Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Teaching Kids to Suffer Well

I've been reading a 1903 collection of stories, facts, pastimes, and recitations called "Young People's Library of Entertainment and Amusement." I suppose that in the days before radio it was fun to dress up your kids and make them do "tableaux," but for the modern reader it all seems a little quaint and weird and oh-so-gaslight.

There are lots of interesting things about this book. It starts with collections of poems written by the likes of Pope, Byron, and Whitman, and while poetry generally leaves me cold I can't deny that these fellows knew their words.

The brilliantly-crafted excerpts from Shakespeare stand in stark contrast to the "recitations" which follow. These recitations -- most of them uncredited -- must have been the bane of the Victorian child. They're heavy-handed poems which can be entirely summed up by their chapter headings: "Comic," "Pathetic," "Descriptive," "Religious," "Temperence," and "Patriotic." It's interesting that the largest section by far is reserved for patriotic poems...I'll post a truly horrific one about the Spanish-American war sometime soon.

I have to keep reminding myself that these recitations are intended for children, because even though the language is sophisticated -- when not imitating the cloying baby-talk of a four-year-old bein' aw tute an' gwown up -- the moral messages are entirely one-dimensional: a flawed person has an encounter with a saintly person, and then Jesus takes the saint to heaven and the flawed person says "Now I'm a changed man! Don't make the mistakes I made! Eat your spinach!"

I don't expect real-life ambiguity or deep philosophy from a book written for ten-year-olds, but I can't help thinking that Sunday School stuff was always sort of like that, and probably is today. These recitations -- whenever they try to tackle pathos or any sort of moral question -- are based on the really horrible assumption that we're all born with a spiritual debt, that if we suffer a lot then we'll become more saintly, and that it'll all be worth it for us when we die.

Pardon me if I disagree, and if I think that the ideas of original sin and redemption make the world a crappier place. I also disagree with the contradictory and entirely cloying presentation of small children in this book as "little angels." When I see a small child, I know that she isn't above crying extra-loud in the checkout line in order to extort candy, which is something an angel would never do.

And I don't understand how all humans owe an automatic spiritual debt EXCEPT when they're small. I assume the cutoff age is puberty, but such things are sadly beyond the scope of this book.

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