Gold to Lead: Destroying Your Child’s Imagination

Even when I was young in my faith, I greatly enjoyed The Screwtape Letters, and every few years I return to it. I always find that I glean (there’s a fine Christian word for you) a little more insight into my own spiritual battle from digging into the words of advice written to Wormwood from his devilishly wise Uncle Screwtape.

If you can imagine Screwtape, ghost-writing as an apparent human, a book on parenting, then you have a pretty apt description of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen. For a complete picture you will need to sprinkle in a bit of Swift’s A Modest Proposal with a heavy dash of The Abolition of Man (a short and necessary read for those frustrated with the current state of education).In summary, this book is a heavy satire, based on the premise that if we are not careful then we may possibly develop well-rounded, imaginative kids. These are ultimately not good resources for the state, so it is in everyone’s best interest to stamp out the fire of imagination early and often. Consider this excerpt from the introduction:

“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. This book is written to show you how to do that. 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.” (my emphasis added)

To give you a more rounded taste of the book, here is a breakdown of the Table of Contents:

  1. Why Truth is Your Enemy, and the Benefits of the Vague
    or, Gradgrind, without the Facts
  2. Method 1: Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible
    or, They Used to Call It “Air”
  3. Method 2: Never Leave Children to Themselves
    or, If Only We Had a Committee
  4. Method 3: Keep Children Away from Machines and Machinists
    or, All Unauthorized Personnell Prohibited
  5. Method 4: Replace the Fairy Tale with Political Cliches and Fads
    or, Vote Early and Often
  6. Method 5: Cast Aspersions on the Heroic and Patriotic
    or, We Are All Traitors Now
  7. Method 6: Cut All Heroes Down to Size
    or, Pottering with the Puny
  8. Method 7: Reduce All Talk of Love to Narcissism and Sex
    or, Insert Tab A into Slot B
  9. Method 8: Level Distinctions between Man and Woman
    or, Spay and Geld
  10. Method 9: Distract the Child with the Shallow and Unreal
    or, The Kingdom of Noise
  11. Method 10: Deny the Transcendent
    or, Fix Above the Heads of Men the Lowest Ceiling of All

As a dad, and also occasionally a human, I cannot recommend this book enough. I found myself greatly challenged and even often wincing where Esolen’s satire hit a little too close to (my) home. However, the best part is that is stoked the fires of my own imagination. I read the book while I was valeting (my forever side gig to pay off my indentured servitude to the State for my education), and I was often compelled to stare up at the night sky or just listen to the world around me. I would even periodically turn the radio OFF on the way home and be alone in my thoughts.

Esolen has encouraged me to foster the imagination in my kids. In the past week we have had live tadpoles in jars on our dining room table (thanks to my lovely wife), peered at spider egg sacks that we have found under old tricycles, and spent an evening laying on the trampoline together to see the stars appear in the night sky. My boys audibly shouted for joy at the first appearance of the Big Dipper, and we dug deep into what it would be like to use that trampoline to propel us into the cup. We watched strolling night clouds morph from the image of mighty Smaug into a valient warrior, and then into a puppy.

Esolen’s satire doesn’t pull any punches, so do expect to get a little red-faced occasionally (either in anger or embarrassment); he does not shy away from pointing out holes in our current education system. However, the book left me in such a worshipful place, eager to see how I can foster the twinkle in my own kids’ eyes. I do believe that this is a book for our time, and encourage all parents to channel your inner Mortimer Adler and read it slowly and take notes, lest you keep on destroying perfectly good imaginations.

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