When I first heard about this book, I thought I’d love it. About a quarter of the way into it I almost quit reading because it annoyed me so much. It’s fairly rare that I quit a book though so I stuck with it and in the end I was glad that I did. This book isn’t without problems so I’d give it a mixed review but I think it’s still a worthwhile read.
The premise of the book is that we need to destroy the imagination of our children so that we can “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.” (p xiii) Esolen proposes methods that can be used to this end: keeping your children indoors, over scheduling their days, distracting them with the shallow, limiting their exposure to fairy tales. I think most homeschoolers would agree with these general ideas about what kills the imagination.
The first issue I had with the book was the style in which it is written. Esolen is obviously being sarcastic when he claims that he wants to advise the reader in how to destroy their child’s imagination. Clearly, he desires the opposite. The cover flap of the book and several online reviews mentioned the inevitable comparison to C. S. Lewis. I enjoy Lewis’ dry often sardonic sense of humor. I’m also a big fan of Dorothy Sayers and G. K. Chesterton who write with a similar style. However, I found that the sarcasm got old after awhile. I think part of this was that Esolen’s tone felt a little meaner to me than Lewis and Sayers and Chesterton. I think the style would work well in an essay but it got a little tiresome in a longer format. It was the main reason I almost stopped reading. It also struck me as ironic that at one point Esolen makes a point of bemoaning how today’s culture is too flippant. However, in the second half of the book he relaxed the style a bit and it was a more enjoyable read.
Esolen is a professor of Western Civilization and his love for the great classics of Western culture and thought is inspiring. However, many times the phrase “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” popped into my mind while reading. I can’t think of one instance of a modern author or artist or musician that he cites as having value. There’s a lot of glorifying the past in this book and while I agree with him on some of the points, it meant that he left me with a feeling of discouragement more often than he inspired me. Instead of feeling like I had a set of tools to use in educating my kids, I felt a bit of a “oh, well everything is so bad now what’s the use” kind of attitude. Finally, while I agree with Esolen that there are real gender differences between men and women that are too often denied in today’s culture, he has an attitude towards women that is at best paternalistic and at times is outright chauvinistic or sexist.
I think the best two chapters of the book may be the last two. In one he looks at the idea of distracting children with shallow “noise” in order to keep them from listening to the small still voice that will awaken their imagination. He addresses electronic media as a means of constant bombardment with noise. On a deeper and more thought-provoking level he talks about how we treat other people as “noise” in today’s culture because we only know them on a functional and shallow level. The last chapter looks at denying the transcendent in the world:
…it is best to keep the world “only” in the arsenal at all times. The flame of the sunset is “only” the part of the spectrum that penetrates the atmosphere at that angle- or better, because we don’t want our children to play with dangerous facts, it is “only” something or other material that scientists know about, and no big deal. The idea of God is “only” a projection of the father, or a wish, or an old-fashioned explanation of things we know all about now (such as matter, energy, gravity, electrical charge, the origin of the universe, the meaning of good and evil, chance, order, intelligibility, the end of man), or at least somebody knows all about them in Important Places. Beauty is “only” a neurological tic, or a personal opinion. Love is “only” the drive to reproduce the species, which in turn is “only” the replication of genes. And man, man then is “only” a scurf of biomass on a speck of dust in some cranny of the universe. p. 236
As I said at the beginning, this is a mixed review. I think there are a lot of good ideas in this book even if I didn’t always like the way they were presented. If you can get past that, you may want to give it a try.