility—and it is always only a possibility—of cracking open the shell of routine that prevents us from seeing the world. Our days pass by with the regularity of a conveyor belt at an airport, which we duly get on, and make our way with bland uniformity. A book is like a mischievous boy sticking out his foot at the end of the belt, or like some fantastic intellectual machine that jolts us awake, and we find that the belt is gone. Instead, we’re riding in a stagecoach on a trail of dry ruts, and half-naked Indians are surrounding us from the hills, bows stretched and arrows picked to fly.
That’s bad enough already. But children are worse than books. A book can make you see the world again, and so ruin your calm and efficient day. But a child does not need to see the world again. He is seeing it for the first time. The Gospel of John reports that when Jesus cured that blind man at the pool of Bethsaida, the people around him asked him what he saw. “I see trees walking,” he said, looking at the men and women. The child is like that, except that in his imagination the trees really do walk, and people really may grow branches. Tolkien’s Ents, the tree-herders, are like slow, stately moss-grown ancient oaks and maples and birches, if oaks and maples and birches could talk; it takes them nearly a full day to say hello at their parliament. The old Greco-Roman myth had Apollo chasing the virgin nymph Diana, and just when he was about to catch her in his arms, her wish to escape him forever was granted, and she was transformed into a laurel tree. In the child’s world, because it is a fresh and new world, anything may happen. The fat frog on the lily pad is a Buddha. The one-legged man stumping down the road to the nearest bar was once a pirate, and killed three people in a quarrel over a game of rummy. The house next door has eyes and a nose and a smokestack at the top. The girl who lives in it, the one with the yellow blouse, is an angel.
Obviously this won’t do. If we believe what we say, that “children are our greatest resource,” then we need to do something about it. Resources are valuable because they are good, solid, dependable, and inert. Aluminum is a resource. Titanium is a resource. If a block of titanium were suddenly to say, “No, I think I should not like to form an alloy with my friend aluminum to build the side of that airplane,” and walked off the assembly line or the conveyor belt and bought a ticket on a ship to Athens, then it would no longer be a resource. In fact, it would be a positive danger. It would be worse than useless. It would be an Enemy of the People. Granite is a resource. If a block of granite at the top of an arch were to wriggle loose whenever people weren’t around to notice, to drop on the head of the governor, we might swear off building with granite for a while. Or we might use it all the more—but that is another matter.
In order for children to be transmuted into resources, then, a tremendous alchemical change must be wrought in them. The old alchemists of the early Renaissance sought the secret philosopher’s stone, which would, 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. 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.
“But we don’t want that!” my reader objects. Yes, dear reader, you do. Children make liars of us all. Almost everything we say about them is a lie. We believe exactly the opposite, and act accordingly.
Suppose you are a lover of books. You will not say, “Ah, books, yes, books are wonderful. Such treasures, books are! Myself, I don’t have any, and I don’t want any, or maybe just one, but I so love books!” Why, you would have books strewn about your flat. You would delight in their very bindings and the smell of their pages. You would not know what to do without them. You would not say, “Yes, I love books. That is why I have warehoused them in this special room, far away from company, and far from where I do anything of importance. I keep them locked up behind this glass case, and only take them out on special occasions.” You would not say, “Books indeed, our greatest resource. They kindle readily, and make excellent bonfires.”
If we loved children, we would have a few. If we had them, we would want them as children, and would love the wonder with which they behold the world, and would hope that some of it might open our own eyes a little. We would love their games, and would want to play them once in a while, stirring in ourselves those memories of play that no one regrets, and that are almost the only things an old man can look back on with complete satisfaction. We would want children tagging along after us, or if not, then only because we would understand that they had better things to do.
Now that simply is intolerable. For the first time in human history, most people are doing things that could never interest a child enough to make him want to tag along. That says less about the child than about us. If someone should say to us, “How would you like to spend most of your waking hours, five days a week, for the next four years, shut within four walls,” we should go mad, that is if we had an imagination left. It is only by repressing that imagination that many of us can stand our work.
Consider, too, the problems of the poor fellow who has to manage the Human Warehouse, the faraway, sprawling school, stocked with hundreds or thousands of pupils. In the old days, let’s say in a one-room schoolhouse, you could easily pick out which young lad or lass was blessed with a mischievous eye and a lively mind. They were the ones hanging upside down from a couple of planks nailed up to a tree in the schoolyard, or sticking bubble gum on the radiator, or reading Ivanhoe. So you got them a few more planks and a bucket of nails, or a paddle to the rear end, or Waverley. They could be dealt with. But the bigger the school, the more dangerous and upsetting a single act of imagination can be. The necessity to impose something like order rules it out. A vast enterprise like McDonald’s can only function by ensuring that no employee, anywhere, will do anything sprightly and childlike in the way of cooking. I sometimes think that if a single boy at the grill tossed paprika into the french fries, the whole colossal pasteboard empire would come crashing down. Barbarians everywhere would be grilling the onions, or leaving the ketchup out, or commandeering the Swiss to take the place of the American. The great virtue of McDonald’s, that of the solid, dependable, inert routine, would vanish. As in what was once called “life,” you’d never know what you were getting.
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 should 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 daycare. 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 just 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.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2011 edition.