April 12, 2015

"What are we doing when we teach fiction to kids?"

Asks Jaltcoh:
When we teach children fiction — reading it, writing it, understanding it, loving it — as important as those teachings are, I think they also have a negative side effect. By teaching fiction so often and beginning at such an early age, we condition children to expect the “just right” results to flow inexorably from the writing of those who are good and bright.

Before kids learn about economics or law, politics or psychology, they learn that we’re supposed to treasure writing not primarily based on how well it corresponds to reality, but primarily based on whether it makes us feel good. And I intend the double meaning of “good” as in both “contented” and “moral.”

This could explain why well-educated, intelligent people, all across the political spectrum, so often make the unspoken assumption that good intentions and well-crafted words are sufficient for making good public policy....

71 comments:

chuck said...

I read for entertainment, not literary quality, and certainly not for truth and beauty. Fun authors tell fun lies, lying is their job.

Once upon a time, for a short period, novels and stories were supposed to examine the soul and society in depth, but those times are long gone.

Renee said...

Reminds of how we sanitized Mother Goose & Grimm....

No sad endings ever.

traditionalguy said...

You are noticing there is a connection between story telling and politics. It's about time you woke up.

Teaching literature is most of a Liberal Arts education. Words are what gets into people and contrls them more directly and more strongly than "Freud's all powerful sex" or drugs gets into people.

And every story written and spoken is between half fiction or complete fiction. Ask Madison Avenue.

chickelit said...

Well-crafted lies used to be Lucifer's bailiwick. Enlightened people no longer need his example for their children.

Richard Dolan said...

Oh, please. Fiction is not synonymous with 'happy ever after.' Even classic fairytales are more varied. As for 'children,' the fiction they will read in school is rarely Harry Potter. Dickens, Conrad, Hatdy, Fitzgerald, Heminway, to say nothing of more contemporary writers, offer a varied take on the vicissitudes of life. Fiction considered more broadly includes Shakespeare, Homer, and on and on. It's possible, of course, to restrict one's reading list to junk. But a post complaining that kids who read nothing but junk end up with a distorted view of life beyond the end of their nose wouldn't be all that interesting.

AJ Lynch said...

I am sick of the phrase "public policy" Jaltcoh. We need far less of it. Fix the roads, collect the taxes, enforce the laws, guard our borders and our country, and get the f out of our way and out of our lives in almost all other respects.

Paddy O said...

"What are we doing when we teach fiction to kids?"

To hate reading fiction.

I was a voracious reader from a young age. Of all sorts of fiction. I hate discussing literature in the mode of school analysis. Read the book, enjoy the book. Don't make me examine everything. Fiction is supposed to be a narrative, a story, beyond the analysis. Don't ground the story in modernistic attempts to control the narrative. Blah!

Bobber Fleck said...

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Good intentions, ignorance of the true nature of the world and a disregard for actual results define the world of the progressive.

madAsHell said...

I dunno, I read the "Mad Scientists Club" club multiple times. Yes, I became an engineer.

Unfortunately, you can read the Koran once, and be become a suicide bomber.

SJ said...

@Renee,

I wasn't exposed to the un-sanitized version of the tales selected by Grimm.

Though I did spend some time wandering through Greek and Norse mythology.

Tragedies are as common as happy endings in those tales.

But before that, my parents spent a long time reading sections of the Bible to us.

There is always an undercurrent of hope in the storytelling, but very few stories in Scripture end with a "happily ever after."

I wasn't pointed to the beauty and style of the writing. I was pointed to the story, and the decisions made by people in the story.

What is more important: a story with a happy ending, or a story which teaches children how people respond to honesty, deceit, bravery, and treachery?

WestVirginiaRebel said...

A lie is when you know somebody is telling you what they think you want to hear. A story is when you really do hear what you want to hear.

Sebastian said...

"This could explain why well-educated, intelligent people, all across the political spectrum, so often make the unspoken assumption that good intentions and well-crafted words are sufficient for making good public policy…."

The frequency of making this assumption varies "across the political spectrum."

"we condition children to expect the “just right” results to flow inexorably from the writing of those who are good and bright."

The "results" of writing actually imposed on children as required reading are not necessarily "just right" in the way they perceive it.

I doubt any young readers think of writers as "those who are good and bright." Liberal liberal arts majors may come to think that way, but few readers raised in conservative households will have any illusions about the goodness and brightness of contemporary fiction authors.

I don't mean to attribute the notion to Jaltcoh, but that goodness and brightness are so tightly linked is itself a Progressive prejudice. It's possible that fiction teaching does indeed try to "condition" people into accepting that prejudice. The neo-Marxists missed this kind of hidden curriculum, reproducing new class domination.

Renee said...

People complain the Bible is too violent with lot of unhappy people, maybe because it isn't fiction.

David said...

That's why the old fashioned nursery rhymes need to be included. In the nursery rhymes the world has good and evil, and good does not always win.

Bob R said...

Does the post really have much to do with fiction per se, or rather with the myths or narratives that our state schools teach our kids when they teach them literature or history or science?

sydney said...

we condition children to expect the “just right” results to flow inexorably from the writing of those who are good and bright.

The good fiction writer is not noticeable to the reader, so we don't necessarily teach children to associate "just right" results with the person who writes the words. We might condition them to think better of the world than they should, but not necessarily better of writers.

sydney said...

This could explain why well-educated, intelligent people, all across the political spectrum, so often make the unspoken assumption that good intentions and well-crafted words are sufficient for making good public policy....

I must travel in different circles, because I don't know anyone who makes that assumption.

traditionalguy said...

Warning: Do not read a good translation of the Bible. It will change you.

It does it with living words that set men free. No Prozac needed. No sexual impurity needed. No Priests mumbling Latin needed.

rhhardin said...

Who says fiction has a happy ending.

They're always killing off the love interest in women's romances.

Here's a DVD I didn't buy just today, too, in other ways fiction goes off the rails. The product summary.

A family weekend is fraught with emotional landmines for mercurial and sensitive Lynn as she arrives at her parents Annapolis estate for the marriage of her estranged eldest son Dylan, accompanied by her three younger children. Lynn s hopes for a joyful reunion are crushed as her wry but troubled middle son Elliot lobs verbal grenades at his mother and her relatives while daughter Alice, a fragile young woman, fights valiantly to keep her longtime demons under control. The weekend quickly unravels as Lynn demands to be heard by her aloof, disdainful mother, ailing, distant father and ever-judgmental sisters, but most especially by her ex-husband Paul and his hot-tempered second wife Patty. Confronted, oftentimes hilariously, with the deeply painful, half-buried truths that have given rise to the familys primal web of resentments and recriminations, Lynn struggles to maintain her equilibrium as her best attempts at reconciliation veer quickly off-course.

rhhardin said...

I wonder if Althouse would like Words and Pictures

A battle of art and literature at the high school, between two teachers, the english lit guy and the art girl, sweeping up the students.

It has a movie cliche or so that you have to ignore. I don't know why they can't come up with better obstacles. The drinking problem vs the disease. Take them as generic problems.

Zeb Quinn said...

I dunno. I say Homer should be required reading along with Aristotle and Plato.

Anonymous said...

And here I thought it was to stimulate the imagination.

Chris N said...

At Literal Gardens, we start with economics, law, politics and psychology.

The preschoolers can't get enough.

Gusty Winds said...

This could explain why well-educated, intelligent people, all across the political spectrum, so often make the unspoken assumption that good intentions and well-crafted words are sufficient for making good public policy....

The more plausible explanation is these 'intelligent' people don't actually believe in what they are saying, and couldn't care less about good public policy, Unless, of course, they somehow benefit.

They weave magic cloth.

It would benefit society greatly if every child was given a keen understanding of "The Emperor's New Clothes".

buwaya puti said...

I read my kids the Iliad, when they were 7-8. Among a lot of other things.
They know better than to expect happy endings.

Michael K said...

When I was little, I read westerns by the ton. I remember reading Owen Wister, "The Virginian" when I was 12 or so. I was a member of the Book of the Month club when I was in grammar school. You cannot read enough as a child. I don't much care what.

Television is killing literacy.

The Godfather said...

I hope this doesn't come across as rude or judgmental, but the reason that Jaltcoh hasn't heard this observation before is because it's so obviously wrong.

Yes, it's true that some of us some of the time give too much weight to what appear to be good intentions. Obamacare is called the "affordable" care act, and affordable care is good, right? RFRA promises to "restore" our "religious freedom" and who could object to that? But fiction, good fiction, is more likely to make us wary of such promises than to buy into them. Do kids still read Hansel and Gretel? Isn't Obamacare a gingerbread house? The first grown-up book I can recall reading as a child was Tom Sawyer and soon after that Huckleberry Finn. Was it Bill Clinton who got us to whitewash his fence? Do the Duke and Dauphin remind you of the Ombama Administration? Or of Hillary!?

We can't blame fiction for our being idiots.

Carl said...

Yeah, it's what kids are taught at school. We're steeped in this culture, you know? No wonder we can't help ourselves.

I can readily see that argument being made before St. Michael. It's not our fault! We were just following orders/acculturation/memes...

Nope. Evil is done by individual acts, at specific times, by individuals who make choices. All the intellectualizing and root-causes bullshit won't save you from that hard fact, in the end.

Ann Althouse said...

You are missing the point if you read "just right" to mean "happy"!

Fictional stories have endings that flow from what went before abd that fit.

That's the point, that children are conditioned to read crafted plots that are made of language and that play out in a satisfying pattern.

Whether the ending is happy or sad does not change the point!

MadisonMan said...

The State can't test students about their readings. Understanding the true meaning of, say, To Build a Fire is not so quantifiable as the ability to solve a quadratic equation. So why have them read?

Gabriel said...

Fiction is extraordinarily valuable for teaching people how people see themselves.

Fiction "makes sense", to paraphrase Ann and Jaltcoh--but what "makes sense" is highly time-place-culture dependent.

The way to cure people from assuming that life works out like stories is to have them read lots of literature from lots of times and places. I had wanted to say "diverse" but that no longer means what I wanted to say.

But as humans we are predisposed to stereotypes and tropes, and assuming things will work out the way we expect a narrative to is a consequence of that.

chickelit said...

Ann Althouse said...
You are missing the point if you read "just right" to mean "happy"!

??

Are you ignoring your son's whole second paragraph?

I took him to mean that people are "deceived" by well crafted words and prose--hence my Lucifer analogy.

rcommal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Birches said...

This could explain why well-educated, intelligent people, all across the political spectrum, so often make the unspoken assumption that good intentions and well-crafted words are sufficient for making good public policy....

I don't understand the pushback Jaltcoh's getting on this. People do want everything to fit into a nice little box. But historians are no better than a good piece of fiction.

rcommal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Most people don't care about what will work or won't work in public policy. But they don't care about the words and stories either.

What they care about most is whether the people that they like/admire/want to suck up to are pro or con.

rcommal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
retired said...

modern fiction is derivative of our nihilist culture where what's good is bad and what's bad is good. We are not reading pollyanna-ish fiction.
Besides it is my job as a parent to instruct my children on what is real and what is fantasy.

stlcdr said...

Perhaps We read fiction because real life doesn't spur our imagination?

This has been done for a long, long time. Generations of kids became spectacular examples of humanity. Correlating fiction with the implication that we are doing kids wrong (sic) demonstrates a lack of comprehension of simply everything.

Lyle Smith said...

History, teach history.

Mark said...

I recommend teaching more Lovecraft.

tim maguire said...

Does the young Mr. Althouse have children? This excerpt suggests strongly that he doesn't.

Larry J said...

sydney said...
This could explain why well-educated, intelligent people, all across the political spectrum, so often make the unspoken assumption that good intentions and well-crafted words are sufficient for making good public policy....

I must travel in different circles, because I don't know anyone who makes that assumption.


Obama seems to believe that if he gives yet another speech, all will be well. I've seen this mindset far more on the Left than on the Right. Mario Cuomo gave a good speech at the 1984 DNC convention and immediately was considered presidential material. Obama, a man with a very thin resume but with the ability to read well from a TelePrompter, was elected president (twice!) based on the hopes and dreams presented in his speeches. He was so impressed with his speeches that he gave the Queen of England an iPod filled with them.

Unknown said...

Wait, wut? This isn't even wrong.

tim maguire said...

sydney said...
"This could explain why well-educated, intelligent people, all across the political spectrum, so often make the unspoken assumption that good intentions and well-crafted words are sufficient for making good public policy...."

I must travel in different circles, because I don't know anyone who makes that assumption.


You clearly don't travel in liberal circles. All liberal policy-making is premised on the assumption that because they intend to do good, they therefore are doing good and, because they are doing good, if you oppose them, you intend to do bad. And because you intend to do bad, you must therefore be bad.

MikeR said...

Interesting idea. Seems kinda backward to me. Why do kids prefer happy endings? For that same reason, childish grownups prefer to believe that real world things can be crafted without unexpected negative consequences.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

I never met anyone in my entire life who thought that good intentions and well-crafted words are sufficient for making good public policy.

tim maguire said...

Kids prefer happy endings because long after learning the distinction between fact and fiction, they are still coming to grips with the difference between possible and the fantasy. Even today's sanitized world is a scary place to a powerless and defenseless child who struggles to remember that the "not real" is not real. Read your child a story with a tragic ending and you may well be up at night for weeks soothing away the nightmares.

rhhardin said...

I'm passing on this DVD too

a romantic drama about men and women grappling with love and its many phases and seasons passion, sympathy, obligation, sorrow and indecision and the way these forces merge together and drift apart, transforming, destroying and reinventing the lives they touch.

James Pawlak said...

Are the nature and danger of "Thinking Errors" still taught in our schools?

Peter said...

We live in a time in which it's become ever more difficult to either read or write fiction, if by fiction we mean something with a narrative to tell, something that reaches a conclusion and comes to an end.

Everything contemporary seems to be self-referential; it's all but impossible to get into the story because we're always aware that we're being told a story, that nothing "just happens" in a work of fiction because the only reason anything happens in fiction is because the author has willed it to happen.

Even assuming that we're willing to follow a linear narrative all the way through its twists and turns to its seemingly inevitable conclusion without constantly getting distracted along the way.

How does one read fiction in an age in which the "suspension of disbelief" is no longer possible?

Birkel said...

Those of us who believe the best results are achieved -- despite the inevitable and innumerable failures that will follow -- by a non-interventionist state do not make the assumption(s) jaltcoh asserts he and others make.

Rather, we take the long frame of human history, mix in human failings and frailties, and observe that an intrusive state leads to bad ends.

This is not based on fictional writing.

Aussie Pundit said...

Fiction is not to blame for poor policy.
The feel-good symbolism of so much of modern politics is driven not by a love of fiction but by sentimentality.

Henry said...

Read enough fiction and the "just right" results become boring. I read fiction often from an early age and sometime in my 20s I became utterly bored with the tedious accumulation of complications and predictable arc of plot. That's when I started reading history.

That's also the time when I began finding it impossible, almost painful, to watch television.

Objectively, this doesn't seem to be a common experience.

Robert Cook said...

The entire question is based on dubious assumptions.

Birkel said...

Henry,
That is similar to my experience.

bbkingfish said...

Jaltcoh has a long way to go.

mccullough said...

We try to impose a sense of order on things. Math and science aren't any different than history and literature. Even our disorder has a sense of order.

Char Char Binks said...

I agree with Paddy. Let the kids read and enjoy. Enough of the overemphasis on critique and formal grammar. Leave that stuff to those who want to be English majors. And we need a new paradigm for what English majors are for. They're not to be our masters, criticizing and ridiculing our writing, and making us feel like we don't even know our native tongue. Their proper role is tell us, when asked, and politely, if we our grammar and usage are correct. They rightly should be our bitches.

sydney said...

re: Obama and Mario Cuomo and their presumed rhetorical skills. Yes- a lot of people assumed that they were presidential material because they gave a good speech, but I think the underlying assumption they made was that they were smart because they gave good speeches. And because they are smart, they would be good leaders. Both assumptions are wrong. Rhetorical skills do not equate with intelligence. Intelligence does not equate with leadership.
(As for myself, I remain nonplussed by both those gentlemen's rhetorical skills and the content of their speeches.)

richard mcenroe said...

Traditionalguy -- in the proglodyte mind there is a connection between EVERYTHING and politics.

And that is why fiction must be sanitized. Any suggestion that there might be real differences, real conflicts, real alternatives, real goals, real values and ideals not handed down by our betters must be eliminated.

richard mcenroe said...

Read to see how educators have conspired for decades to rob our children of the joy of reading.

And now that mindset has metastized into the rest of our society.

richard mcenroe said...

Bad link: read The Language Police by Diane Ravitch (http://www.amazon.com/Language-Police-Pressure-Restrict-Students/dp/1400030641/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1428950063&sr=1-1&keywords=the+language+police+by+diane+ravitch"), etc.

buwaya said...

I recommend a childrens version of Dante's Inferno.

http://boingboing.net/2014/02/18/dante-for-fun-kids-books-that.html

Thats a little different, isn't it ?

And encourage kids to illustrate it.
Crayon drawings of the Inferno probably could be used as evidence in a child abuse trial though.

Kirk Parker said...


Great Ghu, rhh: that plot summary sounds even worse than The Mayfields.


Godfather,

WTF? No, it's the Thénardiers that the Clintons remind me of.


sydney,

"(As for myself, I remain nonplussed by both those gentlemen's rhetorical skills and the content of their speeches.)"

Same here! Just between you and me, I think it has almost everything to do with agree with what those two harmful people advocated, and almost nothing to do with the skill whereby they did it.

SJ said...

Now that I think about it, I wonder if this is a case of confusing correlation with causation.

Or a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

A certain amount of the attitude that "well-spoken, intelligent people will win" and "the person on the right side of history will win" is an attitude that is brought to storytelling.

Of course, if the teacher has this opinion, children are more likely to adopt this attitude.

Where did the teacher get the opinion? Where did authors, or editors, of award-winning children's books get this opinion?

rcommal said...

The problem with non-fiction is, how can we be sure that, in fact, it is?

I can remember asking that question decades ago, around the time that I was akin to the same age that my own son is now (not yet 15, but soon).

rcommal said...

I think that even those who are anti-fiction ought appreciate the notion that at least fiction carries its own name in its label.

Non-fiction? Not so much (unless we want to get into eversomuchmore esoterica: do we?).

rcommal said...

I'd vote not, myself.

rcommal said...

That's when I started reading history.

Which is--what, in terms of fiction and nonfiction? Which? Both? Neither? A combination?

Dang.

Science itself, math itself, is not a steady buildup of factual facts without error or hiccup or even outright wrongness. How then, really, can history (especially stated in such a generic, broad way: history) be within itself such a paradigm of nonfiction?

The answer is: It can't.

rcommal said...

Seriously: neither paradigm nor paragon of nonfiction is history (and history is not alone in that).