Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child: Introduction and Chapter One

(Follow the discussion of Anthony Esolen's book at Cindy's blog.)

I had an epiphany while reading the first chapter, entitled "Why Truth Is Your Enemy and the Benefits of the Vague," and it made me really angry. In the midst of explaining how to make any subject dull, Anthony Esolen turns to mathematics. "There can't possibly be any imagination in manipulating numbers, right?" He answers the question by first talking about memorizing math facts and rules of operation, which are dull enough in themselves, but then warns the reader that having a kid full of that kind of fact is really quite dangerous if you're trying to produce a dull, unimaginative mind, lacking in insight and initiative. To illustrate the danger, he pulls a problem from the classic math text, Ray's New Higher Arithmetic (1880) -- "Multiply 387295 by 216324."

Simple drudgery, you say. Ah, but here's the trick of it. Do the operation by performing only three sets of multiplication. That is, 216324 has six digits in it, and you'd think, if you were not imaginative with numbers, that you would therefore have to perform six sets of multiplication, first by 4, then by 2, and so on. It isn't so.

The trick is to see -- and imagination is a power that allows us to combine things and recombine them, seeing them anew every time -- that 216324 has a pretty set of digits. It has a 3, and a 24, and a 216. But 3 x 8 = 24, and 24 x 9 = 216. These things you just know; they are tools for your cleverness to fool about with, as a machinist learns the feel of a wrench or a drill press. This means that if you multiply by the 3 first, putting the product...

... and then he goes on spouting some gibberish explaining how easy it is to multiply those horrendous numbers in Three Easy Steps. Only I don't "just know" what he suggests I should because I never learned my eights, and don't know my threes very well, either. I know my nines, but only up to eleven, so "24 x 9 = 216" is something I have to figure out either with pencil and paper or by skip-counting.

Esolen describes this facility with numbers as "play." That's when I had my epiphany. I used to LOVE playing with numbers and number patterns. When I was seven or eight years old I invented a pattern that goes like this: 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34... It's only been a few years ago that I learned that some Italian guy nearly a thousand years ago first wrote about that pattern, so it's called a Fibonacci Sequence in his honor.

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I'm terrible at math. I'm so bad at it that I've taken to bragging about it as an act of bravado. I hate math because I was so bad at it in school -- well, starting around the fourth grade. Before that I was really good at it and enjoyed it. I don't know what changed in the fourth grade, but by the sixth grade I was happy if I got a "D" in math because that meant I wouldn't have to repeat the class.

But according to Esolen, playing with numbers IS math!

I felt the same way during my oldest child's first year of formal education. We were reading Margaret Pumphrey's book Stories of the Pilgrims as our history text, and thoroughly enjoying it. I've always loved reading about people who lived Long Ago, and finding out what they thought and seeing how they dressed and so forth. But I hated "History" as a subject in school -- we had to memorize names and dates of battles and treaties and whocaresaboutallthatstuff -- so it was a pleasant revelation to find out that, actually, I loved history. But pleasure quickly turned to anger that my schooling made me think I hated it.

Several years later, it slowly dawned on me that, even though I had hated studying Poetry in school, I loved poetry. I've figured out why that's the case: In school, you study poetry by killing and dissecting poems.

I suppose that that's what they do with History and Math, too.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

On a more cheerful note, I now have a new favorite sentence: That sixteen-line-long feast of words and ideas and humorous commentary from Henry Fielding's Jacob Andrews that Esolen quotes earlier in chapter one.

I won't quote it just now, but I will say that if you haven't read Joseph Andrews you really should -- it's delightful. But first you have to prepare yourself by reading Samuel Richardson's Pamela, followed by Fielding's Shamela. Then and only then can you fully appreciate Joseph Andrews.


  1. Kelly, I used to think I hated history, too! I liked math, but I think that is because it never became not-play to me. With that said, I still didn't understand how that problem in the book worked, so maybe I only learned the New Math. HA!

    But back to history, yes! I don't remember being required to memorize very much, but I remember that everything was in textbooks and written in such a way as to bore the life out of a student, and quickly at that.

    Educators really can kill learning, can't they?

  2. I wonder if the problem with dissection isn't that we don't take the trouble to appreciate and observe it whole, before we dissect it, nor do we put it back together again afterwards and appreciate how much more grand it is than it was before, rather than the fact of dissection.
    The difference between a frog and a poem on the dissection table is that the poem can come back to even greater life than before, if we treat it with reverence.

  3. Oh, Kelly! That was a delightful commentary for book club!

    Sometimes I like to synopsize, but mainly when I dont quite get the author's information (remember Piefer's Leisure).

    Your personal reflections sound insightful.

  4. Thanks, Dana. :-)

    Debra, I think you're right. I can think of two specific instances where picking a poem apart has made me love it better. In one case, John Donne's "The Sunne Rising," I loved from the first, but in the other, "a thrown a" by E.E. Cummings, I didn't even understand it before I read an article that first "translated" then dissected the poem. Now it's one of my favorites.

  5. Kelly,
    This reminded me of reading an old homeschooling book titled The 3 R's at Home by Susan and Howard Richmond, I think. You may just have heard of it. I still want to give a copy to my daughter-in-law who is starting to get excited about homeschooling.

    Susan tells how much fun she was having as a little girl filling in a test and how she knew every thing and it was so much fun until she realized everyone else was hurrying and there was .....horrors....a time limit. It changed her life and the way she viewed school for many years. Something was stolen from her that day but she was smart enough not to let it be stolen from her own children.

  6. No, I haven't heard of it, but I had a similar experience. In first grade I had a game I played with myself -- finish all my papers first in the class without making any mistakes. I can still remember that feeling of satisfacting of turning my completed paper face down, laying down my pencil, looking around the room, and seeing that I was indeed the first finished. And I never had any mistakes. The first thing I learned in school was how to be, in CS Lewis's words, a prig.

    And, boy, did I learn that lesson well. I'm still having to unlearn it.

  7. I learned to hate math in school, and 17 years of homeschooling hasn't remedied it, unfortunately. :-(


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