Children's Literature: The Dark Side?
April 7, 2012 4:44 AM   Subscribe

When children's books first became inexpensive enough for average parents to buy, were they looked down upon as a technology which limits a child's imagination?

In the course of debating the effect of technologies such as computers and video games on a child's development, I seem to remember hearing the argument that in Victorian times books were initially frowned upon because they limited a child's natural imagination. However, I can't seem to find any source for this and now wonder if it was only a figment of my own imagination. Were books ever considered bad for children?
posted by fairmettle to Education (6 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Even today Waldorf schools introduce reading to children later than traditional schools. Here is a pretty good description of the philosophy. The comments are also insightful. The Wikipedia entry for "Waldorf education" also touches upon the issue as well.
posted by TheCavorter at 5:38 AM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Charles Lamb famously complained, in a letter to Coleridge, that the works of Mrs Barbauld, Mrs Trimmer and other modern writers had driven all the old traditional children's books out of the market. Lamb disapproved of this because he feared it would limit children's imaginations:

“Goody Two Shoes” is almost out of print. Mrs. Barbauld’s stuff has banished all the old classics of the nursery; and the shopman at Newbery’s hardly deigned to reach them off an old exploded corner of a shelf, when Mary asked for them. Mrs. B.’s and Mrs. Trimmer’s nonsense lay in piles about. Knowledge insignificant and vapid as Mrs. B.’s books convey, it seems, must come to a child in the shape of knowledge, and his empty noddle must be turned with conceit of his own powers when he has learnt that a Horse is an animal, and Billy is better than a Horse, and such like; instead of that beautiful Interest in wild tales which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child. Science has succeeded to Poetry no less in the little walks of children than with men. Is there no possibility of averting this sore evil? Think what you would have been now, if instead of being fed with Tales and old wives’ fables in childhood, you had been crammed with geography and natural history?

Hang them! -- I mean the cursed Barbauld crew, those blights and blasts of all that is human in man and child.

posted by verstegan at 11:34 AM on April 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've recently read quotes from or references to several people lamenting the advent of books or written material in general (not just for children) as being detrimental to mental faculties. I don't have on hand the book this was in (believe it was The Winter of Our Disconnect) but it seems like some googling might turn up some good stuff. I'll see if I can track down something for you.
posted by attercoppe at 11:48 AM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Try tvtropes here, click on Ancient Times under "Non-fictional examples", some support for this regarding Plato and Socrates as well as a couple of other examples.
posted by attercoppe at 12:15 PM on April 7, 2012

Steven Johnson approaches this from the other side, and I've not read his book, but I'll bet you a dollar he comments on this sort of thing in there.

Here's a video of a presentation he gives.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:44 PM on April 7, 2012

a technology which limits a child's imagination?

In that terminology? I strongly doubt it. Childhood as we understand it today was largely a social invention of the Victorian era. The emphasis on creativity and imagination is much more modern than that, appearing roughly mid-20th century and something that may have already peaked.

The earliest children's literature as such is really from that Victorian era and was largely focused on moral instruction, as were those works of which Lamb complained. But while he does seem to be referring to imagination, I don't think that he meant it the way we do today. He's speaking more of the decline of Romanticism and the Rousseauian "noble savage" (I suspect) character of adult man that comes out of that, in other words, a mature interest in the humanities. I think his viewpoint survives, as such, in the Great Books curriculum. But really, there's an element of classism here. The Barbauld books were designed for the scientific classrooms that were burgeoning to serve the middle class, children who a generation earlier would have been little more than peasants and not part of the system of upper-class education.

True, however, even this modern obsession with imagination (or another bugaboo, self-esteem) is tinged with class, as hard as that can be to see in American culture. It's yuppie, it's for social climbers, and both people of the working class (who don't need it) and the upper class (who have no fear of having to fall back on a vocational education) are excluded, or exclude themselves.
posted by dhartung at 3:24 AM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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