10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of your Children, Ch. 3: Keep Children Away from Machines

An image from "The Boy's Book of Mechanical Models" by William Bushnell Stout, 1916

An image from "The Boy's Book of Mechanical Models" by William Bushnell Stout, 1916

 Chapter 3: "Keep Children Away from Machines and Machinists"

In this chapter, Anthony Esolen continues to examine the ways in which we live in a world that discourages imagination, specifically in how we think about and relate to machines.

We live in world full of machines. We use them, rely on them, and are always ready to adopt new ones, but our author suggests that something has shifted in how we relate to machines that is very helpful in our devilish task of destroying imagination. “There used to be a time” he says “when Americans were fascinated by machines.” But wait, you might ask, why then do Americans spend so much time gazing in fascination at their hand held machines?

The difference is that our fascination used to be with the machine it self, how it worked, the ingenuity required to build, maintain, and repair it as well as it's function and usefulness. This ingenuity required a very different mindset from the one required today. The importance of this fascination with machines is that it is equivalent to a fascination with the physical created reality. At it's heart lies the questions “What will happen if I do . . .” or “I wonder if we could . . .” or “I wonder how this machine works/could work better?"

Esolen suggests that essential to a good imagination and what used to be a central part of growing up is the impulse to explore one's physical environment, to ask questions of it, to see what would happen if . . . ? This is the inventor's impulse, without which no new things come; as we see in this account of Thomas Edison's childhood:

“Thomas Edison did not last long in school. When his family moved to Michigan they put the eight-year-old Tom in local elementary school, where he proceeded to torment the teacher by asking the simple question, 'Why?' When it became clear that the teacher had neither the capacity nor the willingness to answer that question, and that Tom would be punished for asking it, his mother . . . removed him from school and taught him his lessons at home. Not incidentally, he became the greatest inventor America has ever known. That's because when his lessons were over . . . Tom would potter about the barn or the tool shed, experimenting. Once when he was a small boy he asked his mother why geese squat on their eggs. When she replied that they do that to keep them warm, so they might thatch, Tom decided it was time to experiment on his own, and curled up with a clutch of goose eggs in the neighbor's barn, waiting for them to hatch . . . He tried to produce an electric current by “vigorously rubbing the fur of two big tomcats, whose tails he had attached to wires.' He gave a gas-producing powder to a friend 'reasoning that the gas thus generated might set the boy flying through the air.' Sulfuric acid from the wet-cell batteries he cobbled together in his bedroom ate through the furniture and the floor."

Esolen makes the case that in childhoods not so far passed, a huge part of play was taking things apart and rebuilding them learning how the world works by “seeing what happens if I...” Now this may have been risky, exploring is not safe.

 “A child might be buzzed by a 20 volt battery. He might cut his finger with a hand saw . . .[but] most damaging of all [to our goal of destroying imagination] though is that a fascination with machines is entirely in the spirit of play . . . A child winding a coil of copper wire around a spool, and tracing it left and right with a thin metal strip serving as a tuner, is engaging in all kinds of experiments at once. He's seeing from how far his rudimentary radio can pick up signals. He sees how much room there is for error in his tuner – what distance he needs to travel before the station fades out. If he moves his body while he is doing it, he will have a physical memory of what it is like to be an antenna. He will do these things wholly on his own, in quiet, with maybe only a few written instructions to lead his way.”

Now it is not the case that no one is asking questions like Thomas Edison, but they are asked mostly by the specialized, certified, trained, and perhaps most importantly insured technicians and engineers. The layman and certainly children are discouraged in every possible way from “looking under the hood” of the machines they use day in and day out. Seamless plastic packaging (even in car engines), warranty voiding stickers and touchscreens push our curiosity, and thereby our imaginations, away from the device. They scream like the Wizard of Oz, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

Today our fascination with machines is of a different nature. Our curiosity is drawn away from our immediate reality and circumstance; our machines allow us to skim in a transcendent way over the difficult facts of space, time and matter (and risk) and offer us an illusory omniscience and omnipotence. The inner workings of our machines only become noticeable to us when steam pours out of them or the website downloads too slowly. But they are so complex and sealed up that we don't dare to open the case and look inside so we we take them to the “expert.”

But if we take even a moment to allow the kids to pay attention to their immediate surroundings to look and see, to ask: How did they make that? How does the doorknob work? (This will probably involve a screwdriver and lost springs and screws) How does the ceiling fan not fall of the ceiling as it hurtles around slightly off balance? (You might need to find the circuit breaker.) You will be amazed by the sheer quantity of ingenuity and problem solving that goes into every square inch we inhabit and who knows what will result from an imagination thus sparked.

Esolen ends the chapter quite cynically but amusingly,

“What will your children be good for, you ask, if they have neither deep reading nor an imaginative encounter with the natural world nor the cleverness of eye and hand? Why, then they might be just right for government work. Someone, after all has to govern the dulled dependent masses, and why not a person just as dulled and dependent as they?”