Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Teaching children

I was reading to my son from an unusual book called Flowers of Delight, which has stories and poems from children's books written between 1765-1830. It is a very didactic book. With few exceptions, none of the stories and poems are meant to entertain the intended young audience. Instead, they are meant to provide guides for good behavior, or warnings about bad behavior. Many, to make their point, are extremely gruesome. How about this slightly redacted one (it's very long), from the 1810s, or so:

A visit to Newgate The Father of two little boys, Resolved one day to take A walk through Newgate with the lads, Just for example's sake: One of the boys was very good, The other the reverse; A pilfering little petty thief, Was stubborn and perverse. *** Come, Jack, the father said, you'll see What thieving does my lad; This prison's built thus strong to keep The wicked and the bad. *** 'Twas here the voice of sorror struck Th' affrighted ear of all; The clinking chains, the frenzied yell, The harden'd culprits bawl. Confin'd within a grated cell, A little boy they spy'd With nothing but a crust to eat, All other food denied. *** Exploring still the valuted maze, Some dismal sobs assail'd Their nerve-drawn ears -- 'twas grief, alas! Repentance unavail'd. *** 'Twas some poor men, who, doom'd to die Upon the coming day, Were venting frantic tears of grief, And kneeling down to pray. *** Come, Children, view the march of crime, Exploring shun the road; "Steal not at all," your Maker says, Such is the law of God.
Or how about this depressing (and, again, redacted) poem from the same era?
The Death of a Mother Supported by the yielding pillow, The tender Mother sat in bed, With her children weeping round her, With list'ning ears at what she said. She faintly utter'd -- "My children, "Soon I must leave you, little dears; "Now I feel death's hand upon me, "But don't distress me with your tears. *** "May God protect you, infant darlings, "Take my blessing from my heart; "Oh! I feel death's arrow piercing, "I fall the victim of his dart." Thus sunk the tender dying mother, While her children wept around, And survey'd her pallid visage, While life's yielding cords unbound. Life had fled -- her frame was cooling, Oh! the sobs, the infants' sigh; Weeping statutes -- breaking silence, Weeping, asks the question, why? [And on and on....]
Aside from inspiring me with a somewhat morbid fascination -- and no doubt that they inspired in children of the time -- I'm actually mentioning these poems for a reason. Didactic material is essentially boring. Yes, I know, there are exceptions. The obvious example is Louisa May Alcott's Jo, who is such a lively, inspired character that we forgive the fact that Little Women is every bit as preachy as any other book of the time. It's also worth remembering that Alice in Wonderland was in part such a spectacular success because it has no moral lessons whatever. Indeed, in the brilliant "How doth the little crocodile," Carroll actually spoofed a highly instructive 17th century poem called "How doth the little busy bee." But getting back to my point, material that is intended primarily, and heavy-handedly, to make a point is boring. That intuitive fact, coupled with reading these poems, triggered a memory of an article I'd read a few months ago, about the fact that boys are utterly turned off of reading lately because the schools foist on them books aimed at feminizing them, or at elevating girls (to the exclusion of boys), or at teaching them some (usually sexual) life lessons. A little digging on Google, and I turned up an article in the WaPo, entitled "Why Johnny Won't Read." After pointing out that boys are doing incredibly poorly in reading, it went on to say this:
Although one might expect the schools to be trying hard to make reading appealing to boys, the K-12 literature curriculum may in fact be contributing to the problem. It has long been known that there are strong differences between boys and girls in their literary preferences. According to reading interest surveys, both boys and girls are unlikely to choose books based on an "issues" approach, and children are not interested in reading about ways to reform society -- or themselves. But boys prefer adventure tales, war, sports and historical nonfiction, while girls prefer stories about personal relationships and fantasy. Moreover, when given choices, boys do not choose stories that feature girls, while girls frequently select stories that appeal to boys. Unfortunately, the textbooks and literature assigned in the elementary grades do not reflect the dispositions of male students. Few strong and active male role models can be found as lead characters. Gone are the inspiring biographies of the most important American presidents, inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs. No military valor, no high adventure. On the other hand, stories about adventurous and brave women abound. Publishers seem to be more interested in avoiding "masculine" perspectives or "stereotypes" than in getting boys to like what they are assigned to read. At the middle school level, the kind of quality literature that might appeal to boys has been replaced by Young Adult Literature, that is, easy-to-read, short novels about teenagers and problems such as drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, domestic violence, divorced parents and bullying. Older literary fare has also been replaced by something called "culturally relevant" literature -- texts that appeal to students' ethnic group identification on the assumption that sharing the leading character's ethnicity will motivate them to read.
Blech! We're feeding our youngsters precisely the same moralistic pap children were were fed in the 19th Century. For the minor excitement of death, imprisonment and insanity that characterized these old efforts, we substitute sexual perversion. It's still boring, it's still a turnoff, and it's clear that our ignorant educators, who are shamefully unaware of the past, are forever condemned to repeat it. It's also utterly unnecessary. The spectacular success of the Harry Potter series, or the Narnia series, or The Lord of the Ring books, shows that imaginative books that teach lessons along the way -- rather than presenting the lessons as the main point, with a slender narrative thread wrapped around them -- will entice and delight children, while still teaching them fundamental life lessons.